Zvi Bellin, PhD, Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Rotating Header Image

Meaning Blog

Building Up, Tearing Down

I recently opened up a book called The Art of Possibility and came across the following story in the first few pages:

A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One sends back a telegram saying,

SITUATION HOPELESS STOP NO ONE WEARS SHOES

The other writes back triumphantly,

GLORIOUS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY STOP THEY HAVE NO SHOES.

This quick quip has got me thinking about how my lived experiences have the power to open me up or shut me down to a sense of possibility. While a perspective of pervasive openness is ultimately desirable, the reality is that there are times in life when having one clear option, or path, is comforting. And of course, the same comforting path can soon become stifling and a feeling of needing to break free might arise.

As far as I can tell, if I stay authentic and open to my path, lived experiences craft and solidify the way I see the world. Ultimately, living with awareness disassembles that exact same rubric. Building temples and destroying temples. The same historical sequence occurs just as dramatically in the personal sphere.

There is a degree of letting go and surrendering that is necessary in order to reduce the suffering of deconstruction. Though, I feel far from helpless, or without agency. It is quite an engaging task to take down a no longer relevant tower of security. Each piece of the tower can be sifted for wisdom, like an archeologist sifting for fossilized treasure.

In what areas of your life are you building up systems and structures, and in what arenas are you tearing down and tumbling? Take time to discern where you have room to let go, and where you can engage in this new opportunity.

Trust in what?

I have been taking part in a study group which focuses on a different quality each month, for the purpose of enhancing that quality in our day to day meandering. For example, we have already visited the qualities of humility, honor, and silence. This type of learning is called Mussar, and you can learn more about it here. This month’s focus is on the quality of trust, and it is showing up quite strongly in my sitting practice.

When I commit in the morning to my practice of sitting in stillness and attending to what arises and passes in the moment, my thinking mind thinks. And it thinks a lot. One thing it thinks about is how my practice of meditation will unfold. It wonders about what getting really quiet will be like. It wonders if I will have an experience of oneness. It tries to figure out how sitting in stillness can lead to spiritual awakening … and besides, what does spiritual awakening even mean.

As I realize the train of thought that my mind is conducting, I can come back to my study of trust. If I keep trying to figure it out, I will not actually be attending to the present moment. I will be lost on a journey of thinking, planning, strategizing, and missing out on the wakefulness of an ever-shifting experience of being alive. So, I remind myself, trust. Let go of needing to figure it out in this moment, and use the time to practice. This returning to practice is indeed the practice – so nothing lost.

The question that arises is, trust in what? In God? In the universe? In a deeper knowing? Sure! If you feel held by any presence of safety, that seems like a good place to trust. At times when those do not work for me, when it is hard to rely on some force of goodness that has my back, I trust in my ability to sit with not-knowing, and I trust in my experience that has taught me that not-knowing leads to knowing, which leads to not-knowing, and back to knowing….and so on. I trust, despite my short-sightedness, that there is no end to growth and potentiality.

Presence through Distractions

Image result for mosquito

How annoying are life’s distractions! I am sitting and having a conversation with a good friend, and a tiny little fly comes to buzz by my ear, then my eye, then my nose. I become so engrossed in swatting the little sucker away, that I lose my train of thought – the conversation gets interrupted.  And then there are bigger life distractions, which can rock my path completely – losing a job, ending a relationship, the death of a loved one, illness, and war.  In the face of tragedy it is nearly impossible to just simply go on. And yet, we manage. An Israeli friend recently remarked, “It’s crazy how quickly we get used to living in war.” The human system is resilient beyond imagination – to its benefit, and at times, to its detriment.

In meditation, I choose an anchor to rest my attention. The breath is a common one. I attend to the breath and very quickly, my thoughts barge in – and the connection with the breath is lost. Suddenly, a bird chirps outside, or a car alarm goes off outside, or that fly buzzes back – and the mind snaps back away from being lost in thought to the present moment. Oh yeah! Focus on the breath.  I may find the bird, alarm, or fly annoying, though it has aided me in getting back on track with my focus. Gratitude for the distraction blossoms, as I recommit awareness to breath.

Without diminishing the pain of life’s tragedies, they do have the ability to force us back into the present moment. As a counseling student of mine taught in her final integration project, a loss (or any distraction) can act as a rough tumble in a washing machine. Distractions cause us to ask the hard questions, “Am I living life the way that I want to?” “Where am I going?” “Have I lost my direction?”  Our minds are meaning making machines, and in time, and in their own time, they will find answers to these questions. Piece by piece, as Viktor Frankl said, “Tragedy turns to triumph – the greatest human achievement.” We may never embrace life’s distraction with love, yet we can recognize their transformative potential, and with great care allow gratitude to enter and soften their harshness.

Meaning Blog:Chutzpah and Meaning

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Chutzpah is one of those charming Hebrew/Yiddish slang words that have crossed over boldly (or with chutzpah), and imperfectly, to the English language. It is not pronounced with the ch, like in chocolate, but rather the ch, guttural, throat clearing, phlegm producing way – chutzpah. It is hard to directly translate this word into English, but words that come close are audacity, boldness, gall, “moxi” (from Lost in Yonkers), and shamelessness. Chutzpah is a certain strength of character that one must have in order to assert oneself into a situation. This can be for good, as in the case of Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the segregated bus. Or it can turn towards a harmful extreme, as in cases where people claim ownership of other people, other’s land, other’s faith and ways of being.

There is a way in which a stable sense of meaning requires the right degree of chutzpah. A sense of personal meaning is founded on two words that are broadcast subliminally when we act from a place of meaningfulness. These words are, “I matter.” Depending on how you grew up, and the messages you received (and still receive) from your family and social world, living from a place of “I matter,” can be no easy task. It requires chutzpah to break through the blockades of, “You are not (fill in the blank) enough to matter.”

Asserting your being in this way, with the clear reminder of, “I matter,” is not a one shot deal, like a light switch that you simply flick to illuminate the world with your presence. Rather, living in the realm of, “I matter,” is an ongoing chutzpah practice, a cultivation of what my teachers call Holy Chutzpah.  One way to cultivate Holy Chutzpah is to look for ways to affirm the being of other people. Simple acts of kindness, like a smile to a passing stranger, or more challenging tasks, like acknowledging the suffering of another, are ways in which we say to each other, “You exist and you matter to me.” We have the ability to impact someone else solely because we ourselves are an influencing agent in the world. When we affirm another, we affirm our own existence (such chutzpah!) and solidify our foundation for meaningful living.

Meaning Blog: Make Your Problems Public

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This past week I completed a 4-day intensive in Narrative Therapy, organized by the Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy.  There are many great take-a-ways from a theory that teaches that we all carry around with us, or live our lives within, problem-saturated stories which can be deconstructed. For example, I can carry around the story that I am depressed, and everything that I experience can confirm that story. By externalizing depression, though, as not something that is part of me, but something that is acting upon me, I can shift out of that depression story, and see a lot more to life than originally available. This is not an immediate process, but a subtle process that gains momentum as I learn to construct a more nuanced and accurate story.

The theory also holds that our problem-saturated stories are often sparked and maintained by social discourse that privileges certain identities over others. For example, it is hard for a queer person in our society to be unscathed by poor self-esteem, when the dominant culture privileges defined and neat categories of sexuality and gender. Thus, when a narrative therapist helps a client to deconstruct a story of oppression, the client often becomes an advocate for their identity as deserving of dignity.

What I want to lift up from Narrative Therapy is the idea that problems have become privatized. We experience this privatization of our problems when we have the sense that, “my anxiety is my problem, I have tried everything I can to fix it, so my anxiety is not going anywhere!”  We can see that by gripping so tightly to our exclusive ownership of our problem stories, change is pretty impossible.

When we invite in the understanding, though, that our problems are sourced in social discourse, our problems are actually very public. What a relief to know that my depression, or addiction, or anxiety, or self-loathing, or fear, or whatever, is already shared by every being that I encounter, or hide from, in my life.  There is no cross to bear alone here!

So what is the practical application? Should we run around and tell everyone we meet about our problems? (Probably not.) Should we tear down professional convention at work and just have one giant hug-fest because everyone experiences suffering? (Maybe yes in some cases, but that probably will not go over very well in most situations.)

I think the application is in the reduction of shame which can get in the way of someone seeking the help they deserve. If we can remember that everyone has a part in creating and re-creating problems that we experience individually, we can feel a little less bad for needing help. Also, the circle of people that can help becomes much wider than we first realized.

Meaning Blog: Reconnecting with Self-Wonderment

As I sit in meditation on retreat, watching my breath rise and fall, I notice myself getting bored. My mind runs with this boredom and spins a web of doubt – What am I doing here? Just sitting, my back aches and nothing is really happening. Will something happen! I label the thoughts: Thinking, Doubt, Allowing. Return to the breath. My mind brings up an image for me –

I am sitting on my parents couch just a few months ago holding my newborn baby nephew on my lap. Watching his face and his subtle movements. I was completely content.

The thought arises: I could have stayed like that forever. Holding my nephew. Watching this little miracle. Perfectly content. I label the thoughts: Thinking, Contentment, Allowing.

My attention returns to my breath. I inhale and remember that the in-breath is a life giving miraculous event. I exhale this life giving breath and feel how fragile my life.  Inhale, miracle – Exhale, awe. Boredom now gone.

At some point, early in my life, I stopped looking inside to connect with that which is miraculous and awesome. It all seems to exist outside of me, so what can I possibly learn from watching myself. Through practice I am re-learning to see my body and being as an amazing landscape. The backaches and the feelings of relief all have a degree of wonder to them. An endless banquet of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual sensations inspiring compassion, wisdom, and presence.

When most of us were babies, people held us and gazed at our faces in wonderment. Why should that be any different now?

Meaning Blog: Existential Lessons from the Hebrew Bible

I believe that this Parsha contains one of the earliest recorded existential conflicts. Here is the scene (Bereshit Chapter 25).
Esav, a young burly red-headed hunter returns from a strenuous hunt. He did not find any prey on this particular day and is feeling very hungry. He walks into his home and smells something delicious. An aromatic red lentil stew, his younger brother’s special recipe, is simmering on the fire. Esav wants some of that soup!

Esav: Pour into me some of the red-stuff for I am exhausted!

Yaacov: You want my soup? Trade me your status as the first-born!

Esav: Well, I am going to die anyway, so of what use to me is a birthright?

Esav swears his first-born birthright over to his little brother. (Yep they are twins, but Esav came out first. If you know twins, or are a twin, the fact that one came out first can be quite a big deal!) And the rest is history – the children of Yaacov and the children of Esav become eternal archetypal enemies.

Not so wonderful!

Growing up I always learned about Esav as the “evil twin.” He terrorized his brother and was stupid to sell his birthright – he got the “short end of the stick” that what was coming to him. This year, the response of Esav really jumped out at me in a way that I could very much relate.

“Well, I am going to die anyways, so of what use to me is a birthright?”

Personally, I ebb and flow in my ability to see the world as a meaningful place and thus my engagement in the world also can sometimes feel void of purpose. Experiencing life as meaningful takes practice and is not a simple given. The narrative of Yaacov and Esav seems to take place in their adolescence. Can we actually condemn a teenager for stating the obvious truth – Nothing lasts forever, so why should I strive for success? Think back to when you were a teen (or maybe just last Tuesday), it is quite natural to wrestle with this perspective.

So was Esav a boor or just someone who tended towards existential conflicts of meaning? Being a hunter, Esav knows that the world can seem quite random. On the hunt, you win some, you lose some. There is not an exact reason why a swooping bird catches this rodent and not the one next to it. Perhaps Esav, in that moment was taken by this fact – even with a God in the world, things seem to just happen.

Introducing the perspective of the existential into this portion we see a dichotomy between a “Yaacov way” of looking at the world and an “Esav way” of looking at the world. On the one hand the world is full of meaning that lasts beyond the life of one individual. The blessings from the past generations impact the present, and the actions of those in the present will shape the direction of the future. On the other hand, we are stuck in the finiteness of life. There is no continuity in the random unfolding of one generation to the next – Who will die, who will live? Who will be remembered? Who will be forgotten?

As you may know, I think about these topics a lot (www.meaningthroughebing.com) and here is my short answer to this complicated dilemma. Both perspectives are absolutely valid (and there are many positions in between!) We can become skillful in knowing when to embrace the meaningfulness of a moment versus when we might tone down our own self-importance. For example, when your commitment at work results in the decay of your social relationships – it is time to evaluate the real meaning of your work. On the contrary, if you are having trouble making a decision, you might tap into your passions and intentions and remember that to live fully is to make choices that appear meaningful in a particular moment.

This week, I feel bad for Esav. Not only does he struggle to see his life as meaningful, but his shallow self-esteem is affirmed by his parents choosing his younger brother over him. We see that this begins a chain reaction whereby he chooses a wife that will specifically antagonize his father (28:9). His father, Isaac, was once Esav’s biggest fan. I want to suggest that this Parsha teaches us an important lesson about how we can affirm or aggravate the sense of meaning of another person. As we see in the story of Esav, it can be the meaning of those closest to us that are impacted most deeply by our actions and attitudes towards them.

Meaning blog: Action in the Jewish Month of Elul

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On the evening of August 5th, we celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul, the New Hebrew Month! In the previous month, AV, we strained to hear the call for righteousness amongst all the noise of suffering. According to a mystical take on our calendar (inner.org), with this new month, ELUL, we answer that call with action. It is time to get our hands dirty in the travails of society and make the world a better place. Poverty, homelessness, environmental carelessness, and wasteful energy practices are a short list of social problems that are in need of more than our attention – action is needed.

This is the process of ELUL (אלול) – we take active steps to affirm and strengthen our personal and communal bonds. We can reaffirm our responsibility that comes with the gift of family and community. ELUL in Hebrew is an acronym for, “Ani L’dodi, V’dodi Li” – I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine. Perhaps the two lovers in this phrase are humanity (each one of us!) and the world (from the natural to the social).

In the month of ELUL the process of these lovers’ merging is called TESHUVAH (returning or repenting). We acknowledge the things that we have done that have distanced ourselves from each other, from the planet, and from God. We aim to act in a way that more authentically expresses the loving relationship that we seek.

We have about 30 days until Rosh Hashana (New Years!) to find as many opportunities as possible to express our potential for compassionate and healing action. These actions include taking care of our relationship with God and also with the world and people around us. Thus, there is no major holiday in ELUL – it is an entire period of transformation and yearning for closeness.

Meaning Blog: Standing Between Loss and Love

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There are periods of apathy and uncertainty that we all must live through. Quite fitting for the cycle of the Jewish calendar which just passed through its time of mourning – we stand on the cusp of change, heading towards love.

The story of mourning begins with the destruction of a temple (or 2 temples), in 70 C.E. The commemoration today though, in 2013, is not just about that physical loss. The temple represented a degree of certainty for the Jewish people – they knew what God wanted and how to relate to God. Or they believed that they did. This metaphor is universal – as the temple crumbled, so did certainty, and here we are generations later, many of us still shrugging our shoulders, wondering, “So what now? How do we connect and participate in this world?” Many of us live in a perpetual state of uncertainty, especially when it comes to our spiritual lives.

The next major day of the Jewish calendar, Tu B’Av, calls for an embracing of love and of reaching out to each other.  Now that walls and structure have been erased, the wisdom of the Jewish calendar propels us into focusing on love. With the slate wiped clean (at times a very painful process), we can return to the basic question, “What is the point?” The answer is simple – to love. I do no mean Disney love, recklessly falling head-over-heels for Prince or Princess Charming. As a spiritual quality, love means openness and a willingness to trust. Love is a process of learning to see suffering and to figure out what it means to use one’s own presence to respond.

This morning out on a jog, I passed a homeless person sleeping upright in a wheelchair. They tucked themselves away, almost hidden between two buildings, with a blanket over their head and torso. I first jogged past feeling sorry for this person, imaging a potentially disabled person living in this terrible situation. I thought maybe I should check on this person, see if they needed anything – like a warm drink, food, a home! Maybe I should call the police? I stopped jogging and turned back to where the person was probably asleep. I noticed doubt arise and fear. Doubt that I can actually help this person, and fear to wake up some stranger. So I continued on again, witnessing and as of yet, not really responding. This is a perfect example where I can learn how to love. Upon reflecting, I can call the local Homeless Outreach Team and let them know where this person was sleeping. Maybe they can keep an eye out for them tonight. Sharing this story is an act of responding too, as is praying for the wisdom that we in the U.S.A. can learn to share our resources better, so no one has to live on the street.

So here we are, standing between loss and love. Loss drives us towards love; love fuels the pain of loss. This sacred and profound cycle is a teacher that touches all of our lives. May we accept the challenge to learn how to love deeper and wider, so that our local and global communities reflect these ideals.

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Meaning Blog: Juggling Scarves

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I thought that there was no way that I could learn how to juggle. The whole idea of throwing something up into the air and seamlessly catch it can be hard enough, but to do that with multiple objects at the same time! Sounds ridiculous! Well this is not a blog entry about how I learned how to juggle tennis balls or bean bags. That is still on my to-do list. What I have learned how to juggle though is scarves. Light, floaty, colorful, weightless scarves. They gracefully puff in the air like bursts of cloud and softly mellow their way down to the floor. I can even juggle 5 scarves at a time. FIVE!

This is all coming up because of a lesson that I am working on and that I want to share with you. In life, we juggle many commitments – work (or for some of us multiple jobs), family, play, study, friends, movies, yoga, eating … The list can go on and on (and on and on!). At times, we feel overwhelmed with all of this juggling. We feel that we are hefting multiple bowling balls in the air and just barely keeping everything aloft. Some of us might learn how to juggle bowling balls and that can be a wonderful feat.   For the rest of us juggling bowling balls will only lead to burn-out, stress, and eventually failure. Because you can’t just do it all!

Here is the trick I am working on. I can switch my perspective from juggling bowling balls to juggling scarves. Life is about multiple moving parts and we cannot just simply put things down. When I enter into the metaphor of juggling scarves I have time to appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of each task that I undertake. I can fully embody and embrace each role I am called to play. Instead of constantly worrying about the next thing coming, or falling, I am able to have a moment of presence amidst the ceaseless flow.

So I want to invite you to acquire a few very light and sheer scarves – 3 to 5, some simple tulle will do. Delight in your amazing ability to master the complex art of juggling and then invite the same sense of ease and flow into your life.