I just finished reading reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris. It’s one of those rare books that I get through from beginning to end in a single sitting, I just couldn’t imagine putting it down.
There are plenty of reasons for a book to have that kind of an effect on me. Most of the time it’s because of a riveting plot or a particularly interesting topic. This time around, however, it was something entirely different that made me unable to put this book aside. As weird as it may sound, I think the reason I fell so hard for this book was that it managed to poke at that dark recess in my mind whose cries for help I’ve been ignoring for way too long.
Respond, Not React
Let me bring you back a year or so.
In the late months of 2014, I suddenly found myself having a stress-related nervous breakdown. It had been building up in the background for a while, but I wasn’t able to recognize it at the time. I was trying to juggle a full-time job, a collection of very demanding hobbies and an even more demanding relationship. I’ve always been a high performer and held myself to high standards, but apparently this was all too much for me to cope with. I didn’t realize the pressure that I was under until it was too late, and I hit the wall. I hit it hard.
Over the next few months, I started going to cognitive behavior therapy, as well as getting some initial meditation practice as a way to help me out. Also, for obvious reasons, I tried reducing the amounts of things that I was up to on a day to day basis. It all started helping me, and I slowly began dipping my toe into the dating pool again. The stress began to diminish, and up until April/May of 2015, things felt like they were heading in the right direction.
Then the relationship collapsed and my mother’s cancer returned, all at about the same time. The next three and a half months were all about her, and I forgot about dealing with my own issues. She died in August 2015, and my life collapsed all around me again – despite me carrying on the façade of being on top of things.
It took until some time around October or November before I started finding my way back to a meditation practice. By that time, I’d lost about 10kg (~22 lbs), wasn’t taking care of myself properly and had been piling things back onto my schedule again, just to keep busy and my mind off of things. I took on more work than I should have, deciding to revamp my company’s website from the ground up and start learning a whole lot of new skills and meet new people. I didn’t get back into the meditation habit proper until about a month ago, but I’ve been doing it almost every day since then.
The Triumph of Narcissism over Fear
Reading 10% Happier, I realized that some of Dan’s journeys, concerns and initial misgivings echoed my own. The book reads more like a memoir than a self-help guide, and brings you through some of his darkest moments and his brightest, all the way up to his realization that meditation has made him – give or take – about ten per cent happier, hence the title of the book.
The book also reminds us that Buddhism and meditation aren’t a panacea. There’s no magic formula in them that solves all the world’s ills. Used effectively, however, I’ve found exactly what Dan did – they’re an amazing tool to get control of your internal narrator – that voice in your head that keeps comparing yourself to others, worrying about the future, mulling over the past, telling yourself that things might be terrible in so many ways. This is what Dan is talking about in his book – his journey to finding out that very thing.
Meditation isn’t woo woo, and it’s not something exclusive to hacky-sack playing pot smokers who non-ironically say “Namaste” to each other. You don’t need to sit cross-legged and chant “Aum” for hours on end or chant in groups. Quite the contrary, meditation is hard, and just like any skill it requires lots of training. It’ll feel strange in the beginning, and you’ll worry that you’re doing it wrong – just like the first time you try your hand at painting, deadlifts, singing, programming or juggling. Over time, however, it all gets easier as you get better at these things.
Is this Useful?
There were two points in the book that touched me very deeply on a personal level. The first was near the beginning, as he was recounting the beginnings of the journey that finally led him to Buddhism and meditation. It was a long story about drugs, work, persistence, travel and a mental breakdown – and his realization that he needed to start seeing a therapist. The story reminded me a lot about my own issues, which had also started as a collection of physical warning signs before I couldn’t ignore the mental reasons that were underlying it all.
The second moment came as he was recounting his experiences at a meditation retreat – his first. He was getting frustrated over things during a lecture near the end and, during question and answer time, he asked what the deal was with the teacher imploring them not to worry about the future. What if he misses his plane after the retreat? That’d delay his connecting flight. That’d make him late for work the next day. These are practical things that deserve thinking about because they have big real-life effects.
The meditation teacher, Mark Epstein, simply answered that these things are all true, but after asking yourself the same question seventeen times and worrying for nothing, you need to stop and ask yourself a simple question: is it useful? It humbled Dan, and – I don’t know why – the answer affected me very profoundly as well. There are so many things that I go around thinking about, worrying about, agonizing over – for nothing. What did she mean when she said that thing? Why am I not getting an answer to that e-mail? Why is my boss talking to HR? Is it about me? Will it affect me? How will I feel when my dog dies?
These questions, these agonies, they’re not useful to me. This is something that I really need to work on some more, and this book drove that point home very well in those three words. Is it useful?
This book is a lot of things; but at its core it’s a book that demystifies meditation. It reminds us that it’s not something that belongs to a mysterious cadre of people who have dropped out of society, but something that carries real-world benefits that are available to all of us. I would recommend this book to anybody with an interest in getting on top of themselves and making a change for the better. I loved it.