Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow

Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow

by Elizabeth Lesser


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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • This inspiring guide to healing and growth illuminates the richness and potential of every life, even in the face of loss and adversity.

In the more than twenty-five years since she co-founded Omega Institute—now the world’s largest center for spiritual retreat and personal growth—Elizabeth Lesser has been an intimate witness to the ways in which people weather change and transition. In a beautifully crafted blend of moving stories, humorous insights, practical guidance, and personal memoir, she offers tools to help us make the choice we all face in times of challenge: Will we be broken down and defeated, or broken open and transformed? Lesser shares tales of ordinary people who have risen from the ashes of illness, divorce, loss of a job or a loved one—stronger, wiser, and more in touch with their purpose and passion. And she draws on the world’s great spiritual and psychological traditions to support us as we too learn to break open and blossom into who we were meant to be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375759918
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/14/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 38,305
Product dimensions: 5.15(w) x 7.95(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

ELIZABETH LESSER is the co-founder of Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, which offers conferences and workshops attended by twenty thousand people a year. Formerly a midwife, she attended Barnard College and San Francisco State University. The mother of three grown sons, she lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband.

Read an Excerpt

What Einstein Knew

No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. —Albert Einstein

When Route 25 leaves the mountains of northern New Mexico, the city of Albuquerque appears suddenly like a mirage—a slice of strip-mall America shimmering on a flat shelf of ancient desert. In all my years of visiting friends in New Mexico, I had not ventured into Albuquerque. I had passed by it many times, on my way to and from the airport, but never had a reason to turn off the highway until one afternoon, when I went looking for a psychic whose card had been given to me by a friend in Santa Fe. This was during the first difficult days of being separated from my husband of fourteen years, a time when people who tried to help me would eventually give up, too frustrated to continue following me around a maze with no exit. The day before I left my friend’s house, she handed me the business card of a psychic and said, “Don’t ask. Just go.”

The front side of the card read,

Name: The Mouthpiece of Spirit Location: The Road of Truth

I found more helpful directions on the other side, where three rules were printed:

1. Pay Only in Cash. 2. Bring a Blank Tape. 3. Do Not Hold Me Responsible for Your Life.

And then the address, which led me through dusty, treeless streets, past a few warehouses and truck lots, to a trailer park on a forlorn road a couple of miles from the airport. The place looked like a bad movie set—several old trailers and dilapidated outbuildings, discarded automobiles, and a dog tied to a clothesline. At a dead end I came upon the last trailer in the park, set off under a gnarled tree strung with flashing Christmas lights. Rechecking the directions, I was alarmed to discover that this indeed was The Road of Truth, the home of The Mouthpiece of Spirit.

On the steps of the trailer things got even weirder. The psychic met me at the door. She had the most hair I had ever seen—piles of bleached blond tresses arranged in a beehive on top of her head. She was wearing a red-and-white-checked cowgirl shirt, white stretch pants, and high-heeled sandals. Her eyes were clear and blue, and her nails were painted bright red to match her dangling, heart-shaped earrings. She seemed surprised to see me, as if I hadn’t called earlier in the morning to confirm the appointment, as if she wasn’t a psychic at all. After I established what I was doing on the steps of her trailer, she invited me in, asking me to excuse the mess. We stepped over boxes, books, magazines, and bags of pet food and potato chips. On the couch, watching TV, was a man—perhaps the psychic’s husband—and a big white poodle with plastic barrettes in its hair. Neither seemed to notice me as the psychic led us to her bedroom.

The psychic sat on a king-size bed that took up most of the space in the room. She motioned to me to sit on a folding chair in the corner. I could still get out of this, I thought, as I squeezed behind the bed to sit on the chair. But before I could say anything, the psychic announced in a no-nonsense tone, “You have something in your purse for me. Something from your husband. A letter.” Her voice was dusky—a smoker’s voice—but it also had a regional twang, making her sound like a Texas Mae West. In fact she reminded me of Mae West, and I wondered what the hell I was doing, in a trailer near the Albuquerque airport, asking for life direction from Mae West.

“So, do you have a letter in your purse or not?” demanded the psychic.

“No, I don’t,” I stammered, defensively. “I don’t usually carry letters in my purse.”

“I am quite sure you have something, something from your husband, in your purse.” Her voice softened some, and I suddenly realized that I did have a letter from my husband in my purse—a letter that spelled out the sad jumble of our marriage and revealed to me all the reasons for staying in it, as well as all the reasons for leaving. I had brought the letter with me to show my friend, to see if she could interpret it in a more definitive way, but I had forgotten all about it and never showed it to her. Instead, I had spent my time in Santa Fe doing exactly what Albert Einstein warns people with problems not to do. No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it, he writes. In other words, don’t try to solve a problem using the same mixed-up thinking that got you into the mess in the first place. You will just keep swimming around in tight little circles of indecision and fear.

I had been in a state of indecision about my marriage for so long that my ability to move in either direction had atrophied. I had recalculated the reasons for staying and the reasons for leaving over and over, like Einstein struggling with an equation that never quite added up. Something told me I would not find my way out of this quandary using the same old arguments, but I didn’t know where to look for a new perspective. It was as if I was underwater, swimming around and around in darkness. Far above me, beyond the weight of an ocean of worries, a ray of light was pointing in a luminous, new direction, but I was too distracted to notice. I was caught in waves of conflicting questions: Would I ruin my children’s lives by getting divorced? Or was it worse for them to live with unhappy parents? Was I a dreamer, looking for an elusive happiness that real life could never deliver? Or were we meant to know the rapture of being alive, even at the cost of breaking the rules? The questions ebbed and flowed, back and forth, an endless exchange with no answers, no winners, just a worn-out swimmer.

How was I to break out of my tight circle of fear into a new consciousness? How did Einstein do it? How did he quiet the admonishing, skeptical voices in his head—the ones barking bad directions—long enough to hear the steady whispers of the universe? How was he able to peer beyond himself and follow the light to the more lucid answers?

I opened my purse, and there was the letter. I leaned over the bed and gave it to the psychic. She held on to it with her eyes closed, not even opening the envelope. After a few moments she asked, “Would you like to tape the session, dear?” sounding no longer like Mae West but more like a kindly waitress at a diner. I took the blank tape out of my jacket pocket, leaned across the bed again, and gave the psychic the tape. She popped it into a tape recorder that had seen better days, pushed the record button, and the session began—an hour-long mix of wacky chatter, astute philosophy, and unexplainably accurate information about me, my husband, my children, my whole mixed-up life. She jumped around from epoch to epoch: a past life with my husband in China; the destiny of my youngest son; the next man I would marry; and the eventual “last days” of earth time.

Sitting in the corner, I felt as if I had left my body and The Mouthpiece of Spirit had taken up residence. This was the only way I could explain her sudden knowledge of my life. Otherwise, how would she have known that I had a letter from my husband in my purse? How, just from holding on to that letter, did she know that my marriage was crumbling? She sat cross-legged on the bed, squeezing her eyes shut, clutching the letter, mumbling to herself: “He wanted to leave, but now he’s changed his mind. Hmmm.” She fluttered her eyelids, then shut them tight again. “He’s desperate to come back, but now she wants to leave. She feels guilty; he is angry. Okay, okay,” she whispered, as she opened her eyes and studied the return address.

“Rick-shaw, Rick-shaw,” she drawled, mispronouncing my husband’s last name in her Texas twang. Closing her eyes again, she said, “I see you pulling a rickshaw. I see you serving your husband in China. He is a nobleman; you are his servant girl. You have served him in many lifetimes. You served him then, and you hid yourself. You serve him now, and still you hide yourself. Still you do not claim your power. Do you understand?”

I nodded my head. Regardless of her dubious methodology of determining past lives, I did understand how I gave away power to my husband, how I resented him for steering our marriage, how I had so little trust in my own voice.

“Well, it is time to break the cycle. For you and for him. But you must be the one to do it. You must take back your power. Do you understand?”

“It’s complex,” I complained. “It’s not his fault that I lack confidence and he doesn’t.”

She looked at me hard. “Write this down,” she said, tossing me a pen and a pad of paper with a border of little bluebirds and flowers. “Those with power never willingly concede their control. Do you understand? Your husband will never, ever be able to let you grow into who you are supposed to be. It is not in your karmic contract. It’s not a matter of fault. The truth is that, in order to find yourself, you must leave him. This is your quest. And in order for your husband to find himself, he must lose you. Y’all have lessons to learn—lessons that are more important than the marriage itself. The soul comes to earth to learn lessons, not to get married, or stay married, or to take this job or that job. You have been asking the wrong question. It’s not whether or not to stay married. The question,” she said, leaning closer to me, “is what lesson does your soul want to learn? Do you know?”

What lesson did my soul want to learn? I liked this question. It was new. Right then and there I felt it pointing me in a different direction. I felt it leading me up toward the light.

“Well, I’ll tell you then,” the psychic said when I didn’t answer. “Your lesson in this lifetime is to find and trust your own precious voice. Your husband has his own lessons to learn. You cannot help each other on your quests anymore as husband and wife. Write that down. His grief at your leaving is also his fear of losing the power he has had for lifetimes. Those days are over for him, and he is in turmoil. But if you are to help him on his soul’s quest, you will leave him. It is your job—your sacred contract—to free him, and to free yourself. Write that down too.”

She sat patiently as I scrawled her astonishing speech on the little pad of paper. When I was done, she explained that human beings were coming into “the last days.” This period of earth time could extend for a decade, or a century, or more. She didn’t know; but things were speeding up and people were finally learning that only those who love themselves can love others, that only people who claim their own voice can hear the true song of another.

“It is time for you to answer the call of your soul,” the psychic said emphatically. “It’s calling, but you’re too scared to listen. You think you know what’s important, but you don’t. You think it’s important to keep things safe, but that’s neither here nor there. What’s important in this life is to learn the soul lessons.

“My dear,” she said with great tenderness, “what feels like such a painful loss now will become something beautiful later on. You cannot escape your destiny. You can certainly try. People do so every day. They hold on tight, and the river just dries up.

“Now, I have more things to tell you,” she said, handing back my husband’s letter.

“But wait,” I said. “Can I ask you another question?”

“Just one,” she answered, looking at her watch.

“What about my children? I don’t want to ruin their lives. Don’t kids need a stable family and a safe—”

The psychic interrupted me with a wave of her hand and said, “Phooey. You’re not listening. Your children are fine. They are telling me that if you are strong, then they are safe. If you are sure-footed, they are stable. That is all. We’re moving on now.” I wanted to ask her more about my husband, my kids, my fear, my grief, but she was done with that subject. “Just look at your notes,” she said. “That’s all you need to know. You married your husband for soul reasons then; you’re leaving him for soul reasons now. You’re on The Road of Truth, my dear. You’ve put the truck in forward, but you’re looking out of the rearview mirror. It’s a dangerous way to drive, you know. If you choose to stay with your husband, you will be living in dead time. Dead time. If you leave, you’ll be born again. As my mother said, ‘Things may get worse before they get better, but they’ll only get better if you let them get worse.’ ” She chuckled and closed her eyes.

Quite suddenly, she sat up straight on the bed and shook her head so that her earrings made a tinkling sound. “Now I am getting a name vibration,” she announced. “Yes, I am getting a name vibration, and it is T-O-M,” she said, spelling out the name. “The name vibration is Tom. Do you have a Tom in your life?”

I almost fell off the chair. I certainly did have a T-O-M in my life; in fact, I had three Toms in my life. In the past year, I had gone from being a most serious and principled wife and mother to being the kind of woman who had three other men in her life, all of them named Tom! The first was a man with whom I was having a doomed love affair. The second was a novelist I had never met but whose letters and phone calls were sources of mirth and sweetness in an otherwise desperate life. And the third was a man I had recently met. Although we had talked to each other only a few times, this new Tom seemed to know me, to see me, all of me—the part of me that was a big mess, and the part that was beginning to come out from behind the shadows. He wasn’t frightened by my messy self, or my liberated self. I had never before met anyone quite like him. His personality was less dense than those of most people I knew. Perhaps this was because he had been born in a little town in West Texas, where the sky is a lot less confining than in New York, or maybe it was due to the fact that he was several steps ahead of me on the divorce path. His wife had left him a few years previously, taking his wealth and his young son. He had lost everything. Now he was emerging, like a phoenix from the ashes, with new wings and an open heart.

Reading Group Guide

1. Broken Open begins with this quote from Anaïs Nin: “And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Have there been times in your life when you felt the pain of your own resistance to change? What did you do? Did your longing for blossoming become stronger than your fear of change? Are you in one of those periods now? If so, what are the risks of making a change, and what are the risks of staying the same?

2. We all know people who say their cancer or divorce or bankruptcy was the greatest gift of a lifetime—that until the body or the heart or the bank was broken, they didn’t know who they were, what they felt, or what they wanted. It took a Phoenix Process to teach them wake them up. We also know people who did not turn their misfortune into insight. Instead they became more bitter, more reactive, more cynical. What do you think is the difference between these two kinds of people?

3. Would you characterize yourself as a Bozo on the Bus? Why do you think we hide our vulnerabilities and self-doubts from one another? Why do we try to keep the secret of our true selves hidden, when in reality, that secret is what Rumi calls the Open Secret? And how does hiding out from one another hinder us from turning a difficult time into a Phoenix Process?

4. The author uses many poems and quotes to illuminate her ideas about using difficulty to help us grow and awaken. Discuss the following quotes. What do they mean to you, and to a specific challenge you are facing now?

No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.
—Albert Einstein

What is that knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.
—D. H. Lawrence

And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

5. In Broken Open the author introduces us to people who have endured tremendous suffering and have used their difficulties to understand life better and to find joy in the ashes of a Phoenix Process. In Part II, we meet Victor Frankl in Auschwitz; Judi and Marion as they deal with illness; Ram Dass recovering from a stroke; Glen losing his beloved son; and Rabbi Yehudah Fine picking up the pieces after a near-fatal accident. How do their stories help you navigate the terrain of your own life story?

6. A translator of Dante’s Inferno wrote: “The purpose of the Pilgrim’s journey through Hell is precisely this: to learn all there is to know about sin, as a necessary preparation for the ascent to God.” Do you think that an experience with a Shaman Lover—be it an actual lover, an addiction, or any force that brings one into the underworld—is a “necessary preparation for the ascent to God”?

7. In Part IV we meet the author’s children and extended family. What lesson can “The Great Movement of the Couch” teach any parent?

8. Another character from Part IV, Eli, brought home to the author Mother Teresa’s edict that “the problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small.” Our friendships and families, our marriages and work relationships, and our communities and nations—all of them are circles begging for more spacious boundaries. What is the relationship between the way we expand the circle in our personal lives and the way we affect change in the greater world?

9. What does “practicing death” mean to you?

10. Have you been visited in your dreams by loved ones who have died?

11. Which of the tools in the Toolbox section of the book appeals to you most? How might meditation, psychotherapy, or prayer help you turn a difficult time into a Phoenix Process?

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Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 66 reviews.
MariaSophia More than 1 year ago
What an inspiring book for anyone working through change. Some of the author's ideas are too "out there," sure. But weed out what you need to using your own faith as a guide, and learn from the rest. This book reminds the reader you're not alone, your experiences aren't unique, and there are answers to help you rise from the ashes of an experience that may have left you broken, broken hearted or simply scattered. I didn't want to put this book down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book has taken me to depths of my own life that I dared to enter. This is the book for any person wanting to be human. I am forever in love with this book. I have never wanted to restart a book before I even got to the middle! Every single chapter has touched my life. I have passed it on to friends having their own personal healing, change, freedom etc.
Guest More than 1 year ago
bought this book on a whim after my father's death. so much of this book and the experiences of elizabeth and her patients speak to my heart. any one going through a difficult period in life for whatever reason should read this book. you're not alone.
nita7813 More than 1 year ago
I was going through some issues in my marriage and form reading this book has help me to relax and release alot of the stuff. I would inform everyone whoI come in contact with to pick up a copy. Better yet loan them my copy. This book give me other books to read as well I really appreciated the author for writing such a great book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Elizabeth Lesser has the ability to reach into one's very soul with her unique touch of wisdom and grace. She shares from the heart and will deeply touch yours! She is helping me to heal on very deep levels!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's is hard to not like this book. It's one of those books that reminds us that when life hands us lemons that we should make lemonade. I just love it. For anyone who still feels bound by their anger, guilt, hurt or pain, I also recommend "When God Stopped Keeping Score." I thought that the book was just about forgiveness, I soon learned, it was about so much more than that. I was about how you should deal with friends, family and yourself and more importantly, how to keep these relationships strong when things go wrong. Having read it, I feel like a better person. Maybe because this book spoke to me and not down to me. I have read a lot of books that was written like I didn't know anything. What the author of "When God Stopped Keeping Score" does is talk to you like a friend. I needed that. You will understand why when you read it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Difficult times always provide us an opportunity to explore our own character and value system.
Talbin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, by Elizabeth Lesser, is a collection of stories and observations about coming through what Lesser calls a Phoenix Process - rebirth after going down in flames, as it were. This is not the type of book I normally read. However, I am in the process of going through my own personal life-changing event, and when I saw this book in the grocery store I impulsively decided to buy it. Lesser tells many stories about change and transition - divorce, death, illness - and shows that through life's crises we can choose to grow. She draws on many different traditions and teachings, from Christianity and Buddhism, psychology and poetry. This is most definitely NOT a how-to book. Lesser offers no specific guidance or answers. What she wants her reader to do is to open themselves up to the process of change, defeat and grief so that they can emerge with insights into their own soul. Although this is not the type of book I typically read, I did take away a few important personal insights. The most important insight for me right now is that I need to stop resisting the river of change. I am a great resister, and find that I will fight far beyond what is necessary - or good. I need to learn to go with the flow and to let the currents take me into unexpected waters.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Recommended by my supervisor at work many times over the past year. Finally bought the book in May, decided I was ready for the journey, started reading it, and then realized that my sisters needed it too! Later bought a copy for my teenage niece who has been struggling with depression, and then decided to add my mother and aunts to the "book club" as well.
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