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Elisabeth Lesser on Spirituality, Grief and Loss

I am a fan of Oprah’s. And I am even a bigger fan of Elizabeth Lesser because her book Broken Open really helped me deal with the emotional turmoil in dealing with a painful and chronic untreatable illness.

They sat down and talked about the nature of spirituality, how to make pain useful, how to deal with grief and loss – on Sunday morning, November 13th for Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday on Oprah’s OWN channel. I took some notes:

Lesser – When you say a spiritual path what you’re talking about it – it’s already there inside us, this instinct that we are more than our mind and our body. The path is just getting the obstacles out of the way so we can wake up and fully know our full aliveness, and know that’s who we are.

Oprah – Most times people think that spirituality is, well, people have their own definitions of it but a lot of people think it’s a lot of woo-woo talk. When it is really quite the opposite. It’s the most grounding awakening path you can ever pursue in your life.

Lesser – I’m not a very woo-woo person.

Oprah – Yeah, it’s not out there, its always right here (gestures towards herself)

Lesser – I came to the title – Broken Open – through an image – the image of a rose tightly wound around itself, the bud, like we all feel so much every day tightly wound, anxious, shut down. And in order for that bud to open and blossom into the flower we love so much, it has to break its shell, it has to break open. And it’s an irony of this human life, strangely enough it is our most difficult, broken times – loss of a job, loss of a marriage, illness, loss of a child – those are the times when we are brought to our knees and we open. Our hearts can open during those times. And if we fight those times and fight the bud opening, we sort of a half of a life. But when we open into our brokenness, that’s when we blossom….And fighting life, as I’m sure we can all relate to that feeling of life is happening to us, we are in this stream of life and instead of relaxing into it, we are swimming as hard as we can against the current. That’s sort of the opposite of the spiritual instinct. The spiritual instinct is to relax into the mystery of life as it’s happening.

Oprah – And the spiritual instinct allows you to move through life no matter what is going on in your life, when you are on the spiritual path – it means no matter what happens to you and difficulties will come and challenges will come because that’s all part of the human experience. But the spiritual connection allows you to know that no matter what – you are going to be all right

Lesser – Everything that is happening in our life is a spiritual moment

Oprah – I like what you said on page 105 – “Nothing has awakened my heart as much as the pain of a broken family; nothing has given me as much strength as the time I spent alone in the ruined aftermath of a marriage.” How is that a spiritual path? I think when you have the most devastating things happen to you, that those are your holiest moments. That’s when you get to see who you really are.

Lesser – Yes, because we spend so much of our life trying to be what we think we are supposed to be…what society wants us to be, what our parents thinks we should be, our husband, our wife, our image….just our image of what a spiritual or a good person should look like….so through that experience of divorce and becoming a single mother, I lost everything – my financial security, my self-image, my home, my support. I was really a single mom and everything changed for me. And in the depths of that loss, I found out who I really was. I began to trust who I was. I began to find a genuine me who could withstand anything.

Oprah – how do you do that

Lesser – Well, you can either break down, stay broken down and shut down or you can break open. It’s a decision you make. A commitment. I am going through a very hard time, I’m not going to waste this precious experience, this opportunity to become the best me.

Oprah – I also ask the experience, the crisis, the experience in the moment, what are you here to teach me? What did your divorce teach you?

Lesser – The first thing that it taught me is that i couldn’t blame anyone for what had gone wrong in the marriage. I had spent a lot of time blaming my ex-husband. But I had to take responsibility myself. I had to say – what does this have to teach me about me, not about him, not about how unfair life is. It wasn’t about that. It was what did I do to make this happen. And if I could really sit in the pain of that. The pain is really looking at yourself and what you did to create the mess you’re in and if you can look at it head on fearlessly and say teach me. Teach me about myself so I can grow.

Oprah – Most people search for closure after the loss of a loved one, but Elizabeth says its one of her least favorite words. Why?

Lesser – Because if you don’t take the time to grieve and to let yourself feel what happens, you just put a scar over it and it doesn’t go away. In fact, it festers. And it becomes something else. Perhaps it turns into bitterness or anger or blame and you never get over it. So letting yourself descend into grief…and letting it do what it will with you for as long as it takes, it a much more intelligent response to loss than cleaning up real fast, going back to work, you get your three days of grief days and then you go back to work. That’s not a very wise way to handle it.

Glenn (another guest discussing the grief of losing his young adult son) – And you never get over it. It’s always there. You always live with it.

Lesser – You wear it as a badge of how well you loved. Grief is an expression that you loved well.