Elizabeth Lesser

Elizabeth
Lesser

Author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and A Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure, Co-founder and Senior Adviser of Omega Institute, the largest Adult Education Center in the United States, Midwife and Birth Educator

Author Quotes

How quickly I judge, and therefore diminish their humanity.

Spirituality is fearlessness. It is a way of looking boldly at this life we have been given, here, now, on earth, as this human being.

I am fascinated by what it takes to stay awake in difficult times. I marvel at what we do in times of transition — how we resist, and how we surrender; how we stay stuck, and how we grow. Since my first major broken-open experience — my divorce — I have been an observer and a confidante of others as they engage with the forces of their own suffering. I have made note of how fiasco and failure visit each one of us, as if they were written into the job description of being human. I have seen people crumble in times of trouble, lose their spirit, and never fully recover. I have seen others protect themselves fiercely from any kind of change, until they living a half lie, safe yet stunted. But I have also seen another way to deal with a fearful change or a painful loss. I call this other way the Phoenix Process — named for the mythical phoenix bird who remains awake through the fires of change, rises from the ashes of death, and is reborn into his most vibrant and enlightened self. . . . I've tried both ways: I have gone back to sleep in order to resist the forces of change. And I have stayed awake and been broken open.

There is an art to grieving. To grieve well the loss of anyone or anything — a parent, a love, a child, an era, a home, a job — is a creative act. It takes attention and patience and courage. But many of us do not know how to grieve. We were never taught, and we don't see examples of full-bodied grieving around us. Our culture favors the fast-food model of mourning — get over it quick and get back to work; affix the bandage of 'closure' and move on.

I have a card stuck on my refrigerator that shows a woman standing in reverence before an open freezer door, saying, 'Amazing! Perfect ice cubes again.' That's the kind of simple rapture I am talking about. I realize we are not put on this earth to stand around open freezers ranting like idiots about ice cubes. But a good quesiton to ask yourself is this: If perfect ice cubes or an evening sky or an old song on the radio has not made your heart flip-flop lately, why not? What is keeping you from feeling the rapture?

We are born with a body that experiences pain and comfort, a heart that suffers and feels joy, a mind that strives and is peaceful, a spirit that yearns for both solitude and communion with others, and a contract on earth that has a beginning and an end. Each one of us knows this, and yet, each one of us spends much of our time swimming against the current of life's reality. The spiritual path teaches us how to float on our backs, relaxed and aware, in the waters of reality. The Buddhists define spirituality as shamatha, or 'tranquil abiding.'

I recently heard a great writer say that an essential element in the life of a writer is to have been an outsider in childhood, to have been given the gift of not belonging.

What will matter is the good we did, not the good we expected others to do.

If spirituality is not religion or cynicism or sentimentality or narcissism, then what is it? One thing that we can confidently say is that spirituality is fearlessness. It is a way of looking boldly at the life we have been given here, now, on earth, as this human being. Who am I? How should I live my life? What happens when I die? Spirituality is nothing more than a brave search for the truth about existence. Nothing more, but nothing less as well.

If we can stay awake when our lives are changing, secrets will be revealed to us--secrets about ourselves, about the nature of life, and about the eternal source of happiness and peace that is always available, always renewable, already within us.

If we want liberation, we must rewrite the Sleeping Beauty myth. No one is coming and no one else is to blame.

In democratizing the spiritual life, the burden is on you, the seeker. You are entitled to your own beliefs and practices, but you are also accountable for your own morality and enlightenment. Your path is your own, but you must walk side by side with others, with compassion and generosity as your beacons. You don't have to join a religion or school of thought or a community of seekers to be a part of the American spiritual tapestry. You can do this, and you may benefit tremendously if you do; but you don't have to. If anything is required it is this: fearlessness in your examination of life and death; willingness to continually grow; and openness to the possibility that the ordinary is extraordinary, and that your joys and your sorrows have meaning and mystery.

It does pay to be honest. It pays in rewarding relationships. It pays in unblocked energy. It pays in passion. To stand tall in who you are, unafraid to reveal what you want and need, kind enough to tell the truth, and brave enough to bear the consequences, is a telling sign of spiritual development.

It is the acceptance of death that has finally allowed me to choose life.

It took me a long time to decide to become a human being, and to look within my own flawed nature for salvation. It took mistakes, dark nights of the soul, hard work, and help from teachers and friends to fashion a spirituality that respected both my divinity and my humanity, my radiance and my shadow. It took my own combination of religion and psychology, meditation and physical healing, mysticism and science, to forge a path that felt genuine and effective. Instead of sacrificing a self I hardly knew or loved, I turned my attention to self-understanding and self-forgiveness. Instead of accepting a straight-and-narrow route to someone else's concept of God, I set out to make my own way, using my inner longing as a compass.

Meditation practice is like piano scales, basketball drills, ballroom dance class. Practice requires discipline; it can be tedious; it is necessary. After you have practiced enough, you become more skilled at the art form itself. You do not practice to become a great scale player or drill champion. You practice to become a musician or athlete. Likewise, one does not practice meditation to become a great meditator. We meditate to wake up and live, to become skilled at the art of living.

One of my heroes is the clown-activist, Wavy Gravy. He is best known for a role that he played in 1969, when he was the master of ceremonies at the Woodstock festival. Since then, he's been a social activist, a major "fun-d" raiser for good causes, a Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavor, an unofficial hospital chaplain, and the founder of a children's camp for inner city kids. Every four years he campaigns as a candidate for president of the United States, under the pseudonym of Nobody, making speeches all over the country, with slogans like "Nobody for President," "Nobody's Perfect," and "Nobody Should Have That Much Power." He's a seriously funny person, and a person who is serious about helping others. "Like the best of clowns," wrote a reporter in The Village Voice, "Wavy Gravy makes a big fool of himself as is necessary to make a wiser man of you. He is one of the better people on earth." Wavy (I'm on a first-name basis with him from clown workshops he's offered at Omega) is a master of one-liners, like the famous one he delivered on the Woodstock stage: "What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000;" and this one, on why he became a clown: "You don't hear a bunch of bullies get together and say 'Hey, let's go kill a few clowns.'"But my all-time favorite Wavy-ism is the line above about Bozos on the bus, one he repeats whenever he speaks to groups, whether at a clown workshop or in a children's hospital. I have co-opted the phrase and I use it to begin my workshops, because I believe that we are all bozos on the bus, contrary to the self-assured image we work so hard to present to each other on a daily basis. We are all half-baked experiments-mistake-prone beings, born without an instruction book into a complex world. None of us are models of perfect behavior: We have all betrayed and been betrayed; we've been known to be egotistical, unreliable, lethargic, and stingy; and each one of us has, at times, awakened in the middle of the night worrying about everything from money to kids to terrorism to wrinkled skin and receding hairlines. In other words, we're all bozos on the bus. This, in my opinion, is cause for celebration. If we're all bozos, then for God's sakes, we can put down the burden of pretense and get on with being bozos. We can approach the problems that visit bozo-type beings without the usual embarrassment and resistance. It is so much more effective to work on our rough edges with a light and forgiving heart. Imagine how freeing it would be to take a more compassionate and comedic view of the human condition - not as a way to deny our defects-but as a way of welcoming them as part of the standard human operating system. Every single person on this bus called Earth hurts; it's when we have shame about our failings that hurt turns into suffering. In our shame, we feel an outcast, as if there is another bus somewhere, rolling along on a smooth road. Its passengers are all thin, healthy, happy, well-dressed and well-liked people who belong to harmonious families, hold jobs that never bore or aggravate them, and never do mean things, or goofy things like forget where they parked their car, lose their wallet, or say something totally inappropriate. We long to be on that bus with the other normal people. But we are on the bus that says BOZO on the front, and we worry that we may be the only passenger on board. This is the illusion that so many of us labor under- that we're all alone in our weirdness and our uncertainty; that we may be the most lost person on the highway. Of course we don't always feel like this. Sometimes a wave of self-forgiveness washes over us, and suddenly we're connected to our fellow humans; suddenly we belong. It is wonderful to take your place on the bus with the other bozos. It may be the first step to enlightenment to understand with all of your brain cells that the other bus - that sleek bus with the cool people who know where they are going - is also filled with bozos - bozos in drag; bozos with a secret. When we see clearly that every single human being, regardless of fame or fortune or age or brains or beauty, shares the same ordinary foibles, a strange thing happens. We begin to cheer up, to loosen up, and we become as buoyant as those people we imagined on the other bus. As we rumble along the potholed road, lost as ever, through the valleys and over the hills, we find ourselves among friends. We sit back, and enjoy the ride.

Adversity is a natural part of being human. It is the height of arrogance to prescribe a moral code or health regime or spiritual practice as an amulet to keep things from falling apart. Things do fall apart. It is in their nature to do so. When we try to protect ourselves from the inevitability of change, we are not listening to the soul. We are listening to our fear of life and death, our lack of faith, our smaller ego's will to prevail. To listen to your soul is to stop fighting with life--to stop fighting when things fall apart; when they don't go our away, when we get sick, when we are betrayed or mistreated or misunderstood. To listen to the soul is to slow down, to feel deeply, to see ourselves clearly, to surrender to discomfort and uncertainty and to wait.

One of the problems of contemporary culture is that life moves at such a quick pace, we usually don't give ourselves time to feel and listen deeply. You may have to take deliberate action to nurture the soul. If you want to increase your soul's bank account, you may have to seek out the unfamiliar and do things that at first could feel uncomfortable. Give yourself time as you experiment. How will you know if you're on the right track? I like Rumi's counsel: 'When you do something from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.'

Are you becoming more and more aware of the interconnection of all beings, creatures and elements? Do you hold as your own Jesus' words: 'And whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me'? Are you getting tired of the way our society celebrates the false ego's selfish and insatiable drive to acquire and use more and more? And does that make you want to be an agent of healing? A declaration of life's interdependence is a sign of spiritual progress.

So please forgive me when I say that everything that happens to us in life is a blessing — whether it comes as a gift wrapped in happy times or as a heartbreak, a loss, or a tragedy. It is true: There is meaning hidden in the small changes of everyday life, and wisdom to be found in the shards of your most broken moments. At the end of a dark night of the soul is the beginning of a new life.

But I have also seen another way to deal with a fearful change or a painful loss. I call this other way the Phoenix Process — named for the mythical phoenix bird who remains awake through the fires of change, rises from the ashes of death, and is reborn into his most vibrant and enlightened self.

Spirituality is a brave search for the truth about existence, fearlessly peering into the mysterious nature of life.

How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change. And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be.

Author Picture
First Name
Elizabeth
Last Name
Lesser
Bio

Author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and A Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure, Co-founder and Senior Adviser of Omega Institute, the largest Adult Education Center in the United States, Midwife and Birth Educator