Leaning into discomfort


Through the concept of “bein hametzarim,” Rabbi Josh Feigelson shows us how to embrace breathing through moments of constriction to find release and expansiveness.

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If you’ve been listening to this show for a few episodes, you’ve probably noticed that we have a little formula we’ve been following: We have a set introduction, then I share a story from my own experience that hopefully resonates with your life, then I teach a little Torah, and then I guide us through a practice. 

Today I want to try something a little different. I want to dive straight into our practice. It’s a meditation practice, so if you can, try to clear the next few minutes. If you’re running between things, or you just need some time, that’s okay, save it for later. But try if you can to make sure you’re in a good place for this before diving in.

Ready? Okay.

Try to sit in a dignified, upright posture. You might bring to mind the image from the Torah of Jacob’s ladder: rooted in the earth, its head extended up towards heaven. Try not to be too tight or rigid, but try to be upright, to let your breath flow in and out.

Next, soften your gaze. You might close your eyes or choose a point on a wall ahead of you for your eyes to gently focus on. 

Take a deep, cleansing breath through your nose. Exhale out through your mouth.

Take another.

And another.

Now, choose an anchor for your attention. It could be the breath, but it could also be something else: maybe feeling your skin up against your clothing; maybe the sound of a fan or an air conditioner. 

Make a kavanah, an intention, to focus your attention on your anchor.

Very likely, your attention will wander. No problem. Everyone’s attention wanders. That’s what our minds do! When you become aware that your attention has wandered is an amazing moment. When you become aware of your da’at, your awareness, that is perhaps our greatest gift as human beings. 

So, when you become aware that your attention has wandered, delight in that moment of awareness. And then, with a lot of compassion for yourself, just bring your attention back to your anchor. 

When you become aware of your da’at, your awareness, that is perhaps our greatest gift as human beings. 

Try to keep doing that while I guide us with a little more teaching.

On last week’s episode, I talked about the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, the day on which Moses broke the tablets with the Ten Commandments. That day also marks the beginning of a three-week period that culminates in the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, the 9th of Av, the day on which the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in ancient times.

This period is known in English as “The Three Weeks” (clever title, I know). Its name in Hebrew is richer, though: bein hametzarim, which I would poetically translate as The Time of Narrowness or Constriction.

Why? Because during these three weeks, the walls of the ancient city of Jerusalem were broken, and a sense of collapse was imminent. People could feel their boundaries shrinking, their zone of safety getting smaller and smaller, until ultimately the unthinkable happened. It was a dark time.

We have times like these in our own lives too, when life feels like it’s getting smaller and smaller. When we sense constriction. It can feel hard to breathe. Perhaps you’re feeling a little of that right now as I’m talking about it.

One of the amazing teachings of Judaism is to be aware of these feelings, not to deny them. They are real. And we have to be honest about them if we’re going to grow. 

The truth is, we sense constriction in every breath. Notice in your breathing where there are moments of constriction. Try holding your breath a little bit at the end of your inhale. Notice the pressure that builds. And at the bottom of your exhale: There’s probably a tightness in your belly.

At both of these points, there might be a little sensation of desperation: Wow, do I need to breathe right now! In every single breath, we’re bein hametzarim, in this time of narrowness, a time of constriction. 

The word metzarim sounds a lot like another word in Hebrew, mitzrayim, which is the Hebrew name of Egypt — the land where our ancestors were slaves, the land from which they were liberated. According to the Hasidic tradition, we didn’t just leave Egypt thousands of years ago; each of us leaves it every day, in every moment, because we’re always leaving this place of narrowness.

Every day. In every moment. In every breath. Every time we hit that moment of constriction, we can respond by leaving it: By inhaling, by exhaling. In fact, we’re designed to do it.

So in our last couple of minutes, I want to invite you to notice those moments of narrowness in your breathing, to be aware of them without judgment, and then to notice how your body responds to that narrowness with freedom and expansiveness when you inhale and exhale. Narrow. Broad. Constricted. Expansive. 

Each of us has the ability to live through moments of narrowness and constriction. You’re doing it right now. You do it all the time. 

When you’re ready, open your eyes.

Notice how you feel. There’s no right or wrong way to feel. Just notice it. Try out this practice a few more times this week. See if it’s helpful. And let us know how it goes.

Blessings for the journey. I’ll hope you’ll join us next time.

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