Oren Jay Sofer teaches meditation and communication retreats and workshops nationally. A member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, he is a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication and a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner for the healing of trauma. Oren also holds a degree in Comparative Religion from Columbia University, is the founder of Next Step Dharma and co-founder of Mindful Healthcare. He is the author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, and co-author of Teaching Mindfulness to Empower Adolescents. Clay Hamilton interviewed Oren in winter 2019.

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Briefly describe yourself as a meditation teacher.

I teach Insight Meditation in the Western Vipassana Community. I teach primarily at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the Insight Meditation Society, and at smaller sanghas and communities around the country. I grew up on the east coast, in suburban New Jersey, and now live in Richmond, CA.

I teach and practice a blend of traditional Insight Meditation practice (Burmese Satipatthana method) with what could be called more “open mindfulness” techniques of the Thai Forest tradition and modern teachers like Anagarika Munindra-ji and Godwin Samararatne. I am primarily interested in how the path of practice taught by the Buddha applies to modern living and can be used as a guide for ethical, meaningful living today. I’ve focused a lot on the area of Right Speech as a vehicle for bringing one’s values and spiritual practice into daily life, and teach workshops and retreats on “relational Dharma,” exploring how meditative awareness can inform and transform our conversations and relationships.

How did you first learn to meditate and why/how did you become a meditation teacher?

I started meditating when I was 19. I’d been working as an actor in New York City, doing a lot of drugs, and had sort of lost track of myself. A series of difficult events (a falling out with friends, loss of romantic relationship, my parents’ divorce), inspired me to do some soul-searching. Never one for being half-hearted, I decided to travel to India to live at a Buddhist monastery for three months as part of a Buddhist college study-abroad program then run by Antioch University (now by Carleton College).

Coming in contact with the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) changed my life. I remember thinking that first year of my practice that there was nothing I wanted to do more than to learn this path well enough to be able to share it with others. While I had that aspiration early on, I subsequently put it down and just focused on my practice. About 15 years later, Joseph Goldstein, one my primary mentors and meditation teachers, invited me to join his teacher training program.

What is the greatest benefit you personally get from meditation?  

Meditation provides a process for moving beyond the narrow confines of my own personality and identity. Being human means having an identity; it’s a natural, healthy part of our lives. But when that’s all that we know we can suffer from a sense of inadequacy, alienation, anxiety, or hollowness. So perhaps the greatest benefit I receive is an increasing access to a wider, more transpersonal awareness that is larger than the sense of self. There is great relief and freedom in this awareness, because it’s not dependent on getting what we want or things going our way.

What is your favourite meditation technique or form of practice?

While I’m a huge advocate for clear and proper use of meditation techniques, I think that we also can overemphasize the importance of a particular technique. Less important than what one practices is how one is practicing. So, I’d have to say that my favorite aspects of meditation are kindness and curiosity—deepening the experience of love and exploration. It can be great fun to explore the mind, consciousness, and being alive when we are protected by qualities like kindness, mindfulness, and genuine interest.

What do most students struggle with or get wrong?

Probably the number one place we create extra struggle for ourselves in meditation is with our expectations. This is something that we learn about from the first moments of our practice all the way through deeper stages of meditation. Initially, it starts out quite gross: we have expectations that meditation means stopping thoughts and feeling calm and peaceful. Then, whenever we can’t control our mind and produce that kind of experience, we judge ourselves as failing, struggle, and feel miserable!

What we learn over time is that meditation practice isn’t about producing any particular experience, but about understanding the mind and the nature of experience itself. It’s not about what happens in the meditation but how we’re relating to it that really matters. While we learn to have some influence over our internal state, we realize that we ultimately can’t control things. The effort to do so is futile and frustrating. Instead, we find freedom in learning to see clearly and letting go of our rigid expectations about the way things “should be.”

What important aspect of meditation do you find yourself teaching over and over again? Is there a phrase or message or quote you repeat to students again and again?

Pay attention to how you’re practicing. How you meditate is how you condition your mind. If you meditate with strain, struggle, impatience and tension, you’re reinforcing strain and struggle in your heart and mind. If you meditate with kindness, interest, patience and curiosity, you’ll strengthen those qualities in your heart and mind.

Should someone have a goal in mind when it comes to a meditation practice? If so, how should someone think about goals in meditation?

I think it’s more helpful in meditation to focus on intentions rather than goals. Goals tend to take us out of the present to an imagined future, while intentions serve to bring us more fully into the moment. A primary intention in meditation is to remain aware and understand, because we can be aware and endeavor to understand in any circumstance. From there, there are a wide range of other intentions that are helpful: to be kind, to be patient, to be curious, etc.

Do you have a favourite funny or profound story, koan, parable, or anecdote which helps students understand a concept in meditation or life?

One of my favorite Buddhist poems is by Ryokan and goes like this:

Buddha is your mind

And the Great Way goes nowhere.

Don’t look for anything but this.

If you point your cart north

When you want to go south,

How will you arrive?

This poem reminds us that what we seek isn’t to be found in the future. When we look ahead into the future (“pointing our cart North”), we are going in the opposite direction to enlightenment. Awakening and freedom are to be found here and now, in this moment, in the ordinariness of our own lives and the naturalness of our own mind.

What meditation books have you read and admired, re-read, or do you recommend to others (they can be directly or indirectly related to meditation)?

There are a few classics that I generally recommend and think very highly of: Ayya Khema’s Being Nobody, Going Nowhere; Joseph Goldstein’s The Experience of Insight; Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart; and Ajahn Sucitto’s Turning the Wheel of Truth.

What books/courses/resources do you have available? What makes them special and how can they benefit a reader?

Next Step Dharma is an online practice community focused on living the path of awakening in daily life. We have a live call every 10 days where students can meet with me and other Dharma teachers in a small group setting and get personalized guidance for their practice. It’s really a lovely community and I’m honored to be a part of it.

I also teach online classes in Mindful Communication, helping people transform their communication habits and learn to have more meaningful, effective conversations. Those classes and other online events are all listed on my website: www.orenjaysofer.com, where you can also find more information about my book, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication.

How can readers get in contact with you or find out more?

My website orenjaysofer.com or on social media @Orenjaysofer.

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[This interview is an extract. You can read Oren’s full interview, plus 29 more interviews, in the book How Do You Meditate? Interviews with 30 Meditation Teachers. Available from Amazon.]