Dan Harris' "10% Happier" Talk at Google

“Constructive anguish vs useless rumination” — these are, per Dan Harris, your options.

This Google Talk is Dan Harris' full presentation on mindfulness and his book, 10% Happier.  If you watched Charlie Rose's interview of Harris, posted here a few weeks ago, you should know the content of that interview is basically a condensed version of this talk—Harris even uses the same jokes, in the same places.  Though a lot of the talk was familiar to me, I still found it worthwhile because the full talk goes into greater depth and is followed by an interesting Q&A.

My highlights and takeaways from the video:

The Monkey Mind
Or, Mindfulness Helps Control the Voice in Your Head

Harris came upon the idea that our minds are dominated by a voice—the voice is ours but feels separate from us, and it carries us on lengthy, repetitive, and often exhausting excursions away from what we’d prefer to be thinking about.  It affects our moods, revels in rehashing the past, and plays what-if with the future.

Harris' first introduction to this came from a popular new-age huckster who called the voice, simply, “the voice in the head”, but he later learned that Buddhism has been dealing with this voice for millennia—the historical Buddha called it (rather wonderfully, I think) “the monkey mind”:

“According to the Buddha, our minds are like furry little gibbons constantly lurching through a forest of urges and impulses and desires, always grasping at things that will not last in a universe characterized by impermanence, hurling ourselves from one pleasant encounter to the next…and yet never fully satisfied. (If you think about it, how many great meals have you had?  Are you done?  We’re insatiable.)”

The Buddha's advice for taming the monkey mind is developing a "gorilla mind", because gorillas are much more calm and placid than gibbons.

No that's not true, I just made that up.  The Buddha's advice on dealing with the monkey mind was meditation.  Millennia later, the advice remains sound, but we can strip the Buddhism from it and practice it as a secular exercise.

Respond Wisely Instead of Reacting Blindly
Or, Mindfulness Applied In A Starbucks

Harris gives "a simple, serviceable definition of mindfulness":

“It is the skill to know what’s happening in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it.”

He goes on to give an example of what this could look like:

“You’re on line in Starbucks and someone cuts you off.  You think, ‘I’m pissed’, and then reflexively inhabit the thought and become pissed.  With mindfulness, you might notice your anger, and the act of noticing gives you the distance to think, ‘maybe I don’t need to do this right now, to react this way right now.’”

It’s not that you never need to get angry.  Sometimes it’s the appropriate reaction.  It's just that it shouldn't happen without your input.  You should know what you're doing and, ideally, why.  And this can be applied not just to anger and annoyance but to other feelings. 

The end result is that you are better able to "respond wisely… instead of reacting blindly."

Easier said than done, and very close to being trite, but I'll give mindfulness the benefit of the doubt that it can help you trend closer to this ideal.

A Growing Body of Science Backs Mindfulness' Benefits
(But Sometimes Harris Sounds Like He's Drunk the Kool-Aid)

Harris notes there’s "an almost laughably long list of health benefits" to mindfulness, and a growing body of science to prove it. 

He goes on to say that when you’re meditating "you are effectively doing neurosurgery on yourself,” and that studies have shown that concerted mindfulness practice does things like grow the brain areas associated with compassion, and shrinks those associated with stress.

I think this is the weakest angle of his presentation. It’s not that I don’t believe it, exactly, it’s just that “scientific studies” are reported to say all sorts of things—one day eggs are to be avoided at all cost, the next day they’re a superfood.  And scientific reporting is always quick to take real findings out of context—so they might mention that dark chocolate helps ward off dementia but play down the fact that this finding was based on a week-long study of two mice force fed the annual chocolate yield of Belgium.

The point being, I’m pretty skeptical of anyone who makes wild claims about science, and hearing things like “you are effectively doing neurosurgery on yourself” raises the eyebrows

Harris is careful to note mindfulness is not a cure-all—he named his book 10% Happier exactly to underscore that it is not—but he sometimes talks as if it is.

All that said, and in his defense, I've always had the impression that mindfulness has been studied a lot, and all Harris is really saying is that in the course of his reporting, he’s gotten to talk to lots of sincere scientists doing honest research, the results of which suggest mindfulness is good for you.

It’s not so outlandish when phrased reasonably.  You could talk breathlessly about aerobic exercise as a miraculous thing, too.

Happiness is a Skill...
Wait, What?

I don’t yet know what to make of this notion, but it’s something Harris repeats a lot:

“We assume, consciously or unconsciously, that our happiness depends on external factors. The quality of our childhood, did we get a promotion recently, how’s our love life, but in fact—and I’m not going to argue that those don’t matter, but in fact—happiness is a skill, you can train your mind and your brain to be happy just the way you can train your bicep in the gym.  And this is an incredibly powerful and liberating notion.” 

Harris admits this is the sort of thing that turns off intelligent, skeptical people, but he strains to explain it shouldn’t.  I'm holding off on making judgements, for now.

You Don’t “Clear” Your Mind

From the Q&A: “You don’t have to 'clear' your mind, you’re just focusing on one thing."

The two are different.  Mindful meditation is an exercise to train your mind to maintain focus, and to train yourself to note and put a stop to useless rumination.

It’s Hard

Again from the Q&A: “Its kind of like going to the gym.  If you go and it’s easy, you’re doing it wrong." 

It gets easier and you'll get better at it, but you'll be constantly "failing" to focus.  (In my last progress report I talked a bit about how I came to internalize this notion.)

Constructive Anguish vs Useless Rumination
Or, There Will Still Be Stress

Mindfuless, again, is not a cure-all.  If you’re working through a difficult problem, it’s not like its attendant hardships and stresses will suddenly be gone just because you're meditating daily.  But those hardships and stresses are the good stuff, they're constructive, they're something you’ve willingly signed yourself up for.  The other stuff, the stuff mindfulness aims to quell, is just useless rumination.

“Constructive anguish vs useless rumination” — these are, per Dan Harris, your options.