book review – broken open, by elizabeth lesser

If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog in the last couple of weeks, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve posted a number of quotes from Elizabeth Lesser’s book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. A couple of you even asked if I would write a review of the book (which I had already considered doing), so here are my thoughts.

I was attracted to this book for two reasons. I’d come across an article by Lesser online and was struck by both her insight and her heart so I wanted to read more of her writing. I’ve also been going through my own set of challenges in the last year, events and circumstances that have left me feeling perpetually off-center and grasping for purchase as I’ve tried to right the wildly-pitching ship that is my life of late; the book’s title indicated that it might help me with my quest to make sense of things and move forward.

Broken Open is a collection of essays that speak to the many ways that we may be broken—death, divorce, illness, aging—and the many paths by which we may emerge from these soul-changing events with our hearts and lives broken open.  Some of the essays are about Lesser’s own struggles; others share the stories of friends or participants in the many workshops that she has led in her capacity as co-founder and senior advisor of the Omega Institute.

A central theme of the book is what Lesser calls the Phoenix Process, in honor of the magical phoenix, which is said to have renewed itself every 500 years, burning itself to nothing and arising transformed from the ashes. Lesser speaks with honesty and clarity about her own major Phoenix Process, which was born of the death of her marriage…how it led to the birth of a self that had lain dormant for years as she attempted to be someone that she thought she should be instead of allowing who she truly was to come to the surface. She touches on other transforming events in her life as well, using the same clear-eyed but compassionate self-analysis throughout.

At the end of the book is an appendix,  a “Toolbox” that Lesser says has helped her through her own Phoenix Processes (for we rarely go through only one in our lives). Here, she offers her thoughts on the tools that have been most helpful to her—meditation, psychotherapy, and prayer—as well as guidelines to follow if the reader is venturing into these territories as a novice.

Lesser’s writing is gentle and straightforward, yet there are passages that are lyrical and transcendent. She will be simply bearing witness, traveling the road of a story—and then round a curve into a statement or passage that is breathtaking in its depth and insight. I have been moved time and again as I’ve read this book, and I feel a strong connection to Lesser through her words—almost as if I could walk into a room, and we would recognize each other as the old friends that we are, and sit and drink tea and pick up the conversation where we last left it—yesterday or a lifetime ago—the way that it always is with friends of the heart. Such is the openness and intimacy of her writing.

The copy of Broken Open that I’m reading belongs to my local library (thank you, local library!), but this is a book that I want for my own bookshelf, my own copy that I can dog-ear and underline and return to again and again. There are not many books that have affected me as profoundly as this one has, and I am grateful to Elizabeth Lesser for creating this book for others to use as comfort and guide as they navigate their own Phoenix Processes and endeavor to come out on the other side not broken, but broken open.

There are many other passages in this book that have had meaning for me, but I will leave you with the following, which I read just this morning:

On the back route to the hospital, which twists through a state forest preserve, the moon was so bright that it illuminated stands of gnarly old oak and maple trees. Quite suddenly, as if falling from a tree, Dante’s lines landed on my tongue, and I recited them aloud: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself within a dark woods, where the straight way was lost.” And then I understood what had been happening to me. Of course! I was in the middle again, in the darkness, in the woods. The straight way was lost; there was no going back; the new way would reveal itself when it was good and ready, when I had learned some lessons, when I had surrendered to change and transformation.

~Elizabeth Lesser, Broken Open


8 thoughts on “book review – broken open, by elizabeth lesser

    • I have been awed and humbled by the way that the Universe has repeatedly sent me teachers in the form of authors whose words spoke directly to the pain or confusion or longing that I was experiencing at the time. I’m glad that I was able to bring Lesser’s words to you; hers is a wise and compassionate voice.

  1. Viki…this is an *excellent* review. I read this book in 2009 right as things started really crumbling with my marriage. Your post made me wonder if we ever really are NOT going through a Phoenix process. Maybe you have a good analogy to gardening, here. Something is always dying and (as Nepo says somewhere in The Book of Awakening)…whatever has died become the fertilizer for new growth. There are definitely the hugely painful life experiences that accentuate the “obvious-ness” of this process, but I think it’s always happening.

    • Thanks, Susannah. I agree…I think we are always having to (as Clarissa Pinkola Estes says) “let something die”…and your gardening analogy is good…I have a quote somewhere that says something along the lines of “Remember, the s**t that falls on you is fertilizer.” I think Lesser is talking about the big ones, the ones that change us drastically or set us on a completely new course in our lives, but yes, I think we experience little Phoenix Processes continually.

  2. Pingback: bozos on the bus (excerpt from broken open) ~elizabeth lesser | pathwriter

  3. Pingback: post du jour ~elizabeth lesser | pathwriter

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