305 Elizabeth Lesser
Co-Founder of Omega Institute
“And that was the moment … where I was like, ‘Girl, you can be a good mother and a happy, embodied woman, but you can’t be a good mother and a liar.'”
Elizabeth Lesser is a bestselling author and the cofounder of Omega Institute, the renowned conference and retreat center located in Rhinebeck, New York. Elizabeth’s first book*,* The Seeker’s Guide chronicles her years at Omega and distills lessons learned into a potent guide for growth and healing. She is also the author of Author of Cassandra Speaks: When Women are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes; Marrow; and Broken Open.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW):
When I was in my mid thirties, had two young children, very little money, and a strong desire to finally finish college, every minute of my day was filled. Childcare, class, laundry, cooking, shopping and trying to be a good enough full time student to maybe make up for being a complete fuck up in my 20s.
I knew I was exhausted and unwilling to just let myself rest when a couple nights in the hospital started to feel really appealing. Not that I wished for something to be horribly wrong with me, but like, a simple appendectomy sounded relaxing because then someone would bring me food and Percocet and insist I didn’t leave the bed. This is shamefully irrational, of course since hospital stays are stressful and often traumatic, so it has brought me comfort when other moms have confessed to the same bizarre fantasy.
On a Friday in March, I was sitting in class when I noticed my stomach hurt. I put it out of my mind thinking it must just be stress and that I’d feel better as soon as I handed in those last 2 papers. As normal, I just told myself to push through and stop being pathetic. But my stomach was killing me and my whole mind over matter thing stopped working.
When I felt increasingly feverish on the drive home and had to roll the windows down to let the 26 degree Colorado air into my Honda, I told myself I really just like fresh air.
And friends, it almost worked, but as I turned the corner to my house, I passed out – when I came to I saw that I was parked not in our driveway, but in the neighbors yard. I didn’t have enough blood in my brain to think “stop driving”, so I put it in reverse, plowed over a row of mail boxes, ending up in our flower bed. When I came to a second time I opened my car door and then passed out in the snow. Coming to a third time, paramedics were asking me very loud questions. In the ambulance I thought “I don’t actually want an appendectomy anymore”. After a bunch of tests, a kind faced ER doc came in said “Ms. Bolz-Weber, you just have the flu. And since you wouldn’t listen when your body was telling you it was sick, it MADE you lay down when you were still driving. So when you are that sick, you need to go home a lay down”
It cost me a thousand dollars for someone to tell me that if I don’t start listening to my body, if I don’t stop thinking of being sick as some kind of personal failing, it might not be a flower bed and a couple mail boxes next time. It could be my kids.
My guest today is Elizabeth Lesser. She’s the co-founder of Omega Institute, a conference and retreat center in Rhinebeck, New York which she created with her first husband in the late 70s.
So Elizabeth, I’m so glad I’m talking to you to day, but I’m very curious, what brings you into the confessional today?
Elizabeth Lesser: So I want to tell you about a particular time in my life. It was it was really a long time ago, but it still lives in me and It was a really shameful time.
EL: But it was powerful, too. It was like a shape shifting time.
NBW: Set the scene for me
EL: We met as two young, idealistic people. We were in our young twenties and we met um building a people’s park in New York City
And I was this social activist, but I had always been a deeply spiritual longing person.
I yearned for someone I could go to and ask the big questions. And it was a time in America, you know, when gurus were washing up on the shores of the country
NBW: Yes, yeah,
EL: and we were both like, I want one of them.
EL: And we, we found a teacher and it was his idea to start this spiritual retreat center. And my husband and I took on creating and running this place.
NBW: How old were you guys when you started OMEGA?
EL: We were in our young twenties. And, I had this outsized sense of responsibility all throughout my twenties. Like I had this idea that I was supposed to be good. That to be spiritual is to detach from worldly desires, to serve and I wanted to be a good wife, good mother and a good leader of this organization that was all about helping people have a good life.
EL: But I look back to those years and I just, I imagine on the outside it looked one way, but inside I was just so lonely and confused. I was this cauldron of, like, undefined longing and very cut off, especially from my body. You know that book by James Joyce, The Dubliners? There’s this beautiful line – he’s talking about a character – and he says, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.”
EL: And and I lived a long distance from my body and it kind of makes me want to cry just remembering . Well, it came to me very naturally, not just because I’m a woman and I think a lot of women grow up thinking there’s something wrong with their body, but my mother grew up in a very strict christian science household. Her father was a minister in the church. And my mother left the church when my sisters and I were little girls, but it still it seeped into our consciousness.
Like if you got sick you were weak. you haven’t prayed hard enough. If we wanted to dress up or look pretty, oh, my God, that was so frivolous.
EL: It’s just this very rigid idea that you are a spiritual being, you are wholly spiritual, so anything about your body, like sexual desire, vanity, illness, If you focus on any of that, that means you’re not being spiritual, that means you’re impure.
And we went out into the world like that kind of bodiless.
NBW: It’s interesting to me that you then ended up sort of drawn to things like meditation, which also maybe has a form of detaching.
NBW: That’s what part of the spirituality that you were in sort of lauded the idea of being disentangled from worldly concerns. I mean, is it closer to what you were raised than you realized at the time?
EL: That’s interesting. Yeah. Absolutely.
NBW: Yeah, damn. We think we’re being so clever.
EL: Right? Damn But here’s the real irony. I married a doctor and before we started Omega, he trained me to be a home birth midwife.
So here I was living a short distance from my own body, but really close up to the, like, the glorious guts and blood and power of birth.
EL: And I think what began to happen to me was every time I would be. I have my face in a woman’s powerful vagina.
And birthing capacity that there would be chinks in that story, that, like women’s bodies are the carriers of sin. First. First to sin, right. Second to be born. All the old shit we carry around about the kind of sinfulness of the female form.
And then I had my own kids and. I had that experience in pregnancy where I came into my body,.
EL: And I loved being pregnant. I know some people don’t, but I loved it.
NBW: What did you love about it?
EL: You know, I think because you feel you’re the baby stretching your belly to the size of its little body. I felt myself stretching into the size of my body. I felt myself coming home to my own body.
NBW: By it being a home for someone else?
EL: Yeah, yeah, maybe. That’s … I’ve never thought about it that way.
EL: It was a good home. It was a holy prayerful, beautiful home. And then it just brought to life for me how I was not feeling that in my marriage.
We were about 10 years into our marriage and then when my youngest son was about two, I fell in madly, passionate lustful love with a man who worked at our institute. And that was sort of the, uh, the big bang. You know that poem by Mary Oliver where she says, Let the soft animal of the body love what it loves.
EL: I suddenly wanted to do that. I just like I thought I was going to die.
EL: If I didn’t do it. I remember the moment when I laid eyes on the man I had the affair with. And my mind, which is, you know, a very active mind, a very judgmental mind, looked at him and I thought, “what a ridiculous get up.” He was like wearing a beret and a cape.
NBW: Oh god, oh.
EL: I thought, I like what’s up with that. But my body and my heart was like, yeah, I want that. There was something just, like, wild about him.
NBW: Oh, my gosh. But but now here’s my question. If you’re somebody who had sort of centered your idea of yourself in what does it mean to be good, how did that pan out inside your sort of self understanding?
EL: It threw me into chaos. It threw me into a desperation that kept me from feeling what I was really feeling, two things one, ecstasy to be finally respecting my needs and my longings and finally experiencing like sex as a holy, prayerful experience.
You know, I can look in retrospect and I can think, well, that’s what you needed, girl, because you were buttoned up and scared and running some sort of false schedule.
But also, I was lying, Nadia, and I was hurting people. I was hurting my husband, I was hurting my organization, my parents, my friends, my children. I was like a stranger to myself. I would, previously, I’d never had a babysitter. And now, I was like leaving them and just making bad decisions.
NBW: Do you remember a moment in particular that comes to you about the lying?
EL: I was at work and I like told people I needed to, like, go somewhere for work, but really I was going to meet the man I was having the affair with. And I have found a baby sitter to watch the kids so I could be home late.
I had been doing this for a year and I was just like. Really coming to the end of my rope.
EL: I was at his house. And the phone rang. It was like a movie practically, it was like fate was coming after me. It was the babysitter and she said, I’ve been in a car accident and the boys weren’t wearing their seatbelts. And they’re like really upset and they’re bruised and I couldn’t find you, so I called your husband and he’s here with the boys and we don’t know. We haven’t been able to find you. And that was the moment like, girl, you can be a good mother and a happy, embodied woman, but you can’t be a good mother and a liar.
NBW: So you’re with this man. You’ve lied to the people in your life about where you are, you’ve arranged it so you can have this enlivened experience that you’ve not had before. And yet the phone rings and your boys were in somebody else’s care who didn’t care for them properly to buckle them in. And now they’re bruised and they don’t know where you are. What were you feeling in your body at that point?
EL: Wow, I’ll tell you the word that just popped into my head was relief.
EL: Like someone else has made this decision for me.
NBW: Yeah. Geez.
EL: I was too messed up to effed up to get out . I mean, it had been a year … And I knew I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how. So it was almost like, thank you, God, for not making the lesson too hard.
NBW: And then what about your what about your thing about being good?
EL: Well, when the accident happened I didn’t like ricochet right back into, “Go back and be married and be good, see, see you’re bad.” Fortunately I didn’t, I didn’t go there.
EL: So I yanked myself back, like, I stopped the affair.
And I went into therapy with my husband. I tried to see, could these two beautiful young people who both had been raised a short distance from their bodies, could we find a way toward each other? We couldn’t, but at least we went there with some dialog and some honesty.
NBW: So you said when we started talking that it was a time of deep shame for you.
EL: The shame I hang on to isn’t really about the sex. It’s about being a liar.
EL: I was a liar. You see, it’s the aspect of me even now in my 60s that’s still angling for perfection, you know, like other people lie but not me.
NBW: Has it given you more compassion for other people, other people’s dishonesty?
NBW: How so?
EL: Well. I think all of us walk around with some kind of, like, basic embarrassment even about being human.
EL: you know, like we can barely look each other in the eyes. We’re embarrassed about our lack of perfection or whatever it is and so then we all do all these effed up things to get what our precious selves need and deserve.
All of us humans often manipulate or lie to get what we want, and why aren’t we taught as children the sacred art of respecting your needs, talking about your needs, finding a way to get them met while listening to the needs of the other?
So, it really awakened compassion and empathy in me. That experience was a swinging door through which I walked like, and I walked from extreme judgment of myself and other people into this much wider, more forgiving world of myself and other people.
EL: So I, I bless the experience even as I, I do pray for, I don’t know if forgiveness is the word, but more that the learning was worth the hurt I caused.
NBW: Yeah. Can you talk about the hurt that you caused?
EL: Well, I know I caused my ex-husband hurt.
And, there’s a part from that that’s never really healed. The hurt I caused my kids just by several years of a rocky, rocky time and a divorce. And my organization and myself and the man I was in love with. It was just, it was all like doomed on one level and blessed on another.
NBW: God, Isn’t that the thing? Just that like the harm caused can be real, even while the gifts that came as a result can also be real.
NBW: We often want it to kind of be all one or the other, or that the trueness of one invalidates the trueness of another, and it’s just not really like that, is it?
EL: It’s both and more in the marriage of the two.
NBW: It‘s a powerful part of my story, just sort of having that coming alive after my divorce, you know, and in the relationship I’m in now and it feels like it just softened everything for me to finally access, um, my sexuality in this full, robust, incredible way in middle age. I’m more compassionate towards other people. I have a softness towards my own body, towards my own heart.
NBW: I mean, it’s just magic and then it made me want it for everybody, like deeply want that, because I know what it’s like to live for a couple decades not being connected to that part of myself and the cost of it.
NBW: You know?
EL: It’s so mysterious. The great religious texts talk about other kinds of form, you know, milk and honey and flowers and trees with, like, reverence. Um, but there’s so little reverence for this, this precious chariot that we’ve been given.
NBW: Chariot! Oh, God, I love you for using that word. That just took my breath away,
EL: It’s very mysterious to me that we messed it up so much. Uh, and I think it’s very exciting to me that we can, unmess it up. And we can tell new stories, beautiful stories about the holiness of the body.
NBW: Yeah, totally. Oh, what a joy it is to talk to you. I’m so grateful that you would have this conversation. Is there any other part of it that you want to touch on before we’re done?
EL: You know, I honor everyone’s journey to try to find a way home to their chariot and to do it as consciously as possible, but sometimes we sleepwalk into it. And then to me, like, then the call is to consecrate anything that was that caused pain, to consecrate it to doing it better later.
NBW: Mmm. Do you feel like you’ve done that?
EL: I do. I let’s put it this way. I feel like I’m doing it.
EL: I keep it very alive in me. It’s a story from long ago, but it’s my teaching tale for myself. And I work on it every day with my husband, number two, who I’ve been with for like 30 years, and my kids and my colleagues. I want to be an authentic human and as loving as I can be.
NBW: Yeah. No more subterfuge.
EL: Or less.
NBW: Or less. Well, what a delight you are. I’m so grateful to know you and that you put this kind of, um, humility and wisdom and story out into the world, because I know it really helps a lot, a lot of people. So thanks. Thank you for your openness. I really appreciate it.
EL: Thank you for giving me my lifelong dream of going to confession.
NBW: Perfect, perfect. Happy to serve.
A blessing for Elizabeth,
You lived so many years such a long distance from the beautiful chariot of your own body, so many dry years of trying to be good, that it became ravenous and destructive when it scented what it needed.
But in the Mary Oliver poem you quoted even before she talks about letting “the soft animal of the body love what it loves” she wrote : “You do not have to be good”
Elizabeth. You do not have to live in dissatisfaction of yourself. You do not have to strive. You’re good already without any of that.
Good like a birthing woman, good like earned wisdom. Good like a face lined by years of laughing.
So I bless your changing, imperfect messiness,
I bless the interesting texture of your life, both the soft places and the jagged edges. Because your life is not perfect, nor was it ever meant to be… but it is good.
So, yes – may the soft animal of your very human body, love what it loves and may that include always your gloriously imperfect self.