07/08/2013 10:33 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

What a Few Deep Breaths Can Teach You


"What's the most important skill you are going to need for your Bar/Bat Mitzvah?" I ask.

"Uh.... Don't drop the Torah?" guesses the nervous 12-about-to-be-13-year-old.


"Don't mess up my Hebrew?"

"No. Mistakes are okay. Everyone loves you."

The kid shrugs.

"It is the ability to take a deep breath."

This is usually confusing, so I explain: "You are going to be nervous. Everyone's in the room. Your friends are making goofy-faces at you. Your mom is crying. You are going to have adrenaline pumping through your body. At that moment, you may forget all of your Hebrew, not to mention the English language, as well as your name. That's when you are going to need to take a deep breath. And then it will all come back to you. In fact, take three. The whole world is better after three deep breaths. I know it is overwhelming, but you are going to do a good job. Just try to slow down and breathe."

What the adolescent doesn't realize is that this is an important lesson not only for a Bat or Bar Mitzvah ceremony but also for life. The ability to stop and breathe is one of the most important -- and neglected -- skills we have. We often don't take a moment and just breathe into a situation, and too often we panic and forget ourselves.

I have recently been on several Jewish meditation retreats. I have learned about breathing meditation in the context of my own tradition, but this spiritual practice contains universal lessons.

The first lesson paying attention to our breath may teach us is that everything is ultimately impermanent. The breath comes and goes. So does everything else. In fact, when Ecclesiastes says, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!" (Ecclesiastes 1:2) the Hebrew word is actually hevel, or "vapor." A more precise translation of the concept could be, "Vapor and breath! All is fleeting!" Nothing in life is really substantial. Days, years, feelings, bodies and lives come and go. Our breath reminds us of this fact, moment by moment. My grandfather used to say, "This too shall pass." Following our breath helps us touch this truth viscerally.

But a second lesson is found in another Hebrew word meaning breath, which is neshama. The neshama is not only our breath but our spirit. God breathes a neshama into the nostrils of Adam (Genesis 2:7). And as we sit and breathe, we realize that the air I breathe out you breathe in, and vice versa. It is also the breath we exchange with the trees and plants, and we might imagine that they are breathing us just as much as we are breathing them. And all living things share a thin blue line of atmosphere around our planet, making us all interconnected.

If we truly internalize the lessons of our breath, both hevel -- impermanence and neshama -- interconnectedness, we can reach a kind of quiet awe. The whole world, even some panicky situation, can be brought back into perspective.

You can take a moment to remind yourself of these truths with this exercise: As you breathe in, think, "All life is vapor." As you breathe out, think to yourself, "But my breath connects me." Do that for five minutes with your eyes closed, and see if it doesn't make you less anxious and change your day for the better, bringing you to a sense of calm awareness.

So now it is time to stop reading this and get back to your to-do list. If you feel overwhelmed, just try to slow down and breathe.