Book review: Dan Harris, 10% Happier

Ten years ago, it might have been news to report that meditation had arrived in the American mainstream. The signs have been everywhere for some time now: meditation retreats, classes and workshops in Yoga studios, hospitals, universities and office buildings; articles celebrating meditation in popular magazines, from AARP and TIME to Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health, and the rising popularity of new publications like Mindful; news stories report research findings that highlight the benefits of meditation: reducing stress, fostering emotional stability and helping to heal or prevent a wide range of medical conditions.

Today, these ideas are in the air. Go to any mainstream bookstore and you will find at least one shelf, and maybe many, displaying books on Buddhism and meditation. They may be shelved under Eastern religion or spirituality or self-help. Increasingly, they may be showing up in other areas too, including the best sellers section.

Meditation books break through

harris_10percentOne such book is Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, which rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list when it was published in 2014. That may be partly due to name recognition: the author is an ABC News personality familiar to viewers of Good Morning America and Nightline. Beyond that, it was time for such a book to reach readers who had not picked up works by Buddhist thinkers and meditation teachers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Sharon Salzberg. And there is the refreshing candor of the title, which doesn’t over-promise with guarantees of unending bliss or total transformation.

Who doesn’t want to be 10% happier?

Harris tells some of his personal story as an ambitious, skeptical and troubled television reporter. He describes the on-air panic attack (see below) and candidly reveals the recreational drug use that may have caused it. After Harris was recruited to cover the religion beat for ABC by his mentor Peter Jennings, he writes, he covered not only evangelical Christian leaders, such as Ted Haggard (before his downfall), but also self-help figures such as Eckart Tolle and Deepak Chopra–both of whom are profiled in this book.

He discusses a nagging problem: the constant stream of negative mental chatter, the “asshole” in his head, that made him unhappy and obsessive much of the time. Tolle’s ideas on “ego” mind and the power of the present moment had resonated deeply with Harris, who read Tolle’s The New Earth and tried without much success to spread the word to colleagues and friends. The chapter on Chopra (Happiness, Inc.), whom Harris met after Tolle, expands on a familiar theme: he is drawn to something these teachers have to offer, but cannot buy the whole package.

He was introduced to Buddhism through the books of Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist and Buddhist practitioner, and was quickly impressed. But his reportorial skepticism clashed with aspects of Buddhism also. Throughout the book, Harris repeats his opinion that meditation has a huge public relations problem. In the minds of many, it is associated with hippies, Beat poets and “robed gurus.” Suffice it to say that these images did not appeal to Harris, who wanted to remain who he was while–in the words of the book’s subtitle–taming the voice in his head, reducing stress without losing his edge and finding self-help that actually worked.

He can be scathingly funny when writing of how the sharper edges of his personality clashed with the self-consciously spiritual presentation style of some leaders in the Buddhist self-help world. At a meditation gathering featuring the Tara Brach, the popular Buddhist teacher and psychologist, he writes:

She was holding forth in a creamy, cloying tone. The style was astonishingly affected–artificially soft and slow, as if she were trying to give you a Reiki massage with her voice. She exhorted us to love ourselves, “invited” us to close our eyes and “trust in the ocean-ness, in the vastness, in the mystery, in the awareness, in the love–so that you could really sense, ‘Nothing is wrong with me.’ “

Harris came to appreciate Brach and others to whom he took an initial dislike. It’s one manifestation of his growing ability, through meditation practice and studying Buddhist concepts, to respond more and react less, to become a nicer, more tolerant and compassionate person. In time, his mindfulness practice–30 minutes a day–helped him professionally as well. But that didn’t come overnight. There was a dry period, when he seemed to lose his competitive edge and observed passively and with growing frustration as news stories he wanted to cover were assigned to other correspondents. After some period on the sidelines, he learned (on a friend’s advice) to “hide the Zen” and advocate for himself more effectively. Having cultivated qualities like kindness and compassion, he learned to pursue his goals without being a jerk.

One of the most interesting aspects in the book is watching Harris, as he sees it, separating the wheat from the chaff. Eventually, he came to see the qualitative difference between what he sensed was the untethered mysticism of Tolle and Chopra and the solidly grounded value of meditation practice. Harris came to embrace Buddhist concepts and practices, including meta (or loving kindness) meditation, while remaining unconvinced about reincarnation, karma, and other cultural and religious baggage in Buddhism that he has chosen not to carry. Instead, he is drawn to the practical benefits of meditation, including improvement of health conditions ranging from asthma to stress among cancer patients. Notably, one of the few books that Harris recommends in an appendix is Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs.

Becoming convinced

The most memorable chapter may be the long one that features a detailed account of his first meditation retreat, 10 days of noble silence at Spirit Rock in California. During those days, of course, he came face-to-face with himself. The experience brought many highs and lows: the dread of enforced silence; the boredom, tedium and fatigue of long hours alone with his thoughts; a period of euphoria, and tears of joy, brought on by a session of metta meditation; his private consultations with Joseph Goldstein, the lead teacher, whom Harris came to admire; and maybe most important, the teachings he could apply in his daily life.

Harris shares nuggets of wisdom that were especially significant for him. One came during a Q-and-A session near the end of the retreat, when Goldstein told the group not to spend too much time thinking about what they would need to do, post-retreat, when they reentered the world. Harris raised his hand to question this: If I miss my plane, that’s a genuine problem. These are not just irrelevant thoughts.” Goldstein conceded the point, but added, “when you find yourself running through your trip to the airport for the seventeenth time, perhaps ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this useful?’ ”

Harris comes to understand the Buddhist concepts his teachers have emphasized: impermanence, mindfulness, choiceless awareness, sympathetic joy. He also learned what Buddhism doesn’t teach: being unfeeling, detachment from our practical concerns or nihilistic indifference to the world around us. He comes to realize that happiness and compassion are not rare qualities possessed by a few highly evolved beings, but skills that can be cultivated and learned by anyone. Many newcomers to meditation are struck by hyperactivity in their minds and frustrated by the unending need to return to the breath. Harris quotes Salzberg: “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation.”

If you wonder what meditation might be able to do for you, consider this passage from Harris’ review of brain research:

The old conventional wisdom was that once we reached adulthood, our brain stopped changing. This orthodoxy was now replaced with a new paradigm, called neuroplasticity. The brain, it turns out, is constantly changing in response to experience. It’s possible to sculpt your brain through meditation just as you build and tone your body through exercise–to grow your gray matter the way doing curls grows your bicep.

This idea contradicted widespread cultural assumptions about happiness that are reflected in the etymology of the word itself. The root hap means “luck,” as in hapless or haphazard. What the science was showing was that our levels of well-being, resilience, and impulse control were not simply God-given traits, our portion of which we had to accept as a fait accompli. The brain, the organ or experience, through which our entire lives are led, can be trained. Happiness is a skill.

I’ll leave you with a video of Harris summarizing his journey and telling the story behind the book.

Comments are closed