Breaking Open Your Spirit
Elizabeth Lesser is a leading spiritual thinker and the co-founder of Omega Institute, an education center focused on wellness and spirituality. Elizabeth says everyone has a spiritual side, but she says it can be hard to tap into that part of yourself. "Spirituality is an instinct. We have our instincts to eat and sleep and work and survive and thrive, but we also have a spiritual instinct," she says. "When we talk about a 'spiritual path,' what we're talking about is already there inside us, this instinct that we are more than our mind and body. The path is just getting obstacles out of the way."
Oprah says that as she has become more spiritual, she has come to understand religion in a new light. "You can be spiritual regardless of your religious beliefs," she says. "I am religious—raised Christian, believe in God. But when I discovered my spiritual path, it awakened religion—Christianity—for me in a way that had not happened before."
Broken Open's title came from Elizabeth's image of how people awaken to their spirituality, she says. "[It is] the image of a rose tightly wound around itself, the bud, like we all feel every day—tightly wound, anxious, shut down. In order for that bud to open and blossom into the flower we love so much, it has to break its shell. It has to break open," Elizabeth says. "It's an irony of this human life. Strangely enough, it is in our most difficult broken times—loss of a job, loss of a marriage, illness, loss of a child— that we are brought to our knees and we open. … When we open into our brokenness, that's when we blossom."
Spirituality is often simply accepting where life takes you, Elizabeth says. "We all can relate to the feeling that life is happening to us," she says. "We're in this stream of life, and instead of relaxing into it, we're swimming as hard as we can against the current. That's sort of the opposite of the spiritual instinct. The spiritual instinct is to relax into the mystery of life as it's happening."
Growing up in the late '60s and early '70s, Elizabeth says she was influenced by the Beatles, who were in India learning Eastern meditation and music. "I thought, 'I want one of those wise teachers from the East too,'" she says.
At 19, Elizabeth and her soon-to-be husband found a spiritual teacher and moved to a commune in upstate New York. They got married shortly after and had two children by the time Elizabeth was 26. "When I got married, I thought it was going to be forever. You make a promise, and you keep it," she says. "But I began to feel that something in me was dying. I began to feel pretty much exhausted and sick most of the time, and I didn't want to listen to that, and I also was angry and not being very patient as a mother."
Elizabeth says that in the family and culture where she was raised, it was looked down upon to get a divorce and be a single mother. But after years of unhappiness, she knew she had to make a hard decision. "I felt like, 'If I don't make a move, if I don't make a change, if I don't answer this call within me to blossom and I remain tight in a bud, I am going to shrivel and fall off the vine and never know what life really can be.'"
When faced with a difficult situation, Elizabeth says you can either break down or break open. "It's a decision you make," she says. "It's a commitment. [You say:] 'I am going through a very hard time. I'm not going to waste this precious experience, this opportunity to become the best me.' … You say: 'This has got to be for a reason. If it isn't, I'll just repeat the same mistakes over and over. I don't want to repeat them. I want to learn it this time. I want it to help me become a better person, a better mother, a better person in my relationship the next time."
Elizabeth says her divorce taught her to take ownership of her life. "I couldn't blame anyone for what had gone wrong in the marriage. I had spent a lot of time blaming my ex-husband. But I had to take the responsibility myself," she says. "I had to say, 'What does this have to teach me about me?' Not about him and not about how unfair life is. It wasn't about that. It was, 'What did I do to make this happen?' The pain is really looking at yourself and what you did to create the mess you're in. [But you need to] look at it head on, fearlessly, and say, 'Teach me. Teach me about myself so I can grow.'"
Two years after Glen and Connie were married, they had twin boys, Eric and Ryan, who were born on New Year's Eve 1978. Five years later, they had a daughter, Kate. "I really thought I had the life scripted right out," Connie says. "I thought, 'These boys will ride their bikes down this little street, and Katie will go to nursery school here, and then they'll grow up, and then they'll be married and Eric will be Ryan's best man.'"
Eric had always wanted to travel to Australia, Glen says, and in his junior year of college he was accepted into a program to study abroad there. "He was absolutely enamored with Australia," Glen says.
"We thought it was very cool that our twin boys were going to turn 21 on the millennium," Connie says. "So we had anticipated quite a big birthday party."
Just as Connie and Glen were preparing to leave for the airport to pick up Eric, they got a phone call from someone in the State Department. Eric had been in a motorcycle accident.
Connie says she can remember the agony in Glen's face when he told her the news. "I remember saying to him, 'I don't know how to do this grief thing,'" she says. "And he said to me: 'Well, I don't know how to do it either. But one thing I do know is we must do it well for Ryan, our son, and for Katie, our daughter, because we are the only models they have.'"
Glen told Connie there were two paths they could take—despair or hope. "[He said], 'That doesn't look very welcoming down there, so I'm going to the place of hope,'" Connie says. "And I said, 'I'm coming with you.'"
While they were walking, Connie dropped one of her mittens. "I went to pick it up, and as I came up I was very light-headed, understandably—no sleep, loss of appetite," she says. "I looked up, and in January in Maine there's no meteorologist who can explain why you would see a rainbow in the sky. It was just a snippet—green and yellow and pink. And I grabbed my friend and said, 'I'm hallucinating, right?' And she said: 'No, I see it. Perhaps it's God. Perhaps it's Eric. Perhaps it's hope. But let's take it.'"
The next day, Connie called the director of her local hospice center and decided to start getting help for her grief. "When there's something that happens that you cannot explain, you know there's something out there to help you—a lifeline," she says. "That single moment—a gift of nature, a gift of comfort—helped me to take that step out of what I thought would be never-ending pain."
Ryan, an engineer, says his inability to solve the problem in his life was eating away at him. "For the longest time, I thought, 'I'm never going to stop feeling this way,'" he says.
Finally, Ryan realized this was one problem he wasn't responsible for fixing. "It was somewhat of a spiritual experience for me," he says. "I got a release that said: 'Stop. You really don't get it, Ryan. You just don't understand what's going on here, and you're not going to solve this problem, and you need to stop.'"
While he was working for his uncle, Ryan says he experienced a moment that changed his outlook "[I realized] if I can be happy here in dead fish, then I can be happy doing anything," he says. "I'm going to move forward and try to put that picture back up on the wall. And it's not the same picture. I'm going to make a new picture."
It's impossible to truly get over a tragic loss, Glen says, but it is possible to move on. "It's always there. You always live with it," he says. "And you use it as who you are to become more of a person."
"You wear [grief] as a badge of how well you loved," Elizabeth says. "Grief is an expression that you loved well."
Connie says working at hospice had unexpected benefits. "I didn't even know it, but when you help, you heal," she says. "And the gifts that came back to me ... were part of my healing."
Connie and Glen say they have now dedicated their lives to serving others. After Eric's death, Glen quit his job of 25 years, and they sold their home and disposed of most of their material possessions. "You realize, 'I'm now attached to nothing. I'm tethered to nothing. I can just go,'" Connie says. "That was the most freeing feeling in the world. ... We took the time we needed to grieve and then we took a leap of faith."
When helping others comes from a genuine place in your heart, you are on a spiritual path, Elizabeth says. "When you've experienced your own dark night and you've been helped by others, you have a genuine desire to give back," she says. "And when service comes from that really open vulnerable heart, there's nothing like it."
Are you ready to find your spiritual path? Get Elizabeth Lesser's steps for starting the journey.