Marrying Social Activism and Spiritual Seeking
Elizabeth Lesser is the cofounder of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, NY, one of the nation’s first and most prominent centers for holistic learning. Inspired by the teachings of Sufi master Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, Omega was founded on the worldview that the well-being of each individual is deeply connected to the well-being of all living things. Lesser has spent more than 30 years studying and working with leading figures in the fields of emotional intelligence, psychology, arts, and healing, both of the self and of society.
Lesser is also the New York Times best-selling author of The Seeker’s Guide and Broken Open, and she is a frequent speaker at conferences worldwide. She worked with Oprah Winfrey to produce the 10-week webinar for Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth, which has been viewed by 35 million people.
Eve Fox: It’s been 38 years since you co-founded the Omega Institute. What was it like back in 1977?
Elizabeth Lesser: We started Omega during a time of huge cultural shifts. We were leaving the post-World War II era, when life in America had been very clear cut—when people’s expectations of what it meant to be a child, a teenager, an adult, a man, a woman, were all fairly straightforward and largely pre-determined. But the generation that came of age in the 1960s busted that all up. Young people began to ask, “Do these traditions still work for me?” In my parents’ generation, young people didn’t get to ask questions like “Who am I?”, “What do I want to do?”, “What most expresses my soul (or whatever you want to call it)?” People’s lives were defined more by what their parents did, where they grew up, what their religion was. And there wasn’t yet our modern social diaspora where family members move all over the country. Then the ‘60s ushered in this time of the Individual—it really became a lot more about “Who am I?”, “What is my purpose here?”, and a sense of longing for the freedom to express that. And that took root in young people—the music of that time was a really important vehicle for expressing those ideas.
Several other big movements rose up, one of them being the women’s movement. Women were suddenly saying, “I don’t know if I want to follow this road that’s been paved for me—graduate from high school, maybe go to college, but leave as soon as I find a husband and raise kids. End of story.”
When I entered Barnard College in 1970, it was the height of the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been murdered, the Civil Rights Movement was becoming more radicalized, and feminism was really taking hold. At 18 years old, I found myself in New York City submerged in the world of student protests. But at the same time, I had an even stronger pull towards another movement that was just beginning to happen as the gurus from the East began washing up on the shores of America. I’d had a yearning for some kind of spiritual life ever since I can remember, even as a young child. My parents were atheists; I had no religious training. In fact, in my family, religion was synonymous with a lack of intelligence. But I was strongly compelled to check it out. So I had two very strong aspects of myself—a political/social justice self and a spiritual self. That was what brought me to the spiritual search.
EF: How did you get introduced to the world of Eastern spirituality?
EL: There were little spiritual bookshops cropping up around the Village. My boyfriend (later my husband), Stephan introduced me to Zen Buddhism, and we starting going to sit at the zendo. Then I saw a poster at Columbia for something called “Sufi dancing.” Sufism is the mystical dimension of Islam, and one aspect of it is that it honors all religions—they call it the “unity of religious ideals.” Some American Sufi teachers had taken that worldview and created this new kind of folk dancing using chants from different religions. And I just found the whole thing to be exactly what I’d been looking for! I couldn’t believe it. It was like my romanticized version of religion after not having grown up with any religion at all. The teacher was Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan—his father had been an Indian Sufi saint and his mother was American, but he was raised in Paris and went to Oxford and fought in WWII for the Allies. He was a very cultured, European, brilliant, scholarly man. Not your typical guru at all. When he came to the States, the kind of young people he attracted were all highly educated people who were really serious about study. It wasn’t a cop out—a lot of gurus were like “drop out of life, become a yogi”—he was very engaged with the world. And he was the one who had the idea to start Omega.
Pir Vilayat’s idea of education was holistic (hence Omega Institute for Holistic Studies). That’s why Omega’s curriculum from the beginning has included arts, science, spirituality, medicine, psychology, and working for the social good. Rather than focusing solely on the individual, it’s rooted in the reality that we live in a community.
EF: Before you and Stephan founded Omega, you were part of a Sufi commune in New Lebanon, NY. Tell me about your experience at The Abode of the Message.
EL: Pir Vilayat had students all over the country. At the time, we were living in northern California with him, and he felt that living together would be an enormous way of learning about everything. The sociology of people living in groups is, well, I would say that I learned more about politics and conflict negotiation and human instincts by living communally than most people ever get a chance to learn. When you throw roughly 200 people together, raising their kids, starting businesses, trying to navigate how to live together and make choices, it is so difficult, there is so much room for conflict. I gained a tremendous respect for leaders and governments, for how hard it is, for how much compromise is required, and how few people are willing and able to compromise and see things from another person’s perspective. There was a lot of daily conflict. I was in my twenties and trying to raise my babies. It was a great lesson for me in how hard it is to lead and live together. I lived there for six years (laughs) because I was insane. I would never trade the experience for anything, but I would never do it again.
EF: What sorts of things did people clash over?
EL: Conflicts could be as big as “Can each member of the commune have their own car?” because we were trying to be sustainable to “How much cheese is each child allowed to eat each day?” to “Who gets to have a pet?” to “Should anyone be allowed to have a pet?” To make matters worse, we tried to solve everything by consensus—bad system! My liberal ideals were tested, and I actually became more conservative in my thinking as a result. I learned that hierarchy is necessary, or you end up mired in process all the time. One of Pir Vilayat’s sayings was “shatter your ideals on the rock of truth.” The truth I learned living in community was that compromise is needed at every turn.
EF: Did the Abode disband?
EL: No, it’s still there, although it’s much, much smaller now. Financially, it’s been very difficult for them to sustain it. I haven’t been there in quite a while—I’m actually going there this summer for a reunion. In its heyday, in the mid 1970s, it was about 200 people. We had businesses, a huge farm, and a school. We had a midwifery team and delivered babies on the commune and all around. And then Omega was born there in 1977.
EF: What did those early days of Omega look like?
EL: At first it was just a couple of weeks in the summer. The idea was that all these fascinating people were coming through the commune. A dervish from Turkey would come through and teach us how to whirl, or a scientist from London would come and teach us how to read the night sky. There were dance teachers, musicians, experts on healthful eating, and more. We had the idea that not everyone was going to want to live communally, but that these were subjects the culture was hungry for. At that point, you couldn’t go to a university and take African dance or Indian singing. Things like natural foods, yoga, meditation, cross-cultural arts, ecumenical spiritual practice, the intersection of science and spirit—these were all brand new concepts in American society. We were experimenting with these things on the commune and decided to start a school where people who didn’t want to live like this could just come and have the experience of it, without having to haggle over how much cheese their kids got to eat. The first year, we held the classes at the Abode, but then we rented prep schools and Bennington College and we eventually bought our own place.
EF: How many people came?
EL: From the very first time we announced it in a Xeroxed pamphlet, we were overwhelmed by the response. We weren’t ready for it and didn’t know how to do it—we were just a bunch of hippies living on a commune, no one had been to hospitality school! But we never stopped growing.
EF: Were the participants all young hippies?
EL: In the beginning it was mostly young people like ourselves, which was good, because we had to do it all on an extremely tight budget and everyone was happy to come live in a tent. And the teachers, many of whom now command \$50,000 for a one-hour lecture, came for free or for very little honorarium because they were just so happy that someone wanted to listen to what they had to say. So we could charge very little. But as the interest in these subjects grew, we needed our own home. That’s when we went looking for the campus.
EL: Well, yes and no. We believed so deeply in what we were doing—to expand what it meant to be a human by expanding your consciousness and becoming physically healthy—and we wanted the world to benefit from it. So we were mission-driven. But if you were to say, did we expect that 35 years later, 35,000 people a year would come to a huge campus? No, I didn’t have that in my mind.
But we believed in it so much that we just worked really hard. It’s all we did. We made no money at all for a long time. We were all volunteers and we ran it on a shoestring. From year to year, we didn’t know if we’d be able to keep going. It took us about 10 years to establish it to the point where it began to make some money and feel like it was definitely going to be there the following year!
I often think of Omega as something that existed outside of our imagination and we just kind of hooked on to it and it took us for this ride. And that’s not to diminish the hard work and foresight of those of us who created the business model and the curriculum and campus experience. But it was the right time and the right place. By the time the culture caught up to us, we had really honed some skills around how to offer educational experiences around these subjects.
EF: What prompted you to create the first of the remarkably successful Women and Power conferences in 2002?
EL: I had always done things for women at Omega. From the very beginning there were courses specifically about women’s health and spirituality. I had no intention of starting a big conference series that would turn into a women’s leadership center. I had conceived of and produced many, many conferences on lots of subjects, and I just thought I was doing one conference.
I had the idea to organize a conference around a question that seemed to make people uncomfortable: What happens when we put the words “women” and “power” together? I like creating conferences around uncomfortable subjects and asking “why does this make us uncomfortable?” So I invited Anita Hill—certainly someone who had taken an uncomfortable risk in the realm of power—and a woman whose play, The Vagina Monologues, I had seen, but never met named Eve Ensler, and Gloria Steinem and several others to come and explore —how does it make us feel and how does it make the world feel to put “women” and “power” together? Besides being a fabulous conference, it attracted hundreds of people, and they were clamoring for more.So we did another one and it just took off. It was before a lot of the “lean in” culture had begun. It was really just the beginning of this question of women claiming power and saying, “It’s not only that we want to be powerful, we actually want to change what it means to be powerful,” and asking, “Can power not be synonymous with domination and aggression—can we claim power for ourselves?”
And in doing so, for me, personally, what happened were that those two streams I was talking about earlier—being a social justice activist and a spiritual seeker—they came together for the first time in a conscious way. It was the first time that my spiritual self could find a way to marry my activist self.