A spiritual practice is the foundation of a meaningful life, Oprah Winfrey tells Stanford audience
At the end of her daylong visit to Stanford, Oprah Winfrey, who has worked for nearly 30 years to empower, enlighten and inspire people to live their best lives, delivered "Harry's Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life."
A meaningful life comes from a deep sense of awareness about “who you are and why you’re here,” Oprah Winfrey told a Stanford audience on Monday evening.
“It comes from being in touch with, on a regular basis, the appreciation and the holy gratitude that should fill each of our hearts on a regular basis, just knowing what a privilege it is to be here and to be human,” Winfrey told an audience of more than 1,000 students, faculty and staff assembled in Memorial Church to hear her deliver the annual “Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life.”
“Close your eyes for a moment, will you please, and breathe with me,” she continued. “And if you will, put your thumb to your middle finger and gather your other fingers around, and let’s feel the vibration and pulse of your personal energy as you take three deep breaths with me.”
Winfrey, who has worked for nearly 30 years to empower, enlighten and inspire people around the world to live their best lives, then asked the audience to reflect on “this day, which you have been graced to breathe, in and out, thousands of times.”
She asked them to think about the many days and years past, and about the choices that had brought them to Stanford.
“Open your heart and quietly to yourself say the only prayer that’s ever needed: Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said. “You’re still here. You get another chance this day to do better and be better, another chance to become more of who you were created and what you’re created to fulfill. Thank you. Amen.”
It was one of many personal insights and revelations Winfrey shared during the annual address that honors the late Stanford Law School Professor Harry Rathbun.
The 50-minute lecture was the culmination of Winfrey’s day as the university’s 2015 Rathbun Visiting Fellow.
Winfrey is the sixth person chosen as a Rathbun Visiting Fellow since the program began in 2008. The first five fellows were: retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; George P. Shultz, former U.S. secretary of state, treasury secretary and labor secretary; Marian Wright Edelman, founder of The Children’s Defense Fund; His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama; and cartoonist Garry Trudeau.
In the morning, Winfrey took part in a guided meditation and a Q&A with students at the Windhover contemplation center. Later, she met with student leaders at the Cantor Arts Center. In the early afternoon at the Black Community Services Center, she met with students from the Department of Theater & Performance Studies and the Institute for Diversity in the Arts.
During her evening lecture, Winfrey said she had met many human biology majors during her day on campus. While they were all in the same field studying very similar things, she reminded them that “no one brings the level of uniqueness and authenticity that you can bring.”
“Nobody does it like you, and understanding that what you have to offer, what you’ve come to give to the planet is your gift, your offering in a way that nobody else can, and how much that matters. It matters to you. It matters to the people that you love. It matters to our planet that you are here. It’s just a miracle that we get to be here.”
Reflecting on her life, which began in rural, segregated Mississippi with a one-time encounter between her teenage parents, Winfrey said it was “nothing but grace” that created “a little colored child” who has had, and continues to have, so many opportunities in life.
Winfrey said grace allowed her to step into the flow of life and carry her to this moment.
“I’m not telling you what to believe, or who to believe, or what to call it, but there is no full life, no fulfilled, meaningful, sustainably joyful life without a connection to the spirit,” she said, adding that the way to achieve such a life was through practice.
“You must have a spiritual practice,” she said. “What is yours? Well, for some people it is going to church if that’s where they nurture themselves. I believe that creativity, artful expression, prayer, conscious kindness, empathy, consistent compassion, gratitude – all spiritual practices in the way of becoming more of who you are.”
Winfrey said she started a “gratitude journal” in the late 1980s and encouraged the audience to do the same.
“Gratitude journaling has become a spiritual practice that leads to a more enhanced and meaningful life, and you can start it today,” she said. “I guarantee if you did it for a week you would see a difference, because every day – and I’ll do it when I go home – I write down five things that I am grateful for, or that brought me joy or opened my heart space.”
Winfrey, who played the role of Sophia – her movie debut – in the 1985 movie, The Color Purple, said she had been obsessed with winning a part in the movie, which was based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker. When Winfrey thought she had been rejected for the part, she decided that she needed to release that obsession. Thinking that one of the reasons she had been rejected was because she weighed too much, she went to a “fat farm” to lose weight.
“I thought for sure that Alfre Woodard was going to get that part,” Winfrey said. “So I’m running around the track praying and crying. The way prayer works is, you can pray, but if you don’t release it, if you don’t surrender it, it goes nowhere. It’s just you talking to yourself. So I started singing this song. Do you know this song?”
And Winfrey sang a cappella: “I surrender all. I surrender all. All to thee my blessed Savior. I surrender all.”
Winfrey said she sang and prayed and cried, until she could release the pain and the suffering of the rejection, and could “bless” Alfre Woodard in the movie.
“So I pray, I pray, I pray, and sing ‘I surrender all’ until a woman comes out to me and says to me, ‘There is a phone call for you,'” Winfrey said. “And in that phone call I was told, ‘next day, show up in Steven Spielberg’s office and if you lose a pound you could lose this part.’ So I stopped at the Dairy Queen.”
Winfrey, a global media leader, philanthropist, producer and actress, said she had stood in Memorial Church before – 45 years ago.
“Y’all just don’t even know what this means to me to be standing in this hall,” she said at the beginning of her lecture. “In 1970, before you were even a thought in the mind of God, or in the seeds of your parents, I was in an oratorical contest as a junior at East High School. And the great victory for us as state champions was to have our national championship here at Stanford in this very church. And, as I stand here today, I lost the contest, but I won the prize.”