I recently spoke to Elizabeth Lesser, the bestselling author and cofounder of Omega Institute, about finding inspiration, awakening, love, leadership, and more. The institute is one of the country's leading holistic learning centers. At its headquarters in Rhinebeck, New York, 30,000 participants each year take part in Omega Institute's workshops and retreats connecting body, mind, and spirit. As Elizabeth suggests, we can discover that consciousness and love are synonymous, and move towards our purpose in the universe with sensitivity and awareness.
Tell us about your early inspiration for your work. How did you discover your path?
My earliest inspiration for my work actually came from growing up in a family of atheists. My parents both had rejected the religions of their childhoods. My sisters and I had absolutely no formal spiritual training. Ours was an intellectual, political household where the holy book was the New Yorker Magazine, and our church was the great outdoors, and what mattered were things like the civil rights movement and women's equality. But I was born with a spiritual ache in my bones, and so I went off searching for answers on my own at a very early age. I had what I call EDA--early death awareness. Maybe at 4 or 5 I would like in bed quaking with the awareness that I would die. I was beset with questions and had no one to go to for answers. So my spiritual search started early. I found a guru at age 18, joined a spiritual community when I was 19, and have spent my life as a seeker. I have studied with spiritual teachers from many traditions, as well as scientists and healers and artists and activists. I have cast a pretty wide net in my search for love and wisdom and healing.
How did you come to find your own sense of purpose in serving the community around you?
I co-founded Omega Institute in 1977, when I was still in my 20s. Through my work I have been exposed to a wide array of people--hundreds of thousands of workshop participants from all over the world, and the noted authors and artists, doctors and scientists, philosophers and spiritual teachers who come to Omega to help people heal and grow.
It's been a good place for me to work because I'm an unapologetic voyeur. I've never doubted my purpose in life: it's to watch people. It's to ponder what the heck works here on Planet Earth and why it's so hard to put seemingly simple instructions for living into everyday actions--instructions like the Bible's "Love your neighbor as yourself," or Shakespeare's "This above all: to thine own self be true." When you get down to it, the most widely accepted adages that have guided human beings across the ages all focus on the same ideas: to love the self, to give of the self, to be true to the self.
But there's a problem with these guidelines: they presuppose you know what that self is. Whoops. They forgot to mention the long process of uncovering the shining seed at the center of your identity. Being true to that self involves sifting through the layers of bad advice and unreasonable expectations of others. It requires seeing through your own delusions of grandeur or your fear of failure or your imposter syndrome or your conviction that there is something uniquely and obviously screwed up about your particular self. I wanted to serve people by creating a place where people can engage in the process of self-discovery in safety, and beauty, and community. That's what Omega has turned out to be.
Events like the ones you host at Omega are an opportunity for communities of like-minded people to come together. How can building connections to others contribute to finding inspiration?
One of the strangest things about being human is how we turn the "other" into the enemy so easily. And I don't just mean the kind of enemies who fight and kill each other. I mean the way we often relate to each other in daily life, in families, at work, in relationships--with enmity and competition and resentment and fear.
To me, the fruit of spiritual practice--the proof of the pudding--is being able to love the other, to take joy in the other's success, to care for the other's suffering, to know that we are all in this together. Each of us has a uniqueness, an individuality, a purpose all our own, and at the same time, we are sharing our lives together. I don't like the word "oneness," because it can be misinterpreted to discredit the value and thrilling beauty of diversity. Our differences are beautiful, and when we come together, even when it's difficult, even when there's conflict, we learn so much, we grow, we expand, we become more of who we are in the mirror of each other. This is why gathering together at retreats like the one Eckhart Tolle often leads at Omega, and elsewhere, can be so fruitful. Yes, when "two or more of us are gathered" in anyone's name, there can be trouble, but there also can be enormous opportunities for waking up.
You have said that you are trying to bring a sense of consciousness and ease into the activism sphere. What shifts do you think may be possible through this approach?
For most of my life I have walked two different paths. I've kept one foot on the social activist path--feminism, environmentalism, civil rights. And I've kept the other foot on the spiritual path--philosophy, mysticism, religion. Two feet on diverging paths: this has not made for the most graceful journey. Sometimes the paths have diverged so much that I've had to choose one over the other. Sometimes I've tried to stay true to both and in doing so have failed both--watering down passionate truths into an indecisive, spineless soup. But most of the time, having my feet in two worlds has given me the gift of balance.
When my activist self spirals into righteous anger or dark despair, I turn to the spiritual teachings that sow compassion and hope, and lo and behold, I become a more peaceful warrior. Likewise, when my spiritual nature lulls me into a cosmic stupor, and I forget the suffering around me, I come back to my activist roots, and I wake up, and endeavor to be, in the words of Dr. King, "an extremist for love."
What practical tools or processes can you suggest to our readers to support the process of awakening to consciousness?
Well, of course I very much recommend meditation and prayer as ways of quieting the mind and opening the heart. I also think of psychotherapy as a spiritual tool. If you use meditation or prayer or yoga to bypass some of the deep, psychological wounds that cause anxiety or anger or depression, you won't really get the full benefit of spiritual practice. I suggest a balanced way of healing and growing spiritually--some mindfulness training, some inner exploration and transformation through psychotherapy, some physical healing work so that your body supports your soul, and then things like poetry and music and friendship and dance and other things that strengthen the joy muscles. And I want to emphasize the importance of promoting community and healthy relationship in your life. I did a TED talk a couple of years back that I called Take The Other to Lunch. It gives tools for communicating with people you don't agree with, so that we can all come toward each other, so that we can widen our embrace and bring healing to the world.
Where do you think that your spiritual path is taking you next?
Wherever it wants! The mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, wrote that her path was to be "a feather on the breath of God." I aspire to that.
For more information on Eckhart Tolle, please click here
For more information on Elizabeth and her work, go to Omega Institute.