10% Happier by Dan Harris

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

10% Happier
What mindfulness does is create some space in your head so you can, as the Buddhists say, "respond" rather than simply "react."


This year, I have been on a self help kick. Mostly on topics related to mindfulness, productivity, and being happy. I think feeling overwhelmed occasionally is the reason for it. And stress of course - who doesn't have that problem? When I came across Dan Harris' 10% Happier, all my neurons were intrigued. Besides,
  • It has a promising title.
  • It is a story of one person's attempt to be happier rather than a general 'How to be Happy' book.
  • Also, it sounded like a light read - something I was looking for to complement the other heavy reading I was doing at the time (Emperor of all Maladies).
Dan Harris starts off with the story of what triggered his interest in meditation. In 2004, he suffered a meltdown in front of millions of viewers of Good Morning America. He attributes the episode to stress, ambition, and his drug habit and realizes that he needs help. Shortly after, he is tasked with covering religion - a subject he hated and mocked openly. He would play the part of an intrigued audience during his interviews with evangelicals but once that was over, he would revert back to his usual cynical self. At this point, a friend introduces him to Eckhart Tolle - whose books he found to ooze with the nonsense mumbo gumbo that he has by now come to associate with religion but also occasionally be sprinkled with wise words, that he doesn't know what to make of it. He realizes surprisingly that he wants the same benefits that many people get from religion or spirituality but without having to follow a faith. He isn't sure there is an answer out there though because all the evangelicals or meditation gurus he meet don't appear convincing to him. It is months later when he was close to giving up that he comes across Mark Epstein, who introduces him to meditation AND makes him realize that, contrary to his beliefs, meditation doesn't involve talking or walking like a zombie.

Note: Despite the talk about religion and spirituality in the first three chapters of the book, 10% Happier is not about religion at all. Rather, it is about a lot of misconceptions that Harris has regarding faith and meditation.
 
I will admit to not liking Dan Harris much. He was the kind of the person who hated religion so much that he derided other people's beliefs. He had no idea what Buddhism was about nor did he want to jump on the meditation 'fad', claiming it was religion as well. He also admits often that he had these annoying traits and I get why he kept talking about it - there are plenty of people like him, who believe that to meditate requires you to chant and talk in a sugary voice and not be ambitious. To make these people realize that those are misconceptions, it helps to admit one's own fallacious beliefs. That didn't make reading about him easy though. I guess I am biased here because I grew up in a land close to where Buddhism was born and I had lessons in my History class about the Buddha and Buddhism. I am, however, not a religious person but I respect another person's need for faith. It just bothers me when someone talks like an expert on subjects they know nothing about.

Dan Harris was also not hesitant to call someone's bluff. He had no issues criticizing or mocking someone. While I agreed with his thoughts to some extent, I cringed at the blunt way in which he expounded his beliefs.

But, as ironic as this may sound, those issues I had with the author are exactly the reasons why I enjoyed the book a lot. I appreciated the lengths to which he was willing to go to understand how meditation works. Despite being in a job where you can easily lose gigs or be overlooked for promotion. Will he eventually be that perfect person who had no issues with anything, who always thought through every idea, and who was very aware of every breath he made? And how would this affect his ambitious personality? Would he stop caring about his work? Would he slow down?

As someone who has been focusing this year on being more mindful, I loved reading about Dan Harris' discovery of self. His complete ignorance on the subject at the beginning makes this book perfect for any newbie to the meditation world. I liked how he explained that being mindful doesn't require you to sit under a tree for years to attain nirvana. There is plenty of misinformation out there regarding Buddhism, mainly because of how this faith is packaged by money-makers. I loved that he explained that Buddhism is less a religion and more a philosophy - something to aspire to live your life by.

Sprinkled throughout the book are several strategies that Harris learned about how to meditate. Years ago, when I wanted to meditate, I was most struggling with the idea of how to focus only on my breath and not on any of the 100 ideas that pass through my brain, especially when I want to shush it. Harris had the same worry. Several of his teachers corrected him - the point was not to clear your mind but to be aware of what you are thinking and not let them take over. I don't have this mastered at all. But I loved getting this different perspective into how to meditate. My brain loves to have conversations with itself but now, I am aware when it happens and able to stop it. (For the uninitiated, one of the habits that meditation tries to encourage is less time spent thinking and more time actually doing AND being present in whatever it is you are doing.)

By the time I turned the last page, I loved this book. It has made me more excited about being mindful and more aware of myself. I haven't exactly sat down and meditated but it's something I want to give a try. As soon as my baby complies with that wish.
 

This book is from my personal library.

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