Just going there feels a little like pilgrimage. The Omega Institute claims to be in Rhinebeck; geopolitically, perhaps it is so. But this is not the quaint Rhinebeck of the Beekman Arms or Cole Palen’s Aerodrome. One drives the rolling, lulling lengths of dewy morning roads like Slate Quarry, Deep Ridge and Fiddler’s Bridge, angling southeast out of Rhinebeck past a number of old-money northern Dutchess farms and toward the deeper bush, on a more oblique pursuit.
Access to the campus is somewhat ambiguous and occult. The direct lakeside road that the GPS lady bids you take is fairly single-lane, and Omega-branded signage along the route subtly discourages its use. The Omega-preferred route – a double helix of gorgeous rural circumnavigation – skirts a large, Rorschach-shaped lake that you don’t really see, but that obscures your approach. By the time you’re this far in, your digital guide lies mute. She will sing no more until such time as you connect to Omega’s open Wi-Fi.
Omega is no separatist hippie commune – far from it – but it feels remote in other ways as well. One of the largest, most ambitious and most legitimate holistic learning centers in the country, Omega’s mission is, to use a few aging buzzwords, integrative and complementary to the max. Their concerns may be holistic and humanistic, transformational and evolutionary, but they are optimized to interface with your thoroughly modern life, even as they offer retreat and respite therefrom and critical reflection thereupon.
The issue is this: There is no real casual way for locals to experience Omega. Omega is committed whole-hog to immersion and retreat. It’s just their mode. A ton of music happens here – intimate collaborative music with heavies like Bobby McFerrin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, for example, or singing immersion with voice-teacher-to-the stars Claude Stein – but none you can buy a Friday night ticket for. The catalog serves up a variety of workshops in yoga, meditation and other cutting-edge forms of conscious praxis, but no weekly classes you can race to after work. Progressive social thought and smart grassroots action go down in these woods all the time – feminist, environmentalist, change through art, East meets West, science of the self – but you can’t just drop in to catch a hot speaker and have her sign your book.
Omega is not hiding from us. It has been there since its 1977 founding by Stephan Rechtschaffen, M.D. and Elizabeth Lesser, growing all the while (looks like they could use an airstrip or a chopper pad these days!). It books as teachers and session leaders none but the biggest names in their spheres of concern, from Deepak Chopra and Pema Chödrön to Gloria Steinem and Phil Jackson, Eckhart Tolle to Abby Wambach. Omega is visible locally and engaged with the community. It warmly welcomes non-resident guests (generally meaning locals) to its workshops, but the all-in, multi-day proposition of its programming has kept Omega, for many of us, a mystery. I’ve known about the place for something like ever. This was my first visit.
On the stunning, dewy summer Friday morning that I arrived for my (rewarding and revelatory) singing workshop with Claude Stein, the Omega Institute was, to put it bluntly, slammed. The vast parking lot alongside a bank of well-kept tennis courts (sport being very much within Omega’s purview) and the Omega Center for Sustainable Living offered nary a sliver for me, and I was early. I had to wind my way to the back, off-lot, and slip into a wedge of grass next to an oil or water tank of some kind. The check-in line zagged far outside the door of the airy, modern Main Office, where the three or so staffed windows were deluged and additional intake personnel performed mobile free-floating check-in like emergency MASH triage. Spirits were high, however, and helpful seasonal staff was everywhere. You shall know them by their tee-shirts.
But for the small issue of access roads, Omega is extremely well-equipped to handle a brisk three-season business. Obviously, summer is a peak, but there was something more to this weekend crush. I could just tell. After I overheard the third or fourth independent utterance of the name “Tara” passing between guests as they began to connect and converse, I knew I had to look into it. This Tara, of course, was Tara Brach, a beloved psychologist and proponent of meditation, an in-demand speaker and workshop leader and author of several popular books, including Radical Acceptance. People would just smile when they said her name! Brach’s weekend-long workshop at Omega had drawn (I overheard) well over 500 participants, many of the non-resident kind. When I got lost in the woods during one of Omega’s long meal-and-siesta breaks in programming on Saturday afternoon, the two Long Island women I met called Tara “a rockstar of meditation.”
Well, that’s a pretty darn quiet rockstar, innit? But Omega is a place of such paradoxes. The campus itself reads like a lovably wonky juxtaposition of a facility-rich summer camp (it was one, once) and alternative city, with some buildings best described as cinderblock-pile barracks, others, such as the lotus-shaped Ram Dass Library, architecturally novel and alienating in the best way. Secret spots and oases abound: the meditation garden up a very long set of stone steps, lake access, neighborhoods of cottages. The main building, where I attended a brief and optional orientation before it was turned over to Tara’s capacious needs, presents as a kind of farmhouse from the exterior, but opens to a magnificently cool hall for plenary sessions and group meditation on a scale that really sets the cosmos humming.
The bus-yourself large and rustic cafeteria looks like it’s gonna be all bug juice and military-grade tacos, but in two identical buffet lines and numerous specialty stations with quarantined gluten, it serves up fare that is rigorously organic, locally sourced, accommodating to all dietary needs and creeds and actually, legitimately delicious. The coffee just smokes any cafeteria java you’ve ever had, and when you pull the big bulbous silver handle on that standard cafeteria-style milk dispenser, that’s Ronnybrook Farm dairy that’s clouding your coffee. Some of the food comes from Taliaferro Farms, a quarter-mile down the street from my New Paltz home. Omega also sports a quaint and cool café on-site with a lot of boutique sweets. I found my needs and wishes so opulently met and surpassed at the mess hall that I wasn’t even tempted to try it.
The 2009 Omega Center for Sustainable Living building sits apart from the main campus – fittingly, in a way. Perhaps more than any other campus feature, this cutting-edge proof-of-concept sustainability center speaks to Omega’s energized commitment to social and environmental causes, directly challenging the notion of the “New Age” as a kind of privileged and withdrawing hedonism, the ecstasies of enlightenment. “New Age,” of course, is a term you will not hear at Omega. Even the S-word – spiritual – has largely passed from Omega’s discourse, leaving “holistic” as the sole rhetorical glove that fits. While retreat may be central to its mode of learning, a rushing embrace to meet the modern world in all its troubled complexity is a big part of Omega’s mission. It has distanced itself from much of the rhetoric of the New Age, preferring to emphasize a mantra of responsibility and connection. Growth – of facilities, of budget, of technology into online learning – is its imperative.
If there’s a corporate feel to Omega – and that’s a pretty coarse word for it – is that necessarily a bad thing, when your sustainability- and equality-based mission is so explicit and your portfolio of money-where-mouth-is achievement so thick and growing? I think not. Bring on the corporations of good!
The Omega Institute is located at 150 Lake Drive in Rhinebeck. For more information, call (877) 944-2002 or visit https://www.eomega.org.