Meditation Teacher Oren Jay Sofer Believes Our Hearts Were Made for These Tumultuous Times—and He Tells Us Why
Every one of us can transform and grow, even in the face of life's toughest challenges, believes Oren Jay Sofer. "We have an immense capacity for healing as human beings," the meditation and mindfulness teacher tells The Sunday Paper.
This hopeful message is the anchor of his new book Your Heart Was Made for This: Contemplative Practices for Meeting a World in Crisis with Courage, Integrity, and Love. In this compassionate read, Sofer, who has been practicing meditation in the early Buddhist tradition since the mid-1990s, reveals how we can cultivate our inner resources so we can tap into our full capacity for peace and goodness. "I like to think of the human organism as an instrument," he says. "And this whole journey I invite readers on is about how well you know how to play your instrument. Can you hit the notes of compassion and joy and generosity and gratitude and energy and integrity?"
Sofer believes we can—and he walks us through where to start exploring "all these different, amazing capacities that we have as human beings."
A CONVERSATION WITH OREN JAY SOFER
It feels right to say that the words from the title of your book, Your Heart Was Made for This, are what we need to hear right now. What gives you the belief that our hearts were made for all this?
From one perspective, our hearts were not made for this. We are not meant to experience the kind of horror that we see in our world today, near or far, depending on our life circumstances and level of privilege and safety. Our hearts weren't made to contend with the maze of technology and news media. And yet, biologically, neurologically, and spiritually, we have this incredible potential to be resilient and to grow and learn from challenge.
We see this in mammals in the wild. The whole field of modern trauma healing is based on understanding how mammals heal from life-threatening events. We've seen throughout history that individuals, and to some degree communities, can heal from real trauma, from the trauma of war, oppression, and genocide. Some of my colleagues do deep work in the prisons, doing what are known as victim-offender dialogues where family members who have been murdered by an inmate will get together with that inmate and, with a lot of preparation and support, sit down and have a human conversation, and find understanding and healing. We've seen through projects of mediation and dialogue that when we create the conditions to build understanding, trust, and relationship, we can move on from atrocities. So it’s possible.
Also, seeing how beautiful our hearts are when we come into this world, how natural generosity is, how natural joy and curiosity and wonder are, and how naturally sensitive we are gives me so much hope because it confirms what I have learned, studied, and believed for decades: We have to learn to harden our hearts. We have to learn to hate. It's not something we're born with, which means we can unlearn it.
That is hopeful to hear in these divided times.
I'm not suggesting it's easy. Seeing what's happening in the Middle East, Ukraine, Sudan, and so many corners of the world, these are not simple fixes, and I don't pretend to have the answers. But I know from looking at history that massive change seems impossible until it happens. The Berlin Wall coming down seemed impossible—and then it happened. Women suffrage, the end of slavery, the British Empire, all of these things that seemed impossible to change.
Some of the things that give me hope are, one: Looking back at history and seeing how things that seemed impossible have changed.
Two, as we see war exploding in different places around the world, paying attention to the millions of people who are crying out for peace. Not just listening to political hawks or reporting on the devastation, but [paying attention to] all of the people who are pouring into the streets and calling for ceasefire and diplomacy.
And three, the reality that social transformation, like spiritual transformation, is not linear. It's not like building a table where you start with a set of plans, go through steps A, B, and C, and then end up with a table. It often happens in unpredictable, convoluted ways. It follows the laws of systems theory, where, at a certain point, enough conditions come together, and the scales tip. It's not linear, and that's often why we can't see how to get to the goal, but we have a sense of walking towards it and doing what we need to, every step of the way.
And that's really what my hope for this book is. It's not to present a blueprint for what to do but how to develop the resources inside so that we can each play the role we're called to play.
The Buddha taught us that we can shape our inner lives, as you highlight in your book. Why is it important to nourish and cultivate our inner resources, and how can we start to do this?
The whole field of contemplative practice—spirituality, wellness, self-care, whatever you like to call it—is based upon the insight that our hearts and minds are not fixed. Biologically and neurologically, we were designed for learning. We know this through neuroplasticity. [Neuropsychologist] Donald Hebbs discovered that we can change the structure and function of our neurology, which was biological proof of what mystics have known for millennia. This is what shapes our inner worlds. This domain is countercultural for modernity, which would have us think that our lives are defined by our external circumstances—by our work, relationships, status, bank account balance, and all these outer trappings. But I think today, more people recognize that beyond a level of having our needs met, happiness is an inside job.
In the last 40 years, we've seen an explosion of mindfulness in the public discourse. Jon Kabat-Zinn helped to bridge this gap between meditation being esoteric and it being a valuable life skill with a medical benefit. What I'm trying to do with this book and my work is to highlight that meditation is just one form of inner cultivation, just like strength training is one form of exercise. It would be ludicrous for someone to say, 'I don't like lifting weights, so I'm not going to exercise.' You may want to bike, dance, or run. It's the same with having a relationship with our inner life. And meditation is one way, but it isn't for everyone. There's a whole array of ways to have a relationship with our inner life and to develop inner resources.
I see contemplative practice as a medicine for our times. I want to provide people with a menu of different ways to cultivate inner resources. That includes nature, the arts, ritual, storytelling, and anything that cultivates reflection and awareness, gives us perspective, and explores meaning, value, and purpose. We need inner resources to have a meaningful life, to be effective at home and work, and to feel fulfilled. Recognizing that we all have an inner life, and we all have feelings and thoughts that are not defined by our external circumstances, and that we can engage with them and uplift ourselves is ultimately a very hopeful thing.
Sometimes, modern approaches to mindfulness can be confusing, intimidating, or inaccessible. What are your thoughts on this?
There's an inaccessibility for a variety of reasons. There's also a danger in that practices that have a profound potential for radical transformation and inner freedom have become co-opted by the marketplace and packaged to reinforce the very cultural assumptions that keep us locked in a pattern of comparing ourselves to others and not feeling good enough. There is a message, either implicit or explicit, to do this and feel better and make the uncomfortable stuff go away. Mindfulness practices can and do help us feel better, but it's not by avoiding the uncomfortable stuff; it's actually by coming to understand and have a different relationship with the uncomfortable stuff. So the danger is if we swallow the message that happiness depends on having pleasant experiences, we end up reinforcing some of the beliefs and assumptions that keep us locked in an immature and fragile state, where we're trying to avoid and protect ourselves from things that don't feel good and only have pleasant experiences. When we step back and look at that, we see it is completely unrealistic and naive.
Let's explore your menu and how to respond to life's pressures and demands. In chapter 1, you talk about 'wise attention.' Whys is attention important and how we can cultivate it?
Attention is one of our most valuable resources. And we know that from an economic perspective, it's become a commodity. Vast forces are trying to capture and retain our attention because when you can capture someone's attention, you can generate profit, and you can influence action. So, attention is a tremendous resource economically, politically, and socially.
We're in a time where if we want to live consciously and meaningfully and have influence over the world we create for future generations; we need to reclaim our attention. We need to assert some agency over what we do with our attention. So, one of the first skills to develop is recognizing that we have choice and agency over where we place our attention. We don't have to be yanked around all day long by media notifications and our habits. We can train ourselves to pay attention and recognize: Where am I placing my attention? Am I focusing on negative rumination? Am I getting drawn into the device? What am I? What am I using my precious time with? Then we can see: How do I make more active choices for where I place my attention? This then sets the stage to shape our inner world.
It's really about who you want to invite into your home. Do you want the evening news blaring in your bedroom and the inner recesses of your mind? Or do you want to create a sanctuary? Do you want to create a refuge where you're not shutting out the world, but you're making choices about when to engage and when to retreat, when to act and when to rest, when to contribute, and when to recharge? The value of choosing where to place our attention and developing that capacity is essential for living a fulfilling life.
Considering we are all unique, what is another quality from your menu that can help us move forward with compassion, integrity, and love?
There are two that come to mind: wonder and joy. I see these as not only nourishing but also essential to sustaining ourselves in such difficult times. For those of us who enjoy certain privileges of living in safety and having access to clean water and food, when we're aware of the kind of suffering that's unfolding in different parts of the world, it can feel hard to allow ourselves to experience joy or wonder. We can feel like we don't deserve it. But it's quite the opposite. The more we allow ourselves to appreciate the mysteriousness and the wonder of being alive, having friendships, being out in nature, taking a breath of fresh air, all these simple things that can be miraculous when we bring our full attention to them, the more we are nourished. And it strengthens our determination to advocate for a world where everyone has their basic needs met. Rather than being somehow self-indulgent, this makes us appreciate the preciousness of human life and gives us energy to contribute to others. So we can train ourselves to see the world with fresh eyes and to delight in the ordinary wonders of being alive.
My wife works from home two days a week, which I love because I see her during the day. Recently, I was having a brief conversation with her [during the workday] in her office. When I said goodbye to return to my work, I appreciated her presence in my life. I was so present in the moment. Even now, talking about it, I feel so happy. Life is made of these moments, and how often are we too busy to notice?
How much of the joy in our life do we miss because we're rushing ahead, not paying attention or worrying about something? There's so much nourishment available if we know where to look and let it in. This is the nourishment we need to stay in touch with the suffering in the world. If we don't nourish ourselves, we don't have the resources to feel compassion, because we’re just trying to keep our head above water. So it's not self-indulgent to experience joy or wonder or gratitude. It's actually essential for social change work and to stay in touch with the real hardships that are unfolding in our world.
OREN JAY SOFER teaches Buddhist meditation, mindfulness, and communication internationally. He holds a degree in comparative religion from Columbia University and is a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication and a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner for the healing of trauma. He is the author of several books, including the best-selling title Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication. His teaching has reached people worldwide through online communication courses and guided meditations. Learn more at orenjaysofer.com.