Today I’ll be making my yearly pilgrimage to the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. Officially known as the Omega Institite for Holistic Studies, Omega is a gathering place for curious-minded people to take all manner of incredible workshops. More than 22,000 people come to Omega annually, which is amazing considering they are only open from late April to October.
I’ve been going to Omega since 2000, when I heard that one of my favorite poets, Sharon Olds, was giving a poetry writing workshop at the place I’d never heard of in Rhinebeck, New York. The catch was I would have to submit poems for Ms. Olds to read and then I would be notified if I was accepted. I mailed out my poems with great hope and waited. And then, magically, I was accepted. I would be only one of 16 eager poets who would be writing with Ms. Olds during a hot July weekend. Weekends at Omega always begin with a Friday evening session from eight to ten. The workshop was being held in one of the smaller “classroom” spaces, a cabin across from the staircase leading to the meditation sanctuary. As I approached the cabin, a small women with gray hair stuck out her hand and said, “Hi! I’m Sharon! Welcome.” It was then I knew for a fact that this would not be an ordinary workshop and that Omega was not an ordinary place.
A few years later at a different workshop, we were all gathered during the Friday night session when the workshop leader asked us to introduce ourselves to those seated around us. I turned around and introduced myself to Alanis Morissette. Yes, that Alanis Morissette. The Grammy-winning, multi-bajillion selling singer. She was taking the workshop because she has an innate curiosity and a desire to expand her mind. We chatted briefly two other times during the weekend and honestly, she was kind and sweet, not at all the angry young woman one hears in her early music. She was there to learn, just as the rest of us were.
Going to the Omega dining hall is both a bit intimidating and totally wonderful. It’s where you find out the answers to the two questions I imagine prison inmates often ask of their cell mates: where are you from and what are you here for? The dining hall is buffet-style and contains dozens of round tables that seat around six or eight. You have to either find a free table and sit alone until someone comes along to sit with you or join a group already eating. Then either you or someone else askes the inmate questions and from there the conversation can go absolutely everywhere. I have met veterinarians, doctors, teachers, business people. I have met people from all across the United States, Europe, Australia, and Canada. During the summer that Bill and I were planning a trip to Prince Edward Island, I met a couple from there who gave me great restaurant tips. I once met a woman who lived all of her life in California. She worked in the film industry doing freelance work. One year, she told me, she took a trip to Flagstaff, Arizona. She loved it so much, she went home, packed up her life, and moved herself to Flagstaff. She continued to work in the film industry, supplementing her income as a psychic.
During dining hall conversations, you also learn that there are two types of people who are at a typical Omega weekend: those that come almost every year and those that are first-timers. I think this just shows that either it’s your kind of place or it isn’t. Either you like the vibe and the mostly vegetarian food and the workers who would be hippies if that were still a thing and just the overall freedom of the place. You can peruse the bookstore, wander in the garden, walk to the lake, chill out with some tea in the cafe, take a yoga or meditation class, or just sit in one of the Adirondack chairs and write. You either love this or you don’t. I do.
I’ve taken all manner of fascinating workshops at Omega, during which I have learned quite a bit about myself. During a workshop on “The Highly Sensitive Person,” I learned that, duh, I am one. Big time. While taking a weekend about increasing one’s psychic ability, I discovered I have no such ability. Zero. I’ve done Meditation for Beginners with an authentic Buddhist monk, saffron robe and all. I took a workshop on the shadow process, a Jungian-based idea that what bothers us most in other people is what we can’t accept in ourselves. I did not like this workshop. The exercises involved were supposed to force emotions and realizations out of us that I was not ready to let go of. But it was worth it. The workshops are always worth it because I always come away changed in some way, even if I don’t realize it until a few weeks or months later.
This weekend I will be doing my absolute favorite thing: taking a writing workshop. I’ve taken at least five different writing workshops at Omega and they always get the creative juices squeezed out of me. These workshops are my favorites because I get to fully immerse myself in what I most love: putting words together to (hopefully) form something beautiful. I’ll be writing away the weekend, and although the forecast calls for rain and thunderstorms, I will be tucked away in the quiet riot of my mind, letting the words loose and coming home renewed.