Written by Rebecca Schisler in 2021, edited and adapted 10/2023

The Mishnah, the core text of the Talmud, relays a concept called “mahloket l’shem shamayim” – conflict ‘for the sake of heaven.’ The ancient rabbis valued an approach to engaging in difficult discourse which has the potential to preserve and even deepen or strengthen relationships, rather than harm them.

The critical role of mindfulness in “mahloket l’shem shamayim” became apparent for me the other night while I was on the phone with a loved one. We get along well, and he is someone whose ideological perspectives and outlooks are often similar to mine. But we found ourselves in a tense, blameful and defensive conversation with the heat rising.

In the middle of it all, I asked him if we could just take a ten-minute break. We hung up and I laid on my bed and breathed. My impulse was to come up with my next line of defense to make him feel remorse for saying something hurtful – but my experience with mindfulness practice supported me in remembering that the most skillful thing to do in a non-urgent moment of heat is to pause and allow my nervous system to regulate. I practiced mindful breathing for ten minutes. It worked. My emotions settled and my mind cleared a bit.

I called him back. Our conversation continued with more space and openness, and concluded with us joking, mutually apologizing, and appreciating what had happened.

We just needed that moment of space.

Much of what reduces harm in a moment of conflict, and potentially even makes it productive, has to do with our ability to self-regulate when we get triggered. It’s crucial that we learn how to do this – and unfortunately, it’s a skill that not all of us were taught. It’s also helpful to know the science: on a physiological level, when I am experiencing a strong emotional reaction, my access to my prefrontal cortex is compromised. This is the part of the brain that is able to empathize, reason, think critically, and self-reflect.

This means that it is unwise to attempt to have a productive conversation about difficult issues – particularly with a loved one, or someone who poses no threat and whose relationship I value – when either one of us is in a heightened state of significant emotional reactivity.

When the heat is rising, it’s time to pause, take a break, and breathe – not to plan the next line of attack or defense. In this pause, it’s best to literally just breathe. I set a timer if I need to, and focus on my breath – not my thoughts. Then, the nervous system begins to self-regulate. I am able to think more clearly. And I am less likely to say something harsh or hurtful that I’ll later regret, likely won’t help get my point across anyway, and may further the divide between us.

Global tensions are high right now. We are swirling in environments of reactivity, blame, violence, and trauma. All of this has an impact on our mental and emotional stability, and interpersonal conflict is more likely to erupt.

My friend and I agreed that a frontier in leadership must be cultivating skills for engaging in conversation with people who hold different opinions and values. There would be more solidarity, collaboration, and peace among us if we could learn to effectively process our emotions and express empathy with those with whom we disagree. This can be incredibly difficult, especially when conversations trigger our own traumas. It gets personal. But it’s possible, and always worthwhile.

As someone with loved ones across political and ideological divides, I’m not a stranger to triggering conversations. Though never easy, if engaged in a skillful and compassionate way, they are often where some of the most important change, epiphany, and healing in our lives and in our communities occurs. I’ve failed plenty of times, but I’ve learned a lot and have also succeeded in moving the needle towards greater understanding and mutuality.

If you’re struggling with how to have difficult conversations with loved ones during this time, or any time, you can utilize some principles of mindfulness practice in a basic three-part process:

      1. Become aware that you are in an emotionally reactive state. You may notice your heart beating quickly, that you are holding your breath, the heat is rising, you feel emotionally overwhelmed, you can’t find the right words, etc.
      2. Choose to pause. Gently remove yourself from the interaction if needed.
      3. Take some space to focus on your breath. 5-10 minutes of mindful breathing is ideal, but even 5 to 10 deep breaths can shift the nervous system enough to have a beneficial impact.

Learning foundations of mindfulness can support us in nurturing our capacity for wise response. IJS holds daily meditations online with guest experts in the field of Jewish mindfulness, and our Gift of Awareness course is a great starting point for beginning a practice.

During these turbulent times, may we support ourselves and one another in cultivating skills for compassionate and effective communication across divides, so that we can unify our hearts in pursuit of healing and peace, both in the world and in our own communities.