10% HAPPIER by DAN HARRIS
BOOK OVERVIEW & DISCUSSION (Meditation Demystified)
by Pam Lewis at IMH 9/15/14
Why choose this book as the basis for a dharma talk?
1) I had never heard of Dan Harris, Good Morning America and ABC Nightline co-anchor, until a long-time friend recommended the book to me. He is a trial lawyer, successful and driven, like Dan Harris, in a very competitive career field. He is also a wonderful, balanced person, but I had thought of him as one of the least likely people I knew to be interested in meditation. That may have been true, at least until he heard Dan Harris speak about his book on GMA, bought and read it, and, “got” the book’s message. That alone got my attention!
2) The author’s goal in writing this book was to demystify meditation, and he does this in large part by giving us “exclusive access” to the voice in his head. He approaches his new meditation path with honesty, journalistic precision and outrageous humor. I think his approach appeals to a wide variety of people who might never be attracted to or make it through a more traditional book on meditation. We might all know (or be, if we are somewhat new to meditation) such people. I think he meets his goal.
3) Harris raises important points about what he believes are obstacles to the wide spread use of meditation. He calls some of these “the dopey packaging” and “the unfortunate cultural baggage”. Another is the strongly entrenched belief (previously held by Harris) that a highly competitive career and equanimity are incompatible. And then there are those weighty Buddhist concepts. I’d like for us to discuss some of his points tonight.
Harris’ book’s title, 10% Happier, is his take-away benefit from his meditation experience so far and is the way he explains it‘s benefits to others: “Under the sway of the ego, life becomes a constant low-grade crisis. You’re never sated, never satisfied, always reaching for the next thing, like a colicky baby. Meditation is the antidote. It won’t fix everything in your life…but it can make you 10% happier, or maybe much more.”
Harris’ story is fascinating. My limited overview won’t do it justice. He came to TV broadcast news straight from college, spending 7 years in Bangor, Maine, a short time in Portland, Maine and then Boston. He was “called up to the big leagues”, ABC News, in March 2000 at age 28. He began by working on stories for his idol, Peter Jennings. His profession is highly competitive, but he seemed well-served at first by his personal motto since childhood for success: “the price of security is insecurity’. By this, he meant that he was a lifelong worrier and inventory-taker and was intense and always hyper-vigilant.
Much of his early ABC career involved Ground Zero coverage of the 9-11 (2001) aftermath followed by coverage of warzone atrocities in Afghanistan and Iraq. In late 2003, he returned to his apartment in New York after 5 straight months in Iraq with feelings of disconnection and symptoms of a mysterious illness that could not be identified. Friends introduced him to cocaine and ecstasy. He kept his drug usage secret and separate from his professional life, as least theoretically, until the day in June 2004 when he experienced a major panic attack during a live segment of GMA (5 million viewers). He describes this event as the “single most humiliating moment of my life”. He includes the transcript of his meltdown in his book (page 2).
Harris began seeing a psychiatrist and gave up drugs. Peter Jennings assigned him to coverage of religious/spiritual stories, resulting in considerable air time for him as well as access to a variety of spiritual leaders including Evangelist Ted Haggard; Eckhart Tolle, who was the first to open his eyes to the narrating, critical “voice in his head”; Deepak Chopra; and Mark Epstein, psychiatrist and practicing Buddhist. He felt almost immediate affinity for Mark, who had agreed to meet him for a beer and recommended that he read books by Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzburg, members of the group known as Jew-Bus, who had brought wisdom from the East to Western audiences for the prior 25 years.
Harris liked these teachers’ messages, but he hated the method they proposed to peacefully disarm the voices in one’s head: MEDITATION. He associated meditation with his parents’ “Age of Aquarius”, granola and bell ringing. Despite this attitude, he seriously pursued a personal meditation practice, with mixed results but a new appreciation for mindfulness. He attended a 3-day meditation event led by Tara Brach and found it helpful.
Eventually, he worked up the courage to follow Epstein’s advice that he attend a 10-day retreat at Spirit Rock led by Joseph Goldstein. This was clearly the turning point for him (“it may have been one of-if not THE-most meaningful experiences of my life”). He reports his experience in detail from Day 1 through 10 in Chapter 7, about 30 pages long. His reporting is precise, informative (especially for those of us who have wondered about longer retreats), and very funny. I’ll read a few excerpts aloud now.
Following his retreat and return to the world of skeptical family members, friends and colleagues, Harris struggled to explain his meditation retreat experience but found he could not do this effectively (“I could see the tinge of mild terror in my listener’s eyes-the cornered interlocutor politely but frantically looking for any means of egress”). This is how he arrived at the “10% happier” outcome explanation. When he arranged to interview Joseph Goldstein for a new digital ABC show he’d started and explained his 10% catchphrase, Goldstein responded “that’s a good return on investment (for a beginning meditator), and the return gets more and more”.
Harris continued to have his own entrenched skepticism about enlightenment, which felt “theoretical and unattainable, if not downright ridiculous” to him. He continued to meet informally with Epstein to discuss his progress, and he was able to apply the concepts of suffering and impermanence to his own life. His work at ABC brought him into close contact with new research on the brain’s neuroplasticity and meditation’s spread into corporate America, schools, prison and the military. His own experience and these trends advanced his personal vision to see “widespread mindfulness effects in the world”. Because he felt that the biggest impediment to meditation’s spread was a “massive PR problem”, he began publicizing a more secular view of meditation. But his old-school Buddhist friends expressed their concerns and had a term, “McMindfulness”, for any approach that overlooked the central plank of compassion.
Boundless compassion was another Buddhist concept that, like enlightenment, seemed out of reach to Harris. Soon, he had the good fortune to interview the Dalai Lama, who explained to him that developing concern for the well-being of others is of immense benefit to oneself by its eroding the edges of the ego. Harris found that the research of Richie Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, among others, demonstrated that compassion meditation displayed increased brain activity in regions associated with empathy and that its practitioners were happier than non-practitioners. “With some trepidation” for his concerns that compassion was not adaptive in competitive career fields, he added a parallel track of metta meditation to his own practice. He began to see positive effects.
Harris’ final chapter concerns his efforts to clarify in his work environment some misconceptions he had developed about detachment (vs. lack of striving/passivity). These misconceptions resulted in his new boss’ advising him to “lose the Zen” at work. Mark Epstein helped him see the role of detachment as related to outcomes, not to striving and ambition per se (“when you are wisely ambitious, you do everything you can to succeed, but you are not attached to the outcome. If you fail, you will be maximally resilient, can get up, dust yourself off and get back in the fray”). Harris was soon able to apply this concept at work.
The book’s Epilogue mainly concerns Harris’ ongoing conundrum around enlightenment. His contact with a “mindfulness subculture” of neuroscientists using MRIs on advanced meditation practitioners suggests that liberation/enlightenment may well be a reality. One of these scientists, Dr. Jud Brewer at Yale, explained the notion to Harris. Brewer’s group is showing that meditators can watch their brain’s activity in a scanner while they’re meditating. When they’re meditating in such a way as to deactivate the “self-ing/mindless” regions of their brain, the brain experiences the pleasure of calm abiding in the present moment and wants more and more of that (instead of feelings of clinging and greed). Since the brain is a pleasure-seeking machine, given enough exposure to mindfulness, it would likely eventually create a self-reinforcing spiral that could lead all the way to “the definitive uprooting of negative emotions, or enlightenment”.
As his book went to press about one year ago, Harris remained uncertain, but not close-minded, about enlightenment: He stated “This whole experience has been a process of my seeing over and over that many of my assumptions were wrong. Enlightenment was perhaps the latest example”. He presented himself, on the other hand, as “sold” on the concepts of compassion and non-attachment, and he united these in this manner, especially with regard to his career: “Non-attachment to results+ self-compassion= a supple relentlessness that is hard to match”. He reported that his ABC boss and his colleagues Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos had also become meditators.
The book ends with helpful instructions and tips for mindfulness meditation. It also includes “real life” FAQ’s with clear answers (all vetted by his expert teachers).
POTENTIAL DISCUSSION TOPICS
1) Harris lists some examples of what he terms meditation’s massive PR problem as “the dopey packaging” and “the unfortunate cultural baggage”.
Here are some examples from his book: “Its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment”; “It should be denuded of all its straight-out-of–a-fortune cookie lingo, like ‘sacred spaces’, ‘divine mother’, and ‘holding your emotions with love and tenderness’; “Some of its teachers use an artificially soft, affected manner of speech that I’m thinking they must teach at whatever meditation school these people attend”. What are your thoughts about these observations?
2) Harris openly describes his difficulties with Buddhist terms such as Boundless Compassion, Liberation and Enlightenment, all concepts he felt were out of reach for some time. Do you think these terms pose obstacles to the spread of non-secular meditation?
3) What are your thoughts about Harris’ prior belief that it is impossible to function in a highly competitive profession with metta and equanimity?