10 % Happier

by on 01 December


Sam Harris started to notice the voice in his head after experiencing a panic attack while announcing the news to five million viewers on Good Morning America. By “the voice in his head”, he meant the inner voice we all experience which provides a colour commentary on our life. It tells us how well we’re doing, or not, and what we should be doing, or not. It’s our constant, but often unpleasant, companion on life’s journey. Sam’s first title for this book? The Voice in my Head is an Asshole.


Sam’s panic attack happened after stressful years of covering the war in Iraq as a front-line reporter, and then maintaining his “exciting” lifestyle once back in the States by doing drugs. He was burnt out. The panic attack told him to change his way of living. He sought professional treatment which helped a little bit.


At the same time, ABC News assigned him to cover the religious beat where he began to learn, among other things, about Buddhism and meditation. Sam, a professional sceptic, challenged many of the gurus he interviewed, including the Dalai Lama. But when reputable scientists showed him the changes in the brain resulting from meditation, his interest increased.


Sam began to meditate 10 minutes a day and discovered the “voice in his head”. His first meditation was revealing. “When I opened my eyes, I had an entirely different attitude about meditation. I didn’t like it, but now I respected it. This was not some hippie time-passing technique. It was a rigorous brain exercise; rep after rep of trying to tame the runaway train of the mind. This was a bad-ass endeavour.”


After several weeks, Sam’s respect increased further. “The word Zen had become synonymous with “mellow”. But this was all false advertising. Buddhist meditation was diabolically hard. Despite its difficulties, however, meditation did offer an actual method for shutting down the monkey mind” . . . (the inner voice) . . . “if only for a moment, meditation presented a temporary escape route from the clammy embrace of self-obsession. It may have been miserable, but it was the only solution I’d heard yet”.


“Pretty soon, my efforts began to bear fruit. I started to be able to use my breath to jolt myself back to the present moment. 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. Now I started to see life’s in-between moments . . as a chance to focus on my breath, or just take in my surroundings. The net effect . . . was like anchoring myself to an underground aquifer of calm. It became a way to steel myself as I moved through the world.”


“All of this was great, but it wasn’t actually the main point. Buddhism’s secret sauce went by the anodyne name of “mindfulness” - the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now – anger, jealousy, sadness, the pain of a stubbed toe – without getting carried away by it. I found this theory elegant but utterly unfeasible.”


Nevertheless, Sam persisted with meditation. He learned that mindfulness created some space in his head so that he could respond thoughtfully rather than simply react in an automatic fashion. “In the Buddhist view, you can’t control what comes up in your head; it all arises out of a mysterious void. . . .The only thing you can control is how you handle it.”


Eventually, one of the meditation experts suggested he try a meditation retreat because “mindfulness was a skill that would improve as I got more meditation hours under my belt”. Just for ten days! The opening line of the chapter entitled Retreat says it all – “It was the longest, most exquisite high of my life, but the hangover came first”.


The first five days were excruciating. Sam sought an interview with the retreat guru. “I’m giving this everything I have but I’m not getting anywhere. I don’t know if I can hack this. I’m really struggling.” The guru’s response – “You’re trying too hard. Just do your best, expect nothing and “be with” whatever comes up in your mind. A retreat is the total opposite of daily life where we do something and expect a result. Here, it’s just sitting with whatever comes up”.


This was the “game-changer” Sam needed. “It’s like I’d spent the past five days being dragged by my head behind a motorboat and now I’m up on water skis. This is an experience of my own mind I’ve never had before – a front-row seat to watch the machinery of consciousness.”
As well, the penny dropped on the value of a retreat. “Apparently, there’s no other way to get here – to really practice mindfulness – than to engage in the tedious work of watching your breath for days. In a way, it makes sense. How do you learn a sport? You do drills. A language? Conjugate endless verbs. A musical instrument? Scales. All the misery of repetition, the horror of sitting here in this hall with these zombies suddenly seems totally worth it.”


Nevertheless, “It may have been one of – if not the – most meaningful experiences of my life, but I was ready for it to end”.


Not communicating for 10 days made Sam’s friends curious. “What’s with you and this whole meditation thing?” After several mumbling responses, Sam found his line - “I do it because it makes me 10% happier”.


This is the most down-to-earth, educational, humorous book about mindfulness I’ve seen. And the Appendix – 11 pages of Instructions – is an added bonus.


Peter Black
November 2015

1 comment

  • Susie

    I adore this website - its so usefull and helpful
    for beginners.

    Susie Friday, 09 June 2017 09:44

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