Recently I watched a funny interview on Charlie Rose with Dan Harris, author of a new book about meditation, “10% Happier,” lugubriously and ludicrously subtitled, “How I Tamed the Voice In My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—a True Story.”
Harris had a panic attack on air after covering Iraq and returning depressed and turning to drugs. His journey sounds like a microcosm of America’s arc in the last 14 years. His book is described as “memoir about his public breakdown and journey to mindfulness.” Is there a macrocosmic parallel?
“Until recently, I thought of meditation as the exclusive province of bearded swamis, unwashed hippies, and fans of John Tesh music,” Dan Harris writes in his book.
More seriously, he has a good definition of mindfulness: “Mindfulness is the ability to know what’s going on in your head right now without getting carried away by it.”
As the “Faith and Religion reporter” Harris had conversations with many people of faith. Apparently little spirituality rubbed off on him, because he made the telling comment that “religion provides the lenses through which most of our co-inhabitants of this planet view this world.” Most of our co-inhabitants?
Who doesn’t have lenses of one kind or another through which they view the world? A worldview is also a lens, and an accurate, open-ended one is necessary but not sufficient to awakening. Meditation however, is the dissolving of all lenses in unwilled attention, enabling one to see directly, without mediation of symbols, memories and constructs of any kind.
Harris’s conversion to his brand of meditation happened in a conversation with Eckhart Tolle. He initially thought he spewed “irredeemable garbage,” but then came to believe in him. With unintended irony, Tolle was described as “the massively successful self-help guru,” who made millions by marketing meditation to the masses (pardon my alliteration, but the mentality fits).
Harris learned “the value of having a worldview that transcends your own narrow interests.” Tolle “unfurled a theory of the human condition that I’d never heard before.” Not the value of questioning its validity or not apparently.
“Tolle’s theory is that we all have a voice in our heads that’s in constant conversation with us.” Frankly, that’s a schizophrenic worldview.
His system is simplicity itself, although it’s simplicity marketed for the dumb and dumber: “1. Sit with spine straight and eyes closed. 2. Focus your attention on the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. 3. The key—your mind goes nuts. Notice when you’ve gotten carried away and lost, and start over, noticing again and again. It’s a muscle in the brain.”
Egad that is bad. It’s uprooted Buddhism, which has dubious value even when carefully transplanted. It assumes the reality of the watcher and the self, and the validity of effort of the self. It assumes an entity that brings ‘my attention’ back to ‘my mind.’ That kind of illogical recursiveness may help train the mind to concentrate amidst what Harris calls the “information blitzkrieg,” but it has nothing to do with spiritual growth.
I’m not saying that there aren’t benefits to ‘mindfulness meditation,’ such as “lowering blood pressure, boosting the immune system and re-wiring the parts of your brain that have to do with focus.”
Nor that it isn’t very beneficial to begin and end the day by taking five or ten minutes to sit mindfully, listening to sensations, feelings and thoughts as they arise. As Harris said, “we are so wrapped up in rumination of the past and projection into the future.” But upholding the self and effort us antithetical to awakening insight, intelligence and the sacred in the brain.
The funniest stuff came when the unhappy anchor trying to find a bottom tried to convince his happily rudderless host why he should meditate. “Serious people of great accomplishment have tried to get me to meditate,” Charlie Rose said, but I have my naps. “Convert me.”
“The word meditation is a lot like the word sports,” Harris gamely began, “it describes a whole variety of things.” If the sports analogy pertains, the difference between mindfulness meditation as Dan Harris describes it and the meditative states one awakens beside the streams here must seem like the difference between taking a morning jog and running an Olympic marathon. Both seem irredeemably tedious.
Perhaps this is what Harris meant when said, “there are a lot of things I don’t like about meditation.” To continue with the sports/exercise metaphor, if meditation is something you have to force yourself to do, you’re not doing to do it for very long. It is for me intrinsically enjoyable every day, the true anchor of my day.
Finally, there was an unintended browraiser when Harris said, “the revolution that’s brewing with meditation.” He quickly corrected himself, perhaps remembering the audience he was marketing to, and qualified it by inserting, “the public health revolution.
Can meditation, which entails being religious without having a religion, be the foundation for a new culture and civilization? The present one, with its rotten timbers splintering into everyone, seems about to collapse, and 10% happier just doesn’t cut it.