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Elizabeth Lesser: Leading From Within

Photo by Joshua Hibbert on Unsplash

Following the most recent presidential election, I considered beneficial ways to integrate spirituality with social action and feminine empowerment.

In its current form, our society leads us away from a harmonious existence. This is partly due to the fact that an aspect of our whole self has not been fully recognized and deemed equally valuable. The aspect to which I refer is the divine feminine consciousness.

This lack of recognition, and honoring, of the feminine perspective has led to an incredibly imbalanced society, where masculine energy dominates many parts of our lives.

One result of this imbalance, to which we now bear witness, is the beginning disintegration of certain structural elements of society. It seems as though an inherent shift of values is taking place and the grand unraveling has begun.

With this in mind, I wanted to get the perspective of someone who has been in the forefront of spirituality and leadership for more than four decades.

Elizabeth Lesser is the co-founder and senior adviser of Omega Institute, the largest adult education center in the United States focusing on health, wellness, spirituality and creativity.

Elizabeth is also the co-founder of Omega’s Women’s Leadership Center, which grew out of the popular Women & Power conference series featuring women leaders, activists, authors and artists from around the world.

Elizabeth Lesser

Here is Elizabeth’s perspective on how to integrate spirituality with social action, and the importance of the feminine narrative within circles of spiritual leadership and empowerment.

BJB: What is the importance of combining spirituality and feminism in a patriarchal culture that denies its legitimacy?

EL: We have to overcome this deep-seated resistance within ourselves towards accepting ourselves and our knowledge as valid.

I’ve made it a practice over the years to quote women and Gerda Lerna is a feminist scholar I love to quote. She talked about how to combine you inner spiritual life with feminism.

She said, “…as women we don’t trust our own experience; we defer so often to the patriarchal culture without even knowing that we’re doing it, and that as women we have to get rid of the great men in our heads and substitute for them ourselves, our sisters and our anonymous foremothers.”

That’s easier said than done and this is where spirituality really comes in.

My spiritual practice has been both meditation and prayer, but also psychotherapy, which I consider to be part of one’s spiritual path. This means going back into your childhood, and your young adulthood and figuring out the voices that are ruling your life.

Is it my authentic voice? My mother? My father? Or the culture and what it tells me about my gender, my age, my race?

I think as women we doubt the validity of our opinion because for so long it’s been trivialized and ignored.

Psychotherapy is a great practice to go in and find your authentic voice and then to strengthen it as a valid voice in the world.

Let’s say you’re in a meeting and some of men in the room are very forthright with their opinion. You raise your hand to speak and say things like, “Well, this is just my opinion and I’m sorry if it offends…” before you’ve even got the words out you’ve disempowered yourself.

As women, we value empathy, conversation, listening, and empowering other people. But in the fast pace of an office, or politics, or wherever we spend our time, those values are often run over and we don’t always stand up for what we know to be true or what we know works. It takes a lot of inner work to begin to trust yourself and speak up for yourself. Combining spirituality with empowerment can go hand-in-hand.

BJB: When you’re in the boardroom or at a professional meeting, at what point do you let go of trying to assert your perspective when it’s undervalued?

EL: This is THE question and of course it’s not an easy one to answer. It’s not a one size fits all.

I’ve had several times in my life and in my place of work, when I knew I could continue with the way things were going or stand up to the egos in the room. I’m sure many of us have felt called to do this. But we don’t all have to do it this way, there are many opportunities in life for us to stand up in courage. If you’re engaged in a spiritual practice and consistently tuning into your inner wisdom, slowly the voice inside will get stronger and you’ll know what to do.

Of course, I’m not encouraging people to do things that are dangerous for their survival. If you have worked your way up, with three kids in college and need that salary then you have to think carefully before you put those things on the line.

However, if you can be a revolutionary and can put it all on the line, then God bless you because more of us are going to need to do that. It will take some time to insert the feminine way of doing things into the power structures of the world. It will also take strategy and long term thinking.

BJB: In lieu of the masculine identity, how can we best demonstrate the power in being a clear-headed and open-hearted decision-maker and leader?

EL: I believe the world needs a huge dose of the feminine. Women need it, men need it, and structures need it. If we call the feminine that aspect of the human consciousness that thinks in terms of what’s best for everyone, and not just “the bottom line”, we dignify the values of the feminine.

All around us there is a clamoring for different structures. Whether you’re talking about race, class or gender, the structures that are in place aren’t working across any divide.

People are waking up to the idea that as we change on the inside, we’re going to have to change the outside structures as well. It will take a certain amount of going into the unknown to make small important changes and it will take all of us to do it.

BJB: In your book The New American Spirituality: A Seeker’s Guide you wrote, “…I would look around Omega Institute and wonder if we had created a monster of a spiritual pretense.” Can you talk about how to circumvent this outcome within a religious institution or an organization geared toward social good?

EL: What I would say about what you do when your institution around a good thought begins to be too hypocritical is to first decide, is this eating me up so much that I need to take my work someplace else? That’s a valid response and you may have to do that or start something new.

If, however, you want to try to change something from within it’s a long, difficult and also rewarding activist path to walk.

It’s very easy for traditions to become their worst version of themselves.

I think the only answer is to be it yourself. Be what you know your spiritual tradition is all about.

Pick your battles where you know you can have an impact, be strategic and maintain your spiritual practice so you’re coming from a place of humility. You have to continue to work on yourself while you work on the institution. Then you turn around and start mentoring in your community to teach those behind you.

BJB: What has been the most unexpected or surprising part of being an empowered woman?

EL: When you actually step into a place of personal power you have to become a grown up. You have to let go of a lot of the illusions and idealism.

You wake up in this world which can be harsh, mean and unfair, and you’re suddenly empowered but in a world that’s difficult. A lot of people find it more comfortable to remain sort of empowered while continuing to blame other people.

To be an empowered grown up is to take full responsibility for your life and the world we live in. That is hard and it does require a lot of energy, but the fruits are fantastic because to be empowered is to be real.

“There is work ahead for everyone, so give it some thought why you are alive on this planet at this particular time.”

“…we all know in our hearts what our individual responsibilities are. There will always be issues and testing times. Yet, with more wisdom and clarity these can be resolved without war and conflict.”

“Spirituality is the seed,” said Vimala Thakar, “and social action is the fruit born of it.”

Lesser is the author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, The New American Spirituality: A Seeker’s Guide and Marrow: A Love Story.

Her latest book, Marrow: A Love Story (HarperCollins / September 2016), is a memoir about Elizabeth and her younger sister, Maggie, and the process they went through when Elizabeth was the donor for Maggie’s bone marrow transplant.

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