I picked up 10% Happier based on the title alone, having never heard of Dan Harris and with no clue that mindfulness would be the mechanism he’d recommend for achieving this attainable-yet-substantial goal. “Until recently, I thought of meditation as the exclusive province of bearded swamis, unwashed hippies, and fans of John Tesh music,” the Good Morning America anchor writes in what I would learn is his trademark mischievous wit, that of an intellectual repackaged for the everyman. “Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem, largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment,” he quips, and keeps the laughs coming, as he uses the tale of his own awakening to the power of meditative practice as a framework for introducing and assessing various schools of thought on mindfulness.
Along with our education, we get the stories of a war reporter turned culture reporter (at first, a self-admitted “Anthony Bourdain of spirituality, feeding on the most bizarre fare I could find”) as told by a talented writer. Take this example of Harris’s descriptive prowess:
Ted was really excited about this place—although I got the feeling he could muster equal ebullience while discussing parsnips or annuities. He did, in fact, have the air of a man who could be a top regional insurance salesman. With his short, parted hair and his sparkling eyes, he had the Clintonesque way of locking in on you and making you feel that, at least in that moment, you were the most important person in the world…. Undoubtedly, part of Ted’s appeal was that he had a way of invoking Satan while remaining ceaselessly chipper.
Harris traces Eckhart Tolle’s concept of a voice in our heads “engaged in a ceaseless stream of thinking—most of it negative, repetitive, and self-referential … squawk[ing] away at us from the minute we open our eyes in the morning until the minute we fall asleep at night, if it allows us to sleep at all” back to the Buddhist concept of the “monkey mind.” Harris brings the reader with him as he realizes that the thoughts “skittering through” our heads aren’t irrational, but they also aren’t necessarily true, and learns the power of a little mental distance. “It’s not that my worry suddenly ceased,” he says, “I just wasn’t as taken in by it.”
There’s a “lie we tell ourselves our whole lives,” Harris writes: “as soon as we get the next meal, party, vacation, sexual encounter, as soon as we get married, get a promotion, get to the airport check-in, get through security and consume a bouquet of Auntie Anne’s Cinnamon Sugar Stix, we’ll feel really good.… We live so much of our lives pushed forward by these ‘if only’ thoughts, and yet the itch remains. The pursuit of happiness becomes the source of our unhappiness.”
It finally hit me that I’d been sleepwalking through much of my life—swept along on a tide of automatic, habitual behavior. All of the things I was most ashamed of in recent years could be explained through the ego: chasing the thrill of war without contemplating the consequences, replacing the combat high with coke and ecstasy, reflexively and unfairly judging people of faith, getting carried away with anxiety about work, neglecting Bianca to tryst with my BlackBerry, obsessing about my stupid hair.
The key is to stop worrying about the past and the future, he says, and “make the present moment your friend.”
Then, unlike those he criticizes, Harris gets into the nitty-gritty. By way of example, here’s his break down of the meditative process: 1) sit comfortably with a straight spine, 2) feel the sensations of your breath as it goes in and out, and 3) whenever your attention wanders, forgive yourself and come back to noticing your breath. During the rest of the day, whenever possible, “do only one thing at a time. When you’re on the phone, be on the phone. When you’re in a meeting, be there.” Throughout the day, take “purposeful pauses”: “instead of fidgeting or tapping your fingers while your computer boots up, try to watch your breath for a few minutes. When driving, turn off the radio and feel your hands on the wheel. Or when walking between meetings, leave your phone in your pocket and just notice the sensations of your legs moving.” Try to make being nice “a conscious, daily priority.”
At each stage of Harris’s evolution, skepticism yields to theoretical buy-in which, only after great struggle, eventually bears fruit (e.g., “Mindfulness is … a way to view the contents of our mind with nonjudgmental remove. I found this theory elegant, but utterly unfeasible.”). It’s an accessible, relatable pedagogical technique, and one of many tricks Harris uses to seize and hold the reader’s attention. Like those he pedals in the commercial broadcasting world, Harris’s teasers are as effective as they are blatant (e.g., “I didn’t know it as I sat in the lobby in India absorbing the news, but Ben’s arrival would precipitate a professional crisis”).
I wanted to be annoyed by Harris’s tendency to err on the side of the dramatic, his penchant for reiteration, and the irony of writing both that seeking happiness causes unhappiness and “happiness is a skill” that can be built through practicing x, y, and z. But I couldn’t. How can you dislike a guy who writes a book on mindfulness and ends it this way?
[T]he voice in my head is still, in many ways, an asshole. However, mindfulness now does a pretty good job of tying up the voice and putting duct tape over its mouth. I’m still a maniacally hard worker…. I still believe … that a healthy amount of neuroticism is good. But I also know that widening my circle of concern beyond my own crap has made me much happier.