This past Shabbat morning I was at my synagogue, like usual, when I witnessed something also, well, pretty usual.
A small child was having a hard time. It was hard to watch. They were in that state that little kids can get to where it’s just full-on opposition — tears, frown, limp body.
Their parent was trying to do everything they could to help — redirecting their attention, offering a book to read, even open bribery with food.
The kid wasn’t having any of it. They were so worked up that they weren’t interested in hearing what the parent had to say.
Now some of you listening might have kids. But I know all of you listening have been that kid. I definitely have. And you might remember how hard it was for you, as the kid, to handle those big emotions.
And how hard it probably was for your parent. Because honestly, at that point, there’s nothing they can do, right?
The child’s whole emotional-physical system has become inflamed. All the parent can do is ride it out. Wait until the kid is able to calm down, hug back, and just relax their body.
Eventually, the rage subsides. They eat the snack, grab the book, and resume their cute, adorable life. The Hulk becomes Bruce Banner again.
As we grow older, if things go right, we develop the ability to moderate the strong feelings that drive this toddler behavior. We learn how to manage our frustrations, delay gratification, live with not getting exactly what we want exactly when we want it.
But, of course, we also have moments when our emotional systems can be overloaded the way they were when we were kids: grief, anger, sadness. All of these, if they’re acute and intense, can lead us to being overwhelmed and losing control.
One of the hallmarks of those moments is a shortness of breath. You might already be feeling it just from my naming these emotional states.
When we’re anxious, our breath tends to get quicker and shallower. We feel a sense of constriction. Our breathing mirrors, and maybe even contribute to, the emotional reality we experience.
I read something recently in the Torah portion of Vaera that really struck me. As you might recall, God sends Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to bring them to freedom in their homeland.
But as you might not recall, it doesn’t quite go as planned. You would think they’d be so excited when Moses gives them the big news — they’ve been waiting for this forever. The deliverer has finally arrived! But, not so much.
The Torah says they couldn’t hear Moses because of two things: the harsh labor, and their kotzer ruach, their shortness of spirit.
Shortness of spirit. Weird expression, right? Now the word spirit in English is a translation of the Hebrew word ruach.
But in Biblical Hebrew, ruach doesn’t only mean spirit; it also means wind or breath. So it wasn’t just that they had broken spirits. As the great medieval commentator Rashi observes, they were literally short of breath because of the anguish they were in.
And in that state of broken spirits and short breaths, they could not make room to take in the words that Moses was telling them. They just couldn’t hear him. Sound familiar?
The flip side of this, however, is that there are things we can do to lengthen our breaths and bring a greater sense of expansiveness to our bodies, hearts, and minds.
I want to be clear that I’m not here to offer a treatment for clinical depression or anxiety disorders — if you are struggling in those ways, please consult with a mental health professional.
But, speaking from personal experience, there are many situations, from the every day to yes, even some acute moments, in which bringing some loving attention to my breath has helped me to avoid or step out of the narrow, constricted mental-emotional-spiritual place I’m in so that I can hear my own voice and the voices of those who want to help me.
So here is a simple breathing practice you can try the next time you’re feeling that sense of kotzer ruach, constricted breath-slash-spirit. Before you begin, make sure you’re in a quiet place where you can sit or lie down and close your eyes.
Begin by assuming a meditation posture that’s good for you, a posture that allows air to flow freely. As I say often, if you’re sitting, imagine embodying Jacob’s ladder: Rooted in the ground, your head ascending up towards heaven.
If it’s comfortable for you, soften your gaze or close your eyes. And now bring your attention to your breath. Take a good, deep breath and hold it for a beat. And then, on the out-breath, try to make your exhalation a little longer than the inhale was.
See if you can bring a little mindful, loving attention to your breath. Continue doing that for a few cycles, and notice what’s happening in your body as you do. Hopefully you’re getting a little more relaxed, a little calmer.
Take a minute to scan your body. Notice what’s supporting you. That could be your feet making contact with the ground, your sit bones making contact with the chair, your back if you’re lying down. Feel yourself grounded in the earth, the way it’s supporting you and holding you up.
Notice if there are any places you’re carrying tension in your body. Maybe bring some particular attention to your jaw and around your eyes. See if you can bring some softness to them.
And now bring your attention back to the breath. Just notice breathing in and out. Notice how it feels when the cool air enters your nostrils. How it feels at the top of the inhalation. How it feels as the air exits your mouth. How it feels when you reach the bottom of the exhalation. Notice those sensations.
See if you can bring a little more relaxation, a little more expansiveness, to the experience of breathing. What does it feel like to have a little more room in your chest, in your heart, in your mind?
Maybe there’s some space now to hear new things, to hear a new voice — even the still small voice that’s inside you, a voice that maybe needs to be heard. See if you can listen to that voice a little more easily, now that your breathing is a little more expansive.
Take three more cycles of breath. When you’re ready, if your eyes have been closed, open them up and look around. Notice how you feel. Hopefully a little calmer, a little more expansive, a little more able to listen.
In Hebrew, Egypt is called mitzrayim. And that name more literally translates to the place of narrowness and constriction. So this journey from constriction to expansiveness in our breath, our hearts, and our minds — this is actually the journey out of Egypt. It’s the journey our ancestors took thousands of years ago, and it’s a journey we can take in every moment through a practice like this.
Blessings on that journey. Know that I’m on it with you.