BREATH by: James Nestor

Did you know that if you breathe through your mouth too often (as opposed to your nose) it will have adverse effects on your blood pressure and heart rate? Did you know that more important than how we inhale is how we exhale? Did you know that chewing (often and substantially) directly effects how efficient is our breathing? Breathing through the nose vs. the mouth has a direct effect on health, happiness, and longevity.

How we breath really matters, as James Nestor in BREATH explains with clarity, his own experimentation, and data. While some parts of the book may be a bit more technical than the average audience desires, these sections pale in comparison to those which inform with content, depth, and humor. If you are an amateur meditator as I am, this book will provide the motivation to get better at it! At the very least it brings tremendous clarity to the passage in Genesis in which we are told that God breathed life into human beings through the nose…not the mouth.

Always Wear Clean Underwear! and other ways parents say “I love you” by: Marc Gellman

As the weather gets colder and our daylight hours continue to decrease, I want to share a light read – that has deep meaning. I came across Always Wear Clean Underwear years ago, and yet, it never got moved to the bottom pile of books. Whenever I take a stack of books to the basement and move a different stack onto more accessible shelves, this book stays where it is – on my night table.

What Marc Gellman does so well is capture the statements we heard growing up (and ironically find ourselves saying to our children), and infuses them with down to earth meaning. Here is one example: “Because I say so”. After validating both how frustrating this is to hear, and why it gets said so often, Gellman offers what he calls the big meaning behind the statement: “You have to love and trust good people if you are going to grow up being good.” There is so much to talk about philosophically and practically behind this statement’s big meaning. How do we find those people? How do we know they can be trusted? Should even those we trust be questioned? How do religious role-models fit into all of this? With 32 statements in all, you will find yourself nodding your head, laughing, pointing fingers, and asking yourself what statements you want your kids to hear – and of course the big meaning you hope they will appreciate behind them. Enjoy the read and perhaps a family conversation will evolve allowing you to create your own list of “alternative” ways to say “I love you.”

Witness – Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom

There were years when I couldn’t read anything written by Elie Wiesel. Having grown up a first generation American, his works hit too close to home – they were too raw and too painful. (I remember when my class had to read Night, I skimmed the book and relied heavily on the cliffsNotes.) Then I experienced acute heartbreak first-hand and I became a voracious reader of Elie Wiesel. I had so many questions, among them: How did he rebuild? Why did he rebuild? Did he truly have moments of joy? Was his pain always with him?   

Recently, I discovered a new book about Elie Wiesel – Witness, Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, by Ariel Burger. This book offers a glimpse of Elie Wiesel which I had not seen before – Elie Wiesel the teacher and mentor, which ironically is how he often described his primary identity!  

Among the many gems hidden in this book is the story of Elie Wiesel’s liberation from Buchenwald. He describes that while he had countless emotions of sadness, anger, and hopelessness directed towards humanity and God, the first thing he asked was for a pair of tefillin. Wiesel explained his need for continuity, even while struggling with a shattered faith. It was precisely the continuity of religious ritual which provided him the space to grapple in healthy and necessary ways.

I cannot help but think about this lesson as it relates to our own disrupted lives during this pandemic. While I dare not compare our reality to that of Wiesel, I do believe his guidance is deeply applicable. Whatever we can do to maintain our routine we must do – whatever we can do to keep our religious rituals meaningful, even while separated from our primary location of religious worship, we must do. I hope and pray that we use this time of year to reflect on our religious lives and help one another to stay committed, connected, and inspired.

Rejection Proof

As someone who suffers from perfectionism, I know the fear of rejection well – it is a steady companion in most endeavors. This reality is hard to explain to those who don’t suffer from the same, and I often try to describe it by sharing that rarely does receiving a complement feel like it is simply a positive affirmation. Almost every compliment is followed by immediate feelings of intense internal pressure and expectations to match and (hopefully) surpass the complemented accomplishment. Suffice it to say, it’s a tough load to carry.

All humans benefit from some degree of fear of failure. It keeps us hard working, motivated, attune to detail, and helps us to invest our work with pride. But once fear of failure becomes debilitating it is no longer helpful, but a sure road to developing chronic anxiety, unproductive self-criticism, and existential feelings of restlessness and “never good enough”.

In Rejection Proof, Jia Jiang talks about his journey of trying to break free from the fear of rejection, as he goes on a 100 day “adventure” – trying things with the sole intent of being rejected – and being ok with it. While the concepts are deep, the read is light and often quite entertaining. If you don’t find the book personally beneficial, it will absolutely help you better understand the struggles of others.

Below is Jia Jiang’s TED Talk.

A Letter in the Scroll

The principal of general studies during my high school tenure began her career as “Ms. Marion Peterson”. She had worked in the Catholic school system for years before coming to YULA, and she was devoutly religious. By the time I graduated, Ms. Peterson was on her way to a Jewish conversion, and a few years later the letterhead read “Principal of General Studies; Ms. Miriam Peterson.”

I remember many of the conversations I had with her, most of which revolved around my confusion and shock as to why she would pursue being Jewish. I was also envious that she had a choice – something I wanted myself. I resented that being Jewish was something you had to accept if you were born into it, and I didn’t believe that I personally had a role that was necessary – certainly not essential – to the Jewish nation. Over the years I gathered pieces that helped me cope and reconcile these feelings – but my inner discontent began to really dissipate when I read A Letter in the Scroll. In this book, Rabbi Sacks addresses the question that had vexed me for years – mainly, how could Moshe make a covenant at Sinai for all future generations? How could those not yet born be bound by a covenant they were not present to accept? Rabbi Sacks addresses this issue passionately, honestly, and without apologetics.    

I cannot think of a more fitting book to read as we approach the holiday of Shavuot.

The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things

Growing up in Los Angeles had its perks. One less-known benefit was exposure to some of the most spiritual, though not Orthodox, Jewish thinkers. For some, this distinction is sacrilegious, while for others it is legitimate and genuine. I align with the latter view, and reading and learning through this lens has deepened my Judaism.

The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things is written by a deeply spiritual (not Orthodox) Jewish thinker. It speaks to the mind as much as it speaks to the soul. It challenges the reader to look for God in everyday life, in the simple pleasures and in ordinary moments. It challenges us to think about how often we live by Yaakov’s words in Genesis 28:16 “God is in this place and I did not know it.” And it reminds us of the often-quoted chassidic saying, “God is not everywhere, rather God exists where we let God in”.

One of my favorite chapters is “Wise Up” which asks why God would give us the mitzvah of Sukkot and then allow it to rain on sukkot – preventing us from keeping the commandment. Leder writes “Rain on sukkot reminds us that we can do everything right and still suffer tragedy.”

As we spend our days engaged more slowly and more mindfully, let us embrace the opportunity to find more places to let God in.

10% Happier

This is a book that can create real change in your life – if you are willing to do the work.

I stumbled upon Dan Harris when his book 10% Happier was recommended to me by Amazon! (based on other books I had purchased). When the title popped up, it caught my attention mostly because it wasn’t a platitude title such as: “How to Achieve Endless Happiness” or “The 5 Keys to Greatness”. That genre of books and the titles that encapsulate them sound great as soundbites, but they rarely have advice that are sustainable in real life.

10% Happier on the other hand, was written by Dan Harris – who describes himself as an over-achiever, perfectionist, skeptic, and no-nonsense guy. After suffering from a panic attack while sharing the news on Good Morning America, Dan realized he needed help. Thus began his journey which led him to meditation; a journey he is still very much on today. Dan is still a news anchor, husband, father, and friend – only now he is “much more comfortable in his own skin.”

I have been following Dan’s journey through this book, his second book (which will be reviewed soon), as well as with the 10% Happier app – which I highly recommend. When describing the experience of waiting in line at Shoprite the other day, I mentioned that as soon as I get in line, I play a short meditation from the 10% Happier app – and use the long wait as an opportunity to help me practice settling my mind. I have also found that I do meditations from the app while sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, waiting to be seen for an appointment, or while being on hold for an extended period of time. Most recently I took the “10% Happier 30 day challenge” – which presented the opportunity to do a lengthier meditation for a 25/30 days.

I am learning that meditation takes discipline. It demands tedious deliberate practice, and there are no shortcuts. You have to sit through the discomfort, boredom, monotony and initial feelings that what you are doing is a waste of time. But the research unambiguously supports the benefits – and there are many in the physical, emotional, and psychological realms.   

Here are a few of my favorite lines from 10% Happier to wet your palate:

Meditation did not, as many fear, make me a blissed-out zombie.

Meditation is not about zoning out, it is about tuning in.

Meditation allows you to create little spaces in your daily life where you are aware but not thinking. Where you can recognize what is happening in your head without getting carried away by it. Where you can respond rather than simply react.

Think of the wisdom that grows out of mediation as “advanced common sense.” It’s about confronting the obvious but often overlooked truths, until something inside you shifts.

Great YouTube video to hear Dan talk about his journey:

The Year We Turned Forty

How many times have you asked yourself the “What If” narrative? “Had I only done ____…”, “Had I only first _____…”, “Had I only asked ______…” “Had I only said ______…” (the examples are endless).  And much of the rumination around what we should have or could have done differently, rests on the belief that the end results would have been different – in most cases better.

In this captivating book of fiction, we are challenged to re-think the assumption that we could have changed a result by going back in time and doing something different. The dots don’t connect that easily and the lines aren’t drawn that straight.

I was thinking about what book to recommend with some of us in quarantine and others sitting nervously waiting. This is a great read to relax the mind and remind us that we can only re-write history so much – even with 20/20 hindsight. More important is to accept the complexity of life as we learn from the past while living in the present.

In conclusion, Bertrant Russell said so eloquently “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” (One of my favorite quotes by far!).

How Will You Measure Your Life?

After overcoming the same cancer that took his father’s life, Clayton Christensen wasn’t thinking about the four companies he built or his world-renowned reputation as an entrepreneur. He was reflecting poignantly on how a life should be measured, and what makes life ultimately meaningful. Clayton loved his career and still speaks highly about his accomplishments, but his lens was broader after beating cancer, and his book How Will You Measure Your Life, reflects this new vision.

How Will You Measure Your Life recognizes the complexity of life, as it shies away from one-size-fits-all theories and advice. Instead, each chapter highlights one concept and idea, and it is up to the reader to grapple with the applicability to his or her life. As the blurb on the back of the book says “this book doesn’t offer easy answers. Instead, it will prompt you to consider the most important questions you’ll ever face…It won’t tell you what to think. Instead, it aims to teach you how to think…” My personal favorite was chapter 6 – What job did you hire that milkshake for? It got me thinking about what motivates us to take care of ourselves, care for others, and more broadly what we hope to gain from living a religious life.

As there are so many nuggets you may want to read twice, I highly recommend equipping yourself with a packet of sticky tabs alongside the book!

When Breath Becomes Air

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is Paul’s profound memoir, which he wrote and nearly completed during the final months of his life. 

The first time I read the book I was deeply moved by how bravely Paul faced his death; how methodically he thought about and planned how to spend his remaining time. Upon reading the book a second time, what struck me was how mindfully Paul faced his life – equally if not more so than how he faced his death.

In one entry Paul wrote:  I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.

Paul’s quest to live a life of deep meaning and purpose was reflected in his decision to become a neurosurgeon –a unique choice among his medical school peers. As he watched others choose areas of medicine that offered more humane hours, higher salaries, and lower pressures, Paul’s intentions were elsewhere. What gnawed at Paul were some of the most difficult questions faced by medical practitioners. He grappled with predicaments that ask more than whether to live or die – but about what kind of life is worth living. Paul wrote: Would you trade yours or your mother’s ability to talk, for a few extra months of mute life? How much neurological suffering would you let your child endure before saying that death is preferable? … What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?

Paul’s wife Lucy, who finished the last few pages of the book after Paul’s death, captured Paul’s essence poignantly: Even while terminally ill, Paul was fully alive; despite physical collapse, he remained vigorous, open, full of hope – not for an unlikely cure but for days that were full of purpose and meaning.

This book is truly a tour de force.