Think you had a bad day?
Dan Harris had a panic attack on live TV in front of millions of people.
Something had to change. He knew it. Almost immediately after the panic attack on the air he was assigned to cover religion, which introduced him to meditation, which made him, as he puts it, 10% happier.
He wrote about his on-air panic attack in great detail in his fascinating book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story.
Harris argues that meditation has a PR problem.
… largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment. If you can get past the cultural baggage, though, what you’ll find is that meditation is simply exercise for your brain. It’s a proven technique for preventing the voice in your head from leading you around by the nose. To be clear, it’s not a miracle cure. It won’t make you taller or better-looking, nor will it magically solve all of your problems. You should disregard the fancy books and the famous gurus promising immediate enlightenment. In my experience, meditation makes you 10% happier. That’s an absurdly unscientific estimate, of course. But still, not a bad return on investment.
Originally Dan wanted to call his book The Voice in My Head Is an Asshole. We all have that voice.
To be clear, I’m not talking about “hearing voices,” I’m talking about the internal narrator, the most intimate part of our lives. The voice comes braying in as soon as we open our eyes in the morning, and then heckles us all day long with an air horn. It’s a fever swamp of urges, desires, and judgments. It’s fixated on the past and the future, to the detriment of the here and now. It’s what has us reaching into the fridge when we’re not hungry, losing our temper when we know it’s not really in our best interest, and pruning our inboxes when we’re ostensibly engaged in conversation with other human beings. Our inner chatter isn’t all bad, of course. Sometimes it’s creative, generous, or funny. But if we don’t pay close attention —which very few of us are taught how to do— it can be a malevolent puppeteer.
The voice in your head is what takes you out of the present.
Consider Dan on day 9 of a 10-day meditation retreat. In the morning question-and-answer session, the instructor insists that the participants not tune out during the closing hours of the retreat.
As he presses his case, he says something that bugs me. He urges us not to spend too much time thinking about the stuff we have to do when the retreat is over. It’s a waste of time, he says; they’re just thoughts.
This provokes me to raise my hand for the first time. From the back of the echoey hall, in full-on reporter mode, with my overloud voice apparently not atrophied one bit from disuse, I ask, “How can you advise us not to worry about the things we have to do when we reenter the world? If I miss my plane, that’s a genuine problem. These are not just irrelevant thoughts.”
Fair enough, he concedes. “But when you find yourself running through your trip to the airport for the seventeenth time, perhaps ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this useful’?”
His answer is so smart I involuntarily jolt back in my chair and smile.
“Is this useful?” It’s a simple, elegant corrective to my “price of security” motto. It’s okay to worry, plot, and plan, he’s saying— but only until it’s not useful anymore. I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to balance my penchant for maniacal overthinking with the desire for peace of mind.
At some point, you just have to move on. Mediation helped him draw the line.
How do you stop thinking? How do you stop the voice in your head? Dan asked Eckhart Tolle, who simply replied that “You create little spaces in your daily life where you are aware but not thinking,” he said. “For example, you take one conscious breath.”
As for how to meditate, Dan’s instructions are simple. Simple but not easy.
1. Sit comfortably. You don’t have to be cross-legged. Plop yourself in a chair, on a cushion, on the floor —wherever. Just make sure your spine is reasonably straight.
2. Feel the sensations of your breath as it goes in and out. Pick a spot: nostrils, chest, or gut. Focus your attention there and really try to feel the breath. If it helps to direct your attention, you can use a soft mental note, like “in” and “out.”
3. This one, according to all of the books I’d read, was the biggie. 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 the 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.
After a while of daily forced practice, Dan started to notice big changes.
Pretty quickly, my efforts began to bear fruit “off the cushion,” to use a Buddhist term of art. I started to be able to use the breath to jolt myself back to the present moment— in airport security lines, waiting for elevators, you name it. I found it to be a surprisingly satisfying exercise. Life became a little bit like walking into a familiar room where all the furniture had been rearranged. And I was much better at forgiving myself out in the real world than while actually meditating. …
Meditation was radically altering my relationship to boredom, something I’d spent my whole life scrambling to avoid. The only advice I ever got from my college adviser, a novelist of minor renown named James Boylan (who later had a sex change operation, changed his name to Jenny, wrote a bestselling book, and appeared on Oprah) was to never go anywhere without something to read. I diligently heeded that guidance, taking elaborate precautions to make sure every spare moment was filled with distraction. I scanned my BlackBerry at stoplights, brought reams of work research to read in the doctor’s waiting room, and watched videos on my iPhone while riding in taxicabs.
He started to see more of life.
The net effect of meditation, plus trying to stay present during my daily life, was striking. It was like anchoring myself to an underground aquifer of calm. It became a way to steel myself as I moved through the world.
This was great but it wasn’t the point. The point was mindfulness — the key to thinking like Sherlock Holmes. Mindfulness, as Harris discovered, is Buddhism’s secret sauce.
In a nutshell, mindfulness is the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now— anger, jealousy, sadness, the pain of a stubbed toe, whatever—without getting carried away by it. According to the Buddha, we have three habitual responses to everything we experience. We want it, reject it, or we zone out.
On the cushion, the best opportunities to learn mindfulness are when you experience itches or pain. Instead of scratching or shifting position, you’re supposed to just sit there and impartially witness the discomfort. The instruction is simply to employ what the teachers call “noting,” applying a soft mental label: itching, itching or throbbing, throbbing.
The idea is that, once you’ve mastered things like itches, eventually you’ll be able to apply mindfulness to thoughts and emotions. This nonjudgmental noting—Oh, that’s a blast of self-pity . . . Oh, that’s me ruminating about work—is supposed to sap much of the power, the emotional charge, out of the contents of consciousness.
Once I started thinking about how this whole system of seemingly spontaneous psychological combustion worked, I realized how blindly impelled—impaled, even— I was by my ego. I spent so much time, as one Buddhist writer put it, “drifting unaware on a surge of habitual impulses.” This is what led me on the misadventures of war, drugs, and panic. It’s what propelled me to eat when I wasn’t hungry or get snippy with (my wife) because I was stewing about something that happened in the office. Mindfulness represented an alternative to living reactively.
By way of example: you can be mindful of hunger pangs, but you think about where to get your next meal and whether it will involve pork products. You can be mindful of the pressure in your bladder telling you it’s time to pee, but you think about whether the frequency of your urination means you’re getting old and need a prostate exam. There’s a difference between the raw sensations we experience and the mental spinning we do in reaction to said stimuli.
The Buddhists had a helpful analogy here. Picture the mind like a waterfall, they said: the water is the torrent of thoughts and emotions; mindfulness is the space behind the waterfall. Again, elegant theory— but, easier said than done.