I have a meditation pillow. It’s like a big biscuit I put under my butt so my legs don’t fall asleep while I meditate (legs falling asleep is the #1 obstacle to enlightenment). In 10 years of owning this pillow, I had used it less than 20 times. That changed 2 months ago, when I read Dan Harris’s book about his own discovery of meditation, 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. I’ve meditated every day since.
In 2004, Harris, a journalist for ABC, had an on-air panic attack while anchoring a news segment on “Good Morning America.” With the help of a therapist, Harris worked out that the combination of light PTSD he had from serving as a war correspondent and his workaholic nature created the anxiety that sparked the episode. “Self-treatment” via recreational drugs amplified the problem. Though the cause was clear, the solution, not so much. Harris could (and did) ditch the partying, and therapy helped the PTSD, but he didn’t want to walk away from the dream career he’d worked so hard to build. For Harris, a question formed: Could a person succeed in our capitalistic society and also be calm and happy?
To find the answer, Harris uses his role as a journalist to speak with a wide range of scientists, spiritual leaders, and self-help gurus, the Dalai Lama and Eckhart Tolle among them. During his investigation, Harris is a curious skeptic, desperate for solutions but unwilling to accept any easy ones. He’s drawn to meditation because it has the backing of science and none of its advocates promise a magic bullet. Meditation will work, they say, but it will require a lifetime of practice. It is simple, but not easy.
For a book about meditation, it takes a while to get to the meditation part. It isn’t until the second half that we see Harris dive into, struggle with, and ultimately succeed in establishing a fulfilling practice. Self-help books often promote the “cure” at the beginning and spend the rest of the time convincing the reader it will work. Harris does the opposite, and this slow build to “the answer” is what makes his conclusions about the virtues of meditation so satisfying and convincing. It also makes the book more entertaining, giving it the feel of a memoir, rather than something purely informational. The only instruction comes in the last chapter, which is a (very useful) guide to meditation for beginners.
The title for the book came out of Harris’s struggle to explain the virtues of meditation without resorting to words like “centered” or “enlightenment.” He started telling people he meditated because it made him “about 10% happier.” It’s a good title and a good goal. I’ve only been at it for 60 days, so I don’t know if I’m quite to 10% yet, but at least I’m not using my meditation pillow as a dog bed anymore.
Matteson Perry is a screenwriter, performer, two-time winner of the Moth GrandSLAM storytelling championship, and one of the hosts of the Moth StorySLAM in Los Angeles. His first book, AVAILABLE, is now on sale in trade paperback.