What is the role of contemplative practice in times of crisis? And how can meditation actually support us in meeting the greatest challenges of our time?
Meditation teacher Oren Jay Sofer takes up these questions in his new book, Your Heart Was Made for This: Contemplative Practices for Meeting a World in Crisis with Courage, Integrity, and Love. As a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, Sofer has spent decades exploring the relationship between contemplative practice and nonviolent communication. In his new book, he lays out twenty-six qualities of the heart that can expand our capacity to respond to the challenges of oppression, overwhelm, burnout, and injustice.
In a recent episode of Life As It Is, Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg sat down with Sofer to talk about the dangers of burnout, the power of being patient with not knowing, and the role of curiosity in nonviolent approaches to conflict. Read an excerpt from their conversation below, then listen to the full episode.
Sharon Salzberg (SS): You begin the book with the quality of aspiration, which you describe as an act that connects us with a sense of what is possible. Can you say more about the power of aspiration?
Oren Jay Sofer (OS): Aspiration is a verb. It’s not something that we have; it’s something that we do. To aspire is to connect with the energy of our life, to the spirit inside that moves us. Aspiration is how I translate the Pali term saddha, sometimes translated as faith, conviction, or confidence. I think about saddha as a stirring inside of our heart that yearns for something better and that trusts that there’s something meaningful about being alive, that there’s something fulfilling, just, or good in this remarkable, mysterious experience of being conscious. The Buddha’s placement of aspiration at the beginning of his teachings is so brilliant to me because he makes the connection that if we don’t have a sense of what’s possible, we won’t try.
[The meditation teacher Anagarika] Munindraji was fond of saying that any aspiration can be accomplished if you’re wholehearted and you know the way. That stayed with me all of these years as an invitation to really look deeply and ask, What is my aspiration? What is it that I’m here on this planet to do? If we all were able to listen deeply and ask ourselves that question, we could change this world so profoundly because I think that what all of these crises are calling for is not for all of us to do the same thing but for each of us to find our vocation and to contribute in the way that only we can, whether that’s through teaching or parenting or making art or doing direct social change work. The articulation of an aspiration on a collective level can move entire populations, and holding fast to that vision can power social movements in the face of tremendous resistance and odds.
James Shaheen (JS): You write that aspiration can help provide us with the energy for change. Sometimes we think of energy in terms of all or nothing, and it can be very easy to get burnt out. So how have you come to view energy in a more sustainable way?
OS: I love exploring [the theme of energy] because it’s present in our lives at all levels. In Western society, we tend to have an all-or-nothing approach to energy, which comes from the fossil fuel industry’s extractive model of getting as much as possible as fast as possible for the most productivity. Many of us are conditioned to live our personal lives with this sense of pressure to strive and to push past our limits.
There are many ways to reclaim a more balanced relationship with energy and cultivate the kind of sustainable power you’re referring to. We can look to nature and the cycles of the seasons, day and night, and our very breath. All religious traditions honor cycles of activity and rest. This is a very potent investigation in each of our lives to explore how we relate to our energy and how we can start to see the degree to which we’ve become disconnected from our bodies and from the rhythms of the planet.
JS: Do you think that disconnection is what leads to burnout?
OS: Absolutely. When we’re disconnected, either we’re unaware of the signals that our body is sending us to rest, or we’re aware of them and we override them. This is one of the key factors that leads to burnout. Angela Davis says that anyone who’s interested in making change in the world also has to learn to take care of themself. I think that the conversation about energy is deeply connected to the conversation about rest. In order to have sustainable energy, we need to learn how to rest—and how to reclaim our right to rest. Once we start to examine this, we begin to see that self-care and rest are actually radical acts.
JS: Learning to rest often requires patience, and it can be particularly hard to practice when we feel stressed or under pressure. How have you come to understand patience, and how can practicing patience actually support us in responding deliberately?
OS: There’s a powerful quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” where he says, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait’ . . . this ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’” When we look at social transformation, sometimes patience can mean passivity, and there’s a certain kind of healthy impatience with oppressive conditions that urges us to act. And yet at the same time, there’s a need for patience on the moment-to-moment level.
Through the lens of contemplative practice, I’ve come to understand patience in relation to our resistance to whatever’s happening. With patience, we can learn to bear the internal tension of resisting pain and unpleasant experiences, whether it’s unpleasant sensations or the pain and rage related to oppression or the destruction of the earth. Having patience on the moment-to-moment level allows us to have more breathing room so that we can tolerate the discomfort we experience when we disagree with what’s happening or when it goes against our values. That capacity to bear discomfort on a moment-to-moment level starts to open up more space inside us so that we can draw on other resources to make a more wise and empowered response. That way, we’re not reacting based on discomfort and resistance.
JS: You also mention the etymology of the word patience. Can you tell us about that?
OS: Patience comes from the Latin patientia, which means “suffering.” To be a patient in a hospital is to be one who suffers. In a sense, patience includes the willingness to bear discomfort consciously. And I think for many of us who are troubled about what’s happening in the world, I see us called to be patient with not knowing. The more we’re able to be patient with not having an answer and not being able to see the outcome, the more sustainable our energy can be because the more we need certainty, the more strained our internal resources become and the less resilience we have to stay engaged.
SS: You’ve mentioned the connection between patience and rest. Can you say more about how we can reclaim our right to rest?
OS: There are a few things that are important to me in examining our need for rest and how to honor it. The first is expanding our definition of rest. I love Tricia Hersey’s definition of rest in her book Rest Is Resistance and her social media platform, the Nap Ministry. She defines rest as anything that connects the body and mind, which broadens the sense of what it means to rest. If we take an evolutionary perspective, we can see that our ancestors engaged in downtime activities that were very regulating for our nervous system, whether it was threshing or weaving or toolmaking or engaging in chit-chat conversations. Any kind of downtime can be recharging.
I think it’s also important to be very real about the barriers that are there to rest. Rest is a human need. It’s a right; it’s not a luxury. And yet the structures of our society often make it so that those who have access to rest are those who have resources. There are very real economic pressures just to meet basic needs like housing and healthcare, and then there are also internal barriers to rest, like how our sense of self-worth and belonging gets tied to how much we accomplish and how well we perform. We might think that the busier we are, the more important we are, so some people feel proud of being busy and not resting.
I’ve found that it takes a very deliberate effort to learn how to rest. It involves learning to honor our limits. What can we let go of and say no to? A lot of that rides on cultivating self-compassion, seeing the suffering of being tired and strained and stressed and actually being willing not only to do something about it but to feel it. We can also investigate other questions: How much of my activity is necessary and how much of it is self-imposed? Can I relinquish my need to please others to take care of myself? Can I lower my standards in order to get more downtime? What would it be like to not always be productive? I think that we can find rest in small ways in short moments if we’re willing to look for it and break from our habits.
JS: Patience and rest can also open up space for curiosity. Can you say more about the power of curiosity in transforming our relationship to afflictive emotions?
OS: Well, we can’t transform anything if we don’t understand it. In order to understand it, we need to get curious. Curiosity doesn’t have an end or a goal. It’s just an openness to understand and to receive and absorb and learn. And there’s a certain kind of radical curiosity that we cultivate in contemplative practice that I think has a direct connection and support for social change, which is that we get interested in all of our experience, including what repels us.
It’s one thing to be curious about a beautiful sunset or a fascinating connection we have with a person in our life. It’s another thing to be curious about someone who annoys us or about our back pain, our depression, or a social condition that troubles us and keeps us up at night. Curiosity brings us into the experience of something to start to understand how it’s functioning so that we can engage with it in a more clear and skillful way.
Curiosity plays a direct role in nonviolent approaches to social transformation. Dr. King and Gandhi were both huge proponents that the initial stage of a noncooperation campaign began with being curious and gathering information. A strategic nonviolent approach to any social change work includes curiosity and openness to one’s opponent and really understanding what their needs and values are, not creating an enemy in our mind’s eye but seeing a potential partner to join us in beloved community. And so curiosity has that power to open the door to empathy and to deep connection.
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