In Writing

I’ve been meditating since I was 18 years old.  I’ve been a student of the positive psychology movement since it first started making news with books by Martin Seligman and his colleagues and students.  I’ve listened to tapes and attended retreats.  You’d figure that with all of this experience in the “woo woo” field, I would feel pretty sated of “self-help” material.  But no.  Not completely.

Two things conspired to get me to pay attention to 10% HAPPIER by Dan Harris.  One, I was in an airport, and I can not usually resist buying at least one book in an airport bookstore.  (Something about the expert merchandising and the feeling that you have to grab something before you fly off to another city and it’s too late).   The other was the humble claim on the cover.  Had the book been titled NIRVANA FOREVER, I probably would have not given it another glance.  But 10% HAPPIER felt so reasonable, so eminently doable.  I had to check it out.

The story hooked me right away too: Dan Harris, a co-anchor on several important ABC News shows, including Good Morning America Weekend Edition and Nightline, began his quest for enlightenment after an on-air panic attack finally drove the point home that he needed to do something differently.

The charm of the book is its skeptical examination of the self-help industry.  For example, Harris is at once intrigued and repelled by the likes of Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle (of whom he humorously quips, after meeting him and being frustrated by his lack of actionable spiritual advice, “It was as if I’d met a man who’d told me my hair was on fire, and then refused to offer me a fire extinguisher.”).  I’d had the same general feeling after reading Tolle’s book, the legendary THE POWER OF NOW, many years ago: “I get it.  All suffering is caused by regretting the past and worrying about the future and all happiness is found in focusing solely on the now.  But how do I do that?”  Finding that Harris had the same doubts and objections I did instantly endeared him to me.

The 237-page book is a fast read.  I was done with it shortly after the plane landed.  It’s at turns a gossipy insider look at the stresses of network news (Peter Jennings was a bit of a sadist, apparently) and also the highly accessible recounting of a journey (I hesitate to call it “spiritual,” since Harris is a self-professed atheist) to find inner peace through meditation.

Harris expertly catalogs all the objections of the self – this is stupid, I can’t sit still, I’m bored, I can’t clear my mind – to the attempts to meditate.  There is a section near the middle of the book when he tells the story of going on a ten-day silent meditation retreat which is so hilarious that it alone is worth the price of admission.  A short passage:

At the end of the back-and-forth, I look up and see a statue of the Buddha.  Silently, I send him the following message: Fuck you.

Day Five

I wake up desperate.

Having gone on a retreat of only four days’ duration, I can tell you that it is impossibly confronting to sit alone with your thoughts for so many days with none of the usual distractions we use to keep ourselves from feeling the truth about ourselves: work, activity, shopping, cruising the internet, watching TV.  We are rarely alone with our thoughts in silence without some form of escape.  I can’t imagine how he got through ten days of that, but he tells the story so perfectly it’s definitely worth the read.

10% HAPPIER will become my new go-to recommendation for anyone interested in finding a little bit of inner peace.  If you’re afraid that trying out meditation will mean moving to a commune and shaving your head and ringing bells all day, but you secretly wish you could stay normal and yet find a way to quiet the critical voice in your head, this is the book for you.  It’s the best book I’ve read so far that catalogs the pitfalls and the doubts, as well as the great joy, of trying to live more mindfully.  At every turn, Harris is real and insightful and self-deprecating and totally no-bullshit.  Plus, he tells a hell of a story.

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