Living with an Open Heart

by Dr. Zev Ballen

Sally is upset with her husband, John, and wants to speak to him about it. She doesn't like it that John walks around the house in a cranky mood yelling at their children. John is going through some big changes in his life, and Sally can accept almost any new change that John wants to make, but the one thing that Sally just can't stand is when John yells and berates their children.

Sally tries to get John to talk over the situation. She feels that if she could only explain how John's behavior is hurting the children that he'll see the logic in stopping. But the more Sally presses John to talk, the more he runs from her. Just seeing Sally's face at such times makes him tense and short of breath. John just can't bear to hear his Sally's disapproval of him as a father. It reminds him of his own father's constant disapproval of him and hurts too much. John refuses to speak and lets his difficult emotions dissipate over a movie or football game.

This is a common scene for psychotherapists. We see it get played out a thousand times a year. From a logical perspective, its reasonable and sensible to want to rid ourselves of painful emotions and our nervous systems agree - we naturally move toward pleasure and away from pain. But our religious tradition and science both tell us something else – and that is that human beings don't do very well when they suppress negative emotions. Suppression takes away our mental balance and composure and makes it hard for us to relate to others in accordance with our values. In fact people who make a habit of suppressing their negative emotions are at risk of eventually cutting off all of their feelings - even the happy ones!

In this week's Torah reading, Parashas Chukas, the Torah tells of how the people became short of breath due to the hardship of their travels through the wilderness prior to their entrance into the Land. ( Numbers, 21:4) The famous Biblical commentator, Rashi, explains that: whenever the expression "shortness of breath" is written in the Torah it refers to [literally] any type of difficult and disturbing thing that falls upon a person. [When this happens] the person's state of mind is not broad enough to accept that [upsetting] thing, and he doesn't have room within his heart where that pain can live…it [therefore] weighs down on the person [who experiences it]". (Rashi, 21:4)

I was reminded of this Rashi today, by my friend and Project CARE colleague, Rabbi Nechemya Meyers. Rabbi Meyers shared a deep meaning that he found in Rashi's words that gives us a powerful confirmation of how we can actually use emotional pain for our healthy emotional and spiritual growth.

In the holy language of the Torah what we might translate as "shortness of breath" is referred to as תקצר נפש. Rabbi Meyers reminded me that the word קר also means narrow. This makes the continuation of Rashi more understandable: "and his state of mind is not broad enough to accept that [disturbing] thing, and he does not have room within his heart where that pain might live".

"Hashem's Torah is perfect". From here we see that contrary to suppressing emotional pain, the Torah's treatment protocol is for us to widen (רחבה) our hearts and make room within our hearts so that the pain might "live" and be dealt with. קצר נפש, narrow, short breathing is a symptom that the person's soul is out of balance. "The light of G-d is the soul of a person". The word in this verse for soul, nishmas, has the same root as the word nishima which means to breath. This renders the verse: "The light of G-d is the breathing of a person".

In CARE seminars, we learn simple ways of becoming more mindful of our breathing and how we can use our breathing to slow down and widen our hearts. "Create for me, G-d, a pure heart and return me to proper breathing". Living life with an open heart that makes room for the full gamut of emotions is the Torah's prescription for a life of vitality and good interpersonal relationships. A narrow closed heart that seeks to hide, run or fight against pain is the logical brain's response to adversity but faith begins where logic ends. CARE practices teach us to make space for our pain, sadness, disappointments and setbacks. We learn to hold our difficulties in spacious self-compassionate awareness. We are aware of the pain but we don't identify ourselves with the pain or become entangled in it, rather we respectfully allow it to "live", and with our broader perspective move right through it in pursuit of our values and goals.

John discovered that above all he valued his wife and children and dreaded the thought of losing them. The "marital crisis" was G-d's way of helping John to open his heart and make room for the childhood pain (from his father's abuse) to "live" within him. It was then that he discovered the "gift" of that childhood pain. He was able to become a softer more gentle father and a husband who could sit patiently with his wife and talk things out.