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

22 minute read

READ: 2018-05-01, RATING: 8/10

This is one man’s journey about finding what’s the big deal about meditation. If you haven’t yet started meditation or don’t know what’s the point of mindfulness meditation, this book is for you. It doesn’t get deeper into the esoterics, ethics and religious aspect of the vipassana meditation. It’s practical and explained with an occasional dose of dry humor. It also details Dan’s experience of the retreat and how he was able to buy the concept of “Loving Kindness” meditation.

Helps a lot if you had listened to the man’s voice and experience in his 10% happier podcast about meditation where he interviews successful people who meditate.

See Amazon Page for details and reviews.

Key Lessons

Well, meditation works. But you need to know the correct technique and should also know to apply the practice in real life. Otherwise, you could be spending precious amounts of your life just sitting in your ass and thinking you are getting yogic.

My Highlights

Your demons may have been ejected from the building, but they’re out in the parking lot, doing push-ups.

He argued that the failure to recognize thoughts for what they are—quantum bursts of psychic energy that exist solely in your head—is the primordial human error.

began to recall some of the many brilliant suggestions the voice in my head had made to me over the years. You should do cocaine. You’re right to be angry at that producer. Throw your papers in the air! That Pakistani protestor is way out of line. Even though he’s surrounded by a thousand angry friends, you should have a shouting match with him.

The ego is never satisfied. No matter how much stuff we buy, no matter how many arguments we win or delicious meals we consume, the ego never feels complete.

The ego is constantly comparing itself to others. It has us measuring our self-worth against the looks, wealth, and social status of everyone else. Did this not explain some of my worrying at work?

The ego thrives on drama. It keeps our old resentments and grievances alive through compulsive thought. Is this why I would sometimes come home to Bianca, scowling over some issue at the office?

“When you have one foot in the future and the other in the past, you piss on the present.”

The unspoken assumption behind most of my forward momentum was that whatever was coming next would definitely be better.

And yet, and yet … I was aware, of course, that my chattering mind was not entirely working in my favor. I was pretty sure that staring at my hairline or brooding on my couch was not time well spent. I used to think pressing the bruise kept me on my toes. Now I realized those moments mostly just made me unhappy.

“Make the present moment your friend rather than your enemy. Because many people live habitually as if the present moment were an obstacle that they need to overcome in order to get to the next moment. And imagine living your whole life like that, where always this moment is never quite right, not good enough because you need to get to the next one. That is continuous stress.”

His basic message was that the best self-help program was developed 2,500 years ago—a worldview that, oddly enough, held that there is actually no “self” to “help.”

“We are constantly murmuring, muttering, scheming, or wondering to ourselves under our breath,” wrote Epstein. “‘I like this. I don’t like that. She hurt me. How can I get that? More of this, no more of that.’ Much of our inner dialogue is this constant reaction to experience by a selfish, childish protagonist. None of us has moved very far from the seven-year-old who vigilantly watches to see who got more.”

To my surprise, Epstein seemed to be arguing that Buddhism was better than seeing a shrink. Therapy, he said, often leads to “understanding without relief.” Even Freud himself had conceded that the best therapy could do was bring us from “hysteric misery” to “common unhappiness.”

The route to true happiness, he argued, was to achieve a visceral understanding of impermanence, which would take you off the emotional roller coaster and allow you to see your dramas and desires through a wider lens. Waking up to the reality of our situation allows you to, as the Buddhists say, “let go,” to drop your “attachments.” As one Buddhist writer put it, the key is to recognize the “wisdom of insecurity.”

My consumption of Buddhist books was paying off. Throughout the weekend, I made a deliberate effort to pause, look around, and savor things while they lasted. There were little moments, like running errands for Bianca—for example, putting her carefully curated gift bags in people’s rooms—and actually enjoying it. Or when I babysat my adorable, big-eyed baby niece Campbell in my room while everyone else was out having lunch. She sat on my lap and cooed contentedly while I ate a cheeseburger, trying not to drip ketchup on her head.

“Meditation is a waste of time, like learning French or kissing after sex.”

The doctor’s theory was that, in modern life, our ancient fight-or-flight mechanism was being triggered too frequently—in traffic jams, meetings with our bosses, etc.—and that this was contributing to the epidemic of heart disease. Even if the confrontations were themselves minor, our bodies didn’t know that; they reacted as if they were in kill-or-be-killed scenarios, releasing toxic stress chemicals into the bloodstream. The doctor had done studies showing that meditation could reverse the effects of stress and lower blood pressure

Should I try this? I was in a weakened state. Tenderized by the scientific evidence, and with my reference points for normalcy scrambled by months of marinating in Buddhism, I decided: Damn it, let’s give it a shot. Carpe diem, and whatnot.

This was not just some hippie time-passing technique, like Ultimate Frisbee or making God’s Eyes. It was 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.

Wrestling your mind to the ground, repeatedly hauling your attention back to the breath in the face of the inner onslaught required genuine grit. This was a badass endeavor.

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.

Meditation was radically altering my relationship to boredom, something I’d spent my whole life scrambling to avoid.

Now I started to see life’s in-between moments—sitting at a red light, waiting for my crew to get set up for an interview—as a chance to focus on my breath, or just take in my surroundings. As soon as I began playing this game, I really noticed how much sleepwalking I did, how powerfully my mind propelled me forward or backward. Mostly, I saw the world through a scrim of skittering thoughts, which created a kind of buffer between me and reality. As one Buddhist author put it, the “craving to be otherwise, to be elsewhere” permeated my whole life.

On Sunday nights, in the seconds right before the start of World News, I would take a few deep breaths and look around the room—out at the milling stage crew, up at the ceiling rigged with lights—grounding myself in reality before launching into the unreality of bellowing into a camera with unseen millions behind it.

Buddhism’s secret sauce went by a hopelessly anodyne name: “mindfulness.” 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. Cookies: I want. Mosquitoes: I reject. The safety instructions the flight attendants read aloud on an airplane: I zone out. Mindfulness is a fourth option, a way to view the contents of our mind with nonjudgmental remove.

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. For me, this was infernally difficult. A daggerlike tingle would appear under my thigh, a little pinprick portal to Hades, and I would grit my teeth and question the choices I was making in life. I couldn’t suspend judgment; I hated it. 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.

Mindfulness represented an alternative to living reactively.

We can do more than just think; we also have the power simply to be aware of things—without judgment, without the ego.

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.

As my paunch grew, it became the source of nearly as much angst as the recession of my hairline. Neither vanity nor mindfulness helped, though. It wasn’t uncommon for me to get directly up from meditating and stuff my face, enter into a postprandial remorse jag, and take a nap.

Mark’s thesis was a direct response to the fears Jason and my comedy writer friend had about meditation leaving them without an edge. If anything, mindfulness brought you closer to your neuroses, acting as a sort of Doppler radar, mapping your mental microclimates, making you more insightful, not less. It was the complete opposite of the reckless hope preached by the self-helpers. It was the power of negative thinking.

She nailed the method for applying mindfulness in acute situations, albeit with a somewhat dopey acronym: RAIN. R: recognize A: allow I: investigate N: non-identification

What mindfulness does is create some space in your head so you can, as the Buddhists say, “respond” rather than simply “react.” In the Buddhist view, you can’t control what comes up in your head; it all arises out of a mysterious void. We spend a lot of time judging ourselves harshly for feelings that we had no role in summoning. The only thing you can control is how you handle it.

A successful dotcom friend of mine said that once he started meditating he noticed he was always the calmest person in the room during heated meetings. He called it a “superpower.”

mindfulness was a skill—one that would improve as I got more meditation hours under my belt. In that spirit, he said I should consider going on a retreat.

As we were paying the bill, I said, “If you’re up for it, I’d love to get together every month or two.” “Sure,” he said, looking up from the remains of his drink and meeting my gaze. With uncontrived sincerity he said, “I want to know you.” That was one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to me.

The instruction sheets gently advise us not to make eye contact with our fellow retreatants, so as to not interrupt one another’s meditative concentration. Which makes this the only place on earth where the truly compassionate response to a sneeze is to ignore it completely.

Goldstein begins by setting us straight on walking meditation. “It is not recess,” he intones. In other words, no strolling around and taking in the scenery. The drill is this, he explains: stake out a patch of ground about ten yards long, and then slowly pace back and forth, mindfully deconstructing every stride. With each step, you’re supposed to note yourself lifting, moving, and placing. And repeat. Ad infinitum.

He’s talking about the power of desire in our minds, and how our culture conditions us to believe that the more pleasant experiences we have—sex, movies, food, shopping trips, etc.—the happier we’ll be.

the Buddha calls everything we experience—sights, sounds, smells, etc.—the “terrible bait of the world.”

“I’m giving this everything I have,” I tell her, “but I’m not getting anywhere. I don’t know if I can hack this. I’m really struggling here.” When she answers, she’s no longer using her funny voice. She’s talking like a normal person. “You’re trying too hard,” she tells me. The diagnosis is delivered frankly and firmly. This is a classic problem on the first retreat, she explains. She advises me to just do my best, expect nothing, and “be with” whatever comes up in my mind. “It’s the total opposite of daily life,” she says, “where we do something and expect a result. Here, it’s just sitting with whatever is there.”

This is something called “choiceless awareness.” I’d heard the teachers talk about it. It’s some serious behind-the-waterfall action. Once you’ve built up enough concentration, they say, you can drop your obsessive focus on the breath and just “open up” to whatever is there.

get a real sense of how a few slippery little thoughts I might have in, say, the morning before I go to work—maybe after a quarrel with Bianca, a story I read in the paper, or an imagined dialogue with my boss—can weasel their way into the stream of my mind and pool in unseen eddies, from which they hector and haunt me throughout the day. Thoughts calcify into opinions, little seeds of discontent blossom into bad moods, unnoticed back pain makes me inexplicably irritable with anyone who happens to cross my path.

I get a real sense of how a few slippery little thoughts I might have in, say, the morning before I go to work—maybe after a quarrel with Bianca, a story I read in the paper, or an imagined dialogue with my boss—can weasel their way into the stream of my mind and pool in unseen eddies, from which they hector and haunt me throughout the day. Thoughts calcify into opinions, little seeds of discontent blossom into bad moods, unnoticed back pain makes me inexplicably irritable with anyone who happens to cross my path.

Like that joke where the guy is banging his head against the wall—when asked why he’s doing it, he says, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

you train yourself to have compassion rather than aversion as your “default setting.”

I’d be loath to call what I’m feeling spiritual or mystical. Those terms connote—to me, at least—otherworldliness or unreality. By contrast, what’s happening right now feels hyperreal, as if I’ve been pulled out of a dream rather than thrust into one.

“Everything in the world is ultimately unsatisfying and unreliable because it won’t last.”

most of us, incredibly blessed with the number of pleasant experiences we’ve had in our lives. Yet when we look back, where are they now?”

“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’?”

That notion really struck me: until we look directly at our minds we don’t really know “what our lives are about.”

until we look directly at our minds we don’t really know “what our lives are about.” “It’s amazing,” I said, “because everything we experience in this world goes through one filter—our minds—and we spend very little time bothering to see how it works.”

“My remedy these days combines some things that are non-meditative,” I said. “I think to myself, ‘So if this whole thing blows up, what’s the worst-case scenario? I lose my job? I still have a wife who loves me—and the only person who can ruin that is me.’ It works, but it has nothing to do with meditation.” “No—that’s insight!” As he spoke, his voice rose an octave with insistence. “Insight into the nature of reality?” I asked sarcastically. “Yeah,” he said, not taking the bait. “That’s insight, because you’re not clinging to success so seriously.” “But maybe I’m just clinging to Bianca.” “That’s better. You’re clinging to something that’s far more substantial.”

Mark had helped me see that the point of getting behind the waterfall wasn’t to magically solve all of your problems, only to handle them better, by creating space between stimulus and response. It was about mitigation, not alleviation.

The pursuit of happiness becomes the source of our unhappiness.

Another study, out of Yale, looked at the part of the brain known as the default mode network (DMN), which is active when we’re lost in thought—ruminating about the past, projecting into the future, obsessing about ourselves. The researchers found meditators were not only deactivating this region while they were practicing, but also when they were not meditating. In other words, meditation created a new default mode. I could actually feel this happening with me. I noticed myself cultivating a sort of nostalgia for the present, developing the reflex to squelch pointless self-talk and simply notice whatever was going on around me:

A blockbuster MRI study from Harvard found that people who took the eight-week MBSR course had thicker gray matter in the areas of the brain associated with selfawareness and compassion, while the regions associated with stress actually shrank.

The old conventional wisdom was that once we reached adulthood, our brain stopped changing. This orthodoxy was now replaced with a new paradigm, called neuroplasticity. The brain, it turns out, is constantly changing in response to experience.

The brain, the organ of experience, through which our entire lives are led, can be trained. Happiness is a skill.

Marturano recommended something radical: do only one thing at a time. When you’re on the phone, be on the phone. When you’re in a meeting, be there. Set aside an hour to check your email, and then shut off your computer monitor and focus on the task at hand.

This was another attack on my work style. I had long assumed that ceaseless planning was the recipe for effectiveness, but Marturano’s point was that too much mental churning was counterproductive. When you lurch from one thing to the next, constantly scheming, or reacting to incoming fire, the mind gets exhausted. You get sloppy and make bad decisions. I could see how the counterintuitive act of stopping, even for a few seconds, could be a source of strength, not weakness. This was a practical complement to Joseph’s “is this useful?” mantra. It was the opposite of zoning out, it was zoning in.

Studies showed that the best way to engineer an epiphany was to work hard, focus, research, and think about a problem—and then let go. Do something else.

The international avatar of compassion marched briskly into the room and declared that he had to relieve himself.

Practice of compassion is ultimately benefit to you. So I usually describe: we are selfish, but be wise selfish rather than foolish selfish.”

‘Most of one’s own troubles, worries, and sadness come from self-cherishing, self-centeredness.’

Don’t be nice for the sake of it, he was saying. Do it because it would redound to your own benefit, that it would make you feel good by eroding the edges of the ego.

practicing compassion appeared to be helping their bodies handle stress in a better way. This was consequential because frequent or persistent release of cortisol can lead to heart disease, diabetes, dementia, cancer, and depression.

compassionate people tended to be healthier, happier, more popular, and more successful at work.

tribes who cooperated and sacrificed for one another were more likely to “be victorious over other tribes.” Apparently nature rewarded both the fittest—and the kindest.

“Dust to dust” isn’t just something they say at funerals, it’s the truth. You can no more disconnect from the universe and its inhabitants than a wave can extricate itself from the ocean.

I instituted a make-eye-contact-and-smile policy that turned out to be genuinely enjoyable. It was like I was running for mayor. The fact that my days now included long strings of positive interactions made me feel good (not to mention popular). Acknowledging other people’s basic humanity is a remarkably effective way of shooing away the swarm of self-referential thoughts that buzz like gnats around our heads.

anger, which can be so seductive at first, has “a honeyed tip” but a “poisoned root.”

In my emerging understanding, there was nothing mechanistic or metaphysical about karma. Robbing a bank or cheating at Scrabble would not automatically earn you jail time or rebirth as a Gila monster. Rather, it was simply that actions have immediate consequences in your mind—which cannot be fooled. Behave poorly, and whether you’re fully conscious of it or not, your mind contracts. The great blessing—and, frankly, the great inconvenience—of becoming more mindful and compassionate was that I was infinitely more sensitive to the mental ramifications of even the smallest transgressions, from killing a bug to dropping trash on the street.

virtuous cycle, in which lower levels of anger and paranoia helped you make better decisions which, in turn, meant more happiness, and so on.

Ben—who knew I’d become a meditator—looked me dead in the eyes and said, in a tone that was both playful and serious, “Stop being so Zen.” In mere minutes he had pinpointed and pronounced my errors. Behind the fig leaf of being a good yogi, I had gone so far down the path of resignation and passivity that I had compromised the career I had worked for decades to build. It was just as my dad had feared; I had become ineffective. What I should have done when faced with this adversity was buckle down and work harder. Instead, I had confused “letting go” with going soft.

“There’s a certain kind of aggression in organizational behavior that doesn’t value that—that will see it as weak. If you present yourself too much like that, people won’t take you seriously. So I think it important to hide the Zen, and let them think that you’re really someone they have to contend with.”

I had fallen, he said, into several classic “pitfalls of the path.” People often misinterpreted the dharma to mean they had to adopt a sort of meekness. Some of Mark’s patients even stopped using the word “I,” or disavowed the need to have orgasms during sex. He recalled scenes from his youth when he and meditation buddies would have group dinners at restaurants and no one would have the gumption to place an order. They didn’t want to express a personal preference, as if doing so was insufficiently Buddhist. Another pitfall was detachment. I thought I was being mindful of my distress when I was left out of the big stories, but really I was just building a wall to keep out the things that made me angry or fearful. The final pitfall to which I’d succumbed was nihilism: an occasional sense of, “Whatever, man, everything’s impermanent.”

In the midst of these intense work sprints, when I had less time to sleep, exercise, and meditate, I could feel my inner monologue getting testier, too—and I didn’t have the wherewithal to not take the voice in my head so seriously. I looked tired in my live shot this morning. I need a haircut. I can’t believe that Facebook commenter called me a “major clown.” The ego, that slippery son of a bitch, would use fatigue as an opportunity to sneak past my weakened defenses.

Striving is fine, as long as it’s tempered by the realization that, 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. When you are wisely ambitious, you do everything you can to succeed, but you are not attached to the outcome—so that if you fail, you will be maximally resilient, able to get up, dust yourself off, and get back in the fray. That, to use a loaded term, is enlightened self-interest.

didn’t need to waste so much time envisioning some vague horribleness awaiting me in my future. (Do they even have flophouses in Duluth?) All I had to do was tell myself: if it doesn’t work, I only need the grit to start again—just like when my mind wandered in meditation.

I called the most skeptical person I knew, Sam Harris. Lo and behold, he, too, said enlightenment was real, although he used a different analogy. Just as it’s possible for humans to train to be fast or strong enough to compete in the Olympics, he argued we can practice to be the wisest or most compassionate version of ourselves.

Mindfulness provides space between impulse and action, so you’re not a slave to whatever neurotic obsession pops into your head.

When you repeatedly go through the cycle of feeling the breath, losing your focus, and hauling yourself back, you are building your mindfulness muscle the way dumbbell curls build your biceps. Once this muscle is just a little bit developed, you can start to see all the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that carom through your skull for what they really are: quantum squirts of energy without any concrete reality of their own.

“Meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It’s about feeling the way you feel.”

Boredom: also not a new problem. The advice here is similar to how you should handle pain and fatigue: investigate.

Under the sway of the ego, life becomes a constant low-grade crisis. You are never sated, never satisfied, always reaching for the next thing, like a colicky baby. Meditation is the antidote. It won’t fix everything in your life, make you taller, or (most likely) land you in a state of bliss on a park bench. But it can make you 10% happier, or maybe much more.