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Healing Relationships With “Holy Breath” Listening

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Practicing “Holy Breath” listening can positively impact even the most turbulent relationships. “Instead of playing just a few deep, painful bass notes on their inner emotional pianos, Holy Breath listening gave them access to some higher notes. At the beginning of the healing process, such moments can be like the sun peeking through dark storm clouds.”

My husband found out a few months ago that I’d been having an affair. During therapy sessions, all we seem to do is fight. We leave just feeling more hurt and hopeless!

He can barely speak about my affair. I collapse into shame and tears. We are both serious about our Christian faith and have been trying to ask God for help with our situation, but we feel totally lost in the intensity of the emotions.

When a couple in a situation similar to yours told me they were praying to the Holy Spirit for help, I reminded them that “spirit” comes from the Latin word spiritus, meaning “breath.” I suggested the Holy Spirit they pray to is as close as their breath. “Try assuming that every time you take a breath you draw the Infinite Spirit of Healing into your body, mind, and soul and allow this ‘Holy Breath’ to flow over your vocal cords to give voice to one emotion—just a brief expression, not a diatribe of misery,” I said. They agreed to take turns voicing emotions in this way and allow about 30 seconds of silence between turns.

Before we began the exercise, I shared the late Thomas Keating’s words with them: “Silence is the language God speaks and everything else is a bad translation.” By allowing periods of silence between painful emotions, they would be inviting the Holy Spirit they were drawing in with each breath to be part of their communication.

What followed was beautiful to see. After an initial period of silence, the betrayed spouse said just three words: “I am shattered.” After some silence, the partner said, “I feel so deeply ashamed.” As they proceeded, allowing silence between each statement for several rounds, both spouses began to find phrases beyond raw pain, such as “I feel grateful for slowing down and feeling this gentle quiet” and “I want to learn how to deepen our marriage.”

When this couple allowed silence into the conversation, energies beyond rage and shame appeared. Instead of playing just a few deep, painful bass notes on their inner emotional pianos, Holy Breath listening gave them access to some higher notes. At the beginning of the healing process, such moments can be like the sun peeking through dark storm clouds.

Partners can become so embattled after an affair that they find it hard to see each other’s full humanness. The higher notes that emerge from this form of contemplative listening can begin to rehumanize both partners. Healing from affairs requires seeing the deep humanness and brokenness of both partners.

During another session with the same couple, we could barely hear each other. Across the creek from where we were sitting (I’ve been seeing patients outdoors during COVID-19), two lawnmowers, a weed whacker, and a chainsaw were generating lots of decibels. As if that wasn’t enough, fighter jets from the local Air National Guard were screaming overhead. When the noise from all the machines finally stopped, we sat and listened to a single bird calling out in the morning air.

I told them about how Meister Eckhart, a Dominican monk in the fourteenth century, had extended the story about Jesus throwing money changers out of the Temple. Eckhart said that God is always teaching in the temple of the soul, but we must throw out the crowd of noisemakers inside us to hear the teaching.

Maybe the healing you need sounds more like a single bird—or the gentle breeze after even the bird goes quiet—than the lawnmowers, weed whackers, chainsaws, and jet fighters of raw rage and despair. Building silence into listening allows the possibility of hearing a voice much bigger than either of you and the pain in which you’re mired.

I’m hopeful that if you try Holy Breath listening you’ll get a taste of a higher energy that can pervade both your healing process and your post-affair marriage. Silence-infused listening alone, of course, is not the only tool you will need. I hope you keep looking for a counselor who can help both of you deepen your spirituality and heal your relationship

For reflection:

  • What do I expect the voice of God (or Love, or Wisdom) to sound like if I throw out the noisemakers from the temple of my soul? Might it be not a voice at all, but perhaps a feeling of hope, a glimmer of self-compassion, or a ray of clarity?
  • Imagine a dialogue between yourself and a person with whom you need healing. Say both parts out loud. Allow silence between each statement. Listen for any higher notes that show up.

Marriage expert John Gottman says the “masters of marriage” are not those who never have conflict, it’s those who know how to repair conflict as often as necessary to return to connection.

Love humbles even masters.

Love humbles, even masters us at times.

Love humbles, even masters us. At times we return to the same dead ends in a maze.

Love humbles, even masters us. At times we return to the same dead ends. In amazement with simple graces, we find our way again.

From Now is Where God Lives © 2018 by Kevin Anderson