Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser



And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud
was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
—Anaïs Nin

Some years ago, I took a trip to the city of Jerusalem, where centuries are layered in stones, and streets are carved into the layers, twisting and turning in haphazard patterns that divide and connect neighborhoods, markets, mosques, temples, and churches. One morning in that broken city, I sat alone on a well-worn wall at the base of the Mount of Olives. The day was moving forward with the kind of determination that comes from people with places to go and things to do. Religious pilgrims pushed past each other into the gates of the holy city. Men and women made their way to work and market; children ran past them to school. But I had nowhere to go.

The group I was traveling with in Jerusalem had risen early for the day’s planned itinerary. I’d stayed behind. I could no longer keep up the charade that I was part of their adventure: I wasn’t here to visit sacred sites, or to walk the Stations of the Cross, wail at the Western Wall, or chant the Ninety-nine Names of Allah. No, I was here to further delay making a decision about my life at home. I had come to Jerusalem only because my friend, who was leading the trip, was worried enough about me to pay my fare—which worried me enough to fly halfway around the world to a city as mixed up as myself. Now I was here, but really I was still back there, at home in New York, scared and confused about my crumbling marriage.

Wandering deeper into the walled Old City, I came to an ancient alleyway lined with shops selling religious artifacts for the Western pilgrim. Normally I would veer away from these kinds of stores. Inspirational sayings stitched in needlepoint or Virgin Mary coffee mugs seemed no different to me than those velvet Elvis paintings you see at flea markets. But I needed help. I needed inspiration—even from a coffee cup, or an embroidered pillow, or from Elvis himself.

One narrow, dusky shop appealed to me, and I went in. On the floor was a patchwork of Persian rugs. On the walls hung small paintings, some of saints and prophets, others of mountains and flowers. Was this a gallery? A rug store? A gift shop? I couldn’t tell. In the back of the long room, drinking tea at a low table, sat two Arab men dressed in white caftans. One was a stooped and aged gentleman, and the other—his son perhaps—was a mysterious-looking character with gleaming eyes and long, black hair like the mane of a well-groomed horse. After a while the son put down his tea and came forward to greet me. Fixing his gaze on me, as if trying to read the secrets of my heart (or the contents of my purse), he said in perfect English, “Come, you will like this picture.” Taking my hand, he led me around piles of rugs to the back of the store, near where his father was sitting.

The old man stood and shuffled over to meet me. He placed his right hand on his heart and bowed his head in the traditional Islamic greeting. “Look,” he said, pointing at a small painting hanging on the wall. He touched my arm with the kindness of a grandfather. “See the rose?” he asked, turning me toward the picture. There, framed in dark wood, was the ethereal image of a rosebud, with shimmering, pale petals holding one another in a tight embrace. Under the flower was an inscription that read:

And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

Unexpected tears stung my eyes as I read the words. The two men hovered around me, more like bodyguards than salesmen. I turned away from them, hiding my face in the shadows. I was afraid that if the old man showed me one more ounce of mercy I would break down in a stranger’s store, thousands of miles from home.

“What is wrong?” the long-haired man asked.

“Nothing is wrong,” I said. “I’m fine.”

“No, something is wrong,” the man said. “You are in pain.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, suspicious yet curious. Was he a con man, trying to sell me the painting, or was my heartache that palpable, my story so easily read? I felt exposed, as if the long-haired man was a spy of the soul who knew all about my marriage, my two little boys, and the crazy mess my husband and I had made of our life together.

“What do you mean?” I asked again. I looked at the men. They stared back at me. We stood in silence, and then the long-haired man repeated, “You are in pain. Do you know why?”

“No, why?” I asked, even though I certainly did know why.

“Because you are afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

“Afraid of yourself,” the man said, placing his hand on his chest and patting his heart. “You are afraid to feel your real feelings. You are afraid to want what you really want. What do you want?”

“You mean the painting? You think I want the painting?” I asked, suddenly confused and desperate to get away from the smell of the rugs and the intensity of the man. “I don’t want the painting,” I said, making my way toward the door. The man followed me to the front of the shop. He stood directly in front of me, took my own hand, and put it over my heart.

“I don’t mean the painting,” he said kindly. “I mean what the painting says. I mean that your heart is like the flower. Let it break open. What you want is waiting for you in your own heart. The time has come. May Allah bless you.” Then he slipped back into the darkness. I pulled open the door, stepped out into the bright and bustling day, and wound my way through the circling streets to my hotel. Once in my room, though it was noon and ninety degrees, I ran a bath.

As I rested in the tub, the words under the painting echoed through my mind. Somehow, the long-haired man had seen into me and named the source of my pain. I was like the rosebud, holding myself together, tight and tense, terrified of breaking open. But the time had come. Even if I was risking everything to blossom, the man was right: It was time for me to find out what I really wanted—not what my husband wanted, not what I thought my children needed, not what my parents expected, not what society said was good or bad. It was time for me to step boldly into the fullness of life, with all of its dangers and all of its promises. Remaining tight in a bud had become a kind of death. The time had come to blossom.


How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change. And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be. This book is about such times. It is a collection of stories about change and transformation in my own life, and in the lives of my friends and family, and the brave people I have met in the workshops I lead. I share these personal tales because I know that the arc of one triumphant human story traces the potential of each of our lives. There is a story in this book that can inspire and strengthen you, wherever you may be on your journey.

You may be at the beginning of a transition, feeling only a vague mood of restlessness or a nagging nudge in the direction of something new. Or maybe you are in a full-blown period of change; what you thought was your life is now over, and where you are heading is unknown. Perhaps you are coming out of the woods of a difficult time, finally able to take a breath and make sense of the journey. Or maybe you have become aware once again of the obvious yet startling fact that nothing stays the same for long; that things like the body, relationships, children, work, towns, nations, and the very earth that sustains us are fluid and fleeting—dynamic systems fueled by the breath of change.

For more than twenty-five years I have led workshops based on the subject of change and transformation. I have watched people choose growth over fear as they navigated some of life’s most difficult transitions. I have seen how it is possible to approach the challenges of real life with openness and optimism— even with wisdom and joy. I have engaged in this work at Omega Institute, the retreat and conference center I cofounded in 1977. Over the years Omega has grown into one of America’s largest adult learning centers, attracting close to 20,000 guests each year. Many people come to Omega’s campus to study the medical and healing arts. Others attend spiritual retreats and personal growth workshops. All of them come to be around like-minded people. I often compare Omega to an oasis—a gathering place where travelers rest, learn, and tell their stories.

As a voyeur of the human experience, I have been well served by my years at Omega. It is a place rich in stories, a place where people can put down the burden of pretense and share what it really means to be human. The stories in this book are about ordinary people who, by design or disaster, decided to step boldly into the fullness of their humanity. They are tales of overcoming fear and taking risks, of hard times and difficult passages, and of buds breaking open into blossoms.

When I started writing the book, I thought I might be able to dance lightly around my own story, sharing a few personal vignettes, especially the ones about blossoming—the ones that came after the hard times and difficult passages. I thought I would write primarily about other people’s dark nights of the soul, or about the ancient heroes who navigated dangerous seas or pulled a sword from the stone. But the book had other ideas. As I explored the subject of change and transformation, I was most inspired by those who were brave enough to tell the whole truth about their journeys. When people left out the dark and bewildering and shameful parts, I lost interest, and even worse, I was led astray.

And so, after more than a year of research and interviews, I took the old myths and current stories I had collected, put them aside for the time being, and got on with the harder work of telling my own story. I soon discovered that the parts I least wanted to tell—the selfish parts, the parts where my actions hurt others, the parts where I stumbled and fell—were the very tales worth telling. It was only through turning around and facing my shadow that I was able to break open into a more genuine and generous life. Therefore the story that weaves its way through the pages of this book is one of both darkness and light, dejection and rejoicing. Since I tell my story in a chronologically disobedient style, a concise overview of the “full catastrophe” (as Zorba the Greek defines a life) may serve the reader before we begin.

I was born in the 1950s, a child of an American age when the darker parts of the human story were unpopular—a time when science promised a troublefree life and television promoted a vision of suburban perfection. I grew up in one of those “perfect” suburbs on Long Island, with only a vague and childish awareness of the shadowy woods at the edge of the weed-free lawns. At school we jumped rope on the playground but also hid under our desks during nuclear bomb drills. At home the covers of my mother’s magazines showed flower arrangements and Thanksgiving Day dinners. Yet every now and then I also noticed photos of a little country called Vietnam, and of black people marching in the streets of American cities. The veneer of perfection became thinner and thinner as I left childhood and entered adolescence.

When the Beatles first crossed the Atlantic Ocean, I was waiting for them. After that, as other cultural changes dominated the sixties and seventies, I joined every revolution I could—the Woodstock nation, the antiwar demonstrations, the women’s movement, and the hippie exodus back to the land. I met my first husband while building a park for homeless people in an abandoned New York City lot. I was a freshman in college, and he was a medical student. We moved in together just as the spirit of the sixties (by then it was the seventies) was losing its momentum.

We left the city, became disciples of a meditation teacher, moved to California, and then, a few years later—after he had finished his internship and I had received a teaching degree—moved back East to form a spiritual commune. We got married. I studied to become a midwife and with my husband delivered babies in our area. I had my own babies. Our little family left the commune; we bought our own home; we started a school that grew into Omega Institute. Life became complicated. Issues I never thought I would face—of love and betrayal, passion and responsibility, loss and doubt— sprouted in the hidden places of my heart and led me into the dark woods of real life. It is those stories—the ones about the journey in and out of the woods—that I tell in this book.

To be human is to be lost in the woods. None of us arrives here with clear directions on how to get from point A to point B without stumbling into the forest of confusion or catastrophe or wrongdoing. Although they are dark and dangerous, it is in the woods that we discover our strengths. We all know people who say their cancer or divorce or bankruptcy was the greatest gift of a lifetime—that until the body, or the heart, or the bank was broken, they didn’t know who they were, what they felt, or what they wanted. Before their descent into the darkness, they took more than they gave, or they were numb, or full of fear or blame or self-pity. In their most broken moments they were brought to their knees; they were humbled; they were opened. And later, as they pulled the pieces back together, they discovered a clearer sense of purpose and a new passion for life. But we also know people who did not turn their misfortune into insight, or their grief into joy. Instead, they became more bitter, more reactive, more cynical. They shut down. They went back to sleep. The Persian poet Rumi says,


The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.

Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill

where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.

Don’t go back to sleep.

I am fascinated by what it takes to stay awake in difficult times. I marvel at what we all do in times of transition—how we resist, and how we surrender; how we stay stuck, and how we grow. Since my first major broken-open experience—my divorce—I have been an observer and a confidante of others as they engage with the forces of their own suffering. I have made note of how fiasco and failure visit each one of us, as if they were written into the job description of being human. I have seen people crumble in times of trouble, lose their spirit, and never fully recover. I have seen others protect themselves fiercely from any kind of change, until they are living a half life, safe yet stunted.

But I have also seen another way to deal with a fearful change or a painful loss. I call this other way the Phoenix Process—named for the mythical phoenix bird who remains awake through the fires of change, rises from the ashes of death, and is reborn into his most vibrant and enlightened self. I describe the Phoenix Process in Part Two of the book. For now, we need only understand it as an alternative to going back to sleep.

I’ve tried both ways: I have gone back to sleep in order to resist the forces of change. And I have stayed awake and been broken open. Both ways are difficult, but one way brings with it the gift of a lifetime. If we can stay awake when our lives are changing, secrets will be revealed to us—secrets about ourselves, about the nature of life, and about the eternal source of happiness and peace that is always available, always renewable, already within us.

For years I have sat in workshop rooms with people who do not want to go back to sleep. They are curious about those breezes at dawn. They hope the wind will fill their sails with courage, and with inner peace and outer purpose. Serious things, and not so serious things, are happening to these people. Some

are sick and even dying; others are merely dealing with the terminal condition we call life. Some sense that an inner change is brewing, and they have been afraid to heed the storm clouds gathering in their hearts. Some have recently lost a job, or a loved one, or a fortune. Others are aware that whatever they have at this moment could be lost in the next, and they want to live as if they really know this.

In the spacious and safe atmosphere of a workshop, I have helped people grapple with questions like these: How can I stay awake even when it hurts? What might those secrets at dawn be? Why am I so afraid to slow down and listen? What will it take for my longing for wakefulness to become stronger than my fear of change? Together, we unravel ourselves, using some timehonored tools that I share in this book’s Appendix: meditation for development of a quiet mind; psychological inquiry for the unveiling of a fearless heart; and prayer for the cultivation of faith. These tools are like shovels we can use to dig for the gifts buried in the jumble of our lives. All of them have made a big difference in my life. But perhaps the most profound of the tools we have at our disposal is the simple act of telling our stories to other human travelers—in a circle around the fire, at the back fence with a neighbor, or at a kitchen table with family and friends. Since the beginning of history we human beings have gathered together, talking and crying, laughing and praising, trying to make sense of the puzzling nature of our lives. By sharing our most human traits, we begin to feel less odd, less lonely, and less pessimistic. And to our surprise, at the core of each story—each personal myth—we uncover a splendid treasure, a source of unending power and sweetness: the shining soul of each wayfarer.

I offer this book in service to those in search of the shining soul—those who are willing to enter the woods of self-examination in order to retrieve what was never really lost. I have had a lot of help on my own journey, and if I can stand by you on yours, I will feel as though I am paying back the guides and

friends who have lit my path. Whether you are in the midst of a big upheaval or riding the smaller rapids of everyday life, I want you to know that you are not alone, not now, or at any stage of the journey. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist of the twentieth century, wrote, “We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.”

The experience of change and transformation is never complete. Something bigger and brighter always calls to shine through us. We are continually challenged to change and grow, to break down and break through. The first big change made in the name of awakening can be destructive and traumatic. In the midst of my divorce, I agonized over the risks I was taking and the blows I was receiving, and wondered if so much pain could ever lead to anything good. But now, years down the road and many changes later, I trust in the twists and turns of what Joseph Campbell calls the “hero’s path.” Some of us need a cataclysmic event to find our way toward “the center of our own existence.” Some of us don’t. Some of us add up all of the smaller changes into one big lesson, and find our way home as well.

A Note About Storytelling, Poetry, and Parables

I use several kinds of storytelling in this book. I use the first-person narrative to tell my own story. But because that story casts only one shaft of light on the subject at hand, I also include stories of people who have endured greater challenges than mine and still used their difficulties for growth. I tell these storiesprimarily in Part Two: The Phoenix Process, where I share the courage of people facing seemingly unbearable situations: grave illness, the loss of a child, the tragedy of war. Part Three: The Shaman Lover is the story of my own Phoenix Process. The stories in Parts Four, Five, and Six are about more ongoing, daily dramas—mine and others’. They are about raising children, being in relationships, growing wiser as we age, making friends with death. All of the book’s stories are connected; the big ones teach us how to live the little ones every day.

Some of the sections are not really stories in a literary sense but are more like the teaching tales of older traditions. These small parables are sprinkled throughout the book, like tiny lights strung along a path. Perched at the beginning of many of the stories and parables is a quotation or poem. I realize that an opening verse is often regarded as ornamentation, but I mean for you to actually read these bits and scraps of poetry and prose. Some provide keys to the front doors of the stories; others are vehicles that can carry you all the way through the stories and back out into your life.

I have been a collector of poems and quotations for years. Some people collect antique dolls or baseball cards. I collect the words of other people. I tack them on the wall or send them to my sons, sisters, or friends, or use them in a workshop exercise I call the Poetry Bazaar. The exercise is a sort of spiritual parlor game; it’s a deep icebreaker. At the start of a workshop, I spread more than a hundred slips of paper on the floor of the classroom. On each is printed a short poem or quotation by a wise thinker—people as diverse as the poet Rumi and the American comedian George Carlin. I ask the participants in the workshop to wander around the room, shopping for a poem, looking for one that tells the secret story of their heart. I encourage them to do some comparison shopping, to pick up a couple of pieces of paper and try on different sayings and quotations for style and size. Then, when the choices have been made, we gather in a circle and each person reads his or her slip aloud. Some people talk to the group about what the saying means to them. They tell us a story and let us into their lives. Others let the poems speak for themselves, something that a good poem can do. I have come to trust the power of a few well-chosen words to reveal to the world something I cannot say, or don’t want to say, or didn’t even know I needed to say until I saw it spelled out in front of me in the prophetic hand of the poet.

Each of the stories in this book is really your story, told by someone else, so that you may know yourself a little better. And before the story, there is the poem, or the saying. Read each quotation as a road sign, a handful of words, a pocketful of bread crumbs that have marked a way through the woods throughout the ages. Begin with this one, again from the poet Rumi, and read it as an invitation to journey with me and those whose stories are told in this book, deeper into the soul of your own life.


When you do something from your soul,

you feel a river moving in you,

a joy. . . .