Everything is Illuminated

By Jonathan Safran Foer

The hero of the story, bearing the same name as the author, journeys to Ukraine in search of family history connected to his grandfather. His travels are narrated by letters from the guide he hires to help him search for long-lost connections, the guide’s personal recounting of their adventures and misadventures, and the hero’s embellished history of his family tree. The hero and the guide, with support of their blind driver and his seeing-eye dog, set out in search of a village that was decimated by the Nazis and was so small in the first place that only a handful of people remember it by name, even fewer by exact location. Their noble odyssey is full of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and all kinds of cross-cultural mishaps. Despite unpredictable schedules, lost documents (because the seeing-eye dog ate them), and a dearth of vegetarian meals for the hero, their small crew somehow stumbles upon the rich history of the hero’s grandfather. Their personal stories, as with the multiple storylines in the novel, come together in unexpected ways, revealing the deep connection of shared experience even across differences in time, geography, culture and language.

“Everything is Illuminated” by Jonathan Safran Foer is an astounding and fascinating story of all the time and distance people travel to find home. The hero’s search for his family history is complicated by his unwillingness to share his search with certain members of his family (particularly his grandmother), and simultaneously questioned by the guide’s cultural understanding of how families function. This challenges both the hero and the guide to reflect on their motivations and push their boundaries beyond what is comfortable into the area where growth happens. While these reflections and growth opportunities are steeped with the painful nudge of nostalgia and resistance to change, they are lightened by the language barrier and miscommunications during the journey, particularly when the guide narrates their adventures through his letters or in his sections telling about their travels. These interactions feel honest and raw, but without the sense of intimidation that sometimes comes with telling the real weight of experiences and emotions. (Though to be sure, the story carries a lot of weight and you will certainly feel the real emotional impact of that). The hero and the guide are relatable, which, instead of shutting down and shutting off, encourages the reader to stay open to what comes up.

I absolutely love this book because it makes me both laugh and cry (which is clearly an objective indicator of excellent writing). The use of language and wordplay throughout the book is phenomenal to the point that it is almost mind-blowing. The first time I read the book, I was utterly confused by the different storylines, but once I figured it out, it made sense. Subsequent re-readings are even more gratifying because I pick up on more nuances in the separate storylines each time. Well worth your time. Actually, it would be better to read this one sooner rather than later.

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A New Earth

By Eckhart Tolle

There are two primary states of consciousness: the consciousness of Being and ego-consciousness. When the self is caught up in ego-consciousness, it becomes overly identified with attachment to identity, to objects, and to ideas about how the world should be rather than acceptance of how the world actually exists. Ego-consciousness imposes beliefs about what should happen in your life, what rights and luxuries you are entitled to, and the unfairness of not having everything according to your personal plan. Ego-consciousness inhibits the ability to see and accept situations as they are, which causes resistance and dissonance, which then causes unhappiness and dissatisfaction because life is not exactly as you imagine it should be. Rather than become mired in hopelessness and frustration, the other option is to see circumstances as they actually exist through awakened consciousness, or Being. Ego-consciousness is the result of human doing; awakened consciousness is human Being. Developing awareness and nonresistance to the current moment helps cultivate awakened consciousness. which provides clear understanding of circumstances and allows you make informed choices about what to do with your life and how to do it. Continuously refocusing on now centers the self, stops repeating stories of pain and suffering, and creates space for growth.

“A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle offers direct and indirect teachings for developing awakened consciousness. Early sections of the book focus on body-identification and physical awareness, which is helpful because the body is more concrete than thought. The body can be touched, sensed, and felt in a way that thoughts cannot, and the exercises he describes for practicing awareness of the body provide a foundation for bringing about conscious awareness. He spends more time describing strategies for developing consciousness awareness, also known as Being, in the rest of the book, which again is helpful because thought is intangible, constant, and reflexive, and requires more effort and practice for developing awareness. Throughout, he describes interactions with others and shares anecdotes of people who are either stuck in ego-consciousness or have moments of awakened consciousness, adding further examples of how ego-consciousness and awakened consciousness manifest. He also constantly reminds the reader that teaching about awakened consciousness is not to be confused or substituted for actual awakened consciousness. “I am the finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.” Achieving awakened consciousness is an individual journey. His suggestions may help point the way, but his suggestions are not the answer.

When I first started reading this book, I found his lessons on body awareness interesting, but constantly found myself asking “but what about thought and emotion? It sounds like the physical ailments he describes would translate to depression and other mental illness; how does this apply to that?” Well, about a dozen pages later he answered that question. It took me a long time to get through this book, mostly because it involved a lot of stopping to think, re-reading, and testing things out. Certainly worth reading when you have a chance, better to do it sooner than later.

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