On our first evening at Mii amo, best-selling author Elizabeth Lesser admitted that over the past 40 years, she had met just about every celebrated guru of living well, including the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra and dozens of others. She also knows Pema Chodron, Brené Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert. After all, she has spent decades hosting them at the renowned Omega Institute, which she co-founded at the age of 22. (A college student in New York in the early 1970s when one of the first emissaries of the Dalai Lama arrived in the U.S. to teach Tibetan Buddhism, she became one of his students.)
Today, more than 30,000 people a year study at the Omega Institute, which is focused on “awakening the best in the human spirit” through education, inspiration and community. Over the past 40 years, millions have been influenced by the people who were launched or have taught at Omega, from the top teachers of yoga, detox and meditation to experts on trauma, grief and healing, as well as on the institute’s newer offerings in environmental sustainability and women’s leadership. “I have met so many teachers,” Elizabeth said—either through Omega or during her stint working with Oprah on her spirituality initiatives, one of which inspired such a deluge of online sign-ups that it crashed internet service for the entire city of Chicago—“So, of course, you’d assume I would know the secret to an enlightened life. Well, I do, and I will share it with you, but it may surprise you.”
I felt that Elizabeth had already let me in on a lot of secrets. A dear friend I met eight years ago on an Indagare Journey gave me Elizabeth’s memoir Broken Open, which conveys such profound courage and honesty that it has become my go-to gift for anyone I know who is in a period of serious struggle. Its premise is that we are all born in pure states with clean souls, but over time, nature and nurture encase us in habits, biases, insecurities, armor and what Elizabeth calls ADD (Authenticity Deficit Disorder). Yet, sometimes, a cataclysmic event can break us open. In that moment lies the opportunity for growth and even rebirth to our truest self. It is a poetic and persuasive ode to the notion that it is through pain that we realize the ultimate gain. I send Broken Open regularly to those who are in distress or despair, because I cannot think of anything more helpful. It feels like handing a flashlight to someone who is lost in the dark. Last year when I was on our annual Mii amo wellness retreat, which has always attracted an incredible group of people seeking a recalibration of both their inner and outer selves, it occurred to me that having a warm and wise teacher like Elizabeth to help formalize this process would add to an already magical ritual. I sent an email to the address on her website and received an automatic reply thanking me for my email but explaining that due to the volume of correspondence she receives, she cannot reply personally. A few hours later, though, she did respond. We talked, then met for lunch, and she agreed to host workshops during our retreat.
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So in the second week of January, our group of 35 gathered at Mii amo. It was here that, 10 years earlier, I found the courage to leave my prestigious magazine editor position and do what I really wanted to do: launch a new kind of travel company, taking a really crazy leap into uncertainty. The spa is set in Boynton Canyon, which is known for its sacred vortex and intuitive healers. We gathered there each morning and afternoon for an hour and a half with Elizabeth. Beforehand, some hiked in the red rocks; others took yoga classes, had spa treatments or slept in. Everything was optional, nothing required. We did have a code of conduct, which included commitments like “Quiet the inner critic.”
We practiced meditation, listening more closely to our bodies and speaking difficult truths. We’d all come with our own issues or questions. Some excavated in silence, while others found catharsis in sharing. We adopted a mantra that Elizabeth had learned from her sister, Maggie, whose cancer diagnosis and struggle inspired Elizabeth’s latest book, Marrow, a memoir of their journey shedding family baggage and seeking healing. The mantra: “Do no harm, but take no shit.” Not what you might expect on a spiritual retreat, but Elizabeth used the slogan along with a meditation posture in which the Buddha is often represented. In it, one hand is extended to signal “stop” and the other held open, like a cup, to indicate that we can be both strong and open, noble and kind, powerful and compassionate.
People who were strangers on Sunday had, by Thursday, become friends, comforting companions or loving witnesses. By the end of our four days together, we proudly called ourselves members of a tribe. On our last night, we gathered in a circle, spoke our intentions for the year ahead and supported one another as we tossed pinecones (which Elizabeth had brought from the trees on her property at home) into a fire. It was a phoenix ritual of letting go and rebirth, with the aim of releasing what we want to leave behind and welcoming in new, bold expectations.
These days, the word community is heavily used—and, increasingly, it refers to virtual networks of isolated people. This doesn’t impart what I feel is the true meaning of the word, which derives from communion: coming together and sharing, recognizing a mutual benefit to giving and receiving. What we experienced at Mii amo with Elizabeth was community in its truest form. It was a bounty that left all of us feeling nourished with camaraderie, compassion and commitment to bringing out our best selves in the year ahead.
And the secret to enlightenment? Elizabeth revealed it on the first night we were together, when she divulged that she has met monks with big egos, depressed happiness researchers, peace brokers who are full of anger and declutterers whose cars are piled with junk. “That used to upset me” she said, “but now I know that no one has it all figured out. We are all flawed. That’s the big secret to enlightenment: putting down the expectation that enlightenment means perfection and realizing that we are together on a search, that it’s not a race, that each of us, at our own pace and in our own way, is trying to become our best self, our most authentic self—not a perfect self but a person striving to be free, happy, forgiving, compassionate and generous. The secret is that it is a practice, an ongoing practice, to be who we know we can be, without shame, blame or impatience. You have to just keep working at it.” With the support of a tribe, that practice becomes a lot more enjoyable.
Learn more about Indagare's upcoming Insider Journeys to Mii amo, led by bestselling author Dani Shapiro and spiritual coach Elizabeth Lesser.
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