My guest today is Elizabeth Lesser, who co-founded the Omega Institute thirty years ago. This personal growth retreat center pioneered many approaches that have since become a part of modern life. Welcome to OpEdNews, Elizabeth. In 2005, you wrote Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. Y our book harnesses the power of stories - of others and your own - to demonstrate this principle. Did you find it difficult to expose yourself so thoroughly to your readers?
Elizabeth by Elizabeth Lesser
Yes, I did find it difficult. I like to say, "The book made me do it." Having read more spiritual and self-help books than is probably legal, I have come to value books where the author talks about his or her own struggles and victories along the way. Spirituality and personal growth are, well"personal. And without a storyline, spiritual writing feels dry to me, and preachy, and it doesn't grab me or give me much traction in my own life. If you read the ancient texts, you realize that the most important teachings are given through parable, through human story. So, when I set out to write Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, I decided to write about the subject through the stories of people I knew--people who had been in my workshops, heroic people who had suffered great loss, everyday people who were going through big changes.
But after only a short time of writing, I realized that if I was really going to help my readers learn "how difficult times can help us grow," I was going to have to tell my own story, because that is the story I know the best. Therefore, that is the story I could deconstruct to demonstrate some of the common pitfalls and terrors one confronts during difficult times, as well as the strategies and philosophies that can lead one out of the woods and into the light, into a happier, bigger, bolder, and more generous life. So, I gathered up my courage and wrote about the dark times of my own life as a way of shining a light for others.
The hardest aspect of memoir is that it involves writing about not only oneself, but also about the people in one's life. My children, my parents, my husband, my ex-husband, my friends: none of them asked to be characters in my book. I showed them early versions and changed parts if they wanted me to. I changed some names of people. I stayed true to the story but left some parts out that might offend or hurt. Still, I am sure I caused discomfort for some of the folks in my life. But I did it for a reason that I still feel clear and good about.
Your opening sentence - "How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change" - captures the essence of our inner conflict and why personal transformation is so hard. Often, we change only because not changing is even more painful, more awful. Can you describe for our readers the story behind the title of your book?
The first story in my
book, Broken Open, is about an experience I had when my first marriage
was crumbling. I was a young, frightened, idealistic woman, the mother of two
little boys, and the idea of divorce was terrifying to me. I came across a
quote from the author AnaÃ¯s Nin: "And the time came when the risk to
remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."
I used those words like a life raft that carried me through the stormy changes that divorce brought. As long as I trusted that the pain I was going through was going to help me break open and blossom, I was OK. And as I have gone through life, I have found that every change--even the most difficult ones--can be catalysts for blossoming. The hard times in my life--the loss of my parents; big changes at work; children growing up; aging--have all brought with them opportunities to blossom, to taste more wisdom and freedom. But we have to want to blossom; we have to work hard to break open. It doesn't just happen on its own. Big change and difficult times can make us bitter and depressed if we blame others or wallow in self-pity or victimhood. I wrote Broken Open to help people find inspiration and tools for turning hard times into opportunities for growth.
Have you found that all cultures resist change or is this a particularly Western phenomenon?
Resisting change is by
no means a Western phenomenon. Rather, it is a universal,
cross-cultural phenomenon that has dogged human beings since our ancestors
first became aware of their own mortality. You can find stories, songs, poems,
novels, parables, fairy tales, and myths from every culture and every era that
address our discomfort with loss, change, and death.
It is human to hold on to what we know and to fear the unknown. Knowing that we share that tendency with all of our human brothers and sisters is comforting: We're not alone in our fears; it's hardwired into the human organism. There are people who have overcome their resistance to change whose lives can serve as an example of hope. Their wise council can help us release some of our own resistance and even gain a spirit of adventure toward the changing nature of life.
Why is fear of change so intertwined with our fear of death and dying? What exactly does one have to do with the other? Why can't we just be resisting change because it's so much easier and less scary to stay the same?
When we were kids, we actually looked forward to the passage of time. Remember? I remember longing for my birthday each year. I wanted to be a year older, in the next grade, one step closer to being grown up. I liked the way time kept moving, pulling me along, showing me new things, expanding my world. Sometime during college, instead of enjoying the passage of time, I began to drag my feet. I think we all do that. We don't want to leave our twenties. Thirty sounds old. Forty ancient. Fifty? Sixty? Forget about it! Why is this? Why do we begin to resist the passage of time? Why do we begin to fear things changing even if we're stuck in a rut?
I venture to say it is because as we mature, we become aware of our mortality. That awareness--dim as it may be--breeds an inner panic about the passing of time and the inevitability of change. Even if we push the notion of death to the background of our consciousness, it is there, humming a little anxious tune. Carl Jung said that he never met a patient over forty whose unhappiness did not have its roots in the fear of death. I agree with Jung, but I would broaden his age-range and say that I have never met anyone, of any age, whose unhappiness did not have its roots in the fear of endings, partings, and the dark unknown of death.
This is why I suggest people contemplate their own death. This may not sound like a jolly curriculum, but in a round-about way, it is. By making friends with mortality, we begin to wake up to the preciousness of each moment. We don't want to waste one minute of this life. Risk-taking becomes less fear-inducing because we realize that life wants us to participate fully in it and that joy requires letting go, moving on, changing. Because life is always changing; we are always changing. We live in a river of change, and a river of change lives within us. Every day we're given a choice: We can relax and float in the direction that the water flows, or we can swim hard against it. If we go with the river, the energy of a thousand mountain streams will be with us, filling our hearts with courage and enthusiasm. If we resist the river, we will feel rankled and tired as we tread water, stuck in the same place.
If we had the patience and a high-powered microscope, we could sit and stare at our hands and watch the river of change flowing through our own bodies right now. We could watch our cells changing and dying and being replaced, over and over and over. From year to year every one of our cells is replaced. Literally, who we were yesterday is not who we are today. Our skin is new every month, our liver every six weeks. So it is counter-life to try to slow things down or to stall them altogether.
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