Your heart was made for love: for connection, belonging, and meaningful relationship with other people, beings, and the earth. Your heart was made to give and receive; to know joy, purpose, and freedom. All of this is possible for you and for each of us. Yet painful emotions, ignorance, and oppressive conditions disconnect us from our hearts’ potential. The flow of this love has encountered obstacles from the beginning, but perhaps never more so than now. Our ancestors’ village was not the global village of the twenty-first century with its seemingly infinite complexities and pressures, nor did we evolve to engage with social media algorithms or constant alerts of tragedy. How do we reclaim our birthright to love while navigating a complex world in crisis? How do we make love our guide?
The Buddha long ago taught that we can shape our inner lives: “Whatever the mind frequently thinks upon and ponders, that will become its inclination.” Our thoughts, feelings, and intentions grow into habits and over time settle into our character. Contemplative practice roots itself in this power to mold the heart and thus renew ourselves. Today, we call this “neuroplasticity.” If we do not shape the heart, the world will do it for us, and the world does not have our highest welfare in mind.
The tide of modern society floods us with incessant pressures, demands, and desires. On a personal level, urgency, confusion, and fear spin us in a blur, grind us down, and sap our energy. On a global level, war, social unrest, and a growth-driven economy sweep through our communities, setting us on a course for violence and ecocide. It takes steady, continuous effort to swim against these currents, make choices based on our values, and turn the tide together.
We are living through a mass extinction of our own making. The climate crisis, the rise of fascism and the erosion of democracy, the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing trauma of injustice and oppression rooted in colonialism—these are our present reality. What will be our legacy? We are capable of beauty, but we destroy; we embody elegance, but are soaked in blood. Some days, it’s a lot just to get out of bed in the morning.
And, our actions matter, individually and collectively. Every action plants a seed. Some seeds bear fruit in this lifetime, while others lie dormant for generations. We harvest the fruit of our ancestors’ actions—for good and for ill— and our choices today shape the future.
How do we meet our challenges and choose wisely? To truly meet something is to encounter it with awareness, enter into relationship with it, and respond appropriately. How we respond when we contact pain, sorrow, and injustice? Do we become broken, embittered, lost, or frozen? Do we lash out in anger, fear, or hatred, adding fuel to the fire? Or are we able to find the balance and clarity to meet the suffering of our world with tenderness, wisdom, and skillful action?
Responding effectively depends on training the heart and developing inner resources. We may not recognize it, but we are always practicing something. Our thoughts, words, and actions shape us. Each one creates a trickle of water flowing downhill, carving a channel in the fertile soil of our heart and mind. If you practice feeling anxious, stressed, and agitated, you etch those grooves deeper. If you practice patience, kindness, and ease, with every moment you grow stronger. In fact, these heart qualities can become your default orientation so that, when hardships arise, you draw not on old reactions but on new strengths.
Like an ecosystem recovering its innate balance, when we stop adding pollutants and seed the proper species, the process of awakening begins to flower in our hearts. Nourishing the heart is joyful. Remembering our potential and aligning ourselves with our deepest vision for life can happen in any moment, and can be filled with lightness and beauty. This is contemplative practice.
Such practice cultivates reflective, critical awareness and explores meaning, value, and purpose. It includes the arts, ritual, storytelling, relationship, and meditation, and it can provide the strength and clarity necessary to engage skillfully with the immense problems of our times— to mourn what we have lost, heal what we can heal, and transform what calls for change. If we are to adapt and grow, if we are to survive and create a better world, we need inner resources to meet our challenges.
From Your Heart Was Made for This: Contemplative Practices for Meeting a World in Crisis with Courage, Integrity, and Love © 2023 by Oren Jay Sofer. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com
Oren Jay Sofer teaches Buddhist meditation, mindfulness, and communication internationally. He holds a degree in comparative religion from Columbia University and is a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication and a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner for the healing of trauma.
Born and raised in New Jersey, he is the author of several books, including the bestselling title Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication and the latest Your Heart Was Made for This: Contemplative Practices for Meeting a World in Crisis with Courage, Integrity, and Love. His teaching has reached people worldwide through online communication courses and guided meditations. Oren lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and son, where he enjoys cooking, spending time in nature, and home woodworking projects.