Dan Harris, the author of 10% Happier, was an ABC News correspondent who had a very public panic attack on live TV (start at 0:49):
This incident was the result of Dan’s incredible ambition, competitiveness, and casual drug use. The public meltdown sent Dan down a path of soul-searching and studying the science of stress and happiness. He decided to sober up, go into therapy, and took on a project to interview spirituality-themed religious and self-help gurus for the news network.
After a long string of bullshit-fueled conversations with some of the worst hypocrites he could find, Dan hit upon something that seemed to answer his questions: mindfulness. As Dan puts it:
The best self-help out there is to realize that there’s no self to help.
What is mindfulness? When we encounter something, we respond in one of the three habitual ways: we either want it, or we reject it, or we just zone out. At its essence, mindfulness is about adding a fourth habitual response to our system: observing things the way they are, in a non-judgemental way. After a little practice, you’ll be able to be mindful of the more difficult things in life: your emotions and thoughts. You can practice mindfulness, and train your brain to get better at it through meditation.
Meditation at its essence is very simple. Sit down, get comfortable, and focus on your breath. Inevitably, you will lose your focus, and this is where the most important part of meditation comes in: realizing that you’ve gotten distracted and bringing your attention back to your breath. This is the core part of meditation. Keep losing focus, and keep bringing your mind back to the breath. This loss of focus is extremely natural, and it’s nothing to feel guilty or sad about. It’s this moment that gives you a chance to train your mind: the whole point of the exercise is to note that you got distracted, and gently bring the focus back to the breath. Meditation helps you shut down your monkey brain for a moment.
Dan later talks about the four-step process to handle stressful situations in life, which he calls the RAIN Technique. The first step is to Recognize and acknowledge your feelings. The second step is to Allow the pain to just be as you lean into it. The third step is to Investigate how the situation is impacting your body. And the last and fourth step is Non-identification: realize that just because you feel pain or frustration or guilt or anger right now does not mean you are an angry or broken person. It is simply a phase happening at this moment, not your identity as a person.
For a competitive person like Dan, one of the obvious next questions was to figure if he would lose his edge and become a pushover if he practices meditation and becomes mindful of things. After all, if your ego is your drive to achieve greater things, won’t you lose your edge if you completely let go of it? Dan discovers on his journey to tame his ego that high levels of stress or the need for competition weren’t necessary to fuel his drive. Meditation removes your need to compete since you see the world for what it is. It lets you approach things more clearly instead of the usual aggressive stress, and as Dan discovered on a 10-day meditation retreat, this makes you more productive than not.
Dan argues that meditation has a PR problem:
… largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment. If you can get past the cultural baggage, though, what you’ll find is that meditation is simply exercise for your brain. It’s a proven technique for preventing the voice in your head from leading you around by the nose. To be clear, it’s not a miracle cure. It won’t make you taller or better-looking, nor will it magically solve all of your problems. You should disregard the fancy books and the famous gurus promising immediate enlightenment. In my experience, meditation makes you 10% happier. That’s an absurdly unscientific estimate, of course. But still, not a bad return on investment.
This book makes a genuine effort to strip the practice down to its essentials — it’s the perfect book for converting the skeptics of meditation to non-skeptics (by a former skeptic.)
P.S.: If you’re looking to get started with meditation, I can’t recommend Headspace enough.
This is #27 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site.