Jeff Balin On "Big-A Agendas," Values, and Buddhist Thought
VO: What have you gotten out of your studies of Tibetan Buddhism?
BALIN: I’ve gotten a lot of courage to see the human condition for what it is.
VO: How would you describe our condition?
BALIN: All of us, even CEOs, even the bravest activists, we’re confused, we’re afraid. We don’t have answers always. We have a deep-rooted desire for happiness and yet many of the things we do create the opposite of that. Buddhism has given me this framework. I borrow heavily from Buddhism. I often say I’m a plagiarist. Buddhism has given me such a powerful lens on the human condition as it is, and as as it plays out in the world, in our businesses, in our families, in our relationships. It’s also given me a sense of fairness and equanimity around how I view people.
I’m often trying to bridge really left-wing activists with capitalists. Buddhism has taught me we have less control over our actions and behaviors than we think.
Many people who try to meditate realize they can’t watch their breath for over 30 seconds. We have that little control over ourselves. It’s amazing we are able to function as well as we do.
These ideas become very powerful when I work with leadership. To bring that level of awareness to people and to bring in the awareness that what’s good in them is good enough to run their business, to take their company to the next level, to develop a strategic plan, to move forward, to make career decisions. And it’s very scary for many people, because initially they can’t see how they can make that jump from an unhappy, less authentic state to taking actions and making decision and investing their time and resources behind their values.
VO: I’ve been listening a lot to Pema Chodron’s audiotapes lately and she says a lot of what you’ve been saying. And for me the most striking part of what she says is that in the West the thing we suffer from most is that we don’t respect ourselves, that we hate ourselves, in fact. She says this is the number one thing that we have to overcome in order to be happy. And she would say that we must overcome it in order to stop judging others, in order to benefit others. She would say if she were a coach if there’s one thing I could do for my clients and that is to free them from self-judgment.
BALIN: She’s a great coach, actually. I agree with her fully. I would just add, we suffer because we don’t know ourselves. Our suffering is that we don’t respect ourselves and the cause of that is we don’t know ourselves. And that is what I’ve gotten mostly from the teachings of Buddhism, is to know yourself. All the great religious traditions teach this. There’s a who-we are-ness that we can’t articulate.
VO: I think that’s the hardest thing to articulate.
BALIN: I’ve become adept at working with values, and I think values are the closest language we have to articulating this.
VO: What do you mean, exactly, by values?
BALIN: For me it has such a deep meaning. It’s way beyond the list of ten values that you might articulate to me. I uncover values in my clients just through conversation, and they are values they may not be able to articulate on their own. Just by hearing the excitement in their voice when they are describing an activity they were doing, I notice what they care about most. Or something that really got them angry. There are all these different techniques we coaches use to uncover values that the client isn’t conscious of, but are there.
For every client I work with, I have a folder and I have a list of their values. I look at it all the time. I reflect these hidden values back when the client is stuck and trying to make a decision. I’ll reflect back the values that validate they’re on the right track, so they can continue to go for it.
VO: Tell me a little about your family background.
BALIN: My father was Jewish, a Hungarian living in Romania when World War II broke out. He was forced into a labour camp, where he lived under very grueling conditions and often had a gun pointed at him.
VO: But he survived.
VO: And your mother?
BALIN: My mother grew up in Hungary and she had to run away from home when she was about twelve-years-old. She hopped on a train with her close friend and got away. Her father was taken away to a labour camp never to return home, while her mother, who was Christian stayed behind.
But my mother learned how to survive. She had to walk over dead bodies to steal a loaf of bread to bring to her family that was hiding out back in the apartment. She joined the Zionist youth movement and settled in various parts of Europe for a couple of years before heading off for Israel on the Exodus. She made it to Israel. She became a nurse and a second Lieutenant in the Israeli Army, where she oversaw a 300-bed hospital and served in the War of Independence.
VO: What happened to your dad?
BALIN: My dad escaped to freedom. He literally escaped the watch of armed guards one day and jumped through a hole in a fence to freedom. He escaped out of Romania and stayed in Europe for a while and eventually found his way to Israel, where he met my mom. My dad came to Canada, drove a cab in Montreal and later moved out to Vancouver. Eventually he became an electrical engineer and was one of the contributors to the famed “black box,” which survives airplane crashes, providing mechanical data which is used to prevent future crashes, saving many lives. My mother joined him in Canada and worked in a sewing factory and then became a translator. She couldn’t find enough work as a nurse in Canada, so my parents moved to LA in California where there was a lot of work for nurses. That’s what took them to the US in the mid-fifties. I was born in 1965 then moved to Montreal when I was 14 when my mother remarried.
VO: And then?
BALIN: I remained in Montreal until I went to the University of Western Ontario, where I met my wife, Jennifer. We were both undergraduates and met at an on-campus restaurant called “the pick up.” We now have three great kids.
VO: How do you think your parents’ history affected you?
BALIN: I carry around a picture of my grandmother who was killed in Auschwitz and often think of my grandfather who was killed in a prison labour camp. Those images really drive me.
This is where you’ll get me to cry. Being born in 1965, there were frequent images on TV, as I formed my mental images of the world, of piles, mountains of bodies being shoveled into dump trucks or into mass graves. Those images burned into my memory, knowing that they, those bodies, are me. They’re Jewish. I’m Jewish. They were my grandparents and they were my family and that’s what happened to them. As a four or five year old watching these TV images, that instilled a sense of deep fear…this is what’s waiting for me in this world.
And as I got older, I was able to put that into more compassionate terms and developed a deep sympathy for all people who are judged on that level, who are unable to be who they are. And that type of judgment shows up in very gross ways, against Jews in Nazi Europe during the Holocaust, but also in really subtle ways against modern-day colleagues and so-called competitors in the work place.
One of the hardest things for most of us is allowing ourselves and others to be who we are in all our confusion, as we’re trying to figure stuff out.
We often take what people say or do as this final well-constructed thought or action, and it’s not the case. Most of the time, most of us are in a process as we speak. We’re trying to figure things out.
VO: I think Rilke said: “No feeling is final.”
BALIN: Yes, it’s especially why I want leaders to understand so deeply who they are. We hate ourselves, and ultimately others, because we don’t know who we are. That inability, that total inability to embrace all of who we are, the truth of the good, bad, the horrific, the real truth of who we are keeps us from what we could be. We have very low tolerance to accept those deficiencies in ourselves and, therefore, in others. And there you go. The bullets start flying. Whether it’s the verbal bullets, or the real bullets. It is especially important for leaders to have that capacity. Otherwise it’s irresponsible leadership. And leadership is a position of privilege.
VO: Where did you grow up?
BALIN: I grew up in LA and then moved when I was fourteen-years-old to Montreal. I spent five years in Cote St. Luc, a middle class, Anglophone neighborhood with a large Jewish population, where I attended Wagar High School and Vanier College.
VO: If there was one thing that your mother said to you that shaped you, what was it?
BALIN: “In everything bad, there is something good.”
VO: So she didn’t get bitter?
BALIN: Not bitter, in that way.
VO: She didn’t hate?
BALIN: I was never raised to hate the Nazis. That was never there.
VO: It seems like you didn’t grow up with that heavy-duty survivor's guilt either, that second generation burden so many carry?
BALIN: My parents had opinions and sadness, but not bitterness.
BALIN: I grew up with the stories, knowing my father’s mother was taken to Auschwitz and killed and that my aunt was taken along with her, but survived. The thought of my grandmother having to be there with her daughter and then to be parted… All of this, for what? What crime did she commit? Her beautiful, gentle face was the face of a so-called enemy. I keep her photo in my Iphone.
VO: And your father, what did he pass on to you?
BALIN: My father was a prisoner in a labour camp. I remember hearing a story of when he was forced to sleep in a box standing up while he was there. I used to have a lot of hatred in me when I thought of that. How could any one control another human being like that? Once, I literally hit a wall with my fist when I was thirty-years old, just thinking about it filled me with so much anger. That was also the moment I started converting it into compassion.
My big gamble is Buddha nature. When you uncover everything, our nature is good. So far I haven’t been disappointed.
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Photo above of Jeff Balin with the photograph of his grandmother he keeps in his Iphone by Linda Solomon.