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Excerpt from "Broken Open" by Elizabeth Lesser - The Phoenix Process

BookCover-BO-ELesserWe are delighted to share with you an excerpt from Elizabeth Lesser's wonderful book and New York Times bestseller Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.  Lesser is the cofound of the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York.  In the following excerpt, Lesser outlines what she calls "The Phoenix Process" - experiencing our life challenges as a way to further deepen and grow. 

The Phoenix Process

The transformational journey is a voyage with a hundred different names: the Odyssey, the Grail quest, the great initiation, the death and rebirth process, the supreme battle, the dark night of the soul, the hero’s journey. All of these names describe the process of surrendering to a time of great difficulty, allowing the pain to break us open, and then being reborn—stronger, wiser, kinder. Every religion includes in its texts, stories of descent and rebirth. From Jonah in the whale to Jesus on the cross, and from the Hindu hero Arjuna on the battlefield, to the prince Siddhartha leaving the castle in order to become the Buddha, the great ones have gone before us on this journey.

In a conversation between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, who was the twentieth century’s greatest interpreter of myths, Campbell talked about the hero’s journey: “A legendary hero is usually the founder of something—the founder of a new age, the founder of a new religion, the founder of a new city, the founder of a new way of life.”

In response, Moyers said to Campbell: “But doesn’t this leave all the rest of us ordinary mortals back on shore?”

“I don’t think there is any such thing as an ordinary mortal,”

Campbell answered. “I always feel uncomfortable when people speak about ordinary mortals because I’ve never met an ordinary man, woman, or child . . .You might say that the founder of a life—your life or mine, if we live our own lives, instead of imitating everybody else’s life—comes from a quest as well.”

I have my own name for the quest. I call it the Phoenix Process—in honor of the mythic bird with golden plumage whose story has been told throughout the ages. The Egyptians called the bird the Phoenix, and believed that every 500 years the Phoenix bird renewed his quest for his true self. Knowing that a new way could only be found with the death of his worn-out habits, defenses, and beliefs, the Phoenix built a pyre of cinnamon and myrrh, sat in the flames, and burned to death. Then he rose from the ashes as a new being—a strange amalgam of who he had been before, and who he had become. A new bird, yet ever more himself; changed, and at the same time, the eternal Phoenix.

You and I are the Phoenix. Our lives ask us to die and to be reborn every time we confront change—change within our self and change in our world. When we descend all the way down to the bottom of a loss, and dwell patiently, with an open heart, in the darkness and pain, we can bring back up with us the sweetness of life and the exhilaration of inner growth. When there is nothing left to lose, we find the true self—the self that is whole, the self that is enough, the self that no longer looks to others for definition, or completion, or anything but companionship on the journey.

The Phoenix Process is a journey that is different for everyone, and therefore, ultimately, a trek into uncharted territory. It is unhelpful to compare one person’s journey to another’s—all are different, and one is not more profound or important than another. Very painful situations—the loss of a loved one, a serious illness, a national tragedy—have the power to transform one’s life, but so do less traumatic events. It’s all in the way we approach the changing nature of life; it’s all in the courage to say “Yes” to whatever comes our way; it’s in the way we listen for the messages in the flames and dig for the treasure in the ashes.

Rules of the Phoenix Process

1. Change is the nature of life, and nothing changes without loss, which is a form of death. Death therefore is a prerequisite to change and rebirth. Loss and change, death and rebirth: these are natural, necessary cycles. No one can escape loss and death. Pretending otherwise is exhausting, and a huge waste of time. To resist change, loss, or death is to say NO to life.

2. It’s not easy to participate consciously with change, loss, or death. More often than not, we would like to stay asleep to the whole subject. It hurts to lose and to change; it causes us grief. But grief is not a sign of anything being wrong, nor is it a sign of weakness. In fact, grief in the face of loss lubricates the wheels of change. Denial and bitterness are like sticks stuck in the spokes of the wheel; they render us motionless. When we turn toward what is changing—when we keep our hearts open and allow ourselves to feel a loss all the way through—we move with more grace into a new, energetic, and constructive phase of life.

3. We can transform loss into growth, change into insight, and suffering into joy, if we turn and face that which frightens us most about ourselves and our changing circumstances. This takes courage. We may find aspects of our personality that need altering. We may find parts of our lives that can no longer remain the same. We may have to upset old family patterns, adjust ways of thinking, let go of habits. Part of the Phoenix process is asking for help, learning new ways of doing things, seeking inspiration. We need help to learn how to take the suffering deep inside and to make the process an interior one. As long as we blame others – another person, an institution, a relationship – for our faltering lives, there is little chance of transformation, little hope that we will be reborn as the powerful Self that we really are.

Elizabeth Lesser is the cofounder of Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, and the author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and The Seeker’s Guide (both from Random House).

Excerpted from Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth Lesser. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Lesson 8 from Jon Kabat-Zinn's "Letting Everything Become Your Teacher"

Cover-JKZ-LettingEverythingBeYourTeacherWe are delighted to share the brief yet profound lessons from Jon Kabat-Zinn's delightful book Letting Everything Become Your Teacher: 100 Lessons in Mindfulness.  Today's lesson is on "whole being".

LESSON 8  - Whole Being

To cultivate the healing power of mindfulness requires much more than mechanically following a recipe or a set of  instructions. No real process of learning is like that. It is only when the mind is open and receptive that learning and seeing and change can occur. In practicing mindfulness you will have to bring your whole being to the process.

Reprinted from LETTING EVERYTHING BECOME YOUR TEACHER: 100 Lessons in Mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn © 2009 by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group.

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Excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh's New Book "Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice"

Cover-TNH-MakingSpace-Book-BLWe are delighted to be able to share with you an excerpt from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh's new book Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice (Parallax Press)Designed to be both inspiration and guidebook for those new to mindfulness practice, Making Space offers easy-to-follow instructions for setting up a breathing room, listening to a bell, sitting, breathing, and walking meditations, and cooking and eating a meal in mindfulness. Whether you live alone or with a family, this beautifully illustrated book can help you create a sense of retreat and sanctuary at home.

We tend to be busy all day, and when we come home we continue to be busy.
We cook; we clean; and we putter around. Or we are so tired of being busy that we want to do something mindless and easy, like watching a television show, or taking a nap. Then, we go back to being busy again.
There is a way to feel refreshed and alert without being busy. All we need is a gentle reminder—a location, an image, or a sound— to help us return home to ourselves and pay attention to what is there inside us and around us. We can touch the present moment in all its fullness and joy if we simply have a place, and a way, to stop. Stopping the random progression of thoughts is the first step in our meditation practice.
The key to creating a home meditation practice is to create a space where the busyness stops. When we stop and bring our mind back to our body, we can pay full attention to all that is happening in the present moment.
We call this “mindfulness.” To be mindful means to be here, fully present, and fully alive, unencumbered by thoughts of the past or the future, our worries, or our projects. It is only when we stop that we can encounter life. When we stop, body and mind can reunite and then we can experience their oneness.

By stopping the activities of our minds and bodies—by just sitting quietly, breathing in and out, being silent within, and releasing our tension and worry—we become more solid, more concentrated, and more intelligent.
Now we can look deeply at what is happening inside and around us. Releasing our tension and worry allows us to focus on the happiness available to us right now, by allowing us to see that the conditions for our happiness are already present.

The foundation of happiness is mindfulness. The basic condition for being happy is our awareness. If we’re not aware that we’re happy, we’re not really happy. When we’re having a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. Yet when we don’t have a toothache, we’re still not happy.
A non-toothache is very pleasant. There are so many things that are enjoyable, but when we don’t practice mindfulness, we don’t appreciate them. When we practice mindfulness, we come to cherish these things and we learn how to protect them. By taking good care of the present moment, we take good care of the future. Working for peace in the future means finding peace in the present moment.
It is our tendency in daily life to become goal oriented. We know where we want to go, and we are very focused on getting there. At times, this may be useful, but often we forget to enjoy ourselves along the way. Apranihita is a Sanskrit word meaning “wishlessness” or “aimlessness.” We don’t need to keep running after something, because everything is already here, within. Often we tell ourselves, “Don’t just sit there, do something!”
But when we practice awareness, we discover that the opposite may be more helpful: “Don’t just do something, sit there!” We can train ourselves to stop from time to time throughout the day, to come back to the present and let go of our worries and preoccupations. When our minds and bodies are calm, we can see our situations more clearly and we know better what to do and what not to do.

This is a good habit to develop.
At first, “stopping” may seem like a kind of resistance to modern life, but it isn’t that. It’s not a reaction; it’s a way of life. The survival of humankind depends on our ability to stop rushing. Stopping is the first aspect of meditation.

Reprinted from Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice (2011) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California.

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"Spiritual Materialism" by Guest Author Elizabeth Lesser

HeadShot-ELesser One of our favorite expressions of true wisdom is this excerpt on Spiritual Materialism from Elizabeth Lesser's must-read book The Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure.  Elizabeth Lesser is the co-founder of the country's largest holistic retreat center, the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, NY, and we're delighted that she's shared some of her work with us:

Walking the spiritual path can be a tricky adventure. Sometimes we make progress and become more free and loving and wise; sometimes we may think our meditation or prayer or ritual is leading toward enlightenment, but really we’re just treading water or even going backwards. The great Tibetan meditation teacher, Chogyam Trunpa,  wrote that we are often “deceiving ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.” He called this kind of self-deception spiritual materialism. We all deal with spiritual materialism; here’s a list from my book, A Seeker’s Guide,  of common traps you may encounter on your spiritual journey:

Spiritual Materialism’s Top-Ten List

1. Narcissism: There’s a thin line between narcissism and “following your bliss.” Without some degree of sacrifice for the greater good, self-discovery eventually leads to  plain old self-indulgence. Be aware of your tendency toward excessive self-centeredness even as you work to heal and love your own tender self.
2. Superficiality: America’s new forms of spirituality and  therapy are often accused of selling superficial and sunny answers to life’s complexity and pain. Spirituality does not ultimately work if we use it to protect ourselves from the rough-and-tumble of real life. Any world view that suggests that thinking positively always protects you from harm, or that there is something wrong with you if you suffer or fail, or that healing isn’t often complex, is offering superficial promises.
3. The Never Ending Process of Self-improvement: You can become so obsessed with your own self-improvement – your story, your victimization, your faults, your fears – that instead of becoming free, you end up caught in a tape-loop. This myopic kind of focus on the self also leads to social apathy. It just isn’t true that your self-empowerment and self-healing will necessarily lead to the health and happiness of others and of society. We have to participate in the improvement of more than just ourselves.
4.  Instant Transformation:  Just as some people get seduced by the never ending process of self-examination, some are disappointed when they don’t achieve inner peace after reading a book, or in a day-long workshop, or even after two years of weekly therapy. Spiritual awakening takes patience, hard work, and the grace of God.
5. Desire for Magic: Some of the new American spirituality throws common sense out the window and pursues a search for magic cures and miraculous people. The need to believe in all-powerful teachers, angelic visitations, UFOs, and other unexplained mysteries can obscure the ordinary magic of everyday life, proof enough of God and the miracle of life.
6. Grandiosity: In democratizing spirituality and bringing it to the daily life of each person, each one of us risks becoming a messianic little Pope or a humorless saint. If you find yourself becoming unbearably profound, feeling that you are somehow different from others and destined for sainthood, perhaps you are suffering from grandiosity.
7. Romanticizing Indigenous Cultures:  There exists a kind of reverse prejudice in our politically correct times that just because something or someone is from another culture, especially an indigenous or minority culture, that it/he/she is somehow more valuable, spiritual, or wise. “Whenever teachings come to a country from abroad the problem of spiritual materialism is intensified,” writes Chogyam Trungpa.
8. The Inner Child Tantrum: I once heard someone say, “Some people just don't seem to realize, when they’re moaning about not getting prayers answered, that no is the answer.” Knowing what you want, and honestly asking for it, is a monumental achievement. But so is learning to gracefully accept God’s wisdom – when “He giveth and when He taketh away.”
9. Ripping Off The Traditions: Many modern seekers skim off  the ritual trappings of a tradition with little respect for the depth behind it. This trivializes powerful and elegant systems of spiritual growth that often demand years of study. There is a difference between carefully creating a spiritual path that includes genuine practices from a variety of traditions, and flitting from flower to flower like a drunken honey bee.  
10. The Guru Trip: Harry S. Truman lamented: “Memories are short; appetites for power and glory are insatiable. Old tyrants depart. New ones take their place. It is all very baffling and trying.” Perhaps the most baffling and trying aspect of the new American spirituality is the disparity between spiritual teachings and the behavior of teachers. Men, women, Western, Eastern, fundamentalist, new-age, modern, or indigenous – none have escaped the temptation to abuse power. Things to be wary of: extravagant claims of enlightenment or healing; the minimizing of the hard work that accompanies any true spiritual or healing path; the excessive commercialism that betrays the deeper spiritual message; and the blind adherence of followers to charlatans (be they gurus, therapists, preachers, healers, or teachers.) With their deceitful double standards, some gurus, therapists, and teachers have given mentorship a bad name and tarnished the image of humbling oneself to a wiser and more experienced guide.          
Elizabeth Lesser is the cofounder of Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, and the author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and The Seeker’s Guide (both from Random House). She is a frequent host on Oprah Radio.
Excerpted from THE SEEKER’S GUIDE by Elizabeth Lesser.  © 2000 by Elizabeth Lesser. Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group.

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