10% Happier Book Review

10percentDan Harris makes a huge contribution to the field of mindfulness meditation in 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works. In a way that only a former war correspondent and Nightline news anchor could, Harris has created a lens to look at the phenomenon of mindfulness with a kind of sharpness that is unparalleled in popular or academic literature on this subject.

With wit and humility, Harris openly shares his struggles with anxiety in his life and career in front of a camera. Starting with his on-the-air panic attack in 2004, Harris recounts how his ambition-fueled, perfectionist, non-stop work ethic left him subject to emotional meltdowns that led him to use cocaine to self-medicate. Forced to examine his inner life, he recounts his highs and lows navigating the maze of self-help and professional help to find inner peace without sacrificing his competitive edge. Along the way you are treated to gems of observation the likes of which you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in print, even in someone’s private email, but especially in a book so enthusiastic about mindfulness. Yet it’s Harris’ realism and, undoubtedly, his discipline at finding unique angles to report that makes this book so special.

For example, commenting about something many people have probably thought but no one has dared to speak, he says:

“Turns out, mindfulness isn’t such a cute look. Everyone is in his or her own world, trying very hard to stay in the moment. The effort of concentration produces facial expressions that range from blank to defecatory.”

Then there’s this nugget, when he refers the practice of some of his fellow retreat participants to bow to a statue of the Buddha:

“I’m still bowing to the Buddha, but mostly for the hamstring stretch.”

As a psychotherapist and teacher of mindfulness-based counseling techniques, I am highly recommending 10% Happier to both my clients and student/colleagues. Here’s why. Harris is a synthesizer, rendering the dense subjects of mindfulness culture, science, and meditation-user experience into a three-part harmony that immediately makes you want to hear more. His stories pull you in. Before you know it, you’re in the story yourself, identifying with one of the zillions of facets that emerge in his writing. Whether it’s his reporting of and friendship with Ted Haggard, the fallen-from-grace evangelical church leader, or his confessions of insecurity working among television giants like Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer, Harris uses a running psychoanalysis of himself as the instrument which carries the reader deeper into contemplation of their own psyche.

Admittedly, this book isn’t a how-to for meditation, nor is it a scientific discourse about neurobiology, even though both topics get introduced. But as I like to say about the healing work of psychotherapy, it moves the ball down the field. For experienced meditators, perhaps it challenges some of the sacred attachments (a nice way of saying “ruts”) you have in your current practice. For beginners, moving the ball down the field might look like the simple act of attending your first yoga session and having the confidence to know you don’t need to learn Sanskrit or wear spandex (but hey, spandex is cool too).

After reading 10% Happier, I feel closer to the amazingly diverse and rich community of mindfulness practitioners that I might not have learned about if I kept my literary diet fixed on those from the same mindfulness “tribe” I’ve trained and practiced with. Thanks to Dan’s investigative narrative and personal prose, his book is a powerful resource to help you wake up from life on automatic.

As Leo Tolstoy once said: “In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.” Dan Harris will help you do this. 10% more.