Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Elizabeth Lesser (@ElizabethLesser), a bestselling author and the co-founder of Omega Institute, the renowned conference and retreat center located in Rhinebeck, New York. Elizabeth’s first book, The Seeker’s Guide, chronicles her years at Omega and distills lessons learned into a potent guide for growth and healing. Her New York Times bestselling book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, has sold almost 500,000 copies and has been translated into 20 languages. Her third book, Marrow, chronicles the journey Elizabeth and her younger sister went through when Elizabeth was the donor for her sister’s bone marrow transplant. Her newest book, Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes, reveals how humanity has outgrown its origin tales and hero myths. Elizabeth has given two popular TED talks and is one of Oprah Winfrey’s Supersoul 100, a collection of a hundred leaders who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity.
She co-founded Omega Institute in 1977—a time when a variety of fresh ideas were sprouting in American culture. Since then, the Institute has been at the forefront of holistic education, offering workshops and conferences in integrative medicine, meditation and yoga, cross-cultural arts and creativity, ecumenical spirituality, and social change. Each year close to 30,000 people participate in Omega’s programs on its campus, and more than a million people visit its website for online learning.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job to interview world-class performers from all different disciplines, all different walks of life.
My guest today is Elizabeth Lesser. She is a best-selling author and the co-founder of Omega Institute, the renowned conference and retreat center located in Rhinebeck, New York. I have a lot to say about Omega and we’ll visit that in the early portions of this conversation.
Elizabeth’s first book, The Seeker’s Guide, Chronicles for years at Omega and distills lessons learned into a potent guide for growth and healing. Her New York Times bestselling book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, has sold almost 500,000 copies and has been translated into 20 languages. Her third book, Marrow, chronicles the journey Elizabeth and her younger sister went through when Elizabeth was the donor for her sister’s bone marrow transplant.
And her newest book, Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes, reveals how humanity has outgrown its origin tales and hero myths. We’ll also find out if it’s Cassandra or Cassandra. I never quite know.
Elizabeth has given two popular TED talks and is one of Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul 100, a collection of 100 leaders who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity. She co-founded Omega Institute 1977, a time when a variety of fresh ideas were sprouting up in American culture. Since then the institute has been at the forefront of holistic education, offering workshops and conferences in integrative medicine, meditation and yoga, cross-cultural arts and creativity, ecumenical spirituality, and social change.
Each year close to 30,000 people participate in Omega’s programs on its campus, and more than a million people visit its website for online learning.
You can find her online at elizabethlesser.org, on Facebook Eliz Lesser, Instagram Elizlesser, and on Twitter @elizabethlesser. Elizabeth, welcome to the show.
Elizabeth Lesser: Hey, thank you, Tim. Thank you for having me.
Tim Ferriss: I’m thrilled because not only have I taken trapeze classes at Omega, but I have to tell you a story just to kick this off. I recall the first time I visited Omega in Upstate New York, it was to take a class that you were offering with Jerzy and Aniela Gregorek who are two incredible Olympic weightlifters, originally from Poland. Now, Jerzy is certainly in his 60s and they’re just incredible human beings, the epitome of fitness. And while I was there, I took my first yoga class in one of your beautiful, beautiful structures. And I’m in the middle of taking this class and there are huge windows behind the instructor and I spot a squirrel and I start to think to myself, Am I on drugs right now? Because that is the strangest looking, most gigantic squirrel I’ve ever seen in my entire life. And you can imagine what that was, it was one of your groundhogs. They’re everywhere, these huge groundhogs, and it’s just a beautiful location, a beautiful center, and you offer incredible programs. So I wanted to share that.
Elizabeth Lesser: You would think that from my years of being involved in Omega and our curriculum, that I’d be a true believer in everything, but I’m not, I have a massive bullshit detector, but those animals at Omega, from 40 plus years of us being on that campus, they are tame, sort of in the way you would imagine that animals around humans who are trying to be their most conscious selves, would not be as afraid. You hear that sort of theory, but it’s really been proven, the fox will just walk across and sit there and watch people. And those woodchucks are absolutely tame and they’re the bane of our gardener.
Tim Ferriss: They’re huge. I had never spent time around woodchucks AKA groundhogs and they’re adorable. And you see people taking photo ops with them and so on. So it was quite the experience and I was thrilled to get edumacated on groundhogs, but let’s back up and go back in time. And I am going to butcher this pronunciation, but could you please tell us who is Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan? And I suppose first you should probably say that name correctly.
Elizabeth Lesser: You’re almost there, it’s Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. Pir is the name for teacher in Arabic, Islam. And Pir Vilayat Khan was, he died a decade ago, a Sufi teacher, Sufism being the mystical dimension of Islam. And when I was in college in New York city, it was that time in American history where Eastern gurus were washing up on the shores of America. I was at Columbia, so it was the 1970s, a lot of social action. A lot of anti-war, civil rights, feminism. I was very involved in that, but the more it got violent and just to the far edge of my revolutionary self, the more I realized this is just not working for me. And I became very interested in Eastern spirituality and Christian mysticism and all kinds of things.
And one day I was walking across the Columbia campus and I heard this singing coming from one of the buildings. And it was a bunch of young people doing a circle dance, holding hands and chanting the different names of God in all these different religious traditions. And I thought, “Wow, this is what I want. I want this, I want to get me this.” And I started hanging out with this group of people whose teacher was Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. I had never heard of him. I knew nothing about Sufism. I came from a very intellectual, anti-religion, atheistic family. Our holy text was The New Yorker magazine. And it was like an equation, if you believed in God, or if you had any spiritual longing in you, that meant you were not smart or you were not valid.
But I was just born a seeker. I was always going to mass with my Catholic next-door neighbor. I just wanted some answers to this insane situation we all found ourselves in. I discovered my first spiritual teacher, Pir Vilayat Khan. And I got a deep education in the Sufi tradition, which, Islam, if we think it’s kind of foreign now, no one knew about it. And here was this erudite scholarly man, who was half Southern Indian, Muslim, Southern Indian and half American. His mother was actually a relative of the founder of Christian Science and had met this holy traveling guru, Pir Vilayat’s father in that time in America, in the 1910s, ’20s when there was a great awakening happening.
Pir Vilayat lived in Paris, grew up in Paris under the tutelage of his Sufi Muslim father and his free thinking American mother. He fought in World War II. He came to America at this time when all these hippies were interested in spirituality, but he was very interested in excellence, in discipline, in scholarship. And he was interested in all the world religions and holism and health. He was a real polymath, a super polymath. And he attracted around him, young people who were somewhat similar, kind of type A spiritual seekers. And that is my root tradition. And it was he who had the idea to start a holistic learning center and he put myself and my ex-husband in charge of it. And that’s what became Omega Institute.
Tim Ferriss: What an answer. You’re good at this. I have been long looking forward to this conversation and you have proved that excitement to be well-founded.
Elizabeth Lesser: That’s the Cliff Notes.
Tim Ferriss: The Cliff Notes. Well, there are a bunch of footnotes in that Cliff Note that I want to click on. First, just a confession. It’s not really a confession. It’s more of a disclosure because confession sort of implies something scandalous. I’m looking around me right now, and I have a collection of poems, which is titled The Gift, which is a collection of poetry translated of course of Hafiz, who is my favorite poet, also known as a Sufi and often considered, certainly by many to be the pinnacle of certain types of literature in the Persian-speaking world. And that led me to a number of books, including Tales of the Dervishes by, and I’m going to mispronounce this also, Idries Shah.
Elizabeth Lesser: Idries Shah.
Tim Ferriss: And if you had told Tim of not even 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 15 years ago, that I would be reading these things associated with, even tangentially, any monotheistic religion, I would have laughed. I would have even scoffed, but it’s the mysticism, it’s this direct experience that is so interesting to me. And I’m wondering what it was in you, if you could expand, that you were seeking. If you grew up in this family where the scripture was The New Yorker and to have an element, or perhaps seeking of faith was viewed as a rejection of rationality, these are my words, not yours, but I certainly have been, myself, a militant atheist, no longer would consider myself such. What is it that you were looking for? And why was it that Pir Vilayat, am I getting that right here? Khan, was the first really scratch the itch properly?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, he scratched it, and so did several other people, simultaneously, at the same time, because as I said, it was a time in history where yoga and mindfulness and Buddhism and Tibetan teachers and people from all over the East were arriving here. Some sort of karmic need in Western culture attracted this wave of Eastern philosophy. And all of these young people who had been, their doors of perception had been opened either through psychedelics or just this distaste for 1950s American rigidity, a generational culture change. I had an enormous longing in me. Sufis always use the word longing, that God is longing for you, and you are longing for God. God being, not a being, but as you said, a mystical connection to the universe. Words fail here. Words really fail when you start getting into the realm of the numinous and mysticism.
But I was always aware that what I saw and what was going on, it could not be everything, the answer to what was happening in nature, in energy. As a little kid, I was just a nerdy mystic kid. I was like, “What is going on here? And why won’t anyone tell me? Where did I come from? Where do I go when I die? And what happens in between those bookends? Is there a good way to live? Is there a way to live with more connectivity to other people? Communication?” I was just massively confused and massively curious. So when I had a chance to delve into these different disciplines, then another first teacher for me was Chogyam Rinpoche who was a Tibetan master who came to this country and was absolutely perfectly geared for America. He was young, he had escaped Tibet through a very courageous crossing of the Himalayas with many thousands of his people. The Dalai Lama decided he was going to be one of the young Tibetan teachers who takes Tibetan culture to the West.
He studied at Oxford, he came to America. He started Naropa, that institute in Boulder, Colorado. And he wrote what I consider to be my favorite spiritual book, which is Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. So I learned Buddhist meditation from him, but what I learned from Pir Vilayat Khan and why Sufism became my root path was, he often talked about the emotion of illumination, that it wasn’t just transcendence into a realm where there was no human emotion. There was actually a way to bring your heart, and your feelings, and your awe, and your ecstasy along with you on the path. You didn’t have to become a dried-out Buddhist emptiness.
Tim Ferriss: An enlightened, desiccated void.
Elizabeth Lesser: Yeah. A seeker of emptiness. He was a seeker of fullness and life. And he often talked about the emotion of illumination, and as a young woman who didn’t want to let go of my femaleness, that really appealed to me, that I could be an emotional creature and a spiritual seeker.
Tim Ferriss: So if we go back to those very early chapters in the formation, the creation of the Omega Institute. Do you use the Omega Institute or do you generally say Omega Institute and leave out the?
Elizabeth Lesser: God, I love you for asking that. It’s one of my pet peeves. I always leave out the the, but most of the people who work at Omega now put in the the. And I’m just the titular head, so I can’t say anymore. I leave off the the.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, I’ll do my best. I’ll do my best. I have a very close friend, Matt Mullenweg, who was one of the lead developers or the lead developer of WordPress, the platform upon which a lot of the 30 plus percent of the internet is now based. And almost no one capitalizes the P in WordPress and it drives him crazy. Similar.
So if we look at those early, very early formative, let’s just call it the first formative chapter of Omega Institute, what did the first draft look like? What did the prototype look like for Omega Institute and how did you decide on what to include versus exclude?
Elizabeth Lesser: Hmm, well, we had been living communally. Pir Vilayat Khan, I first spent my first couple of years in his presence as one of his students in California. And then he decided he wanted to start a commune. He wanted his students to not only live together, but also to test spiritual principles in the real world, create our own businesses, create our own economic system, families. How were we going to raise our kids? It was like a Petri dish for how would you walk the talk?
And so we ended up, through very strange circumstances, purchasing an old Shaker Village on the north side of a mountain, in the Berkshire Mountains. Back on the East Coast, on the New York side of the Berkshires, in a town called New Lebanon, New York. And this was the first settlement of the Shakers, which was a community of Christian seekers who were also living their practice, being the change. And they built these amazing structures in different parts of mostly the Northeast, but also Ohio. And we ended up buying one, how we did it is a fascinating story, but you may not have time for that.
Tim Ferriss: The benefit of long-form is we’ve got nothing but time. So I would love to hear more about these very strange circumstances. I’m guessing you didn’t go to shakervillage.com and buy what was for sale. That’s my guess.
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, first of all, it was 1975 and we were living in Marin County and we were living the post Summer of Love, spiritual seekers, California dream, and then suddenly Pir Vilayat had this idea, “We need to go back to the land. We need to become self-sufficient and we need to see if these things we’re talking about, mindfulness and love, if they really work. So we’re going to go do an experiment in living.” And this was like 300 of us.
So one of the students in the Bay Area, in our group was the wife of a man named Wavy Gravy. Wavy Gravy was the Master of Ceremonies at the Woodstock Festival and really an icon of hippiedom. And his wife was from the East Coast and her parents owned this summer camp in an old Shaker Village. And that is how we came to buy this huge tract of land and these amazing, huge, enormous buildings for dirt cheap because we had no money. And then everyone picked up and moved across the country and settled in these falling-down buildings. And we proceeded to create a community of businesses and school and prayer and spiritual practice. And it was out of that that Omega Institute emerged, because Pir Vilayat realized not everyone, in fact, almost no one was going to want to live communally the way we were. And sure enough, very soon afterwards, none of us wanted to live that way either.
And so he put myself and my ex-husband, who is a medical doctor, Dr. Stephan Rechtschaffen, in charge of this idea he had, create a learning institute of holism. He was a great aficionado of The Libraries of Alexandria. He loved the history of that time, that era, where it was the first example of the three Abrahamic religions coming together and influencing each other, mathematics, early science. And he wanted us to recreate the ancient schools of Alexandria. A good deal of time, we had no idea what he was speaking about because he was just so highly educated and erudite and brilliant. But because Stephan was a doctor and I had gotten my college degree in education and I was a curious seeker myself, he put us in charge.
And of course, the first year we xeroxed a few pieces of paper and invited a few teachers and rented a private prep school in Upstate New York. And maybe a hundred people came. Some of our first teachers were people who now are household names, but then they had no platform. Deepak Chopra, he had just left Harvard and was just starting his medical practice. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, death and dying expert. No one wanted to talk about death and dying then. African dance teachers, all sorts of different genres of learning, that there was nowhere for them to teach. So after that first year, we grew very quickly. We would grow in these leaps that we could barely keep up with. It was like Omega was this monster that we were running after.
And for the first three years, we did not have our own home. We rented different spaces. The last place we rented was Bennington College in Vermont. And we had to use their food service, which was sloppy joes and potato chips. And then just to appease us, they would have a bucket of raw tofu blocks at the end of the line kind of thing.
Tim Ferriss: Just grab a handful.
Elizabeth Lesser: Nobody knew what we were trying to do. Food is medicine? That was very new. Eastern spirituality? That was anathema to America. Yoga, mindfulness, alternative health, this was all far out on the fringes of American culture. Eventually, we realized we needed our own home and without any real money or know-how, we bought this old Yiddish kids camp in the Hudson Valley that had been uninhabited for 10 years. All the pipes were burst, the electrical wires were down. We had three months between buying it and opening. Fortunately, our early students didn’t care. Now, people expect much more upgraded housing. At that point, people were sleeping in rooms with bats flying around. So anyway, the early prototype was both highfalutin based on Pir Vilayat’s intellectual prowess, and just young scrappy people having to run a business. It’s a business and we needed to make this thing work financially so that we could hire people. We didn’t pay ourselves for like the first nine or 10 years. It was definitely a labor of passion.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. We’re going to make it pass like chapter one in your life of many because I’m going to have so many questions, but I want to pause for just a second because you said something that I think is worth exploring. That is: “After a while, we didn’t want to live communally either.” So let me just bookmark that. I think it’s worth saying or I believe that those who don’t study history are condemned to repeat it. There are many communities now, many movements one might even say now, that rhyme with the movements and excitement, different breeds of excitement of the ’60s and ’70s. This includes the so-called psychedelic Renaissance right now. I think people who are even remotely involved with that should study their history and there’s an increased, maybe related, increased interest in intentional communities and communal living. So I would love to hear why after a while you guys did not want to live communally in the way that you had been. What were the issues?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well I’d say the biggest issue was that we were Americans born and raised on the milk of individuality and comfort. Neither of those things are served that well when you’re trying to live communally. Now I wouldn’t trade the seven years I lived that way for anything. I learned so much about humans and about the extent of our capacity to be in each other’s space, but if you look at other cultures, especially tribal cultures or even India, let’s say, or China, this obsession with individuality and individual space is not as laced into the DNA of the culture as it is here in America or the West. It was very hard for me and for us, and I’m a pretty communal person. I like being around people. It was difficult to share decision-making about everything from how do we eat to what constitutes good behavior among children, how — we used to have extensively long meetings about how much cheese can each child eat, or can we each have a dog. Can we have pets?
Tim Ferriss: That’s a good — yeah, it seems like a small thing or personal decision, but it’s not.
Elizabeth Lesser: And just these conversations because we also believed in something I highly dissuade you from, consensus. Every decision had to be agreed upon to all 150 people, let’s say, in the room. This would just go on forever and ever. So there’s community living and there’s community living. We were taking it to a real extreme, a lot of people in a small place, everybody having kids, and trying to create our own financial systems. So I would say for me, there were a few things that made me unable to tolerate that anymore. One was when I had my kids and I really just didn’t want to share parenting that intimately with other people, and the other thing was I just began to have these cravings for things like my own washing machine.
Tim Ferriss: More cheese. “I want 20 grams of additional cheddar, goddamn it.”
Elizabeth Lesser: Anyway, it’s a beautiful instinct and I think it’s even a fantastic phase to experiment with and it’s antidotal. It’s an antidote. It’s an antidote to excessive individuality, individualism, and you learn a lot.
Tim Ferriss: Not to belabor the topic of curriculum, but I would love to just hear you comment on, in those early years, how you chose the teachers and the topics. Was it a reflection of your personal, and I use your as plural, but in terms of leadership in the founding team? Was it a reflection of your personal interests? Did you poll or ask possible students what they would like to have and therefore you were guaranteed to have some attendance? How did you think about picking and choosing from the universe of possibilities? Because one of the challenges with lots of options is the paradox of choice, right? You have so many different possibilities within arm’s reach, it can be very difficult to filter and select. How did you do that?
Elizabeth Lesser: Yeah, it is difficult to filter and select and a lot of what we offered — and I was in the early years the person who chose the most of the curriculum. We all had a hand in it. So a lot of it was just what are we interested in and this assumption that if we’re interested in it, at least some other people might be interested in it, but also this idea that if — the tagline of Omega is “awakening the best in the human spirit.” So I’m not an athlete, but I knew that for some people, awakening their best was athletics, that athletics was going to be the door to everything, to excellence, to getting in the zone, to experiencing a world beyond your own small, limited ego self. I knew that that was a gateway for many people. So I’m a very curious person and I also look for connectivity everywhere. So I would start experimenting for myself, let’s say, in yoga, which I loved.
It was really my first experience of awakening the body through movement, and I thought, “Oh, my goodness, I don’t know shit about this. There are people out there who are making the body as their path. I don’t know about this. I better find out.” So I would research and read, and even though it wasn’t necessarily my biggest interest, I wanted Omega to be truly holistic. So once you open those doors, as you say, where do you stop? Because we’ve had some pretty out there courses at Omega, out there teachers, and you can get so far out on the fringe that you’re actually offering quackery and harmful things. So one of the first gates was that this cannot harm anyone and it can’t be so out there that it’s going to ruin our reputation as a place that isn’t even a little rigorous in its selection process. But somebody might disagree with that because we’ve had faith healers and people who believe that there are UFOs and one of your favorite teachers, Terence McKenna, who was a consciousness ethnobotanist who some people might say was crazy.
Tim Ferriss: Mechanical elves. Mechanical elves. It’s hard for most folks to make sense of mechanical elves. Inside joke.
Elizabeth Lesser: Yeah. Right. I would sit in, especially in our early years. I would sit in on as many of the workshops and conferences as I could just so I could kind of ascertain is this person whose book we read a good teacher? Is there ethics here? Is there moral morality here? We had to draw some lines. If a person was exploring sexuality, but began to have sort of orgies in the classroom, no, we’re not doing that. We’re not going there. Everyone must be clothed and no one is having sex. We had to draw some lines. If we’re talking about medicine like consciousness medicine, we’re not taking it here. We are a business. We have the health department coming here. We are going to follow all the laws. So there were some ethical decisions and there were some just sort of let’s keep it a little tighter than everything, but boy, we experimented far and wide in the arts, in sports, in all sorts of ecumenical, spiritual, religious traditions, and —
Tim Ferriss: What do you mean by ecumenical in this case? Sometimes it means, I think, a collection of or multiple influences from Christian churches, but here, I feel like maybe you’re using it in a different capacity.
Elizabeth Lesser: Yeah, I’m using it as not just Christian, but all churches. So multi-religious. Okay. Let’s not use that. I might be using it incorrectly. So multi-religion and multi-mysticism and shamanism and indigenous cultures. Over these 40 years, there’s been trends. It’s been really interesting to see what trends come and go. I mean on one level, there’s nothing new under the sun, but on the other, there are ways that different generations and different times people speak and learn in different ways.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s so true, right? I mean what was once old is yet new again. I mean there’s so many things that, at least in my lifetime and certainly yours, move in cycles and it makes for a fascinating study. Now, there are topics you can exclude or things that might be harmful if we’re taking this sort of Hippocratic oath, first do no harm, for the selection of courses and teachers. Then there’s assessing both the teachers and the students, and I’m going to use that as a segue to a word that I believe you coined that I’d love for you to explain and that is innervism. Could you please explain what innervism is?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well I have always been an activist, meaning I’m very interested in what might make change to the suffering of humankind whether it’s political or social justice or environmental or feminism. I have one foot firmly in the activist aspect of my nature, but then there’s the seeker and the mystic. Because the word mysticism or spiritual, they have a lot of trappings that you say the word spiritual to someone and they think it’s too woo-woo or mysticism sounds like, “Whoa, that’s not me,” so I came up with the word innervism.
If activism is how you relate to the injustices in the world, innervism is how you interact with all of the layers of who you are, your psychology, your wounding, your mystical bent, your nature, your nurture, all the different parts. You’re an Internal Family System lover. I know that you love that psychological school. There are parts inside of us and how do you listen to them and determine which ones you want to listen to and how do you activate them and put them in charge of a better life? So it’s an exploration of your inner life and how to make it, like Pir Vilayat always said, “Put your soul in charge of your life.” How do you put the best of your inner self in charge of your life?
Tim Ferriss: If I may, I’m just going to read, and you can please fact check me if any of this sounds suspicious, but a portion from an interview that I found in the course of doing research for this interview that’s related to innervism. It goes as follows.
“I began to notice that a lot of the people working for peace and justice causes were really angry people, people who had never taken care of themselves and were projecting their own stuff all over their issues. I thought, how are we going to spread peace and justice if we’re not working on it in ourselves?
“I want to walk this path in every part of my life, and that involves some kind of inner work. That’s why I call it innervism.
“I want to work on my own peace of mind, so I can be a real peacemaker. If we can match up what we want out there with what’s going on in ourselves, we will be much better activists.”
So if that sounds like something that you might’ve said, I mean and even if it doesn’t, I agree with it and —
Elizabeth Lesser: I agree with it too.
Tim Ferriss: Perfect. It makes me think of a few things. Number one, Jack Kornfield, who’s been on this podcast and I consider a friend, likes to say something along the lines of “Remember your Buddha nature, and also your Social Security number.” I think there’s sometimes a tendency to put the let’s just call it spiritual, although I want to come back to that word and help us to define it, at least share how you define it, the spiritual or the esoteric in place of some of the practical.
I won’t mention names, but I was at a different retreat center once and I was sitting in the cafe and I was drinking my yerba mate tea because it’s a very acceptable way to get hyper-stimulated and I was overhearing this conversation where this woman was complaining and complaining to someone else about all sorts of things, the landlord, the this, the that, the other thing. Then her friend asked how she’s doing, if she’s thinking about moving, and she said, “Well I’m really having trouble paying my rent, but I’ve just been really busy getting nondual.” I thought, huh, that strikes me as a problem, but in any case, there isn’t really a question there, I suppose. It’s just an agreement with this type of framing. I think it’s really important.
Elizabeth Lesser: Yeah. In fact, about, I don’t know, maybe 15 years ago, 35 years, 30 years in, I don’t know, to our work, we really began to be tired of ourselves teaching this technology of inner awakening to the same people over and over. It’s like how many times do you have to wake up in the morning? You’re awake. Do something. So we started, we called it internally the movement from me to we, and we started inviting, for free several weeks out of every season, nonprofit groups working at the front lines of all sorts of environmental, social justice work to come for free with their entire team to Omega and to give them whatever they felt they needed in terms of self-care and lining up what was going on inside and within their team and their work in the world.
We have done this now with hundreds and hundreds of nonprofits, taking what we know and giving it to the people who can really use it because, as you said, often you’ll look at a group of people working for social change and they’re just so angry and they’re not communicating well amongst themselves and there’s a lot of ego at the forefront. Some of these spiritual technologies can not just help people be happier, but can serve the work we all want to do in the world.
Tim Ferriss: I certainly agree with that statement, and I think this is a good place to take a look at this word spiritual. I’d love to hear you expand on your definition of that term. I think that, as you said, a lot of people have an allergic reaction to that term, not necessarily because they dislike the definition or the connotation. It’s that in so many conversations, it can be very slippery and end up being a catch-all that doesn’t really have a clear definition. On the other hand, for instance, you mentioned mysticism. I’m really fond of that word because, to me at least, it implies a direct experience of the divine. If you don’t like that word divine, you can replace it with sacred. You can replace it with nature, but it’s a direct, subjective experience that isn’t really subject to debate on some level. So I quite like the purity of experience that that connotates, but spiritual, how would you define that for yourself or suggest people think about it?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well I also prefer the word mysticism and the root of it being mystery, we dwell in mystery. No one has figured this out yet, folks. If they had, we all would have bought it. Where do you go when you die? Can you communicate with the ancestors who passed over? How do we live a moral life? These are all mysteries that people have been exploring forever. So I love the word mysticism, meaning a way of approaching and relaxing into the mystery. Spirituality, you’ve got to go back to the word spirit which is the indwelling nature of all things. I was just —
Every morning, I pick a quote from a huge basket of quotes I have and I try to live by it. This morning, I picked a line from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and he wrote, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” The dearest freshness. To me, that might be spirituality. What is so fresh and dear and essential about anything? That tree, that bird you told me before we started taping that you were watching, that person in front of you, that fear of yours, that wound of yours? What is the dearest freshness deep down inside? Now, somebody might say there is no dearest freshness deep down inside. It all just — the sort of nihilistic approach. So I can’t really define spirituality for people who don’t have some sort of connection to or faith that there is an essential consciousness that is fresh and dear, but that to me is what spiritual seeking is all about.
Tim Ferriss: So you mentioned earlier these nonprofit groups and so on, frontline workers, coming into Omega Institute and that initiative being started to help take those people, take these tools, and put them into action, right? And that these practices are not necessarily solely for or they are not necessarily for practice in the meditation hall, right? I can’t remember who it was, might’ve been Tara Brach or Jack Kornfield telling me story of these various people in meditation retreats who would get pissed off, super pissed off about something and they would say, “I need to go to the meditation hall right now,” and they would run back to deal with their anger in the meditation hall.
Just such a hilarious and unfortunate image that that conjures because it’s so divorced from implementing these things in sort of ordinary reality and building practices that can withstand reality. So I’d love to talk about your sister’s bone marrow transplant and how some of this awareness has been translated and specifically, I have a note in front of me and I don’t have any more context than this, but the quote, “Do no harm and take no shit in meditation.” What is this meditation and how did it come about?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well I found a needlepoint with that slogan, “Do no harm, but take no shit,” in my sister’s study office after she had died. She was my little sister and I come from a family of four daughters and Maggie, my youngest sister, was the most — if there was a favorite, adorable one who everyone loved, it was Maggie. She was a nurse practitioner and an artist and a very tough customer. She thought just about everything I did in my life, she called it woo-woo voodoo. She was a Western medicine. She lived in Vermont and her patients were all the rural poor and she just had very little tolerance for the woo-woo stuff. We had a loving yet we’re so different relationship, and there were times like in all siblings’ lives where we weren’t the kindest to each other.
When she was diagnosed with a very serious lymphoma and the only thing that would save her life was a bone marrow transplant — and for any of you listening who know about the science of blood cancers, the really serious ones are you will die within weeks if you don’t treat it, and bone marrow transplants almost kill you in order to save you. So siblings are the ones who are most likely to have a good match, DNA match of the stem cells that is found in the bones, in the marrow. So each of our sisters were tested and I was the one who tested as her perfect match. We lined up 10 for 10 which is considered a perfect match.
This was exciting, but also mystifying to all of us since Maggie and I were so different. When I studied up on the science of bone marrow transplant, what can happen once the donor’s bone marrow gets into the patient is that the patient can reject it or the donor’s cells can attack the patient. They call it rejection or attack, attack or rejection. That’s the actual word, medical term. When I heard that, I thought to myself, “Well that’s what my sister and I have done our whole life. We’ve attacked each other. We’ve rejected each other. And since I believe in the mind-body connection, if you’re nervous and stressed, you can get a cold, your immune cells can be diminished by your stress. I thought, well if every cell in her body after the transplant is mine — because that’s what happens in a bone marrow transplant. They kill all of her blood cells and every bit that is reproduced comes from my stem cells. It’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s the basic science of it. And I thought, well, if they’re all my cells, I certainly want to work on our ancient rejection and attack because maybe we could teach our cells how to get along.
So I suggested to my sister, “Should we do some therapy together?” Which for her was so anathema to what she’s all about, but when your life is — and when you’re about to die, you’ll do anything, you’ll jump out of a plane. This was her jumping out of a plane, going into therapy with me. We did that and we worked on our relationship, very quickly because we didn’t have much time. It was amazing. We called it our soul marrow transplant, not a stem cell transplant, but a soul marrow transplant.
We did this clearing with each other where we looked at the assumptions we had made about each other over our many years of being sisters, and we cleared them with each other. “Did you mean that?” “No.” “What did you mean?” It was amazing. We fell so deeply in love and she lived for a year after the transplant. She called it the best year of her life because she was able to start doing that same work with other people, letting go of assumptions and coming into cleaner, fuller relationships.
Anyway, after she died and I was going through her office, I came across that framed needlepoint, “Do no harm and take no shit.” And “Do no harm” is the Hippocratic Oath, which she was a medical practitioner. But then she was also someone who was very aware that nurses often take a whole lot of shit from the medical professionals above them, and so she and her fellow nurses loved that slogan, “Do no harm,” but know who you are and have a strong backbone, and have some boundaries. It reminded me of a very common Buddhist practice. You see the iconography of the Buddha or Kuan Yin with one hand, the right hand up in a stop mudra gesture, like you’re putting your hand out like, stop. And then the left hand is a cup, it’s the gesture, the mudra of compassion. It’s you’re holding all the suffering of the world in your hand and transmuting it into care. Then there’s the other hand, which is saying stop.
It felt to me like it was a good way to describe what that Buddhist meditation is. It’s like, you can be so open to the suffering of the world and of your own heart. Keep your heart wide, wide open, that is the path of the sacred seeker. But if you don’t have a strong backbone — and that’s why you see in meditation the posture of a strong back. If you don’t have that strong backbone and that ability to say, “No, I have boundaries. I know who I am. I am valid. I belong here.” If you don’t work with those two things together, you either become too hard — that stop can just make you so rigid and hard and kind of like an asshole — or if you’re too open and too sensitive and too soft, you just get run over because that’s what happens. So that is to me, like a noble meditation. Do no harm and take no shit.
Tim Ferriss: First of all, I just want to express sincere condolences for your sister. I can’t imagine losing my younger brother and I can only imagine how hard that must’ve been. Secondly, I’d like to revisit that clearing that you described, because I’ve read you speak about ADD, but not as we might commonly think of ADD, Authenticity Deficit Disorder. I would love to hear you explain what that is and then also give any advice to those who might want to have clearing conversations with people close to them and work on ADD, Authenticity Deficit Disorder.
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, authenticity is one of those buzzwords like spirituality that some people don’t like that word, or it’s been overused. Or there’s this idea that all you have to do is be yourself and then everything will just work out, forgetting that there are other people out there who may react to your authentic self in not the most loving way. So I just want to put a caveat on the idea that all you have to do is work on uncovering your authentic self. But ADD, all of us have this ever since childhood, these scripts that we have to fit in, that there’s a way to be and that there’s something about the way you are that isn’t right.
I mean, if you ask almost anyone, and I tend, especially recently having written this book about women, to focus more on the imposter syndrome and ADD in women, but I know men have it too. A sense that there’s something fundamentally wrong with me and I got to hide it, and I have to correct it by being like all those other people. We get these scripts from our parents, our school. If we’re a person of color, there’s the white supremacy way to be. If we’re a woman in business, we need to be more like the warrior man. Men have to be a certain way within a relationship. There’s all these confusing scripts that keep us from finding well, who am I? What is my gift and how can I be that in the world?
The way that related to the conversation I had with my sister at these sessions, we only did three of these sessions with this wonderful therapist who walked us back and back and back into our childhood. What we uncovered was that each of us thought the other one didn’t really value, like or see us. We felt judged. And without taking the time ever — because none of us are taught this — to say, “Is this what you think about me? Is this what you need me to be, to be loved by you?”
Instead of checking it out, we did all sorts of weird things, attacking each other, rejecting each other, feeling hurt, lashing out. Never having those essential conversations of, “How do you see me? What do you need from me? What is going on in our relationship that’s keeping us from connecting? How do we meet each other in each of our core authenticities in a way that creates love and a creative relationship?” So we needed that help. I’m sure you know this, and listeners, you all know this too, there’s some sort of bizarre magic that happens when we put down what Rumi, the great Sufi poet, calls the open secret. This secret that we’re all carrying around, that we don’t live up to who other people are, that we’re somehow flawed.
All kinds of weird coping mechanisms come from that. When we put that down, when we just show up with the other person, “Am I enough?” “Oh yeah, you’re enough. You’re enough. Stop trying to be something else. You’re okay.” And you find that enoughness in each other, it’s like a freaking miracle and it’s not that hard, but it’s scary. I write about this in my new book, I was asked after 911, a lot of people were asked, social workers, therapists, mindfulness teachers, to go and do — a lot of the first responders had to take these PTSD courses and they didn’t have enough teachers, so I was leading mindfulness meditation classes for first responders in New York City about six months after 9/11. I did it for maybe, I don’t know, three months. It was a short course in teaching basic mindfulness skills.
Everything was going fine with these guys who I absolutely adored until I tried to bring the idea of mindfulness into being mindful in our relationships with others and really getting down into what’s going on for you in your soft heart? That was no. They were not going to go there. It was terrifying. It was easier for them to go into a burning building on 9/11 than to get soft with their wife or their colleague, or their friend, and to say what they needed, to apologize, to express fears and wounds.
It’s a courageous act to bring your authentic self into a relationship and it takes some training and some help. So I would say, let’s say you have someone in your life you’d like to do some of this exploration with, forgiveness, acceptance, explanation, seeing, hearing. I would say get some help. Do it with a witness, a coach, or a therapist because it can go south really quickly. Commit to it and don’t do it with someone who doesn’t want to do it. You cannot drag someone onto the dance floor. There has to be some shared interest in this idea.
Tim Ferriss: I’d like to throw out a question and an idea just because I’ve seen it play out in my own life. It may seem counter to what you just said but I think that it’s very case by case. And that is, in preparing for this and reading about ADD, in this case Authenticity Deficit Disorder, there were a few examples in interviews of questions that represent these open secrets that you then asked your sister. Such as — and please let me know if any of this is incorrect, but, “When I got divorced, why did you reject me in the time I needed you so much?” Or, “For a while you barely let me in your home. What was that about?” These are big questions and open secrets, like you said.
I have in my experience sometimes found that not value necessarily in dragging someone to the dance floor, but just in the asking of the question, there can be an incredible unburdening. And that it wasn’t solely an answer that was required to help that unburdening, but just the asking of the question, if that makes any sense. The releasing of that open secret. I would be curious to know if that resonates at all, or if you have found that to be true at all in your experience.
Elizabeth Lesser: I think it’s so critical and such a beautiful revelation. One thing I really feel I’ve learned better since that work with my sister and just getting older, there does not have to always be resolution. There often just has to be the questions. It’s like you don’t have to pull out every single stick from the cleared out river, you can just pull out a few so that there’s a little more movement and trust that that movement will do its thing.
I’ve been such a fierce seeker and experimenter with so many different psychological and mystical, and medicine traditions, like going for it and I’m going to clear up every stick in the river. I’ve really loosened up on that. It’s like do a little bit, give it a really good try. Work on your ego’s need though, to control everything and just see what happens little by little, and then throw it up to the fates. I certainly got a big download about what you just said in that work with my sister.
Tim Ferriss: Such a beautiful story, and certainly such a sad story. Do you have any recommendations for people related to grieving? This is something, I have a number of close friends who’ve lost their parents and struggled incredibly to process those experiences. Not to say there is any easy way, nor should there be an easy way, but we seem to really lack any structure or certainly, I think there’s a dearth of meaningful rituals related to mourning in the secular United States and I’m sure elsewhere. Do you have any suggestions, recommended resources, anything for those who are grieving?
Elizabeth Lesser: I love the words grief and mourning. I think grief is just a sign of how well you loved. Grief is like a badge of honor. You loved. You are a lover. And of course, you’re going to grieve, depending on how much you give of your heart, when the object of your love is gone, it’s going to hurt. Part of consumer culture is that we look for closure, which is one of my least favorite words. I’m just into keeping it open, keeping the heart wide open because if you shut down to pain, you shut down to joy. We all know this intellectually, that the heart is a big muscle and you keep it wide open, you’re going to feel everything. It’s very understandable that we’d close down the heart. You get wounded as a child, you shut down, but then you shut down to everything.
One thing is to buck the system that says your mother died, you should go back to work in three days. Like in the old country, you would wear black for a year and you’d see the woman in black walking in the town square and you’d say, “Oh, oh give her space. Give her room. She’s mourning.” Or you sit shiva in the old Jewish traditions for a year. Or just indigenous cultures where the underworld, the underworld of darkness and loss and feeling, these are sacred places to go into.
And we’ve lost that because it’s not productive to grieve, so instead you swallow it and you end up really not being productive at all because you’re drinking too much and eating too much, and working too much just to cover the wound. It’s both to me, a structural social thing that we don’t give time for grief and loss and mourning, but it’s also an individual’s courage to feel it all, all the way through, and to ask it to have its way with you and teach me. And to wear it as a badge of love. To wear your grief proudly and not to think you have to have closure.
Tim Ferriss: So many excellent points, and I’ll just add that one book that really helped one of my friends after the loss of his father was On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. He said that he wished he had read it before the passing of his dad, that it would’ve actually served as incredible preparation and it would’ve been very helpful preemptively. He recommended it to me and many others, just based on that experience of his.
Elizabeth Lesser: Yeah, I recommend lots of books on grief and death. You know that there’s a wonderful Sufi saying, or maybe it’s a Buddhist saying, I don’t remember: “Die before death and then do whatever you want, it’s all good.” So really owning that we all die, we all lose, and making friends with that. Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist teacher I’ve studied with a lot, she calls mindfulness “unconditional friendliness.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s great, I like that.
Elizabeth Lesser: So having unconditional friendliness to loss and grief and change, it’s hard. It’s a hard practice, but any of those books to read about grief and loss before they happen, it’s preparation so that you can welcome the inevitable.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any books that come to mind offhand that you would or might recommend?
Elizabeth Lesser: There’s one by a Catholic mystic, he’s no longer alive, Henri Nouwen, N-O-W-E-N, I think, could be N-O-U-W-E-N. I think it’s called On Grief. It’s a small book and it’s a beautiful book, and that book by Kessler and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is also a wonderful book.
Tim Ferriss: It is Henri N-O-U-W-E-N, and I’m sure that if we do a quick search for grief, the book may be The Blessing Hidden in Grief. That’s at least one essay that he has written, but certainly people can —
Elizabeth Lesser: Oh, it’s something like Letters of Consolation, something like that.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, there is also a Letter of Consolation.
Elizabeth Lesser: Yeah, that’s the book.
Tim Ferriss: We’ll link to all of these in the show notes as well for everyone at tim.blog/podcast. One more note and then I want to ask about the new book and explore that a bit. I think we may have to do, if you’re open to it, a round two. I am so enjoying this conversation —
Elizabeth Lesser: Oh, great.
Tim Ferriss: — and taking furious notes just for myself, which is always exciting for me. That the first is just to touch again on your wonderful metaphor of clearing a few sticks from the river. You don’t have to clear every last bit of detritus to make a lot of progress. It makes me think of a quote that I’ve kept in mind and revisited often from, of all things, a very famous track coach named Henk Kraaijenhof. I’m not pronouncing that correctly, but what else is new?
His quote was — and his athletes performed spectacularly. One, Merlene Joyce who is considered the queen of the track. Merlene Joyce Ottey had 23 combined medals at the Olympic games and world championships, that’s just one athlete. His quote was, “Do as little as needed, not as much as possible,” and I think this is really helpful to keep in mind when you are “doing the work,” because there are points of diminishing returns and there are also costs when you are constantly whipping your back and —
Elizabeth Lesser: I love that. That’s a fantastic quote. It’s so true. It is not something that I learned until somewhat recently, and I think it’s really important. There are diminishing returns and there are problems that you create by excessive anything.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, white knuckling is not a free lunch. Not to say you shouldn’t do things that are uncomfortable, but if you become obsessed on constantly doing things that are uncomfortable, guess what? Your life is going to be consistently very uncomfortable, which isn’t always the ideal. And it makes it actually sometimes quite difficult to be unconditionally friendly in the mindfulness sense that you mentioned, which I also love so much.
Your new book, and let’s start with my weakness yet again, can you please pronounce? I’ve heard both and I actually know I have friends who pronounce these differently. So how do you pronounce, is it Cassandra Speaks or Cassandra Speaks?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, I don’t really know either. I chose Cassandra because Cassandra sounded affected and I didn’t want that.
Tim Ferriss: I’m very affected to begin with, so I need to stem the tide here a bit. Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. What is the genesis of this book? Writing takes a lot of effort. It takes a lot of time. It’s a huge commitment. Why this book?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, about 20 years ago, I curated one conference at Omega. I’ve curated many conferences on so many different subjects and often I’ll do a conference based on what seems to be making people uncomfortable. That’s funny, given our little bit of last conversation, but what makes people kind of, whoa? Wake up and say, “Why does that make me uncomfortable?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, the proper dose of discomfort.
Elizabeth Lesser: The proper — and so this was putting the word women and power together. What if I create a conference called Women and Power and we just explore that? I invited just four or five different speakers. One was Anita Hill, and the Clarence Thomas hearings were still fresh in the American mind, where Anita Hill had been brought, accused Clarence Thomas, who was up for becoming a Supreme Court judge, the first black Supreme Court judge, and she accused him of sexual impropriety and she was treated very poorly. And he, of course, was appointed the judge and she really put the word sexual harassment on the map. And I also invited a friend of mine, Eve Ensler, who wrote The Vagina Monologues, and a couple of other people to explore what happens when women become powerful. How does the world react? What happened to you? What’s going on when we put these words together? And it was so explosively popular, hundreds of people came. I was surprised. I thought maybe 50 people would come. So I repeated it the next year, and the next year. By the third year, there were 2,000 women and a smattering of very brave men in the audience, in a ballroom in New York City in a hotel.
And every year since then I have had this conference with everything from all the women Nobel Peace Prize winners, to activists and artists and the first woman astronaut. And just any woman who’s a maverick and breaking the mold and asking herself, “What do I do with my power? And can I do power differently? And does that have anything to do with me being a woman?” These were the questions we were asking and I would give a keynote every year to start it off. Actually, when my daughter-in-law said, “Why don’t you just take all those speeches and turn them into a book?” I knew better that it wasn’t going to be that easy because books are never easy. In fact, they’re horribly hard. And I said, “Yeah, maybe I’ll do that.” And I started work on it and I sold it to my publisher and I got the contract.
And then so much happened in the culture around women in the three or four years I was writing, the Me Too movement, Trump, things like that, intersectionality, Black Lives Matter. It was a really difficult writing project to write about the old myths, the old origin stories from the Bible and the Greeks and all the Western traditions that have painted women in one way, the old power books. I went back and read Machiavelli and Sun Tzu and different business texts that describe what leadership and heroism look like. And I just spent these years exploring the research in how women lead. Is it different? How women do the innervism work. Nietzsche says, “Be careful when fighting monsters you don’t become one.” That there was so much going on with women getting into the corporate world or into leadership and then nothing was changing, who cares? So, that was the exploration. And that was the genesis of the book.
Tim Ferriss: Why Cassandra? Where does that name come from?
Elizabeth Lesser: Cassandra was a mortal princess in Troy. And Troy and Greece were always having wars. And she was so beautiful. She was the youngest and most beautiful daughter of King Priam, Queen Hecuba in Troy. This is all Greek myth. These are not real people. These are the myths, just like Adam and Eve, they weren’t real people. So these are stories that inform us through the ages. Cassandra was so alluring that even the gods wanted to have her and Apollo, son of Zeus, wooed her by offering her a gift she couldn’t refuse. She didn’t understand that the gift came with the payment of being his concubine, but she wanted this gift, which was prophecy. She would see into the future. She would know what was going to happen. And then she would tell her people in Troy and so she could inform history.
So he gave her the gift and then she would not sleep with him. So he cursed her. He didn’t just take the gift away, he said, “Cassandra, you will know the future and you will tell the future, but no one will believe you.” And so, as I was reading and studying that story and other Greek stories, I was watching the televised trial of those hundreds of girls who had been molested by Dr. Larry Nassar. He was the doctor for the Olympic committee and Michigan —
Tim Ferriss: Gymnastics.
Elizabeth Lesser: Gymnastics, yeah. And over 30 years, he had been claiming to do medical treatment on hundreds and hundreds of girls and young women but really he had been sexually molesting them. And they would tell their mothers and fathers, they would tell their coaches, they would tell their university, the Olympic committee and no one would believe them. Year after they took the word of this one man over these girls.
And finally, some of the girls started speaking out and speaking out, and the judge who was assigned the case in Michigan, Judge Rosemarie Aqualina, just someone everyone should know about. She defied normal courtroom procedure and she allowed any girl who wanted to speak for as long as she wanted to speak to tell her story. And the trial went on for days. And Dr. Nasser had to sit there and listen to every single girl tell her story. And before each girl spoke, she would say, “I hear you. I see you. Your words matter. Leave them here with me and then go out and live your life.” And they were believed. And I would watch these little girls’ faces, and by now some were women because some of these girls were molested at nine years old, and their whole countenance would change with the experience of telling their truth being validated.
So I decided of all the stories that I unpack in the book, whether it’s Eve or Pandora or literary women, I decided to call it Cassandra Speaks because it really speaks to me of women know something of great value, just like men do, but our stories and our instincts and our values are, because of both nature and nurture, what we care about has been determined as second class behavior. Like the care-taking roles, they’re not very important compared to a CEO or a fireman. The things that we hold dear and know how to do have been invalidated so that we don’t even trust ourselves. We don’t trust what matters to us matters the most in the world. And that’s why I named it Cassandra, so that we would all start telling our truths and demanding to be heard and validated.
Tim Ferriss: Sounds like a lot more work than just stringing together a bunch of speeches and very worthwhile as a project. I would love to come back briefly to the Nietzsche quote that you mentioned. I can’t with the exact quote, but in fighting monsters, we must be careful that we do not become monsters ourselves. In your reading, it also ties into, and this is going to form into a question, Gloria Steinem, a quote, which is “When we do acquire power” — we meaning women — “we might turn out to have an equal impulse towards aggression.” Do you have any thoughts on whether or not that is inevitable? If we have an equal impulse towards aggression, or do you have recommendations for trying to mitigate that possibility for women as more and more women gain power to help prevent abuses of power?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, this really did become, as I was writing, the question I was grappling with, especially as you look at many women who gain power, you look at some of the women who are in Congress now, and you think “Really? You want that story? That’s the story you want? How’s that different?”
So, where I have landed is it’s not so much that women have less aggression. Actually, I think we do because — I’ll go into that right now. We are both nurtured and natured beings and if all you want to do is look into the research of hormones and the effect of estrogen and testosterone and progesterone and we, most women, do have more estrogen. And if you talk to people who have gone through transition, trans people, men who get flooded with estrogen and how it totally changes their experience and vice versa, women who are trans men. There’s a great book out recently of a woman who transitioned into being a man and suddenly wanted to become a lightweight boxer because there was so much aggression and wanted to know how to channel it.
So, there are distinctions between women and men and there’s great variety. So it’s very hard when writing about all women and all men, but in general, there’s less aggression in women. There was this study done in the ’30s and ’40s, Walter Cannon, he was the one who came up with the [phrase] “Fight or flight.” So they did studies on human beings, brought them into the lab, what happens under simulated stress situations? Measured the hormones, measured different chemicals in the blood. Oh, under stress, all human beings fight or flee. Well, in 2007, Shelley Taylor, a scientist at UCLA, realized only men were used in the laboratory. None of those studies were done on women. And that’s the way most studies, medical studies, psychological studies were done in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, all the way up until the early 21st century.
So she brought women into the lab and she did a lot of research into studies done on female animals. And she came up with the term in a wonderful book that people, I think, should read called The Tending Instinct. Shelley Taylor, she came up with the phrase “Tend and befriend.” Under stress in these laboratory experiments, women’s instincts were more to tend to the most vulnerable in whatever, the tribe, the clan, the family, the organization, the business. Or befriend. Women, you come home from a hard day at work, you’re feeling really pissed off and angry. You call three or four of your friends and you talk it out. And you feel these circles of befriending helping you sort things out and finding new ways to deal, that’s the befriending circles. So under stress women often will tend or befriend.
And so the human instinct is not only to fight or flee — yes, everybody has the fight or flee — but everybody also has the tend and befriend. And it’s not a question of women good, men bad. It’s this imbalance of what we have called heroic and leadership, which is all the fight or flight without much of the tend and befriend. I mean, imagine. Just think of some of the statues you see everywhere. I once made a study of this. I walked through Central Park and I made a note of every single statue in the park. And I think there’s something like 59 statues. And 50 of them were soldiers, were young men holding each other with blood and General Sherman on a golden horse.
And just everywhere it was soldiers and generals. And I thought now what if there was a statue of a woman giving birth with lots of blood and pain and her helpers all around her, that would just seem so weird, wouldn’t it? Oh, don’t show that. But it’s what you pay attention to as a culture and name heroic that everyone then wants to be like, which has put tend and befriend type people at a disadvantage. And also once you do get into powerful positions, that’s how you feel you need to be, and it goes against your authentic core. So I’m less interested in women getting into power and more interested in validating and valuing and calling heroic the tend and befriend instinct.
Tim Ferriss: I think that’s an outstanding objective. What impact would you hope this book to have? Looking back six months, 12 months, several years after publication, is it a culture shaping effect? Is there a particular hope that you have of any type? I mean, certainly you just named in high-level terms, one such hope but does anything else come to mind for you?
Elizabeth Lesser: I have three sons and they all have children now and they are the most heroic fathers. They are in there with their kids on a tend and befriend level just as much, sometimes more, than their wives. Their wives have jobs. They work hard, they make money. So do my sons, but there is a true expectation that parenting is shared. That would be one of my great hopes from the book that how we always say a girl can be anything a boy can be, but we rarely say a boy can be anything a girl can be. I would like that statement to have a lot of clout that a boy would feel enormous pride to have his tend and befriend nature developed. That a man would be proud to cry and share and talk and all the things that are considered oh, women, you talk too much, you’re too emotional. The qualities of emotional intelligence would be really cool and hip and dudes would want them.
Tim Ferriss: Just to build on that. This may be in the chapter called In Praise of Fathers. There’s a line, “I actually believe that full-hearted fatherhood might save the world.” Why is it needed? And that might seem like a silly question, but I’m wondering. And perhaps a better way to ask the question is what does full-hearted fatherhood mean compared to what we more commonly find?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, one, it’s not a sense that you’re babysitting, that you’re giving your partner — this is assuming it’s a heterosexual couple, that you’re not giving your wife some time off. It’s an assumption that if women can penetrate the old world of male work world and make money and work and be outside the house that men can make equal interior changes that that allows them to actually want and need to father as much as women want and need to mother. And more than that, I mothered pretty fiercely and I lost a lot of traction in the work world because of it. But I always knew someone had to take care of the kids and that was falling on me. I would like to live in a culture where not only is it expected of mothers, it’s also expected of fathers, but it’s also expected of the society so that we have childcare and that we have parental leave.
Because it all starts with the kids in the home. That’s where it all starts. Gloria Steinem, you quoted her she said — oh, I’m forgetting it fully. But if we want to have justice outside the home, we have to have it in the home. If we want to have freedom outside the home, we have to have it inside the home. So it starts with enlightened families and relationships. So, that’s full-hearted fathering to me is knowing that there’s a lot of muscle given to it. I love that men love excellence and strength and muscle and I don’t know, you could probably come up with better adjectives, but I want care and love to have equal amounts of muscle.
Tim Ferriss: Well, Elizabeth, just a few more questions. And then certainly we can save room. I have many pages of additional questions leftover, which is good news. So perhaps we can do a another conversation at some point, but let me just ask a few more. And the first is absolutely metaphorical, but if you had a huge billboard, conversely, if you just want to send something to every person’s smartphone, if you want to think about it that way, upon which you could put a phrase, a quote, an image, a question, anything like that, what might you put on that billboard?
Elizabeth Lesser: Oh wow. That’s asking a lot. I’m a quote slut. I have so many quotes. I think it would probably be, “Not either/or but both and more.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s fantastic. That is excellent. And the last question is do you have any closing comments, questions you’d like to pose to my audience, requests you would like to make of them? Anything at all that you’d like to add before we bring this conversation to a close.
Elizabeth Lesser: Just to be gentle on yourself. I think my favorite thing about what we talked about today, Tim, was this idea of the stick in the river that to work hard, to pursue excellence, but to be forgiving and gentle, we’re all bozos on the bus, we’re all tripping over ourselves and it’s okay. It’s all right.
Tim Ferriss: Elizabeth Lesser. What a superstar you can be found at elizabethlesser.org, all over social, including Facebook, Liz Lesser. Instagram, @Lizlesser. Twitter @ElizabethLesser. Your newest book is Cassandra Speaks, subtitle, When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. Of course, everyone listening, you can find show notes, links to everything we discussed at tim.blog/podcast. And Elizabeth, what a treat. Thank you so much for taking the time today.
Elizabeth Lesser: Thank you for having me.
Tim Ferriss: And to everyone listening. Thanks for tuning in. And until next time be gentle on yourself. We’re all bozos on the bus together.
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