Oren J. Sofer has practiced Buddhist meditation since 1997 and is a graduate of the Spirit Rock/Insight Meditation Society Teacher Training. He is a long-time student of Joseph Goldstein, Michele McDonald, and the Venerable Ajahn Sucitto and holds a degree in Comparative Religion from Columbia University. Oren is also a Collaborative Trainer with BayNVC and a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner for healing trauma. He recently launched a new online program, Next Step Dharma, for transitioning back into daily life after a retreat. Find out more about Next Step Dharma
Spirit Rock: Please share something about your first experience sitting a silent meditation retreat. What stands out in your memory from that time?
Oren J. Sofer: My first retreat was a short, three-day weekend in Bodh Gaya, India, with Anagarika Munindra-ji. And one of the things I remember the most was how constantly I was thinking! For three days straight, it seemed like there was this endless stream of thoughts and planning, imagining conversations and writing letters to people. I'd never noticed before how continual that stream of thought was in my own mind. Very quickly, I became pretty tired of listening to my own thoughts. And so that was an insight in and of itself—how busy my mind was.
Another very clear memory was struggling with walking meditation. It was so boring! I couldn’t understand why anyone would walk back and forth slowly in that way.
I also remember feeling a sense of accomplishment and strength at the end of the retreat, and I was able to be with myself and with my own thoughts for that long without needing to talk or write or read. And so there was a certain kind of excitement, a strength, and a curiosity to learn more that came out of that.
I also remember being really inspired. Munindra-ji was a very inspiring teacher, and he would talk about enlightenment regularly. So I had a lot of motivation and a lot of willingness to sit through the intense thinking, my back hurting, my knees aching, and look closely at my experience and try to understand what was going on.
SR: At what point and why did you decide to train to be a meditation teacher?
Oren: You know, it’s interesting. For me, within the first few moments of hearing the Dharma and learning to meditate, I felt like I had come home. It was like, this was what I had been waiting to hear my whole life. And so, within the first few months of practicing, I had a very clear sense that I wanted to learn the Dharma well enough to share it with others because it was having such a big impact on me. I had been pretty lost in my early 20s and had been struggling a lot. The tools of meditation and the way of life the Dharma presented offered me a way to make sense of things and a way to navigate toward being happier.
The shift was so dramatic, and I was so inspired by the teachers I met that it didn’t seem like there wasn’t anything else more important I could do than learn how to share that with other people so that they could be happier and live a more meaningful life.
But after that, I really just put it down. I wasn’t thinking about becoming a teacher or wanting to teach. I was just interested in practicing and understanding as much as possible. And then at some point in the course of my practice, Joseph approached me and invited me to begin teaching.
SR: How did it feel when Joseph asked you to become a teacher?
Oren: It was a combination of feeling really excited and also very honored and humbled. I was very eager and almost a little giddy to get to share with other people in this way. At the same time, I also have such great respect for this practice and the path and the depth of what’s possible. So I approached it with—and still do approach it with—a sense of just offering the little bit that I understand, with the hope that it’s of some use to others.
SR: Could you also share something with us about your first experience teaching a meditation retreat?
Oren: Sure. What stands out to me is the same thing that stood out to me from my own first retreat, which is just how powerful this practice is. The kinds of shifts, insights, and understandings that people go through is mindboggling. And it’s really an honor to get to witness other people’s awakening, others’ unfolding in the Dharma. The potency and the power of sitting in silence together and looking inwards is quite moving.
Another one of the most powerful things for me is the sense that it’s natural, that it’s innate in us. I know that for me and many of the students I work with, there can sometimes be a sense of “I'm not doing it right,” or “There’s something wrong with me,” or “I'm not good enough for this practice.”
And what I see again and again, both in myself and in teaching, is that you can’t do it wrong. Our heart and our mind have an immense capacity for healing and for understanding. And when you make the effort to practice with some sincerity, over time, transformation happens. It’s so amazing to see that again and again.
SR: Why did you create Next Step Dharma?
Oren: Because there’s a need for support after people finish retreat. It’s a need that’s been there for decades. Basically, since we started teaching retreats in this country, people come and have these profound, sometimes very transformative, and rich experiences, and many go home without the guidance or support to integrate what was learned into their lives.
And the whole point of the Dharma is to bring it into our lives. The point isn’t to sit on a meditation retreat and have some neat experiences. The aim is to wake up; to be less stressed out, more clear, more available to respond to what’s happening in our life, in the world, to be there for our work, for the people we interact with, for our family and our loved ones. So, that integration is kind of this key missing piece in our whole community.
And it’s kind of funny the way the program came about. I was assisting on the three-month retreat at IMS during the Teacher Training Program. I was sitting in the dining room one day at lunch talking with Joseph Goldstein and some of the other staff, and we were talking about the challenges that people face coming off of retreat—particularly long retreats, but even week-long or ten-day retreats—and how jarring it can be to come out of the silence and out of the supportive container of the retreat and be thrust back into one’s life—the speed of things, the demands, and the pressures.
I work with a few different organizations doing online courses, so I said to Joseph, “You know, it wouldn’t be that hard to put together an online course for people coming off of retreats so that wherever they are, anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world, they could sign up for a course and be in touch with others coming off of retreats. They could have some guided meditations, some good Dharma teachings, and even some live support from a Dharma teacher for a month or two after a retreat to get the support they need to integrate into their life.”
Joseph looked at me and smiled and said, “Sounds like a great idea. Why don’t you do it?” So, I did. It was a lot more work than I’d anticipated, but it was such a labor of love putting the course together.
Now that it’s up and running, it’s really a delight for me to get to be in touch with people after retreats, to talk to folks all over the country about bringing the Dharma into their life. It’s a lot of fun and it’s one of the things I’m most passionate about. It’s deeply meaningful for me to get to support people to actually live the Dharma, not just to practice it on a retreat or at a meditation group. It’s one of the great gifts about the program, to support people in their lives. It’s great fun and really nourishing for me to interact with people in that way.