Life Lessons From Remarkable Women | Omega

Marianne Schnall, founder of, recaps the top highlights from her What's Possible interview series with some of today's top women leaders, including Eve Ensler, Ai-jen Poo, Dr. Christiane Northrup, and Cecile Richards. 

Lately I have been reflecting upon all that I need to accomplish and am responsible for in my day-to-day life. Juggling two kids, running a small nonprofit, and finishing writing a book had me feeling a bit overwhelmed and frazzled these past few months. Many days I feel like I am split in far too many directions, with inadequate time to accomplish even a little bit of what I have to do, much less any time left over to recharge. My reflections have caused me to question what it is that I need regarding self-care, and what it is that truly strengthens and inspires me.

Fortunately, I can draw from the wisdom and strength of a community of women leaders. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview a diverse group of women as part of the What's Possible series for the Omega Women's Leadership Center. These leaders offered great advice about issues I and many other women wrestle with. An important lesson that emerges from their collective insight is this: as women take on more leadership roles, we should pursue activities that nourish and sustain us, support great causes to energize and inspire us, but also find the time and space to go inward, so that we become more centered and have the possibility of connecting to our true self, that core strength that helps us deal with all that is required in today’s busy world.

What follows is some of the wisdom from the women I interviewed about what fuels them, including where they find the energy, inspiration, and courage to offer their unique, special gifts to the world.

Joan Halifax Roshi, author and abbot of the Upaya Zen Center: “You could say that every bird has two wings: one of those wings is the wing of contemplation, and the other wing is the wing of action. Both of those wings make it possible for us to move, fly, and be in the world.

"I deeply value the time in my day when I meditate, and when I take a backward step and go into deep solitude at my hermitage in the mountains. These are times of renewal for me, where I have a chance to integrate the social and environmental transformation work that I do in the outer world. If I was just driving straight on as a social activist, without ever taking an inhale, I don't think I would still be alive. There is the in-breath and there is the out-breath, and too often we feel like we have to exhale all the time. The inhale is absolutely essential—and then you can exhale.” 


Anna Deveare Smith, actor, playwright, and professor: “I do believe in body, mind, and spirit. All three are required to act. The fact that I had a chance to be in this art form has given me the biggest gift, which is to sometimes experience the three as a unity.  It is remarkable when the three things come together, whether that's while a person is singing, dancing, climbing, swimming, or surfing. I don't know why it ever got divided. It would be very interesting to know why anybody ever thought they had to define body, mind, and spirit as different, because I think it is that we are the three. Really feeling alive is those sparks and moments where you have an awareness of all three, but all three are always operating. When you have a heightened awareness of body, mind, and spirit, it is quite something.”


Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance: “I know for myself change is constant, within us and in the world, and that's the one thing you can count on: change. So I think as people who are interested in changing the world, we have to learn how to get in there and try to shape what change looks like. Sometimes the best learnings about change— and what makes change happen and what makes social change possible—happens when we look deeply within ourselves.

“There's so much pain and suffering in the world, and if we're not careful, we all experience it. If we're not careful, we can start to replicate some of the pain and suffering out in the world inside of our own processes.

“So I think that it's really important that all of us have ways to stay grounded and connected to our sense of purpose as individual people. It’s important to create a space where we can actually be reflective and be intentional about how we want to change and transform ourselves, and how we want to change and transform the world. It’s important to make sure we're not just always responding and reacting, but we're actually really grounded and rooted in our values and our sense of purpose. That takes a lot of practice, just like passing legislation or organizing leadership trainings or actions in the world take practice, discipline, and focus. The same is true for the inner work that has to happen to make sure that we're really bringing the best of who we are to the table, and we're growing as human beings as we try to win the change in the work for humanity more broadly.”


Sally Field, actress: “Reading and meditation are very helpful. A mindfulness practice is really important in order to learn how to quiet your mind. I recommend all of Dan Siegel’s books, but there are many other books about the journey within. Find your core so you can find the strength to go out and do the things that you really want to do. I just try to hear myself, try to hear the people around me, and always push the envelope. I don't want to be caught in the same place for very long, and any time I feel frightened of doing something, that usually means I better get in there and do it.”

“To paraphrase Camus, even in the midst of winter, I find within me an invincible summer. That’s what I feel.”

“The first place to go is within and really examine what your own process is and all the pieces of you. Then you will find within you what you desperately want, if you don't already know. Or even if you do, it will help you own yourself better. You will find the strength that is just there. There is your invincible summer. It isn't always outside you. It isn't always somebody else that's going to help you feel seen and teach you the strength of your voice. In most instances, it's going to come from within.”


Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America: I'm not really good at [practicing self-care]. I am privileged to have one of the most amazing jobs. I organized low-wage workers for many, many years—women who had no options except to fight for something better than the job that they had. So I live every day with the understanding that I am enormously privileged to be able to not only have a job, but to go and do something that is extremely important and rewarding.”


“I think that we spend a lot of our lives taking care of other people—our children, our spouses, or our parents—and I just don't think we put ourselves first, whether it’s because it's simpler that way, or it's fear of failure, or it’s that we are conditioned to believe that we need to make sure we are taking care of everyone else, before ourselves. I don't know all the reasons why we hold back, but I do believe, as women, we could do even more to encourage and support the women who make that leap.”


Christiane Northrup, MD, pioneer in the field of women’s health and wellness: “The first thing I realized when I was raising young kids—it’s summed up in the old Roseanne Barr line: “My husband comes home at the end of the day, the kids are alive, I’ve done my job.” [laughs] When I first saw her on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, I fell to the floor laughing. I laughed so hard because it was so true. But now my kids are grown, and my life is my own, but I have found it is absolutely essential for my health to bring the deliberate pursuit of pleasure into my life every day. I have learned Argentine tango, and we have a wonderful tango community in Portland, Maine. I dance two to three times a week. I just was reviewing some studies from the Albert Einstein School of Medicine that reported partner dancing decreasing the risk of dementia by 74 percent. It’s better than any other activity you can do. I can go and dance for two hours for five bucks, and I love that. Everybody can go. And it doesn’t matter what you believe, and it doesn’t matter how much money you earn. What matters is you can dance in a close embrace and create a love story for three minutes. That’s all that matters!”


Eve Ensler, playwright and founder of V-Day: “I believe that we can shift what's going on here. I love women, I love humans, I love life, I love this planet, and I really believe all of the above are worth fighting for. The way I survived my own little hell on this planet was believing that there was another world out there that was coming. I still believe it. Being engaged in that struggle is terribly energizing. I can't imagine what else I would be doing here.”

“There is a great joy and there is deep satisfaction in feeling that you are in solidarity with people who are in struggle. And if you can do a service in any way, or if you can lend support or find anything to lift up people in struggle, it feels fantastic! And what's better than that? When you begin to feel that you have impact and you can see results, then it just gives you more energy to keep going.”


Elizabeth Lesser, cofounder of Omega and the Omega Women's Leadership Center: “It is amazing how even ten minutes without your cell phone or computer or TV or iPod—just you and silence—can wake you up and fill your empty well. Just shutting the door and telling everybody: don’t bother me for ten little minutes. That’s your sacred time to either sit nice and tall, breathe or stretch, or do some physical exercise that awakens the energy inside of you. Even ten minutes a day is really helpful, and I absolutely do not believe that anyone doesn’t have ten minutes a day. If you clocked your day and saw how much time you were just sort of surfing the web, or watching television, or talking on the phone, or having fruitless conversations, you would find you do have time, but it takes some degree of discipline. This is why most spiritual paths are called a discipline or a practice. A practice is something that you have to make yourself do, but the result is becoming better at the art of living. 

"I think we are out of balance now as a species— and women know this more than men do—because there’s something in our makeup and in our bodies that really wants to luxuriate more in just the joy of being alive and not always consuming, creating, building. There’s something inside of us that wants desperately to stop and experience and just be, not just always do. We want to explore this at the Omega Women’s Leadership Center: can women lead us out of this compulsive behavior driving us crazy as a species? Taking time out of the frenzy might feel selfish or even indulgent, but I believe it may actually save the world.”

© 2013 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

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