Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Elizabeth Lesser. This is a rebroadcast of a previously released Insights at the Edge classic session. Elizabeth is the New York Times bestselling author of The Seeker’s Guide and Broken Open. She’s also the cofounder of Omega Institute, an education and retreat center focusing on health, wellness, spirituality, creativity, and social change. Elizabeth has worked closely with Oprah Winfrey to produce a 10-week webinar for Eckhart Tolle and she is a frequent host on the Oprah radio channel on Sirius XM.
With Sounds True, Elizabeth Lesser has published the audio program, The Seeker’s Guide, on how a new spiritual path is emerging as world traditions meet in the American melting pot.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Elizabeth and I spoke about putting your soul in charge of your life and what it takes to do that. We talked about Elizabeth Lesser’s guide to selecting a spiritual teacher and her view that you don’t necessarily need a teacher to progress on the spiritual path. We talked about fear and fearlessness, how to pray, and the power of being comfortable alone. And finally, we talked about psychotherapy as a contemporary spiritual path and the price of wisdom. Here’s my conversation with Elizabeth Lesser:
Elizabeth, I am so excited to talk with you, as someone who has been in the field of spiritual inquiry [and] spiritual growth for 30-plus years—since the very beginning of Omega Institute, as one of its cofounders. I think of you as someone who is quite a reference point—quite an authority, if you will—on what’s happening in the spiritual landscape, here in the United States, especially.
To begin with, I’d love to know: what do you see as the greatest misconceptions and myths in our current culture about the spiritual journey?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, let’s see. The myths about the spiritual journey. My first thought is that to be spiritual is to be really serious and really perfect in everything you do. Always thoughtful, always correct, always on it. There’s a certain sense among spiritual seekers that to be spiritual is to aim constantly for perfection and seriousness.
That kind of makes the spiritual journey—or even the decision whether to take it or not—unnecessarily dry and tasteless and difficult. You know? That spirituality has to be difficult.
Certainly, some spiritual practices—the kind of work we do to help us become more alive and present, and able to live a healthy and productive life—certainly, some of those practices may be arduous and take a lot of work. But let’s say that the goal of spirituality is to be happy, free, joyful, and able to appreciate and live this glorious gift we’ve been given called “the human experience.”
So, that’s a misconception about spirituality—that it’s more about, let’s say, suffering than it is about joy.
TS: Any other myths or misconceptions that immediately come to mind?
EL: Many people are confused about the relationship between religion and spirituality. I know I was raised in a very intellectual family where [there was] the thought that if you were smart, then you wouldn’t be spiritual. My parents had both been raised in very religious homes and they’d rejected it. They had just a bad taste in their mouths about religion—about the bad parts of religion. The moral codes that keep you from being able to really pursue your authentic self.
Or, the way that religions are one pitted against the other—the wars started around religion. That was my mother’s particular beef with religion—that you say religion is about peace and love, and then most of the wars fought in the world are done so in the name of my god against your god.
There was this sense I had growing up, “Well, if I’m going to be taken seriously as a human being, I would never be religious.” But I was born with this ache in my heart to understand life and to pursue the big questions: Who am I? Where do I go when I die? What do I do in the meantime? How do we live a good life? But I thought I couldn’t really go after them, because to be religious was to be ignorant.
So, teasing out spirituality from religion is important in dispelling the myth. If you are the kind of person that does not want to belong to an organized religion, one of the myths is that you have to be religious if you’re going to spiritual.
I don’t mean that all people who adhere to a religion are not deep spiritual seekers. But some people just don’t want religion in their [lives]. That doesn’t mean you can’t be spiritual.
TS: Now, it’s interesting that you talked about this “ache” or hunger in the heart. Early in your book, The Seeker’s Guide, you talk about this quality of longing—this ache in the heart. You call it “the fuel for the spiritual journey.” And I wonder if you could speak some about that—this fuel.
EL: If you’re human—which I imagine everyone listening today is—
TS: There might be some more-than-human characters as well, but we definitely have humans listening.
EL: Yes, and some of your pets may be way more enlightened than we are.
But let’s say you’re human and you’re listening to this. You’ve probably experienced this feeling when everything gets quiet. If you have moments in your life when you can tune out the chattering mind or the to-do lists, you get quiet and you feel this kind of, “Wow, is this all there is to life?” Just kind of like getting up in the morning and battling my way through the day at work and then coming home [exhausted to] deal with the family. And worrying about this and that. There’s got to be something more. What’s the more? Do we just live and then die and it’s all over? What is this all about?
This is what I call “longing.” We are born longing to know what’s going on—to understand why were put here and what we were put here to do. Do I have a unique purpose? Do I have something to give to this world? If we get quiet and don’t fool [ourselves] with the trickery that the mind often does, we all come to this place of deeply wanting something beautiful and sacred to be at the core of our life.
We want to put that core sacredness—you could call it the soul. We want to put our soul in charge of our life. And we don’t know how. Even those of us who were raised in religious homes often don’t know how to put our souls in charge of our life.
And that’s—to me—the fuel for the spiritual path. That admission, “I want to put something very deeply holy in charge of my life. How do I that?”
How do I live in this material world successfully and responsibly? And at the same time, be guided than something deeper than all of that.
TS: Now, that’s a beautiful phrase—”putting our soul in charge of our life.” Can you tell me more about how somebody might do that? Someone who has that longing. How do they put their soul in charge?
EL: [The] first step is to feel OK about knowing that you have a soul. No one is ever going to be able to prove to you and me that we have a soul. So, it’s a leap of faith, and faith is the currency of the soul.
So, you feel, “I know there’s something more. I’m going to call it ’soul.’ And I’m going to believe it. I’m going to live by it. And I’m going to give it its time.”
The soul speaks most in silence. It speaks [maybe] the most in nature, if you love nature. If you love art, or maybe you love creativity. Maybe you love the body and movement, or children. Whatever brings you to that place of sort of a vibrational feeling of peace and hope and joy.
You spend a little time with that—as much as you can. People will often say to me, “I do not have time to put my soul in charge of my life. That sounds like you’re saying that I have to go on meditation retreats or pray in church or belong to this or that.” My answer usually is, “Well, do you have a minute? Do you have a minute?” “Yes, I have a minute.”
So, can you set your alarm—instead of for 7 a.m.—for 6:59? And can you gain that minute just to sit quietly, put your hand on your heart, pat it a little bit, breathe there, and acknowledge the longing for something deeper? And if that feels good, maybe the next day you do it for two minutes. Then three. And maybe before you know it, you’ve built a practice of sitting in silence and listening.
Sometimes what you hear when you listen isn’t the soul giving you all these joyful, fancy directions. In fact, what you feel is the opposite. You feel the pain of life choices that are keeping you from living that way. You feel the fear—almost the terror—of, “Oh, my God. I may have to make some choices here.” Let some things go. Walk away from some people, [a] job, [or a] place. “Whoa, I don’t want to listen to the soul. Very dangerous!”
So, I’ve told you two things: One, acknowledging that you have a soul. Two, carving out some time to listen to it. Then the third thing is praying for the courage to follow the soul, and praying to say, “I want to put my soul in charge of my life. It may not give me comfortable directions, but eventually I want to be brave enough to follow it.”
TS: Let’s talk a little bit more about praying, because I know that’s something that is important in your own life and your own [unfolding]. You’ve written about it. I’m curious—for people who think, “Yes, I like this idea of praying, but I just have no idea what I’m praying to and it feels a little forced.” How might you help them?
EL: That’s a wonderful, wonderful question—because for all my talking about prayer, I have to say that I came to it later in life. I started out as a Zen Buddhist, given my upbringing that I talked about previously of a very intellectual family who thought religion was ridiculous. [People who were religious were] sort of like a lower rung on the evolutionary ladder to my parents. So, prayer was some kind of wish-fulfilling fantasy, they thought. You know—praying to big man in the sky.
When I found myself naturally wanting more than the dryness of meditation—some more personal engagement with a sense of a Creator—I had to really learn about it, because I hadn’t ever been schooled in it as a child. I remember once hearing the Catholic monk Brother David Steindl-Rast—he said that, “Prayer is a wide-open eye in the dark.”
So, when I pray, I don’t pray to anyone or thing in particular. But I open my heart fully—even if it feels dark and I feel like there’s no one there, I stay open and awake and don’t shrink back in a sense of aloneness. I feel a sense of connection, even if it’s a mystery.
To me, prayer is connecting to the mystery in a personal way. Those are very awkward words to wrap around a concept. Language doesn’t really work that well with prayer. Prayer is a sense of hopefulness without words, really. It’s an attitude of, “Life is confusing. Please shed light. Please show direction. Please help me get my own confusing mind out of the way so that I may see the truth.”
You don’t have to know who you’re asking that to. But it helps you know that you are not in charge. Prayer is an admission that you are not in charge, and kind of a humorous openness to, “I know someone else is in charge. I may not know who you are, but I’m going to talk to you anyway.”
TS: I want to circle back to this question of longing for a moment before we leave the topic. I’m curious to know—as you put your soul more and more in charge of your life—is it your experience that the longing goes away? “Oh, now my soul’s in charge and I don’t feel longing anymore.” Or do you still feel longing?
EL: No, I think one will always feel longing because the human brain—[and] I think of consciousness of huge and vast and abiding and eternal. It is filtered through our brain almost like radio waves come through a radio. The radio doesn’t make the sound. The radio just receives it. So, our brain receives this vast consciousness and tries to use it to help us live this life.
We will never be able to understand everything that’s going on by our mind and our mental process—but our heart longs to. So, we’re kind of screwed as human beings. We want so much to understand—that’s the longing. We want so much to participate intelligently with this dance of life. We just don’t quite have everything it takes by using our mind.
So, the longing is the heart in communication with the mind, saying, “Just relax. Relax into not knowing and let the soul tell you in other ways.” That’s why I think longing is fuel—if you’re not afraid of it. If you’re not afraid of wanting something you don’t fully understand, it becomes fuel for giving you a vaster perspective. I hope that makes sense.
TS: It does. I think part of what I’m getting at is: Sometimes I’ve met people—spiritual teachers—and they’ll be claiming, at least, to be beyond wanting, needing, or longing. You know—they’ve arrived someplace where there is no further ache. I was curious if you had a view on that.
EL: Well, all I can do is speak for myself. I still ache. I ache for more peace. I ache for more capacity to love, to understand. I ache for the world. I ache for my brothers and sisters suffering. I pray for everyone to awaken and enjoy this gift of life.
I can’t profess to be in a state of equanimity and, “It’s all OK all the time.” So, I don’t know about—and I certainly have met in my work at Omega Institute probably every well-known spiritual teacher and psychological practitioner of our times. [I have] worked with them and helped them and been helped by them. I think maybe one of the biggest gifts I’ve received from being in this very wonderful place of being around the teachers is [that] I don’t think you can be human—no matter how many awakening experiences you have had; no matter how fabulous a teacher you are—I don’t think I’ve met anyone who doesn’t still ache. And I’ve met a lot of people.
The point of spirituality is not to stop aching. The point is to be radically awake in this life and to say yes to everything—even the ache, even the suffering. [It’s] to experience it all knowing that we’re here as humans, in this experience, for a reason, and to stop fighting the mechanisms of being human. Aching is one of the mechanisms.
TS: When you say, Elizabeth, that we’re here for a reason, do tell us: what is the reason?
EL: The reason that we’re here is to experience what it is to be human. So, that may sound like a tricky way of getting out of answering your question, but the only way that you can know what the reason is is to play life by its own rules.
So, if you’re always fighting the way of this life—which seems to include friction, conflict, not getting what you want all the time, and death. Things that we push against and don’t like. If you’re always pushing against it and saying no to it, that keeps you in a state of not being in life’s purpose. I can really only your question, “What is the reason?” [with], “The reason is to experience this gift you were given.”
It’s like you get a gift from your beloved, and he or she says to you, “Here’s a gift I want to give you.” You wouldn’t say to them, “What’s the reason you gave me this gift?” It was given to you because that person loves you and so you could experience the gift.
I go about the answer to your question [with] life was given to me as a gift to be experienced exactly how it is. That’s the reason.
TS: That’s beautiful.
You spoke, Elizabeth, about all of the many spiritual teachers, healers, and psychologists that you’ve met at your time at Omega Institute. I’d love for you to address the listener who is wondering, “I feel called to work with a spiritual teacher of some kind. I know I need a teacher. I’m somewhat lost out here on my own.” What would Elizabeth Lesser’s guide for choosing and working with a spiritual teacher be?
EL: I’ll break it down into a few things. One, you don’t need a teacher. So, do you want a teacher?
Start with, “There [are] no rules here.” There’s no, “Every person must have a teacher in order to integrate spiritual truths into a living practice, to really wake up, and to have a wonderful life of generosity and vast consciousness,” or however else you would describe what you want the end results of your spiritual search to be.
You don’t have to have a teacher. Just because you’ve read books and somebody says they had a teacher or you have this image that only a teacher will help you, you don’t have to have a teacher. Do you want a teacher? That’s the real question that you should ask yourself.
Secondly, if you answer, “Yes, I want a teacher. A teacher is really good. I needed a teacher to help me learn how to read and write, and understand mathematics and science. I want a teacher who’s gone farther ahead than me on this spiritual road.” If you answer yes, please remember that your teacher is a human being. Your teacher is not a perfect person.
There’s a famous saying that, “You teach what you most need to learn, and you usually are your own worst student.” Meaning, sometimes the best spiritual teachers are great teachers because they’ve really screwed up in life a lot of times. So, they’ve fallen, gotten up, and learned. Many spiritual teachers have really wacky lives and continue to have really wacky lives. They’re not perfect, and their words don’t always match their behavior.
So, be really careful not to put people up on pedestals—not to idolize people, because you’re bound for heartbreak and anger.
There are many traditions that feel you must fully give yourself away to the teacher—you must surrender 100 percent to the teacher. I never did that. That is not the kind of person I am. I went with eyes wide open and noticed, “I think this person has brilliant things to say and offer me here, but I think I’ll take this and not take that. And this doesn’t apply to me.”
We don’t want to become zealots and literal readers of texts. I’m always shocked at people who take on an ancient tradition—and some of the rules, regulations, and thoughts have to do with ancient nomadic desert communities that have nothing to do with us today.
So, always remember that these are human beings with lives like ours. They may be brilliant teachers. They may not be perfect people. And start like that, so you can avoid years of having to untangle yourself if you’ve given yourself body, heart, and soul to someone.
TS: Now, you’ve spoken eloquently about the dangers of giving yourself wholly to a singular teacher and tradition. But I wonder: what do you think of the dangers of what we might call “the smorgasbord approach?” This is what many people say about a company like Sounds True or Omega—people get exposed to so many different kinds of things, and yet how do they possibly digest all of these different approaches and commit to something? Isn’t it just a surface-type approach?
EL: Yes. I think there’s definite danger—perhaps not as much danger in the smorgasbord approach as there is in a literal surrender to a way or a teacher. Often, people will use zipping around from tradition to tradition as an excuse [to] not really dive deep and do the hard work.
The spiritual path isn’t all that complicated. Certainly, there are complex spiritual practices—different kinds of meditation techniques, yogic techniques, prayer practices, or studying of text that can be arduous and take a long time. But what everyone is pointing to—all of the religions, all of the holy ones are pointing to actually becoming more and more simple.
Love is a path that all religions point toward. And love requires us to do really hard work of quieting our ego, not always wanting to be right, not wanting something for nothing. Love is about surrendering your sense of entitlement and knowing that every other human being deserves what you deserve. That’s a really, really hard thing to put into practice. Our egos really always want to be primary and right.
So, you can use zipping around between different spiritual traditions as a way of not to do that hard-yet-simple work. I’ve met many, many people over my years at Omega who come and take workshop after workshop. And I’ve not just met them—I’ve been them. I’ve become aware at different times in my life where, “You know what? I’ve already heard this in Buddhism. I’ve already heard this in the yogic tradition. Jesus said this. Mohammed said this. Why do I keep needing to hear one more person say that love is the way and what gets in the way [is] my own needing to be right and get what I want all the time? I know this now. It’s time to put it into practice.”
So, yes. If you find yourself zipping from path to path, you may want to examine, “Am I doing this as a way of just not getting down to business? Or do I really need to learn something new?”
TS: Without a teacher or a tradition to call you on the carpet, if you will—to try to keep you from hiding from yourself—what do you think are mechanisms that someone could put in place to really help them feel confident that their growth is accelerated—that they’re really growing? What could somebody who’s interested in this type of self-generated approach, if you will, [do] to have checks and balances in the system?
EL: Right. I think it actually is very good to study and practice one or two traditions for a long period of time. People sometimes say to me, “I tried to meditate but it was boring.” And meditation actually is boring—that’s the point of meditation. The point of meditation is to sit long enough to hear the craziness of your own mind, and to keep sitting and keep sitting until the craziness begins to calm down and some other, wiser voice bubbles up.
If you’re just all alone and you keep moving from one practice to another, you’re right. You will never make progress, because progress takes steady, hard work.
So, I don’t want to give the impression that it isn’t a good idea to pick a particular practice, let’s say, and to read deeply or to join a church or to join a meditation group. I think that’s all really wonderful.
Also, I would like to say that, [to me], psychotherapy is part of the spiritual practice. Sometimes, people think that meditation or prayer or yoga will bring you magically into a place of peace or the sacred when you’re so wounded from childhood—there’s so many voices in you. Somebody will say, “Listen to your true self,” but that true self has been obscured by veils layered on through childhood wounding, your mother’s voice telling you what to do, your father’s voice, your culture’s voice telling you you’re bad, you’re wrong.
So, therapy in my own life—early on, especially, in my thirties—therapy became part of my spiritual practice. Trying to figure out, “What’s my voice? Who am I?” When I learned to distinguish between “mama” and “father” and “culture.”
I think it’s very important to be disciplined with different practices. Find a teacher or not. Go on long retreats. Join a group in your area. All of this is really, really good.
But, eventually, you are your own best teacher and you know best who you are and what is going to work for you. You will know when you’re making progress—especially if you figure out what [progress] would look like to [you.] You know—you hear someone as astute and experienced as the Dalai Lama say, “My religion is happiness. My religion is kindness.” And you read Jesus and the Beatitudes talking about the simple goal of love and kindness. The same thing from the Koran or the Hindu scriptures. If you really boil it down, the purpose of spirituality is not all that complicated. It’s to be loving, to be calm, to be generous, to be fearless.
You can ask yourself every day, “Am I being more loving to my husband, to my wife, to my children? Do I have less fear when I wake up in the morning? Is my anxiety ruling my life, or is more of a sense of hopeful appreciation and gratitude?” These aren’t radical concepts. You don’t need a PhD or a ministerial degree to answer those questions yourself. If love is my goal and kindness is my goal and fearlessness is my goal, am I getting there? You can check in every day with yourself. Nobody else can tell you better than you can.
TS: It’s interesting that you brought up fearlessness. That’s one of the things that I was hoping we would get a chance to talk about. Tell me: what do you do now in your life when you feel fear?
EL: I do the same thing that I’ve done forever—and that’s a way of admitting to you that fear still arises in my life.
First of all, I notice that it is there. Sometimes, fear has a way of masking itself. It may actually feel like a physical symptom. I may notice that my heartbeat is accelerated or there is a knot in my stomach.
And so, I’ll find that place in my body, put my hand on it, and breathe into it. Then, maybe I’ll pat myself the same way you would the top of your dog’s head or your baby. You’re like, “It’s OK. It’s OK.” I rub it, just so the physicality of it can begin to soften some, because fear really gathers in the body. You may not even know you’re afraid—you just may feel it as tension in the body.
So, starting with the body, I’ll bring a sense of relaxation and acknowledgment. The worst thing to do for fear is to berate yourself for being afraid. That just makes fear worse. Just like you would tell a child, “It’s OK to be scared, honey. It’s hard being human. It’s scary. It’s really scary. So, it’s OK.”
To me, that’s the first step in any of our problems—not pretending you don’t have them. Not thinking that there’s something inherently wrong with you. Not thinking, “Oh my God. I can’t let anyone know I still get afraid. I’m supposed to be this spiritual person! No—I’m fine!”
That’s the very worst way to deal with any problem. The best way is, first of all, to name it. Fear. “Wow, I have a lot of fear. I’m about to go—” And I’m talking about myself for real, right now. I’m about to go on a trip overseas. I have been acting all weird the past few days. And just this morning, I had to sit myself down and go, “What’s going on? Why do I have this sort of fluttering in my stomach? Oh, yes. I always get this way before a long plane ride—leaving the people I love behind.”
So, I just breathe into it. Name it. Don’t feel ashamed that I have it. Shame on top of fear is like the worst toxic brew there is. [At] least get the shame out of the way. Now, all I am is just scared.
Then, what I do is spend some time just quietly breathing, realizing I am so much more than this body. I am so much more than this person called “Mother,” this person called “Boss” at work,” this person called “Author.” I’m a soul. I’m a soul on an eternal journey. Oh, yes. Wow. That’s who I am. Nothing can really harm me. I am consciousness. I am soul.
That usually takes a little while, and then I go forth—until I have to do it again.
TS: It’s interesting, Elizabeth, that you were talking about some of the signs of progress, if you will, on the spiritual path. Are we more kind, more loving in our lives? You wrote an article that I found online [that] I thought was really quite brilliant, “Ten Signs of Progress on the Spiritual Path.” There are actually a couple of these signs of progress that I wanted to talk with you about. One of them is you talk about combining love and loneliness. I don’t know if you remember this article that you wrote on these ten signs of progress.
What [might] you have meant by “combining love and loneliness?” You wrote, “We become more and more comfortable with the great paradox of belonging and being alone.”
EL: I think I wrote that a long time ago, but I like it and I stand by it. [Laughs.]
Loneliness. Aloneness. We have mixed up—especially now, with so much happening. I mean, there are so many opportunities every single minute now not to be alone with your own heart and your own soul, and to constantly connect. In a somewhat anxious way, not to be alone. The power and the beauty and the necessity of being comfortable with being alone and silent—almost like being a sovereign nation. There’s a dignity to being alone. There’s a dignity to knowing who you are without your connection to anything or anyone that gives you enormous integrity and strength.
And guess what? From that place of true aloneness, you can [then] really relate to other people. The more at home you are with your own aloneness, the less needy you are, the less demanding, and the more that you can recognize in other people their sovereignty, their dignity. And it is such a beautiful thing when two dignified souls meet and are together without obsessive need or codependence. It is truly the meeting of souls. That is a safe and holy kind of relationship.
It’s really what we all want. [It’s] what happens when you spend time with yourself and are not afraid of the great aloneness.
TS: Then, another one of these signs of progress that you wrote about was, “Discovering that the ordinary is extraordinary.”
EL: That’s—really, I would have to say—one of my very favorite teachings that abides with me all the time. Often, as spiritual seekers, we look for miracles to prove that there is such a thing as the soul and God and the sacred. Miracles being [defined as] connecting with the dead or things happening for no apparent reason—things that defy the laws of nature.
[But] the laws of nature themselves are a fricking miracle! So, to shift the way we view life itself—to go out into the world and to look at a tree or an animal or a building—as a truly magnificent coming-together of elements, energy, and molecules, spinning really fast but appearing as form. Everything around us—the most ordinary thing—is extraordinary. The word “extraordinary” comes from the root words “extra” and “ordinary,” meaning that—I mean, really, if you’re sitting a chair right now and you think, “I’m sitting on a solid thing called a chair.” [If] you had a microscope and you looked at the chair, what it really is is these dancing particles moving around, coming together through the force of gravity and a moment in time to be called “chair.”
To me, that’s a miracle. That is extraordinary. We are extraordinary beings. We are here for a moment at the same time—you and me, Tami. We know each other for all these reasons that we can barely wrap our heads around.
So, if we’re awake to reality, I really think we’d all walk around with our mouths wide open—sort of like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this! I can’t believe we’re all here. I can’t believe we’re alive. What a miracle!” That’s a good way to live life. A better way to live life than complaining or bemoaning or envying other people, which is a big waste of time.
TS: You talked, Elizabeth, about the value of psychotherapy in your own life—particularly earlier in your life. I found this statement in something you wrote online. This is the thing—when you write these things online, they stay for a long time. “Psychotherapy could be considered a new spiritual tradition.”
I really liked that, because often people talk about, “my spiritual path,” and then, “the work I’m doing psychologically.” And maybe they complement each other or work together. But just stating it: psychotherapy as a new spiritual tradition. So, I’m wondering if you could comment on that.
EL: Yes. Well, traditions all begin somewhere. We may think of ancient traditions as [having] been here forever. You know—certain texts or ways of praying, or yoga. Asanas. We may think, “Well, because they’re old, they’ve been here forever.”
But they haven’t. They were actually made up by really smart people many, many years ago. Somebody was feeling tired and cut off from that sense of communion with the sacred that I was just talking about—the ordinary magic of everyday life. And they thought, “Well, wow, if I do this kind of body posture and it opens my shoulders and exposes my chest—wow, I feel connected suddenly.”
That was several thousand years ago, and it became a yoga pose. Now, we think it was just there all the time. Well, no—every single thing that has helped a human being spiritually, medically, whatever—we’ve been experimenting with things from the beginning of time.
So, psychotherapy is a relatively new way of awakening to joy, awakening to peace, and to living a generous, contributive life. It’s about a hundred years old, if you think about going back to Freud, and before Freud. It’s new, and probably in 700 years, people will forget somebody made it up. It will be an accepted part of how you live a sacred life.
But for us, now—at the relative dawning of the psychotherapeutic age—we think of it as a good adjunct to spirituality. But I don’t think of it like that. I think that we are born with a vibrant, vibrating soul-print, path, purpose. We’re infants and we’re learning how to use our brain and our bodies. We have these parents, and no parents are perfect and no culture is perfect. By the time we reach adulthood, a lot of that original joy, vibrancy, aliveness, and connectivity to the sacred has been veiled over—layer upon layer upon layer of wounding and childhood expectations from parents.
Let’s say you’re born spiritual and you’re in an intellectual family. Or you’re born wanting to be a scientist, but you’re in a religious family. Or you’re born gay and you’re in a family that doesn’t respect that. Whatever the wounding is—or you’re really wounded. Perhaps you’re sexually molested as a child. Or you’re from a war-torn country and the trauma makes you untrusting and angry. All of these wounds cover the spark.
You asked me earlier in the interview, “How do you put your soul in charge of your life?” Well, sometimes it takes unraveling the stories we learn as children about ourselves to recover the soul. The soul is covered. We have to uncover and let it shine forth. Psychotherapy is a brilliant way of doing that.
Everything can be used to excess, so we can become psychotherapy junkies and never just live. We’re just always examining our life.
But done with intelligence, restraint, and a really great therapist—or several of them—over time, what happens is you become comfortable in your own skin. You learn how to decipher whose story [it is]. “Oh, that’s what my father said! I don’t have to live by it.”
Slowly, your soul begins to come forth and reveal herself or reveal himself. And then you are free. So, psychotherapy frees your soul from the shackles of wounding, trauma, and just everyday muddying. Therefore, it is a spiritual path.
TS: Now, I want to ask you a question about this, because this is something that I’ve been dreaming on for a while. And I’d love to hear what you have to say, as someone who I think of as someone who cares about social architecture, as well as caring about the individual journey.
Which is: Here’s psychotherapy, and let’s go along with what you’re saying—that it’s a legitimate spiritual tradition in its own right. And yet, it’s so costly! So, it’s only available for a certain part of the population to take advantage of its benefits. Especially, often, the best therapists. They’re expensive.
What can we do so that psychotherapy could become more widely available for people?
EL: I think that’s happening more and more. And that’s a great observation.
So, I have a lot of thoughts about that. One is: counseling, now, is being offered in many different ways. Many, many churches now actually have a counseling aspect to their work. I know people whose marriages have been falling apart and they’ve gotten really brilliant help through the counseling side of their religious organization. I know wonderful therapists who work for Social Services in counties and cities. And I know people who are doing therapy in jails and with children who are very unable to afford it.
It is becoming more and more available—and especially as it is accepted more as a valid, necessary part of the unraveling of the painful stories we tell ourselves so that your spiritual self can shine forth—as it becomes more and more understood to be valid.
Really, I’ve wondered so much about how you can brag to someone, “Yes, I work out at a gym three days a week.” But you wouldn’t say, “I go to therapy twice a week.” That would be somewhat shameful. You can learn how to get your body healthy, but to get your psyche healthy still isn’t really accepted.
As it becomes more and more accepted—and often, it’s actually the elite who start a tradition, and then it filters in to the whole culture and becomes part and parcel of social work, religious institutions, [and] education. I mean, people wouldn’t need as much therapy if—I often think, “Children in school are taught everything from the ‘Three Rs’ to physical education, gym, music. But what if kids were taught how to handle their emotions, how to be in relationship?”
As the psyche becomes understood to be a vital part of who we are and not some sort of thing to wipe under the rug, I think it will become more and more available to everyone. It’ll just become part of a normal person’s education and healing—covered by insurance, covered by education.
TS: OK, Elizabeth, I want to ask you, I think, what’s kind of a strange question. Which is: I think of you—and listening to you in this hour-long conversation together—as a wise person. You sound like a really wise person to me. You’re offering our listeners so much wisdom.
I’m curious—do you feel like that wisdom has come at any cost? And if so, what would that cost be?
EL: Everything wonderful comes at a cost. So, stop me in the middle if I haven’t understood your question correctly, Tami. OK?
Most of my deepest learnings have been done through the crucible of really painful situations. I wrote a whole book about it, called Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. I told you the whole title just because it’s kind of the answer to the question. The difficult times in my life—the losses, the chains, the painful situations, my marriage falling apart, being a single mom, having a stepson later on . . . I’m just rattling off the difficult things. My mother dying. My father dying. Getting sick. Getting better. All of the things that we go through—I’ve been lucky. I mean, the things I just mentioned are nothing compared to what a lot of people go through.
But those have been the crucibles, the fires—the “Phoenix Process” is what I call it in Broken Open. The fire out of which my wisdom emerged.
I kind of got early on—when bad things started happening, as they do to all of us—”OK. I can either go back to sleep and try really hard not to have bad things happen, and live a kind of safer and more protective life. Just go through the paces. And then maybe the bad things won’t happen as much.” Or I can really just step into this fire and say, “What have you come here to teach me? I want to grow more than I want to be safe. I want to be wise and happy and whole, so that I can help other people and be a source of goodness in this world—if at all possible—more than I want to be safe.”
I guess I would say that the cost has been safety. And the cost has been ease. But, oddly enough, the reward has been real ease. Not always. Certainly, I’m not pretending that, “If you do X, then you will always be happy and easeful.” But more so.
Actually falling down still? Yes, but getting up getting up quicker, and having more of a sense of humor about it all, and a sense of joy and freedom.
But it’s come at the cost of saying, “I want to be awake more than I want to be safe.”
TS: That’s a beautiful answer, and I’d love to know more. If you could give me an example of, “I want to grow more than I want to be safe,”—how that has actually played out in your life.
EL: Well, the first time it really played out was when I was married for the first time. We were both so unhappy, so uptight, so young, and so not living up to our potential—wrapped around each other in a kind of negative way. But on the outside, it was all really good. You know—like, let’s say, financially. Or having just created a life that, on the outside, was working OK.
[I was] saying to myself, “I want to be unfettered and free in my consciousness. I don’t want to live a certain way because I’m supposed to. Or because, by telling the truth, I may hurt someone else.” So, it took courage on both of our parts to say what was so for both of us and to dismantle a life together. The safe thing would have been to stay together.
Sometimes, the safe thing is to get divorced. I’m not saying people who stay married are not living in truth. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying that that was the first time I chose what my soul longed for over what the culture, my mother, and my father were telling me I should do.
I’ve made choices at work many times to not continue working in a certain way, even if the money would be better [and] even if I knew what I was doing. When I decided that I really wanted to write, I let go of a financial safety net, power, and influence because it was just what I wanted to do. And I knew that that was what I felt my purpose was at that moment.
So, those are two examples.
TS: Finally, Elizabeth, our program’s called Insights at the Edge. And I always love to know what someone’s current “edge” is in their life. That could be anything, but more about your internal growth process than what it looks like from the outside. What’s your edge?
EL: My edge these days is really walking my talk about love. Really trying—with all my heart—to first of all pray to know, “What is love?” What is love, really? Because it’s not a saccharine, Hallmark card, always-be-nice kind of thing. Like: what is the loving thing to do now? What is the most loving thing I could do?
I had an experience this year where I was the donor for my sister’s bone marrow transplant. In order to prepare for it, she and I decided that we would go back through our childhood relationship up to present and really try to clear anything that would stand in the way of her accepting my cells. So, we worked a lot on really falling in love with each other past the stories we had told and believed through childhood.
And it’s been such an edgy experience. It’s been a real edge for me to get naked and vulnerable with my sister so that she might live.
What it’s shown me is, “Wow! There are so many conversations waiting to be had that I’m afraid to have with people.” I don’t have to wait for them to get cancer and need a bone marrow transplant. I want to have real conversations with the people in my life so that we might come into more love together.
For some people, that wouldn’t be a good idea to do. But actually, [for] more people than you think it would be a good idea. And I’ve been trying to do that. I have been trying to not wait and have edgy conversations.
I just had one with my husband about two hours ago. It was amazing. We’ve been married for 26 years, I think, and we just had a very edgy conversation that we’d never had before—and it was fantastic and scary and so much better than not having it.
So, that’s my edge.
TS: That inspires me. Thank you.
I’ve been talking with Elizabeth Lesser. With Sounds True, Elizabeth has created an audio program called The Seeker’s Guide, which is a complement to her book of the same title. Elizabeth, thank you so much for being with us!
EL: Thank you, Tami. And thank you for walking the edge for years. You are an edgy, fabulous person. I love you.
TS: Thank you so much.
SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.