Co-founder and Senior Advisor, Omega Institute
Posted on: February 3, 2012 | Go to profile
A pioneer in adult learning, Elizabeth developed a curriculum by asking, what are people hungering for? At the Omega Institute, a non-profit learning center that focuses on research of health, wellness and spirituality, Elizabeth launched the Women and Power conference series and founded the Women’s Leadership Center at Omega. Keeping her fingers on the pulse of culture, Elizabeth has been supporting a movement from Me to We. She has written two books, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and The Seeker’s Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure. A speaker at the 2010 TEDWomen Conference, Elizabeth has also appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s television and radio shows.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: I cofounded Omega Institute in 1977. Omega is now the country’s largest adult-learning center that focuses on health, wellness, spirituality and social change. Those of us who started the Institute were idealistic young people in our 20s with the big idea of establishing a retreat and workshop center, but with no experience in running one. We made up for our inexperience with energy and passion. The opening essay in our first catalog used words like holism and consciousness; the workshops taught alternative health, ecumenical spirituality, cross-cultural arts, meditation, yoga, and other subjects that were way at the fringe of mainstream society 35 years ago. It’s amazing to look back at what we were offering then—much of it has become commonplace today. You can find a yoga center in every town, alternative therapies in major hospitals, natural foods in supermarkets, meditation in public schools, spiritual books on the NY Times bestseller list. But back when we started, we were pioneers (a kind word compared to what many people called us!) We have always used a very simple question to develop our curriculum: What are people hungering for? Each decade has ushered in different issues, but basic human longings remain the same: the need for healing, for purpose, for stress-reduction, for expression, for community. We try to keep our fingers on the pulse of culture. We have been using a phrase recently at Omega to describe what we see happening in these times: moving from Me to We. It seems that everyone these days feels that the world is in such a state of transition, and that the stakes are so high, that one cannot focus merely on self-healing or transformation. We must also ask what the world needs from us. How can each of us contribute to turning the Titanic around?
Q: Who has been your greatest mentor(s)?
A: One mentor who was influential in my work and life at Omega was the Sufi master Pir Vilayat Kahn. Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. I was attracted to this spiritual path by the poetry of the great Sufi mystic, Rumi. I met Pir Vilayat when I was 19 and I studied with him for most of my adult life; he died just a few years ago. He had the original idea to start Omega. In many ways, I see Omega as a reflection of Pir Vilayat. He was a Renaissance man who was interested in everything. He spoke 7 languages, taught practices and meditations from the world’s major religions, and was a brilliant scientist, healer, and musician. He named Omega from the teachings of Teilhard de Chardin, a renowned 20th-century French philosopher and Catholic priest, who used the term “Omega Point” to describe how life and the universe are always in a state of evolution toward higher consciousness. Teilhard was considered somewhat heretical by the Vatican because he believed in evolution. So, they were always banishing him to outposts like rural China, or Upstate New York, which, to a sophisticated Parisian, must have felt like the end of the world. He died in the 1950s and was buried at a monastery on the Hudson River, a few miles north of Poughkeepsie. When we bought Omega’s campus, we were amazed to discover that Teilhard de Chardin’s grave is just a few miles south of us. It’s on the grounds of the Culinary Institute of America, once a Jesuit monastery in Hyde Park, NY. Of all the places we could have chosen to locate, turns out the man responsible for our name is resting nearby.
Q: Life is full of setbacks. Can you share an experience of one, and how you were able to bounce back?
A: This is such an important question to me that I wrote an entire book about it. Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. In it I describe the process of letting go of the dream of a life-long marriage and an intact family. My divorce was a huge setback for me—emotionally and financially—but it was also the greatest learning experience of my life. I look at life now as BD (Before Divorce) and AD (After Divorce): the two big epochs of my life. I went from being a naive and disempowered young woman to a stronger and kinder person who is more willing to take responsibility for her own life, to stop blaming others, to show up fully and fearlessly in all experiences. Every big loss is an invitation to grow, if you say YES to change. If you say NO, you run the risk of becoming bitter and broken. If you say YES, you can break open and your life can blossom. This is true for the loss of a job or a house or a relationship, as well as the loss of health or life as we know it. It’s not an easy path to let go with grace and optimism, but the opposite is a harsh and sad way to live. In my book I give examples and tools for saying YES.
ON Taking Risk
Q: How do you overcome feelings of insecurity, fear or discomfort when deciding to take a risk?
A: I was beset with the “imposter syndrome” for a big chunk of my life. It’s taken me a long time to know myself and trust myself, especially in moments that call for taking a risk. My friend, Eve Ensler, the creator of the Vagina Monologues, said something to me once that helped me finally conquer my insecurities. She said that in meeting with world leaders through her work with V-Day, her organization that aims to stop violence against women, she came to see that everyone “is just making it up as they go along”—presidents, CEOs, leaders all over the world. And as my own work has expanded and I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with leading teachers and authors and artists, I have come to know first-hand what Eve Ensler was talking about. Those at the top get there because they believe in their own dreams. And by believing in them, they make them come true. So, I am now much more comfortable leaping into the unknown with only a dream to fill my sails.
ON Giving Back
Q: What cause(s) have you chosen to support and why does it resonate with you?
A: I support a variety of environmental causes, including my local land conservancy as well as international land conservancies, population control organizations, and Planned Parenthood. All of these organizations are working to make sure we live in more harmony with the planet’s delicate ecosystems. Without a healthy and hospitable earth, all of our other concerns become moot. I support organizations that protect wilderness, support the development of alternative fuel sources, and help people have healthy and smaller families.
Q: Oprah has that great section in her magazine “What I know for sure.” What do you know for sure?
A: What I know for sure is that most people are good and want the same things: to be happy and healthy and safe. Getting to know people from other countries, races, religions and lifestyles makes us feel connected to all beings on our beautiful planet, and therefore less likely to be in conflict or to go to war.
Q: How do you balance career and motherhood?
A: The first step is to stop trying to balance your life! It’s impossible. The crushing time conflict that all working mothers feel is not because you are doing something wrong. It’s just too much work for one person to do. So, giving yourself a break for feeling so stressed is the first step to sanity. And here’s some good news: working mothers are the most productive, creative, and responsible people on the planet. I think they will be the ones to really change the world. Take pride in that. Ultimately, the only solution to the strain on women is to get men fully involved in parenting. When men feel an equal sense of responsibility to nurture children, to take care of the home, to join women in the work of creating healthy families, then policies will begin to change. This means that moms have one more title to add to their bulging job descriptions: Revolutionary. We have to change the whole system. Gloria Steinem said, “We’ve taken one giant step forward by convincing the majority of the country that women can do what men can do. But the next step is convincing the country that men can do what women can do. So far, we don’t believe it ourselves.”