“10% Happier” by Dan Harris: Part One

This is a powerful book. It struck me with the same impact that I felt after reading “Essentialism.” While I have never practiced meditation myself, this book made me want to start. I have always tried to be mindful and be in the moment, but this book provides tips and tricks to bring those elements into your life. Additionally, the religious insights that Dan Harris lays out do not give off a feeling of being too touchy-feely. Instead, these insights are down to earth, achievable, and most importantly, powerful.

  1. The internal narrator, the most intimate part of our lives. The voice comes braying in as soon as we open our eyes in the morning, and then heckles us all day long with an air horn. It’s a fever swamp of urges, desires, and judgments. It’s fixated on the past and the future, to the detriment of the here and now. It’s what has us reaching into the fridge when we’re not hungry, losing our temper when we know it’s not really in our best interest, and pruning our inboxes when we’re ostensibly engaged in conversation with other human beings.
  2. Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem, largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment. If you can get past the cultural baggage, though, what you’ll find is that meditation is simply exercise for your brain.
  3. Many of us labor under the delusion that we’re permanently stuck with all of the difficult parts of our personalities—that we are “hot-tempered,” or “shy,” or “sad”—and that these are fixed, immutable traits. We now know that many of the attributes we value most are, in fact, skills, which can be trained the same way you build your body in the gym.
  4. All of us struggle to strike a balance between the image we present to the world and the reality of our inner landscape.
  5. It is entirely possible to be depressed without being conscious of it.
  6. When you’re cut off from your emotions, they often manifest in your body.
  7. In his darkest moments, when he was living in that apartment in Arizona, crying every day for a year and a half and actively contemplating suicide, his faith was his main source of comfort. It gave him the sense that his travails were part of a larger plan, that even if everyone on earth hated him, his creator did not. “I knew with assurance,” he said, “that God cared for me.”
  8. I had read research showing that regular churchgoers tended to be happier, in part because having a sense that the world is infused with meaning and that suffering happens for a reason helped them deal more successfully with life’s inevitable humiliations.
  9. If you’re never looking up, you’re always just looking around.
  10. Our entire lives are governed by a voice in our heads. This voice is engaged in a ceaseless stream of thinking—most of it negative, repetitive, and self-referential. It squawks away at us from the minute we open our eyes in the morning until the minute we fall asleep at night, if it allows us to sleep at all. Talk, talk, talk: the voice is constantly judging and labeling everything in its field of vision. Its targets aren’t just external; it often viciously taunts us, too.
  11. Per Tolle, even though the voice is the ridgepole of our interior lives, most of us take it completely for granted. 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. When we are unaware of “the egoic mind” we blindly act out our thoughts, and often the results are not pretty.
  12. The ego is never satisfied. No matter how much stuff we buy, no matter how man arguments we win or delicious meals we consume, the ego never feels complete.
  13. The ego thrives on drama. It keeps our old resentments and grievances alive through compulsive thought.
  14. Perhaps the most powerful tool Tollean insight into the ego was that it is obsessed with the past and the future, at the expense of the present. We “live almost exclusively through memory and anticipation,” he wrote. We wax nostaligic for prior events during which we were doubtless ruminating or projecting. We cast forward to future events during which we will certainly be fantasizing. But as Tolle pointed out, it is, quite literally, always Now. The present moment is all we’ve got. We experienced everything in our past through the present moment, and we will experience everything in the future the same way.
  15. How do we do a better job of staying in the Now? Tolle’s answer: “Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment.” How do we achieve liberation from the voice in the head? His advice: simply be aware of it.
  16. “Don’t you ever get pissed off, annoyed, irritated, sad—anything negative?” I asked Tolle. “No, I accept what is. And that’s why life has become so simple.”
  17. The most powerful change comes actually out of that different state of consciousness. This is why people so admire what Gandhi did, because he was bringing about change from a state of consciousness that was already at peace. And people sometimes believe that if you’re already at peace you’re never going to do anything. But that’s not the case. Very powerful actions come out of that.
  18. “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.” Gandhi said.
  19. “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.”
  20. The Buddha’s main thesis was that in a world where everything is constantly changing, we suffer because we cling to things that won’t last. A central theme of the Buddha’s “dharma” (which roughly translates to “teaching”) revolved around the very word that had been wafting through my consciousness when I used to lie on my office couch, pondering the unpredictability of television news: “impermanence.” The Buddha embraced an often overlooked truism: nothing lasts—including us. We and everyone we love will die. Fame fizzles, beauty fades, continents shift. Pharaohs are swallowed by emperors, who fall to sultans, kings, Kaisers, and presidents—and it all plays out against the backdrop of an infinite universe in which our bodies are made up of atoms from the very first exploding stars. We may know this intellectually, but on an emotional level we seem to be hardwired for denial. We comport ourselves as if we had solid ground beneath our feet, as if we had control we quarantine the elderly in nursing homes and pretend aging will never happen to us. We suffer because we get attached to people and possessions that ultimately evaporate.
  21. Unlike many of the faiths id come across as a religion reporter, the Buddha wasn’t promising salvation in the form of some death-defying dogma, but rather through the embrace of the very stuff that will destroy us. 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.”
  22. My favorite Buddhist catchphrase, however, was the one they used to describe the churning of the ego: “monkey mind.” I’ve always been a sucker for animal metaphors, and I thought this one was perfect. Our minds are like furry little gibbons: always agitated, never at rest.
  23. In modern life, our ancient fight-or-flight mechanism was being triggered too frequently—in traffic jams, meetings with out bosses, etc.—and that this was contributing to the epidemic of heart disease. Even if the confrontations themselves were 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.
  24. Instructions for Meditation:
    1. Sit comfortably: You don’t have to be cross-legged. Plop yourself in a chair, on a cushion, on the floor—wherever. Just make sure you spine is reasonably straight.
    2. Feel the sensations of your breath as it goes in and out. Pick a spot: nostrils, chest, or gut. Focus your attention there and really try to feel the breath. If it helps to direct your attention, you can use a soft mental note, like “in” and “out.”
    3. This one, according to all of the books I’d read, was the biggie. Whenever your attention wanders, just forgive yourself and gently come back to the breath. You don’t need to clear the mind of all thinking; that’s pretty much impossible. (True, when you are focused on the feeling on the breath, the chatter will momentarily cease, but this won’t last too long.) The whole game is to catch your mind wandering and then come back to the breath, over and over again.
  25. I saw the world through a scrim of skittering thoughts, which created a kind of buffer between me and reality. As on Buddhist author put it, the “craving to be otherwise, to be elsewhere” permeated my whole life.
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