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How I Found Courage in a Single Weekend

Web Exclusive: Terri Trespicio reports on The Women & Courage Conference at Omega Institute. 

When I showed up in September at the famed Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York, to attend the Women & Courage Conference, I'll admit, I was feeling a bit cowardly. Especially when I saw people unloading camping gear in the parking lot ("Did they say bring your own tent in the brochure?"). 

But beyond that, I was also a little worried about what a conference on women and courage might be like. A lot of feminist rabble-rousing and man-hating? Mournful state-of-the-nation talks on the mess we're in? I conjured cringeworthy images of drum circles and candlelight vigils and talk of the dawning of global consciousnessness. 

My fears were promptly assuaged: I was given a key to my cabin (it's "camping optional," thank God); the staff was incredibly accommodating and friendly; the food, delicious and wholesome. And instead of a feminist call-to-arms, the conference was more like a summit of intelligent, inspiring, and peace-loving women looking to create powerful, positive solutions, not rattle old chains. 

The traditional archetype of courage, as conference coordinator Carla Goldstein said in her opening talk, is no longer relevant. The real challenge for us in the 21st century is to go "beyond the mythic stereotype of the warrior who destroys to include the bridge builder who heals," and in so doing, "inspire women to step more fully into their own power." 

Cue the drum. (Expertly played, by the way, by poet, artist, and teacher Ubaka Hill.) 

All-Star Lineup

Presenters at the conference included women's wellness expert Christiane Northrup, M.D., Omega co-founder Elizabeth Lesser (above left),best-selling memoirist Luong Ung, holistic healer Queen Afua, clinical psychologist and Buddhist expert Tara Brach, Ph.D., and a conversation with beloved novelist and activist Isabel Allende -- each of whom had something fresh and moving to say about what it means to have courage.

In the interest of time, I'll just give you a peek at some of the highlights:

Renowned physician Christiane Northrup, M.D., best-selling author of "Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom," kicked off the weekend with an energizing keynote about the discipline of pleasure. "Joy is a challenge, she said, "and we don't trust it." She shared a ten-step plan for choosing joy and pleasure as a path to healing, including "joyous movement" -- which she demonstrated with her two grown daughters on stage, all of whom commenced to wriggle and writhe about to Beyonce's "Naughty Girl." (And then, of course, urged us to do the same. "Wake up that second chakra, ladies!") Talk about unexpected.

Omega co-founder Elizabeth Lesser spoke eloquently about the need for a new myth, one to replace the tale of conquest that has dominated human history for the past 12,000 years. While conquest has its plusses (protection and discovery among them), it leaves a trail of wreckage in its path. "Women are the tenders of the human garden," she said, "creating sacred, nurturing spaces in which others can grow. This is the kind of leadership, the only kind, that can work right now." Instead of machismo, she says, we need to embrace mamisma, the power of feminine energy.  (Read an excerpt from an interview with Lesser.)

Loung Ung, an activist working for the elimination of land mines, is perhaps most widely known as the best-selling author of four memoirs, including "First They Killed My Father", having survived the Cambodian killing fields as a child. I expected a moving tale of separation, displacement, loss -- what I didn't expect was to laugh. Ung, a bright burst of energy and flame, proceeded to wow and move attendees, in one moment, able to share her own deep sense of loss, then in the next, switch gears and remark on the flawless shape of her husband's rear end.

Other keynote presenters included clinical psychologist and Buddhist expert Tara Brach, Ph.D., who talked about how to shake the "trance of unworthiness" and use meditation to come home to yourself. (Brach will be presenting with Jack Kornfield at an Omega event on October 10-11, 2008 in New York City.) Another speaker was holistic healer Queen Afua, founder of the Wellness Institute and author of "Sacred Woman", who spoke about the courage of healing yourself through fortifying rituals.

Isabel Allende brought this powerful, moving weekend to a close in a way that only she could. Allende was joined on stage by Lesser, who talked with the best-selling novelist about her life, her work, and her dreams for the future. We learned, among other things, that Allende was partially swayed to write the legend of Zorro it occurred to her that, if "Zorro" were made into a movie, she might get to meet Antonio Banderas (which she did). We discovered that Sophia Loren gave her a valuable bit of advice for looking eternally young and gorgeous ("Sit up straight and don't make old people noises'). And we learned that, out of superstition, and now sheer habit, Allende always starts a novel on the same day: January 8.

She found her own courage, she says, by tapping into the strength she didn't know she had, right when she needed it (particularly in coping with the loss of her daughter Paula Frias); from choosing not to stay angry (at the hospital where Paula slipped into a coma and died); and most importantly, making it a point to channel her negative emotions into positive action.

A New Kind of Courage

If there was one thread that tied the entire weekend together, one overriding lesson that echoed throughout, it's this: Courage is not a solo effort or conquest. The greatest courage any of us can muster comes not from going out into the world alone so much as coming home, returning to our true nature, and finding strength and purpose in the context of other people. This is where the strongest and most enduring positive changes, it seems, can and must be made. 

Allende's parting words that last afternoon pretty underscored this when she urged attendees to "be connected." After which she promptly added, "Stop worrying that everyone is looking at you. No one is. I've tinted my hair all the colors of the rainbow and no one has noticed. Not even my husband."

Read an interview with Omega co-founder Elizabeth Lesser on what it means to live with courage.

By Terri Trespicio

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