On the surface, Nightline anchor Dan Harris may not capture the prototypical image most people have of a meditation advocate. The bald mystic in saturnine robes, cross-legged in repose or shuffling along with mulish unconcern for the passage of time, placid almost to a point of stupor: this caricature is, Harris reveals, part of a rampant “PR problem” for mindfulness practice; and the misconceptions, it turns out, run much deeper than cosmetics. “Meditation is not about feeling a certain way,” Harris writes, but is instead “about feeling the way you feel.” It is a way of acknowledging each thought as “an object of consciousness”, as Sam Harris described it in Waking Up—of acknowledging feelings, no matter how potent, as mere states of the brain. It is the practice, most importantly, of breaking through the illusion of what we call “the self”, however briefly, and discovering that no one is behind the teleprompter.
With this in mind, meditation may therefore strike the reader an odd and even counterproductive engagement for a news anchor; and 10% Happier does not neglect to shine a light on this apparent (and ultimately nonexistent) contradiction, detailing the professional incertitudes Harris wrestled with throughout his mindfulness training. In fact, it is these confusions which—broadcasted aloud in their varied shades—make the book such a valuable manual for prospective meditators; not as a collection of instructions (though several feature), but as an anticipatory salve for the reader for what are, by all accounts, unpleasant edges inherent to early attempts at the practice. Harris relays an analogy he received from teachers such as Joseph Goldstein, both on and off retreat, that mindfulness is akin to a muscle: it needs to be broken down, and not without some pain, before it can grow.
10% Happier is, in sum, not only a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening memoir, but one whose every recollection serves its ‘self-help’ purpose. Harris is willing to unpack the past in a manner not neatly moralized by the present, but honest and uncompromising, inclusive of all the unattractive antipathies which often precede the fruits of progress—or, as mindfulness practitioners say, “the space behind the waterfall”.
Meditation has, in recent years, been referred to as the “new caffeine”. In addition to authoring this book, Harris has created an app with (the aforementioned) Joseph Goldstein, and readers can learn more about the practice (and find out if they agree) by visiting the 10% Happier website. Even if you consider yourself a true-blue skeptic when it comes to mindfulness, as Harris himself once did, it is likely you will be eager to expand your knowledge after reading his account. Because, if the praises now being sung by so many are to be believed, blues aren’t the only shades of life it will brighten.