By Brent R. Oliver
Dan Harris vaulted into my coveted esteem in 2014 with his first book, 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.
Despite its painfully cumbersome subtitle, 10% Happier was a groundbreaking book, not only for me, but for the entire world of modern mindfulness.
Harris is a news correspondent for ABC, appearing on many of their most well-known shows, including a gig co-anchoring the weekend edition of the ever-popular Good Morning America. In 2004, he entirely lost his shit on GMA, melting down in a freakish panic attack before 5 million viewers. His years of adrenaline-laced war reporting and self-medicating with coke and ecstasy had caught up with him. The result was vicious and painfully public.
Despite a congenital allergy to spiritual woo-woo and a deep suspicion of religion in general, Harris eventually turned to meditation. 10% Happier chronicles his initial journey into a world usually seen as a soft-spoken, becalmed love-fest replete with chanting, incense, and chakra alignments. Eschewing that, he searched instead for hard-nosed, practical techniques with demonstrable results.
He found these with surprisingly little trouble and began implementing them in his daily life. The outcome was so beneficial that he became one of the loudest, most intelligent advocates for secular meditation and mindfulness, though he freely admits that they have crippling PR problems. 10% Happier wasn’t just his trek toward sanity; it was also an advertisement for the effective contemplative techniques he found, which are specifically removed from the typically granola, half-baked hippie culture that still, unaccountably, reeks of patchouli.
Harris has become a committed meditator, sitting for two hours a day, which puts him way above the curve and dyes him in the wool of true contemplative practice. He’s also a tireless evangelist for pragmatic meditative techniques designed not for the sequestered Buddhist monk, but for the everyday person struggling with the myriad travails of modern life. Despite 10% Happier being well-written, well-researched, and generally well-received, every American citizen did not immediately develop a meditation practice after reading it, which was sort of what he was shooting for.
His new book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics—which is thankfully bereft of a clunky subtitle—attempts to deal with this shocking inconsistency. Harris, a self-avowed fidgety skeptic of the highest order, addresses some of the issues his fellow scoffers face in trying to implement a serious, and seriously helpful, meditation practice. It’s a how-to guide for people who have trouble how-to-ing.
I myself have a fair amount of experience trying to convince squirrely disbelievers of the benefits of meditation. As a rule, I don’t proselytize much in person, but I do write a lot about mindfulness in this column, and I’m happy to extrapolate on the salubrious effects if someone asks. The same thing happens nearly every time: “Well, I’d love to meditate but I can’t because _________ .” There are many different reasons (excuses) that fill that blank. I mean, it’s 2018. We’ve all got plenty of shit to do.
A lot of the road blocks to starting a meditation practice are very common. For every “I can’t meditate because it drives my cat crazy and we have a joint checking account,” there’s a hundred people that say “I just don’t have the time.” As a meditation coach, I hear that with metronomic frequency.
Dan Harris decided to put his not-inconsiderable show on the road. He commandeered a righteous behemoth of a tour bus that George Clinton and P-Funk had recently funked up, and plotted out a 12-day trip across the nation, with stops all along the way to mingle with would-be/should be meditators. He enlisted the inimitable skills of Jeff Warren, a bad ass Canadian mindfulness teacher with legit contemplative credentials, to help guide and instruct the people they met. They put together a righteous team of audio/visual professionals, most of them meditators themselves, to record the high—and low—jinks inherent in any road trip. Their syllabus was simple but sweeping: talk to groups and individuals interested in meditation and teach them how to deal with some of the typical issues that impede starting or maintaining a daily practice.
10% Happier chronicled Harris’ journey to embracing mindfulness, which changed his path and his life. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics follows him, Warren, and the rest of their killer crew on a cross country jaunt designed to nudge, cajole, and gently head-butt folks into a rewarding meditation practice.
I think it was a rousing success (the book, anyway, which is what I’m reviewing). The trip itself seems to have swung between clusterfuck and consciousness-raising. Which is about what you’d expect when you jam 12 or 15 people in a tour bus that stinks of George Clinton’s tie-dyed nuts, mindfulness notwithstanding.
Harris and Warren go together like Jäger and Red Bull. They pepper the narrative with plenty of stories from the unforgiving road, most hilarious, some nerve-wracking, all intriguing. This wasn’t an easy journey.
The result is great, though. The book manages to capture the ups and downs of a crazy-ass road trip as well as convey the overall success of the vision itself. highly recommend 10% Happier, though. It’s a great read and a fantastic memoir. While there is no need to have read 10% Happier to benefit from this volume because it’s a stand-alone, geared to work with anyone who’s ever had trouble getting a meditation practice off the ground, this new book is set up to work either way. Whether you’re an experienced meditator or a brand-newbie, there are plenty of helpful tips, not to mention detailed instructions, for dealing with the inevitable hurdles that always pop up.
Since Harris is the admitted sneering skeptic, it only makes sense that Warren, while not a bell-jangling, spirit-animal-having weirdo, would be a bit more into the cosmic side of things. He loves words like “being-ness,” which often rankles Harris’ earthbound, scientific leanings. He also digs the terms “heart,” and “kindness,” as they relate to the softness and compassion inherent in the practice, which Harris is certainly on board with. However, Harris’ genetic dislike of the more touchy-feely verbiage forces confrontations that are not only fun for readers, but eventually enlightening for the narrators.
Harris’ edgy, front-line journalistic persona pushes back against Warren’s mushy, delighted, joy-for-all approach. They manage to learn from each other, though, since they’re demonstrably good friends. Warren is definitely repping the “meditative enjoyment” school, which is less about sweaty discipline and more about the inherent delight and rewards available to those who practice. Harris is in the admittedly discipline-oriented camp, which promulgates a visceral, gritted teeth, bear-down method that’s more in line with exercising every day, no matter what, because it’s fucking good for you.
Along the way, Warren does a good job of coaxing Harris out of his staid views and bumping him toward the “chill, bro,” side of things. However, Harris is (somewhat heroically, in my opinion) unwilling to totally recant his “fuck you” attitude. His willingness to change, coupled with his insistence that the practice be dead bastard useful, is the gleaming core of this book.
The helpful tidbits are dead-on. While Harris is the dominant personality and contributor, he still maintains he’s no teacher. He delegates this responsibility to Warren, who cheerfully excels at it. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics looks to smooth out whatever speed bumps prevent people from starting to meditate. For every impediment, Warren has an answer. No matter the obstacle, this dude has clear and precise guidance road-tested to get you through it.
His techniques are lucid, eminently practical, and specifically designed for regular-ass people living nutso lives swamped by bills, beset on all sides by children, drowning in work, scrabbling for peace, struggling to be better people. Normal people. Us.
Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is a book you need to read, especially if you’re interested in meditation but can’t figure out how to get it off the ground. Dan Harris and Jeff Warren have done a lot of that work for you. What’s more, they’re dedicated to helping you do it, right where you are, right this second.
What’s your excuse?
Get the book, Meditation for Skeptics here:
Editor: Dana Gornall
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Brent is a coach in Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness system because it’s just such an approach. He works with individuals interested in everything from alleviating stress to pursuing classical enlightenment. He also coaches groups, and offers presentations to companies, schools, and organizations curious about the benefits of mindfulness. In addition to being a columnist at The Tattooed Buddha, Brent’s writing has also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Morpheus. He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, two cats, and a crippling addiction to horror. Swing by his website brentpurpleoliver.com for more information.