Spiritual heart advice for troubled times!
Oren is a meditation and non-violent communication teacher, somatic practitioner and author of "Your Heart Was Made for This: Contemplative Practices to Meet a World In Crisis with Courage, Integrity, and Love." He teaches at Spirit Rock and the book is a practical guide to cultivating skills to keep your heart open in challenging times.
Your Heart Was Made for This (book)
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Okay, hello my friends, this is Dex, and today I'm really delighted to welcome our special guest, Oren Jay Sofer, who is a meditation and non violent communication teacher, which is a first on the show. He's also a somatic experience practitioner and author of several books, including his latest called Your Heart Was Made for This. Contemplative Practices to Meet a World in Crisis with Courage, Integrity and Love. Who doesn't need that? And the book is a very practical guide to living a life of meaning and purpose in a time of great social, environmental, and even I think spiritual upheaval. It's really, to me, using our heart's capacity to transform the challenges we face in this world, like climate crisis, oppression, anxiety, burnout. just to transform our experience and the energy we have around them. And to be honest, Oren came to my attention through his association with the renowned Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, which many of you will know. He teaches there in the Buddhist Vipassana meditation tradition that I myself follow since I attended a retreat with a Thai monk called Dhiravamsa back in 2000. So I feel we have many things in common to work with today. So here he is. I'd like to say a very warm welcome to Oren.
Thanks so much, Dex. I'm happy to meet you and glad to be here.
It's really great to have you here. And for those of you listening who obviously haven't read the book, I would just like to give you a tiny flavor of it by sharing a quote from the beginning of the book. Here it is."Your heart was made for love, for connection, belonging and meaningful relationship with other people, beings and the earth. Your heart was made to give and receive, to know joy, purpose, and freedom. All of this is possible for you and for each of us. Yet painful emotions, ignorance, and oppressive conditions disconnect us from our heart's potential. The flow of love has encountered obstacles from the beginning." I don't know about you, but I agree with that. So my first question for you today, Oren, and I'm really intrigued about this, is how is your heart today?
The most honest answer is mixed. Yeah. On one level, my heart feels so rich and full and grateful. There's so many blessings in my life. I have a beautiful wife and healthy son. I have a place to live and meaningful work. My body's healthy. My mind is clear. So on that level, things couldn't be better. And at the same time personally, things are pretty compressed right now with work. I do a lot of childcare for our son, which I love, but it just means I have fewer hours to get my work done. A little crunch there, a little stress there. And then there's also just tremendous heartbreak, and a certain kind of worry about the state of our world, and all of the different ways we seem to be cat, catapulting forward into currently in and continuing to catapult forward into really difficult situations politically, environmentally, ecologically, socially. I feel that. I feel that in my body in my heart.
I can really resonate with your answer. I feel a bit in the two camps myself.
My heart is full in two different ways. It's full of good energy for the people around me, but it's also, I'm a bit of a litmus paper for the troubles of the world. And I spend my career focusing on helping people with the troubles in their world. So I feel sometimes rather heavy with that.
Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. Just the other night I was taking care of our son. It was a Cold, rainy, dark California winter night, and my wife came home from work, she works here at the local hospital, and she stopped by the grocery store, and she brought in this two big bags of groceries, and is just unloading the groceries onto the counter. A couple bags of beans, some oats, some sugar, some vegetables, staples. And yeah, my heart just felt so tender for the bill. She pointed out how much more it costs than it did, even six months ago. Yeah, and Just so much tenderness and heaviness in my heart for how many people are struggling to put food on the table all the parts of the world where for a variety of reasons, whether it's war or politics or corruption, there isn't access to food like that. And in particular, I think you know from reading the book I'm a new parent our son's 16 months old, and the ills of our world just live in me in a different way, raising a family and just understanding the depth of love and vulnerability we have when we're that closely connected.
Yes, and we don't get very far in spiritual investigation without investigating the downside either. We have to look at the difficulties and challenges in order to grow spiritually.
Absolutely. And that's really Where our hearts can grow and open and strengthen, right? We don't grow when everything's easy and going our way. Unfortunately, we learn what our real strengths are and what kind of resources we actually have access to inside or, surprisingly call up when we're faced with difficulties and hardships. And I see that on a personal level, and we also see that historically on a collective level when there's, a great disaster or a challenge, how amazing and beautiful it is the way people can band band together. In fact, I heard a really beautiful story about maybe you recollect the woman who founded the Catholic Workers Movement. Her whole inspiration for the Catholic Worker Movement and all of the incredible community service she inspired. She was living here in the San Francisco Bay Area when one of the big earthquakes hit. As a little girl, she was startled and moved by how quickly everyone banded together and sharing food and helping out. And the thought that occurred to her was, why don't we live like this every day? Why does it take a disaster for us to see how interdependent we are, and how vulnerable we are, and how much we actually need each other?
Yes, and I think COVID brought that. same experience to light as well in a way that many of us hadn't experienced, or hadn't experienced for a while.
Absolutely. Dorothy Day, that was her name. Absolutely. And that was really in many ways The starting point of the book was the global pandemic and the subsequent events here in the U. S. of George Floyd's murder, the Black Lives Matter movement, this incredibly difficult wildfire season. We had that day in California where you couldn't see the sky. And I think it was a shift in consciousness for the human species in modern times where The idea of interdependence and interconnection ceased to be philosophical or theoretical or even something just spiritual and actually became very practical in people's lives. And so now with so much changing so quickly and so much distress around the world in different areas of our society, I think we, we feel that vulnerability. in a different way because of the understanding the very practical understanding of interdependence.
Yeah. And that's my sense of things too. So you talk in the book about cultivating qualities like mindfulness, resolve, wonder, and empathy. And I wonder how you found that practice yourself, on the ground at home in California, maybe not when you're within a spiritual community, but out in daily life.
We're taking a pause to take in your question here. Words are hard to find sometimes. It's humbling as an author and a teacher and a speaker. I find it Reassuring and challenging and also wondrous because it's a creative process, I've been through a tremendous amount of personal changes in the last year and a half since writing the book, not only the birth of my son, but the passing of my father some other changes in my family system. And yeah, I was just saying yesterday I was teaching a group here at Spirit Rock, in fact, and I was saying that, this material for me is very alive and it feels emergent. And I'm practicing with this stuff every day in terms of sensing Okay what is it I need right now? And one of the ways that I think about the book and all of these different beautiful qualities that I explore and offer a kind of guide to, here's how you cultivate this, and here's what might get in the way, and it's like a little medicine chest, like an apothecary. And each of these qualities is like a different medicine, like a different homeopathic tincture or something. And so it's a, I feel so grateful that I've had the opportunity to spend so many years and so many hours practicing meditation and contemplative practice and learning how to access and bring into my life and my daily world in a tangible way these different qualities. And so there's a sense of really listening, just on a day to day basis, for what's really needed today, is it more of the slowing down and the rest and almost like a sense of trusting? Trusting the flow of the process. Is it some courage and resolve and really calling forth that energy and that clarity and that focus depending on how I'm doing and what's happening around me, in my family, in the world. Yeah it's creative. It's challenging. It takes energy and focus. And it's beautiful. I feel really grateful to have been able to cultivate these skills and to be practicing with them. I'm just, I'm really enjoying your questions. This is great.
Your book's a bit like that. It's like a recipe book. Okay, which quality do I need today? How do I get it? What are my obstacles to arriving at that energy?
a practical book, isn't it?
Yeah, I like that. A recipe book. I haven't heard that before, but sometimes I call it choose your own adventure. I think about folks reading it, being able to open the table of contents and look through all of the different qualities and just, as you said, consider what do I really need today, this week? Do I need to bring some more ease into my life? Is it a sense of patience or is it more, joy or gratitude or play that's going to help balance me and help me move in the direction of my values and my goals?
So bringing it back to what my listeners might be interested in more is a little bit about the burnout side of things which you reference quite bit. So I myself experienced burnout back in 2017. And I promptly had a heart attack. It was a bit of a showstopper. So I'm wondering how you would characterize any experiences you've had that have been in the burnout spectrum.
Yeah, it's humbling, isn't it?
Particularly for those of us who who have been conditioned to be overly responsible, achieve a lot, do a lot, accomplish a lot. All of a sudden it's like you hit the gas pedal and nothing happens and they don't, quite understand what's going on here. So yeah humbling disorienting. But also I don't know, in a strange kind of way and reassuring. There's a way in which, I haven't had that kind of experience, I think, that you're naming of total burnout, right? Where you just can't do anything. But I definitely have had my share of, say, just feeling overwhelmed, reaching some kind of a tipping point inside. It's I can't go on like this. Yeah. or getting depressed, which is a symptom or it can be a sign of burnout, just that sense of lethargy, not having energy. But for me, one of the things that I often reflect on or think about when, either when that happens or if I start to feel things, getting out of balance in that way, is a certain appreciation for the feedback. It's thank you, right? My body, my heart, my mind telling me okay this is not Healthy, something needs to shift, right? Sometimes it happens the body just gets sick, and you're like, I gotta cancel everything. And then other times it's more mental and emotional. But there's a certain wisdom, a certain intelligence in our organism that gives us feedback when we're not in balance. And so I appreciate that, even though it's not easy. when we get those signals.
so I believe you've had Lyme disease for a while, didn't you?
I did. I had Lyme for a little over three years chronic Lyme, which was quite challenging. And yeah, taught me a tremendous amount about energy and rest and self care and self compassion and really learning how to listen to my body and not push past limits.
One of the things I talk about in the chapters on energy and rest, which I think are two of the key ones when I start looking at burnout, are The need to re establish our sensitivity to the signals of our body. And there's so much in our world and in our society that disconnects us from our body, where we learn to ignore and override as you well know, given your work. The signals and the information saying, slow down, it's too much, you need to rest, take a break, have some food, drink some water, get some air whatever it is. And so if we're looking for a more sustainable source of energy, a more balanced relationship with doing better access to restorative rest in any way through recreation, through connection, through physiological rest. One of the keys is learning how to listen and learning how to sense what's actually present in our body, to feel the tension in your shoulders or the burning in your eyes if you're sitting at the desk for too long or to feel the antsiness in your body when you need to move and there's some restlessness. So that's been a part of my journey and continues to be because the, we're all swimming in this sea of, efficiency, productivity, the kind of air we breathe much of the time. And it takes conscious effort to keep coming back to a way of being that has more balance and intelligence to it.
Yeah, I perceive a certain toxicity in our way of life and our culture these days that maybe was not present a generation or two ago, which I find Fairly exercising to be honest.
So I really love the idea you have been proposing throughout this book, which is really about strengthening our hearts and being able to release the good and positive energy in our hearts. And in burnout, of course, this practice is more essential than ever. So how can you recommend to our listeners today how to start doing that?
what a beautiful question. There's so many doorways, and this is one of the things I love about this work and this practice is how adaptable it is. So I think one of the things that's most essential, and this is why the book starts there with the first chapter, is starting to pay more attention. to what we're doing with our attention. Not only what are we doing externally, physically, how are we spending our time, which of course is a really important question, but also what are we doing with our mind? So one of the key insights of contemplative practice, modern neuroscience, and all spiritual and mystical traditions is that we're always practicing something. Our brain, our nervous system, our whole organism is an open system interacting with our environment that's learning all the time. And so in this way, we are teaching or training our mind and body every day to live in a certain way. So if we want to make changes in our life if we want to have more balance if we want to have more access to our gifts to contribute. to the ones we love and to our world. One of the places to start is to just begin to pay attention and inquire to, what habits of mind and heart am I encouraging and reinforcing every day? If we live in a way where we are rushing worrying, fault finding, whether it's ourself or others, we get really good at rushing, at worrying, at fault finding. And so we can notice those habits and then through the practice of wise attention, which is not just noticing what's happening, but also making more conscious choices about how to change the channel, how to shift gears and cultivate. other neural networks, other ways of being, we can start to change the balance inside. We can start to cultivate patience, generosity, kindness, resolve, all these wonderful qualities. So this is the place I encourage people to start. Seems to be very accessible. Notice what your mind's doing. Notice what your body's doing every day and begin to look at what you can, where do you want to shift? Now, the key here, one of the things that gets oversimplified a lot in the public discourse, in the wellness space, is that if you're feeling worried or anxious or angry or, just change the channel and think positive thoughts and everything's gonna be fine. You just ignore that stuff. Obviously, that doesn't work. We can't just avoid or ignore or turn away from the difficulties. We have to come back and actually process that stuff, understand it, release it, relate to it differently. But my approach is really one of playing to our strengths. So develop some momentum around your wholeness, your goodness your own resources so that then you have a more solid base from which to say understand and transform a habit of anxiety. It's no longer just, locked in a room with your anxious thoughts, but you've actually got some buoyancy in the heart because you've been cultivating gratitude and patience and you've been helping out with generosity and service. And now it's this kind of a different internal atmosphere as we begin to relate to those anxious thoughts and sensations and emotions in our body and heart. So this is one starting place.
I'm intrigued when I'm listening to you, I'm thinking, yeah they're the fundamental principles I work with when I'm working with people in burnout is To focus and optimize and maximize the good qualities And not dismiss the negative qualities, but give them a little more balance.
But also you've used the term buoyancy, which is the term I use when I'm helping people in the early stages of burnout recovery. I'm trying to support people back from real depletion to a sense of buoyancy, using those principles. And I think if burnout recovery is, there's nothing superficial about it. We're not sticking band aids on burnout. We're looking back at, okay, how did we get into burnout in the first place? Let's address the root causes, which is burnout. think perhaps because I've learned a lot of the Buddhist principles and I have absorbed some of that teaching I'm able to bring some of that to my work as well. At least I hope that's what's happening.
Yeah. It's really remarkable how resilient our hearts are, and once we get a sense of how to train the heart. The first, the working title for this book which the publisher said, and no one's going to buy that, nobody wants that, working title was Training the Heart, right?
I can agree with them on that.
Yeah. And the idea is it's a craft. And we take joy in craft. And once we get a sense for here I am sitting in my office, but, I can let my eyes look out the window and just see the sky and the clouds and some trees and other buildings and telephone poles, but there's also the sky. And if I can just Slow down enough inside to really let that in. To really let it touch me. All of a sudden, everything inside starts to shift, and I come back to being a human being, alive on the planet, to being touched by beauty. So there are all these other qualities that start to grow inside when I'm able to support the conditions in my own mind and heart to connect with something that brings buoyancy. And so there's wonder, there's gratitude there's a little bit of joy, there's also rest in this moment. So the buoyancy's there, and what's miraculous to me is just as we start to learn how to do this, it can be quite thrilling, because it's oh wow I can actually have some influence. over the weather system in my own heart and mind. I don't just have to be at the whim of the events of my life and the habits that have accrued over the years. I can begin to steer inside. And that's empowering. That brings energy. That brings hope.
Yeah, I really like the way that you expressed that. I think of the heart as having an unlimited supply of goodness that's always available, like it will keep beating, but it will also keep beating out all the good energy we need if we can access it. But also the state of our heart, which is tender and can be bruised, is the same state which is tender and can feel the delicacy of the good and connect with nature and people. There's only one kind of open.
Said. And it makes me think of a good friend and colleague of mine who teaches meditation out here. We teach together sometimes, Matthew Brensilver, and he was sharing a story with me about one participant on a meditation retreat who, had been talking about and describing this pain, this ache, and then towards the end of the retreat, finally shared I realized that's, it's my heart. Yeah. Yeah. It hurts because we care. And sometimes we notice the hurt, but when we can connect with why it's hurting and that we do care and that there is that goodness and that connection there. It changes the landscape, which is why it's so important, I believe, for the times we're living in, to understand not only how, but why to cultivate the beautiful, good qualities of the heart. And particularly the ones, there's so many different energies that we need. And of course, we need the strength of things like courage and resolve and energy. But we also need that the softness of empathy and compassion and the buoyancy of joy and gratitude and wonder to keep coming back to those. Not only because they are nourishing and healing in and of themselves but because they provide a different context for the pain and the heartbreak. This is a beautiful quote I I have in the epigraph to the chapter on joy that I'd love to read that really captures this from Desmond Tutu. Discovering more joy doesn't save us from hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. As we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have heartbreaks without being broken." And I think he just speaks so wisely and directly there to that relationship between the beauty and the goodness and the pain, and that it provides that container to let it all pass through without it harming us.
Yeah, it was a beautiful quote. It touched me too. I think as well, one of the aspects of burnout is contact with joy is minimal or lost. Contact with wonder is almost entirely inconceivable. So I think When we can reconnect with that we have an experience of our heart differently as well.
yeah. I've got a question for you in your work on burnout. I can't remember if this made it into the book or not, so you tell me, because you read it more recently than I have. When I think about that state that you're describing, Of everything just being so gray and empty, and just not being able to let it in, or find it, the joy, the wonder, the goodness. One of the analogies that I use is it's like trying to get a car that's stuck in the snow out. Sometimes if you apply the gas, you just spin, but if you give a little gas and let it rock back and give a little more gas and let it rock back, you get some momentum going, and then you can roll or rock your way out of it, and when I think about my experiences with burnout and exhaustion and overwhelm, sometimes one of the things that has helped has been just beginning to stimulate my own nervous system very gently with certain kind of a rhythm. of whether it's even just moving a little bit and then letting my body be totally limp on the ground and then moving a little bit more or anything like that where one is introducing a certain kind of a rhythm in a small way of some activity and then some rest to reestablish that natural organic rhythm of energy and rest that is so essential to all life. I'm curious what your experience of that is in your work.
Yeah, I like the concept. It's not one I use explicitly, but subconsciously, yes, it's a pendulation between, okay, now I'm suffering, or I've created a slightly different experience. Okay, now I'm suffering again. but maybe I can create another, and they increase and increase. But when you told me the metaphor about the snow, the first thing I thought was, oh no, in burnout, we just help them melt the snow, because it's heart led.
where they have felt unsupported by the world. Is mirrored by the lack of support they've shown up with for themselves. And what I really teach is unconditional love and acceptance and care for the self.
And I think we're secretly starved of that. Even the men who'd rather not mention that or admit to it. We didn't get the love that we needed in the way that we needed it and we still don't because we're not supporting ourselves to the fullest extent we're capable of at all. We're just shutting ourselves down and being mean to ourselves. So melting the snow for me is okay, I can learn To be much more. open with my heart towards myself, Will melt a lot more snow than I think it's going to melt.
So yes, I would agree with the, I would agree with your metaphor as well, which is We have little assays into, Oh, could I make this a little tiny bit better? Oh like doing exercises in the gym, you get stronger and stronger. over the months.
But I like the heart led process. For me, the healing needs to take place in our hearts. our good heart to ourselves first. And when we get really a little bit skillful at that, then letting it out naturally into the world, organically into the world as well.
Yeah, absolutely. That everything you're sharing has been true for me in my own experience, too. One of the things that I've found helpful when it has been hard to love myself, to let that support in, to find that support is also receiving it from others. And there's a
In my own life that how I've seen how I've been able to relearn how to love and accept myself and continue to through the love, through receiving the love of others and how those support each other, right? How it's a reciprocal process. The more I open to and accept myself, the more love I have to offer and give. But it is, it has been fascinating to me. And it was one of the things I meant to mention before, but didn't when he asked about that burnout. Is yeah, when I've been in those states or those difficult periods, one of the things that has helped the most is just literally asking for help. It's just recognizing I need support. I need support. And then that teaching me again, my own value, my own worth, how I can take better care of myself because I'm here for myself.
yeah, we have to give ourselves permission to be different than we've been
And another thing I think which is a component of burnout recovery and also I think any spiritual work, particularly inwardly before we do this externally, is you emphasize forgiveness. And I wonder if you think, That's a slightly overlooked idea in modern life. I
Absolutely. I think that, it's an understatement in terms of overlooked, but yeah, if we look at the dominant culture, and certainly in the West or the global North, We see just these values for quite the opposite, right? Sort of revenge and domination and punishment. So in, within that context, forgiveness is tremendously radical act. But it's really a beautiful invitation, I think, to a different way of life. And whenever I talk about forgiveness, and you know from having read the book, I always find it really important to differentiate what we mean, what I mean by forgiveness, and that it doesn't mean forgetting the past, or pretending we're okay, or condoning harm, or bypassing pain. This is quite the opposite. It's actually A way of really honouring the truth of what's happened and coming to terms with it in a different way so that we can be free, so that we can free ourselves from being defined. by a certain moment or a certain experience. Yeah it's a way of life, I think, that that takes a lot of strength and is a journey, right? It's not something we just do once. It's oh, I forgive you, or you, often the hardest person to forgive is ourselves, but it's a process that starts with An intention, I believe, just orienting in that direction, even considering it as a possibility and wanting to be free inside from being bound to the pain or the suffering of the past. And it's tremendous. It's tremendous. The the capacity we have as human beings to let go for the heart to open and really find some measure of peace with the truth.
think we're very enmeshed in a dualistic attitude towards people who we don't think are the same as us. And I think a deeper understanding of what others, other people might believe, what they might be going through, where their suffering is. For me, it really helps us drop our resentment and our grudge and our battle and get into forgiveness. And the main beneficiary of that is always us.
That's right. That's right. We forgive to free our own hearts. And yeah, what you're pointing to is such an essential part of the process is that I would, I think about it or language it in two ways. One is the empathy, right? Empathy is to see the other person's humanity and to understand more insight and understanding into who they are and what led to whatever unfolded. But also I think there's a, there's also that broader lens that I hear you from. Pointing to of understanding all of the conditions. Not just empathy for this person or for ourselves, but seeing a particular moment, event, act, or situation that has caused harm. Again, not to condone it or say it's okay, but understanding it in the broader context. And this is one of the root teachings of Buddhism is that everything exists and is unfolding in this web of conditions. You have fuel, oxygen and a match, and a a spark, you get fire. That's how fire works. And when you bring certain conditions together, these are the outcomes you get. And so part of the process of forgiveness, as I understand and have experienced it is also developing the wisdom to see the broader conditions and understand everything that led to that moment, that situation, which then allows the heart to open and forgive because it's no longer just personal. Yeah.
Exactly. Nothing was ever just personal. All right. I'm pushing the limits of our time together here. So what I'd like to ask you now is what you would like to say to our listeners about the book and the impact it can have on their lives.
Yeah. If our conversation has been meaningful to you in some way my, my wish, my hope and my offer is that this book can be a companion and a resource for the challenging troubled times we're living in every day. And my deepest hope is that there is something transformative and healing in here for all of us. Please yeah, please check it out and I hope that it supports you in in whatever good things you're doing in the world.
Yes, me too. And thank you so much for being here today, Oren It really has been such a pleasure to speak with you and hear some of your ideas from the book and other places. Don't forget to everybody listening, Oren's book link is in the show notes. Please go and check it out. I thought it was a, an amazing book, especially for our hustle culture times that we're in at the moment. And it's a terrific resource for those of you who are experiencing burnout. If you have enjoyed today's podcast, I would love you to rate and review it so that we can reach more people who suffer in burnout. And if you yourself are in burnout, listen for the link at the end. You must come and talk to me about how to recover quickly, sustainably, and get back to your best performance, leadership, and most of all enjoyment inside work and out. Thank you so much for being here listeners today. And thank you so much. Oren