I’ve read eight books since the start of the new year and yet this book, 10% Happier seems to be the one I’m thinking about most (well, besides A Little Life, which I finished yesterday; I can’t quite talk about that one yet). You may recognize the author Dan Harris from Good Morning America or Nightline or a variety of short pieces featured on various ABC news programs. He’s a journalist with a fevered, almost maniacal work ethic, who, after years of war correspondence, recreational drug use, and chasing stories around the world, hit rock bottom when he had a panic attack on GMA one morning.
From there he visited a series of therapists and counselors to help him ween himself off drugs and find ways of coping with the stress from his highly competitive job in news broadcasting. This stress, which manifested in physical symptoms as well as emotional ones, was overtaking his life.
Simultaneously, he was covering the religious beat for Nightline news and interviewing religious radicals across the US and world. Having grown up in a secular home, he was shocked to find himself suddenly intrigued by the idea of meditation, which had previously seemed too spiritual and fluffy to actually be of use.
With the help of teachers, silent meditation retreats, endless literature, and gurus, Harris began his own meditation practice. His credits his daily sessions with making him 10% happier than he once was, and far more calm and collected at work; no more on-air panic attacks.
Harris was once one of meditation’s biggest skeptics so there is a lot of hemming and hawing in the book. He is reluctant to acknowledge its benefits, but they quickly become a cornerstone of his professional success. The key, he says, is to quiet the inner brain chatter than can quickly derail one’s best intentions. In fact, the subtitle reads: “How I tamed the voice in my head, reduced stress without losing my edge, and found self-help that actually works–a true story.” It’s a bold claim, but the book is incredibly persuasive.
One passage, with its beautiful simplicity, stuck with me:
“Instead of mindlessly criticizing [someone]…[one can] calmly and tactfully disagree. Seeing a problem clearly does not prevent you from taking action…Acceptance is not passivity. Sometimes we are justifiably displeased. What mindfulness does is create some space in your head so you can, as the Buddhists say, ‘respond’ rather than simply ‘react.’ In the Buddhist view, you can’t control what comes up in your head; it all arises out of a mysterious void. We spend a lot of time judging ourselves harshly for feelings that we had no role in summoning. The only thing you can control is how you handle it.” (emphasis my own)
Respond, don’t react. How could our interactions with others be transformed if we adhered to this simple mantra?
Meditation does not have to be a spiritual practice, though much of its fundamentals come from Buddhism. But I don’t think one needs to convert to Buddhism in order to understand and utilize many of the religion’s beliefs. Or am I naïvely believing I can sample religions like a buffet? Either way, I’m intrigued.
So intrigued, in fact, that I’m thinking of taking up my own meditation practice. At the end of yoga or other light exercise, I usually spend a few minutes in a supine pose relaxing with my breath. This is something I started years ago and it’s very calming and restorative. So, I’m already halfway there. I want to take it further, however, and I’m looking forward to the challenge, as well as the positive results.
Mindfulness has been coopted by a variety of organizations and self-help fields: mindful eating; mindful budgeting; mindful parenting; mindful leadership. I’m hoping to apply the concept more broadly, however, and naturally incorporate into different parts of my life. How can I be more mindful of my own thoughts, and how does that translate into my interactions with my world and others around me?
What are your thoughts? Have you tried meditating before? How do you slow the endless brain chatter? The kind that gets you down or gets you needlessly worked up?
P.S. Here’s a really nice short relaxation exercise that you can do at home. I love this line: “Feel sounds passing through your awareness without untangling you.” How often have you felt that a sound—traffic, screaming, construction—has untangled you? Such a good way to put it.
(image via Buzzfeed)