Melissa Biggs Bradley continued her Indagare Global Conversations series with mindfulness expert Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of the Omega Institute, and author of the upcoming book Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. Elizabeth has been leading Insider Journey trips to Mii amo in Sedona for the last four years with Melissa.“In this time of world darkness,” says Melissa,“I asked Elizabeth to have an open discussion with me because I need her wisdom and friendship, and am sure others could use it too.” Here’s a quick snapshot of the talk, which opened with Elizabeth leading the group in a brief breathing exercise to center the mind.
See more Global Conversations, here. Stay tuned for the full recording of this conversation, coming soon.
A Conversation with Elizabeth Lesser
What does lockdown look like for you? “I live in New York’s Hudson Valley, next door to one of my sons, my daughter-in-law and two wild grandsons. I’m participating in homeschooling and the general madness of that. (I have enormous compassion for those of you who are home-schooling now.) Somehow I thought at the beginning of this, it would be a few weeks and we’d all have a chance to clean our closets. But I’ve never worked so hard in my life. At the Omega Institute, we’re in survival mode. I’m working with my team through Zoom, then with the boys and being creative.”
How are you staying sane? “I’m pulling myself back up through meditation and prayer—and patience. It’s been such a roller coaster and we’re all in a collective state of shock. It happened so fast. So I allow myself to be shocked and I’m not too hard on myself if I have a bad day. I’ve meditated for so many years, and recently I’ve also been relying on old, standard books, which I open to any page to see what it has to tell me. This morning it was from the collected sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., The Knock at Midnight: “I do not know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.” I take that to mean we’re not in control, that this is a grand story, the story of humanity. Something’s going on here that has meaning and purpose, and if we can align ourselves with that, we can do better.”
What other books are helping you? A few examples are When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron and Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. He was a psychiatrist who was in Auschwitz, where his wife was killed. He was a seeker, always looking. And he discovered the basic key of living through trauma and shock: what made some people survive and keep their spirit intact. If you can look for meaning in the worst time—what can this teach me? Can I use this as an awakening?—then survival is easier.”
What’s your new book about? “The book is about women, women in power and how we’ve been saddled with stories from the past—and how we can create new ones. I’m a feminist and spiritual seeker and I sought in this book to merge those two paths. As a spiritual seeker, my goal is to lead my own life with as much love and acceptance and forgiveness as possible. And as a feminist I believe women have something to offer the world right now, and we have to struggle to get our voices heard. The book is hopeful and grounded in love for everyone.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way stories guide us and stick to us. The story of Cassandra was one that felt the most relevant and is still holding women back, and therefore holding society back. She was the most beautiful daughter of King Priam in Troy, and Apollo offered her the gift of seeing the future if she went on a date with him, so to speak. And when she refused to sleep with him, for punishment, he didn’t take the gift away, but rather cursed her so that nobody would believe her. Women know so many things. We know what’s good for the children, what’s good for the earth, but we’ve been silenced and not believed for many years. It’s time to believe our voices and tell new stories.
One chapter is the story of Pygmalion and Galatea. He was a Greek sculptor who became disgusted with women and women’s bodies, so he locked himself away and started chiseling—in white marble—the perfect women in his own gaze. Lo and behold the statue came to life and she was pure and good and obedient and they lived happily ever after. This image of the perfect woman haunts us. What we eat, how we exercise, wearing heels…we are trapped still by this story of Pygmalion and Galatea. Culture knows how we should look, but most of us can’t look like that. We waste so much of our precious energy that could be put into creativity and fun and healing the world and being leaders into putting up to that old story. Stories have power, and we can tell different stories.
What metaphor got you in trouble with airport security? I was one of the early flyers after 9/11, and I said to a woman whose little kid was having a meltdown in the security line, ‘Traveling with a baby is like traveling with a time bomb.’ I was taken aside and searched. We use metaphors about bombs and war all the time. Rarely do we use metaphors about gardening or teaching. I tried a day without metaphors about violence.
What are you hoping will come out of this period? I’m focusing more and more on the idea of being an open vessel for some kind of wisdom to come. Those of us who care about the earth and planet and culture and society, and those of us who are privileged enough to be home in relatively safe and comfortable surroundings, we are the ones who could envision the good in this.
Without being a Pollyanna and saying rainbows and unicorns after this…Can humanity learn something from this?…I’m getting a lot of work done without leaving my house. Can we put down the idea that, ‘I am, because I rush and I’m busy?’
Another thing happens when we get through the worst of the worst: we come out stronger. Is there some way that we could reduce our footprint? We’ve come to a halt, we’re going to survive, we’re going to climb back economically. Can we do this in a way where, when we come back, we do so smartly.
I was reading how the countries handling this crisis the best are led by women: Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, and others. As women, let’s trust what we know and who we are. Our instincts are valid and kickass and can change the way the world works.
What’s the German phrase you keep coming back to? “It’s called fernweh, which means being homesick for a place you’ve never been. (For me, I must’ve seen a photo in National Geographic: this hill town in Italy cascading down the mountain to the blue sea and all the houses were white. I finally went years later, and that was exactly what it was like.)
As a culture, we can have fernweh for a world that’s better than what we’ve seen. Dreaming for something has power because we can bring it into being. That is still my number 1 favorite place: some Italian or Greek hilltown the white and the blue and the sun.
How do you find your book subjects—or how do they find you? “They do find me. My first book found me. I wrote it about 20 years ago, and I’d already spent 20 years starting Omega Institute, and all these teachers and gurus and scientists and artists had all come into Omega’s campus seeking. And I have a good bullshit detector. I want to save people the mistakes of how to be a wise, smart, conscious seeker and take it in and make it stick. So that found me. Then I went through a terrible divorce that was somewhat public and it almost undid me. I wanted a book about breaking open instead of breaking down. It was supposed to be about other people but I found myself writing about myself too. And then my sister had cancer, and I became her marrow donor. And what we went through on that journey of matching, and then being practically attached at the hip for a year, and then her dying…That found me and I had to write about it. And this latest book, that found me too.”
How do you stick with your books during the years-long writing process? “I tried to send back my advance for this last book twice. I said to my editor, ‘I can’t finish. I won’t finish. It’s driving me crazy.’ So the only way for me is to sell it first and have deadlines with real repercussions if i don’t finish. I need outside pressure to make me stick.”
What book do you recommend to an 18-year-old who’s lost her mother and is feeling lost? “Motherless Daughters: It’s written for young women who’ve lost their mom. Just like losing a child or a job is a particular loss, losing a mother is unique. All losses are similar in some ways but very different in others.
I write a lot in Broken Open about not just surviving a loss, but how slowly over time it becomes a beautiful part of your identity. “In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us,” said Rainer Maria Rilke.”
How do you recommend using social media to make an effective positive impact? “This may be the biggest gift of the pandemic. We’ve been using social media for wicked things prior to this. It loosened the ugly tongue and gave people the license to be a critic of everything. And now, we’ve been finding the most beautiful ways to connect through social media—like this talk for example. To my sisters from Mii amo retreats who are on here, I can feel you. Truth is being revealed that love and creativity transcend physical connectivity. I don’t mean that in the ‘woo-woo way’—actually probably I do. I can’t help myself! Love is a vibration in the air just like our bodies are molecules. Social media and email and everything that has come to us with the gift of computers and electronic connectivity is a force of energy being shared. We can be voices against the trolls using it to bring down humanity.”
What are movies that are inspiring and affirming to watch? “Movies are so subjective. If you go with friends—back when we could go to the movies—half can hate it, and half can love it. But the one that keeps coming to mind is Tree of Life with Brad Pitt. It’s a wild movie about the history of life, from dinosaurs up to a contemporary dysfunctional family.”
How do you harness the art of patience and grieving? “It’s so hard for us humans. The opposite of patience is wanting to be in control. We want to control things against all evidence that we actually have no control of anything. Last night, a huge rainstorm completely trampled lettuce I’d just planted. And now I’ll go out and plant it again and be offended at nature when it happens again. We get offended when we can’t control things, even if there is no control. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have an orderly, beautiful planned life, but when it doesn’t go the way we want, we need to remind ourselves that this too shall pass. So we need to sit in the wreckage and reemerge. And that takes a lot of patience.
I’m a great fan of grief. Our society has adopted this idea of closure: Get over it and move on. That to me is a sacrilegious attitude. I don’t like the word closure. When the people whom I love have died, I try to buck the system and get back and be open, even if it hurts. It’s important to stay open to the beings we love and lose. People are afraid that if they do they’ll cry forever and ever. I believe the opposite. If you dont cry and don’t feel and don’t let yourself fall apart, you become bitter and tense. Grief and grieving are wise and take time. We should lobby congress to allow people weeks to grieve. Think of the proverbial old country, where women wore black for months, years. You respect someone who’s still wearing loss. Yes, be strong. Strengthen your back and boundaries, but stay open and soft to loss and grief.”
How do you give grief the time it deserves without wallowing? “Let’s dissect what we mean by that. Feeling sorry for yourself, that’s maybe self-pity. But true grief is honoring and bowing to the power of love. Grief is a sign of how well you have loved. Wearing it like an award, to say, ‘See how much I’m grieving? That’s how much I loved.’ I’m a lover, and I’m capable of bonding—with a job, with a neighborhood restaurant…this is all loss. Who said this is wallowing? O am just a person brave enough to show that I’ve loved. And people may say, ‘It’s just a restaurant!’ But everyone has not felt it deeply enough, and it’s good and it’s healthy to, and I’m showing you the wise way to grieve.”
Who do you look to for spiritual inspiration? “I look to everyone for spiritual inspiration. I’m not a fan of putting people on pedestals. I’ve seen the other side of the so-called heroes and spiritual gurus. They’re’ like the rest of us: they’re just people with wonderful things to say and write about. But there’s leadership from the person who delivers the UPS package and from the friend on the other side of that FaceTime call.
That being said, there are some people who really do know how to spin a phrase and wake us up and teach skills. I’ve had so many different teachers from the Dalai Lama to Oprah and Deepak Chopra. I love Eckhart Tolle and his teachings, as well as Pema Chodron, author of When Things Fall Apart. Oprah’s been having some wonderful people on her own podcast. And Maria Shriver is a very inspired person. She has a weekly newsletter The Sunday Paper with beautiful writers.”
What’s your advice for a young father? “Shout out to fathers! My sons are blowing my mind how they’ve changed in one generation how fathers parent. They’re as engaged and loving and tender and important in their kids lives as mothers are from babyhood on. They’re changing the world. So I’m proud of the fathers of this new generation. Every generation has gone through horrors. This is why being a student of history gives me hope. You tend to think this is the worst it’s ever been, but even Dickens said ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ In many ways we’re living in the best of times. If COVID-19 had happened in the 16th century, half of the world’s population would be wiped out. And yet on the flip side we have Climate Change and the rise of strongmen as leaders.
So my advice is: don’t put on rosy colored glasses and ignore what’s going on. Try to feed children a nice balanced diet of news and storytelling: hope and goodness.”
What’s your advice to someone looking to learn more about Buddhism? “Buddhism like Christianity and Judaism and Islam, has many sects. Figure out what speaks to you the most. I love the practice of pure mindfulness, Vipassana. It’s a very simple process, but it’s hard: Sitting still, watching your breath, watching the crazy way your mind jumps here and there. Instead of following your mind, practice being in the moment of just sitting, just being here, just breathing. After you’ve done it enough, it helps you to show up fully wherever you are. If you’re’ with someone, you actually are there. If you’re exercising, you show up fully to what you committed to doing. It’s been a powerful friend in my life for 40 years.”
Elizabeth in Brief
What are you reading right now? “Besides my inspiration books, I love novels. I just finished (and loved) Ann Patchett’s new book, The Dutch House.”
What are you watching? “I’m a TV junkie. I love the whole spectrum from American Idol—so comforting—to a series on Amazon called The Restaurant. It’s amazing.”
Favorite memento? “Beautiful ceramic plates hanging from a little town in Sicily.”
Destination for relaxing? “I don’t relax when I travel much…well, besides Mii amo! Mii amo makes me relax.”
Destination for exploring? “Those little European hill towns.”
What’s always in your carry-on bag?“My laptop. I write really well on an airplane.”
What’s the first place on your travel wish list, when this is over: “California, to see my little grandson.”
Donations can be made to the Omega Institute. “We may never reopen unless we get donations,” says Elizabeth of her non-profit, which helps more than 35,000 people a year. “I hope it has a place in the post-COVID-19 world.”
And to hear more from Elizabeth Lesser and the Omega Institute, go to the institute’s Facebook page for upcoming Zoom/Facebook Live gatherings, such as one with the author Loung Ung.
Read Afar’s article on Indagare Global Classroom.