Elizabeth Lesser, profiled in Spirituality & Practice's Living Spiritual Teachers Project, has been tracking spiritual movements in America since she cofounded the Omega Institute more than 30 years ago. A true spiritual adventurer, she has a knack for explaining complex concepts in terms that make them applicable to the kinds of things we encounter every day. She, like the other Living Spiritual Teachers, is someone we think you should get to know on your spiritual journey. Our profile includes a biography, quotation sampler, links to our reviews of her books and audios, video clips, interviews, articles, and website.
Last year Lesser was a frequent guest on Oprah Winfrey's Soul Series webcasts and also was involved in Oprah's huge web-based educational event on the work of Ekhart Tolle. Her next teaching assignment may be her biggest classroom yet. Oprah is kicking off the New Year with a two-week special event called the "Best Life Series." Starting January 5 on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Oprah will host a series of special programs with expert teachers to help you become your best self, tackling the issues of diet, health, spirituality, finance, and relationships. Then during the week of January 12, the teachers will participate in a week of worldwide webcasts. Oprah & Friends radio network is also featuring the theme.
Elizabeth Lesser is the teacher for the spirituality programs in the "Best Life" Series. See the sidebar at right for the schedule of her participation. We had an opportunity to pose some of our own questions to Elizabeth about what makes for the best life.
The subtitle for your book Broken Open is "How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow." We are certainly living in difficult times now due to the worldwide financial crisis. We're running a series titled Living with Financial Insecurity at Spirituality & Practice, part of our Spiritual Literacy in Wartime project, where we are linking to book excerpts on various ways that the wisdom traditions approach economic and other insecurities. We are pairing readings and practices. So we are interested in your input on this.
What spiritual practices do you think can help us cope in these times of financial insecurity? Certainly we can reframe this challenge as an opportunity, but what specific practices can we use to help us grow through it?
Elizabeth Lesser: First of all, it is important to understand that growth does not necessarily mean that you’re going to feel all warm and fuzzy about what’s happening. At least not in the short term. I would stay away from spiritual books or teachers or practices that promise quick ‘n easy solutions during difficult times. Growth usually involves discomfort, dislocation, disorientation.
When things are breaking apart, it is normal to hurt and to fear and to wonder if things will ever get better. So, if you are going through a tough time, ease up on yourself. It’s counter-productive to heap self-judgment or shame on top of whatever else is going on, be it financial strain or illness or a relationship problem. We are so hard on ourselves — much harder actually, than we are on others.
Practice #1: Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. Take your time. Accept who you are— an imperfect human being just like everyone else (or as I say in the book, a “bozo on the bus.”)
Practice #2: Learn how to meditate and do it on a regular basis. Meditation is a helpful practice for difficult times because it basically teaches us to sit in an upright, wakeful posture in the midst of our own crazy thoughts and feelings. It’s a simple practice, but not an easy one. You sit with dignity and alertness, on the floor or in a chair, as if you are riding a horse, slowly and calmly, through the landscape of your life. You just sit and witness whatever is going on in your thoughts and feelings, without judgment or rejection. As you sit quietly, watching your breath move in and out, you begin to identify with the “witness within” — the one who is observing life with gentleness and accuracy. In meditation you untangle yourself from the anxious and fearful thoughts that generally rule your life. You allow things to come and go, as opposed to clinging or rejecting.
If you really practice meditation over time, it becomes less of a practice and more of a way of life. When difficulties come your way, instead of reacting, blaming, freaking out, you can welcome them as expressions of reality.
Take the financial crisis: If you just observe it without fear, you see that what is happening was bound to happen. It is a cultural correction. For many years individuals and companies and governments have been ignoring the unsustainability of the systems we have created. We are all going to have to learn how to live more conscious, less materialistic, more innovative lives. It’s not going to feel great for a while, but if we confront the problem with a curious mind and an open heart, we’ll discover that things will not only be OK, they will be better in the long run.
Practice #3: Be optimistic. The third and final practice I would suggest, especially during the financial crisis, is to cultivate optimism, which is another word for faith. Faith is a moment-to-moment practice — a choice we make to see the silver lining. To have faith in the meaningfulness of every aspect of life — the good stuff and the hard stuff. Faithful people choose optimism because who wants to be a pessimist if you have the choice? Multiple studies of optimism have been conducted recently in the areas of health, stress, finances, sports, education, business, even at the racetrack, where pessimists were much more likely to lose. In every study, in all arenas of life, optimists came away the winners.
Optimists have a better chance at healing, recovering from financial loss, handling stress, and being more successful at work and in relationships. And the good news is that even if you consider yourself a born pessimist, the skills of optimism can be learned throughout a lifetime.
A good way to cultivate optimism is prayer. When problems arise in my life, I pray to be shown the purpose of the problem — the gift of growth that is embedded in the situation. I pray for the clouds of pessimism to part so that I can see the hand of God in everything. I pray for optimism.
Mary Ann: Thanks. I think those are all great practices for any time but especially for difficult times. Let's shift gears a little and talk about the theme of Oprah's series — living the "Best Life." For many of us, this means connecting with nature and other beings, including our pets. What wisdom and practices from the wisdom traditions can deepen these connections? For example, I know the Native peoples of America have rituals and attitudes that build good relationships with the Earth and all beings. I also am increasingly aware that the Earth and the animals, plants, and oceans are suffering. How does our spirituality kick in when it comes to being compassionate neighbors to other beings on the Earth?
Elizabeth: Thank you for this wonderful question. There’s an excellent book out right now called Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, which isn’t only about children. I think we all are suffering from nature-deficit disorder. There are two ways that this disorder manifests in our lives: first, each one of us suffers when we are disconnected from the wisdom and peace of the natural world. Nature is the holiest book there is. It is the original church. Everything you need to know about life, karma, morality, loving-kindness, God, is revealed in nature. By being outdoors, walking, gardening, caring for the earth, we can learn how to live, how to let go, how to relax, how to love. That’s why the holy texts from every tradition — the native cultures, the philosophers, the religions of East and West — use the language of nature. Read the Bible or the Qur'an or the words of the Buddha — all refer to mountains, rivers, flowers, birds, animals. I call this the sacred poetry of milk and honey.
The other way that nature-deficit disorder shows up is that humans are destroying the very web that sustains life. So many religions make caring for life a sacred duty. But we are not heeding that command. I am always amazed that issues like abortion get so much attention, but the biggest issue of being “pro-life” — the life of the planet itself — is left out of the discussion. Perhaps this is because so many of us have little to no connection with nature on a daily basis. Humans seem to have forgotten that we depend on the health of our forests, rivers, and atmosphere for our very life.
It’s important to spend time in nature then, not only for our own peace of mind and spiritual wisdom, but also so that we are filled with a genuine desire to care for the planet. The only way we are going to keep the ice caps from melting and the animals and air and oceans from being poisoned is to fall back in love with the earth itself. To revere it. And we can only do that if we get out into nature and remember its power to make us whole and healed.
A wonderful nature-based spiritual practice is to garden. Whether that takes the form of a big garden at your home, one flowerpot in the windowsill, or working to create a community park in your neighborhood, it is a profound practice to get your hands dirty and your heart aligned with the natural cycles of birth, growth, blossoming, death, and rebirth.
Mary Ann: You write in The Seeker's Guide about what to watch out for in a spiritual teacher and the importance of being our own authority. Yet many of us need the counsel and encouragement offered by a spiritual teacher, a spiritual director, or a spiritual friend to access the best that is within us. What should we look for in a spiritual adviser?
Elizabeth: Teachers and spiritual advisors take many forms. I worked for three years, once a week, with a therapist who I considered a spiritual guide. I studied meditation with a teacher for more than ten years. I take a yoga class once a week and my yoga teacher helps me connect with the sacred. And there are books written by spiritually wise men and women that I return to over and over. They too are my teachers.
I have enormous gratitude for the teachers and guides and mentors who have lit the path for me. To have a spiritual mentor is a wonderful thing, as long as we don’t ascribe God-like powers to them, or project onto them standards of perfection that they cannot live up to. One of the greatest things I have learned from being up close and personal with many spiritual teachers from my work at Omega Institute is that even these people are not perfect. From time to time they still screw up, do mean things, or resist the flow of life. Being around “the enlightened ones” has helped me see that my own not-so-perfect behavior is just part of the standard human operating system. This has not been a disappointment; on the contrary, it has been tremendously freeing.
I have discovered that we were not put here on earth to become perfect, and we are not alone in our confusion and suffering. Everyone — even the person who you think has it all together — goes through the very same things. You are not as abnormal as you think you are! To quote a bumper sticker I saw in California: "Normal is someone you don't know very well." We expend so much energy trying to hide our humanness. We could use that same energy just being exactly who we are, in the exact situation we find ourselves in. That energy can move us toward our most creative selves, our most enchanted lives.
Joseph Campbell, the great twentieth century mythologist, said that the purpose of life was to "feel the rapture of being alive." That is what we come to when we stop trying so hard to live a perfect life, and instead just show up in the life we already have. So, use teachers as guides along your own path — not their path. A good teacher ultimately shows you how to be your own guide. Sometimes this takes a while, but eventually your teacher — if she or he is a genuine one — will help you set sail.
Mary Ann: You've said that one of your favorite poets is the Sufi mystic Rumi. Rumi often talked about the value of expressing your needs and even experiencing pain on the spiritual path. In one poem, he wrote:
Wherever a pain is, that's where the cure goes;
wherever poverty is, that's where provision goes.
Wherever a difficult question is,
that's where the answer goes;
wherever a ship is, water goes to it.
Don't seek the water; increase your thirst,
so water may gush forth from above and below.
— from The Rumi Collection, translation by Kabir and Camille Helminski
Could you reassure those of us who are frightened of pain that it can help us get closer to our soul, to spirit, and to God — that pain can help us create our best life?
Elizabeth: I love those lines from Rumi! I often use “Don’t seek water, just be thirsty” as a way of defining the spiritual path. When we stop looking for that magical water that will quench all of our fear and pain, and we merely allow ourselves to be thirsty, an odd thing happens. We begin to feel better. We begin to understand that to be human is to be full of questions and wonder and trepidation. We’re half-baked creatures, born into a complex world without an instruction book. So of course we make mistakes! But mistakes can help us learn if we allow ourselves to feel the sting of our actions.
Rumi says, “Wherever a pain is, that’s where the cure goes.” What he means by this is that if we turn and face the pain, and ask it what its message is, we will find the cure. We’re a strange lot, us humans! We tend to resist pain, and therefore we resist finding the cure. Instead of growth, we choose to stay stuck in a situation or a mindset. We prefer to stay asleep than to wake up to the reality that every action has a reaction, and everything we do has a cause and an effect — what the Eastern traditions call “karma.”
Therefore, the practices that I have found the most helpful in my own life are ones that wake me up and show me my own culpability in a current life challenge. This is not always fun! Sometimes I would prefer to be lulled into some kind of pleasant la-la land. But that is not spirituality. To me, spirituality is the capacity to live fearlessly and faithfully in the real, short, and precious life we have been given.
The times we are living in now provide enormous opportunity to live like Rumi suggests. He says, “Wherever a difficult question is, that's where the answer goes.” The most difficult questions of our times — the financial crisis, terrorism, environmental degradation — contain within them the seeds of their solutions. But we can’t find those answers unless we allow ourselves to surrender to the pain. To actually feel it all the way through. This is not easy, I know. In times of such uncertainty, fear, and change in our country and world, so many of us look for ways to control what seems out of control. It is a natural response to fear and uncertainty. But I suggest a different solution to our anxiety — and that is to relax into the uncertainty. The more we try to control the uncontrollable, the more fearful and tightly wound we become.
The stories in Broken Open point us in the direction of becoming as comfortable as we can with the fact that we are never in control; we are always being called to dance with change and mystery. We live on a spinning earth, in an infinitely changing universe. Instead of trying to feel safe, a spiritual warrior approaches life as an adventure. And a strange thing happens when we can let go of the compulsion to control: our minds clear up, our hearts accept life on its own terms, and we find ways of working intelligently, hopefully, and swiftly with little and big problems. The solution to every problem can be found in the problem itself if we accept what is happening, ask what needs to be learned about each other, as well as ourselves, and get down to work with a spirit of goodwill and faith.