"10% Happier" (He Went To Paris, Too)
May 22, 2020
This book has been bouncing on and off my to read list for a year. I read great reviews, but the title just didn't grab me. But in these days of sheltering in place, I found myself with a lot of time and I decided what the heck - I can always stop if I don't care for the book. 🤪
It's a fun read. Harris is a journalist on ABC News and is a good story teller. As he should be - his career has provided him the opportunity to write and develop a refined sense of what the audience wants. As I read, I realized that he had written the book I have envisioned! It is a story of how he was a hard-charging journalist taking every opportunity to climb the ladder and then one day he lost it. He wanted more; in my words, his soul was empty. His search for "more" lead him to interview self-help gurus and pastors; he found some insights but did not find the answer there. The next step was to explore meditation and mindfulness and through the study of them and the people/gurus he met, he began to find what he had been looking for. Something that brought him balance, perspective and yes, more happiness. Is the book self-indulgent and hard to relate to? I guess in a way, in that he certainly had access to people (e.g., the Dalai Lama) that most of us would never have. Do I feel sorry for him that he developed a drug problem as he dealt with the stress of work - no. But I found his discovery of meditation and mindfulness to be both informative and inspirational.
What follows is my summary of the most meaningful passages (to me) in the book. Most of these do not include his discussion of his "problems" or his work at ABC; the passages I selected focus more on what he was learning about his internal chatter, his monkey mind and how to manage it.
Meditation works. While it is not a panacea, science suggests it can help make you calmer, more focused, and less emotionally reactive. The research into the physiological and psychological benefits of the practice -- while still in its relatively early stages -- has only gotten stronger. Recent studies suggest meditation may decrease the risk of heart disease, boost the brain’s resilience in the face of suffering, and promote healthier aging.
To be clear, meditation isn’t a silver bullet. I have been meditating for nine years, and I am still capable of being neurotic, ambitious, and cranky. Which is why I like my whole 10% shtick; it sets the bar pretty low. That said, I am significantly happier and nicer than I used to be. I have come to believe that the 10%, like any good investment, compounds annually.
I initially wanted to call this book The Voice in My Head Is an Asshole.
Most of us are so entranced by the nonstop conversation we’re having with ourselves that we aren’t even aware we have a voice in our head. I certainly wasn’t -- at least not before I embarked on the weird little odyssey described in this book.
To be clear, I’m not talking about “hearing voices,” I’m talking about 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. Our inner chatter isn’t all bad, of course. Sometimes it’s creative, generous, or funny. But if we don’t pay close attention -- which very few of us are taught how to do -- it can be a malevolent puppeteer.
I came to realize that my preconceptions about meditation were, in fact, misconceptions.
Meditation is simply exercise for your brain. It’s a proven technique for preventing the voice in your head from leading you around by the nose. To be clear, it’s not a miracle cure. It won’t make you taller or better-looking, nor will it magically solve all of your problems. You should disregard the fancy books and the famous gurus promising immediate enlightenment. In my experience, meditation makes you 10% happier. That’s an absurdly unscientific estimate, of course. But still, not a bad return on investment.
Our levels of happiness, resilience, and kindness are NOT set from birth. 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.
If I quiet the voice in my head, will I lose my edge? Some think they need depression to be creative or compulsive worry to be successful. NO!
All of us struggle to strike a balance between the image we present to the world and the reality of our inner landscape.
My story begins during a period of time when I let the voice in my head run amok. It was during the early part of my career; I was an eager, curious, and ambitious cub reporter who got swept up, and swept away -- and it all culminated in the single most humiliating moment of my life.
Chapter 1 - Air Hunger
My on-air meltdown was the direct result of an extended run of mindlessness, a period of time during which I was focused on advancement and adventure, to the detriment of pretty much everything else in my life. It began on March 13, 2000: my first day at ABC News.
“The price of security is insecurity.”
Straight from childhood, I was a frequent mental inventory taker, scanning my consciousness for objects of concern, kind of like pressing a bruise to see if it still hurts. In my view, the balance between stress and contentment was life’s biggest riddle. On the one hand, I was utterly convinced that the continuation of any success I had achieved was contingent upon persistent hypervigilance. I figured this kind of behavior must be adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint -- cavemen who worried about possible threats, real or imagined, probably survived longer. On the other hand, I was keenly aware that while this kind of insecurity might prolong life, it also made it less enjoyable.
Once at ABC any attempts at balance went directly out the window. I was young and out of my league; I had to work triply hard to prove myself in the face of widespread institutional skepticism. Our motto was “You’re only as good as your last story.”
I often found myself overwhelmed by a soul-sucking sense of emptiness, a hollowed-out husk of a man.
My therapist explained that frequent cocaine use increases the levels of adrenaline in the brain, which dramatically ups the odds of having a panic attack. He told me that what I had experienced on air was an overwhelming jolt of mankind’s ancient fight-or-flight response, which evolved to help us react to attacks by saber-toothed tigers or whatever. Except in this case, I was both the tiger and the dude trying to avoid becoming lunch.
As I sat there in Dr. Brotman’s office, the sheer enormity of my mindlessness started to sink in. All of it: from maniacally pursuing airtime, to cavalierly going into war zones without considering the psychological impact, to using cocaine and ecstasy for a synthetic squirt of replacement adrenaline. It was as if I had been sleepwalking through the entire cascade of moronic behavior.
Despite having this larger context, I still could not get over that I had allowed this whole train wreck to happen, that I had risked everything I’d worked so hard to achieve. I felt disappointed -- defective, even. I kept pushing Brotman to produce some sort of blockbuster psychological revelation. I hoped that I would be able to give him some magic set of data points from my past that would lead to an aha moment that would explain not just my mindless behavior, but also my penchant for worry, as well as the fact that I was a thirty-three-year-old with zero propensity for romantic commitment. Approximately a million times, Brotman -- who had a pronounced allergy to the dramatic -- tried to explain that he didn’t believe in such epiphanies and couldn’t suddenly conjure some “unifying theory.” I remained unconvinced.
Chapter 2 - Unchurched
In no way, however, did this step up the ladder reduce my neuroses about work. Quite the opposite, in fact. Yes, it was insanely great to be given the steering wheel of the news division every Sunday night -- to pick the stories we’d cover, frame how they were presented, and then deliver it all right from the chair that Peter Jennings once occupied. Whenever anyone asked me, I told them I had the best job on the planet. And I meant it. But perversely, my good fortune meant I now had that much more to lose, and thus that much more to protect.
The mental loop (“How many stories have I had on this week?” etc.) that began when I first arrived from local news went into hyperdrive, only with an even more personal tinge. It was one thing, back in the day, to be big-footed by a veteran correspondent -- but to be beat out by someone my own age, now that stung. Like almost all correspondents, every day I would check the “rundowns” for various shows -- the computerized lists of stories the broadcasts would be covering -- to see who was doing which ones. If someone scored an assignment I wanted, I’d experience a brief rush of resentment.
During this period, as I continued to deal with the aftermath of my panic attacks, my residual drug cravings, and the intensifying competitive pressures of work, it never once occurred to me that any aspect of the religious traditions I was reporting on could be relevant or useful to me personally. Faith was proving an increasingly interesting beat to cover for journalistic reasons, but it wasn’t serving the same purpose for me as it did for all the believers I was meeting: answering my deepest questions, or speaking to my most profound needs.
Research shows 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.
If you’re never looking up, you’re always just looking around.
Chapter 3 - Genius or Lunatic
“Your demons may have been ejected from the building, but they’re out in the parking lot, doing push-ups.”)
My worrying over work had grown worse.
Our entire lives, he argued, 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.
According to Tolle, the ego is our inner narrator, our sense of “I.”
I had never really thought about it before, I suppose I’d always assumed that the voice in my head was me: my ghostly internal anchorman, hosting the coverage of my life, engaged in an unsolicited stream of insensitive questions and obnoxious color commentary.
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” (egoic being a word he appears to have invented), we blindly act out our thoughts, and often the results are not pretty.
The ego is never satisfied. No matter how much stuff we buy, no matter how many arguments we win or delicious meals we consume, the ego never feels complete. Did this not describe my bottomless appetite for airtime -- or drugs? Is this what my friend Simon meant when he said I had the “soul of a junkie”?
The ego is constantly comparing itself to others. It has us measuring our self-worth against the looks, wealth, and social status of everyone else. Did this not explain some of my worrying at work? The ego thrives on drama. It keeps our old resentments and grievances alive through compulsive thought. Is this why I would sometimes come home to Bianca [his wife], scowling over some issue at the office?
Perhaps the most powerful 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 nostalgic 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. (He liked to capitalize the word.) 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.
When you have one foot in the future and the other in the past, you piss on the present.
Now, as a grown-up in the deadline-dominated world of news, I was always hurtling headlong through the day, checking things off my to-do list, constantly picturing completion instead of calmly and carefully enjoying the process.
The assumption behind most of my forward momentum was that whatever was coming next would definitely be better. Only when I reached that ineffable … whatever . . . would I be totally satisfied. Some of the only times I could recall being fully present were when I was in a war zone or on drugs. No wonder one begat the other.
It finally hit me that I’d been sleepwalking through much of my life—swept along on a tide of automatic, habitual behavior. All of the things I was most ashamed of in recent years could be explained through the ego: chasing the thrill of war without contemplating the consequences, replacing the combat high with coke and ecstasy, reflexively and unfairly judging people of faith, getting carried away with anxiety about work, neglecting Bianca to tryst with my BlackBerry, obsessing about my stupid hair.
It was a little embarrassing to be reading a self-help writer and thinking, This guy gets me. But it was in this moment, lying in bed late at night, that I first realized that the voice in my head—the running commentary that had dominated my field… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
But it was in this moment, lying in bed late at night, that I first realized that the voice in my head—the running commentary that had dominated my field of consciousness… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
This is where things got confusing, though. Just as I was coming to the conclusion that Tolle was a sage who perhaps held the key to all of my problems, he started saying some ludicrous shit. It was no longer his rococo writing style that was throwing me; I was getting used to that. No, now what was sticking in my craw was his penchant for making wild, pseudoscientific claims. He argued that living in the present moment slowed down the aging process and made the “molecular structure” of the body “less dense.” He asserted that “thoughts have their own range of frequencies, with negative thoughts at the lower end of the scale and positive thoughts at the higher.”
But then a funny thing happened. After all my reading about the empty nattering of the ego, I realized: These fearful forecasts were just thoughts skittering through my head. They weren’t irrational, but they weren’t necessarily true. It was a momentary glimpse of the wisdom of Tolle’s thesis. It’s not like I’d never been aware of my thoughts before. I’d had plenty of experience with being scared and knowing I was scared. What made this different was that I was able to see my thoughts for what they were: just thoughts, with no concrete reality. It’s not that my worry suddenly ceased, I just wasn’t as taken in by it. I recognized the truth of this situation: I had no idea what was going to happen to my face, and reflexively believing the worst-case scenarios coughed up by ego certainly wasn’t going to help.
I was unable to achieve any distance from the angry thoughts caroming through my head. Instead, I took the bait dangled by my ego, which was yammering on in high dudgeon: You’re getting screwed here, dude. I shoved back my chair and started pacing around my office in tight circles, like a Chihuahua doing dressage.
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. “To become free of the ego is not really a big job but a very small one.” Yes, right. Easy. But if it were this uncomplicated, wouldn’t there be millions of awakened people walking around?
I could see the value of recognizing thoughts for what they are—fleeting, gossamer, unsubstantial—but aren’t some thoughts connected to concrete realities that need to be addressed?
Tolle repeatedly denigrated the habit of worrying, which he characterized as a useless process of projecting fearfully into an imaginary future. “There is no way that you can cope with such a situation, because it doesn’t exist. It’s a mental phantom.”
I understood the benefit of being in the Now, the future was coming. Didn’t I have to prepare? If I didn’t think through every permutation of every potential problem, how the hell would I survive in a competitive industry? Furthermore, wasn’t the restless ego the source of mankind’s proudest achievements?
I was aware that my chattering mind was not entirely working in my favor. I was pretty sure that staring at my hairline or brooding on my couch was not time well spent. I used to think pressing the bruise kept me on my toes. Now I realized those moments mostly just made me unhappy.
Tolle was forcing me to confront the fact that the thing I’d always thought was my greatest asset -- my internal cattle prod -- was also perhaps my greatest liability. I was now genuinely questioning my own personal orthodoxy, my “price of security” mantra, which had been my operating thesis since, like, age eight. All of a sudden, I didn’t know: Was it propulsive—or corrosive? I wanted to excel, yes—but I also wanted to be less stressed in the process. This strange little German man seemed to raise the tantalizing possibility of doing both, but the books were not at all explicit about how to do so—at least not in a way that I understood.
“How on earth do you stop thinking?” I began. “How do you stop the voice in your head?” I had a momentary surge of optimism as he shifted in his chair in clear preparation to give the practical advice I’d been yearning for. “You create little spaces in your daily life where you are aware but not thinking,” he said. “For example, you take one conscious breath.” Un-break my heart, Eckhart. That’s all you’ve got? “But,” I said, “I can hear the cynics in the audience saying, ‘This guy’s saying I can awaken by taking a deep breath. What is he talking about?’”
I mentioned that my efforts to stay in the Now had been frustrating, adding another layer of guilt on top of the normal churn of my mind. “Because I’m thinking all the time,” I said, “I can’t be in touch with the Now, so now I’m feeling guilty about not being in touch with the Now.”
Tolle made what I considered to be his most ludicrous claim yet. “Don’t you ever get pissed off, annoyed, irritated, sad—anything negative?” “No, I accept what is. And that’s why life has become so simple.” “Well, what if somebody cuts you off in your car?” “It’s fine. It’s like a sudden gust of wind. I don’t personalize a gust of wind, and so it’s simply what is.” “And you’re able to enjoy every moment, even if I start asking you a ton of annoying questions?”
“Yes. That would be fine.”
“It’s becoming friendly just with the is-ness of this moment.”
“So, you’re not saying sit around, let everything wash over you, let people cut you off in your car. You’re saying understand that it is what it is right now -- ” “And then do what you need to do,” he said, interrupting me this time, and speaking with uncharacteristic brio. “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.”
Essentially, I was right back where I was the first time I peered into the pages of his strange little book: fascinated yet frustrated. Tolle had opened something up for me -- a window into the enfeebling clamor of the ego. But he had not answered my most pressing questions. How do you tame the voice in your head? How do you stay in the Now? Was it really possible to defeat the gray Stalinism of self-absorption without ending up on a park bench?
Chapter 4 - Happiness, Inc.
“I have no regrets about the past, and I don’t anticipate the future. I live in the moment.”
I was stuck in the same place I’d found myself at the end of my Tolle interview, knowing my hair was on fire but lacking an extinguisher. With Tolle having failed to answer my questions, and struggling with an ongoing inability to explain what intrigued me about all of this in even the most basic, comprehensible terms, I was at my wit’s end. I didn’t know where to turn. I recalled what Chopra had said to me at the end of our interview: “Hang around with me.” With no answers forthcoming from Tolle or Chopra, this was the only thing I could think to do. What I found in this distinctly American subculture was beyond crazy -- a parade of the unctuous and the unqualified, preaching to the desperate and, often, destitute.
Chapter 5 - The Jew-Bu
In her hands my wife had a pair of books written by Dr. Mark Epstein. She told me that, after months of listening to me alternately rhapsodize or carp about Eckhart Tolle et al., it had finally clicked with her why the ideas I was yammering on about with varying levels of cogency sounded so familiar. About ten years prior, she had read some books by Epstein who, she explained, was a psychiatrist and a practicing Buddhist. His writing had been useful for her during a difficult time in her twenties, a quarter-life crisis, when she was struggling with family issues and deciding whether to embark on the interminable training necessary to become a doctor.
What I found in the pages of Epstein’s book was thunderously satisfying. Like scratching an itch in an unreachable area.
In Epstein’s writings, it was all there: the insatiable wanting, the inability to be present, the repetitive, relentlessly self-referential thinking. Here was everything that fascinated me about Tolle, without the pseudoscience and grandiloquence. To boot, the good doctor could actually write. After months of swimming against the riptide of bathos and bullshit peddled by the self-help subculture, it was phenomenally refreshing to see the ego depicted with wry wit.
“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.”
The Buddha himself didn’t claim to be a god or a prophet. He specifically told people not to adopt any of his teachings until they’d test-driven the material themselves.
Epstein seemed to be arguing that Buddhism was better than seeing a shrink. Therapy, he said, often leads to “understanding without relief.” Even Freud himself had conceded that the best therapy could do was bring us from “hysteric misery” to “common unhappiness.”
However, I still had that nagging and perhaps naive sense of disappointment that my therapist had failed to come up with some sort of “unifying theory” to explain my entire psychology.
Now Epstein seemed to be saying that even if my therapist had ripped the cover off some primordial wound, it wouldn’t have left me better off. The limitation wasn’t my therapist, Epstein seemed to be arguing -- it was therapy.
The Buddha one night sat under a bodhi tree, vowing not to get up until he’d achieved enlightenment. At dawn, the man formerly known as Siddhartha opened his eyes and gazed out at the world as the Buddha, “the awakened one.”
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. When we lose our hair, when we can no longer score that hit of adrenaline from a war zone we so crave, we grow anxious and make bad decisions.
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.”
If there was no such thing as security, then why bother with the insecurity?
Buddhists came up with names for so many of the mental habits I’d come to notice in myself, such as “comparing mind,” and “wanting mind.” They had a term, too, for that thing I did where something would bother me and I would immediately project forward to an unpleasant future (e.g., Balding → Unemployment → Flophouse). The Buddhists called this prapañca (pronounced pra-PUN-cha), which roughly translates to “proliferation,” or “the imperialistic tendency of mind.” That captured it beautifully, I thought: something happens, I worry, and that concern instantaneously colonizes my future.
My favorite Buddhist catchphrase 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.
I started to make a deliberate effort to pause, look around, and savor things while they lasted.
Important concepts - “comparing mind,” “monkey mind,” and prapañca.
I was feeling bad -- and then, on top of that, feeling bad about feeling bad. I liked the guy, after all. This incident again crystallized all of my nagging questions about Buddhism.
Doesn’t competitiveness serve a useful purpose? Is the “price of security” simply incompatible with the “wisdom of insecurity”?
“Are you always able to stay in the moment?” “Eh, I try to remain aware of my surroundings,” he said, but he admitted he didn’t always succeed.
Epstein developed an immediate and abiding interest in the dharma, which resonated with him after a lifelong struggle with feelings of emptiness and unreality, and questions about whether he really mattered.
“When I’m thinking about it, it’s from a much more introverted place. You’re talking from an extroverted place. There’s an energy there, an enthusiasm there, a rambunctiousness there.” Buddhism, he said, could be helpful for both personality types.
What I really wanted was to figure out how to get what he appeared to have. Not some self-conscious, allegedly unbreakable equanimity, but a quiet confidence, an easy charm. There was no denial of his neuroses; he seemed to find them amusing rather than enervating.
This is where the Buddhists diverged quite dramatically from self-help: They had an actual, practical program. It wasn’t expensive gimcrackery. No spendy seminars, no credit cards required. It was totally free. It was a radical internal jujitsu move that was supposed to allow you to face the asshole in your head directly, and peacefully disarm him. Problem was, I found what they were proposing to be repellent.
Chapter 6 - The Power of Negative Thinking
The only way to tame the monkey mind, to truly glimpse impermanence and defeat our habitual tendency toward clinging, is to meditate.
The instructions of how to mediate were reassuringly simple:
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 your spine is reasonably straight.
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.”
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 impossible. (True, when you are focused on the feeling of 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.
Meditation is a rigorous brain exercise: rep after rep of trying to tame the runaway train of the mind. The repeated attempt to bring the compulsive thought machine to heel was like holding a live fish in your hands. Wrestling your mind to the ground, repeatedly hauling your attention back to the breath in the face of the inner onslaught required genuine grit. This was a badass endeavor.
Focusing on the breath as a way to temporarily stop my monkey mind was like using a broom to sweep a floor crawling with cockroaches. You could clear the space briefly, but then the bugs came marauding back in. I knew I was supposed to just forgive myself, but I found that to be extremely difficult. Every time I got lost in thought, I went into a mini shame spiral. My wanderings were so tawdry and banal. Is this really what I was thinking about all the time? Lunch? Whether I needed a haircut? My unresolved anger at the Academy for awarding Best Picture to Dances with Wolves instead of Goodfellas?
(The “laughing Buddha” is actually a medieval Chinese monk who somehow became conflated in the Western imagination with the historical Buddha, who only ate one meal a day and was most likely a bag of skin and bones.)
Buddhist meditation was diabolically hard. Despite its difficulties, though, meditation did offer something huge: an actual method for shutting down the monkey mind, if only for a moment. It was like tricking the furry little gibbon, distracting it with something shiny so it would sit still. Unlike Tolle, who offered very little by way of actionable advice, meditation presented a real remedy, a temporary escape route from the clammy embrace of self-obsession. It may have been miserable, but it was the best -- and only -- solution I’d heard yet.
Now I started to see life’s in-between moments -- sitting at a red light, waiting for my crew to get set up for an interview -- as a chance to focus on my breath, or just take in my surroundings. As soon as I began playing this game, I really noticed how much sleepwalking I did, how powerfully my mind propelled me forward or backward. Mostly, I saw the world through a scrim of skittering thoughts, which created a kind of buffer between me and reality. As one Buddhist author put it, the “craving to be otherwise, to be elsewhere” permeated my whole life.
The net effect of meditation, plus trying to stay present during my daily life, was striking. It was like anchoring myself to an underground aquifer of calm. It became a way to steel myself as I moved through the world. On Sunday nights, in the seconds right before the start of World News, I would take a few deep breaths and look around the room -- out at the milling stage crew, up at the ceiling rigged with lights -- grounding myself in reality before launching into the unreality of bellowing into a camera with unseen millions behind it.
Buddhism’s secret sauce went by a hopelessly anodyne name: “mindfulness.” In a nutshell, mindfulness is the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now -- anger, jealousy, sadness, the pain of a stubbed toe, whatever -- without getting carried away by it. According to the Buddha, we have three habitual responses to everything we experience. We want it, reject it, or we zone out. Cookies: I want. Mosquitoes: I reject. The safety instructions the flight attendants read aloud on an airplane: I zone out. Mindfulness is a fourth option, a way to view the contents of our mind with nonjudgmental remove. I found this theory elegant, but utterly unfeasible.
The idea is that, once you’ve mastered things like itches, eventually you’ll be able to apply mindfulness to thoughts and emotions. This nonjudgmental noting -- Oh, that’s a blast of self-pity . . . Oh, that’s me ruminating about work -- is supposed to sap much of the power, the emotional charge, out of the contents of consciousness.
It was easy to see how scalable mindfulness could be. For instance, it’d be late in the day, and I’d get a call from the World News rim telling me the story I’d spent hours scrambling to produce was no longer going to air in tonight’s show. My usual response was to think to myself, I’m angry. Reflexively, I would then fully inhabit that thought—and actually become angry.
The point of mindfulness was to short-circuit what had always been a habitual, mindless chain reaction.
Once I started thinking about how this whole system of seemingly spontaneous psychological combustion worked, I realized how blindly impelled—impaled, even—I was by my ego. I spent so much time, as one Buddhist writer put it, “drifting unaware on a surge of habitual impulses.” This is what led me on the misadventures of war, drugs, and panic. It’s what propelled me to eat when I wasn’t hungry or get snippy with Bianca because I was stewing about something that happened in the office.
Mindfulness represents an alternative to living reactively.
This was not some mental parlor trick. Mindfulness is an inborn trait, a birthright. It is, one could argue, what makes us human. Taxonomically, we are classified as Homo sapiens sapiens, “the man who thinks and knows he thinks.” Our minds have this other capability—a bonus level, to put it in gamerspeak—that no one ever tells us about in school. (Not here in the West, at least.) We can do more than just think; we also have the power simply to be aware of things—without judgment, without the ego. This is not to denigrate thinking, just to say that thinking without awareness can be a harsh master.
By way of example: you can be mindful of hunger pangs, but you think about where to get your next meal and whether it will involve pork products. You can be mindful of the pressure in your bladder telling you it’s time to pee, but you think about whether the frequency of your urination means you’re getting old and need a prostate exam. There’s a difference between the raw sensations we experience and the mental spinning we do in reaction to said stimuli.
The Buddhists had a helpful analogy here. Picture the mind like a waterfall, they said: the water is the torrent of thoughts and emotions; mindfulness is the space behind the waterfall. Again, elegant theory—but, easier said than done.
I was feeding the pleasure centers of my brain rather than my stomach, and I was particularly bad with dessert.
Epstein argued that we needed to actively get in touch with our ugly side. “Mindfulness gives us a way to examine our self-hatred without trying to make it go away, without trying to love it particularly.” Just being mindful of it, he said, could be “tremendously liberating.”
The idea of leaning into what bothered us struck me as radical, because our reflex is usually to flee, to go buy something, eat something, or get faded on polypharmacy. But, as the Buddhists say, “The only way out is through.”
Another analogy: When a big wave is coming at you, the best way not to get pummeled is to dive right in.
If anything, mindfulness brought you closer to your neuroses, acting as a sort of Doppler radar, mapping your mental microclimates, making you more insightful, not less. It was the complete opposite of the reckless hope preached by the self-helpers. It was the power of negative thinking.
Tara Branch nailed the method for applying mindfulness in acute situations, albeit with a somewhat dopey acronym: RAIN.
R: recognize - Job number one was simply to acknowledge my feelings. “It’s like agreeing to pause in the face of what’s here, and just acknowledge the actuality,” said Brach. The first step is admitting it.
A: allow - Where you lean into it. The Buddhists were always talking about how you have to “let go,” but what they really meant is “let it be.” Or, as Brach put it in her inimitable way, “offer the inner whisper of ‘yes.’”
I: investigate - This is where things got truly practical. After I’ve acknowledged my feelings and let them be, the next move would be to check out how they’re affecting my body. Is it making my face hot, my chest buzzy, my head throb? This strategy sounded intuitively correct to me, especially given that I was a guy whose undiagnosed postwar depression had manifest itself in flu-like symptoms.
N: non-identification - meant seeing that just because I was feeling angry or jealous or fearful that did not render me a permanently angry or jealous person. These were just passing states of mind.
The effect of using RAIN was something like the picture-in-picture feature on a television. Normally, my mental clatter dominated the whole screen. When I pressed the mindfulness button, though, I had some perspective. My thoughts were playing out in a larger space, and while they still burned, they burned a little less. The process felt, in a sense, journalistic. (Or at least it conformed to what we reporters tell ourselves we are: objective, dispassionate—fair and balanced, if you will.)
It was a revelation: the voice in my head, which I’d always taken so seriously, suddenly lost much of its authority. It was like peering behind the curtain and seeing that the Wizard of Oz was a frightened, frail old man. Not only did it ease my agita in the moment, but it suddenly imbued me with a sense of hope about better handling whatever garbage my ego coughed up going forward.
Seeing a problem clearly does not prevent you from taking action. Acceptance is not passivity. Sometimes we are justifiably displeased. What mindfulness does is create some space in your head so you can, as the Buddhists say, “respond” rather than simply “react.” In the Buddhist view, you can’t control what comes up in your head; it all arises out of a mysterious void. We spend a lot of time judging ourselves harshly for feelings that we had no role in summoning. The only thing you can control is how you handle it.
Bingo: respond not react. This, it struck me, was the whole ball of wax. This was why, as I’d recently learned, so many surprising people had become meditators. Basketball coach Phil Jackson, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Ford CEO Bill Ford, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo. Even the rapper 50 Cent. Even Tom Bergeron. A successful dotcom friend of mine said that once he started meditating he noticed he was always the calmest person in the room during heated meetings. He called it a “superpower.”
“Sitting with your feelings won’t always solve your problems or make your feelings go away,” he said, “but it can make you stop acting blindly. Maybe you won’t be sullen with your boss, for example.”
Chapter 7 - My 10-Day Meditation Retreat
YIELD TO THE PRESENT.
This sends my “comparing mind” aflutter. I’m clearly out of my league.
Turns out, mindfulness isn’t such a cute look. Everyone is in his or her own world, trying very hard to stay in the moment. The effort of concentration produces facial expressions that range from blank to defecatory. The instruction sheets gently advise us not to make eye contact with our fellow retreatants, so as to not interrupt one another’s meditative concentration.
A walking meditation. “It is not recess,” he intones. In other words, no strolling around and taking in the scenery. The drill is this, he explains: stake out a patch of ground about ten yards long, and then slowly pace back and forth, mindfully deconstructing every stride. With each step, you’re supposed to note yourself lifting, moving, and placing. And repeat. Ad infinitum.
As the wash of sadness and regret crests, I am able to muster some mindfulness, to see my feelings with some nonjudgmental remove. I tell myself that it’s just a passing squall. It’s not a silver bullet, but it does keep the demons at bay.
I find it humiliating -- infuriating, really -- that after a year of daily meditation, I cannot get a toehold here. Every instance of mental wandering is met with a tornadic blast of self-flagellation.
He talks about the power of desire in our minds, and how our culture conditions us to believe that the more pleasant experiences we have -- sex, movies, food, shopping trips, etc. -- the happier we’ll be. Too many of us have drunk this Kool-Aid.
He answers one of my biggest questions, the one about Buddhism’s vilification of desire. It’s not that we can’t enjoy the good stuff in life or strive for success, he says. The key is not to get carried away by desire; we need to manage it with wisdom and mindfulness. Quite helpfully, he adds that he is by no means perfect on this score.
He’s talking about a verse where the Buddha calls everything we experience -- sights, sounds, smells, etc. -- the “terrible bait of the world.”
Metta or loving-kindness meditation - Here’s how it works: we are supposed to picture a series of people in our minds and then, one by one, send them well wishes. You start with yourself, then move to a “mentor,” a “dear friend,” a “neutral person,” a “difficult person,” and then “all beings.” Interestingly, she says not to pick someone to whom you’re attracted. “Too complicated,” she says.
May you be happy.
May you be safe and protected from harm.
May you be healthy and strong.
May you live with ease.
Metta is supposed to boost our capacity for compassion.
I recognize that part of the goal of a retreat is to systematically strip away all of the things we use—sex, work, email, food, TV—to avoid a confrontation with what’s been called “the wound of existence.” The only way to make it through this thing is to reach some sort of armistice with the present moment, to drop our habit of constantly leaning forward into the next thing on our agenda. I just can’t seem to do it, though.
“You’re trying too hard,” she tells me. The diagnosis is delivered frankly and firmly. This is a classic problem on the first retreat, she explains. She advises me to just do my best, expect nothing, and “be with” whatever comes up in my mind. “It’s the total opposite of daily life,” she says, “where we do something and expect a result. Here, it’s just sitting with whatever is there.”
Spring [one of the instructors] is actually very cool; I’m the dumbass. She’s right: it’s not complicated; I’m just trying too hard. I feel so grateful I could cry.
I can hear the others in the distance, walking back into the meditation hall for the start of the session. Then it gets really quiet. I sit, casually feeling my breath. No big deal. Whatever, man. A few minutes in, something clicks. There’s no string music, no white light. It’s more like, after days of trying to tune into a specific radio frequency, I finally find the right setting. I just start letting my focus fall on whatever is the most prominent thing in my field of consciousness. Neck pain.
I think I know what’s going on here. This is something called “choiceless awareness.” I’d heard the teachers talk about it. It’s some serious behind-the-waterfall action. Once you’ve built up enough concentration you can drop your obsessive focus on the breath and just “open up” to whatever is there. And that’s what’s happening right now. Each “object” that “arises” in my mind, I focus on with what feels like total ease and clarity until it’s replaced by something else. I’m not trying; it’s just happening. It’s so easy it feels like I’m cheating. Everything’s coming at me and I’m playing it all like jazz. And I don’t even like jazz.
The next sitting is even more exhilarating. I’m back in the meditation hall now, and I’m really doing it. Whatever comes up in my mind, it feels like I’m right there with it. At times, I still find myself looking forward to the session ending. But when those thoughts come up, I just note them and move on.
It’s like I’d spent the past five days being dragged by my head behind a motorboat and now, all of a sudden, I’m up on water skis. This is an experience of my own mind I’ve never had before—a front-row seat to watch the machinery of consciousness. It’s thrilling, but it also produces some very practical insights. I get a real sense of how a few slippery little thoughts I might have in, say, the morning before I go to work -- maybe after a quarrel with my wife, a story I read in the paper, or an imagined dialogue with my boss -- can weasel their way into the stream of my mind and pool in unseen eddies, from which they hector and haunt me throughout the day. Thoughts calcify into opinions, little seeds of discontent blossom into bad moods, unnoticed back pain makes me inexplicably irritable with anyone who happens to cross my path.
It’s so obvious to me now: the slipping away is the whole point.
The waves of happiness just keep coming. Everything is so bright, so crisp. I feel great. Not just great—unprecedentedly great. I’m aware of the urge to cling to this feeling, to wring out every last bit of flavor, like with a tangy piece of gum, or a tab of ecstasy. But this is not the synthetic, always-just-about-to-end buzz of drugs. This is roughly a thousand times better. It’s the best high of my life.
The Buddha’s signature pronouncement -- “Life is suffering” -- is the source of a major misunderstanding, and by extension, a major PR problem. It makes Buddhism seem supremely dour. Turns out, though, it’s all the result of a translation error. The Pali word dukkha doesn’t actually mean “suffering.” There’s no perfect word in English, but it’s closer to “unsatisfying” or “stressful.” When the Buddha coined his famous phrase, he wasn’t saying that all of life is like being chained to a rock and having crows peck out your innards. What he really meant was something like, “Everything in the world is ultimately unsatisfying and unreliable because it won’t last.”
As Goldstein points out, we don’t live our lives as if we recognize the basic facts. “How often are we waiting for the next pleasant hit of . . . whatever? The next meal or the next relationship or the next latte or the next vacation, I don’t know. We just live in anticipation of the next enjoyable thing that we’ll experience. I mean, we’ve been, most of us, incredibly blessed with the number of pleasant experiences we’ve had in our lives. Yet when we look back, where are they now?”
There’s actually a term for this -- “hedonic adaptation.” When good things happen, we bake them very quickly into our baseline expectations, and yet the primordial void goes unfilled.
He is not saying we should not enjoy the pleasant things in life. But if we can achieve a deeper understanding of “suffering,” of the unreliability of everything we experience, it will help us appreciate the inherent poignancy of everything in the world. “It’s like we’ve been enchanted,” he says. “We’ve been put under a spell—believing that this or that is going to be the source of our ultimate freedom or happiness. And to wake up from that, to wake up from that enchantment, to be more aligned with what is true, it brings us much greater happiness.”
On retreat, with nothing to look forward to, nowhere to be, nothing to do, we are forced to confront the “wound of existence” head-on, to stare into the abyss and realize that so much of what we do in life -- every shift in our seat, every bite of food, every pleasant daydream -- is designed to avoid pain or seek pleasure. But if we can drop all that, we can, as Sam once said in his speech to the angry, befuddled atheists, learn how to be happy “before anything happens.” This happiness is self-generated, not contingent on exogenous forces; it’s the opposite of “suffering.” What the Buddha recognized was a genuine game changer.
I start by doing a round of breath-focus, which is like filling a hot-air balloon; once the mind is fully inflated with concentration, I just let it fly into choiceless awareness. Even “bad” stuff doesn’t seem to really get to me. I can feel myself playing with the cape of pain draped over my back. I’m investigating it, without letting it truly bother me.
I spot a guy on the other side of the room who seems to be enjoying his meal immensely. I experience a sudden upsurge of what the Buddhists call mudita, “sympathetic joy.”
“As you continue your meditation practice,” he says, “your NPMs—noticings per minute—will go way up.”
Enlightenment - He starts by acknowledging that for “householders” -- non-monks -- the idea of an end to craving can seem unattainable. “Can we even imagine a mind free of craving? I think most of us resonate probably more closely with the famous prayer of Saint Augustine: ‘Dear Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.’” The process starts when the meditator becomes super-concentrated, when their NPMs reach epic velocity. It’s like my backbirdknee experience, only on steroids. You see things changing so quickly that nothing seems stable. The seemingly solid movie of the world breaks down to twenty-four frames per second. The universe is revealed to be a vast soup of causes and conditions.
The real superpower of meditation is not just to manage your ego more mindfully but to see that the ego itself has no actual substance. Close your eyes and look for it, and you won’t find any “self” you can put your finger on.
“The strong, deeply entrenched reference point of ‘I’ has been seen through,” says Goldstein. “That’s Nibbana.” The illusion of the self is, per the Buddhists, the wellspring of all our negative emotions—specifically, greed and hatred and confusion about “the nature of reality” (i.e., that we’re much more than our egos, that we are connected to the whole). Once the self is seen as unreal, these emotions are uprooted from the mind, and the meditator becomes “perfected.” The mind goes from a monkey to a gazelle.
The Buddhists clearly figured out a workable, practical system for defanging the voice in the head, but to add on top of that the promise of a magical transformation seems to me too cute by half. I buy the thesis that nothing in an unreliable, impermanent world can make you sustainably happy, but how will a quest for an enlightenment that almost no one can achieve do so either?
He urges us not to spend too much time thinking about the stuff we have to do when the retreat is over. It’s a waste of time, he says; they’re just thoughts. This provokes me to raise my hand for the first time. From the back of the echoey hall, in full-on reporter mode, with my overloud voice apparently not atrophied one bit from disuse, I ask, “How can you advise us not to worry about the things we have to do when we reenter the world? If I miss my plane, that’s a genuine problem. These are not just irrelevant thoughts.” Fair enough, he concedes. “But when you find yourself running through your trip to the airport for the seventeenth time, perhaps ask yourself the following question:
‘Is this useful’?”
It’s okay to worry, plot, and plan -- but only until it’s not useful anymore.
I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to balance my penchant for maniacal overthinking with the desire for peace of mind. And here, with one little phrase, Goldstein has handed me what seems like a hugely constructive tool for taming this impulse without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Chapter 8 - 10% Happier
The more I meditated, the more I looked around and appreciated that we all have monkey minds -- that everyone has people they’re competing against, their own manufactured balding crises (and, of course, the kinds of more serious collisions with impermanence from which I had mercifully been spared thus far). Especially after my powerful experiences on retreat, I felt compelled to share what I had learned. I just couldn’t figure out how to do this effectively.
When challenged as to why I meditate, I blurted out, “I do it because it makes me 10% happier.” The look on her face instantly changed. What had been a tiny glimmer of scorn was suddenly transformed into an expression of genuine interest. “Really?” she said. “That sounds pretty good, actually.”
We’re living our lives just basically acting out our conditioning, and acting out our habit patterns.
When people do make the leap and attend a retreat, they get “the first glimpse of what the mind is actually doing. You know, we’re getting a real close, intimate look at what our lives are about.”
That notion really struck me: until we look directly at our minds we don’t really know “what our lives are about.”
“It’s amazing,” I said, “because everything we experience in this world goes through one filter -- our minds -- and we spend very little time bothering to see how it works.”
Our life is the manifestation of our minds.
I’d read up on enlightenment a little bit since the retreat. According to the school of Buddhism to which Joseph belonged (there were many, I’d learned), there were four stages of enlightenment. Someone who’d achieved the first stage of enlightenment was a “stream-enterer.” This was followed by a “once-returner,” a “non-returner,” and then a fully enlightened being, known as an “arhant.” Each stage had sixteen sublevels.
“I would say that the amount of suffering in those situations (like losing your hair or your favorite team loses a game) has diminished enormously. It’s not that I have different feelings, but I don’t identify and attach to them -- or make them a huge drama. You allow your emotions to come pass through with ease.”
I decided to approach the problem in a Buddhist style: to lean into it, to take his views seriously, no matter how inconvenient they may have been -- to respond, rather than react.
But then I’d see the thought for what it was: just a thought.
When I got tense about work, I would watch how it was manifesting in my body -- the buzzing in my chest, my earlobes getting hot, the heaviness in my head. Investigating and labeling my feelings really did put them in perspective; they seemed much less solid. The RAIN routine plus Joseph’s “is this useful?” mantra, almost always helped me snap out of it.
But while meditation made me more resilient, it certainly was not a cure-all. First, it didn’t magically make me looser on GMA. Second, while I recovered more quickly, it didn’t seem to prevent all churning. “To the extent that it loosens the way you would ordinarily be caught by how terrible this all is, it might loosen your own attachment to whatever melodrama is unfolding.”
Epstein had helped me see that the point of getting behind the waterfall wasn’t to magically solve all of your problems, only to handle them better, by creating space between stimulus and response. It was about mitigation, not alleviation.
I could now see how the mitigation Mark was pitching had real-world consequences. For example, it allowed me to acknowledge my performance issues rather than pretend they didn’t exist.
It was illuminating to view my own struggles as a morning-show host through the lens of “suffering.” In a world characterized by impermanence, where all of our pleasures are fleeting, I had subconsciously assumed that if only I could get the weekend GMA gig, I would achieve bulletproof satisfaction -- and I was shocked when it didn’t work out that way. This, as Joseph had pointed out on retreat, is the lie we tell ourselves our whole lives: as soon as we get the next meal, party, vacation, sexual encounter, as soon as we get married, get a promotion, get to the airport check-in, get through security and consume a bouquet of Auntie Anne’s Cinnamon Sugar Stix, we’ll feel really good. But when we find ourselves in the airport gate area, having ingested 470 calories’ worth of sugar and fat before dinner, we don’t bother to examine the lie that fuels our lives. We tell ourselves we’ll sleep it off, take a run, eat a healthy breakfast, and then, finally, everything will be complete. We live so much of our lives pushed forward by these “if only” thoughts, and yet the itch remains. The pursuit of happiness becomes the source of our unhappiness.
Chapter 9 - The New Caffeine
I had started to hear mentions of scientific research into meditation. It sounded promising, so I checked it out. What I found blew my mind. Meditation, once part of the counterculture, had now fully entered the scientific mainstream. It had been subjected to thousands of studies, suggesting an almost laughably long list of health benefits, including salutary effects on the following: major depression drug addiction binge eating smoking cessation stress among cancer patients loneliness among senior citizens ADHD asthma psoriasis irritable bowel syndrome
A study using MRI’s of meditator’s brains appeared to confirm the whole respond-not-react superpower.
Part of the brain known as the default mode network (DMN), which is active when we’re lost in thought -- ruminating about the past, projecting into the future, obsessing about ourselves. The researchers found meditators were not only deactivating this region while they were practicing, but also when they were not meditating. In other words, meditation created a new default mode.
I could actually feel this happening with me. I noticed myself cultivating a sort of nostalgia for the present, developing the reflex to squelch pointless self-talk and simply notice whatever was going on around me:
In moments where I was temporarily able to suspend my monkey mind and simply experience whatever was going on, I got just the smallest taste of the happiness I’d achieved while on retreat.
It’s possible to sculpt your brain through meditation just as you build and tone your body through exercise -- to grow your gray matter the way doing curls grows your bicep.
This idea contradicted widespread cultural assumptions about happiness that are reflected in the etymology of the word itself. The root “hap” means “luck,” as in hapless or haphazard. What the science was showing was that our levels of well-being, resilience, and impulse control were not simply God-given traits, our portion of which we had to accept as a fait accompli. The brain, the organ of experience, through which our entire lives are led, can be trained. Happiness is a skill.
[In a discussion of using mindfulness at work the fallacy of “multi-tasking”] She recommended something radical: do only one thing at a time. When you’re on the phone, be on the phone. When you’re in a meeting, try actually paying attention. Set aside an hour to check your email, and then shut off your computer monitor and focus on the task at hand.
Another tip: take short mindfulness breaks throughout the day. She called them “purposeful pauses.” So, for example, instead of fidgeting or tapping your fingers while your computer boots up, try to watch your breath for a few minutes. When driving, turn off the radio and feel your hands on the wheel. Or when walking between meetings, leave your phone in your pocket and just notice the sensations of your legs moving.
I had long assumed that ceaseless planning was the recipe for effectiveness, but Marturano’s point was that too much mental churning was counterproductive. When you lurch from one thing to the next, constantly scheming, or reacting to incoming fire, the mind gets exhausted. You get sloppy and make bad decisions. I could see how the counterintuitive act of stopping, even for a few seconds, could be a source of strength, not weakness. This was a practical complement to Joseph’s “is this useful?” mantra. It was the opposite of zoning out, it was zoning in.
This idea was massively counterintuitive for me. My impulse when presented with a thorny problem was to bulldoze my way through it, to swarm it with thought. But the best solutions often come when you allow yourself to get comfortable with ambiguity. [Aha moments in the shower.]
If meditation actually took hold -- the way seat belts and brushing teeth had -- the impact would go far beyond improving muscle tone or fighting tooth decay. Mindfulness, I had come to believe, could, in fact, change the world.
Of course, I hadn’t gotten into the whole meditation thing to have a global impact. My interests were parochial; I wanted relief from the ego. Now, though, I found myself in the funny position of believing deeply in a cause.
Meditation had a PR problem.
Buddhist teachers had their own set of hackneyed phrases. Stories were “shared”; emotions were “held in love and tenderness.” While the secular mindfulness people had dropped some of this lingo, they had replaced it with a jargon of their own, replete with homogenized, Hallmark-ized, irony-free terms like “purposeful pauses,” “meditating merchants,” and “interiority.”
Despite my powerful experience of being snot-soaked and supine while doing compassion meditation on retreat, I had not subsequently pursued metta in my daily practice. My resistance was based, in part, on the fact that compassion meditation was a little annoying -- but more significantly, it stemmed from a deep-seated suspicion: that we each have a sort of kindness set point, the result of factory settings that could not be altered, and that mine may not be dialed particularly high. I was a good enough guy, yes. I loved children and animals, etc.
Chapter 10 - The Self-Interested Case for Not Being a Dick
What I liked about the dharma was its rigorous empiricism and unyielding embrace of hard truths.
Dalai Lama quote: ‘Most of one’s own troubles, worries, and sadness come from self-cherishing, self-centeredness.’
But don’t we need to be somewhat self-centered in order to succeed in life?” “Self-cherishing, that’s by nature,” he said (by which I assumed he meant it’s “natural”). “Without that, we human beings become like robots, no feeling. But now, practice for development of concern for well-being of others, that actually is immense benefit to oneself.” A light went off in my head. “It seems like you’re saying that there is a self-interested, or selfish, case for being compassionate?” “Yes. Practice of compassion is ultimately benefit to you. So I usually describe: we are selfish, but be wise selfish rather than foolish selfish.” Don’t be nice for the sake of it, he was saying. Do it because it would redound to your own benefit, that it would make you feel good by eroding the edges of the ego. Yoked to self-interest, the compassion thing suddenly became something I could relate to—maybe even something I could do.
You don’t even have to meditate to derive benefits from compassion. Brain scans showed that acts of kindness registered more like eating chocolate than, say, fulfilling an obligation. The same pleasure centers lit up when we received a gift as when we donated to charity. Neuroscientists referred to it as “the warm glow” effect. Research also showed that everyone from the elderly to alcoholics to people living with AIDS patients saw their health improve if they did volunteer work. Overall, compassionate people tended to be healthier, happier, more popular, and more successful at work.
Meditators are more empathic, spent more time with other people, laughed more, and used the word “I” less.
From a traditionalist standpoint, my approach to meditation -- and that of most Western practitioners -- is backward. In the Buddha’s day, he first taught generosity and morality before he gave his followers meditation instructions. The logic was self-interested: it’s hard to concentrate if your mind is humming with remorse over having been a shithead, or if you’re constantly scrambling to try to keep various lies straight.
A couple of times a week, I began adding metta into the mix of my daily meditation. Per Spring’s instruction from the retreat, I’d spend the first five or ten minutes of my sessions picturing and sending good vibes out to: myself, a “benefactor,”, a “dear friend,” a “neutral person,” a “difficult person,” and then “all living beings.” On retreat, Spring had advised us not to include anyone we were attracted to, but at home I decided to add my wife to the mix, in her own special category.
The attempt itself was a way to build the compassion muscle the same way that regular meditation built the mindfulness muscle.
I instituted a make-eye-contact-and-smile policy that turned out to be genuinely enjoyable.
Acknowledging other people’s basic humanity is a remarkably effective way of shooing away the swarm of self-referential thoughts that buzz like gnats around our heads.
The Buddha captured it well when he said that anger, which can be so seductive at first, has “a honeyed tip” but a “poisoned root.”
I found that applying the “price of security” maxim by proxy -- worrying about other people’s professional challenges -- was much more easeful than applying it on myself.
Not letting my mind get locked in negativity made space for something else to emerge. I experienced a phenomenon I had heard Joseph once describe: a virtuous cycle, in which lower levels of anger and paranoia helped you make better decisions which, in turn, meant more happiness, and so on.
Chapter 11 - Hide The Zen
Mudita, the Buddhist term for sympathetic joy.
The biggest obstacle to mudita is a subconscious illusion, that whatever success the other person has achieved was actually somehow really meant for us.
One of the most satisfying of all dharma delicacies: an accurate diagnosis of our inner lunacy.
“When faced with something like this (worrying about work for example),” she said, “often it’s not the unknown that scares us, it’s that we think we know what’s going to happen -- and that it’s going to be bad. But the truth is, we really don’t know.”
The smart play, she said, was to turn the situation to my internal advantage. “Fear of annihilation,” she said, “can lead to great insight, because it reminds us of impermanence and the fact that we are not in control.” This got me thinking again about the “wisdom of insecurity.” From the comfort and remove of the sylvan idyll of IMS, it hit me afresh that the “security” for which I had been striving was an illusion. If everything in this world was in constant decay, why expend so much energy gnashing my teeth over work?
I began to examine the source of my drive. Was it rooted in my privileged upbringing? Maybe this is just what “people like me” did? Much of my adolescence was characterized by a self-imposed feeling of lack. Now that I was a “spiritual” guy, maybe it was time to transcend my bourgeois conditioning?
The Buddha never said it was un-kosher to strive. Right there on his Noble Eightfold Path, his list of the eight things you had to do to get enlightened, “Right Livelihood” was number five. He was proud of everything he built, including his ranks of monks and nuns. He wasn’t particularly modest, either. This was a man who regularly referred to himself in the third person.
Was it possible to strike a balance between “the price of security” and the “wisdom of insecurity”?
Behind the fig leaf of being a good yogi, I had gone so far down the path of resignation and passivity that I had compromised the career I had worked for decades to build.
I had confused “letting go” with going soft.
“People will take advantage of you if they’re reading you as too Zen,” he said. “There’s a certain kind of aggression in organizational behavior that doesn’t value -- that will see it as weak. If you present yourself too much like that, people won’t take you seriously. So I think it important to hide the Zen, and let them think that you’re really someone they have to contend with.”
I had fallen, he said, into several classic “pitfalls of the path.” People often misinterpreted the dharma to mean they had to adopt a sort of meekness.
Another pitfall was detachment.
The final pitfall to which I’d succumbed was nihilism: an occasional sense of, “Whatever, man, everything’s impermanent.”
In other words, it’s good to take a transcendent view of the world, but don’t be a chump.
The same conundrum I’d been fixated on for years, in fact—the balance between Buddhist principles and ambition. It was frustrating after all this time not to have the answer. As I sat there feeling bad for myself, it slipped right past me when Mark offered up that he actually did have an answer. It was simple, brilliant advice, but I was too preoccupied to hear it.
In the midst of these intense work sprints, when I had less time to sleep, exercise, and meditate, I could feel my inner monologue getting testier, too -- and I didn’t have the wherewithal to not take the voice in my head so seriously. I looked tired in my live shot this morning. I need a haircut. I can’t believe that Facebook commenter called me a “major clown.” The ego, that slippery son of a bitch, would use fatigue as an opportunity to sneak past my weakened defenses.
“You need to stop trying so hard. Just let go.”
I was lamenting the fact that after years of contemplating the balance between ambition and equanimity, I still didn’t have an answer. Whereupon Mark, in his understated way, told me that he did. “The answer is in nonattachment,” he said. In my defense, the term was deceptively bland. “It’s nonattachment to the results. I think for an ambitious person who cares about their career -- who wants to create things and be successful -- it’s natural to be trying really hard. Then the Buddhist thing comes in around the results -- because it doesn’t always happen the way you think it should.”
“It’s like, you write a book, you want it to be well received, you want it to be at the top of the bestsellers list, but you have limited control over what happens. You can hire a publicist, you can do every interview, you can be prepared, but you have very little control over the marketplace. So you put it out there without attachment, so it has its own life. Everything is like that.”
Striving is fine, as long as it’s tempered by the realization that, in an entropic universe, the final outcome is out of your control. If you don’t waste your energy on variables you cannot influence, you can focus much more effectively on those you can. When you are wisely ambitious, you do everything you can to succeed, but you are not attached to the outcome—so that if you fail, you will be maximally resilient, able to get up, dust yourself off, and get back in the fray. That, to use a loaded term, is enlightened self-interest.
“All we can do is everything we can do.”
All I had to do was tell myself: if it doesn’t work, I only need the grit to start again—just like when my mind wandered in meditation. After years of drawing a false dichotomy between striving and serenity, unable to figure out how to square these seemingly contradictory impulses, it struck me over eggs in a bustling brunch joint: this clunky phrase “nonattachment to results” was my long-sought Holy Grail, the middle path, the marriage of “the price of security” and “the wisdom of insecurity.”
It was the last piece of a puzzle I’d been trying to put together since the start of this whole unplanned adventure. All along, I’d been straining for some sort of framework, a holistic answer to one of the central challenges for a modern meditator: How can you be a happier, better person without becoming ineffective? The books and teachers I’d consulted had already done the most important work: reorienting my internal life by mitigating the noxious tendencies of my mind and juicing the compassion circuitry. It was just this one area where I thought they fell short.
There’s a reason why they call Buddhism “advanced common sense”; it’s all about methodically confronting obvious-but-often-overlooked truths (everything changes, nothing fully satisfies) until something in you shifts. Likewise, with my new list, executing these precepts in tandem—and then systematizing and amplifying the whole thing with regular mindfulness practice—elevated them from platitudes to powerful tools.
Since the Buddhists are always making lists (I was convinced that somewhere they had a list of the Best Ways to Make a List), I resolved to draw up one of my own. Nothing on the list I compiled was, in and of itself, mind-bogglingly brilliant.
The Way of the Worrier
Don’t Be a Jerk - The virtuous cycle that Joseph described (more metta, better decisions, more happiness, and so on) is real. To boot, compassion has the strategic benefit of winning you allies. And then there’s the small matter of the fact that it makes you a vastly more fulfilled person.
(And/But . . .) When Necessary, Hide the Zen - Sometimes you need to compete aggressively, plead your own case, or even have a sharp word with someone. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to do this calmly and without making the whole thing overly personal.
Meditate - the biggest benefit is the ability to respond instead of react to your impulses and urges. We live our life propelled by desire and aversion. In meditation, instead of succumbing to these deeply rooted habits of mind, you are simply watching what comes up in your head nonjudgmentally. For me, doing this drill over and over again had massive off-the-cushion benefits, allowing me -- at least 10% of the time -- to shut down the ego with a Reaganesque “There you go again.”
The Price of Security Is Insecurity -- Until It’s Not Useful -- Mindfulness proved a great mental thresher for separating wheat from chaff, for figuring out when my worrying was worthwhile and when it was pointless. Vigilance, diligence, the setting of audacious goals—these are all the good parts of “insecurity.” Hunger and perfectionism are powerful energies to harness. Even the much-maligned “comparing mind” can be useful.
Equanimity Is Not the Enemy of Creativity - Being happier did not make me a blissed-out zombie. This myth runs deep, all the way back to Aristotle, who said, “All men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics . . . had a melancholic habitus.” I found that rather than rendering me boringly problem-free, mindfulness made me, as an eminent spiritual teacher once said, “a connoisseur of my neuroses.” One of the most interesting discoveries of this whole journey was that I didn’t need my demons to fuel my drive—and that taming them was a more satisfying exercise than indulging them.
Don’t Force It - It’s hard to open a jar when every muscle in your arm is tense. A slight relaxation served me well on the set of GMA, in interpersonal interactions, and when I was writing scripts.
Humility Prevents Humiliation - We’re all the stars of our own movies, but cutting back on the number of Do you know who I am? thoughts made my life infinitely smoother. When you don’t dig in your heels and let your ego get into entrenched positions from which you mount vigorous, often irrational defenses, you can navigate tricky situations in a much more agile way.
Go Easy with the Internal Cattle Prod - As part of my “price of security” mind-set, I had long assumed that the only route to success was harsh self-criticism. However, research shows that “firm but kind” is the smarter play. People trained in self-compassion meditation are more likely to quit smoking and stick to a diet. They are better able to bounce back from missteps. All successful people fail. If you can create an inner environment where your mistakes are forgiven and flaws are candidly confronted, your resilience expands exponentially.
Nonattachment to Results - Nonattachment to results + self compassion = a supple relentlessness that is hard to match. Push hard, play to win, but don’t assume the fetal position if things don’t go your way. This, I came to believe, is what T. S. Eliot meant when he talked about learning “to care and not to care.”
What Matters Most? - At first, this struck me as somewhat generic, but as I sat with the idea for a while, it eventually emerged as the bottom-line, gut-check precept. When worrying about the future, I learned to ask myself: What do I really want? While I still loved the idea of success, I realized there was only so much suffering I was willing to endure. What I really wanted was aptly summed up during an interview I once did with Robert Schneider, the self-described “spastic” lead singer for the psych-pop group, Apples in Stereo. He was one of the happiest-seeming people I’d ever met: constantly chatting, perpetually in motion—he just radiated curiosity and enthusiasm. Toward the end of our interview, he said, “The most important thing to me is probably, like, being kind and also trying to do something awesome.”
Our brain is a pleasure-seeking machine. Once you teach it, through meditation, that abiding calmly in the present moment feels better than our habitual state of clinging, over time, the brain will want more and more mindfulness. He compared it to lab rats that learn to avoid an electric shock. “When you see that there’s something better than what we have,” said Jud, “then it’s just a matter of time before your brain is like, ‘Why the fuck am I doing that? I’ve been holding on to a hot coal.’” If you give your brain enough of a taste of mindfulness, it will eventually create a self-reinforcing spiral—a retreat from greed and hatred that could, Jud insisted, potentially lead all the way to the definitive uprooting of negative emotions (in other words, enlightenment). “Why would it stop?” he said.
“Evolutionarily, it doesn’t make sense that it would stop. Does water seek out the lowest level?”
Just as it’s possible for humans to train to be fast or strong enough to compete in the Olympics, he argued we can practice to be the wisest or most compassionate version of ourselves.
But for now, at least, I’m not thinking about what I can do next, only about how I can keep my current circumstances from changing.
It struck me that the voice in my head is still, in many ways, an asshole. However, mindfulness now does a pretty good job of tying up the voice and putting duct tape over its mouth. I’m still a maniacally hard worker; I make no apologies for that. I still believe firmly that the price of security is insecurity -- that a healthy amount of neuroticism is good. But I also know that widening my circle of concern beyond my own crap has made me much happier.
Paradoxically, looking inward has made me more outward-facing—and a much nicer colleague, friend, and husband to the wonderful Bianca (who, when she hears that I’ve gotten myself into this situation with the drug lord is probably going to threaten to kill me herself). And while I still worry about work, learning to “care and not to care,” at least 10% of the time, has freed me up to focus more on the parts of the job that matter most -- such as covering great stories.