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Will You Embrace Your Hineni Moment?

Nick GendlerFilmed at Limmud Conference 2016

How is it possible to undo years of firmly held belief about ourselves? What does it take to recognise that changing our narrative is possible? This is the story of a profound moment in Nick's life - the Hineni moment when he challenged and fought back against a belief that was unwanted but that he felt he was destined to live with. It’s a very personal story, and it’s a story that we probably all have, or could have our own version of.

Nick Gendler is a career coach, a person-centred counsellor and a co-chair of Masorti Judaism. He lives in London with his boomerang children and his patient and forgiving wife.  Why is his wife patient and forgiving? Because he keeps coming up with new things to do before he’s accomplished the last thing. Nick is learning to play the double bass and is slowly getting better at it. He’s just about ready to join a band. In recent years he’s tried his hand at TIG welding, his legs at stand-up comedy, his feet at ballroom dancing and his whole body at pilates. He enjoys writing about just about anything but mainly the world of work and cycling. Cycling is Nick’s long term passion and it has been truly enriching for him.

If I could choose a favourite word from the Torah, like many, I would choose Hineni – “here I am”, in this moment, engaged. “Hineni”, said Abraham three times, most notably at the very moment before bringing the blade down upon his son. I am here, me, right here, right now. You have my absolute and undivided attention.

We usually interpret Hineni to describe a moment of deep connection between a person and God – a moment of “being profoundly present.” I’d like to suggest it’s more than that. It is about being present, but it’s also about being prepared to open yourself to a different future and a different narrative.

The concept has particular significance for me in my work as a counsellor. My promise to my clients, as we sit together in the private space of the counselling room, is to be completely present for them. I can’t fix their problems. I often can’t even begin to appreciate the pain, anxiety or confusion that they’re experiencing. What I can try to do is be totally present for them, to offer my honest, true self as a companion, someone who will be “profoundly present”. And I can offer them total respect as a human being, no matter what they’ve done in the past or what their current beliefs might be.
Congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathy. These are the core conditions a counsellor tries to offer their client. And for me, Hineni somehow encapsulates those qualities: you have my attention, my respect and I’m going to try to understand you. In return, if counseling is to work, the client needs to offer something. They need to be prepared to show their true self, to reveal their vulnerability. And revealing one’s vulnerability – like the profound presence of Hineni – is brave and risky.

And by offering congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathy, I help my clients to reveal their vulnerability, and my empathy comes to some degree from my own experience. And my seminal experience happened on a mountain – not the same mountain as Abraham’s Hineni and not the same mountain as Moses’ Hineni many years later – but it was a profound experience none-the-less.

Let me take you back to a sweltering peak in the south of France in July 2011. Before then, my lifelong narrative went something like this: “I don’t see the point in stretching myself if it’s going to hurt. What’s the value in voluntarily putting yourself in a place of pain. The smart person knows how to avoid pain, not seek it out”.

But that’s not quite the whole truth. The truth that underpinned my narrative was that I saw myself as a low-achiever. So of course I wasn’t going to stretch myself. Because I was bound to fail, I was bound to fall short. I was afraid to explore my limitations because I was afraid of how easily I would find them.
But I wasn’t thinking about that in July 2011 when I set off with two friends to ride my bike up one of cycling’s iconic climbs – Mont Ventoux. While I knew it was going to be a tough climb, I’m an experienced cyclist and I had no reason to believe that I wouldn’t be able to make it just like I had many other climbs and rides before.
However, not long into the ride it became apparent that this was going to be much tougher than I thought. My friends dropped me pretty early on, and as I inched my way up, I watched on as other cyclists came streaming past me. This was going to be a matter of mental as well as physical strength, and I actually had no idea how mentally strong I was. I had never, in my life, tested my own mind over matter.

You can read my school reports going right the way back to the beginning of my education. The schools could have saved hours writing them, because they nearly always said exactly the same thing, every subject, every year: Could do better. Doesn’t try.
So here I was, on a mountain with a problem. I didn’t want to turn around with my saddle between my legs, but at the same time, I honestly didn’t think I had the strength to get to the top. I’d found myself in a situation that I was normally really very good at avoiding – situations where I find myself at risk of failing.

My counseling supervisor once taught me something which I’ve always found very very helpful: When a person is unhappy and they know it, when they’re living dysfunctionally and they’re aware of it but they stay in that place anyway, the question to ask is “Why? How does it serve the client to stay in that place?”

So why had I developed this ability to side-step situations that put me at risk of failing? Why was I prepared to forgo success in order to avoid defeat? How did that serve me?

Well the answer’s fairly clear: The benefit I derived from avoiding risky situations was protection from humiliation. Failing is humiliating; giving up is humiliating. By avoiding risky situations I avoided humiliation.

And here I was in a position where I was forced to take one of those risks.

Well, as it turned out, facing that risk actually helped me to find another possibility, the possibility of pushing myself through pain in order to achieve something for the first time in my life. If I turned around I would definitely be humiliated. As long as I kept going, I would succeed. My deep fear of humiliation actually gave me the strength and allowed me to see that other possibility, because it allowed me to muster the strength required to avert failure. It was like unlocking a door inside me to a room that I’d never entered before. The room that contained my will-power and my determination.

Like the client sitting in my consulting room, I realised that there was another way that I could be in the world. I could be somebody who could push themselves through pain in order to succeed at something. And that was my Hineni moment. The moment when I realised I had an opportunity to change my narrative. Like Abraham and like Moses, I took on the challenge.

Hineni – I am ready to confront my limitations. Ready to face my inner fear. Ready to rewrite my narrative one excruciating pedal stroke at a time.

At that moment, I vowed to myself that I would devote everything I had, mental and physical strength, to cycling to the top of that mountain and, after about four and a half hours, I arrived. Two hours or so slower than my friends. But I didn’t care. I was elated. I cried, and I don’t do that often. I cried because I was angry with myself for all the years I’d wasted not trying. I cried for not believing in myself. I cried because I was overwhelmed and exhausted. And I cried because, perhaps for the first time, I was genuinely proud of myself.

Hineni. So this is how I respond emotionally when I push myself and succeed.

Hineni. This is how determined I can be.

Hineni: I am someone who is able to push myself through extreme pain to achieve something.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t go up the mountain one person, and come down another. The low-self esteem didn’t evaporate in the heat on Mont Ventoux that afternoon, just as my clients don’t change after one session. It takes repeated effort to change, but it only takes one effort to know that change is possible. What I learnt that afternoon was that my narrative is not set in stone. That the person I think I am is not the only possible version of me.
Hineni is not only about being profoundly present. It’s about being present to ourselves and our vulnerability, and then being prepared to take the risk to change our narrative.

Abraham did it. Moses did it. My clients do it. I did it. And if you are living in some way which is not satisfying, you can do it. The question is, are you willing to embrace your Hineni moment?

Thank you.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

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