Katherine A. CARROLL, NTP
10% Happier. How I Tamed The Voice In My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, And Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story by Dan Harris (ISBN 978-0-06-226543-2; paperback; $12.95; ISBN 978-0-06-226542-5; hardback;$15.99; ISBN 978-0-06-233189-2; audio; $27.14; Nook, $14.99); 2014; HarperCollins Publishers; 237 pages.)
The book, 10% Happier came my way, requesting a review, from a public-relations firm representing TV co-anchor Dan Harris and his first book. Bottom line: I see a movie. It is stimulating, dense; unexpectedly so. While I would not normally buy a book about a TV co-anchor or meditation, the marriage of the two and the journey in-between worked in an enjoyable, enlightening way.
Harris is co-anchor of Nightline and the weekend editions of Good Morning America, reporter for 20/20, World News, and week-day editions of Good Morning America. He worked with Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer, who now meditates. It is common knowledge that many first books are auto-biographical but none more so than 10%Happier, which takes you into the inner sanctum of competitive network news while simultaneously weaving in meditation and his fascinating revelations. 10%Happier was the winner of the 2014 Living Now Book Award for Inspirational Memoir. I concur.
We all share the common problem Harris sought to eradicate: the incessant mental-menagerie. It has been called the monkey-mind aptly; a million chattering mental-gibbons. We can learn to master the con-stant babble considering the brain is as trainable as any muscle and we live our life through its lens, per Harris. Or, we can, as Harris did, succumb to panic attacks, insomnia, drug and alcohol self-medication to stop the noise, or just being “a jerk” reacting rather than responding.
10% Happier provides a front row seat to Harris’ naked mind; there, you will see your own reflected in it. His experience will convince you that standing behind the “waterfall” of our torrent of thoughts versus getting caught up in the flow and carried away is wise. This is “mindfulness.” It is effective in turning off the default of ruminating on the past, projecting into the future, or being caught up in self. It is a skill, learn-able like any other.
Harris hooked me, however, on his pertinent, comical writing. The one-liners alone are worth the price of the book; fresh, hilarious, and imaginative, no tired clichés. My underlines in the volume reflect his virgin-glance as much as the wittily-conveyed wisdom. He took a lot of risks with this book, interviewing and then proceeding to “roast” every single person; I loved every page of it. Now Eckhart Tolle realizes (if he reads the book) that he truly does look like a character from The Hobbit – and this got an audible chuckle out of me, written as Harris endures a 10-day retreat into silence with other meditators: “These people all seem so grim. Turns out, mindfulness isn’t a cute look. Everyone is in their own World, trying to stay in the moment. The effort of concentration produces facial expressions that range from blank to defecatory.” And, no, that last word wasn’t even in my spell-check dictionary. This man has imagination!
There is a 30-minute summary available but the longer version is so funny and interesting it’s worth any extra time to read for the sake of sheer originality. Harris gives a concise summary that teaches many forms of meditation and answers basic questions non-meditators may have so you will get to the point … eventually, and have a humorous escapade of your own along the way.
Harris’ goal in writing 10% Happier is to bring meditation out of the stereotypical “socks and sandals set,” fettered by the bonds of Buddhism and Hinduism complete with chants, bowing, gongs, and in-cense. The payoff, Harris postulates, is less reactivity, less rumination, and more happiness by cultivating mindfulness. Later de-scribing it as the “best tool I know for neutralizing the voice in the head,” it is clear that Harris could not have been a more unlikely proponent initially. He admits to closing his mind prematurely and prejudging something he did not under-stand as many others do as well.
What Harris did understand was that contemplating integrating meditating into one’s life encompasses preconceived notions, judgments, myths, and consequently avoidance. Initially, he admits the thought of meditation and enlightenment provoked a “sort of intellectual gag reflex.” He agrees that meditation Buddhist-style isn’t a religion. It is just common sense. It has healing benefits. It is available to all faiths/non-faiths if the baggage can be jettisoned. A mainstream TV career and being a self-proclaimed Jewish agnostic worked against him five years ago when his adventure arrived in his life. Now, he wouldn’t be without it.
Harris’ meditation investigation into what Jeff Warren calls “the next frontier of human exploration,” began as a work assignment. Peter Jennings gave Harris the job of reporting on the spiritual landscape during the G. W. Bush era when questions of faith seemed to be at the heart of all matters. That, coupled with an on-air panic at-tack related to his war reporting with its lingering PTSD and subsequent drug use, initiated a journey he wouldn’t have taken otherwise.
Harris’ interviews of Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, the Dalai Lama, Pastor Ted Haggard, and several self-help gurus all left him wanting real solutions to questions he posed, such as the balance between ambition and equanimity, or, the “price of security” married with the “wisdom of insecurity,” which he subsequently finds through meditation and non attachment to results.
Finally, Dr. Mark Epstein offered him an actual, practical program through meditation. Encouraging him to seek out Joseph Goldstein, his own teacher, and a 10-day retreat of silence (which horrified him as much as it would most of us) opened up a broader horizon for Harris. He asserts that “the net effect of meditation, plus trying to stay fully present during his daily life, was striking. It was like anchoring myself to an underground aquifer of calm.” Many times he claims the “off-cushion” benefits even while squirming to sit on one.
Scientists have studied how meditation impacts the brain and health, reducing stress and disease. So, why are there still so many misconceptions such as, “Meditation makes you empty your mind” and “It looks like you’ve joined the cult”? While there is still some controversy with every branch of religion, a mindfulness meditation technique (MBSR) was created in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn as a tool for mental hygiene divorced from any religious affiliation.
The list of health benefits meditation impacts is significant: major depression, drug addiction, binge eating, smoking cessation, stress, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, asthma, ADHD, and more. It can even rewire the brain. Studies based upon Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR method cited in 10%Happier show more gray matter in the areas of the brain associated with awareness and compassion, while the regions associated with stress actually shrank.
Another Yale study shows that meditation rewires the area of the brain called the default mode network (DMN) associated with ruminating about the past, obsessing about ourselves, and projecting into the future. This area deactivates under active meditation but the effect remains when not. A new default is created. This is powerful and it is measurable. You can “grow your gray matter the way doing curls grows your biceps.”
Harris summarizes, “Meditation is worth the risk. … Under the sway of the ego, life becomes a constant low-grade cri-sis. You’re never sated, never satisfied, al-ways reaching for the next thing, like a colicky baby. Meditation is the antidote.” He asserts five minutes daily of focused breathing, designed to foster mindfulness, will change your life particularly in the area of emotional reactivity. Responding instead of reacting is the goal here and stopping the mental churn of habitual thoughts.
Large American corporations like Aetna, Proctor & Gamble, Target, and General Mills in Minnesota and even the U.S. Forest Service and the Marines are teaching meditation to their staff and recruits. Meditation has invaded the financial world of The Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Re-view and being taught in business school. In Silicon Valley it is known as a “software upgrade for the brain.” Wired magazine says it’s the Tech World’s “new caffeine.” Harris envisions a day when the World is changed because meditation is common practice.
Many of us in health and health-freedom work want the same: To leave the World a better place. If you haven’t investigated meditation or if you are reluctant, consider reading this book. It just might change your life in five minutes a day and at minimum you will laugh your way to the end of it.
© 2014 Katherine A. Carroll