Last weekend, when I stepped onto the campus of UCLA I could feel the buzz. A line extended throughout the campus of energetic people chatting with one another as they waited to enter Royce Hall. A sense of expectancy was in the air. Hundreds of people had gathered from across the country to join Oprah Winfrey for a special day filming a new series she calls “Super Soul Sessions”. The eight hour event featured some of the most inspiring and influential spiritual and thought leaders of our day, including Brene Brown, Iyanla Vanzant, Elizabeth Gilbert, Deepak Chopra, Shawn Achor, and Rob Bell. I arrived on the campus with my friends Isaac and Candice, and all of us came with open hearts and open minds, ready to experience whatever God had for us through this day. And what each of us experienced was truly transformative.
On Elizabeth Gilbert– Candice Czubernat, Director, The Christian Closet:
For me, going to Oprah’s Super Soul Sessions was a bit like a fanatical football fan heading to the Super Bowl. I was filled with nerves of anticipation, wonder about what I’d experience and a heart that felt open. And yet I have to admit that when I saw Elizabeth Gilberts name in the line-up of amazing speakers my feelings took a left turn towards disappointment and a tentative, protective stance began to construct in my heart.
You see when I first started reading her now infamous book, “Eat, Pray, Love” the story of her leaving her marriage for a wild adventure felt reckless and not holy in the least bit. I couldn’t understand what millions of people seemed to connect with as a spiritual journey. To be fair, I didn’t finish the book because of what I now understand was my own fear and pain as I was in the midst of fighting to keep a relationship. Even though I now know it wasn’t her story that was scary, it was my own, but still my assumption was that I might not like what she was going to say in her time sharing at Super Soul.
I was prepared to turn off my ears and shut down my heart, except for that’s not what happened. I was surprised to be met with the most unique, beautifully human and deeply life changing talks out of the entire group of spiritual leaders. Her talk began with her gracefully and humbly sharing what she used to talk about in her speeches and the perils of it. She used to barrel through an audience with her “jackhammer”, pumping them up to live a life full of passion. She’d encourage them to spend every waking moment figuring out what their passion was and then the rest of their life living it out. Until, she realized that this message might actually cause harm and that life doesn’t always work in such a linear way.
Her humility blew me away enough to truly open myself to what she said next. She wondered with us, what if life was way more about following our curiosity and trusting that would guide us to the places that were meant for us. She went on to say that life might look a lot more like a pin-ball game, but that it would also include so much more beauty in its diversity. I sat in my seat wishing someone had been wise enough to have told me about this freedom when I was 20; I would have been able to enjoy the ride rather than worry I wasn’t on the right track. Gilberts message brings so much freedom to those of us who are all too real in our humanness; our life hasn’t been a straight line and finally there’s a spiritual leader willing to affirm the meaning and beauty in it. There’s no need to feel the shame of not having one deep passion, live your life through your natural curiosity and enjoy the spirit of God in and through that. Amen and Amen.
On Janet Mock– Isaac Archuletta, Director, The iAm Institute
One moment I will never forget is when I decided, after watching an episode of Oprah, to come out. I just had to be honest with authenticity’s potential that burgeoned within my soul. Oprah spoke of internal solidarity, and I had to respond. She gave me the courage to face my own desires with love and compassion on that warm day in 2005. Oprah somehow managed to move me again, this time (almost 10 years later to the day) with a host of the world’s most influential spiritual leaders at Super Soul Sessions. One of my favorites, however, was none other than Janet Mock, the host of MSNBC’s SO POPULAR!
As an inquisitive mystic, I sat waiting for a brush of motivation or another round of optimism. But when Janet took stage I could feel her confidence and it nearly commanded the audience’s attention. She spoke with such dignity, not so much as a prolific show hostess, but as a confident woman who has integrated all facets of her life into one cohesive being. She was a proud out trans woman. As an ethnic and gender minority, Janet told not only her own tale, but managed to speak toward the minority stress all LGBTQ persons face. And instead of describing a weak version of social power, Janet modeled a type of self-acceptance that many LGBTQ persons never harness.
As an ethnic minority and bisexual Christian counselor, I have come to know that true self-acceptance is hidden beneath a many-layered sediment one must toil to unearth. Coming out is a task that requires personal acknowledgment, disclosures to friends and family, and a spiritual reconciliation. Many stop here and rest semi-peacefully, but women like Janet do not. They continue to assertively fight for the internal right to proclaim wholeness, not due to physical beauty or fame, but by achieving the irrevocable joy of being authentic. Watching Janet demonstrate and live out of her true self-acceptance reminded me that there is beauty in being a minority. My brown skin and bisexuality do not make me inferior. They give me, rather, the ability to sing a unique tune that expands our understanding of God’s complexity and sovereign diversity. Instead of asking how I can blend in or for a shaded corner within which I can hide, I, like all minorities, have the ability to show this world another version of God’s creative design.On a very sincere level, I am forever grateful to Oprah. She’s given women like Janet and sexual minorities like me the freedom to celebrate our truest versions of self. I wonder what will happen in another 10 years. Whatever it is, I’ll know it’ll be another expanse for which I will celebrate.
On Shawn Achor & Rob Bell- Brandan Robertson, Director, The RISE Network:
We are in a pivotal transition period in American religious history. With the exodus of millennials from organized religion and an almost equally large exodus of baby boomers, many religious leaders are asking what the future holds for faith and spirituality. I have become convinced that one of the most prophetic pioneers in the world of spiritualtiy is Oprah Winfrey. As cliché as that may sound, my experience at Super Soul Sessions proved to be one of the most spirit-rich experiences I have had in a long time. I experienced for the first time in a long time a vibrant, revival-like spiritual event where people were truly eager to delve deeper into God and to discover the path to spiritual awakening. I think churches, mosques, and synagogues could probably learn a thing or two from what Oprah is doing… but that’s another post entirely.
During the Super Soul Sessions event, Oprah introduced me to a new thought leader whose talk shifted the way I think about happiness and optimism. Shawn Achor is an bestselling author and speaker around the psychology of happiness, something I happen to be a big fan of. Shawn’s talk was full of energy and insight around the practical ways each of us can experience more happiness in our lives and spread happiness to those around us.
As someone who has struggled with depression for nearly a decade, and even as I have delved deep into the world of spirituality and reaped an abundance of benefits in my life because of it, I continually find myself frustrated with how fluffy it all can sometimes be. What inspired me most about Achor’s talk was that it was intensely practical. So often, in environments where we focus on spirituality, we find ourselves getting lost in the grandeur of abstract concepts that inspire us but ultimately have little connection to our actual lived experience.
What Achor made clear, however, was that happiness wasn’t some abstract ideal that we should all aspire to, but a very achievable experience through simple, scientifically verified, practices. For instance, did you know that if you take 5 minuets each day and write down three things you are grateful for, you will be measurably more optimistic about life within a month? Of course we’ve all heard that its good to be grateful, but now there is evidence supporting the idea that we have been fundamentally created in such a way that we can engage in certain basic practices and improve our entire outlook and quality of life.
The other talk that I found myself captivated by was given by my friend Rob Bell. His talk was entitled The Joy of Growing Younger, which explored the bigness and beauty of life and the amount of purpose and potential that each one of us, at every stage of life, have to live the life we’ve always dreamed of. Rob told the story of the time when he met a 100 year old woman who came up and sat next to him. When she introduced herself, she said, “My name is Sheryl, I am 100 years old, and I am just getting started.” Rob used this story to illustrate the power of positivity and our ability to live the life that we always dreamed of.
This talk seemed to mirror Robs’s own journey, who at 28 founded one of the fastest growing churches in America and left it all a few years ago to pursue his dream of reaching the masses with his spiritual teachings through television and other forms of entertainment. Rob rooted all of this in the words of 2 Corinthians which says, “though outwardly we are perishing, inwardly we are being made new day by day.” Rob explained that the word “made new” in this text actually is the Greek word kainos, which means renewed. Through finding and living in to our passions, the things that give us the most life, we can experience tangible, substantive renewal in our own lives, no matter what age or stage we find ourselves in.
Super Soul Sessions was packed with practical instruction, captivating stories, and thought provoking lessons from the most influential spiritual pioneers of our time. As I sat in the ornate auditorium at UCLA, absorbing deeply the wisdom and energy of those around me, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I truly felt that we were all a part of something much bigger than this one event on one sunny afternoon. We were experiencing a powerful spiritual revival that would reverberate from that place around the globe, empowering and liberating multiplied millions of people, and Oprah has created a tool that I believe will spearhead this revival.
It is truly an understatement when we say that our experiences at Super Soul Sessions were transformative. We are so excited for this content to be released to you both online and on the Oprah Winfrey Network this fall. For more information about Super Soul Sessions or other OWN Programming, click here.
A special thank you to the folks at OWN for inviting Project:Awaken at Patheos Spirituality to report on this event.