001 – The Importance of Self-Care with Chris Heuertz

Welcome to the first episode of LIFT, a podcast aimed to support leaders who are committed to making good changes in the world.

In this episode, I chat with Chris Heuertz, founding partner of Gravity, author of The Sacred Enneagram, and all-around kind human. Chris shares his lessons learned from working in the trenches of the international humanitarian field, and how understanding the importance of self-care lead him to his next calling.

[00:01:04] Mission and vision
[00:03:23] Contemplative activism
[00:04:56] Something missing
[00:06:53] Benefits of self-care
[00:08:52] Compassion and the enneagram
[00:11:17] Moments of doubt
[00:13:38] Choosing yes
[00:15:12] Pain
[00:18:40] Mentored by Mother Teresa

Resources mentioned:
The Sacred Enneagram
Chris Heuertz on Instagram

Note: Some of the resources above may be affiliate links, meaning I’d get a commission if you use that link to make a purchase (at no cost to you).


Welcome to LIFT, a podcast for you – the entrepreneur, the leader, the creative – who leads change with heart. If you don’t have it all together, you’re in the right place. I’m your host, Sharlene Sobrepeña.

In this first episode, I sit down with Chris Heuertz. Chris is an author, entrepreneur, and anti-human trafficking activist. We chat about his decades of experience in humanitarian work, the importance of self-care, and how the enneagram can be a tool for personal development. My big takeaway is that taking care of ourselves is really a necessity. It’s not a luxury, or something that only a few people should do if they have time. Let’s get to it!

Sharlene: Thanks Chris for joining us. Let’s ask a big question. What is your mission with your work? And what’s your vision for the world?

Chris: Sure. Well, thanks so much for including me on your podcast. It’s great to reconnect. I, of course, think the world of you and just have lots of admiration and respect for the good work you’re doing. That’s really sort of what drives me. I did 20 years of international humanitarian work. I lived in the Middle East. I lived in South America. I lived in South Asia and for 20 years, a community that I was a part of, we really were trying to fight the exploitation of humanity in every way, but specifically a lot of the work that we did was around helping people who had been trafficked into the commercial sex industry. So, it’s a lot of women, a lot of children. We were helping out kids in places like West Africa that were conscripted and really also, in a sense, a kind of trafficking victim; conscripted to fight in civil wars. We were working with youth that lived in sewers and on the streets, in refugee camps and in slum communities. And really, my first job actually straight out of university when I moved to India was working with kids who were impacted by the global AIDS pandemic. And so, we started the first pediatric AIDS care home in those eight salvation countries, the first home for kids who were orphaned because of AIDS and first home for kids who actually were HIV positive or had AIDS themselves. And that really drove me, that drove me for 20 years. And I think what drove me in that was this notion of hope that there is a better way to live, that there is the possibility of this new ‘we’ that we’re yearning for, that we could belong to, that could allow us to stop hurting ourselves and each other, and really elicit and bring forward true compassion. And so, that was what I did for 20 years and what I’m doing now is also in the non-profit sector, just a little center for contemplative activism that’s helping people who are helping people. And again, I think it’s driven for the same reasons, but I think what we’re doing now is looking back on what we didn’t have for those 20 years in our humanitarian work, accompaniment, support, mindfulness and meditation practices to help us ground and rule our social engagement.

Sharlene: So, how do you define contemplative activism?

Chris: Right. So, my wife, Phileena, says this and I think it’s just such a profound little statement. She says, “In activism, we confront the toxicity in the world. In contemplation, we confront it in ourselves. And I think there is something pretty dialed-in about that. It’s like, most of us are projecting outside of ourselves, of things that we don’t want to deal with inside ourselves. And you see this. You see this in the person that annoys you the most because what they’re actually annoying you is the part of yourself that you’re not wanting to contend with or deal with. Well, my sense is a lot of pain, exploitation, poverty in the world is also the exporting of the parts of ourselves that we don’t have compassion for, parts of ourselves that we don’t love. And we find a vulnerable victim, we find an easy target and we allow it to land there. So, in contemplative activism, I think what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to say, if you can nurture and nourish a mindfulness to a meditation practice as a way of rooting yourself so that you can discern better what your yes-es may need to be so that you can actually discern better how to engage pain and exploitation in the world. What we see in meditation and mindfulness practices is there’s a lot in ourselves that we’re not engaging. There’s a lot of parts of ourselves that we don’t love or care for well. And that’s where we get to begin practicing it, right? If we can’t really love ourselves, we have no business trying to love someone else, right?

Sharlene: And you said that was missing during your decades of work?

Chris: So yeah, for the 20 years I did my work, I think what was missing was the skills to actually reflect critically around the work we were doing. I think what we lacked were the ability to actually hit the pause button and to breathe in the spaces where we were trying to fight for justice and hope. And so, in these 20 years of international humanitarian work, there are a few things that caught up to us. And the first one was that we were doing a better job of taking better care of someone else than we were ourselves, and that catches up to you. And look, everybody’s guilty of that. If you’re a parent, if you’re an educator, a social worker, if you’re in the mental health or the healthcare community, you actually think you’re supposed to take better care of someone else than yourself. But you lose credibility in a sense. Secondly, we had this trouble practicing stability, right? People just kept leaving. They’d show up with these notions of they stay two or three or four years but six months/ten months later, they were out of there and that was really difficult for the community to absorb. But third, we were all sort of teetering on the edge of burn out and when some of us burn out, we left the community badly; friendships were burned. The best parts of ourselves really suffered because of the burnout. And so, I think when I look back, what we really needed was the freedom to realize that actually taking care of ourselves isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. That finding compassion for ourselves actually helps us find compassion for others. That actually stopping for mediation or reflection or hitting the pause button. It’s not an inefficiency. It actually allows us to give ourselves back in even deeper ways to the work that we think we’re called to do or tasked to perform.

Sharlene: That makes so much sense to me. So, now that you have been applying this in your own work, have you seen a difference in the way that you’ve retained people and have you seen a difference in the work you’re doing, and even in yourself and your own relationships?

Chris: Yeah. So, I think the more I move some of my practices, mindfulness and meditation practices to disciplines, I actually do see specific benefits and of course in my most intimate and significant friendships and relationships, and the work that we do, it’s been an incredible and a much-needed correction. And now, the work that we’re doing, we’re working with humanitarians, activists, practitioners, a lot of refugees, human trafficking survivors. But we’re also working with anybody who wants to build a better world and wants to say yes to sort of incorporating these kinds of practices in their lives. It’s remarkable to see just the baby steps of change. And my wife also says, it’s to the extent that we are transformed, the world will be transformed and it’s a simple, simple formula and it doesn’t take a lot. But it just takes the first yes. And the first yes, of course, is always the easiest. We never know what the subsequent yes-es will be and of course often in work and relationships, and doing anything that’s good for ourselves, subsequent yes-es get a little bit harder and cost a little bit more. But when we practice the easy ones, we’re ready for the difficult ones.

Sharlene: So, what would you say the first yes is yes to yourself?

Chris: Yes, and it’s the yes to yourself has to be a yes of seeing yourself, a yes to loving yourself and then a yes to finding that compassion for yourself.

Sharlene: So, how can we train ourselves to become more compassionate not only to ourselves but to others? And second, how would developing compassion benefit our communities and even our businesses?

Chris: Yeah. So, I know this isn’t super street legal leadership 101 or best business practices when you start to talk about developing compassion for yourself and love for yourself. But I do fundamentally believe that change is everything. And I do believe it allows for us to bring integrity into our work spaces, into our professional relationships, our professional lives. So, how do we do that? I’m a huge fan of something called the enneagram and the enneagram is this ancient human character structure tool that basically says there are sort of nine ways of being. And it’s a little bit more complex thanlet’s say simply a personality test that you take. But it does sort of produce nine options that give us, let’s say, the contours for what our personalities have become. When you get into the enneagram and you start to look at this, what you start to see is that all of us are actually suffering the loss of contact from our essence, our purpose, that we’re here for a reason, that there’s a gift that each of our lives is supposed to bring into the world. But somehow, in each of our early holding environments, we’ve lost touch with that. We’ve lost contact with that. And so, what we do is, we build out an ego; we build out a personality, we build out defense mechanisms and we wrap those up around our essence, around the reason we’re here so that we can essentially project the mythology of who we want to be seen as or who we wish people would see us as. So, what the enneagram actually teaches us, actually what the enneagram shows us is this compassionate sketch of possibilities of who we can become when we’re truthful to ourselves and when we confront our fears that we’re not worthy, that we have to earn what it is that we want, or that we’re incapable of being loved in the ways we want to be loved. Well, that really for me has actually facilitated a tremendous amount of compassion and not only compassion for myself, but really compassion for even the most difficult people in my life.

Sharlene: That’s interesting. So, I’m just wondering also, were there times when you’ve maybe questioned yourself or the path you’ve chosen, and how you managed that?

Chris: Yeah. When we left our former non-profit, we were with for 20 years, it was time to go. I needed to go. I had sort of hit a few walls and I think I’d given everything that I could give. I was actually the international director of that organization and I think they needed a change as well. The year in between, leaving that non-profit and starting the organization that we have now, Gravity, that was a pretty tough year. I remember quite a few sleepless nights. Am I going to be able to pay rent? What did I do? At least I had a job before, is this going to work? And I think for a lot of us entrepreneurs, ideators, people who have a vision and maybe your vision is sort of outside the box, my sense is we all sort of need that sort of, that restlessness, that insecurity, that sort of place of questioning and doubting, and even suffering, like is this worth it and should I say yes? Because I think that’s one of the first deposits we make in realizing our visions, seeing the things that we hope to materialize in the world, come forth. It’s always a touch point. It’s always a going back. It’s always reminding ourselves that yes, I did believe in this, and it did cost me something and the insecurity or the fragility or the uncertainty of it actually makes it stronger today. So, of course, I don’t want to relive those days and I don’t want to go back to those days, but I’m really grateful for those. I think back to them and I think, what we’re doing here really is built off of some of the things that sort of were sweated out then. And of course, in all of the great stories that we hear, it’s like there’s always that moment of doubt. There’s always that sort of opportunity you’re faced with a fork in the road and what are you going to choose. But, it’s the first test. Really, it’s the first yes, right?

Sharlene: How did you make that choice?

Chris: Yeah. Well, like I said, I think looking back on the 20 years of the work that we had done and seeing what we wish we had sort of helped us. I think looking back on the 20 years of work that we had done and not wanting to leave that and not wanting to sort of hit the hard reset but to see what that would look like as it evolved gave context, and I think gave it accountability. And so, the work that we’ve been doing now for the last seven years I think really fits in to that first part of our professional life. I think it’s sort of the –it is the evolution of it. It is the growing up of it. And you know, a lot of us will say yes and I know this is sort of uncommon or less common now than maybe our parents’ or grandparents’ generations, but there are some people that will say yes and plug in to the same career for 40 years and that’s fabulous. That kind of stability is remarkable and admirable. But a lot of us don’t sort of have that luxury and I think if you can see the trajectory of your vocational fidelity as something that will constantly evolve, and stay in let’s say your lane, every step just continues to be more effective, more meaningful, have stronger traction. And I think that’s given us the sort of the credibility to do what we’re doing now.

Sharlene: In your work, you’ve seen so much pain and suffering first-hand. And you’ve seen the darkest sides of humanity. What have you learned about pain? And how has your mindset towards pain changed over the years? And I guess, do you have any tips for the listeners on how they can deal with pain and how they can become more resilient?

Chris: So, I don’t want to diminish the suffering of the folks that we worked with because of course, it’s unspeakable how much of the world suffers and the luxury of the non-poor to be an observer of that is a responsibility that we all need to live into and living into that requires a sort of considering what it means to share the access to opportunity resources, the freedoms that some of us have that a lot of folks in the world don’t have. What I’ve learned over the years, as I’ve done work in places that are marked by deep suffering and profound pain is that using the suffering of someone else for your personal formation is another kind of exploitation. And you see a lot of people when they travel to poor parts of the world, and then they come back and they talk about how grateful they are, they realize how much they’ve taken for granted. And then they sort of go back to the old ways of living. I would encourage folks to not be a voyeur of suffering, to spark personal transformation but to really press into friendships for people who are suffering as a way of being transformed together. Secondly, again I don’t want to be cliché and I don’t want to be pithy here but I realize that for a lot of us, we have to recognize that pain can actually be a gift of growth and it can remind us of what’s wrong so that it can push us towards what’s right. So, when we see suffering, we should be moved. When we see suffering in communities or with friends, or people who are at unjust hands of exploitation, it should be a compulsion that drives us. And when we grow dull to that, I think there’s something that needs to be alarmed and alerted in us that wakes us up. And so, it’s tough, man. For the 20 years that we did this international work, it was pretty overwhelming. There were times when I didn’t know what to do with the pain of those that we were working with. And I still don’t know what to do. I mean, my first –when I was still a university student, I travelled to India and I spent two months in Mother Teresa’s House for the Dying and in my first two months there, I attended to 50 folks who didn’t survive that summer. And it wrecked me. That devastated me and as a university student, I didn’t know what to do with it. As a full-grown man, I still don’t know what to do with it. But I do know this, that when we see it, we cannot not respond; that we have to find something in us that allows and compels us to give something of us to make investments in the world that we want to live in. Like I said earlier, investing in the possibility of a new ‘we’ that would lead to the healing of the ways that we’ve caused harm and hurt and suffering.

Sharlene: So, you were mentored by Mother Teresa for three years, you mentioned. What was that experience like? What lessons did you take from your time with her?

Chris: Yeah. So, I was fortunate enough to spend quite a bit of time with Mother before she passed away. Every time I’d go up to Calcutta, which was only three or four or five times a year, I’d sit with her. I’d visit with her. I’d bring groups of friends up there to meet with her and she’d share reflections with us. She was incredibly generous. She was incredibly driven and there was an intensity about her. I think one of the best lessons that I learned from her though, and I think this is what we learn from all great mentors. It comes less from the things that they say, and it comes more from watching their lives. And that’s what I saw in Mother. She’s out there along with missionaries to do charity, attending to some of the most graphic human suffering I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. But five times a day, because they were an ordered community of nuns, they would stop for solitude, silence, for stillness. They would stop for their prayers or their adoration. And I used to think that, man that’s how much they have to pray is five times a day to stay in this work. That’s how much they’d have to pray, five times a day, to make sure their work is effective. But what I eventually started to see was they were first and foremost committed to nurturing their inner life to doing their soul work. That was their primary focus. The social and humanitarian efforts was simply the outflow of that. And I think when I had realized that sort of flip, it was shocking. And again, it reminded me that that’s really all of our work, to take care of ourselves. And then when we do that, the best of ourselves allows for us to be creative or imaginative, or faithful to the yes-es that we’ve committed to.

Sharlene: That’s beautiful. I think that’s where I want to end it. That was really powerful. So, thank you again for joining us on this podcast interview. And where can people find you? What are you working on at the moment?

Chris: Yeah. So, you can chase us down at gravitycenter.com. We host meditation and mindfulness retreats really all over the world, but primarily of course in North America. I’m working on a follow-up book, which will be my fifth book actually, but a follow-up book to my first book on the enneagram. I want this book to really be about belonging and I think that’s something that a lot of us yearn for and a lot of us suffer – this sort of notion that we don’t belong. But I think until we can belong to ourselves, we don’t know how to belong to our communities, to our friends, to our partners. And then, you can chase me down on Instagram @chrisheuertz but I’m warning you, it’s just basically pictures of my dog Basil.

Sharlene: Thank you so much, Chris.

Chris: Thanks for having me, great to connect.

Thank you for sharing your time with me and listening to LIFT. If this episode resonated with you, I’d appreciate it if you would take a moment to leave a review. That way, more people can discover this resource, and together, we can accelerate good change in the world. Thanks so much. Until next time.