Interview with Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of The Omega Institute, by Elisa Balabram
Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of The Omega Institute, and author of “The Seeker’s Guide – Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure” and “Broken Open – How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow”.
I first heard about the Omega Institute by reading Elizabeth Lesser’s first book “The Seeker’s Guide”, which was recommended by the instructors of the yearlong Spiritual Depth Course I took at One Spirit Learning Alliance.
Elizabeth Lesser was a midwife and birth educator before starting the Omega Institute with her two co-founders Pir Vilayat Khan and her then husband Stephan Rechtschaffen. Elizabeth recalls being interested in having a spiritual life since a young age, and by the time she was fifteen, she was reading books on philosophy and spirituality. When spiritual teachers started to come to the United States from India, Elizabeth found mentors and kept learning. Pir Vilayat Khan had the idea of starting a university to teach how to discover one’s purpose in life and how to develop oneself psychologically and spirituality. Stephan and Elizabeth were responsible for building the Omega Institute. Although they had no business experience, her ex-husband is a medical doctor, and she has a degree in education, they self-taught all strategies needed to make the business a success.
During its first year of operations, Omega Institute attracted 2,000 people to its summer programs, and now it serves 30,000 people yearly, with programs offered throughout the year. It provides workshops, conferences, retreats and professional training in a wide variety of subjects. In the beginning it started primarily as an alternative health and healing center, where doctors, nurses and others could learn how to add to their Western Medicine all sorts of alternative ways of healing body, mind and spirit, such as meditation, yoga, acupuncture, psychotherapy. The Eastern Medicine was not as widespread in the United States, when they established Omega in 1977, as it is today.
Over the years they’ve added more classes, including arts, writing and cooking, classes for children and educators, ecumenic religious retreats, all that encompasses Omega‘s tagline – Awakening the Best in the Human Spirit. Elizabeth also mentioned the work it does in helping people become spiritual activists, by taking their own inner peace and working for peace and justice in the world. She helped Omega start the series of conferences called Women and Power, bringing together women from different fields, who are working for gender equality and the rights of women in leadership, and encouraging the dialogue.
Elizabeth co-founded and grew the business while raising her children, and she mentioned that it was not easy. She had to train herself to give her family her undivided attention while at home, otherwise she would work 24×7. She managed to do it by focusing on her kids, by being disciplined in making time for them, by staying present with them and by leaving business decisions for the next day. Elizabeth is pleased to notice how Michelle Obama as first lady plans to help the country have a conversation about balancing work and family. [You can read about it on a post by Michelle Obama on BlogHer, called Our Many Hats]
When Elizabeth’s children were going through their teenage years, she decided to take a year break from Omega, to write her first book; and document this movement of holistic health and spirituality coming to the U.S., that she had been a part of for about 20 years; and openly share her own spiritual journey. She was able to explain it all beautifully in her masterpiece “The Seeker’s Guide – Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure”. This book has really helped me in all areas of my life, and I recommend it. It provides toolboxes for the mind, heart, body and soul, and teaches meditation techniques you can practice to become more of who you are every day of your life.
Elizabeth loved being away from the organization and decided never to come back full time, although she continues to be involved. She since has had the opportunity to travel more and speak on subjects that are dear to her, spreading the word about the messages on her books as well as on empowering women.
Her second book, “Broken Open – How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow”, came about because she had gone through a divorce, to which she refers to as a terribly difficult process. Although it was painful, it made her who she is and helped her find herself, her strength and her individuality. She hopes that the book will help those going through hard times, when it seems like their identity is going to fall apart due to a loss of a job, loss of a loved one or a divorce, to come to better terms with it, to take in the experience and learn from it and to find strength, rather than to become bitter and shut down.
Elizabeth is currently writing her first novel, since she enjoys writing and telling stories, and she says she wrote everything she had to say about spirituality. She has also been doing a lot of work with Oprah. She helped produce Oprah’s “A New Earth” webcast with Eckhart Tolle earlier this year, and also participated in the “A New Earth” After Show radio on Oprah’s Soul Series, in which she answered the listeners’ questions and helped everyone make sense of Eckhart Tolle’s teachings and message. Elizabeth will also be on Oprah’s television show twice in January 2009.
To help someone build a business with a spiritual purpose, Elizabeth wisely advises that a spiritual business won’t miraculously be successful – all business rules apply, and every entrepreneur must learn about hiring, firing, budgets, marketing, operations and all principals that will help you succeed. She also recommends that every business incorporates spiritual principals such as kindness, the capacity to listen well, offering products and services that do no harm and being of service to others. She considers running her business her greatest spiritual teacher, “whatever you do, you see right away in the business – it is instant karma and it can teach you a lot about yourself.”
Her main recommendation is for women to see themselves as leaders: “to leave your femininity outside the office is a mistake, you should bring your relational personality, your desire to connect, your fearlessness with emotions, your willingness to share who you are, your demand of your employees to be honest and real with each other and with you – bring all of that fearlessly into your business to be a woman leader, instead of what the world expects you to be.” Elizabeth Lesser
For more information about the Omega Institute and Elizabeth Lesser, please visit www.eomega.org. Her books are available on Amazon.com: Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, and The Seeker’s Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure or at bookstores nationwide.