by Bess J.M. Hochstein
Our capacity for self-examination distinguishes us from other animals. We feel compelled to ask: “Who am I? What am I here for? How can I attain my full potential?” The quest for answers has engaged humans for millennia.
Popular books that have helped people on this journey span centuries, from Wallace Wattles’ The Science of Getting Rich (1910), Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937), Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1937), Abraham Maslow’s Motivation and Personality (1954) and Dr. Thomas Anthony Harris’ I’m OK, You’re OK (1967) to Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006).
The personal growth genre is a cornerstone of the publishing industry. Companies like Hay House, founded by motivational author Louise Hay, have flourished. Hay teaches, “No matter where we live or how difficult our situation seems to be, we have the ability to overcome and transcend our circumstances.” The success of her 1984 book, You Can Heal Your Life, a New York Times bestseller well into the 21st century, led to her publishing empire, which includes authors such as Dr. Wayne Dyer, Caroline Myss and Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. One of its recent top sellers is Pam Grout’s E-Squared: Nine Do-It-Yourself Energy Experiments that Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality.
Hay House has expanded its messages of hope and healing through online courses, films, conferences, special events and other opportunities to meet leading thinkers and peers. Such expansion is essential as more of those pursuing the examined life seek personal interaction in community and find that inward exploration frequently translates into outward action to improve the world.
Perched on the cliffs of Big Sur, in California, the Esalen Institute, established in 1962, helped birth the modern human potential movement. It exists to help individuals grow through education, experience and research, with the conviction that positive personal and social transformation go hand-in-hand.
Today, Esalen offers about 600 workshops a year, serving around 12,000 participants. Popular programs range from dance and yoga to couples workshops and psychology courses.
Cheryl Fraenzl, director of programs, explains the appeal: “For most of us, life can be challenging and messy. Gaining the insight, skills and tools to move through the challenging times with more ease and grace while creating more love for yourself and those around you seems like a good investment of time and energy. Being consciously kind and relationally wise ripples out and changes the world. The effort has to start with the individual, like paying it forward; imagine if we all were doing it?”
The largest holistic retreat center in North America, Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, attracts 35,000 participants to 800 programs annually. According to Denise Barack, the nonprofit’s director of program development, current workshops in high demand include qigong, Buddhist meditation, mindfulness and yoga nidra. She also notes a growing interest in diverse dimensions of yoga, dance and “authentic movement” for healing, addiction recovery, releasing trauma and energy medicine.
Psychotherapist and yoga teacher Stephen Cope, founder and director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, the Center’s yoga research department, notes that many guests first come to Kripalu “… as a result of some form of suffering. Then they engage in a period of self-exploration—perhaps learning some form of contemplative practice to help them manage themselves more effectively. Almost always there is a turn outward, back toward the world, and a longing to bring the healing power of contemplative practice into their own domain.”
Once someone has experienced the benefits of contemplative practices such as yoga, meditation, breathing and other healthy lifestyle routines, notes Cope, a powerful aspiration typically arises to share these practices and perspectives. “These practices all lead to a sense of union, relatedness and sameness with others,” he says, “and this burgeoning consciousness of sameness compels us to share what we’ve learned.”
In Rhinebeck, New York, the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies offers similar self-empowering and reflective opportunities. Dr. Stephan Rechtschaffen and Elizabeth Lesser founded Omega in 1977 as a “university of life.” Through working with prominent Zen masters, rabbis, Christian monks, psychologists, scientists and others, Lesser has found, “By combining a variety of religious, psychological and healing traditions, each of us has the unique ability to satisfy our spiritual hunger.”
Based since 1981 in a former camp on a lake with more than 100 buildings on 200-plus acres, Omega hosts more than 23,000 guests in up to 500 programs between mid-April and October, plus special programs in Costa Rica and New York City. Director of Rhinebeck Programs Carol Donahoe notes the rising interest in workshops on dietary cleansing, detox and juicing, such as “Reboot with Joe Cross: A Jump Start to Health and Weight Loss,” led by the filmmaker of Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead. Personal transformation and mindfulness programs led by teachers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Saki Santorelli, Florence Meleo-Meyer, Byron Katie and Pema Chödrön are perennial favorites.
“As humans, we continue to be fascinated by the big questions in life,” observes Donahoe, “like, ‘Where do we go when we die? Who are we if we are not our thoughts?’ People seem particularly drawn to hearing about it from those that have always lived their lives in a left-brain, logical way, and then come to believe the unexplainable through an extraordinary life experience, and now view the world through a completely different lens.”
As examples, she cites neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander, who recounts his near-death experience in his bestselling book, Proof of Heaven, and neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, author of the bestselling memoir My Stroke of Insight. Taylor’s 2008 TED talk was ranked the nonprofit’s second most-watched for the past two years.
Both of these cutting-edge thinkers have given presentations at Omega, which, like at Esalen and Kripalu, helps bring ideas and practices that once seemed on the fringe—from yoga and meditation to complementary medicine and sustainability—into mainstream consciousness. Particularly innovative initiatives include helping military veterans heal from post-traumatic stress disorder; the women’s leadership center; the center for sustainable living; and pioneering programs on mindfulness in the workplace, education system and at-risk urban youth communities.
“We recognize that because we live in an interconnected world; the behavior of one can contribute to creating changes that benefit the whole,” says Donahoe. “Doing both the inner and outer work can awaken the best in the human spirit, and so provide hope and healing to individuals and society.”
For those unable to travel great distances for a holistic immersion experience in community with likeminded seekers, Wanderlust Festivals may offer an answer. Four-day regional summits, primarily held at ski resorts during the off-season, feature teachers like Shiva Rea, Elena Brower and Gurmukh; stimulating discussions; yoga; music and adventure, amidst stunning vistas.
Wanderlust co-founders Sean Hoess and Jeff Krasno strive to create an expansive space for personal growth and mindful living. One common element at every gathering—now including urban and exotic locales—is Seane Corn and Suzanne Sterling’s Off the Mat program, mobilizing yoga students toward activating social change.
The Shift Network is dedicated to creating an online community that shares the tools of self-actualization, empowering a global movement of people creating an evolutionary shift of consciousness that leads to a more enlightened society, built on principles of sustainability, peace, health and prosperity. This new model for the human potential movement has roots in the grandfather of retreat centers; The Shift Network’s founder, Stephen Dinan, both worked at Esalen and contributed to Esalen’s Center for Theory & Research.
Dinan explains that at a meditation retreat, he received a detailed vision of “a large global transformation network that would be helping to usher in a shift to the new era.” The Shift Network now offers free teleseminars and online summits on subjects ranging from meditation and parenting with presence to enlightened business practices and cultivating peace.
“We started with The Sacred Awakening Series—40 days with 40 spiritual leaders—and 30,000 people signed up in 21 days,” says Dinan. The Inspiring Women Summit attracted 25,000 participants. Since 2010, more than 400,000 people from 160 countries have participated in free teleseminars; 18,000 have paid for online courses such as Barbara Marx Hubbard’s Agents of Conscious Evolution, Andrew Harvey’s Christ Path and Thomas Hüebl’s Authentic Awakening.
The Shift Network has already reached profitability and donated more than $50,000 to nonprofits. Dinan’s vision includes providing education program certifications; building a multimedia platform of e-zines, mobile phone apps and web TV broadcasts; and eventually building facilities and intentional communities to model the possibilities of a more healthy, peaceful, sustainable way of life.
From reading a book on meditation to attending a yoga intensive or tapping into a multifaceted community striving to change the world, we have myriad opportunities to lead an examined life. While the seeker may have a personal goal in mind, each mode of self-inquiry can expand outward toward making the world a better place.
Hay encourages us all. “You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”
Bess Hochstein is a freelance writer enjoying bicoastal bliss in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and Sonoma County, California. Connect at BessHochstein.com.