Part memoir, part magazine article, part textbook, 10% Happier is an excellent introduction to mindful meditation.
Part I: The Actual Review
My first introduction to mindfulness came a few months ago, when someone gave me the instructions on how to meditate and also recommended I read 10% Happier by Dan Harris, the ABC News anchor and mindfulness proselytizer. I watched his book-tour presentation, in which he summarizes his book and neatly defines mindfulness, and I liked his take on the topic. Harris approaches mindfulness as a skeptic, a secular and ironic newsman allergic to spirituality and the cloying new-age affectations of many a meditator. He presents mindful meditation as a practical exercise, "a bicep curl for your brain". Though its origins are Buddhist, he says, you don't need to buy into Buddhist metaphysics (reincarnation, pure lands, celestial beings), or to believe in anything at all, to benefit from the exercise. That all sounded swell to me.
I worried at first that 10% Happier wouldn't contain much that wasn't already well-covered in the presentation, but the book quickly proves itself—all the topics mentioned in the lecture are covered in greater depth in the book. It covers the history of meditation, from its Buddhist origins to its more recent foothold at the edges of the American mainstream, and it expands on the practical instructions of meditation. Those instructions can be boiled down to three steps you can read in a minute and put into practice immediately, but Harris goes on to describe several of his meditations in a kind of blow-by-blow thought-narrative sort of way I found just as useful as the initial, pithy instructions. The thought-narratives assured me I was meditating correctly (because I recognized them as similar to my own) and also reminded me of what I was supposed to be doing while meditating (for example, you're told to focus on your breathing and that's pretty simple, but it can be helpful to break even simple instructions into pieces, so: breath; when you breath, you feel sensations in your nose or chest or gut; focus on that; if you have trouble, it's okay to think in and out, as you go).
The book's climax and strongest section is a day-by-day recount of a ten-day silent retreat. Harris recounts both his physical experiences while meditating and some ideas he learned from the retreat’s guides. Alongside the Appendix and the FAQ at the end of the book, this section works not just as a story but feels well-suited for rereading, later, as reference material.
Harris is a pretty good writer, sometimes edging alongside the profound, and other times being simply funny. When describing his initial efforts to focus on his breathing, he says, "Focusing on the breath as a way to temporarily stop thinking was like using a broom to sweep a floor crawling with cockroaches." And on looking around a room full of meditators: "The effort of concentration produces facial expressions that range from blank to defecatory." (On describing his friend Sam Harris, he says Harris's face has "just a touch of the shtetl", which is spot on and also speaks to some of why I find Dan Harris' style so comfortable: he frequently and easily references his secular Jewishness, and his voice reminds me of friends and of myself.)
You might imagine quitting your job, then imagine never getting another one, losing your family, wandering the earth in increasingly torn pants, and ending up in a ditch, covered in gasoline, on fire.
The book isn't perfect, of course. I got the sense throughout that Harris was playing up his own foolishness and skepticism, in order to then better contrast himself with his teachers and trace himself a more dramatic evolution. And the narrative of that evolution is quite neat, so much so that I wondered how much he'd massaged the truth to fit the story arc. Lastly, Harris himself is not the perfect messenger: as much as I admired his writing and liked him (or his presentation of himself), he is a man whose early ambitions have to a great extent been achieved, and whose job, which he reminds us several times he loves, also happens to come with a lot of money, prestige, and exotic experiences. Though his troubles are sincerely and compellingly portrayed, I can't shake the idea that he'd been on pretty good footing all along, and was well primed for his mini-enlightenment.
But I note these things only so that I can counter them myself: these are small issues, and overall I not only enjoyed this book but found it useful. It delivers a lot of information about mindfulness in a compact, easy-to-digest, and often amusing way. And it does it without all the new-age affectations that often accompany the practice. Part memoir, part magazine article, part textbook, 10% Happier is an excellent introduction to mindful meditation.
Part II: Actually, This is Still the Review
My intent in these blog posts is to keep a kind of open log of what I’ve learned, in hopes of remembering and understanding it better. To that end, I wanted to note and recap a few personal takeaways from the book.
Harris focuses on this old Buddhist concept early on. Prapañca is when you imagine something happening, then zoom past a sequence of resulting events and plop yourself at the tail-end to suffer the consequences.
For example, you might imagine quitting your job, then imagine never getting another one, losing your family, wandering the earth in increasingly torn pants, and ending up in a ditch, covered in gasoline, on fire.
(Harris’ bouts of prapañca tend to leave him destitute. Mine are usually different: I tail-end to an incredibly awesome future, only to then be disappointed in the return to reality. Another name for this, I suppose, is daydreaming.)
Having a label for this makes it easier to note it when it happens, and noting it makes it easier to stop it or, at least, be less affected by it.
One of the aims in meditation is to get "off-the-cushion" benefits. The meditation itself is an exercise to help strengthen your concentration and awareness of your own mind and all sorts of good stuff. But there should be benefits outside of meditation, and you should get better at being mindful in the day-to-day. If feeling angry, anxious, fearful—or happy and triumphant—you can note the feelings, then set yourself at a remove, and then know it will pass. For negative experiences, this is a comfort. For positive ones, it is an incentive to enjoy them in the moment. Simple, but not so easy. It’s a process, at first an effort, then a habit, and hopefully, eventually, a reflex.
Maybe the 17th time you worry over the same thing, you can stop, step back, and ask yourself, “is this useful?"
In Harris' description of his first breakthrough meditation (my phrasing, not his), he described choiceless awareness, a new concept for me.
"Once you've built up enough concentration...you can drop your obessive focus on the breath and just 'open up' to whatever is there.”
I haven’t felt this quite yet, so I’m not going to be able to describe it in my own way, but his thought-by-thought telling of it happening gave me a good impression. (See page 138 in the 1st Dey St. paperback edition.)
"Is this useful?"
One of the confusing things about mindfulness is the idea that it helps you to “be present", but people often don't define what being present means. My understanding of this has come to be that to be present is basically to not be uselessly mulling the future or ceaselessly rehashing the past. Swell. But isn't it sometimes necessary to mull the future? Sometimes you need to prepare, to fear, to worry. Harris asks one of his teachers, and the teacher acknowledges that sometimes it is necessary. He then suggests that maybe the 17th time you worry over the same thing, you can stop, step back, and ask yourself, “is this useful?"
RAIN: Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Non-Identify.
This acronym describes a method to apply mindfulness' concentration outside of meditation. If something's causing you useless stress or worry, try to key in on this acronym and what it stands for:
Recognize it—just the act of recognition will help you gain a remove from it.
Allow it—you can’t always fight it, you have to let yourself be.
Investigate it—is your chest tightening?, is your head spinning?, etc.
Stop identifying with it—remind yourself that, whatever you're feeling, it'll pass. Just because you are feeling whatever you're feeling, it doesn't mean you are those feelings.
Full disclosure: this all feels a extremely fuzzy to me, and I’m not sure I absorbed it particularly well. I did, however, get a sense there was something useful here and wanted to highlight it to help myself remember.
The idea here is that you might really want something to happen, and work very hard to make it happen, but then at some point it's out of your control and it’s best to recognize this. Otherwise you try to control the uncontrollable and stress yourself the heck out. Here I'll just quote Harris quoting Mark Epstein:
"It's like, you write a book, you want it to be well received, you want it to be at the top of the bestsellers list, but you have limited control over what happens. You can hire a publicist, you can do every interview, you can be prepared, but you have very little control over the marketplace. So you put it out there without attachment, so it has its own life. Everything is like that."
"You can do your best and then, if things don't go your way, still become unconstructively upset, in a way that hinders your ability to bounce back. Dropping the attachment is the real trick."
"When you are wisely ambitious, you do everything you can to succeed, but you are not attached to the outcome—so that if you fail you will be maximally resilient…"
This all might be hard to imagine doing with something as huge as a book is to its writer, but it helps to imagine it on a smaller scale—imagine asking someone out on a date. You can do your best to be awesome, but you can’t control the other person.