10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works Dan Harris (Dey Street, 2014)
Dan Harris was not expecting to have his life changed by a self-help book, still less one from Oprah’s Book Club. He was pretty successful already, after all: by the time he was thirty, his broadcasting career had advanced from small-town Maine to working for Peter Jennings at ABC. He had been overseas covering the Middle East and South Asia; later he garnered a respectable amount of airtime for his coverage of religious movements in America, though he covered it from a resolutely agnostic position. (“My private view was quite harsh, and rooted in a blend of apathy and ignorance. I thought organized religion was bunk, and that all believers–whether jazzed on Jesus or jihad–must be, to some extent, cognitively impaired.”)
When Harris was invited by a producer to read a book by Eckhart Tolle, he thought that it might lead to a story about Tolle and Oprah, but he found himself captivated by the book’s weird combination of grandiosity, turgid jargon, and blazing insight. “Our entire lives, he argued, are governed by a voice in our heads. This voice is engaged in a ceaseless stream of thinking–most of it negative, repetitive, and self-referential.” That voice, which Tolle calls the ego, is never satisfied; it thrives on drama; it is constantly comparing itself to others; and it scampers ceaselessly from the past to the future, sparing almost no attention for the Now.
Harris piercingly recognizes the truth of this idea. A fretful competitiveness has been his dominant mode of relating to his work, with not always agreeable results, but what is to be done about it? From the sincere but possibly crazy Tolle, he moves on to Deepak Chopra, who strikes him as definitely sane but possibly a huckster. The third time’s the charm: Harris’s girlfriend introduces him to the writing of Dr. Mark Epstein about Buddhism, which it turns out was the effective substance of what Tolle was saying. On meeting Epstein, he’s pleasantly surprised to be offered an actual solution to the noise in his head: meditation.
Harris being Harris, it’s not that easy. Meditation brings up all kinds of images of things he hates about ‘granola life-style’, like saffron robes, Sanskrit phrases, and new-age music. He thinks it would be uncomfortable, embarrassing, or difficult. Well, yes, it’s all that–but also “a rigorous brain exercise: rep after rep of trying to tame the runaway train of the mind. The repeated attempt to bring the compulsive thought machine to heel was like holding a live fish in your hands.”
Challenged by some of his friends and mentors, Harris undertakes a meditation retreat. Ten days of silence in the beautiful California woods is just as difficult, and sometimes excruciating, as you might guess. If nothing else, he wonders why he didn’t just go to the beach with his wife. Some days are terrible, others radiant. “Having been dragged kicking and screaming into the present, I’m finally awake enough to see what I could never see in my regular life. Apparently there’s no other way to get here than to engage in the tedious work of watching your breath for days.”
Harris is perfectly aware of the irony of his taking up a practice he would have scorned just a short time before. And he takes a while longer to find the balance between being unstressed and being too passive to work on television effectively - there are times when you need to Hide the Zen. The tone of this book is itself a corrective to the hippie-patchouli image of meditation; you could try it without going out of your mind or erasing all the neuroses that make you who you are. Harris’s good news is this: “Mindfulness, happiness, and not being a jerk are skills I can hone for the rest of my life–every day, every moment, until senility or death.”
I started reviewing books nearly twenty years ago for Voices, the occasional newsletter of Emmanuel Church, Boston. The newsletter has evolved to a different form, but I still try to write something every month. I've shared these with friends by email, and it seems good to post them here as an archive, to see what connections may emerge. Welcome, and happy reading!