Sunday, 22 November 2015

Review: 10% Happier by Dan Harris

10% Happier book cover

This is a fascinating and unusual story that incorporates, as a built-in bonus, a usable instruction manual on meditation. For those of us who are attracted by the promise of meditation to improve focus and health, and help us feel more positive, but who are sceptical, or put off by boredom, the scientific evidence cited in this book is a powerful motivator.

Harris makes clear that meditation takes effort. He breaks the hard work down, demonstrating how to start small and manageable. The book is full of useful insights from leading experts and researchers on meditation, whom Harris has gained access to as a TV news journalist. For example, Joseph Goldstein, questioned by Harris about rumination, suggests the simple practice of asking “Is this useful?” when we notice ourselves going over in our heads possible outcomes.

The book emphasises that to get the benefits of meditation, you don’t have to achieve perfect focus: Harris quotes Sharon Salzberg explaining that gently returning your focus after it wanders is the practice.

The concept of non-attachment helps Harris cope better with the competitive professional environment he operates in. “… in an entropic universe, the final outcome is out of your control. If you don’t waste your energy on variables you cannot influence, you can focus much more effectively on those you can.”

“This was a hopeful outlook really. I didn’t need to waste so much time envisioning some vague horribleness awaiting me in my future. … All I had to do was tell myself: if it doesn’t work, I only need the grit to start again …”

I would have liked advice on how to apply non-attachment to different concerns; I think it’s a lot harder not to be attached to the outcome of a serious illness in someone you love than to the outcome of a possible promotion at work. But I suspect the same ideas apply: do your best in your sphere of influence; try not to give attention to unhelpful thoughts.

Most of the teachers Harris learns from are Buddhist, but the message of the book comes across as secular. I think readers of any religion will find the information in the book applicable.

The view from my morning meditation spot

I recommend skipping the first four chapters and up to the last three pages of chapter 5. The book’s long lead-up frustratingly sustains the impression of being on the brink of introducing a solution to everyday stress, which it finally delivers on in chapter 6. If you do skip the start, you need to know that Dan Harris is a TV news reporter and presenter who suffered undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder and depression after reporting in war zones, medicated himself with recreational drugs, had a panic attack on live television (described in the first two pages of chapter 1 and which you can see for yourself on Youtube), and sought psychiatric help, which improved things, but left Harris still with problems he wanted to solve. The book recounts his journey of learning.