The Omega Institute

Beginning with this interview with Stefan Rechtschaffen, co-founder anddirector of the Omega Institute - the largest spiritual retreat in America - Psychology Today introduces the first of its "site visits." In future issues, we are going to make trios to other medical and healing centers (some of them traditional, some not) such as AIDS clinics, rape-counseling centers, abortion clinics, and drug rehabs. Often, there isn't a lot of first-person reporting in these places because the hurt there tends to distance people or because they're so controversial.

In this column, it is our intention to be your eyes and ears. Other than picking the sites, we'll stay out of it and let you be the fly on the wall. -The Editors

Psychology Today: What gave you the idea to start Omega?

Stefan Rechtschaffen: In the late 1970s I was involved in a spiritual community, and the belief at that time was that we could create a better opportunity for people to learn if we introduced into it a combination of a sense of spirit and community. Omega has its early tenets in community and environment - a place of spirit where people can come and feel nurtured and learn on all levels of their being. It isn't just learning of the mind but a learning of the heart and the spirit as well.

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Initially, Omega began with just three weeks' worth of programs. In the first four years we rented small campuses, boarding schools, and one year we rented Bennington College. At that point we realized we really needed to have our own campus where we could fully develop the atmosphere and the environment, so that it was in all ways consistent with the teaching. So we came and bought this old summer camp, and have for the last 11 Years been upgrading it to meet our requirements. We now have 10,000 people who come here every summer. And the numbers are rapidly growing.

People really want this as a part of their life. Ultimately, what they're looking for is a retreat from their lives where they feel that they are on vacation, they can rest, they can feel nurtured, and they can see changes happen in their lives. They want to start to move their life in a way that works for them, start to integrate their life with what feels good and what is ultimately healthy.

PT: Your background is more scientific than spiritual-what brought you into this area?

SR: I'm a physician, board-certified in family practice, and from the beginning I was always interested in what is now termed holistic medicine. From my early days I was involved in meditation and so, in a way, there was always a marriage of spirit and science. It became very clear to me that what was missing in the disease-care model is the proper emphasis on prevention - empowering individuals to take charge of their own health and to become involved in living a lifestyle that involves good diet, exercise, opening themselves up to their emotional life, dealing with their stresses, and looking into the spiritual understanding of life. The important question here is: How can we bring our inner spiritual values into a form that will address some of the ills of society?

PT: Is there a spiritual revolution occurring at Omega at this time? If so, why?

SR: People are feeling unconnected with their environment, with society, and in fact they are feeling an increasing pain and stress from their own personal lives. There is a growing discontent, we saw it in our presidential election last year, but it has been mounting over the years. The stress of living life is getting greater and greater. As society is speeding up, people are having more trouble feeling a normal state of peace and having a sense of equanimity in their lives.

Omega is an oasis for many people in a crazy society. We live in a world that is chaotic and spinning out of control, and many people come here because they feel at least for a period of time that they're able to slow down, they're able to feel a type of peace in themselves in such a way that they are able to start to bring it back into their lives. Hopefully, it can help them create more balance.

PT: Is this something new and different from what was happening in the late Sixties and Seventies, or is this simply retro for aging hippies?

SR: No, I think we are evolving here. I think that this had its birth in the Sixties, but as we are maturing and hopefully getting somewhat wiser, we're recognizing that this is no longer an issue of dropping out. You can't drop out from society. I think the task at hand is working with our society and changing it. That's my real hope - that we are not just going backwards, but are recognizing that our society is evolving in some ways into habits that we don't like, and it's going to be up to us to change those habits. I think that we only survive as a species when we recognize that we cannot isolate ourselves from each other, but that the survival of humanity is recognizing the interdependency of the entire human family. Such recognition happens when we also see that our consciousness is really linked, and that the way we live and the way we think and the way we deal with each other really has a lot to do with the survival of this species and our planet.

PT: Who attends these conferences and what are they interested in learning?

SR: What I find is that many of the people we have coming here are in the helping fields. We see teachers, social workers, doctors, nurses, people who are working in the world and are feeling burnout in their lives. Across the board we find that there are people who are not at all necessarily leading spiritual lives or people who are considering themselves hippies or in any way the counter-culture, but really I think Omega has grown to the point where people in all walks of life come here, and it's a really beautiful mix. It amazes me to see people come here from all over the country - from the suburbs of Cleveland and rural Idaho to New York City or any of the major metropolitan areas.

I'd say the average age seems to be in the late 30s, early 40s, but we have people in their 20s and we have one or two people in their 80s teaching classes. So it really varies. And what encourages me is the way that what was once new and considered too far on the edge for most people is now actually helping them. Great numbers of people are coming here with an enormous amount of hunger and thirst in their souls.

For instance, just last week I had someone in my class who was a very successful car salesman and who said he hadn't been on vacation in 15 years. He came here, he said, because, even though he was successful and thought he could see the results of that success around him, he had too much stress in his life. He needed to find a way to feel more at ease with himself and his life around him because it was falling apart. This is what I'm seeing more and more.

PT: When we visited one weekend, it seemed like there was a disproportionate number of women. Was our experience an aberration, or is that typical?

SR: What's interesting to me is that, over the years, we have had more women than men. At one point I think the ratio was about three to one, and I think that's partly because women are generally more open to their emotional lives than men are. Men seem more resistant and closed in that manner, and since a lot of the work we're doing deals with opening the emotions and exploring your inner life, I think women feel much more comfortable with this and recognize the need for this sooner than men do.

What I've been happy to see is that, over the years, more and more men have been coming to Omega, and the ratio is now probably three to two; in some classes one to one. I'm now seeing that men are starting to wake up to their spiritual needs, partly as a result of the whole men's movement that has occurred. The image of the macho man and the importance of being considered strong is becoming outdated. As men get more in touch with that, we're finding more and more who decide to come here.

PT: What are you trying to accomplish, personally and professionally, at Omega?

SR: My personal focus these days is this area of time and health. I'm currently working on a book on the relationship of not having enough time in our lives and the negative impact that it has on us. People are in a state of time - poverty and time - illness as a result of always feeling desperately hungry for more time, and never feeling satisfied in the moment. I feel people have really suffered from this, and the concern I have is that this is getting more out of hand because the rhythms of time are becoming impossible to live with.

Professionally, I have always wanted to see a way in which my concerns for the healthcare in our society could have an impact beyond just working within a medical office and working with one person at a time, and also in an environment where I didn't feel change was really occurring. So I'm fascinated by the ability to create an atmosphere and create learning situations and be a part of this lifelong learning process that we all need to go through. I'm also happy to be part of a place where people can come and experience the opportunity to have real change happen in their lives.

I feel, in whatever way, we need to contribute to the evolution, the positive evolution of our society. It's important to do that and I believe Omega is one of many places that can start to have this type of positive impact on society. I love the fact that I have work which is gratifying to me, because of the impact I see happening on people. I think that it's really important that we find ways to bind our ideals in the world with the work that we do.

PT: It sounds very satisfying.

SR: It is! There are always special highlights that happen in the course of a summer - somehow it's always the unexpected and unplanned, just some beautiful event that happens. I'll walk into a concert and see incredible performers doing something together. One night I remember watching David Darling, Bobby McFerrin, and Pete Seeger on stage, and just watching one after the other, seeing it happen in this little auditorium. For me was just very deeply gratifying to see people who have been fairly unknown in our society, who come and start their teaching here, and then all of a sudden become meteoric in their recognition for their work.

One day I was walking down the beach and there was somebody out on the raft playing an African drum, and everybody was out on the raft with them, trying to dance on the raft, till all of a sudden it started to sink and everyone was there drumming while they were up to their knees in water in the lake. Visions like that are always beautiful to see, because what I observe is that people here are just having fun and having a wonderful time and you can feel the aliveness.

One of the things I love about Omega is that it's an alive environment and people come here feeling grouchy, feeling stress, and often leave here feeling really happy. As I walk around this place and watch the garden grow and watch the campus become more beautiful every year, what I realize is that beauty is a reflection of the energy of the people here who are just really in love with this place and feel a sense of love.

PT: Do you think you're making a real difference in the world?

SR: Absolutely. I feel that we and other places and people are making a difference, because what we are allowing people to do is get in touch with the positive nature of their lives, and sometimes you have to do that by first exposing them to the negative side, or the shadow side of life. But I feel that Omega makes a difference because people come here, get in touch with themselves, feel the positive possibility of life, and hopefully carry that out into the world. Lord knows the world needs it more.

In our society, we generally believe that education stops after college, and after that the only learning we need to do is work-related, where you only take courses related to your profession. In reality nobody is telling us anything about how you maintain relationships, how you continue to have contentment in your fife and satisfaction and how you deal with the changing world and its environment. And I think, unfortunately, many people with more conservative points of view would say, 'Well, just do it.'

In reality, though, what we see happening all around us is the continual breakdown of society, the continual breakdown of family. And the only way we are going to survive this dance of life is for people to continue learning how to enjoy it and to thrive within it. And I think the only way to do that is to recognize that we don't know enough; that life itself is a learning process, and that we must involve ourselves deeply in this lifelong process on all levels - from our professions and our relationships to our inner spiritual lives, to dealing with our body and our health. That doing so is the only way we can really thrive individually.

PHOTOS (3): THE OMEGA INSTITUTE BOASTS 10,000 PARTICIPANTS EVERY SUMMER, ACCORDING TO FOUNDER RECHTSCHAFFEN. (JOHN ELLIS) (MARK STERNFIELD) (PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE OMEGA INSTITUTE)

PHOTO: STEPHAN RECHTSCHAFFEN (MARK STERNFIELD)

PHOTO: "PEOPLE WANT A RETREAT FROM THEIR LIVES WHERE THEY CAN REST, FEEL NURTURED, AND SEE CHANGES HAPPEN." (MARK STERNFIELD)

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