Book Review: Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

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I think this book can often be summarized best by Leonardo Da Vinci himself: “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.” Learn widely and deeply, from the source itself, from exploration and experimentation- not from pre-digested secondary sources, in other words. In some ways, Leonardo Da Vinci is so relevant to our current age that I found myself pondering the how his life and beliefs could be applied to today’s world of broad, shallow knowledge.

I think that many of us feel disconnected and fragmented- too different from others, ill at ease with  others, compounded by our tendency to connect virtually. We take our information in via  the sound bite, the Twitter feed (and if you want to know what the Chief Executive has said, you virtually must have a Twitter feed), the TV broadcast, the mobile phone notification.  I see increasingly more patients who question-“have I always had ADHD? My kids have ADHD” but yet have not optimized sleep, mood, and have not developed (or lost) the skills of deep focus. One of the best selling books in business today is “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. We require teaching to help us focus given the number of distractions competing for our attention- the fabric of our minds is being frayed at the edges by the constant requests for our attention. Or is it? I think the answer is yes and no. I think we expect absolute focus, and value conformity in our young students. Heck, I value conformity in my young children. I understand- I feel a little upset when my kids aren’t listening in class, or appear to fall behind. I feel a little upset (and amused, I admit) when I get a crayon drawing with “I will not talk when the bell rings” from my son’s school, and a drawing for “better choices” that he might make later. But by forcing people into a mold for achievement, are we sacrificing creativity, zest for life, the joy of learning?

Leonardo did not live in a time like this, but struggled maintaining focus all the same. However, his restless intellect, periodic hyper focus, so common in ADHD (not the more often destructive bipolar disorder, as the author posited, though perhaps there is better evidence somewhere else), was admired at the time. The author himself points out that had Leonardo been able to follow through with his projects, we might have more surviving projects. He also admires Da Vinci’s joy for exploration and learning- and on trying to live a little more like DaVinci, observes that his life was richer for having made the attempt. Can we really say that Leonardo, the inventor of countless devices, painter of accurate optics and beauty, explorer of the mind, probably would have done a lot better on Ritalin? To be clear, the author is not saying this. But I wondered this- have I seen a Leonardo in my practice? Would I have checked the boxes of the DSM-5, and started medication? I like to think (and hope) not.  On the other hand, I can’t say I know better than my patients- some of these people are really suffering, and prevented from achieving what they feel they should. But are they trying to fit themselves into society’s expectation- I “should” behave some way or another, etc? I think observing Leonardo’s life with a critical eye- much like he might have himself- can give us some clarity to the place we have found ourselves.

Also interesting and much appreciated, was the author’s ability to review the evidence, and provide what he felt was the likeliest conclusion – too often, biographies, at the risk and worry of being paternalistic, or making judgements, leave us wondering why something happened. I really appreciated the author’s willingness to make himself vulnerable, to say, “this is what I think is most likely.” The book was surprisingly funny in places- the hilariousness of Da Vinci’s to-do lists- was worth the time reading the book alone.

I heard about this book on a podcast- I think it was Tim Ferris’s podcast- and was inspired to check it out from our local library. I am so glad I did. I encourage anyone interested to spend the time with this book. I’ll probably head back to the library soon for the biography this author wrote on Benjamin Franklin next.

 

Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: useful, educational, but needs an editor

Essentialism by Greg McKeown
I picked up the book, Essentialism, based on a few good reviews that I read. The idea of pursuing less and accomplishing more appeals to me- I have so many hobbies and interests, that I often have lost interest in something by the time I gather all the items needed to pursue the hobby! College, something I really enjoyed, took me twice as long, because I took classes I was interested in rather than focus on a goal. Even now, I have more magazines and books than I can read in a lifetime. So, the byline of the book, “the disciplined pursuit of less” was quite meaningful to me!

I’ve recently started using index cards for taking reading notes, from Ryan Holliday’s article about keeping a commonplace book. One indicator of the relative value of a book is how many cards you make for each book (20 cards or so, is a book with a lot of personal meaning!). For Essentialism, I took 32 cards’ worth of ideas and quotations!

The book is divided into four parts- explaining the fundamentals of the philosophy, applying the fundamentals to your own life, weaning down the excess of your own life to the essential, and then following a minimalist lifestyle. There were a few chapters in each section that I found particularly helpful. I’m already pretty good at saying no to things that I don’t think add value to my life, but the ideas of weeding out things that aren’t 100% of what you want, and editing as a way of creating something better were new to me.

I think this would be a great book for someone who feels they aren’t effective in their life, or someone who is wanting to embrace minimalism. The book helps with the inner process of minimalism- to me, the external condition of a clean, simple environment is the result of the inner work. This book should help with the inner work. The book is a quick read- just 246 pages. The one fault I found with this book- I think it could have been shorter. There were a lot of concepts that were repeated over and over! I think the author may have been trying to reinforce the important concepts but at some point, I wondered if the book had been written as independent essays rather than a cohesive whole.

Less, many times: A book review of “The Abundance of Less: Lessons in Simple Living from Rural Japan,” by Andy Couturier

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I picked this book up at Kramerbooks in D.C. (if you haven’t been there, it’s a fun bookstore- not as much fun as my beloved Politics and Prose, but still great), partly because, like many people with too many first world problems, I’m trying to scale down. How lucky we are, those of us following the minimalist ideas of less stuff, simpler lives, to even have this choice!

I loved this book. Well, if I’m honest with myself, the first half of this book. The idea of the book is to explore the lifestyle and thought process of rural Japanese people, mostly elderly people, and how we might learn from them. The book reflects their lives- poetic, quiet, honest and humble. Many of the people are nuclear power protesters, and the book I picked up is a revised edition, with an update on the lives of these people post-Fukushima disaster. All of these people have opted to step out of the frenetic lifestyle of working, attending school, etc., from sun up to sun down in relentless pursuit of some external goal, for different, probably more authentic goals: time, family, connection with community, art, and slow living. While this is stepping outside the box in America, it’s REALLY stepping outside the box in Japan, and many of these individuals reported strong disapproval from their families. I admired them.

The problem for me was, halfway through the book, starting a new chapter, I started to dread the story: the individual as a young person, protested nuclear power/landfill/environmental problems, and decides to go against their families’ advice to:

  • travel to Tibet/India/Nepal to
  • study traditional weaving/traditional calligraphy/traditional religious texts/traditional music,
  • then decided to come back when Tibet/India/Nepal became too modernized, and
  • lived in the mountains in Japan where they
  • raise their own food/work the land/play music/do aforementioned traditional craft in Japan.

In the end, I felt that I could probably read half the book, and get the same story, only half as many times- is there an editor in the house??

I think there’s a way to read this without getting burned out with the similarity of the stories: don’t read it the way I did. Read the book a chapter at a time, savor their story, and then give the book a rest. By the time you come back to it in a few weeks or months, you won’t recall that the last person had almost exactly the same story, and you’ll feel the same way about the book when I started it: inspired by the peace, quiet, and rough edges of the simplicity of these lives.

If you’re interested in reading this book, I’ve attached the affiliate link to Amazon below.

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“Get Some Headspace” – a nice accompaniment or first book for meditation

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I’ve written about meditation apps before and why meditation is a good idea from the scientific standpoint. I had been using the Meditation Studio app, but after receiving a coupon that discounted Headspace (not in conjunction with this blog- I received it as part of their regular New Year’s Promotion via email) for three months, I decided to take the jump and bought a year’s worth of the service. I’ll probably write more about the app itself in a few weeks. I’m in the third series of classes, and would like to try more of the single classes and other series before I comment. If anyone else is using Headspace, I’d love to be Headspace friends- leave me a comment below!

I have enjoyed the experience of meditation a lot more this time than I did 20 years ago, when I could not settle down. Still, I wanted to read more about the Headspace method of guided meditation, so I picked up Get Some Headspace: How Mindfulness can Change Your Life in Ten Minutes a Day, by Andy Puddicombe. He is also the person who narrates the guided meditations.

The book has several parts: an introduction and discussion of mindfulness, how to practice (the Take Ten method, which is the basis the parts of the app I have used so far), a section on integration, and the nuts and bolts of a day to day meditation practice. The end of the book is concerned with having a more mindful mindset (gratitude, etc), and a few case studies, as well as a journal, which is less useful on the Kindle version.

I think this book works well as either an accompaniment to practice on Headspace, or as a first time book on meditation and mindfulness. Since I am more than halfway through the introductory classes on meditation, it has given me some background on what I am doing in the classes. I have more insight for why I am doing a body scan in the beginning of the guided meditation, or why I am counting breaths at the end. In the meditations, he suggests that the mind is like a clear blue sky, and our thoughts are the clouds obscuring it- every once in awhile, we get a view of the sky, our mind, as it really is. In the book, he describes our mind as a pool of water, and we can see the bottom only when we remain still enough to stop the turbulence at the surface of water. I find both metaphors to be useful at different times in meditation.

He also gives enough practical advice to be useful day to day. What kind of chair (or not) should you sit in? What behaviors support meditation?  How long should you meditate for? What time of day should you meditate for?

I also liked the chapter of integration of mindfulness into every day life- this is something that Thich Nhat Hanh, the well-known Vietnamese Zen monk, stresses. What good is meditation if you do not bring it into the world and positively affect others? To this end, Mr. Puddicombe talks about walking, and running meditations- teaching one to be mindful during those activities. If this is your focus, mindfulness at every moment, I actually suggest a supplemental book: Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living, by Thich Nhat Hanh. This book is filled with useful gathas (short mindfulness verses) that remind us to live and experience every moment, good or bad (using washing the dishes, or the phone ringing, as a mindfulness experience).

A last thought- in the reviews on Amazon, I saw a lot of good reviews, but also some complaining that the book was too simplistic. I did not find this to be true. I know that in my own case, sometimes I will read more and more books about a topic, in increasing levels of complication, rather than actually put down the book and try something. I suggest that this is often the case in meditation. The concept is quite simple, the practice is not. I have come back to reading some books which are quite simple on the surface, over and over, and gain something new every time. I would challenge someone who complains that the language or message of a book on meditation is too simple- sit down and meditate. Then go back, and see what you learn from the books again.

I’m really interested to hear what you think about this, or any related topic! Please don’t hesitate to comment below. Also, I still need some Headspace friends!

“The Cozy Life: Rediscover the Joy of the Simple Things Through the Danish Concept of Hygge”: a book review…

relaxing-1979674_1920Hygge (hew-gah) is a popular topic these days, despite having an unattractive name- just do a search on Amazon, and there are at least 10 new books on the topic! The idea is simple cozy living at home for life satisfaction- similar to mindfulness, I guess. I first read about this concept in the book “The Year of Living Danishly” by Helen Russell.  She moved to Denmark with her significant other to learn why Denmark is consistently rated as the world’s happiest country. I thought that book was quite informative, and I was intrigued by the concept of Hygge, so I picked up “The Cozy Life” by Pia Edberg to learn more. Though I finished the book, I can’t say that I learned anymore from this book about Hygge than I did from Helen Russell’s book,  a recent New Yorker article that you can find for free here and a recent New York Times article that you can find here. If you have NEVER read anything about Hygge, the graphic above essentially gives you an idea of what it is. I guess the book would be essentially best for someone who wants a light introduction to the subject, and some inspiration to the topic. I didn’t think the advice such as to light spice or vanilla scented candles for a cozy atmosphere was worth the price of the book.

A Book review: “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work”

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I just finished reading Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, which was a suggestion from Tim Ferris’s blog. I have always been interested in the minutiae of everyday life, and what people are thinking and doing. In fact, much of my early reading about history was focused more on what life was like for people who lived back then, rather than wars, laws, who was reigning or elected, etc. Mindfulness training was just a small jump for me, as I am already focused on appreciating the present moment.

So for me, this book was like a smorgasbord of all the things I’m the most interested in: what do successful artists, writers and scientists do during their everyday lives? The answer is: mostly the same things we do. Some of them drink and smoke a lot more than others; some hardly eat while some have regular meal times; some sleep long hours at night while some nap during the day instead. Still, I found the little things fascinating. Many of them were extremely attentive to the details of their lives, and gave themselves plenty of time to think about their work. Many of them were avid readers.

I think there were two major messages for me:

  1. The amount of time spent doing their work did not necessarily equal quality or output. There were just as many writers who worked very specific hours, and then stopped to enjoy their lives as there were people who slaved away all day, barely eating or living their lives. Both were capable of great work.
  2. Great works of art seemed to be as much hard work as inspiration. Many of them found producing their art, whether writing or work, to be arduous, but worth it.

I felt like this was an intriguing book, especially if you’re interested in maximizing your own daily rituals. My only criticism is that I wish the author had a more attentive editor. There were many typos that I noticed, and some artists’ biographies extended past their lifetime if their dates of death were to be believed!

“Evicted” by Matthew Desmond

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Evicted by Matthew Desmond was on several “Best of 2016” lists, but did it deserve the adulation the book received? For me, the answer was yes. Mr. Desmond, who has a PhD in sociology and specialized in the study of poverty, spent a few years living in low income housing with several families and individuals at risk for homelessness. He writes in the afterward that he was trying to find a “process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process.”

The stories of these people, often less than a paycheck from homelessness, were devastating. As a well-educated, financially stable person, I had no idea that there were completely insufficient social resources to act as a safety net; that as part of a misconceived community policing effort, landlords could be encouraged to evict women who were the victims of domestic violence (because their 911 calls marked the property as a “problem residence” for which the landlord can be fined). He also does a good job explaining the struggle of the landlords, though frankly it was less easy to relate to them, interestingly enough since I am likely more like the landlords socioeconomically. To me, this is the result of the thorough, and sympathetic treatment that his subjects receive at the hands of Mr. Desmond.

Why do I include this book review on this blog? Partly because I believe it is an amazing book, along the lines of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle that brought the plight of the meat industry and those who worked in it to light, leading to a public outcry and legislation to reform the industry.

Additionally, part of the aim of my blog is to improve wellness among my readers. I strongly believe that empathy is part of a healthy psyche. In fact, lack of empathy is a major part of some mental health disorders and personality disorders. Studies recently have shown that our empathy is improved when we consider a few individuals, which makes it easier to conceptualize and personalize a situation. This is likely part of the reason that many people were not as concerned about Syria and the mass killings in Aleppo- 500,000 dead was too many for our minds to wrap around. Reading a book like this, with a few faces of poverty can help us put our own issues in perspective (I have never had to choose between rent and keeping the house warm or feeding my children!) and lead us to take productive, decisive action as citizens of our communities, country and world.