2016-06-30
Elizabeth Lesser is cofounder of Omega Institute, the leading educational center for holistic health, psychology, arts, and spirituality. Lesser has studied with renowned teachers like the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ram Dass, and many others who have come to Omega. In the 1970s, she lived in a spiritual community and worked as a midwife. The mother of three and author of two books (her first was "The Seeker's Guide"), Lesser teaches workshops on spiritual transformation. She recently spoke to Beliefnet about her new book "Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow."

We know what being broken means, but what does it mean to be "broken open"?

The phrase "broken" is a good one to start from. When the stresses of life build up to a certain point, whether it's the loss of someone you love or the loss of a job or a divorce, we all would understand when you say, "That really broke me down," meaning it was a change that ended in making us a little more cynical or scared or unable to cope. But there is this other possibility that after the breaking, we can open up more into who are supposed to be, in the way that a flower breaks out of the confines of a bud into its full blossoming.

It's kind of the end of life as we know it.of certain dreams or expectations. It's hard to think of something good growing out of something so bad.

Yes, the cracking of our shell feels like a pain we can't bear, so we shut down to that pain. But in doing so, we shut down to the next stage of our life. And over a lifetime we can accumulate these strong scars over the times we've felt broken, and the ability to hear the messages that come in our difficult times becomes less and less.

What happened in your personal life that made you want to put this all together and teach it to others?

Well, the first motivation was the times in my own life when a loss or a change overwhelmed me so much that it caused me to re-evaluate who I was, what I wanted, where my life was going. And the big one for me was my divorce. My self-image as a good mother, a good wife, a good person was really shattered when my marriage crumbled. I never thought it would happen to me, no one in my family had ever gone through it. It made me feel like there was something profoundly wrong about me, and it sent me spiraling down into a place in which I started to feel I was losing everything. Through the grace of having around me the tools that could help me, I used it as the swinging door between who I was before and who I was after. I was really a profoundly different person.

Since then, [as I teach] about growth and transformation, I have heard so many people say, "Before I had cancer I didn't know who I was. I didn't know what life was about. I was sleepwalking." Or "Before I got kicked out of my job I was just kind of going through the paces, or I thought I was X and now I know I'm Y." If you actually take the challenge and use the difficult times to grow, you find that part in yourself that is whole already-and that can survive any difficulty and actually survives death. You find your eternal soul. All the great spiritual masters reveal this in their lives, culminating in the story of Christ. We find ourselves through the dark night of the soul.

You've had the advantage at Omega of studying with many of the major spiritual figures of our time and with teachers of every faith. Who inspired you most in getting through the dark night of the soul?

My first teacher and my enduring teacher was the Sufi master Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, who died a few weeks ago. And the teaching of Sufism is the teaching of the broken heart. Actually the symbol of the Sufi path is a heart with wings.

Is that a visual symbol we can see, or is it spoken about in poetry?

No, you can see it everywhere. You can find the heart with wings if you wanted to look it up on the website of the Sufi order of North America. And there is a beautiful line from Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan who is my teacher's father--who brought the Sufi teachings to the West. He says, "Out of the shell of the broken heart arises the newborn soul." Rumi and all the great Sufi saints and masters teach that a broken heart is an open heart. If we could fit in the full feeling function of the heart and not close down the pain, then we can stay open also to the joy. That's really the Sufi teaching.

My other main teacher whom I've met and loved and gained wisdom through at Omega is the Jungian teacher Marion Woodman. To me, Jungian psychology is a holy path, it's a spiritual path. I actually think psychotherapy is a new spiritual tradition. I don't like to separate psychological work and spiritual work. I think they're the same thing. The Sufis talk about polishing the glass of the lantern so that your inner flame can shine through. And that spiritual work is not adding anything to you, it's polishing the lantern, the soot and the residue off the lantern glass so that the light that's already in you shines through. So spiritual work like breath and meditation and mantra, it's all polishing-but so is psychology. The residue left by the wounds of childhood, the influence of culture, everything that psychotherapy helps us with.it's just another form of removing the dross so that the light can shine through.

Ascendancy has its place in spiritual life obviously, but so does descent into the dark, into the fertile dark womb when we're going through an uncomfortable, painful time-like, I'm going through one right now. My mom died recently.

I'm so sorry to hear that.

I think I'm such a creature of our culture I want to get on with it. I feel so uncomfortable being cloudy and sad and confused. And everything in me rears up to want to be my regular, old self. Here I've just written a book that's telling me and all of us the opposite, that when a difficult time comes, we can't rush through it. It can take a long time, and if we do rush through it, then we lose the opportunity for growth. So sitting tight in the discomfort and the pain until the dark work is done is probably the hardest part of this journey of "Broken Open."

What would help you now if you could stand outside yourself and give yourself advice on how to handle this loss?

One is to just stop, slow down and feel what's going on, and when that urge to get up and do something comes to you, gently quiet it and stay with the uncomfortable feelings that something major is changing in your life. That's one thing. And there are all sorts of spiritual practices that can assist in that. Meditation, prayer, working with the body, yoga, and other kinds of exercise, so that we're not running away from what's really going on.

But how long can you stay with that if other things are calling you out to go and be part of the world?

It's not necessarily that we can't do what we always do in life. We have to. I mean we have to keep our children fed and we have to keep bringing in the paycheck. It's not that. The feelings, the internal feelings of loss, confusion, discomfort, will happen to us whether we're busy, active in the world or not. It's the turning away from what's going on in the inside that needs to be addressed. You can be making dinner for your children and feeling that inner gnawing in the heart, what I call the sleeping giant that wants to wake up, the lessons that are coming on the winds of change. And you can still be doing everything in the world and stay attuned to those voices. Now it does really help if you could carve out, forty-five minutes, a half hour, even ten minutes if that's all you have, to sit tight, sit down, be alone, and just go in the direction that your internal soul river is flowing instead of swimming so hard against it. And lo and behold, we actually do metabolize our grief more quickly and more fully. If we're resisting it and pushing it away, it goes underground, it goes somewhere else, it shows up as sickness, shows up as anger.

I think that many of us have an image of ourselves as being highly responsible. We really don't want to invite trouble into our lives, and yet sometimes it comes.

Yes, it does. And one thing that happens when it comes is that it busts our self-image as the one who can protect everyone from everything. And we have to just say, "I'm not in control here. And it's not my role to be in control here. I am a participant with the rest of these bumbling fools on planet Earth." Lighten up. Give in. Allow life to be.that's one of the great messages of being broken open--I'm not the master of everything here.

In the book you also talk about the Phoenix Process, which you teach in your workshops. Could you explain what you mean by that?

I love mythology, and I think the teaching myths of the world religions and the world cultures have just really helpful imagery to grind into us these lessons. And one myth I love, which you can find in many of the world traditions, is this image of a bird burning and then finding its true self in the ashes. The one we're most familiar with is the Egyptian myth where a great bird lives and every 500 years he feels the winds of change coming and builds this big pyre of herbs where he sits until he's burned completely. He doesn't just put his toe in it and feel the heat, he just burns his entire being, and the ashes smolder and burn down. Then out of the ashes arises the newborn Phoenix, and he's the same bird he always was, but he's new. He's his more eternal self. So the Phoenix process is named for this myth. And it's about change in our own life.

 

When change comes we have the choice to either use it to find the eternal self that survives any change and not only survives the change but comes out stronger, better, more who we are. Or we could get burned by it a little bit and run away from what change is really asking us to do. What is life trying to teach me here? That is the Phoenix Process. And out of that really, really difficult time and loss and confusion and shattered-ness, in time and with help, the help we bring to it, which is either prayer or meditation or psychotherapy or talking and sharing instead of shutting down out of our shame, comes the rising of a new life.

Would you say that the result is more of an internal process or something you can point to? Something that you can see in the world, or something you see within yourself?

Ultimately, it's only about what you see in yourself. If it's just an external change, it really doesn't mean anything. But sometimes, it takes an external change to help you make the internal changes. And it's not a one size fits all story for everyone. I've seen people utterly transform their marriages, have a born-again marriage-from a revealed affair, from a deadness in a marriage, and a commitment to making inner change. I've seen that happen as many times as I've seen divorce. So you can have a broken heart and learn from that and save your marriage or not save your marriage. And it's the same thing for a job. You can feel you're in a soul-killing job, and lo and behold, if you make it all known, if you talk about it, if you work about it, if you're honest with your colleagues, boss, and organization, you may not have to leave it.

You were very honest in the book in talking about the affair that you had with the man you call "The Shaman Lover" and how that precipitated a kind of end to the sleep-walking. Do you think you need another person to help you move out of a marriage that's dead-someone who comes and breaks the shell?

I did, but I really want to be clear again that not everybody does. My particular issue was that I had never really been born into my body. I was raised in pretty Puritanical way, and even though I'd had two children and been a midwife, I was someone who was still very caught up in being ashamed of my sexuality and caught up in an image of who I was supposed to be, vis a vis marriage, love, romance. I was living a very sheltered and small experience of everything I could be as a women-I really hadn't entered my womanhood. And I really didn't think I had to. It had never been valued in my family. I grew up in a very intellectual family. I married very young, and we married into a spiritual community, so everything was going in the opposite direction of where ultimately my soul needed to go-which was descending into myself as a woman and learning to love my own body. So it was a humbling and utterly life-altering experience for me to fall in love with someone outside of the marriage and to pursue it and to be given my womanhood. And it took a huge risk.

He's not the man you ended up with. He wasn't what we used to call "husband material."

No, he was not husband material, but he was transformation material. And often, whether we're talking about a love affair or we're talking about a change brought on through work, or a child who's difficult, often the person or the situation that can change us is not husband material, and that's why I called it the "Shaman Lover." There's a shamanic energy of destruction to it.

It was a really scary thing for me to write about. But the book made me do it. Because after so many years at Omega, of meeting teachers, of reading more books than is probably legal about the self-help movement, I began to get suspicious of people talking about human transformation who didn't talk about their own humanness. And the more I started saying to myself, "I'm going to write this book really honestly because that's what will help people," the more I stayed true to that mission, the more I found it asking me to tell the truth about myself. Very quickly I figured out I was going to have to talk about the stuff I didn't want to.

One of the pieces I read on the book tour that people love the most is that little story called "Bozos on the Bus." It's about how we spend so much time pretending to each other that our lives are all together, because we don't want to admit that we're just a "bozo on the bus." But lo and behold, when you admit that to someone else, there's so much freedom and there's so much intimacy created. I would read that chapter, and it would encourage someone to raise their hand and say something like, "I was just diagnosed with cancer" or "My wife left me" or "I hate my job." And just one person saying that in a group of 60 people, you could feel the whole group just sighing-like "The jig's up, we're all just bozos on the bus. We can get on with really being together." So I had to reveal my bozo-hood. And it was the Shaman Lover story that was it for me.


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