10% Happier

In 10% Happier, Dan Harris1 tells the story of how he became a regular meditator. He opens by saying his preferred title was “The Voice in my Head is an Asshole”. The best thing about the book is that Harris was probably more skeptical about meditation than most people.

If you told me when I first arrived in New York City, when I started working in network news, that I’d be using meditation to defang the voice in my head, or that I would ever write a whole book about it, I would’ve laughed at you.

Until recently, I thought of meditation as the exclude province of bearded swamis, unwashed hippies, and fans of John Tesh music.

Just in the past couple years since the book was released, meditation has taken further steps toward mainstream. Still, many people who could get the most benefit from meditation dismiss it as “not for them”. Their reasons are the same as Harris’s:

Moreover, since I have the attention span of a six month old yellow lab, I figured it was something I could never do anyway. I assumed, given the constant looping, buzzing, and fizzing of my thoughts, that clearing my mind wasn’t an option.

A lot of times, the busiest knowledge workers (a term I took from Cal Newport—you might be a knowledge worker2 if most of your day is spent at a desk) got so busy by chasing productivity. Those tips and tricks work, and you can do things faster and fit work into smaller spaces, jamming every nook and cranny of the day. There’s no room for ten minutes of seeming inactivity.

What really sold me is the idea that it’s an investment. Time exercising is rarely questioned. We understand the benefits go beyond the time in the gym. The arguments come through choosing what’s best during that time.

So you invest twenty minutes into meditation and reap the benefits through the other hours in the day.

Awful metaphor attempt: let’s start with the jar from that parable about the jar. Filled with rocks and pebbles and sand. Now let’s say the rocks and pebbles and sand are being shot at you. You’ll grab what you can and stuff it in the jar. Meditation lets you practice slowing that down so you can pick and choose what should go in the jar in the first place.

Unconvinced? I would be too at this point. Let’s move on.

Maybe you left this page, went to a better source with more persuasive reasoning for meditation, then you closed that tab and realized this page was still up. Then just maybe you’d give this a glance to see if I had anything on how to meditate. You’re in luck, Harris’s brief explanation of how to meditate is as good as any I’ve read:

Whenever your attention wanders just forgive yourself and gently come back to the breath. You don’t need to clear the mind of all thinking, that’s pretty much impossible. True, when you are focused on the feeling of your breath, the chatter will momentarily cease. But this won’t last too long.

The whole game is to catch your mind wandering and then come back to the breath over and over again.

It’s simple, but like many simple things, it isn’t easy. Eat less and workout more while you’re at it. And like many things that aren’t easy, it’s worth it.

Despite its difficulties, though, meditation did offer something huge: an actual method for shutting down the monkey mind, if only for a moment. It was like tricking the furry little gibbon, distracting it with something shiny so it would sit still.

If you practice sitting still, the monkey mind will do the same.

  1. Harris is the best narrator I’ve heard in an audiobook. He’s a news anchor that’s worked at the top level. It was one of the first audiobooks I listened to. ↩︎
  2. You might be a redneck knowledge worker if… the sticker on your Aeron chair says “My other chair’s in a John Deere”. You also might be working for a startup in 1999, where these jokes would be more comfortable bombing. ↩︎