On April 16th, the Omega Institute came into New York City to offer a weekend of renewal. Founded in 1977, the learning center is nestled in the Hudson Valley, where over 23,000 people a year attend their conferences and seminars to “awaken the best in the human spirit.” On April 24th, they will be offering a free public talk with Claude AnShin Thomas, veteran and author of At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace. The conversation will address “the hidden cost of war.” In September, their annual “Women and Power Conference” will take place. Last fall, while in attendance, I interviewed Omega co-founder Elizabeth Lesser specifically about women’s issues.
For me, the date of the evening had an ironic subtext. It was my mother’s birthday, and it was her death that brought me to the work of Elizabeth Lesser. On Friday night, she and Byron Katie shared a stage for a two-hour presentation.
Lesser presented one of her resonant themes – the “Phoenix” metaphor and the concept of letting go of past issues that deter us from rising and regenerating. Introducing herself to the jam-packed room with the remark, “I’m a mystical, introverted kind of girl,” she launched into the renewal philosophy. Lesser used herself as an example, discussing her own challenges in “leaving her comfort zone,” and the “push/pull relationship with change.” She discussed how people resist change, even though it is intrinsic both to life and nature. “Creation, annihilation,” she said, “We don’t want to lose things. We don’t want them to die. We long for change and resist change.” With a humorous aside she added. “So no wonder we’re all a little crazy!”
Making peace with the process of change is saying yes to change, which in turn is The Phoenix Process. Lesser explained, “Something wants to die within you, and something wants to be born.” Back to the push/pull dilemma. On the individual terrain, she referenced the traumas of death, divorce, losing a job, or kids leaving home, with the refrain of “What have you come to teach me?” Lesser moved her questioning to the world stage, pointing to the economy, terrorism, and recent natural disasters when she asked, “Is the human family going through a Phoenix process?” Quoting Jung, she said, “What you don’t bring to consciousness, comes to you as fate.”
Addressing the fear and gloom that currently permeates the national consciousness, Lesser entreated the audience to consider, “How can we keep our hearts and eyes open” and” turn the crises of our day into opportunity?” To placate her own anxiety, Lesser did some research on what felt to her like an epidemic of earthquakes. After checking out stats on the scientific data, she found that the earth usually has a number of yearly eruptions. The step of gathering information helped her “to calm down.” Returning to global turmoil, Lesser cited Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, who has asserted that we are “probably living in the most peaceful time on earth, with violence actually in decline.”
Lesser stressed that “at any moment, anything can happen,” and encouraged the necessity of awakening to the “miracle of each moment.” Her themes resonated with the audience, especially when she spoke of the common experience of the “imposter syndrome” – which “cripples” people’s dreams, as they fear being exposed as less than how they are presenting themselves. Lesser mentioned her own trepidation of stepping into the “fullness of myself” – at the expense of “eclipsing someone else,” and the investment in having people like her.
The need for us to feel less isolated in our frailties translated into “We are all Bozos on the bus in this strange dance of life.” Lesser urged her listeners to “have faith that everything happens for a reason,” which may not reveal itself “until way down the road.” Mixing jest with seriousness, she renamed “the spiritual growth experience” with the vernacular term, “the big crappy experience.” Going back to the rebirth analogy, she echoed the words of Alice Walker who said, “As long as the Earth can make a spring every year, I can. As long as the Earth can flower and produce nurturing fruit, I can, because I’m the Earth. I won’t give up until the Earth gives up.”
Byron Katie, whose work has been used for therapeutic reconciliation in Rwanda, picked up from Lesser by turning to an exercise on “questioning what you are believing.” Participants filled out a form on a “Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet.” Picking a person they had “not yet forgiven one hundred percent,” Byron walked the crowd through their judgments, and then presented “The Four Questions.”
Using an audience member to exemplify the process, Katie peppered her dialogue with the phrase, “I invite you to…” She told the crowd, “I see thoughts as children that are screaming to be understood.”
Perhaps her two most salient points of the evening existed best in tandem. They both embraced personal responsibility.
“If you want the world to change, question what you are believing.”
“I have to look to myself. That is the beginning and end of it.”