Gimme That Old Time Meditation

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 29, 2015

Meditation is gaining secular and even scientific acceptance. I first heard about meditation in the mid-sixties when The Beatles ran off with that guru. I even took up meditation in the 1970s during the New Age movement. For most of the last half-century, meditation was something aging hippies in sandals pursued. Then in the last decade, meditation has been embraced by therapists, human resource departments, Christian churches and even the military. All of this is well chronicled in 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 by Dan Harris. Dan Harris is a reporter and anchor for various ABC television shows. His high-stress career and obsessive personality started causing on-air panic attacks and he began searching for solutions. Harris slowly embraced Buddhism and meditation because of covering stories about them while assigned the religion beat. His book is about his struggle to discover if there is any validity to meditation and Buddhism, and how to separate provable results from spiritual woo-woo. Essentially, he demystifies Buddhism and meditation. This is a great book for anyone skeptical about ancient self-help practices.

10-percent-happier

What I really liked about this book was Harris’ skepticism. As a reporter he knew how to ask hard questions, and whenever he met a new guru he didn’t hold back. Over the course of this story, Harris meets star gurus of the self-help circuit who promises the masses various forms of enlightening and happiness. Harris eventually concludes, on average, meditation has helped him to become 10% happier. He also believes if he works at it, he might even get an even higher return, but that meditation is no magic pill for transforming anxiety and depression into bliss. In other words, there is no free lunch.

Brain_DavidEagleman

What’s really involved is learning how our brains work. Meditation was discovered long before science, but it’s essentially a systematic way of observing our own brain. We can supplement meditative experiences with modern scientific research on the brain. I highly recommend The Brain with David Eagleman, a 6-part documentary currently running on PBS that’s based on his book. Last night’s episode was about the unconscious mind and how little our conscious mind knows. We all need to become amateur brain researchers to study our own minds, and meditation is a good observing technique.

Harris first encountered Eckhart Tolle after his panic attacks and was very receptive to his message. However, Tolle troubled him with a lot of mumbo-jumbo spiritual talk. Eventually Harris met Deepak Chopra and even the Dali Lama. With each guru he kept pushing them for exactness, and felt each man had some real understanding, but was often confused or turned off by weird unscientific terminology. Harris then he found psychiatrist, Mark Epstein, who was also exploring Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness. Epstein introduced Harris to Joseph Goldstein, a master meditation teacher. Harris, who is Jewish, found practical kinship with these two Jewish meditators, and they connected him to scientists doing actual research on meditation.

This path took Harris years, and he carefully explains all his ups and downs trying to stay sane and happy while pursuing a high pressured job. Harris always felt Eastern wisdom seemed to conflict with Western ambition. At one point he even felt meditation had made him happier and kinder, but mellowness had deflated his drive to get ahead. By the end of the book, Harris is working on increased ambition combined with increased work towards Enlightenment, which is a goal I’d think most Americans would embrace. We all want success and happiness.

10% Happier shows a real difference between Eastern and Western religions. Western theologies just ask their followers to believe, whereas Buddhism asks their follows to work hard and observe. The Buddhists even have a saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road kill him.” That’s to remind their followers that it’s very easy to get caught up in bullshit.

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13 thoughts on “Gimme That Old Time Meditation”

  1. Yup – I read Harris’ 10% back in the summer of 2014. Good book! I also appreciated his skepticism even though I’ve generally believed in and practiced some meditation. The thing that’s always got me is how involved the written material gets. Harris doesn’t do that. Harris simply tells you how and why.

    And it occurred to me that perhaps I should stop studying meditation and just do it. Voila! Whatever I did worked for me – continues to work for me. And he only says 10% happier, no impossible goals or expectations. I love the “prayer” in the book – “May you be happy…”

    Rather than go forth and get more books on meditation (I’ve got plenty already) I’m tempted to read this one again.

    1. 10% Happier really is a good book. His chronicle of pros and cons as he worked his way through the years is very honest, and will show people the practical reality of meditation. Too many people expect magic, and it’s more like physical therapy for the mind.

  2. Jim, how in the world could anyone – anyone – ‘calculate’ their happiness to the extent that they could rationally claim to be 10% happier than they used to be? That just makes no sense to me.

    Besides, maybe he’s just happier because he got his book published? 🙂

    I should also point out that just because an author claims to have been skeptical, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. (Certainly, if he took Deepak Chopra seriously at all, I’d have my doubts.)

    I’m not saying that meditation can’t be useful. Of course not. But from what you’ve said about this book, I definitely see reasons to be skeptical about it.

    1. Read the book Bill. Give it a chance. You might be surprised. The 10% figure was something Dan Harris came up with to explain to his friends why he was doing something nutty like meditating. When he tried to explain meditation friends they just thought he was just being woo-woo. When he started saying it helped him to be about 10 percent happier they got interested. I think his book is a bestseller because of the title. People don’t expect miracles, just a little improvement in their lives. Most people will think a 10% return on their investment a very good one.

      So, no, the title is not literal, or even mathematical. Just a good title.

      Bill since you are so evidence driven, I recommend you just read scientific articles about meditation. Although this book is an excellent memoir about a television news reporter. It’s a breezy and fun read.

      1. Yes, that was my point, Jim. It’s just a good title. A book that says meditation helped him become 10% happier is going to sell a lot more copies – a lot more copies – than a book that says, “Eh, I really didn’t notice any difference.”

        No one is going to write that other book, and no one would publish it if they did, because it wouldn’t make any money. Self-help books do make a lot of money.

        Now me, I’m the kind of guy who looks at a ‘10% happier’ claim and knows that it’s bullshit. Maybe he’s happier now, and maybe the meditation even caused it. It’s hard to say. But that title is bullshit, and it’s certainly not going to encourage me to read the book.

        As I said, I’ve nothing against meditation. If people find it useful, fine. If you enjoyed this book, great. I’m just telling you my reaction, which is probably not typical of the book-buying public, huh? 🙂

      2. Bill, you definitely aren’t the typical consumer. You are skeptical and extremely literal. I think another reason why the 10% Happier title is appealing to people is because most meditation books claim the practice will totally transform the reader’s life and make them completely happy, if not enlightened. Dan Harris wanted to make sure people didn’t think that bullshit about meditation.

      3. Well – to me the title said not to expect miracles but this might help a bit. Too many of the books on the market try to sell you something that will make a 180º difference in your world view – “100% better.” LOL! IF the book suggests 10% I have a better chance of believing it – it’s not hyperbole.

        And it did – I think actually doing what the book suggested (not just reading the book) did make me happier – maybe even about 20% happier.

      4. I have a friend that has been suffering depression for a year, and compulsive thoughts are keeping her up at night. She got the book and started meditating on her own per the instructions in the book and she claims she’s already doing better. No quantitative measurement, just better enough to feel things have turned around. That success is making her practice meditation more and read other books about meditation that Dan Harris mentions in his book. I’ve been meditating in a half-ass fashion since the 1970s. People always ask me why I’m so calm. Maybe that’s the reason. I don’t know.

      5. I haven’t been serious about meditation for about a year now. I did it only for a few months but it really helped with my head during a time of serious family struggles. I know it lowers my blood pressure a bit. Between meditation and a better diet and a bit more exercise I could possibly get off meds.

      6. Jim, I don’t want to claim that meditation doesn’t work, but so do placebos. I mean, typically, people buy self-help books by the truckload. They try them a little while, and they seem to work, because pretty much anything would ‘work’ in the sense that it will make people feel better.

        This isn’t just common, it’s expected. It works with homeopathy. It works with acupuncture. It works with prayer. In fact, scientists work very hard to design experiments which can show some result greater than the placebo effect. Because if they don’t, they’ve got nothing.

        Now, I don’t know how scientists study meditation. I mean, you’re either meditating or you’re not, so how do you have a control group which thinks it’s meditating, but actually isn’t? But if there’s actual evidence that meditation works – and I have no reason to doubt it – I suppose they must have figured out something, huh?

        Still, obviously, anecdotes are completely worthless as evidence. Anecdotes are what get scientists to research this stuff, but on their own, they’re very, very likely to be the placebo effect (or, as Sir Francis Bacon explained superstition, our natural human tendency to count the ‘hits’ and not the ‘misses’).

        Of course, if meditation works for you, it makes sense to use it. It’s certainly not going to do any harm. It doesn’t even cost anything. Except for that book, maybe. 🙂

      7. Don’t worry Bill, I’m not going all New Age Woo-Woo on you. I see meditation as merely the practice of watching my thoughts. It’s a matter studying your perceptions. If you pay attention to your cognitive abilities you can discern a little more of what’s going. Think of it like bird-watching, you’re just observing behavior. If you meditate you’ll eventually learn that your conscious mind can be taken apart. There is the observer and the thinker. Most people identify with the thinker, and sometimes thoughts can wear them out. With meditation you can separate the observer so you can watch the thinker. If you really pay attention, you’ll start noticing the influence of the unconscious mind. Both the observer and thinker are dwarfed by the unconscious mind, which is the real boss of the gang. Do not be deluded into thinking that you are in control.

        I know you’ll find this all too weird sounding for you. Read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – he’s a professor of psychology that won the Nobel prize in Economics for his brain research. Also, watch The Brain with David Eagleman on PBS. The link is above. Scientists are discovering more and more about the nature of consciousness. Meditation merely allows people to study their own mind in a DIY fashion.

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