PIR VILAYAT KHAN: A Spiritual Visionary
A stirring video tribute to Pir Vilayat Khan from our cofounders Elizabeth Lesser and Stephan Rechtschaffen.
Following are excerpts of interviews with Rechtschaffen and Lesser conducted by Omega's former editor in chief, James Kullander.
AN INTERVIEW WITH STEPHAN RECHTSCHAFFEN
Kullander: I'd like for you to go back to the late 1970s and tell what you imagined Omega was going to be when you first started talking about it.
Rechtschaffen: When we started Omega 30 years ago, it was an adventurous experiment to explore a way in which those of us who were living in a spiritual community could take this experience and share it with others. Our modern colleges and universities are places where people get information or learn something how to do a job well. But they do not prepare people to live well. So Omega became a place to experiment with living in a way that combined what we called the holistic sense—our spiritual approach, our inner life—along with our outer life.
Kullander: To carry on year after year and to struggle as you did with finances, you must have had a pretty clear and strong idea that you were doing something right and something good.
Rechtschaffen: It's a wonderful thing in life to feel that one's work is aligned with one's highest ideals. It's not always been an easy opportunity. But as Omega has grown and become more of its own being, there's a real, deep sense of happiness that I get knowing I've helped bring Omega into existence. It's beautiful to see the work that happens here and the experience that people have. In the end that's what has kept me going through the difficult times.
Kullander: Did you ever imagine that Omega would become what it has become?
Rechtschaffen: I'm often asked by people if I imagined that Omega would be the way that it is right now, and if this is what I saw in the beginning. And the interesting part of that question is that I don't think that we can really ever see that far into the future. The underlying theme of creativity is that it's a process, and in that process we really don't know what's going to come forth. I knew that what we were looking to do was create an environment where people could feel nurtured, feel safe, feel that this was a place that encouraged them to be true to themselves, to be authentic, and to dive deeper within. How that was going to look on the outside had been a mystery to me and it remains an evolving mystery.
Kullander: What ways do you hope Omega meets the demands of an ever-changing world?
Rechtschaffen: Ultimately, as a nonprofit organization that's committed to bringing positive change into the world, we need to ask ourselves what's the best way that Omega can serve? When we look out at the world it seems more split apart and more environmentally unsound and fragile than any of us ever imagined. So I think it's important for Omega to look at the issues around us and see if we can, in some fashion, show people how to create more compassion, more love, more happiness, and a deeper understanding among people.
AN INTERVIEW WITH ELIZABETH LESSER
Kullander: In its early days Omega was a pioneer in much of what's happening now in American culture. Did you think that the things you were pioneering back then would become as popular as they have become?
Lesser: I never had time to think that way. We were kind of like canaries in the mines of spirituality and alternative healing at Omega in the early days, trying techniques and philosophies on ourselves, and assuming that if they worked for us, they would work for others too.
Kullander: It seems like the rate of change is speeding up in the world. We're nearly out of time to make the changes that we need to make or else we're going to see rampant environmental collapse. How can Omega play a part in making these changes happen?
Lesser: If you were to go back in time and speak to someone from the 1920s or the1840s or 1730s you would find someone saying the exact same thing: "Everything is collapsing and we're running out of time!" Dickens began his book, A Tale of Two Cities, with: "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." I think that people in every era have felt their times were the worst and the best. We are an evolving species. Therefore, I try to quiet my own sense of panic about the world. I don't think panic engenders very wise behavior. Yes, environmental collapse is real, and it is moving fast. But on the deepest level—what Einstein called "the thoughts of God"—we don't really know what's going to happen, or even what should happen. I think it's good to spend a little time each day relaxing into the mystery of not knowing—and then acting. We try to teach that kind of "spiritual activism" at Omega.
Kullander: Throughout the years, Omega has very much been a labor of love in your life. In other words, it's not been just a job for you. What sort of impact has Omega had on you?
Lesser: I was 19 when I met my main spiritual teacher, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. He came to America at a time when many Eastern gurus were arriving on our shores. Pir Vilayat wasn't your typical spiritual guru. He was more like a university professor. His father was an Indian spiritual master and his mother was American. He was raised in Europe, and studied at the Sorbonne and Oxford, while being steeped in Buddhist, Hindu, and Sufi traditions at home. He spoke six or seven languages and fought as a pilot in WWII. Being in his presence at such a young age and having him as a guide until his death a couple of years ago absolutely made me who I am. And he made Omega what Omega is—his wide curiosity about the world, his devotion to the interconnectivity of matter and spirit, and his love of art and literature and science and spirit are the bedrock upon which Omega was built. It's difficult for me to answer how Omega has affected my life, because Omega has been my life, and my family's life. I am enormously grateful for the experience.