In this Torah Rav Nachman teaches about the physical dimension of notion of patience (erekh apayim): the sigh is not an exhalation alone: it is also the inhale – entering a difficult, painful place (but also, simultaneously, the beginning of an exit out of it
Let us now return to the physical dimension mentioned earlier. In a situation of distress, a breath becomes fast and shallow. A deep breath, on the other hand - ‘the sigh,’ as Rav Nachman calls it - is part of a mindful process which opens a channel for energy to enter the whole body and usher in renewal. As we discussed earlier, the lengthening of a breath enables a different kind of perspective, one which tempers pain.
The sigh also bears an emotional component: it uses the point of distress and pain to bring about change. The sigh touches upon loss and lack, rather than avoiding it; it instrumentalises lack to trigger a transformation. The sigh comes along with a deep breath which expresses the ability to look at pain and lack from the perspective of netzach (eternity). An example of this process - emerging from brokenness - can be seen in someone who is crying over an event. At some point, his cries subside and turn into a sigh which stems from the depths of his soul, a sigh that inhales air deeply, into all the limbs of the body. At this point, a new stage begins - one that facilitates a feeling of wholeness, cleansing, harmony. The sigh - a physical act of deep inhalation and exhalation - can be the first step in shaking a person out of their fixed place and leading him in another direction. This mindful shift – through the physical sigh – may happen even if the person herself is practicing mindfulness. The ability to sigh - to experience pain in its immediacy - facilitates the cleansing of negativity from the place of hurt After this cleansing process, a person is endowed with ‘ruach chayim’ (a spirit of life), a spirit of purity. The sigh is not an exhalation alone: it is also the inhale - entering a difficult, painful place (but also, simultaneously, the beginning of an exit out of it). The physical process of inhalation and exhalation expresses itself in the entry of air from outside in, and the exit of air from inside out. This movement affects the soul itself.
The work of sighing allows for physical cleansing. For example, when someone feels negatively, this feeling is not necessarily distributed throughout; rather it may be concentrated in a particular point in the body. If a person focuses her breath on this particular place, imagining that she is releasing - with the inhale - any disturbances, he may feel instead a cleansing from pain (at least for a little while).
Thus Rav Nachman presents the avodah of the sigh to be even more important than minor fasts. For the avodah of the sigh involves not only the whole body but also affects awareness, as Rav Nachman cites in his next Torah:
In addition, I found a manuscript from [Rebbe Nachman’s] students on this topic, in which the tremendous value of the sigh of holiness is explained in greater detail. It is explained there that the sigh which a person sighs over his sins or over his lack of spiritual perception, is more beneficial than many acts of mortification and fasts. This is because a fast breaks only the body, but with a sigh one breaks the whole body and also transforms his soul and life-force from evil to good.
For a person’s hevel -breath is a chevel(rope) that binds the upper soul to the place of its root—to good, or God forbid, the opposite. And when he sighs, he is in the aspect of “When You increase their ruach -breath, they perish.” At that point, he separates from the rope to which he was originally bound and becomes bound to another rope, commensurate with the sigh…
(Likkutei Moharan 109, translation from Sefaria)
The value embedded in the work of the breath can also be understood in connection to physical pain: resistance to pain only intensifies it, while the ability to ‘be with’ pain, without fighting it - and specifically through exercises of the breath – allows the pain to be eased somewhat. We see this phenomenon in a parent-child relationship. For example, when parents tries to impresses different thoughts on their child, this builds pressure, and the child eventually rebels and is pushed to express resistance. But when the child doesn’t feel threatened in any way, her resistance drops and she can find a closeness with her parents. When one feels a resistance to something, the attempt to avoid it by force causes that same thing to feel even more present. For this reason, Rav Nachman’s guidance is for the impure, non-tzaddik - who cannot encounter the evil in the other with internal mindfulness - in order that he not enter into a battle that may damage his spiritual place. In such a situation, the necessary action is to sigh - from a place of humility and recognition of the threat of evil and doubt. Though this is not an ideal situation, acknowledging the very conflict that I cannot fight is an act that disassembles much of the anger between ourselves and the other, or between us and ourselves.
In the spiritual realm, these matters are even more fundamental: we cannot always fix something; sometimes we must learn to live with a spiritual problem. The hassidim taught that a tzaddik who wants to fix a klipa (shell, an outer layer) and to elevate a particular spark from it - even as he himself is not cleansed of this bad aspect - must be very careful that the encounter with this klipa does not topple him entirely. Thus it is forbidden to provoke evildoers; only one who is fully pure may come into contact with the evil within (or without) and handle it appropriately. This is because when dealing with bad, one inevitably must come to dwell in it - and to some extent even identify with it, in order to ‘fix’ it. The result of this ‘immersion’ is not simple: when we fight with something, we are influenced by it. Evil overpowers the good side that has entered the fight against it. For example, sometimes one who fights terror may become a terrorist herself.
Another - perhaps more complicated- example is that of a religious person who tries to ‘fight’ a secular person from a desire to bring him to teshuva. Oftentimes this activity may be sourced in the religious person’s being touched by secularism - and not only due to a true desire to ‘fix.’ The more the ‘secular one’ threatens him from within - perhaps the freedom of a secular lifestyle, as well as other more trivial things, attract him - the faster his resistance turns hard and dogmatic. The ‘war on secularism’ that he declares is fueled by a negative energy, and ‘war’ is a quick and fast solution to end any attraction towards secularism.
Similarly, we must strive for the Avodah of self-awareness, a goal whose first step is the tikkun (repair) of the self via an encounter with inner evil which is revealed through a meeting with the other (especially one that threatens his existence). This inner tikkun is visited upon the other, and may lead her to her own tikkun. For example, in a meeting between religious and secular people, if the religious person recognizes her own ‘secular’ side, she is able to forge a different relation with the secular person - and every attempt to ‘repair’ will come from a clear place. The real tzaddik knows his second side and being in contact with it does not threaten him because he has already internally, mindfully accepted his own flaws and lacks.