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Excerpt from "Broken Open" by Elizabeth Lesser - Bozos on the Buss

BookCover-BO-ELesserWe’re all bozos on the bus,
so we might as well sit back
and enjoy the ride.
—Wavy Gravy

One of our favorite chapters from Elizabeth Lesser's wonderful book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow is "Bozos on the Bus", excerpted below.  We hope you're happy as we are to just be another bozo on the bus.

One of my heroes is the clown-activist Wavy Gravy. He is best known for a role that he played in 1969, when he was the master of ceremonies at the Woodstock festival. Since then, he’s been a social activist, a major “fun-d”-raiser for good causes, a Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream flavor, an unofficial hospital chaplain, and the founder of a camp for inner-city kids. Every four years he campaigns as a candidate for president of the United States, under the pseudonym Nobody, making speeches all over the country with slogans like “Nobody for President,” “Nobody’s Perfect,” and “Nobody Should Have That Much Power.” He’s a seriously funny person, and a person who is serious about helping others. “Like the best of clowns,” wrote a reporter in The Village Voice, “Wavy Gravy makes a big fool of himself as is necessary to make a wiser man of you. He is one of the better people on earth.”

Wavy (I’m on a first-name basis with him from clown workshops he’s offered at Omega) is a master of one-liners, like the famous one he delivered on the Woodstock stage: “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000”; and this one, on why he became a clown: “You don’t hear a bunch of bullies get together and say, ‘Hey, let’s go kill a few clowns.’”

But my all-time favorite Wavy-ism is the line that opens this chapter, about bozos on the bus, one he repeats whenever he speaks to groups, whether at clown workshops or in children’s hospitals. I have co-opted the phrase, and I use it to begin my workshops, because I believe that we are all bozos on the bus, contrary to the self-assured image we work so hard to present to each other on a daily basis. We are all half-baked experiments—mistake-prone beings, born without an instruction book into a complex world. None of us are models of perfect behavior: We have all betrayed and been betrayed; we’ve been known to be egotistical, unreliable, lethargic, and stingy; and each one of us has, at times, awakened in the middle of the night worrying about everything from money, kids, or terrorism to wrinkled skin and receding hairlines. In other words, we’re all bozos on the bus.

This, in my opinion, is cause for celebration. If we’re all bozos, then for God’s sake, we can put down the burden of pretense and get on with being bozos. We can approach the problems that visit bozo-type beings without the usual embarrassment and resistance. It is so much more effective to work on our rough edges with a light and forgiving heart. Imagine how freeing it would be to take a more compassionate and comedic view of the human condition — not as a way to deny our defects but as a way to welcome them as part of the standard human operating system. Every single person on this bus called Earth hurts; it’s when we have shame about our failings that hurt turns into suffering. In our shame, we feel outcast, as if there is another bus somewhere, rolling along on a smooth road. Its passengers are all thin, healthy, happy, well-dressed, and well-liked people who belong to harmonious families, hold jobs that don’t bore or aggravate them, and never do mean things, or goofy things like forget where they parked their car, lose their wallet, or say something totally inappropriate. We long to be on that bus with the other normal people.

But we are on the bus that says bozo on the front, and we worry that we may be the only passenger onboard. This is the illusion that so many of us labor under—that we’re all alone in our weirdness and our uncertainty; that we may be the most lost person on the highway. Of course we don’t always feel like this. Sometimes a wave of self-forgiveness washes over us, and suddenly we’re connected to our fellow humans; suddenly we belong.

It is wonderful to take your place on the bus with the other bozos. It may be the first step to enlightenment to understand with all of your brain cells that the other bus—that sleek bus with the cool people who know where they are going—is also filled with bozos: bozos in drag, bozos with secrets. When we see clearly that every single human being, regardless of fame or fortune or age or brains or beauty, shares the same ordinary foibles, a strange thing happens. We begin to cheer up, to loosen up, and we become as buoyant as those people we imagined on the other bus. As we rumble along the potholed road, lost as ever, through the valleys and over the hills, we find ourselves among friends. We sit back, and enjoy the ride.

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.

Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow

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How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser

ELesserHeadShotLearn the alchemy
true human beings know.
The moment you accept
what troubles you've been given,
the door will open.

Elizabeth Lesser, the author of the national best-seller Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and the cofounder of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies have shared with us an article based on her book.  We are so delighted to be able to share it with you.

How do we use the forces of a difficult time to help us grow? There are many ways, but the first way, the gateway, is to know that we are not alone in these endeavors. One of the greatest enigmas of human behavior is the way we isolate ourselves from each other. In our misguided perception of separation we assume that others are not sharing a similar experience of life. We imagine that we are unique in our eccentricities or failures or longings. And so we try to appear as happy and consistent as we think others are, and we feel shame when we stumble and fall. When difficulties come our way, we don’t readily seek out help and compassion because we think others might not understand, or they would judge us harshly, or take advantage of our weakness. And so we hide out, and we miss out.  

We read novels and go to movies and follow the lives of celebrities in order to imbibe a kind of full-out living we believe is out of our reach, or too risky, or just an illusion. We become voyeurs of the kind of experiences that our own souls are longing to have. Here’s the oddest thing about living life as a spectator sport: While the tales in books and movies and People magazine may be created with smoke and mirrors, our own lives don’t have to be. We have the real opportunity to live fully, with passion and meaning and profound satisfaction. Within us—burning brighter than any movie star—is our own star, our North Star, our soul. It is our birthright to uncover the soul—to remove the layers of fear or shame or apathy or cynicism that conceal it. A good place to start, and a place we come back to over and over again, is what Rumi calls the Open Secret.  

The Persian poet Jelalluddin Rumi wrote poems so alive and clear that even today—eight centuries later—they shimmer with freshness. Their wisdom and humor are timeless; whenever I have an a-ha moment with one of Rumi’s poems, I feel connected to the people throughout the ages who have climbed out of their confusion on the rungs of Rumi’s words.

 In several of his poems and commentaries, Rumi speaks of the Open Secret. He says that each one of us is trying to hide a secret—not a big, bad secret, but a more subtle and pervasive one. It’s the kind of secret that people in the streets of Istanbul kept from each other in the 13th century, when Rumi was writing his poetry. And it’s the same kind of secret that you and I keep from each other every day. You meet an old acquaintance, and she asks, “How are you?” You say, “Fine!” She asks, “How are the kids?”  You say, “Oh, they’re great.” “The job?” “Just fine. I’ve been there five years now.” Then, you ask that person, “How are you?” She says, “Fine!” You ask, “Your new house?” “I love it.” “The new town?” “We’re all settling in.”

It’s a perfectly innocent exchange of ordinary banter; each one of us has a similar kind every day. But it is probably not an accurate representation of our actual lives. We don’t want to say that one of the kids is failing in school, or that our work often feels meaningless, or that the move to the new town may have been a colossal mistake. It’s almost as if we are embarrassed by our most human traits. We tell ourselves that we don’t have time to go into the gory details with everyone we meet; we don’t know each other well enough; we don’t want to appear sad, or confused, or weak, or self-absorbed. Better to keep under wraps our neurotic and nutty sides (not to mention our darker urges and shameful desires.) Why wallow publicly in the underbelly of our day-to-day stuff?  Why wave the dirty laundry about, when all she asked was, “How are you?”

Rumi says that when we hide the secret underbelly from each other, then both people go away wondering, “How come she has it all together? How come her marriage/job/town/family works so well? What’s wrong with me?” We feel vaguely diminished from this ordinary interaction, and from hundreds of similar interactions we have from month to month and year to year. When we don’t share the secret ache in our hearts—the normal bewilderment of being human—it turns into something else. Our pain, and fear, and longing, in the absence of company, become alienation, and envy, and competition.

The irony of hiding the dark side of our humanness is that our secret is not really a secret at all. How can it be when we’re all safeguarding the very same story? That’s why Rumi calls it an Open Secret. It’s almost a joke—a laughable admission that each one of us has a shadow self—a bumbling, bad-tempered twin. Big surprise! Just like you, I can be a jerk sometimes. I do unkind, cowardly things, harbor unmerciful thoughts, and mope around when I should be doing something constructive. Just like you, I wonder if life has meaning; I worry and fret over things I can’t control; and I often feel overcome with a longing for something that I cannot even name. For all of my strengths and gifts, I am also a vulnerable and insecure person, in need of connection and reassurance. This is the secret I try to keep from you, and you from me, and in doing so, we do each other a grave disservice.  

Rumi tells us that moment we accept what troubles we’ve been given, “the door will open.” Sounds easy, sounds attractive, but it is difficult, and most of us pound on the door to freedom and happiness with every manipulative ploy save the one that actually works. If you’re interested in the door to the heavens opening, start with the door to your own secret self. See what happens when you offer to another a glimpse of who you really are. Start slowly. Without getting dramatic, share the simple dignity of yourself in each moment—your triumphs and your failures, your satisfaction and your sorrow. Face your embarrassment at being human, and you’ll uncover a deep well of passion and compassion. It’s a great power, your Open Secret. When your heart is undefended you make it safe for whomever you meet to put down his burden of hiding, and then you both can walk through the open door.

Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow

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The Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

Ten Signs of Progress on the Spiritual Path by Elizabeth Lesser


One of our favorite authors -- Elizabeth Lesser, cofounder of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies -- helps us know how to discern if we've made progress on our personal spiritual path, adapted from her terrific book The Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure.


1. Obuntubotho. When Bishop Desmond Tutu introduced Nelson Mandela at his inauguration as the new president of South Africa, he described him as being a man who had Obuntubotho. “Obuntubotho,” he said, “is the essence of being human. You know when it is there and when it is absent. It speaks about humanness, gentleness, putting yourself out on behalf of others, being vulnerable. It embraces compassion and toughness. It recognizes that my humanity is bound up in ours, for we can only be human together.” Obuntubotho is the first sign of progress on the spiritual path.

2. The Truth Works. A disciple once asked the Buddha how he would know the Truth if he found it. “You know the Truth, because the Truth works,” the Buddha answered. When your life works better -- when drama and chaos get tiresome, and goodness and peace are your preferred companions, then you are receiving messages from the Truth. When you are naturally happier, stronger, and more deeply engaged with people and place, you can assume you are touching on the Truth.
3. In Touch With Reality. A sign of progress is when you no longer fight the nature of life. Instead, you work with it. You stop pretending that life is supposed to be a certain way and accept it on its own terms. You size up the human story and get on with living.
4. Honesty is an Aphrodisiac. It does pay to be honest. It pays in rewarding relationships. It pays in unblocked energy. It pays in passion. To stand tall in who you are, unafraid to reveal what you want and need, kind enough to tell the truth, and brave enough to bear the consequences, is a telling sign of spiritual development. 
5. Suffering is our Fear of Pain. There will always be pain in life. This is something we learn as we progress spiritually. We also learn that if we resist pain, if we fear it, then we create additional pain called suffering. Our resistance to pain stands between us and full-bodied living; it keeps us at war with our problems and from making peace with life’s dual nature. When pain arises in your life and you stand to greet it with calm curiosity, you will know that you making progress on the path. 
6. How Can I Help? If you are spiritually happy you naturally want others to be happy.  You can’t help but help. Spirituality is the gift of love. Service to others is the discipline of love.  If you reach out often to those in need, not because you should but because your heart leads you more and more deeply into the hearts of others, then keep on going.
7. Declaration of Interdependence. Are you becoming more and more aware of the interconnection of all beings, creatures, and elements Do you hold as your own Jesus’ words : “And whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me”?   Are you getting tired of the way our society celebrates the false ego’s selfish and insatiable drive to acquire and use more and more? And does that make you want to be an agent of healing?  A declaration of  life’s interdependence is a sign of spiritual progress.
8. Combine Love and Loneliness. When we progress on the path, we become more and more comfortable with the great paradox of belonging and being alone. We reach out to others for love and companionship, yet we know that the abiding love for which we long rests in our solitary relationship with God. We are generous in our compassion and help to those in need, but we also know that each person is responsible for his or her own healing. We are loved; we are alone. Both are blessings. Love and loneliness are both states of grace.
9. The Ordinary Is Extraordinary. “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy,” said Rabbi Abraham Heschel. When we really feel this, without forcing, without trying too hard, then we know we’re on the right track. When we see the marvelous structure of the universe in the mundane and when we love the whole world by loving our mates and children and co-workers, then we are making progress. When we don’t need to be anyone special, but are pleased to be simply one of God’s many creatures, then we will know the joy of the extra-ordinary.
10. God Is Optimistic. Finally, look for these signs of progress on the spiritual path: a friendliness towards change and an optimistic vision of eternity. Faith in the perfection of God’s plan – even when the road is rough – can make the difference between a life of happiness and a life of bitterness. Trust in God’s goodness fuels our commitment to justice and beauty; with such faith we can move mountains, just like the spiritual heroes of all times.
Adapted from The Seeker’s Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure (Random House), by Elizabeth Lesser

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The Seeker’s Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure

Omega Institute for Holistic Studies


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.

Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow

Elizabeth Lesser on Facebook

The Omega Institute