This podcast is a space where transformative conversations unfold, and this episode is no exception. I had the honor of delving deep into the world of contemplative practices, mindfulness, and personal transformation of inner qualities with the insightful Oren Jay Sofer, author of the recently released “Your Heart Was Made for This.”
Oren and I explored the profound connection between heart and mind, a concept deeply rooted in Asian philosophies. Oren, a meditation teacher and practitioner of Nonviolent Communication, emphasized that these traditions don’t separate the heart and mind. Instead, they teach us how to train qualities that can significantly impact our personal goals and the broader challenges facing the world.
Shaping Our Inner Lives with Inner Qualities
Oren brought forth the idea that personal transformation is not isolated from the immense challenges our world faces. He introduced a unique and pragmatic approach to contemplative practice, combining decades of formal training in early Buddhist meditation with more contemporary disciplines of Nonviolent Communication and Somatics.
We discussed the importance of shaping our inner lives intentionally. Oren highlighted the difference between aspiration and agency—a sense of what is possible versus actively participating in the creation of that possibility. He stressed that understanding what we are practicing is crucial; whether it’s agitation, impatience, or kindness, our attention shapes our heart-mind. Every moment becomes an opportunity to cultivate the qualities we desire.
Oren took the time to define contemplative practices, emphasizing that they come in many forms. These practices help cultivate awareness, perspective, and meaning in our lives, providing a holistic approach to our well-being. As we navigate the stresses of modern society, contemplative practices become tools to counter feelings of helplessness and regain agency for broader change.
The Heart-Mind Connection: Neuroplasticity and Equanimity
Our conversation delved into the intricacies of contemplative modes, exploring the interconnectedness of the heart and neuroplasticity. Oren shared insights into the challenges of modern life, where we often feel overwhelmed and powerless. The discussion revolved around the choice between training the heart or the mind and how focusing on qualities rather than fleeting emotional states can lead to personal and social transformation.
Oren introduced the concept of orienting and practicing specific qualities, emphasizing the importance of discerning between pain and suffering. We explored the idea of strengthening the good versus fixating on the bad, and how contentment plays a crucial role in overcoming the relentless pursuit of success.
Oren provided profound reflections on contentment, challenging the societal narrative of relentless seeking. He emphasized that contentment is not the absence of success but the recognition of the pleasure in having “enough.” In a culture infected by the drive to be better, Oren highlighted the importance of discerning between equanimity and clinging, breaking free from the craving for intensity and success.
Differentiating Inner Qualities Like Compassion, Kindness, and Empathy
The conversation deepened as we explored the nuances of compassion, kindness, and empathy. Oren shared insights into forgiveness and the perils of nursing resentment. We delved into the avoidance of pain and the transformative power of forgiveness in overcoming personal and societal challenges.
In conclusion, my conversation with Oren Jay Sofer was a captivating journey into the realms of mindfulness, contemplative practices, and personal transformation. His wisdom on shaping our inner lives, differentiating between qualities, and the profound impact of contentment and forgiveness left an indelible mark.
As we navigate the complexities of our modern world, Oren’s teachings offer a beacon of light—a reminder that our personal growth is intertwined with the betterment of society. Join me in embracing the practices of mindfulness, cultivating inner qualities, and embarking on a journey towards positive change.
Here are our key takeaways:
- Cultivating Inner Qualities for Positive Change: Engaging in contemplative practices fosters patience, contentment, and forgiveness, offering powerful tools to navigate life’s challenges and instigate positive transformations.
- Distinguishing Empathy, Compassion, and Kindness: Empathy connects us, compassion responds to pain, and kindness nurtures warmth and connection. Understanding these distinctions enhances our capacity for meaningful relationships.
- The Power of Contentment Through Mindfulness: Contentment arises from appreciating the present, not yearning for more. Mindfulness practices enable the development of contentment, transforming our outlook on life.
- Forgiveness as Liberation, Not Forgetting: Forgiveness liberates our hearts from past suffering without forgetting or justifying. It’s a profound act of self-empowerment, allowing us to move forward unburdened.
- Reducing Suffering through Letting Go: Embracing qualities like equanimity facilitates the letting go process, a crucial step in reducing suffering. Letting go opens the door to inner peace and resilience.
Listen to Oren Jay Sofer’s episode
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- Listen to my previous episode with Oren: Say What You Mean
- Learn more about fulfillment from my conversation with Mario Fraioli
- Communication, mindfulness, and personal growth. (0:02)
- Contemplative practices beyond meditation and mindfulness. (6:25)
- 26 qualities for a meaningful life. (12:16)
- Cultivating contentment and generosity through mindfulness. (20:26)
- Finding enduring contentment through mindfulness and renunciation. (24:55)
- Creating contentment and overcoming craving. (32:06)
- Empathy, compassion, kindness, and their differences. (38:26)
- Forgiveness and its importance in healing. (43:50)
- Letting go through mindfulness and empathy. (50:16)
Sonya Looney 0:02
Oren, welcome to the show.
Oren Jay Sofer 0:04
Hey, Sonya, thanks. It’s good to be back.
Sonya Looney 0:06
Yeah, you know, our last interview was about your, your first – was Say What You Mean your first book?
Say What you Mean: a nonviolent or a mindful and nonviolent guide to communication? Is that the tagline?
Oren Jay Sofer 0:20
Yeah, more or less.
Sonya Looney 0:21
And that that book is a book that I recommend all the time, because communication is such an important part of relationships, and especially in these times, like being able to speak what our needs are. So like, how has your view on communication changed at all, if at all, since you wrote that book,
Oren Jay Sofer 0:39
I don’t think the central view has shifted at all. But certainly, my sense of what’s required to be in conversation in a skillful way has deepened, and that that’s one of the aims of the new book, one of two very important aims, and that is to provide a deeper and broader training ground for the kinds of skills and capacities we need to really have meaningful, important or difficult conversations, what the first book was designed to lay out the basic skills and the central importance of mindfulness, right, that we can’t really communicate effectively, if we’re not aware, if we’re not here. What I’ve learned over the last five or six years of teaching, at this point, probably 1000s of people to use nonviolent communication and mindfulness is that there are a whole host of other capacities that are essential to do this. Well. Everything from Curiosity, to courage, to empathy, forgiveness, compassion, resolve patience. So to the degree that we do or don’t have access to those qualities, it’s more or less difficult to have the conversations we need to have today.
Sonya Looney 2:02
Yeah, like the quality of our inner lives impacts the outer life, whether it’s within relationships, or in your book, you speak specifically about things like social justice, and how all of these qualities are important for making change. Exactly
Oren Jay Sofer 2:17
Right. And that’s the the other central aim of the book is to look at how our inner life can be a resource and a guide for be more effective in our lives on all levels. So personally, and our families. But also, as you note in our communities, there’s so many overwhelming challenges and crises that are unfolding around the world and in our communities today. Everything from the ecological crisis, to economic uncertainty, and real difficulty with inflation and just making ends meet to the wars that are unfolding around the world. And I know a lot of people, myself included, are very rightly disturbed. So we need in our resources to stay balanced to keep our eye on the ball, but also to respond effectively and wisely. So the book is really designed to broaden the scope of what do we mean by something like contemplative practice, or, you know, we can talk about it as wellness, I know you’re doing a degree in positive psychology, but we could also talk about it as spirituality or that beautiful phrase you just used of our inner life. How can that be something that’s not just for us alone internally, but actually a springboard for fulfilling our potential and being more effective in our in our world?
Sonya Looney 3:32
Something that we talk about a lot is that well, being doesn’t only reside within the individual, it’s a collective endeavor. And in your book, you talk about like the book is called your heart was made for this? Or is it your heart is made for this? No, yeah, sorry,
Oren Jay Sofer 3:46
You got it right.
Sonya Looney 3:48
And actually, even just seeing that title, whenever I’m experiencing a challenge, I think of that book title, your heart was made for this and it gives me strength that I might be searching for. And in your book, you talk about training qualities and qualities of the heart, but that the heart is not separate from the mind. So can you talk about like the heart and mind connection and what these qualities like what a quality is?
Oren Jay Sofer 4:11
Sure, absolutely. So some of this is coming out of Asian philosophy and different religious traditions and Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the one that I’m most directly trained in of course, is early Buddhism, but in the whole scope of Asian philosophy and religion, the word for heart and mind is not separate. So the understanding is that what we refer to in the West as our say, emotional heart and our thinking mind are actually connected. And the is the seat of awareness, in our in our, in our being. And this heart mind, this capacity, we have to become conscious and aware, to feel things and to respond is not fixed. So the whole realm of contemplative practice, as well as a lot of modern psychology is based upon this understanding that we are designed to learn. And so every day we’re practicing something, we’re learning something, we’re getting better at something. And as the saying goes, practice doesn’t make perfect practice makes permanent. So what are we practicing every day, right? are we practicing, being impatient and agitated and frustrated and rushed and if that’s the case, then hey, guess what, we get really good at being impatient, agitated, frustrated, rushed. Whereas, if we are able to learn how to use our attention wisely, and how to shape our heart, mind, we can use every moment of every day to practice being patient, being kind, being generous, being courageous, being compassionate. And then we get better every day at that every day we grow stronger, we grow more resilient, if we know how to train the heart mind. So one of the analogies I like to use Sonia, and I think you’ll appreciate this as, as an athlete, and someone who really appreciates being in the body is like the difference. So the difference between meditation or mindfulness and contemplative practice is like the difference between, say, running and exercise. And in the last couple of decades, we’ve seen this huge explosion of the popularity and even just awareness of mindfulness and meditation in the public sphere, which I think is wonderful. But it’s been very limited in that most people associate those activities or practices just with silent meditation. And so I don’t enjoy running very much. But I do like to exercise and move. And if someone you know, if I said to somebody, yeah, I don’t like to run, so I’m probably just not going to exercise, they would say, that doesn’t make any sense. Or, in the same way, you know, meditation is not for everyone. And even if we like meditation, there are plenty of circumstances in which it’s really difficult to meditate, or we don’t have the time or we’re overwhelmed or flooded. And we need other ways of attending to our inner life. And so in the same way, contemplative practice is a much broader arena, with a whole array of creative options to shape and deepen and nourish our inner life.
Sonya Looney 7:39
Thanks for adding some depth to that. Because I think that people view meditation and mindfulness, like you said, as the only way to practice, do contemplative practices because there’s a lack of of knowledge around what that even means. Yeah. So training these qualities is one way meditation. And mindfulness is another way, what are some other ways that people can practice or do contemplative practices? Sure, well,
Oren Jay Sofer 8:04
let’s just define that phrase, first, right? Because it’s, you know, what do we what do we mean by that? So I define contemplative practice as anything that cultivates awareness, reflect reflection. And that gives us perspective on life that supports a sense of meaning or purpose. So when we consider that we see that there are many ways to cultivate awareness and perspective to connect with meaning. So contemplative practice includes things like the arts, storytelling, ritual study. So a few of the contemplative practices that I draw heavily on in the book, which actually do come out of the broader Buddhist tradition and other spiritual traditions, but that don’t get talked about so often are shared are things like reflection. This is, in some sense, a synonym for the word contemplation, and is a very specific and powerful use of the mind of thought, whereby we’re not just kind of wandering and discursive analysis or ruminating, but very intentionally directing our focus to a certain theme or topic, and then listening in a receptive way. So one of the early chapters in the book is on aspiration and aspiration is our sense of what’s possible for ourselves and also for our world. And life is such an important capacity. If we want to build a better world or live a more meaningful and fulfilling life, we have to have a sense of where we’re going like having a Northstar. So we can use a process of reflect Action to listen deeply for what’s really important to me. How do I want to live? What orients me in my life? And this is a way of sort of asking a question and then just listening and seeing what comes thoughts, memories, feelings, images. This is one form of contemplative practice. And if it’s okay, maybe I’ll mention just just a couple of others.
Sonya Looney 10:22
Yeah, I’m actually gonna bring up some of these, I have a little list I made. Oh, wonderful.
Oren Jay Sofer 10:26
Great. So I’ll mention two more. And then And then, yeah, we can we can explore some of the different qualities I actually don’t know if I do answer that other question you ask of what is what is the quality, so maybe I’ll take a little detour into that. So qualities, which is the word I use in the book, are these innate capacities that we have, they are broader than, say, an emotion or a mind state. Sometimes in the neuroscience research, we might refer to them as traits, once they become very developed. So the research that I’m sure you’re familiar with, based on your your training right now is that we all have these different capacities for thing for experiences, or ways of being like, not only mindfulness, but courage, or patience, or resolve, or wonder or gratitude, or playfulness or contentment. And initially, these occur somewhat randomly when the conditions come together, internally or externally. And that’s known as a State experience, it comes and it goes, and for many of us, these different qualities or capacities or states that pass through our life, and the great insight and potential of both contemplative practice. And more recently, today, things like positive psychology, which are founded on the neuroscience research are that we can actively strengthen those states so that they become default traits, actual enduring experiences that inform our life, on a moment to moment and a day to day basis. So other ways of of strengthening these that I explore and lean on in the book. Every chapter has a instructions for a reflection, for some meditation, and then for some kind of action, some way of putting it into practice, and then section exploring challenges or difficulties that might come up. So image is a really powerful way to strengthen these qualities or capacities. Image connects our consciousness with the mythopoetic realm, the realm of archetype, collective unconsciousness, the collective unconscious. So it taps into a different aspect of our being and our spirits. So, for example, in the chapter on patience, I talked about some of the images that we might use to get a felt sense of how we experience patients, and then to act as a reminder of that experience in a hard moment. So something like an old growth redwood out here in California, we have the blessing of having a few stands of old growth, redwood forest left these massive, massive trees that have lived for literally 1000s of years and to stand before one of them is this incredibly humbling experience, the kind of enduring patience these beings have of living through so much, or the image of a great mountain, or a vast body of water. These kinds of images can connect our heart with experiences that we all have in different moments in our life, a feeling expanded or connected to something very stable or strong, or a kind of trust in the unfolding of life. And so we use that image to recollect the felt sense of a meaningful or powerful experience that connects us with a quality like patience, or many other qualities we might, we might cultivate, and this can become a way of strengthening and embodying those beautiful capacities we have as human beings. So what other qualities did you want to talk about?
Sonya Looney 14:37
Well, first, I have a comment about patients because that was actually one of my qualities here. And when you’re speaking about standing next to a redwood in ancient redwood, or being in the presence of a mountain, the motion that you’re experiencing is Ah, so it just makes me think about how Aw, in some cases is connected to patients. Um, contextually because you can experience on situations that aren’t about being in the grandness of something else. But yeah, this just makes me think about emotions and how they can impact some of these qualities. Because you said that these qualities are not emotions. They’re, they’re more than just an emotion.
Oren Jay Sofer 15:14
Yeah, yeah. They’re not just emotions, as you just said, yeah, they’re, they’re broader. They often include an emotion and I love, I love the point you’re making there, which for me, highlights the fact that many of these qualities support each other. And so there is a chapter on wonder which I use as a synonym for awe. And, you know, something like gratitude or joy, you know, might also be connected to that experience, we feel a sense of wonder, and being in the presence of something as beautiful and incredible as a vast tree are a beautiful vista of a mountain. Now, we feel grateful for it. And we feel nourished by the some sense of joy inside. And all of that can connect us to other experiences and capacities like patience, or very important quality I talked about in the book of equanimity, which is this kind of wise, balanced perspective that we get at certain moments that we can strengthen.
Sonya Looney 16:21
Yeah, it makes me think of emotional granularity, or just granularity with our descriptions of things. And that’s a big part of resilience is being able to better describe a name, how you’re feeling. And even just reading these 24 qualities, just how you chose them, how you oriented them in the book, I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. And then we’ll get into the details of some of them. Yeah,
Oren Jay Sofer 16:46
thanks. So. So there are 26 chapters. And the idea, as we were talking about before, is that if you devote two weeks to each chapter, gives you a whole year of learning, exploration, and cultivation. So many of the qualities come out of classical Buddhist teachings, the Buddha lived in a period where there was an oral culture. And so the way of remembering things was to create all of these different lists as a pedagogical structure they used. And so I started looking at some of the core teachings, and the different qualities that are emphasized in waking up and realizing our potential, and wanting to translate those into modern terms and how they can be an asset for us in our day to day life. And then I also looked at my own experience, my own life, my meditation practice and thought, well, what’s missing here, you know, what, what is actually essential to this process, but that is named directly. And those are some of the qualities like rest, or play, even devotion, which is one of my favorite chapters, because I’m trying to reclaim that capacity from its limited association with the religious context to a more humanistic experience of sincerity and wholeheartedness and enthusiasm, which I find is so essential to living a meaningful life and to being effective in anything. So those qualities are things that I recognize, are present in my own meditation practice that I wanted to include. And then the order of them was also a really fun project for me and really is based on my understanding of how the spiritual path actually unfolds. And this kind of underlying pattern in the human psyche of there’s almost like a wave of certain qualities that lay a foundation and start with energy of initiating and getting going and then reaching some kind of peak or plateau, where things start to stabilize and get integrated. And then moving into more subtle experiences of things like contentment or balance or forgiveness, that bear equality of freedom or release. And as I as I describe that, I think many of us can relate that to just ordinary experiences in our lives of something like I was talking about running before even though I don’t like running I do do it sometimes. Such an efficient form of exercise, but I experienced that same thing with running there’s kind of this is a hard to get going. It’s like the body hurts, it’s uncomfortable. But then once we get going, we hit our stride and there’s this kind of sense of like, yeah, okay, like I’m with this I’m moving things are flowing. And then towards the end, there’s this very The kind of sweet endorphin rush and this kind of release and relaxation that comes in the body. So I, I think that this process is something that’s quite natural that occurs on many levels, not just physiologically, but also emotionally and spiritually. And that’s really the design of the structure of the book is to support people to move through that process and get familiar with it. By attending to these different qualities and their energies.
Sonya Looney 20:26
A comment I want to make about the discomfort of running or biking or whatever your chosen or maybe not not wanting to choose, but doing form of exercise is that there’s pain, right? You mentioned pain and discomfort, and there are certain types of pain that are appropriate and certain types that are not appropriate. But I think what causes the suffering with exercise, and the resistance is trying to separate yourself from the pain while it’s happening. So you’re going, you’re burning your lungs, or whatever it is, and you try and say I’m separate from this. So one of my actually, contemplative practices and exercising is when I’m actually pushing myself and feeling the pain and saying, I am the pain, I’m not separate from it. And I can actually go straight through it, and it just goes straight through me. And then I can just accept that it’s there. And I found that that’s been really helpful, helpful way to think about the discomfort of exercise, which actually translates to other places in life.
Oren Jay Sofer 21:21
Absolutely. I love that, Sonia. And it’s so resonant with really the central thrust of Buddhism, which is about examining our relationship with pain and suffering and recognizing that there’s a difference between pain which are the unpleasant sensations and experiences that are unavoidable in life. And suffering, which comes from as you just so aptly noted, our resistance to it, our wanting to get away from it to be separate from it, to avoid it. And when we can transform that relationship to, to discomfort to unpleasant things, there’s a different kind of freedom that we can find.
Sonya Looney 22:01
So I’m going to jump into a quality or two qualities here, and spend sentiment and generosity. And I’ll tell you why I’m starting with those. So first of all, I love that you chose to strengthen the good instead of get rid of the bad. That’s also fundamental in positive psychology. But like in your book, you said I’m not I don’t have chapters called anger and anxiety and sadness, like you have the opposites of those essentially, to strengthen the good. But whenever I read contentment and generosity, it made me think of how we are experiencing life. Now there’s a lot of envy. There’s a lot of wishing our lives were different, because we’re assuming that everybody else has it easier than us. And I think that that feeling of envy creates a constricted grasping feeling. So the opposite of envy is contentment and generosity. So contentment was one of the ones I had written down. Because if you ask people, What do I want? What do you want most in life? Especially people who are striving, they say I want ease and I want contentment. So can you talk about cultivating contentment without resignation? Because I think that’s another thing that people are afraid of? Yeah,
Oren Jay Sofer 23:09
yeah. Thanks, Sonya. Yeah, I just I want to speak to the broader principle you named in introducing this, this quality of strengthening the good and the positive. And the idea, as as you noted, is that those difficult experiences we all have of grief and anger and fear and worry. When we orient to the wholeness, and the strength and the goodness in our hearts, we then have the resources to metabolize them. Right. So it’s not as you were noting, in the exercise analogy, it’s not that we’re avoiding or running away from or trying to be separate from those uncomfortable experiences, but rather, creating, strengthening and attending to the context or the inner environment that can actually understand and heal those places. And so, while there are no chapters on those qualities, as you’ve probably noticed, I they’re woven throughout the book, in through the lens of the antidotes and the medicine that helps us to, to learn from them and to grow through them. So as far as contentment
I talk about sort of a process of deepening stages of contentment. Maybe first just to distinguish contentment from gratitude. The way I understand it as gratitude is sort of an active appreciation of what we’ve received. Which can then give rise to contentment which is kind of a quieter happy Venus, there’s sort of a stillness inside a resting with what is that feels satisfied and fulfilled. And the here and now, which is such an elusive experience that I think so much in our culture suggests we can achieve by chasing after it or by consumption, and that anyone who’s paying attention starts to recognize that the promise goal never arrives, we keep seeking contentment through experiences and consumption, even through things like status or gain of a job or relationship. And while we might feel fulfilled for a little while, it fades very quickly and gives away to this sort of underlying disease or a kind of emptiness wanting something inside. So how do we really uncover that sense of fulfillment and enough, you know, what is enough. So the first stage is recognizing the very temporary kind of contentment that comes when the world aligns with our preferences when we actually get what we want, and craving ceases. This is important because it actually helps us to recognize like, oh, I can’t feel satisfied, but oftentimes, we might overlook it. Then we can start to notice the sense of happiness or satisfaction that comes when our needs are met, when we are fulfilled. So you know, how often do we say, Eat past the point of being full. Or maybe indulge in watching television longer than is really nourishing for us, you know, instead of just watching one thing, we end up binging or watching three, and then feeling strung out and tired and exhausted. So a simple meal or workout a good night’s rest, starting to appreciate the understated pleasure of enough to attune to it, it’s not the fireworks, it’s not the ice cream cone or the hot shower and the intensity of pleasure. It’s more of a sense of awe, just just subtle out breath. And we start to feel at least in that moment, kind of stillness, we can rest there as a temporary kind of fulfillment. So noticing this is the beginning of discovering a deeper contentment, that’s not actually dependent on getting what we want, or things going our way. Those are this can arise in different ways. One is just by noticing that there are actually moments during the day, when we are content when we’re not driven or
made ill at E is by the sense of wanting to get something or the pressure and agitation of trying to get things done. We can notice the absence of that kind of stress, and really appreciate like, sip of clean water or breath of fresh air, stepping outside and just taking in the quality of the light or the air polluted these moments throughout the day where we actually have an experience of freedom and satisfaction. And if we notice those and attend to them, we begin to recognize our capacity for contentment, and for letting go. And this is the skill that I think we need to develop if we really want to experience a more enduring kind of contentment, which is renunciation, simplicity. Recognizing the agitation of always trying to get somewhere control things or have something or even the kind of drive to be better, can be infected with a quality of agitation that’s based on not being good enough or rejecting ourselves. So learning how to let go learning how to recognize those drives and not follow them. But coming back to discomfort to just bear with the temporary discomfort of that feeling ill at ease wanting to get somewhere and needing to get it done and wanting to be better. And noticing what happens when we just bear with it when we’re able to be patient not react stay steady. Is that it? It passes, we discover a kind of deeper contentment that comes from just being here. We see other things open up, like the kind of blessings of being alive the small things that we overlook. And ultimately a kind of contentment that comes from just recognizing that we’re alive, that we’re aware that we have this precious opportunity. One of the things that’s so powerful about this kind of deeper, enduring contentment, that doesn’t come from getting what we want, but actually just appreciating being aware and alive is that rather than leading to a kind of apathy or passivity, that I’ll never do anything, or I won’t work to improve, myself or my community or to change things in the world, it actually gives us a deeper source of energy and steadiness to work for whether it’s learning and self improvement, or creating new policies and affecting social change in a way that sustainable, instead of a way that is sort of driven and agitated and prone to burnout. So that was a long answer. But I’m curious how all that lands with you. And, you know, what do you think about it?
Sonya Looney 31:26
I mean, I almost feel like contentment is the kingpin for a lot of problems in life. Because I think that the reason why people are always consuming or searching or even running over other people, you know, in a, in a negative competitive way, is that they’re trying to feel like they’re enough. If I can just get more if I can just do more, if I could just be more than I’m going to be enough, then life will feel good. And this underlying current of contentment, it’s not a calm water. It’s it’s a very choppy rapids that are, are difficult to manage. Yeah, I mean, sorry, go ahead.
Oren Jay Sofer 32:08
Yeah, and I just, I love that you’re bringing it to that. And what’s so important to me about it is acknowledging the cultural messages that so many of us internalize, and how, you know, craving and consumption is what drives the global economy. And that, you know, we have all been molded and shaped to be consumers, and to buy into this delusion, really, that our sense of fulfillment and satisfaction, and self worth, can come from having something getting something or becoming someone rather than recognizing that each of us is in some really fundamental way. Beautiful and whole, and enough, just as we are. And there’s room for improvement too, of course, but that we can start from that place of recognizing our wholeness. So the, the piece here that is so essential to me is examining and becoming aware of the force of of craving, this kind of unconscious thirst, you’re talking about to fill some hole inside and our capacity to release ourselves from craving. So I tell a story in the chapter on renunciation, which is the skill of transforming our relationship with this drive to be filled up is unconscious sense of lack inside about training as a monk at the monastery where you you live with a very high level of simplicity, you know, you don’t have any choice over the clothes you wear, you just wear simple robes, only eating before noon, so no supper, no entertainment, like TV or music, celibate so there’s a lot to let go of. And of course, it’s not just that you know, the craving disadvantages when you live in that way, it actually gets more intense because you’re restricting all of these outlets and impulses that we have to temporarily get our fix. And so I remember this one day. So I want to things I talk about also in the book is my journey with chronic digestive condition and some of the very difficult and embarrassing lessons I learned on how to take care of my body in relation to that. So part of having that condition meant that not healthy for me to eat sugar, or like wheat and baked goods. And so the craving one day was so intense that I was in the line cleaning cleaning out my my arms bowl this bowl that we would eat our meals out of and I saw Are there at the top of the compost bucket? This uneaten glistening chocolate brownie. And I looked around to see if anyone was watching and I had a moment where I was alone no night, you know, I reached my hand into the compost bucket and pulled this desert out and, you know, ran into the bathroom to kind of gorge myself on it. And, you know, as sort of embarrassing, and as that was to see, and myself, it was really powerful lesson to recognize that trying to suppress or avoid or judged myself for for wanting and craving wasn’t helping, it was just intensifying it in that I needed to find another way to relate to that hunger inside.
Sonya Looney 35:51
Thanks for sharing that story. I think a broader point that we’re making, or that you’re making with contentment is that it’s okay to strive for more, to want to be better, or not, you shouldn’t have to renounce the success itself. It’s renouncing the need to have success in order to be whole, to matter to be enough.
Oren Jay Sofer 36:15
Sonya Looney 36:17
So yeah, cultivating you know, why, or understanding why you’re, you’re maybe striving for more in a clinging hungry way? And what are the what are the underlying reasons, is it and I think that for a lot of people, it’s because we want to matter, we think that if we can just do more, be more, have more, then we’ll finally matter. And that goes down to like relationships and belonging and feeling connected, which is what all of this is about, and what your last book also supports.
Oren Jay Sofer 36:47
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And how can we attend to the hurt inside of feeling like we don’t belong, or that we don’t matter, that that experience, it’s so uncomfortable, and in some ways, even scary, right? To turn towards these, these questions that you’re naming, I think, takes a tremendous amount of courage and insight to recognize, you know, yeah, I’m driving myself so hard. pursuing this goal, which might be, as you know, a worthy goal is to try to get away from this experience of feeling afraid that I don’t belong, or I don’t matter, people don’t like me. And to recognize that, those fears and, and wounds and worries, when we actually start to turn towards them and welcome them develop a different relationship with them, they lose some of their power, they lose some of their strength, and that we can start to heal them, both through the relationships in our lives, the things that are present, and that are nourishing, and also through changing our way of understanding ourselves and our place, changing our sense of our conception of ourself and developing a more enduring kind of acceptance and love for who we are really seeing the goodness that is present in each of our hearts. And not overlooking that, but drawing on it as a source of strength and belonging.
Sonya Looney 38:26
So I’m just looking at the time, and I can’t believe how much time is already flown by. There’s two more places I want to go. But we might only have time for one. So I’d like you to choose where you’d like to go. So the first is discerning the difference between compassion, kindness and empathy. Because I think there’s a bunch of nuance in there. And then the second is forgiveness. So which one would you like to focus on?
Oren Jay Sofer 38:50
Such beautiful topics? Well, let’s, let’s start with the first. So I think that these terms, compassion, kindness, and empathy can be defined in different ways and used in different ways. So it’s important for me to note that what I’m about to share is just one way, and it’s not necessarily the right way or the only way. So I understand and define these terms. First and foremost, empathy is our innate capacity to connect with and resonate with the felt experience of others. So empathy for me is kind of like the underlying property of the human heart that can vibrate and resonate with others. I use the analogy of like plucking a string on a guitar. And then that wooden body of the instrument vibrating is the empathy of our heart. And so we can have empathy for anything we can have empathy for someone’s joy, which is a beautiful experience. I Talk about right when someone’s something wonderful happens. And we say,
Sonya Looney 40:03
oh my god, I’m so happy for you that’s so great. It’s a kind
Oren Jay Sofer 40:07
of empathy. We’re connecting through a specific kind of empathy, known as appreciative joy or celebration, rejoicing, right, we are feeling uplifted by the happiness, the success, the good fortune and well being of another. So compassion is when this sensitive resonant capacity of the heart meets the pain and suffering of the world or of others, we feel it, we resonate with it, and that opens the door to compassion. So compassion is empathy for pain. And I talk about compassion as having two parts, two aspects. And I believe this is consistent with some of the neuroscience research on compassion. There’s a receptive aspect of compassion. And this is that quivering of the heart, it’s the suffering with I talk in the compassion chapter about some of the losses personally, we’ve experienced in our community. Lately, I lost my father, this year, a very close friend lost their son. And so the receptive aspect of compassion is just that ability to sit together and cry or hold each other. The compassion doesn’t stop there. Compassion also has this responsiveness that reaches forward and says, What do you need? How can I help? So the active responsive aspect of compassion, you know, picks up some groceries and leaves them at the door, cooks a meal, or just even says, you know, hey, I’m here for you. Let me know if there’s anything I can do. Kindness and kindness is the or oriented towards the goodness in our hearts. And it’s that fundamental experience of human warmth. of kindness is kind of the default orientation of our hearts. When we’re not stressed, overwhelmed, we don’t feel threatened. That says, Hey, have a good day, you know, or that smiles at a stranger. Or that is able to move into things like generosity here, let me get that for you. Or gratitudes Oh, this is so wonderful. So kindness is the experience of warmth and connection that’s available to us. When we’re not overcome with stress, anxiety, or other afflictive experiences. That’s that’s how I understand and differentiate them.
Sonya Looney 42:53
I’ve tried to summarize that I’ve been trying to differentiate this myself. So I heard you say, empathy is more of a resonant, emotional, like feeling to be with to feel what somebody else is feeling, but doesn’t necessarily orient to an action. And then compassion is more around when somebody is experiencing a hardship or suffering. It’s how you attend to that person’s suffering. And then kindness is more broad, like you can be compassionate and kindness and kind. But kindness is more of a wellspring for other qualities that attend to others, but don’t necessarily need to be attending to somebody suffering.
Oren Jay Sofer 43:37
Yeah, yeah. And I would even just go a step further. So kindness is its basic human warmth. And connection, is that experience of connection we feel with others sense of mutual recognition and connection. And that’s very natural. All of these experiences, in my understanding are very natural. For us, again, when we are not beset with these difficult afflictive experiences, which is why it’s so important both to attend to and cultivate our strengths, and then use those two. Take care of the difficulties we experience so that we can draw on these beautiful capacities we have and share them with one another. So we might have time to talk about forgiveness.
Sonya Looney 44:29
Yeah, I think this is a good segue actually kindness, compassion, empathy into forgiveness. So can first can you define what forgiveness is?
Oren Jay Sofer 44:41
I so love that. You start with that question, Sonia. Because I think there can be so many misunderstandings about forgiveness. So I’ll say what it’s not first. When I use the word forgiveness, I’m not talking about forgetting what happened. Pretending that harm is okay. Bypassing our pain, erasing the memory or condoning some kind of painful or harmful actions also don’t necessarily mean befriending those who have done us wrong, you know, we can forgive and still set limits take actions. So forgiveness is about freeing our own heart from resentment and suffering from the past. So it’s about breaking, a kind of chain, an unhealthy bond we’ve formed with a painful experience in the past and freeing ourselves in the present from being defined by that experience. Forgiveness is something that we can do individually, it’s something we can do relationally and it’s something that I believe we need to learn how to do collectively and communally.
Sonya Looney 46:07
So forgiveness isn’t about justifying somebody’s wrongdoings. For you, forgiveness isn’t even necessarily forgiving the person, but it’s releasing emotions, and judgments potentially, around some of these things that have happened. Yeah,
Oren Jay Sofer 46:25
it’s releasing ourselves from the past is developing a different relationship with what we’re with what what has happened. And it’s a journey, it’s a process, it’s not something often that you just say, I’m going to do this and then do it once and for all, and it’s over. It takes time, it takes tremendous strength. And sometimes with really difficult painful or grievous harm, that can be a lifelong process that requires tremendous patience, and courage and, and strength. I think there are two two pitfalls that are very common with forgiveness. One is getting stuck in the pain of the past, sort of being consumed by it identified with it, and you know, sort of nursing resentment or bitterness. And the other is the opposite of trying to avoid the pain trying to get away from it. Sort of deluding ourselves into thinking that we’ve moved on or forgiving prematurely out of avoidance of the pain or conflict. And so the art of forgiveness as one of opening slowly, in a balanced way, to the hurt, the pain, the anger, the whole range of our experience, without feeling overcome, overwhelmed without drowning in it on the one hand, or avoiding or resisting it on the other. And through that process, developing a different relationship with the past is a very, very powerful quote from Nelson Mandela, that I share in the book. As you and many of our listeners know, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for over 25 years, many of that time, spelled spent in solitary confinement. His one of his children died, his mother passed away, he was unable to go to his funerals. And he said, in 1990, when he was released, as I walked out the door toward the gate, that would lead to my freedom. I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison. It’s possible to cultivate forgiveness to to stop resenting the harm we’ve experienced, or to stop beating ourselves up for the harm that we’ve done sometimes forgiving ourselves as the hardest and make peace with things that we truly wish had been otherwise. Because we recognize that we’re wasting valuable time energy by staying stuck in the past,
Sonya Looney 49:40
how does one go about doing this?
Oren Jay Sofer 49:45
Well, there’s a reason it’s the last chapter in the book because I think we need a lot of often we can need a lot of preparation, a lot of groundwork inside things like that. Um, cultivating the beautiful nourishing aspects of our heart like joy and gratitude and generosity, things like really appreciating the wonder and the goodness in our lives. So that we’re starting from a place of healing resource.
The trauma informed principles that I talked about in the beginning of the book are essential here to, to orient. So to start from a place of feeling grounded, whole connected, to start small. So I wouldn’t start with trying to forgive, you know, the person who hurt you the most in your life, or the present or historical circumstances that break your heart the most, you know, I would start with something small, to get familiar with the process and Build Your Capacity. And then moving back and forth. This is the third trauma informed principle I talked about in the book of when we’re working with something painful or difficult, not just trying to go into the heart of it and stay there, but taking breaks, spending some time with what’s difficult, and then moving away and resourcing nourishing. So there are different ways of practicing forgiveness, those three trauma informed principles, I think, provide the framework. Empathy is essential, I think, opening our heart to forgiveness, to see whether it’s our own humanity if we’re trying to forgive ourselves, or the humanity of others, trying to break out of the narrative we’ve created, that reduces someone to a moment in time or a specific action. This includes a certain kind of humility, you know, recognizing that there’s more to any of us than how we are in our worst moments. Desmond Tutu says that Archbishop Desmond Tutu who played an instrumental role in the truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa, after the fall of the apartheid, their forgiveness means that we give another chance to make a new beginning, it’s just that we recognize that things can change, the future is not determined. I think ultimately, so empathy, humility, being resourced. And then making space, one of the things I talk about in the chapter is making space to feel and open to the whole range of whatever may be present for us. And so if we’re starting small, this might be things like just feeling irritated or annoyed or having judgments of ourselves or someone else. And as we work up to more difficult things that can include very big intense emotions, like rage or grief or despair. But developing the strength to allow those forces to move through us. One of the practices I talk about in the chapter on forgiveness, that can be a challenging practice, but that is ultimately freeing, if we do it in the right way, is reflecting on our mortality, as a kind of tonic, as a way of remembering the value of forgiveness, you know, really looking at soberly the truth that you know, one day, I’m not going to be here anymore. And I’m going to have to say goodbye to everything and let go of everything. And I really want to take this to my grave. Do I really want to still be holding on to this grudge to this resentment to this wound to the sense of what I did wrong? Or what they did wrong? Or do I want to be at peace? Do I want to come to terms with it? And the reality is that none of us know how much time we have left, just the one guarantee that once you get here, you’re gonna have to say goodbye. And so it’s a practice we can do. Even on a daily basis as a way of keeping the heart cleans, kind of clearing the slate and saying, you know, what do I need to forgive? What do I need to let go have to be at peace to feel free inside? And again, that it’s not something that just happens like that just because we want to, but it can it can be a real process and one of my colleagues, Dharma teacher winning as arco likes to say, you know, it’s enough to just recognize that, I hope one day at some point in the distant future I might want to To be able to forgive, like, that’s enough to just plant the seed and start wherever we are at that willingness to even turn towards this because it is radical.
Sonya Looney 55:14
That sounds like a thread. Going through all of this is the letting go piece like we talked about we, we referenced it in contentment, we spoken about it and forgiveness. We didn’t really get into equanimity. But my sense is that letting go is a part of equanimity because the clinging and grasping of things to have to be a different way, is what causes a lot of the suffering. And essentially training some of these qualities can help and that letting go process that causes a lot of these issues for us. Yeah,
Oren Jay Sofer 55:42
yeah. Yeah. Thank you, Sonia. And I agree it is a thread that runs through the book and, and our hearts. And I think it’s something that we can develop a deeper familiarity with and understanding of letting go doesn’t mean, pushing things away. It’s not something that we do letting go is something that happens, it’s like a fruit falling from the tree when it’s ripe. It’s like the heart, lets go when it’s ready. When it understands that it feels better to put something down and to keep holding on to it. And so that’s why all of these practices of mindfulness and kindness and resolve and patients, they help create the conditions for the heart to let go. It’s like the sunshine and the rain, ripening that fruit on the tree until the heart understands, oh, I’m ready to put this down. I don’t need to hold on to this anymore. And then and then we really feel free inside.
Sonya Looney 56:59
Well, thanks so much for coming on the podcast. I think it’s funny that we only covered a couple I had this huge list thinking that somehow I was going to get through them. But that’s good, because that means people need to go pick up the book, they can start practicing what qualities resonate most with them. And like you said, they all are related. So lifting one lifts all of them. Yeah.
Oren Jay Sofer 57:19
Great. Well, thanks so much for having me back on the show. It’s been great to talk. What’s
Sonya Looney 57:23
my pleasure? And where can people find you your book, your meditations, your your teachings?
Oren Jay Sofer 57:29
Absolutely. My website is a great place to check all of that out Oren Jay sofer.com. I’m also on Instagram at Orange a Sofer and the Book Your heart was made for this is available anywhere books are sold. Well,
Sonya Looney 57:42
thanks so much. I really appreciate it and I always feel very, very hole after I’m done talking to you. Thanks,
Oren Jay Sofer 57:48
Sonia. Thanks for your work to do.