By Kathryn Matthews
On a cold, damp April Fool’s Day, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at the Sheraton Hotel & Towers in midtown Manhattan for the kick-off evening of “A Time of Renewal”, a three-day annual conference, hosted by the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, a Hudson Valley nonprofit, educational retreat center, based in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
Through workshops, conferences and retreats, Omega advocates a mind-body-spirit approach to holistic wellness, spirituality and creativity. Its faculty and teaching body draw from a vast network that includes, among others, Deepak Chopra, Al Gore, Gloria Steinem and Maya Angelou.
Maybe I’d see a few New Age stragglers from upstate here? Wrong. The capacious Metropolitan Ballroom on the hotel’s second floor was filled to capacity. Seemingly miles from the stage, I took one of a few remaining seats towards the back. The audience in search of spiritual sustenance was a mixed bag: young and old(er); corporate business types, sneaker-clad entrepreneurs and graduate students; men and women.
The main attractions, no doubt, were the keynote speakers: Elizabeth Lesser and Geneen Roth.
Lesser (right), the author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow (Villard, 2004), and who has worked with Oprah Winfrey as a spiritual expert, is a co-founder of the Omega Institute.
As a Type A workaholic and an obsessive-compulsive perfectionist, I found Lesser, who tied April 1st and the theme of foolishness into her hot topic “The Joy of Imperfection”, oddly liberating. Americans have enjoyed April 1st as a day to dupe—and to be duped. Yet, every culture has a holiday honoring what is foolish, or vulnerable. Why? “Foolishness is the great equalizer,” said Lesser. And, from where she stands, that’s a good thing.
In being foolish, in being vulnerable, we gain wisdom.
To her adult audience, Lesser retold the classic children’s fairy tale, “Little Red Riding Hood”, as a fable about our journey into the unknown. Little Red Riding Hood represents our “genuine, fresh, curious self”. The path, on which she sets off, through the woods, is “the unknown”. And, wolves—personal challenges and obstacles—lurk in those woods. Grandmother, the ultimate end destination, represents our “wise self”, the “person who listens from the heart within”. We’re all on a “hero’s journey”; and, when we drop our cynical façade, we have an opportunity to tune into the wisdom of the inner fool.
The fool knows that it is best not to resist change. “Purpose is everywhere, waiting for us to step off the cliff—out of your comfort zone,” said Lesser, who shared her past “fool’s leaps” that lead to self-growth and discovery.
I’ve taken my share of fool’s leaps. But, I admit….not lately. Lesser’s parting message was a powerful reminder that by taking a risk, you stand to gain in ways that you could never anticipate.
“When we stop expecting a peaceful outer life, we embrace a peaceful inner life. When we are no longer seduced by security, we get to blossom. Try to have the faith of the fool. Trust that new life is always rising.”
Renewal comes in many forms. Keynote speaker, Geneen Roth shared her story of meeting and dealing with a “wolf” of epic proportions: Bernie Madoff.
A former bulimic and anorexic, Roth (left) is best known as a prolific teacher, speaker and author of books on emotional eating. Her book Women, Food and God (Scribner, March 2010), a New York Times bestseller, lead to an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as being featured in O, the Oprah Magazine and many other publications.
Her world of assured wealth and security shattered the day she learned that her financial guru—Bernie Madoff—was in handcuffs. The 30 years of retirement savings that Roth and her husband had invested with Madoff? Poof! Gone.
Roth immediately called her spiritual leader, who, while empathetic, said simply: “Nothing of any value has been lost.”
It was a pivotal observation for Roth, who began, from that terrible moment, focusing on what she still had (a loving husband, a place to live, friends, work she loved)—not all that she had lost.
In the Madoff aftermath, Roth, who oscillated between terror and anxiety, began to see parallels between food, money and the perception of abundance. “We have an emotional relationship with food and money; the way that we eat reflects the way that we live,” she said. In “staying present”—appreciating what she had in the moment—she began questioning her beliefs about “What is enough?”
Her journey begat her newest book, Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money (Viking Adult, March 2011), which debuted last month and quickly climbed The New York Times bestseller list.
As Roth wryly observed:
“I took the express elevator to the bottom; I got pushed into the darkness. But, by questioning what I had once believed to be true—about money, abundance and self-worth—I was still able to discover the unbroken part of myself.”
Talk about turning life’s lemons into lemonade….