An Interview with the Media Icon About Her Landmark New Series, "Belief"
Oprah's life's work, she told me, is to be a "connector" and "to be able to share ideas with people that allow them to see the best of themselves." Throughout her career, she has provided life-changing inspiration to millions of viewers and readers, and now her latest project takes this vision a step further: a groundbreaking documentary series that explores humankind's ongoing search to connect with something greater than ourselves.
A strong believer that "your beliefs really determine what you manifest in your life," Oprah and her team set out to find "the most compelling and thoughtful stories of faith, love and devotion from around the world." The result of her three-year quest is the landmark television event called "Belief," airing for seven consecutive nights October 18-24 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. Oprah was so passionate about this project -- and felt it was so timely and important to share with the world -- that she decided not to wait for funding but to use her own money to fund "Belief" herself. The series invites viewers to witness a collection of intimate spiritual journeys shown through the eyes of the believers, including a young Indian-American Hindu woman who travels to the banks of the Ganges River in India in the hopes of rediscovering her faith, an atheist mountain climber who believes there is no greater power than just being present, a dying Aboriginal elder in Australia who wants to pass on the wisdom and beliefs of his tribe to his grandson, a 13-year-old Jewish boy in Hungary who is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, a paraplegic and his wife who draw on their love and evangelical Christian faith to see them through their daily challenges, and many other moving stories that explore the sacred wisdom of diverse faiths.
In a world where religion and beliefs are too often a source of conflict and division, "Belief" delves into what we all have in common: our search for meaning, connection and the answers to the questions we all ask at one point or another. Why are we here? What does it all mean? What do I believe? The beauty of this series -- beyond its vivid, emotional storytelling and cinematic visual imagery of places and people around the world -- is that all viewers, regardless of their background, beliefs, or spiritual orientation, will find something meaningful to connect with in these stories. As Oprah put it, "I really am trying to connect ideas, and I'm getting people to experience faith, experience hope, experience what it means to be alive and human and thriving and yearning for something that's beyond yourself, and seeing that there's a common bond that we all share in that yearning."
I had the pleasure of interviewing Oprah at a recent live taping of OWN's Super Soul Sessions (which also featured inspirational talks by Elizabeth Gilbert, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson and other thought leaders). In our candid and in-depth conversation, she shared with me why this documentary series is so close to her heart, what some of her own beliefs and practices are and what she learned from the incredible stories presented in "Belief."
Marianne Schnall: How did the idea for the "Belief" series come about?
Oprah Winfrey: It came about because my ultimate goal is to connect ideas in such a way that people see themselves in the stories of others. And I know what an enormous role my belief system has played in my life. I know that you become what you believe and that your beliefs really determine what you manifest in your life. So I thought looking at the idea of what other people believe throughout the world would strengthen the viewers' faith and ideas in their own beliefs and would also give you a connection to experience what other people believe throughout the world in a way that allows you to better illuminate yourself.
MS: And what are you most hoping to achieve through "Belief"?
OW: Connection. I'm always hoping for connection. You know, I think that is the gift that I bring, the talent that I actually bring. I was called a "talk show host," but I really was a connector of ideas. And I own a network, but I really am trying to connect ideas, and I'm getting people to experience faith, experience hope, experience what it means to be alive and human and thriving and yearning for something that's beyond yourself -- and seeing that there's a common bond that we all share in that yearning
MS: What did you personally learn from producing and watching the series?
OW: I learned so much. Well, I didn't learn as much as I affirmed what I hold to be true, which is that it doesn't matter if you are a Rabbi father in Hungary or an Aboriginal grandfather in Australia, that the love, the connection that you share between your sons and your grandsons, the thread between all of that, is love and wanting to be able to pass down the wisdom of the ages. One father wanting to be able to share with his son the wisdom of what he knows; another father wanting to be able to share the wisdom of their faith and their religion -- and both of them doing that as an act of love to their children. And you see, wow, that Aboriginal grandfather doesn't look anything like the Rabbi, he obviously didn't come from that world, but their lives are the same in that desire to pass on to the next generation that sense of meaning and value and faith and love.
MS: Was there one particular story or segment that moved you?
OW: Yes. Ian and Larissa was my favorite story. I think regardless of what religion or faith or what name you use to call God -- or if you use no name, as does Alex, who is the mountain climber and he's an atheist -- that you can see and feel the power of love in the story of Larissa, who was engaged to Ian, and they have these dreams of a beautiful life together and he had a car accident months before. And because of her true love for him she stayed with him and married him after he was a paraplegic. I thought that goes beyond the definition of love; that's living love. So that's actually my favorite story. And you cannot watch this story without thinking, "What would I do?" There are a lot of people who might have stayed because of the vows that said "in sickness and health, for better for worse." I don't know a lot of people who would have stayed without the vows, you know? I don't know a lot of people who would have done that, and I ask myself if I would. I don't know if I could.
MS: Obviously each faith has different pathways and traditions, but what unifying themes did you see across faiths and belief systems?
OW: The unifying theme... You know, we spend so much time arguing about the names we use for God in the world and arguing about which path is the correct path, [yet] the unifying theme that is evident in all religions and faiths is compassion, seeing your fellow man as yourself and expressing that compassion through the spirit of love. So that is evident in everything that we show.
And my whole goal is absolutely to show us to ourselves through storytelling in a way that shows challenges and strife and difficulties, and all of us at some point in our lives are going to be in a crisis. All of us at some point in our lives, unless you are some exalted spiritual being here, you're going to have a crisis of faith. The challenge is what you really, truly believe. [There's a story in "Belief" of] the father who does the Way of St. James and walks those 500 miles trying to figure it out. And I think the Way of St. James shows that the way to get back to yourself is to literally get still and be alone and to drown out the voices of the world so that you can find your own way, because your own way is always right here. What we don't have is Glinda the Good Witch as a part of this series, but she is really one of my greatest spiritual teachers, because, as you've heard me say before, Glinda says to Dorothy, "You always had it." That really is the way. You can spend all the years of your life looking outside of yourself for the answers to "Why am I here?" and "What am I really supposed do?" but only when you are conscious enough to connect to the stillness can you really find the answers.
MS: One of the most beautiful and powerful segments of the "Belief" series is called "God Help Us." What are your thoughts about how belief and faith help people get through difficult situations, whether it's loss, times of crisis, or even just regular day-to-day challenges?
OW: I particularly see it in a world where I deal with a lot of young people, many of them from my own school, [the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls]. Some are brought up with a religious background or a faith, so I have Muslim girls and I have a lot of Christian girls and I have girls who are trying to figure it out. Many of these girls have experienced incredible loss and tragedy at a young age, but I am always amazed at how some of them are able to keep going and still have hope and peace, despite being in the middle of a tragedy or crisis. They know and trust that someone or something outside themselves cares about them and loves them, no matter what. And it's the same with everybody else in the world. I won't assume, but I've seen it play out many times where people have experienced disappointment -- they lose a job, they are betrayed, they don't have the relationship they feel that they should have, somebody leaves them -- and all of that hurts. Everyone who goes through that feels the same sadness, anger and bitterness. But the power of faith is when those day-to-day challenges come, they lose their power over us. So I think faith plays an immense role. For me, fear is trusting in your own power and faith is knowing that there's a power greater than you.
MS: The "Belief" series explores so many different individuals who have a variety of different belief systems. Why do you think it is so important that humanity does have a belief in something greater than ourselves?
OW: Everyone believes in something or someone. But if your faith and hope are primarily placed in the positive outcomes of your own life, you are inevitably going to be disappointed, because you can't do it all. Even if your belief is in kindness and in community and in just the Golden Rule, if you just believe in that, you can get through life. But understanding that there is a dynamic, a mystical dynamic, that's larger than you... I call it God and I don't get upset if somebody calls it something else. I fully understand that there are people of different beliefs, but we're all striving and yearning for the same thing.
MS: Now this has really become your main cause...
OW: But it's always been my main cause. I finally have the platform to do it.
MS: Why are you so personally passionate about this topic?
OW: Well, even during the years of the "Oprah Show," the shows that resonated deeply with me and that made me excited to come to work were those when I was going to be able to have these kinds of conversations. Because I know that when somebody gives you what I call a "snackable bite" that you can carry with you, like "trust is built in the smaller moments" or "drowning out the noise of the world helps reconnect you to your own happiness." When you can affirm through positive ways of experiencing your personal story, you just open up as a human being. So my goal with that show, all those years, was to be able to give people a voice that could help them to open up the space of their life so they could live better lives.
So it's a part of my life's work and my life's calling is to be able to share ideas with people that allow them to see the best of themselves. That's my work! That is my work. It's the reason why we were so successful all those years, because that was my number one intention. And the reason I let it go is because I no longer felt that daytime -- that daytime audience with all of the fierce competition to do more, do more, do more -- would allow me the opportunity to have these quiet, meaningful, powerful conversations about the things that really mattered.
MS: A lot of times people just see this as "self-help" and sort of trivialize the significance of this type of inner transformative work. How do you feel about that and how do you see it?
OW: It is self-help, and there's nothing wrong with self-help, self-empowerment, self-enlightenment -- but it's also about seeking that which is the highest, truest expression of yourself, which is what every human being is actually looking for. So my connection to people is understanding that I may live in a different square footage from you, I may wear different shoes from you, I may drive a different car than you do, I may live in a different part of town than you, but you want the same thing that I want. You are searching for exactly the same thing. You want happiness and joy for yourself. You want to be able to live a life that fulfills the truest highest expression of who you know yourself to be. And that is what makes you feel whole and that is what makes you feel complete, and so this common bond that we all share is that we're all looking for the same thing.
MS: If we could all achieve that and discover the highest, truest expression of ourselves, what kinds of outer transformations and positive change do you think we would see in the world?
OW: The world would change. The whole world would change because, you know, Gandhi was correct: you have to be the change you want to see in the world. And it changes with one person at a time. So I have a different outer world because my inner world is one of peace and kindness and consistent grace. I am consistently blessed in my life; literally, goodness and mercy follow me everywhere I go, and that is because I have an attitude of gratitude all the time about my life.
I understand the way the world works. The way the world works is this is one huge classroom, and the force of nature that's in charge, that many people call God, has allowed us free will in this process and each of us gets to choose and decide who we will be in the world, regardless of our circumstances, as Viktor Frankl showed us in his beautiful memoir, A Man's Search for Meaning. So the whole world would change. It's one of the reasons why I don't obsess about the news. I watch the news, but I don't put news into my life, certainly [not] before going to bed or I don't have televisions on all the time, because the horrors of the outside world begin to affect the way you feel about yourself. And so I worry about and concern myself with the things that I really do feel I have some manner of, the word isn't "control," but influence and power with. And that's my ability to manage my inner self and whatever that creates in the outer world for me.
MS: How would you describe your own spirituality and what role do faith and spirituality play in your own life?
OW: I would say I'm in a stage that is channeling the wisdom of the spirit in such a way that you could share it with other people. And I don't mean "woo, woo, woo" channeling, I just mean being open and receptive to the wisdom that is available and being able to share that with other people. And also, I would say that I've reached a really joyful stage, a joyful stage [tears well up in her eyes] that allows me to be fully present in every moment and appreciate every person, every encounter, every moment in such a way that I feel so full of life, that I'm at that space where there really is no separation between me and life. Where I can literally see the spirit of the divine in every person that I encounter. I can see the soul of you and the spirit of you and relate to the soul and the spirit of you. And I just don't know anything better than that.
MS: It is so great to see how joyful you are in your life and in doing this work.
OW: Thank you for that. Because it is. It fills my heart. I wake up with happiness! You know, a couple of times I've gotten off track and you know what I realized? I realized that my happiness is in direct proportion to my gratitude. And when I get off track it's because I had stopped gratitude journaling. It is really the truth that the energy you give to being grateful instantly changes whatever situation you're in if you can figure out something to be grateful for, in that moment. And I would say that gratitude is a spiritual practice of mine. I do it in the morning when I wake up, physically journaling, and about what I envision for the day. I live an intentional day, and at night [I'm] grateful for the intentions that I was able to fulfill. That's my practice.
MS: People are so busy and there are so many inputs that they are often just getting through their days on auto-pilot. What are your thoughts about how to get people to be present and tune in to the magic and mystery of life?
OW: It always comes back to stillness. And one of the really brilliant moments in "Belief" is that piece where we [show] the astronomer looking at the stars. Have you ever gone out and looked at the stars? Because of that piece I actually walked up the mountain in back of my house in Maui and camped out in the night at the top. And I advise everybody to do that, even if you go to your backyard at some point. Looking up at the stars and realizing that you are made of the star stuff -- that this is where you come from and no matter what you know, you don't know it all. So the common thread for me in "Belief" is the mystery as it continues to unfold in our adventure as human beings here on Earth. That to me is the common thread. Wow. And it's like Reshma says when she's at the Kumbh Mela [in the Ganges river in India] in the first episode. She's actually in the water with 40 million people at the same time -- not something I really would want to do [laughs] -- but she says she found herself in looking around and seeing, "Wow, all these people are in the same exact position as I am. All these people have come to this place looking for the very same thing. And it is our connection, one to one, as one body of 40 million people searching for the divine that helps make us whole." I loved it.
MS: Speaking of stillness, many belief systems have that in one form or another, whether it's meditation or prayer or a physical practice. How important and beneficial is it, especially in our world, that you take that time to quiet the mind?
OW: Let me just tell you, I don't know how you survive in today's world with all of the noise and the literal craziness that we are surrounded and bombarded with from the time you wake up in the morning -- it's coming through on the radio, it's on your smart phones -- from the moment you turn on any electronic anything, you are bombarded by negative noise. If you have not prepared yourself, you then become a receptacle for all of that energy. So I literally prepare myself to be shielded from all of the negativity and to live and breathe in the space that I call God, live and breathe in the center of myself, so all this other stuff is going around, but I am just in my peaceful space. I live in that space. If you don't do that, then you will take on all the negative energy that is around you. And that's why by the end of the day, you feel crazy, too! When I don't prepare myself and I just get up and I'm late and I run to the shower, I feel by midday stress and negativity and a depletion of energy.
So my spiritual practice is to prepare myself. Sometimes, if I have the time, it's 20 minutes of silence, or sometimes it's not. Now I have on my little timer: 12. I think the universe would be okay with 12 [laughs]. I think 12's good -- 12 disciples, 12 days of Christmas. So I've narrowed it down to 12 because most days I don't have time for 20. But even if I don't have 12, I take time just in the shower, just there. Turn off the water because it's California [laughs]. Take time, while I'm letting the conditioner go through my hair, just to be still and fully present to order intentionally what I want for the day. And then I do some form of gratitude or prayer practice at night.
MS: People watching "Belief" are all going to be at different stages of their spiritual paths, and some of them may not even be on a path yet at all. What would you say to someone who may not have an official faith they affiliate with, but are feeling a void or are seeking larger meaning in their life but just don't know where to start or what path is right for them?
OW: Well, you certainly get an opportunity to see multiple paths on "Belief"! I would say look at what appeals to you. Open your heart, because I think the tenet for all the major religions is peace and compassion. So I would say open your heart, get still, ask the question for yourself, and the answer will reveal itself. There's no question you can ask for which there isn't an answer. Get still and then really think about it, because I know of people who have seen this series -- a lot of parents in their 30s or 40s who can't decide what to do with the whole church/God issue for themselves as it relates to their children -- and this has stimulated the thought, which is really what I wanted to do. I wanted to stimulate the thought, stimulate the idea.
MS: "Belief" is premiering on October 18, and I know you've said this is your heart's work. How excited are you about its premiere, and is there anything else that you would like people to know about it?
OW: I hope people watch it on OWN, but this isn't a ratings play for me, so whatever it does in the ratings, I'll be really happy about that. But it is a play for the world to see it. The more people who see it in the world, the happier I will be because, first of all, it's enthralling and it's elegant in its execution, I think. I think the producers and the team that filmed it did just a remarkable job, and I think it will be significant for a very long time, for many cultures. I think that many times the religious expressions of the world hunker down in their religious cocoons and sometimes they don't have a clue about the religious world outside their own walls and they begin to believe that they're the only ones who are right; and then many go on to believe that their rightness gives them license to hurt and undermine others who don't adhere to the way they think. What I truly believe is if you can find the character of God in any faith -- the character of God is the character of peace and kindness and love and grace -- if you can find the character of God and then affirm it and praise it and bless it, you see the glory of God. I know that happens, and that's why I can embrace multiple religions throughout the world, because I see the character of God in them.
My thing, as I said to you before, how do you look at that story of Ian and Larissa and not question your own values and ways of thinking about love? How is that possible? And how do you look at Mendel, a little 13-year-old Jewish boy having his Bar Mitzvah who dares to ask the big questions, and not yourself be opened to ask the big questions for your own life? That's the whole point.
The landmark television event "Belief" will air over seven nights from October 18-24 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.
Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, CNN.com, the Women's Media Center and The Huffington Post. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women's website and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice and What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.