Elizabeth Lesser: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes
Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools, such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion, regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit soundstruefoundation.org
You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Elizabeth Lesser. Elizabeth Lesser is a bestselling author and the cofounder of Omega Institute, the renowned conference and retreat center located in Rhinebeck, New York. She’s the author of the book Marrow; The Seeker’s Guide; and the New York Times bestseller Broken Open. She’s also written a new book called Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. What I love about this conversation with Elizabeth Lesser is she points very directly in ways that patriarchy is subtly embedded and not-so-subtly embedded in our culture—how we can become more aware of it, how we can make changes on the outside and on the inside so that in the future we can tell a different story, a story that equally embraces the power of women as well as the power of men. Here’s my conversation with Elizabeth Lesser:
Elizabeth, I want to talk to you about your new book Cassandra Speaks, but before we do, I want to track back in time a little bit. Here you are, you’re at the Omega Institute, your influencing all kinds of programming and the decisions around which authors to bring, and you decide along with other women to put together the Women & Power Conference. Tell me what was going on for you that you decided to put together this particular conference back—you know what, almost 20 years ago now.
Elizabeth Lesser: Yes. Well, as you said, I’d been at Omega Institute for—you know, I’m a cofounder, so I’ve been part of it for my whole life. And I always used a really odd way of thinking about how to create conference—not just what teacher to bring to Omega to do their own retreat, but how to create these big conferences. And I was often curating conferences about holistic health or about the arts, poetry, sports, and I’d always think, what’s going on in the culture right now? What are people hungry for? What makes people uncomfortable? What’s the edge, right over the edge that makes people uncomfortable because things are changing, because things are new?
And I would do that in a lot of different subjects, but something that was making me really uncomfortable was that I was working in an organization where most of the other leaders were men—actually, all of them in the higher-up leadership, and I was the only woman, and our board of directors were all men and our staff was mostly men. And I just felt, “I can’t figure out how to claim my power here in a way that feels good to me. I don’t want to become like some of the people I see using their power, but I want to influence this place. I want to be creative—I want to be free in my creativity, I don’t always want to be apologizing, explaining myself and learning their language, but they’re not learning mine.” So I thought, “Oh, I’m going to put together one conference, just one, and call it Women & Power, because those two words together make me uncomfortable.” I didn’t want power—I’m a nice woman, I don’t want power, but I actually do want power like this feeling of conflict around women and power.
So I invited for the first conference someone whose work I adored, the playwright Eve Ensler who wrote The Vagina Monologues. I invited Anita Hill, who 20 years ago was still very much in the culture’s consciousness from speaking truth to power at those Senate hearings where she was going up against the Clarence Thomas being confirmed for the Supreme Court. I invited Iyanla Vanzant, this powerhouse of an African American preacher/psychologist, and several other speakers. And I thought, “We’re just going to explore this idea. What happens when you put the words women and power together?”
Well, it was an electrifying success. Couple of hundred people came and the subject just seemed like, wow, this is a good thing. So I did it again the next year, and the next. And then by the third year, we had 2000 women in New York City in a conference. And we’ve done it ever since, with the most wide variety of women in all sorts of domains.
Tami Simon: There’s a lot in the answer you just gave. One question I have for you is, do you feel differently now about your own power as a woman than you did when you started the Women & Power Conference? If I said, “Elizabeth, you’re a powerful woman,” how do you feel about that?
Elizabeth Lesser: Yes, I feel really different. And you know what, Tami? For some reason you asking that question makes me want to cry with gratitude and fierceness, because it did change me. And I think the culture has changed along with me, of course. It never ceases to amaze me how what’s going on for me is going on for millions of other people. So yes, I have changed, and I think women have changed, I think the culture has changed. And I think one of the reason we see the rise again of strong men and patriarchal power, like making a death rattle in so many cultures around the world including our own country, is because women have changed so much and it’s a threat to a way of defining and doing power for millennia.
And I feel changed in myself in two ways. One, I am no longer ashamed or afraid to call myself powerful.
Tami Simon: Yes!
Elizabeth Lesser: That’s because number two, I feel I’ve redefined for myself what power means.
Tami Simon: Let’s go into number two. What does being powerful mean to you?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, let’s talk about how it’s been defined for thousands of years. And one of the things I did when writing this book, Casandra Speaks, is, I went back into lots of the old myths and stories from the Bible, from the Greeks, and in the second part of the book, which is called “Power Stories,” I went back into a lot of the foundational literature of what it means to be a leader and a powerful person. Like, books I’d never read: Machiavelli, The Prince; Sun Tzu, The Art of War; the founding fathers talks about leadership. And I felt so naive—I thought like, “Wow, the way power has been abused and used to dominate people, actually, there’s actually a whole literature.” There’s rules and ways of doing this, Machiavelli talking about it’s better to be feared than to be loved, and that all power has to do with violence and war. These are actual quotes, I have lots of them in the book about how we based what it means to lead and be powerful, and so much of it has to do with being dominating, violent, me on top, you on bottom, using fear, using manipulation.
So for me, I actually have come to believe that there’s another way to be powerful, that your power doesn’t have to mean someone else doesn’t have any power, that we can have power with. And I know people say that all the time you know, it’s not power over, it’s power with, but I’ve done so much research into the way women and many men have begun to change the way they lead, which is to empower others, to include others. It doesn’t mean no hierarchy, but that means that we can be kind and strong and caring and a leader at the same time.
Tami Simon: So once again, just talking about my powerful friend Elizabeth Lesser, you for a moment, when you feel powerful right now in this moment, what does that mean to you? You have a sense of confidence, you’re speaking in response to these questions, you’re not being shy or held back. What does it feel like inside your body?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, I think of power as a natural force and a natural desire within all people to shine, to be who I am without shyness, without shame, without a sense of “don’t show off.” As a child I was always told, and I think many women are told, “Don’t show off. Don’t take space from other people, hold back, be nice.” And to me being powerful, it’s not the same as being hard and egocentric and pushing other people out of the way. It’s feeling no shame to be my best self, to share my best self, to express it, to ask for what I need, to say what I believe is true, but to do so in a way that doesn’t harm others.
You know, in the book, in the part of the book where I teach meditative exercises to help us own our power, I lead one that I call “Do No Harm, but Take No Shit.” So to me, power is about taking no shit while also doing no harm. Very hard to do Tami, but it’s the practice of a new power, to be able to shine who you are without getting in the way of someone else’s shine.
Tami Simon: Well, I have to pull out a little bit of that string for a moment because I think someone might say, “OK, I get, take no shit and do no harm. But how could that be a meditative exercise?”
Elizabeth Lesser: [Laughs] Well, I’ve had so many wonderful meditation teachers. I’ve been like a kid in a candy shop running Omega Institute, as you have been at Sounds True. So I’ve had to be very careful to limit the amount of intake, otherwise you just become a dilettante and don’t do anything. But several Buddhist traditions have been very core to me in my meditation practice. And Zen is how I started, and Zen is all about posture and body. So the posture of a very strong, straight back tells yourself and your body that you belong. I often think about it when I sit down to meditate and I take my seat. I think of myself as sitting on a horse, riding through my kingdom, my queendom, and I’m sitting straight up in my seat and I’m noble and I’m dignified. And that’s the posture that I learned through Zen. It’s not a harsh posture. It’s not so your back hurts, it’s so that you feel dignity in your seat.
So that’s the part that I call “take no shit.” It’s like, “I belong here, I am valid.” If you’re religious, you could say, “I am, God’s noble child, here I am.” But at the same time, in Zen and in many Buddhist traditions, you are taught to soften your shoulders, soften your belly, soften your jaw and open your chest, open your heart to feel vulnerable and naked in the world. So both of those things—if my back is straight, I can afford to risk being open. If I am open and that’s all I am, I’m too sensitive. If I am strong and that’s all I am, I’m an asshole, you know? [Laughs] But if I am strong and soft the way meditation teaches me to be, then I can actually be in the world and do some good while I’m here.
Tami Simon: Beautiful. Now, Elizabeth, when you were talking about what’s changed in the past 20 years, you referenced how you yourself have changed, you’ve personally changed, and also how the culture has shifted over the past two decades. And in Cassandra Speaks, you talk about this need for a combination of what you call “innervism and activism. ” And first, I’ve never heard the word “innervism” before, and that’s probably because you made it up, but I thought that’s a cool word doing our inner work as well as activism.
But then this next comment you made was really interesting to me that for a long time, that you saw these two approaches, doing our inner work and activism, as potentially being mutually exclusive of each other instead of being wholly integrated. But that you’ve seen now that they keep each other in check, our innervism and our activism. And I wanted to talk about this some, because I feel like one of the things that’s shifting in the public discourse, and I’d love to know how you feel about this, is that our inner work in our activist work are not being seen a separate as maybe they were seen a few decades ago, that we’re really seeing this weave. And I think in some ways your new book, Casandra Speaks, really is an illustration of that. It’s an embodiment of that weaving. And I’m curious what your view is of that.
Elizabeth Lesser: Yes. I mean, the religious world, let’s say Judaism, Christianity, Islam—a lot older than this hybrid, new meditation, East-meets-West, health/body, what you and I have been involved in for all these years. Some people call it self-help, some people call it the new spirituality. After all these years, I still don’t know what to call it. Do you know what to call it, Tami?
Tami Simon: Our journey.
Elizabeth Lesser: Our journey, OK. Our journey practices—some of the older religions have actually not separated out good works in the world and prayer and meditative life. There’s branches of all the religions where they’re very connected. In fact, you look at the great leaders that the whole world agrees to, saying these are our saints, whether it’s Dr. King, or the Dalai Lama, or Mother Teresa, or Mandela, all very deeply religious people who are moving into space of activism from their spiritual life. And I think this newer form of practice that we’ve been so involved in is young, and it’s taken a while for us to merge the two.
I remember when years ago, probably 25, 30 years ago at Omega, we started inviting nonprofit service-type organizations to come and use our campus and to do their organizational retreats for free. And we would just allow them to use it. It was our early entree into trying to combine the inner and the outer. I remember one retreat where I was hosting these people, they were all working for peace, they were a peace organization. And I thought, “These are some of the angriest, most anxious people I’ve ever seen.” They’re not getting along, their communication style is really needs some help. And I thought, “Wow, they could use some of the stuff that we’ve been honing.” You know, how to bring inner peace, how to be peace—the famous Gandhi line, to be the change we want to see in the world.
And that was when we first began working with, can those of us who are involved in meditation and self-care and bodywork stop being always so referenced “me, me, me, my needs, what I need, my wounds, my journey,” and can we start looking a little outward? And can these people who are working so hard in the world start looking a little inward so that we’re integrated as people?
Tami Simon: To say again, I do think your new book is a true weaving together and integration of, how do we change the culture and how do we look inside and grow ourselves up at the same time? So I want to thank you for that, Elizabeth, for writing so beautifully. Now, in Cassandra Speaks, you introduce us to this story of Cassandra. And quite honestly, I was unfamiliar with the story until reading the book. So I wonder if you can share with our listeners and why the story is so important to you, that you made it the title of the book.
Elizabeth Lesser: Yes. I wasn’t going to call the book Cassandra Speaks until I was almost done writing it. The book is about—the subtitle is When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. So I was busy writing about a lot of the origin stories that I feel still cling to us—women and men, and the whole culture. Stories we’ve outgrown—the story of Eve, the story of Pandora, lots of the literature we read. Stories that paint women as born second, but first to sin. You may think, “These are old stories. I don’t even know them. They don’t affect me,” but they do. They affect all of us still, they’re still under our skin.
So I was refamiliarising myself with the Greek myth of Cassandra. The story of Cassandra is she was a beautiful princess, the daughter of the King of Troy, and Troy and Greece were often at war, this is an ancient Greek myth. And Cassandra was supposed to be married off, but she didn’t want to get married. But all the men, the mortal men and the gods were all after her, and Zeus tried to marry her, and then his son Apollo, he said he would offer her the gift of clairvoyance. She would be able to see into the future. She would know what was going to happen. And she would be able to tell it, and speak it. She wanted that gift. She didn’t understand that he was offering it to her as a bribe then to have sex with her, but she accepted the gift. And then when she refused his advances, he was furious. So as the story goes, he spat in her mouth and put a curse on her. And he said, “You will continue to be clairvoyant, you will know what’s going to happen to your world, to your brothers, to your family. You will see it, but no one will believe you.”
So of course, she did remain clairvoyant. She saw the Trojan war, she saw the horse that was filled with all the soldiers, she saw her family all being murdered, she saw her city in smoke. And she would warn people, “Don’t go to war. Don’t do this,” but no one would believe her. And she was eventually driven mad by this. So as I was writing the book, the Me Too movement was really exploding in our country. It feels to me like this was 10 years ago, but it was two years ago. So much has happened in our country that the Me Too movement seems almost quaint. But it was very much affecting me as I wrote, especially those young girls who had been abused by their doctor, Dr. Larry Nassar, the gymnasts, the Olympic gymnasts, 30 years’ worth of him abusing hundreds and hundreds of girls and they would tell their parents, and they would tell their coaches, and they would tell their university and the Olympic committee what was happening, and no one believed them.
And then when the trial happened and the judge allowed the trial to be televised, and she allowed every girl who wanted to speak, 125 of them to speak what had happened to them, and she made Larry Nassar, the doctor sit there and listen. And one by one, the girls came up and said their piece, and you could see how they were being healed just by being spoken, being allowed to speak, and being heard and taken seriously. And I thought, that’s the Cassandra story.
We are all Cassandras—not just sexual abuse, but women know something, I believe—we’ve been feeling in our bones—we feel climate change, we feel injustice, we have much more of an emotional softness and openness. And we let it in, we’re not as defended—poor men, they’ve had to be defended. But we’re a lot less defended, so we feel it and we say it, and we’re called hysterical, and we’re called irrational. But I believe it is time for us to change the way the Cassandra story ends, that we find a way to tell our truths, our feelings, to trust ourselves, to know what we know, to say what we know so that we can change the course of history.
Tami Simon: When you say “change the way the story ends,” so let’s rewrite it. What’s your new version, Elizabeth, of how the Cassandra story ends?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, that we not only find our powerful voice, women—and also men. We find we no longer think that to be powerful is just to get our foot in the door of this job and this corporation and this culture and this Congress and this school board—not just to get our foot in the door and then do it exactly the way it’s being done, but to actually believe that we can do power differently. And if we listen to our instincts and trust our instincts, and somehow cleanse ourselves of this imposter syndrome that we don’t know what we talking about—what’s called “internalized patriarchy,” where we don’t believe ourselves. We think all the things we’ve been told about women—that we’re hysterical, that we talk too much, that we’re too emotional, that to be a nurse or a teacher is a second-rate job—that we put caring and loving, we give a musculature to it. We believe in it so wholeheartedly that when we tell our stories, we tell them with great pride and we don’t take shit, but we do it with a sense of kindness and openness and inclusion.
Tami Simon: I love that phrase, “we give a musculature to it.” I love that. Now let’s say someone has the thought, “You know, never heard this myth before. I don’t believe it’s actually working on my unconscious. I don’t believe it’s affecting me. This is Greek/Roman mythology. I didn’t listen to any of the classes that I was supposed to take in school on Greek/Roman mythology. I certainly discounted the story of Adam and Eve as a bunch of mythological mumbo jumbo. Even though you’re talking about ‘second born and first to sin,’ I never bought any of that. Is that really impacting me as I navigate through the world?”
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, first of all, women are not a monolithic group of people; neither are men. There are some women who tragically live in cultures now where that myth is affecting you in the most literal way where you’re not allowed to drive; or if you’re raped, you’re the one who’s stoned because you are so full of dirty sin in your body. So there are cultures where it is not subtle anymore at all. And there are some people—especially younger people, who I feel are more free than I am, let’s say, as a woman in her 60s—but I am going to tell you, we are still or all under the cloak of those myths. And our rights and our sense of our validity can be taken away very quickly.
Let’s just say, God forbid—I don’t know how political you are on this podcast, but let’s say things were not to change in our country, and we were going to keep going the way we’re going, and religious freedom became less and less, and the right to choose what you do with your body became less and less free for women. We could have these rights taken away very quickly. Why? Because there are huge swaths of people, and many men and women, but a lot of men, who still do believe that in male supremacy, in a woman’s place is in the home, in our bodies somehow being something that they should have a right to determine what happens to. So you might think in your own privileged little area it’s not affecting you, but it does affect our culture. This sense that women’s bodies are not our own, and that our way of looking at the world in a more emotionally intelligent way of looking at reality is second rate.
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Tami Simon: Now Elizabeth, you mentioned that an aspect of internalized patriarchy is the imposter syndrome. And I wonder if you could explain that to me a little more—how is it that women believe they’re imposters and that’s an aspect of internalized patriarchy?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, back to the myths, back to the old myths. If in our DNA and in our consciousness that we’re not even quite aware of, we’re still functioning under the idea that women were born second and first to sin—or let’s say the myth of Pandora. She also was the first woman in Greek mythology, and she was told, “Don’t open that box Pandora just don’t open it.” But she was too curious, as Eve was too curious. Curiosity in men throughout the ages has always been seen as like, that’s what makes men go on the hero’s journey. But curiosity in women has often been seen as “You’re too much calm down, don’t talk so much, don’t be so intense.”
So if that’s the kind of waters we drink at still, when we do get ourselves into positions of power and leadership and wanting to make a mark, there’s something in us that still feels we should hold back, we shouldn’t talk as much. I mean, there’s been so many studies that still in universities, still women talk about one third as much in class as men, because there’s still this thought like, “I’m supposed to be more quiet. I’m supposed to give space.” So if that’s still in us, when we do speak up, we often feel this sense that “I don’t really deserve to be speaking. I don’t know what as much of what I’m talking about. Those people know more, I’m going to be found out that I don’t really believe here that I’m not as smart as other people.”
I mean, I have interviewed for the book and read so much, even people like Michelle Obama who say it took her years in the White House to understand—she has a wonderful quote, something like, I’d be in these rooms with all these people who I thought were so smart. It took me years to find out they weren’t that smart. I was smarter than them. But her assumption always was, there’s something lacking in me. And that sense of in women of there’s something lacking in me comes from thousands of years of being told there’s something lacking in us.
Tami Simon: OK. So someone’s listening right now and they are seeing themselves, they’re hearing themselves in what you’re describing and they’re thinking, “Yes I lack confidence. That’s where I go. I question myself, I see other people, they just take the bull by the horn and go. I don’t, I don’t. I lack confidence.” What would you recommend to such a listener who identifies?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, a whole lot of things, and in the book, I have all sorts of suggestions and exercises, but I’ll just go through a few. The first thing is to realize that you are so not alone in this. Part of the imposter syndrome is to think that everybody else has got it together, and I’m some weird oddball who doesn’t. So I have found for myself that being very honest and vulnerable about what’s going on with me—let’s say I’m about to go into a meeting and I’m feeling nervous and unprepared, even though like, I know what I’m talking about, I don’t have to always prepare everything, I got this. I will say to someone, “I’m nervous and I’m feeling really shitty about myself.” And that person might say, “I was like that just yesterday.” Or, “You’ve got that.”
So opening up the open secret with everyone—or even in the midst of the meeting admitting it. Because most people are suffering from this, and becoming a community of normal human beings and getting out of your own way that way. One thing that I have found really important for me as a leader is when I hear another woman say something like, “Well, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.” Or, “I don’t know that.” Or, “Well, I’m not really that great.” You say a compliment to someone and they’re like, “Well, I didn’t do it.” I always interrupt that person. I always say, “No, you did do that—own it.” I think it’s very important for women to support each other in building each other up.
There’s a wonderful saying—I forget who said it, something like, “God, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.” [Tami laughs] Not all white men also don’t suffer from imposter syndrome, but without that sounding offensive, God, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man. I think it’s a good little thing to keep in your head. Most people are just making things up and feel some sort of confidence in themselves. So I have internalized that line. It’s like, I don’t have to be perfect, I don’t have to know everything. I can just be who I am and that’s enough.
Tami Simon: Now, it’s interesting, one of the teachings that you share in Cassandra Speaks is that we can become more aware of our vocabulary and the metaphors that we use. And you talk about how we often use war and violent metaphors or sports metaphors. And when I was just asking you this question, how some women take the bull by the horns, I suddenly had a moment of self-reflection there. And I was like, “Oh my God, who wants to take a bull by the horns? Just to be able to express myself without feeling like a phony.” I mean, I don’t want to touch the horns of a bull.
And I thought that was a very interesting thing that you pointed out Elizabeth, I’ve also been told in my leadership at Sounds True that I use a lot of sports metaphors. I won’t use violent metaphors in general because I don’t like them. Although I did just talk about grabbing a bull by the horns, but I like sports competitive sports and I use those metaphors, I thought, “Elizabeth’s pointing to something really different. What if I challenged myself to talk about various challenges that we have at work without using, winning the sports game?” and I’ve had women in the office say, “Tami, I don’t watch sports. I don’t know what you’re talking about when you go into using ‘the full court press’ or could you use something else?” So share with me why this was an important reflection for you.
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, first of all, lots of sports metaphors are so wonderful. First of all, I’m so opposed to language police, I think we’ve gotten to a place now we’re also afraid to say everything. So I don’t want this to sound like I’m policing people’s language. It’s just a very interesting exercise. I write in the book how I started this thing where I was in an airport right after 9/11 when everyone was so on edge, and I said something to a young woman who had a baby with her, and I said something like, “Oh, babies are time bombs.” And I was literally taken away from the line and put in a room and questioned why I said the word “time bomb” because people were so on edge then. And I started thinking, “Why did I say time bomb? Why would I call a baby a time bomb?”
So I tried this exercise for myself. I called it “a day without a war metaphor,” and sports are one thing, but so many sports metaphors, if you check the matter, actually from either boxing or wrestling, like “a low blow,” “no-holds-barred.” We say these things, we don’t even know what they are. No-holds-barred is a boxing metaphor that means you can do anything in the ring, even kill somebody. This was before there were a lot of rules in boxing, so a no-holds-barred knockout is something that could even kill someone. Why would I be saying something like, “Oh my God, I love my little grandson, no-holds-barred”? Why wouldn’t I say, “I love him with all the herbs and spices I put into a soup,” or using a gardening metaphor or an art metaphor?
Most of our metaphors come from war and violent sports. Why [is] that even important to me because I feel it’s just a reflection of what we value in our culture. And our literature and our stories so much of them are about war—our statues, our monuments. You don’t walk through a park and see in a statue, a statue of a woman giving birth, let’s say. No, you see a statue of warrior men holding each other, bleeding on the battlefield. I would like to see words and phrases and metaphors and art celebrating different kinds of power: the power to give life, the power to cook and to garden. And that doesn’t mean we have to get rid of metaphors that have to do with sports or even war, but we’re so imbalanced and they affect us.
Tami Simon: It’s interesting because this idea that we’re going to have statues of women giving birth alongside these statues or in the same park, where there are figures on top of horses going off into battle. It’s hard for me to visualize that actually is going to happen, Elizabeth.
Do you think it might? I mean, are we ready for that?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well cultures don’t ever change because people are ready. They change because brave people make them ready. And actually, in Central Park, there’s something like 60, 70 statues. And up until a few weeks ago, none of them were of real-life women. This is in New York city, Central Park. There was one of Mother Goose and one of Alice in Wonderland, but the predominant figures of these statues are World War I, World War II, Civil War warriors, General Sherman at the beginning of the park, sitting on a gilded golden, huge horse with a sword. And General Sherman is such a horrible person to have at the start of Central Park. He was the person who devised the scheme of reservations for Native Americans and he was the guy who decided if we kill all the buffalo, the native Americans won’t have food anymore and they will have to go into the reservations and the Trail of Tears. And he’s not someone who should be on a golden horse.
And if it’s OK to see statues of young men bleeding, because they’re dying from war, why wouldn’t you want a woman with big thighs with them open and a baby coming out? That sounds preposterous to us, even yuck, gory, but why is giving life, the blood of giving life seen as gory, but the blood of dying in war isn’t? Now, I’m not saying we have to have that statue of a woman. It’s just such a question, but that question itself asks us, what do we value? Why do we value it? I quote a Spanish philosopher who says, “Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are.” So we pay a lot of attention to war and violence, and that’s who we are. And I’d like to pay attention to love and cooperation, and not to have that sound “Oh, rainbows and unicorns, love and cooperation.” No, no love and cooperation are brave, courageous things to try to pull off.
Tami Simon: One of the chapters in Cassandra Speaks that touched me the deepest was called “Know Her Name.” And you tell a story of Antoinette Tuff, a story that I’d never heard before. And I wonder if you can share that with our listeners in this notion of calling out the names of these different types of heroes in our society.
Elizabeth Lesser: Yes. And the fact that we don’t know Antoinette Tuff is remarkable to me. We know the names of so many people who pull off violent acts, but someone like Antoinette Tuff will never be known, or maybe she will. She was the secretary of an elementary school in Georgia. She was just sitting at her desk. She’d had a very hard day because her husband had just left her and into the school walks a young man carrying two automatic rifles, and he says he’s going to kill all the children in the school, big elementary school. This was a couple of years after Sandy Hook. And Antoinette Tuff was all alone with him in a room and instead of freaking out and calling the police, she said, “Baby, baby, come and sit down with me, come and be with me.” And this is all on tape because she had called 911 and put the phone down so they could hear what was happening.
And she went and all alone with him in this room with his guns and his ammo. And she talked to him for two hours talking about her own problems in life, her disabled son and her husband who left her, and “What’s going on in your life baby?” and “You don’t want to do this.” And she talked for hours and finally he agreed to be disarmed and have the police come and take him out peacefully. She saved, through compassionate listening—all the things as spiritual seekers believe so deeply in, that we want to be compassionate, we want to see the other as just another hurting soul, she did it. And to me, that is a hero, That is the hero’s journey, to get out of her own fear and ego and associate herself with this boy. And she saved those children. And yet we don’t know her name, and we should know her name.
Tami Simon: As you mentioned, the subtitle of the book is When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. And part of what inspired me in reading the book is how we can elevate women’s voices as the storytellers. You make some suggestions on how people can do that—you can make your own list of books you love by women, songs you love by women. And I’m curious about that, how that’s worked in your life, making these lists and how you use them.
Elizabeth Lesser: Yes. I have a friend who has been very involved with me, she’s the cofounder of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center. And she started really getting on my casein my books, I love to quote people. And in my book Broken Open, I quote people a lot. And she pointed out to me, “You’re quoting men. You’re mostly quoting men. Quote women.” And I’m like, “Well, my favorite thinkers and speakers, they aren’t women. Because women weren’t allowed to write back then or sing back then.” She was like, “Look for them, find them, they are there. Use them, start using them.” And she stayed on my case; when I’d give a speech, she’d come backstage and say, “You were quoting Rumi and Abraham Lincoln.” And like, “There are women spiritual poets. There are women leaders. Find them.” Not because I don’t love Rumi and Lincoln and everyone else. Not because they’re not worthy, but because we have to balance the scales and show the depth, the power and the wisdom of women so that we ourselves see ourselves in the people we quote and admire.
So in the book I list how still, if you go onto the reading lists in most high schools and colleges, the 15 books that you have to read over the summer or the English literature courses, they’re still Homer and Shakespeare, and the more modern ones—not off the top of my head right now, but I list them all. And there were great women writers, but Virginia Woolf says something so interesting that it’s not just women writers we’re looking for, it’s people who write about conversations and relationships. It’s almost like relationships are a dirty word, and the great literature has to be about the hero and the war and the strategy. Whereas books about the depth of relationship and how people manage marriages, and life, and raising children and all the things that we consider to be well, domestic stuff. That’s chick lit, that’s women’s literature, as if gender is a genre. That we have to bring into the sphere of validity, all the things that humans do—not just the “hero’s journey,” but all the journeys we take have to be seen as serious and valid things to write about and sing about and talk about and make policy about.
Tami Simon: Now, Elizabeth, there’s one more topic that I want to make sure we get into, because this was the chapter in Cassandra Speaks where I actually underlined the most of all the chapters. And it was the chapter on “Women, Power, and the Shadow.” And in that chapter, you write that shadow work has been the most effective “innervist” work that you’ve undertaken. The most effective innervist work that you’ve ever undertaken. So how have you done shadow work specifically in relationship to your own issues around women in power?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, let me, let me explain tiny bit what shadow work means to me, it’s a Jungian term, C.G. Jung was a psychologist who felt that taking responsibility for the ways in which we blame others that is really ours to own and transform, is the core of becoming your full self. All humans—women, men, all genders, tend—it’s easier to blame someone else than to look at, how am I part of what’s going on here? How can I change to meet this situation?
It’s just a knee-jerk easy thing to be, “It’s your fault, mate, wife, husband, child, racial group, political party. It’s you. I’m OK, I’m good, and you’re not. This is just what we do. It’s OK. This is what we do.” But shadow work says, all right, yes, there are bad things happening in the world and things that must be called out, but so much of the time what’s going on in your own unhappiness and your own lack of power and your own lack of control has to do with something that you got to look at in yourself.
So that’s what self-help and psychotherapeutic work is all about. We all know this. For me as a woman and a feminist, it’s very important and empowering for me to look at how I have internalized everything that I don’t like out in the world. I’m still participating in it. So a specific thing let’s say, as a feminist married to a man. I’ve been married twice to men. My husband now, he’s such a willing person in terms of wanting to meet me on my spiritual path. That’s where we meet: psychologically, spiritually, just determined to support each other in change. So of course, I want him to be a more open, vulnerable, talkative man who asks for directions and apologizes, and all the things we blame men for not doing, he’s game. It’s hard because he’s been trained as a man, he’s in the man box, he must always be strong, he must be a dude, he’s a jock and a lawyer. And like, he’s got a lot of man-box training.
So I watch myself sometimes when he does open up and he does admit his weakness and he is vulnerable. There’s a whole part of me that doesn’t like it. I want him to be the white knight still. And I think women do this to men a lot, this double standard that we both want them to be soft and open, but we still have an expectation that they maintain their masculine strength. And I know this isn’t true for everyone in every kind of relationship, same-sex relationships, but I’m just speaking right now about women and men, because it’s a shadow issue that’s big for many women. That if I’m going to ask someone to change, I have to look at the way I am either part of their change or hindering their change. So that’s just one example, there are many.
Tami Simon: I wonder if you could share another example or from your own process with yourself. If you go back 20 years ago, what was going on at Omega, obviously some of it was the workplace culture at the time with men in charge, but some of it had to do with your own shadow work that you did over the years as well to be in a different place now. What would you say that shadow work was for you?
Elizabeth Lesser: Well, a lot of it had to do with this feeling that I wanted to be liked, I needed to be liked. Like, I needed to be nice and it was unbearable for me to think that I would say something or do something that would make some other person not like me. And that leads to passive aggression, because I also wanted to make big decisions and to be powerful. And you can’t do that if you’re always super concerned that somebody’s going to like you all the time. And sometimes—there’s a misunderstanding that kindness and niceness, they’re two different things. You can be kind and make a very difficult decision that impacts someone in a way that doesn’t make them happy. But that’s often a very kind thing to do if you’re being honest.
Like, “I’m going to need to fire you because you’re not right for this job and would be much better served in another job it’s not working well here, for me or for you. I’m going to have to fire you.” That used to just be unbearable for me because I so much wanted to be seen as the good person, and the nice person, and everybody likes her. And I had to really work on that. Why do I want that? How am I trying to be it but at the same time through the back door get something else? I had to really come into that thing that Brené Brown says, “Clear is kind.” I had to become a more clear and honest person.
Tami Simon: Which actually reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Cassandra Speaks. Here it is: “I like to think of myself as someone who adheres to, at least some of the time, the ‘clear is kind’ edict. I want to be a person who is brave enough to speak honestly, to stretch out of my comfort zone, to tell difficult truths, to ask difficult questions, to listen and learn. I want to do this because even though it’s hard, clear communication feels like a kind offering of respect. It’s a way of doing power differently.”
And I think what I loved about that, “it’s a way of doing power differently,” because you know, clear communication, that’s not some big, showy, I’m at the top of some pyramid kind of thing. It’s something we all could actually do a lot as a gift to each other. So I think that’s why I loved that, just the power of clear communication.
Elizabeth, as we end our conversation, I want to pick up on something you said about this moment in time that we’re experiencing a backlash in the public, if you will, to seeing more women come into a sense of their own empowerment, not being silenced, and speaking out. And I want to know, how do you see right where we are right now and the work of Cassandra Speaks, the impact you want this book to have, and the work for women right now, given where we are historically in our culture?
Elizabeth Lesser: I actually—it may sound unintuitive or whatever that is. I actually am very excited about this moment. I think this is a grand moment because we are seeing that we must awaken. There are times in history where everything kind of feels comfortable, but there are big forces underneath. You’re seeing this now with the Black Lives Matter movement—people of color knew that things were not good for a long time, but there was this sleepiness that we’re becoming a post-racial country and we’re moving in the right direction, but yes we were, and no we weren’t. So the Black Lives Matter movement is telling a new story. It’s saying, “Look at white supremacy. It’s the story that our country is founded on. We’re not blaming you right now. We’re saying, ‘Let’s look at that story, let’s change that story.'”
And I think women have a chance now to not just tell a different story about women like women’s rights—which of course we need, and legislation—but a different way of defining power and courage and the hero’s journey, a different kind of hero. We’ve seen it now, finally, in the COVID-19 days, when suddenly we’re looking at nurses and home health aides and teachers, these jobs that had been seen as like lower on the totem pole of validity and power and clout, they’re suddenly being seen as, this holds the culture together. I actually think that’s what we have to champion now. We don’t just have to champion more women in Congress. We have to champion what we value in our culture and become a culture of care.
Tami Simon: Give musculature to care! I liked that so much, Elizabeth, it was great talking to you, and congratulations for writing this beautiful book and for being so expressed and outspoken. Thank you.
Elizabeth Lesser: Thank you, Tami. It’s a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Tami Simon: I’ve been speaking with the cofounder of the Omega Institute, Elizabeth Lesser, author of the new book Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. Let’s change our story.
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