The Omega Institute

Presents the first of 'Psychology Today''s 'site visits' section with an insider's view of the Omega Institute--the largest spiritual retreat in America--which begins with an interview with Stefan Rechtschaffen, the cofounder and director. The idea to starting Omega; Rechtschaffen's background; Spiritual revolution; Goal of Omega.

By PT Staff, published on January 1, 1993 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015

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.

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)