Navigating a World in Crisis with Courage, Integrity, and Love, with Oren Jay Sofer

In this episode, we discuss:

What inspired Oren to write a book on this topic
Qualities that are essential to personal and social transformation—like mindfulness, resolve, wonder, and empathy
Why attention is so important and some of the challenges around cultivating it
How to define contemplative practice and its relevance to challenges we’re facing in our world today
The relationship between individual action and social change, and the role of contemplative practice in collective transformation
The three key principles for trauma-informed practice and why they are important
How becoming a parent has affected Oren’s work and outlook on life

Show notes:

Hey, everyone, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m joined by Oren Jay Sofer, who is a good friend of mine. I’ve known him for many years, and we used to work together in various capacities.
He teaches Buddhist meditation, mindfulness, and communication internationally, holds a degree in comparative religion from Columbia University, is a certified trainer of nonviolent communication, and [is] a somatic experiencing practitioner for healing of trauma. Oren has written a few different books. One of his best-known titles is Say What You Mean; A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, which we talked about a couple of years back on the show. He has a new book out called Your Heart Was Made For This: Contemplative Practices for Meeting a World in Crisis with Courage, Integrity & Love, which I think is an extremely relevant title and concept for the world that we’re living in today. And that’s going to be the subject of our conversation in this episode. More specifically, we’re going to talk about his ecumenical approach to cultivating healthy mental and emotional qualities and connections to social change, including the health benefits of reducing stress and anxiety, engaging with burnout, and an overall orientation to health and well-being as a tangible and realistic goal in this pretty hectic world that we’re living in today. So I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did. Let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser:  Oren, my friend, [it’s] been a long time. It’s so good to see you.
Oren Sofer:  You, too, Chris. Thanks for having me here.
Chris Kresser:  I was really excited to see your latest book come out because we’re living in a time where most of the people I know feel like proverbial frogs in the boiling water, where it just seems like everything is intensifying. The polarization that we see in social media, the rancor and bitterness of dialogue around all kinds of topics, the global ecological [and] economic crises that we’re facing, inflation, people looking at their bill when they leave the grocery store in disbelief [at] how much it costs just to feed your family. And I imagine that at various times in history, if we’re students of history, we know this is true, that people often remark that their own time is the craziest time and things are changing too fast. And I do feel like there’s something that’s uniquely true about that in our time. Just the converging challenges of the economic and ecological crisis, as we just mentioned, [artificial intelligence] (AI), social media, technology. It’s difficult to be a human being in many ways in 2023.
Oren Sofer:  Well said.
Chris Kresser:  Tell me a little bit about the genesis of this book and what inspired you to write it.
Oren Sofer:  Yeah. Well, in part, everything you just said. I feel like it’s really hard to be alive and conscious on the planet today. There’s a saying for a reason, “ignorance is bliss.” It’s a lot easier to go through the world in some ways with our eyes closed and our heart shut. If we’re awake and if we’re feeling, it’s challenging, it’s painful, it’s scary. And I think we all need resources. We all need not just the external resources, but the internal resources. And [there were] kind of two reasons I wrote the book. I started writing it during 2020, when that really overwhelming series of events unfolded, starting with the pandemic, and then George Floyd’s murder and the immense cultural and spiritual upheaval that brought, and then the wildfires out here in the West, which brought the ecological crisis to the fore in a new way for millions of people. And it felt like one contribution I could make as a meditation teacher and a communication trainer was to write about inner strength and the inner resources we have that we can tap and cultivate.
The other reason I wrote the book was, we talked about my first book some years ago when it came out, Say What You Mean. And after teaching thousands of people to communicate better, what I have realized is that the mindfulness piece was kind of revolutionary when I wrote my book and started teaching communications. It was like, wow, if we bring mindfulness in, it’s so much easier to communicate. This is amazing. It’s like, actually, there’s a lot more that we need to communicate skillfully. We need patience. We need courage. We need honesty. We need compassion [and] empathy. And I wanted a way for people who are focused on their relationships and communication, whether it’s in their personal life or in their work or working for social change, to have more of the inner skill set needed to make communication effective. So it’s working on both levels for me.
Chris Kresser:  Yeah. As a matter of fact, I recall when we first met, we were teaching or involved with nonviolent communication. And one of the, I wouldn’t say it was a shortcoming, but I would say one thing I didn’t see enough of in the world of nonviolent communication, as it was being taught at that point, was [that] it’s a powerful technique, but there’s a lot more to it than a technique. And if you just apply it as a technique, it can actually backfire. And we talked a lot about this, where in order to communicate effectively, you have to develop a lot of capacities, which you just referred to and you’ve outlined right in your book. You have to be able to, first of all, pay attention, which was the first chapter in your book, and we’re going to get into that in a second. Because if you are not able to pay attention to your own reactions, sensations, thoughts, [and] feelings, and you’re just getting carried away by those, then no matter what technique you’re using, it’s not going to be effective. So it sounds like you’ve taken this a lot further to identify and then help people cultivate the various qualities that they need to be a conscious, awake person in the world that we’re living in today.
Oren Sofer:  Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Chris Kresser:  So let’s just dive right in there because you actually have 26 traits or qualities in the book. Of course, we’re not going to have time to go into all of those in detail. But I do want to start with attention. Because, as you argue in your book, it really is the foundation. Without attention it’s very difficult to cultivate any of the other qualities because you’re not able to monitor what’s happening internally or externally without that fundamental skill of attention. So let’s begin there.
Oren Sofer:  Yeah, yeah. I think it’s well known at this point that attention is not just a resource but a commodity, and that there’s a battle raging for our attention. Because when you control attention, you can generate profit and you can influence action. So it’s a really radical thing to reclaim and take ownership of how we use our attention, instead of allowing our attention to be manipulated by social media, by habit, by technology, to start to choose more consciously and intentionally, where are we placing our attention? How are we using our attention, and what’s the effect of that? So the whole process of inner cultivation and contemplative practice, which is not something esoteric; it’s not something that’s just for people who identify as spiritual. It’s really a foundational skill for living that’s about cultivating inner resources and having the skills to live a meaningful life and be effective in all of the areas of our life. The foundation of it is recognizing that we have the capacity to choose where we place our attention.
The example that I give people to check this out in the book is something as simple as paying attention to what you’re seeing in the moment and then shifting your attention to what you’re hearing. And just noticing that we can do that at will, that we can sort of change the channel. And then using that basic capacity, [and] strengthening it through various exercises and trainings in order to more intentionally cultivate our inner world and the kinds of capacities that we’re cultivating.
Chris Kresser:  Yeah, such an important point.
Oren Sofer:  Yeah. I think the other foundational point here that the whole book is really based around is what gets talked about in modern neuroscience as neuroplasticity, [and] what gets talked about in mysticism and contemplative practice as the malleability of the heart, mind, or consciousness, which is this fact that every day, we are practicing something. We’re strengthening something based on how we’re living. So are we practicing feeling frustrated, irritable, stressed, petty? Or are we practicing feeling grateful, feeling patient, being kind, generous, loving? And how we use and place our attention plays a key role in that—in how we’re relating to these different patterns and habits that come up in our life and in our person.
Chris Kresser:  I had a teacher [who] used to be fond of saying, “The quality of experience is determined by the focus of our attention.”
Oren Sofer:  Yeah, yeah.
Chris Kresser:  If our attention is fragmented and being pulled in many different directions throughout the day by notifications on our phone, email, ding things, all the sounds and beeping and flashing and the hectic nature of life that we live, and if we don’t do something to intervene and rein that in and create boundaries around the many different demands on our attention, then you can imagine what the quality of our experience might be in that context.
Oren Sofer:  Yeah, yeah, I love that. And I think that it’s a very countercultural invitation. Because I think that so much of modern society tries to sell the idea that our sense of well-being, our happiness, comes not from how we’re living, but from what we experience and what we get. It places our focus on the external trappings of our lives. And the point that you just made from one of your meditation teachers is very much the opposite. It’s that, actually, so much of our quality of life and well-being and how we experience things has to do with the quality of our attention. How we’re showing up. How we’re relating. And there’s this beautiful quote that I’ve heard in various places. It says, “To pay attention is an act of love.” And I find that quite moving. This is one of the things I talk a lot about in my mindful communication work, which is just how powerful it is on an interpersonal level to really pay attention and give someone our full attention. And the same is true, just as you’re pointing to, for ourselves, in terms of how we live and valuing our own time and energy enough to pay full attention and work against that force of distraction and fragmentation that’s so endemic today.
Chris Kresser:  I know, just from conversations with patients and people in my life, that a lot of people feel overwhelmed and anxious today about all of the various challenges that we talked about so far. And one objection, sometimes, to this idea [that] I can’t be scrolling Instagram and Twitter all day [is], “If I don’t do that, I’m not going to be current with what’s happening. I’m not going to be able to make a difference and act in a way that can lead to changes. Or I’m just not going to be informed and be out of the loop.” You talk a lot in your book about the difference—about the importance of both individual practices to cultivate more attention and awareness and the other qualities you mentioned, but also social change. And historically, there has been attention there in some contemplative practices. “Work out your own salvation” is even a certain way of expressing it because I don’t see these as mutually exclusive, and I know you don’t either. But there can be this tension between how you stay engaged in the world and work to help alleviate suffering and stay informed, while also doing what you need to do to protect your own attention and stay resourced so you can be of service.
Oren Sofer:  Yeah, I mean, you summarized one of the key things there, right? It’s a false choice to say that we have to choose between however you want to language it—self-care, wellness, spirituality, inner resourcing—and social activism, being engaged [and] involved in our community. The two are not mutually exclusive. And in fact, as you pointed to, they need each other. This is one of the aims of the book, to invite people into a really practical way of having our work for social change and our self-care support each other. Service, social change, our work in the world, these provide a vehicle to express our love, our care, our values for the world, and to work together to make the world a habitable place for our children and future generations. And contemplative practice, self-care, this whole sort of realm of what sometimes gets called inner technology, provides a couple of really essential pieces.
So, one, it helps us stay resourced so we don’t burn out. It takes so much energy, patience, persistence, dedication, courage, vision, [and] hope to stay engaged with our community and our world at any level, whether we’re thinking about the PTA in our community, or working on the climate [or] ecological crisis, or looking at political polarization. It’s hard work. So we need a way to replenish ourselves. This is one of the essential roles of contemplative practice and self-care in social change and service work. The other piece is that it provides a way of aligning means with ends. And this is the piece around what’s known as “principled nonviolence,” which is one of the things that I’ve been studying and exploring in various ways over my own life and practice. [It means] that the vision we have for not only our lives, but our world, only comes about by living into it. The sense of the famous quote from Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to seek in the world.” Whether we look at the world’s spiritual traditions, or Dr. King’s statement that violence can’t end violence, hatred never ends through hatred, but only through love. There’s this sense that as we work for change in the world, if we’re wanting to create a world where it’s imbued with a sense of mutual respect and dignity [and] collaboration, how do we bring those values into the very process of working to create them? And that’s what contemplative practice offers—a way of living that in our own person as we are trying to imbue our relationships and our communities with those values.
Chris Kresser:  Couldn’t agree more. And I’m happy to see that this conversation we’re having now, I think, is one that has been growing and evolving over the past several years in contemplative practice communities. There’s much more of an emphasis on an engaged quality of practice, which is exactly what we need now.

In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, Oren Jay Sofer outlines several practices we can use to cultivate our capacity to face and transform our greatest challenges. #chriskresser #mindfulness #meditation

Chris Kresser:  So in your book, shifting gears slightly here, you mentioned 26 positive traits or qualities. And I’m curious why you chose those specifically. Maybe you can give a couple [of] other examples, as well. And there are not any chapters on what some might refer to as negative or difficult experiences of being human, like fear, anger, grief, or sadness. I know you, [and] I know you’re certainly not a person to ignore the importance of working with those emotions. So I’m curious about how this choice came about.
Oren Sofer:  Yeah. Thanks. So, the number 26 is in some ways random. There’s nothing perfectly special about it. But if you multiply it by two, you get 52 weeks of the year. So that’s where I got 26 from. I wanted this to be a companion. It’s not the kind of book that’s intended to sit down and read over a weekend. It’s the kind of thing I’m hoping people will read over time and use it to inform their daily life. If you devote two weeks to every chapter, you have a whole year of learning and training and deepening into our potential as human beings. The qualities themselves, many of them are drawn from Buddhist pedagogical lists and structures. The early Buddhist tradition is rife with long lists of different things because it was an oral culture. So they use these lists to remember and memorize the teachings.
But not all of them. There are things like courage and curiosity, kindness, [and] renunciation. There [are] classical meditative qualities like concentration and wisdom and mindfulness, but then there are things like joy and rest, and wonder and play, which I know we have a mutual fondness and appreciation for. Contentment. So what I was looking at was, what [is] the range of capacities we need as human beings to thrive and to be more effective in our lives? And one of the analogies that I like to use is, if you think of the human organism as an instrument, how well do we know how to play that instrument? How familiar are we with the scales and the notes of human consciousness and the heart and the mind? If you think about [it] like a high-fidelity stereo system or something, you could have a great subwoofer, but if your mid and treble is off, or you have really cheap speakers, you’re not going to be able to appreciate the music as much. So, looking at this whole range of things we can cultivate and experience and draw from in our lives. That’s where the 26 and this journey through all these different qualities comes from.
And then, as far as the negative qualities, I mean, the difficult ones, the painful ones. That’s the bias right there, right? It’s this sense of this very deeply ingrained, kind of biological pain principle, wanting to avoid the unpleasant aspects of our lives. The reason there aren’t chapters on them is because I believe that we need a foundation of health and well-being and strength in order to work skillfully with and metabolize those difficult, painful experiences we have as human beings, like grief and loss and fear and anger and jealousy. So what I’m trying to do in the book is to provide the nutrition, the nourishment for people to have the right inner environment to heal and integrate those difficult things. And I do talk about them in the different chapters.
One of the analogies that comes to mind that I think you’ll appreciate, given your work in Functional Medicine, is this amazing quote I came across at some point from Louis Pasteur. For listeners who aren’t familiar, he’s the one who discovered germs and is kind of the grandfather of modern germ theory. Which, of course, was a revolution, but has all of its limitations that you’ve talked so much about on your show. At the end of his life, he said, “Le microbe n’est rien, le terrain est tout.” “The microbe is nothing, the landscape is everything.” Right? So I mean, that’s Functional Medicine.
Chris Kresser:  Quite a shift for someone who is responsible for introducing the concept of how microbes cause disease in the first place.
Oren Sofer:  Yeah, right. It’s in that focus, that hyper focus of allopathic medicine on the pathogen. So, in some way, I think that there’s a corollary here when we look at psychology and emotional healing. There’s this sense of, what’s the problem? And then, fix it. Focus on the pain point rather than taking a step back and looking at, well, do you have friends? How’s your community? Do you experience joy? Are you getting enough exercise and rest and taking a more holistic picture of our life? So that’s really why the book is framed around these more healthy qualities, to create a context where we can metabolize the difficult ones.
Chris Kresser:  Yeah, it makes sense. It’s sort of a resilience-building approach, where if you cultivate all of these qualities and take time to integrate them into your life, it’s not going to eliminate those difficult emotions or experiences, but you’ll be in a much more capable place when it comes to being able to approach them and work with them.
Oren Sofer:  Absolutely. Yeah, exactly.

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Chris Kresser:  So one of the metaphors you use in the book is about seeds of consciousness, which I really love. Can you talk more about where this comes from and why you chose it?
Oren Sofer:  Sure. Yeah. So this concept comes pretty directly out of Buddhist psychology. I was introduced to it from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master, poet, [and] peace activist who passed away a number of years ago. And it’s the idea that in our mind, in our heart, however you want to think about it, we have these different capacities. We have the capacity for joy, happiness, [and] generosity. We have the capacity for hatred, fear, anger, jealousy, [and] stinginess. And the question is, which seeds are we watering? What capacities are we strengthening? Which we’ve kind of touched on a little bit when we’re talking about attention. The Buddha was in ancient India, and this was an agrarian economy. So, in studying early Buddhist texts, the metaphors are very earthy. He’s looking at nature and drawing analogies for the wisdom and insight he discovered in the earth. And I just find seeds so mind blowing. There’s this beautiful quote from Henry David Thoreau that I’ll paraphrase. It’s something like, “I don’t believe in miracles, but convince me that you have a seed there and I’m willing to expect wonders.” This idea that, from this very small blueprint of life, a whole tree can grow.
You know my wife and I just had a child about a year ago, and it’s been such a reaffirming and encouraging experience to see so many of these qualities innate, like generosity. I was on the couch with my son the other day, and I gave him a slice of apple, and he’s kind of nibbling on it. And then he hands it to me to take a little nibble, and then he eats some more. And just to see his joy at being alive and exploring, or the curiosity. These are the seeds that we’re born with but that need to be developed, that need to be encouraged. So the metaphor that is throughout the book is this invitation to kind of become a master gardener of our own heart and mind, and grow the kind of garden that we want to live in.
Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I love that analogy. And I think it draws together a lot of the different concepts of the book and the importance of attention, where you focus on what you water and what you don’t. And also the larger concept of, in a garden, you’re never going to get rid of all of the weeds or pathogens. That’s just part of a normal ecosystem. But if the soil is healthy, if there’s plenty of water and sunshine, then the weeds don’t become a problem. They don’t get overgrown. Of course, we know this analogy from so many other areas, too. The gut microbiome is another one, in my field. It’s not so much about eliminating aggressively all of the negative or potentially harmful influences; it’s [about] creating this much more resilient ecosystem that those positive qualities can grow out of. So I really love that.
Oren Sofer:  There’s a phrase I like, just to kind of put a pin in this one: “The permaculture of the heart.”
Chris Kresser:  Beautiful. Yeah, I love that. I want to touch briefly on the role of trauma, because in the last 10 [or] 20 years specifically, we have [a] much greater [and] more sophisticated awareness in psychological circles [and] also in contemplative practices and in Functional Medicine about the role that trauma plays. When we talk about cultivating positive traits, it seems like at least touching on that is helpful for people who are dealing with, to some extent, a pretty significant level of trauma.
Oren Sofer:  Yeah, yeah. It’s essential, really. Trauma is a specific experience inward, and I think there’s also a way in which there’s a spectrum of trauma. And it’s my belief that most of humanity alive on the planet today is suffering from some effects of trauma somewhere on that spectrum, just given the challenges of modernity and the dislocation of our modern lifestyle from what we are expecting ancestrally and from an evolutionary biological perspective. So drawing from the skill set of trauma-informed practice, I think, is essential, as you’re saying.
There are three main principles that I talk about at the beginning of the book that then run through the whole exploration. The first is starting from a place of relative safety and relaxation. How we begin matters. This principle is there in systems thinking and other fields. And one of the main ways to do that is this very simple practice of orienting, which literally just means connecting to our environment through our senses. It comes out of Peter Levine’s work in somatic experiencing. We find it in mammals in the wild that are prey. It’s this sense of checking things out and knowing that we’re safe. Starting from a place of relative safety, wholeness, relaxation—that’s the first principle. [The] second principle is [to] start small and go slowly. Take your time. And again, this is countercultural. There’s a huge emphasis on as much as possible, as fast as possible. Go big. There’s a huge emphasis, if we look in the wellness industry, on catharsis and having a big release. And this is a very different approach. The word that comes out of trauma healing is called titrating, which is just a fancy word out of chemistry that means take a little bit at a time, because you might be working with ingredients that are explosive or react with each other in unpredictable ways. So, exploring particularly difficult material, if we’re looking at deep sadness or fear or anger or grief, take those things a little bit at a time in small and manageable doses.
So orient, start from a place of wholeness, go slow, take your time, titrate. And then the third principle is, when we are working with painful or difficult experiences, to always keep close at hand something that’s supportive, a resource, and to move back and forth in a kind of natural rhythmic way between the thing that’s difficult and something more supportive or nourishing. The technical term for this is called pendulating. Just like a pendulum swings back and forth. If we’re able to shift our attention from the place of challenge to something more supportive, that stimulates our innate capacities for healing.
Chris Kresser:  Love that. It makes a lot of sense to me as a framework and, having worked with many patients in that situation, my approach has been pretty similar. Sometimes different content, but the process is very similar. You mentioned, Oren, that you recently had a kid, which I’m aware of, of course, and congratulations again. You’re 13 months in, so still early in the process. Every month is so different at that stage. For me, when we had our daughter, Sylvie, and most parents can relate to this, my life changed dramatically, and my perspective and outlook changed. My priorities changed. The way I spent my time changed. How has this impacted you and your outlook, the way you think about the future, and how you experience your life on a day-to-day basis?
Oren Sofer:  Yeah. Well, first, well said—everything. Everything got turned upside down. It’s been such a remarkable journey. My wife and I joke about [that] we’re both in our 40s, and we both spent many years doing spiritual practice, living in monasteries, going on retreats, doing therapy, and we joke around that we traded energy for wisdom, to some degree, hopefully. It’s been really humbling, and I think it’s brought out a lot of tenderness from me. It’s been humbling, too, on multiple levels. One, I have such a deep and profound appreciation now just for the miracle of any human being getting born and surviving. It’s so remarkable how much time and energy and care it takes to keep a human being alive and raise them. So there’s this deep appreciation for the generosity of all parents, my own, of course, as well, and the miracle of life. A humility around my own limitations. Feeling pushed to my edges, and particularly as a meditation teacher, seeing the places where I run out of patience, or where I get angry or frustrated. That’s just been a tremendous teacher.
And also, as I kind of alluded to before, it just reaffirmed this deep faith in the goodness of humanity. Just seeing, not only the innate goodness in our son, but how his utter vulnerability and innocence calls forth so much goodness, not just in ourselves, but in strangers. I walk down the street with him strapped to my chest in a [carrier], and complete strangers just light up, beaming. It’s this reminder on a daily basis of the power of vulnerability to recollect the goodness in our hearts. I learn from him on a daily basis about all of the stuff that’s in this book—about mindfulness, about rest, about letting go, about patience, about devotion, about wonder, about compassion for myself, as well as for him. So it’s just a tremendous gift to have this reminder all of the time to be present, to be intentional about how I’m living, and to use my time well.
Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I often tell people, Sylvie’s my deepest teacher, my most exacting teacher.
Oren Sofer:  Uncompromising.
Chris Kresser:  Sitting and staring at a wall for 10 days is luxurious compared to the trials and tribulations of being a parent.
Oren Sofer:  Yeah, yeah. I think the last piece, and you mentioned this in your question, is inviting me into a more honest and deep relationship with a lot of the painful aspects of our world. I am not looking forward to how to have conversations with him about racism, colonialism, genocide, war. I mean, thankfully, there are wonderful resources today for how to have those conversations with our children. And looking at the future. Looking into the present moment deeply and seeing all the challenges that we started the conversation off by naming and feeling the vulnerability of that. His presence in my life extends the horizon of how I see myself and provides a different level of compassionate investment in my work.
Chris Kresser:  Yeah, very similar for me. And I do feel like if we are going to make it out of the mess we’re in, it’s going to be because our children are able to meet and respond to these varying crises in a conscious way. These are the times we live in, and we can only just do the best we can to respond to them and prepare our children for what they’re going to be living into. Oren, thank you so much for the conversation today. The book is Your Heart Was Made For This; Contemplative Practices for Meeting a World in Crisis with Courage, Integrity & Love. Where can people learn more about it and pick up a copy?
Oren Sofer:  The book is available in bookstores everywhere. If they order through my website, OrenJaySofer.com, there [are] some nice free gifts, a little discount, and some bonus guided meditations. And that’s where folks can find out more about my work, my other books, and how to stay in touch.
Chris Kresser:  Great. Pleasure to see you again. It’s been too long. I really enjoyed the book, and [I] look forward to staying in touch and continuing to have this conversation.
Oren Sofer:  Thanks, Chris. And thanks again for having me on the show.
Chris Kresser:  Thanks, everyone, for listening. Keep sending your questions to ChrisKresser.com/PodcastQuestion, and we’ll see you next time.

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