I’ve been absolutely devouring books lately, in part because I’m in the midst of the rainy winter season on the West Coast. But I’ve also been reading more than usual as part of a new routine: for the past couple of weeks, my boyfriend and I have been getting up early each morning and doing 20 minutes of exercise, 20 minutes of reading, and 20 minutes of journaling. Oh, and today we added in 5 minutes of meditation—because of this little book by Dan Harris.
Harris was on the Colbert Report last spring and I was curious about his book after watching that interview, but apparently not enough to buy his book right away. To be honest, it may have had something to do with the title: 10% isn’t terribly flashy or exciting. I tend to be a sucker for books that make bold proclamations, even when I know better. But this past weekend I picked up 10% Happier on a whim at my local drug store while buying dental floss, and I polished the book off in two days. I read it in the morning as part of my new ritual, and then while I was eating lunch, and after dinner, and before bed. The man knows how to keep you hooked—as he should: he’s a TV reporter, so his day job is all about keeping viewers from changing the channel.
How does one become 10% happier? Spoiler alert: it’s all about maintaining a regular meditation practice.
Now, I am not new to the art of meditation. I volunteered at a yoga retreat centre for 8 months a while back, and was encouraged to meditate as much as possible there. I resisted, but succumbed occasionally out of yogi peer pressure. I hated every minute I spent on the cushion, trying to focus on my breath while silently cursing everything and everyone around me. So it surprised me more than anyone, when I signed up to do a silent meditation retreat a couple years later. I had just gone through a breakup and the idea of being cut off from my life for a week sounded pretty great. And it was, in many ways. The retreat took place on an idyllic Gulf island, and I was surrounded by trees, wildflowers and placid deer munching on grass.
The silence was a welcome relief, too. For many people the thought of not talking for days is terrifying, but for an introvert it can be a fantastic vacation from being ‘on’.
But the meditating. Oh, bloody hell, the meditating.
We were supposed to meditate first thing in the morning, again after breakfast, more after lunch, and then after a ‘dharma talk’ we could go to bed, or meditate some more. It was pure torture for the first few days, as I was told it would be. My mind spun in a relentless loop of maddening thoughts, and everything irritated me: my back hurt, my skin was itchy, my body felt cramped, I was bored. Every time I sat down to meditate, I wanted to burst out of my skin to escape the tension and tedium.
But suddenly, somehow, it became easier. Not that it was smooth sailing all the way to the finish, but it did become remarkably easier. And I had a few moments—not many, mind you, but a few—that were blissful. Where the rough edges of my monkey mind seemed to dissolve and leave me melting into the air around me, and the ground beneath me. If that seems too mystical and new-agey to swallow, then I’ll spare you further details today, because it gets a little weirder. Many people I’ve spoken to who’ve done extended periods of meditation have encountered similarly entrancing experiences, so I’ll just say that my story is far from unusual. (Harris himself had some pretty remarkable moments at a mediation retreat he begrudgingly participated in.)
Anyway, after that profoundly expansive experience, you’d think I became a regular meditator for life. You’d be quite mistaken. Since that retreat, I’ve barely done any at all. And the little bits of time I’ve forced myself to meditate were usually so irritating I couldn’t wait for them to be over.
There are some meditation teachings I quite enjoy, like Adyashanti’s. He’s adamant that meditation has nothing to do with controlling the mind, stopping your thoughts, or really trying to do anything. It’s all about allowing. Allowing everything to be exactly as it is. And I firmly believe in this approach, and have had it do wonders for me, the rare occasions that I remember to try it.
But it’s never become a habit for me, and I’m trying to change that. Dan Harris’s book has inspired me to adopt a meditation habit, and I’d wager that he could inspire just about anyone to do so. He tells a witty, entertaining cautionary tale about the effects of stress and ambition in a highly competitive field (TV news) and how he—a hard-nosed, skeptical atheist—became a daily meditator, and the near-magical effects it has had on his mental health and overall well-being, not to mention his career and relationships.
What about you? Do you have a meditation practice? Do you think you would ever be interested in such a thing? Harris’s book just might tempt you to give it a shot.