Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow

To be human is to be lost in the woods. None of us arrive here with clear directions on how to get from point A to point B without stumbling into the forest of confusion or catastrophe or wrongdoing. Although dark and dangerous, it is in the woods where we discover our strengths.

We all know people who say that 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. Before their descent into the darkness, they took more than they gave, or they were numb, or full of fear or blame or self-pity.

In their most broken moments they were brought to their knees; they were humbled; they were opened. And later, as they pulled the pieces back together, they discovered a clearer sense of purpose and a new passion for life.

But we also know people who did not turn their misfortune into insight, or their grief into joy. Instead, they became more bitter, more reactive, more cynical. They shut down. They went back to sleep.

The Persian poet Rumi says,

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

I am fascinated by what it takes to stay awake in difficult times. I marvel at what we all do in times of transition—how we resist, and how we surrender; how we stay stuck, and how we grow. Since my first major broken-open experience—my divorce—I have been an observer and a confidant of others as they engage with the forces of their own suffering.

I have made note of how fiasco and failure visit each one of us, as if they were written into the job description of being human. I have seen people crumble in times of trouble, lose their spirit, and never fully recover. I have seen others protect themselves fiercely from any kind of change, until they are living a half-life, safe yet stunted.

But I have also seen another way to deal with a fearful change or a painful loss. I call this other way the Phoenix Process—named for the mythical Phoenix bird who remains awake through the fires of change, rises from the ashes of death, and is reborn into his most vibrant and enlightened self. The Phoenix Process is as an alternative to going back to sleep.

I’ve tried both ways: I have gone back to sleep in order to resist the forces of change. And I have stayed awake and been broken open. Both ways are difficult, but one way brings with it the gift of a lifetime. If we can stay awake when our lives are changing, secrets will be revealed to us—secrets about ourselves, about the nature of life, and about the eternal source of happiness and peace that is always available, always renewable, already within us.

For years I have sat in workshop rooms at Omega Institute—the conference and retreat center I co-founded more than 30 years ago—with people who do not want to go back to sleep. They are curious about those breezes at dawn. Serious things, and not so serious things, are happening to these people. Some are sick and even dying; others are merely dealing with the terminal condition we call life.

Some sense that an inner change is brewing, and they have been afraid to heed the storm clouds gathering in their hearts. Some have recently lost a job, or a loved one, or a fortune. Others are aware that whatever they have at this moment could be lost in the next, and they want to live as if they really know this.

In the spacious and safe atmosphere of a workshop, we ask: How can I stay awake even when it hurts? What might those secrets at dawn be? Why am I so afraid to slow down and listen? What will it take for my longing for wakefulness to become stronger than my fear of change?

Together, we unravel ourselves, using some time-honored tools that I describe in my books, The Seekers Guide and Broken Open—meditation for development of a quiet mind; psychological inquiry for the unveiling of a fearless heart; and prayer for the cultivation of faith. These tools are like shovels we can use to dig for the gifts buried in the jumble of our lives.

All of them have made a big difference in my life. But perhaps the most profound of all the tools we have at our disposal is the simple act of telling our stories to other human travelers—in a circle around the fire, at the back fence with a neighbor, or at a kitchen table with family and friends. Since the beginning of history we have gathered together, talking and crying, laughing and praising, trying to make sense of the puzzling nature of our lives.

By sharing our most human traits, we begin to feel less odd, less lonely, and less pessimistic. And to our surprise, at the core of each story—each personal myth—we uncover a splendid treasure, a source of unending power and sweetness: The shining soul of each wayfarer.

Whether you are in the midst of a big upheaval or riding the smaller rapids of everyday life, the most helpful thing for you to know is that you are not alone, not now, nor at any stage of the journey.

Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist of the 20th century wrote, “We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.”


Photo credit: SORAYA NULLIAH

About the Author

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Elizabeth Lesser is the co-founder of Omega Institute, the United States’ largest life-ling learning center focusing on health, wellness, spirituality, creativity, and social change. ( She is the New York Times best-selling author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and The Seeker’s Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure (both from Random House). For more than 35 years Elizabeth has worked with leading figures in the fields of healing—healing self and healing society.

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