Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris (with Jeff Warren and Carlyle Adler) addresses some of the common roadblocks between the desire to meditate and the follow-through on that desire. In his previous book 10% Happier, which I blogged about here, Harris makes the case that meditation really works—even for skeptics.
Some people give up on meditation quickly because they can’t clear their minds. Harris and company put that concern to rest. Nobody is able to completely clear their mind for any length of time. That is one of the reasons a meditation practice will focus on the breath or on a mantra. Even so, no one can stay completely focused on “om.” The aim in meditation is to become aware of distracting thoughts and to bring one’s attention back to the breath or a mantra. The whole game is a matter of turning the dial back to the breath channel when the intruding thoughts inevitably come. With time and practice, meditators improve at this, but even the most seasoned meditator is subject to distraction.
Harris wanted to call his previous book “The Voice In My Head Is An Asshole.” I can certainly relate. If an asshole is someone who acts entitled and pushes his way to the front of the line, then asshole is an apt description for that snarky play-by-play announcer in my head. That voice does not completely disappear during meditation. However, meditation allows me to hear that voice without identifying with it. As Harris and company describe it, meditation allows me to relate to conscious experience like a picture-in-picture television display, noticing the "asshole-voice" but switching attention to the big picture of the breath or mantra.
Once you have accepted that no one is a perfect meditator, the next challenge is time. Some people feel guilty about taking time out of their schedule to meditate. Working parents may be especially prone to this guilt. Like the flight attendant who tells us to put on our own oxygen mask before trying to help someone else, Harris and company make clear that proper self-care is not self-indulgence. Meditation can put us in a state of mind that makes us better parents and better workers.
New meditators often make the mistake of biting off more than they can chew. Harris and company recommend starting small with five to ten minutes of meditation per day and suggest pairing meditation with something else habitual like meditating before bedtime or after a workout. Even one minute per day is fine for a start. The point is to establish the habit. Although eventually, one may want to build up to twenty minutes or more, starting small can make it easier to find a time that works. Personally, I meditate first thing in the morning.
A trickier reason for avoiding meditation is the claim that "X" is my meditation: “Running is my meditation.” “Gardening is my meditation.” “Yoga is my meditation.” Wisely, Harris and company do not completely reject this kind of claim. Rather, they say that the claim’s accuracy depends on how mindfully you do the practice. Walking meditation is great, for example, but walking meditation, with its mindful attention to each step, is very different from ordinary walking.
Harris and company do a fine job of addressing most of the major reasons people give themselves for not meditating. There is one, though, that they miss, namely that progress is slow. Harris’s answer to “Why do you meditate?” gave him the title of his previous book: “Because it makes me about 10 percent happier.” It was a perfect answer, honest and accurate—no grand promises. However, some people find that 10% happier wildly underestimates the benefits they derive from meditation.
I don’t know how quickly Harris became 10 percent happier, but for me, it took a while. Progress in meditation is imperceptibly slow over any short period of time but undeniably real over longer periods. It’s like watching grass grow. In my experience, meditation can make you 10 percent happier but that could take 10 months. Of course, if you could become 10 percent richer in 10 months that would be a fantastic return on investment. So, look at it that way. Of course, your mileage may vary. It’s conceivable that you will be 10 percent happier in 10 days.
If you need a quick fix, I find that singing in the shower makes me 1 percent happier. Belting out some tunes silences the asshole in my head who tends to show up when I am unoccupied and covered with soap. Over the long run, meditating combined with singing in the shower could make you 11 percent happier. How is that for a bonus?