We're not afraid of dying; we're afraid of living, the rabbi said. I've heard many sermons since that one, delivered several years ago on Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day. But I often recall that line, and its implicit challenge, which echoes throughout the holiday: Can we seize our potential, right here, right now, before it's too late?
Yom Kippur, the "Day of Atonement," asks Jews to take a day to take stock. It's the ultimate reckoning—we're meant to consider our countless transgressions before God and each other and ask for another chance, specifically, another year, to get things right. The liturgy makes this quite literal. We beg forgiveness, beating our chests for a litany of sins that we, either as individuals or as a community, may have committed, and ask God to seal our names in the "Book of Life," granting us healthy and happy days in the coming year (which, according to the Hebrew calendar, is the year 5773). Prayer, repentance, and acts of justice, it's said, improve one's fate.
To help attain a spiritual state, we abstain from physical comforts—food and drink (including water), sexual relations, leather shoes, perfume, and bathing. Some people even wear the traditional white cloak that's used for burial. These practices are meant to mimic dying, because there's nothing quite like death to narrow one's focus on the urgency of life. Combine that with the elation of enduring the day's trials for a fresh meal, and a clean slate, and you can see why Yom Kippur is also considered the most joyful of the Jewish holidays. Like the joy of recovering health after sickness, the process aims to restore one's appreciation for living.
However, you need not observe Yom Kippur to experience a sense of renewal. Many of the holiday's themes can be universally applied to refocus and renew your life. We all fall victim to the uniquely human talent for adaptation, getting stuck in our lives, for better or for worse. During Yom Kippur, the rabbis sound a shofar, a ram's horn, which is meant to serve as a communal wake-up call toward change. But each of us can craft our own rituals to uproot ourselves from a rut and bolster well-being. Below, some exercises to try, at any time of year:
Take a day off: Just as our bodies require rest, so too do our minds. That's especially true in today's ultra-wired world, where we're juggling myriad tasks and schedules. In his book, Hamlet's Blackberry, former Washington Post reporter William Powers writes about the need to disconnect to reconnect. "Humans love to journey outward. The connective impulse is central to who we are. But it's the return trip, back to the self and the life around us, that gives our screen time value and meaning." Powers' family has instituted a weekly Internet sabbath, unplugging for the weekend, and he encourages others to create "Walden zones," designated screen-free spaces at home that reference Henry David Thoreau's sojourn at Walden Pond. Consider using the time to meditate, which has been associated with lowering blood pressure, lengthening attention spans, and reducing stress.
Ask for forgiveness. When it comes to forgiveness, we often think about letting go of grudges against those who have wronged us. And, to be sure, letting go of that negativity releases an enormous burden and provides healing. But asking others for forgiveness, even if we're not sure whether or how we may have hurt them, is another important gesture. We discover ways we may have been insensitive, paving the way for a deeper, and more honest relationship. And we benefit from the insight of others as we aim to improve ourselves.
Join a community. "The need to belong is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation," according to research by Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University. Studies also show that people with strong social bonds are less vulnerable to stress and sickness, and, if they do fall ill, are more resilient. Conversely, loneliness can predict disastrous consequences. In a recent study of more than 1,600 seniors, University of California researchers linked loneliness to declining health and even death. Among the 43 percent of adults who reported feeling lonely during the six-year study, 23 percent had died, compared with the 14 percent who weren't lonely.