I have generalized anxiety disorder and, on and off, dance with depression. I have done a lot of work to be able to not just function but live a full and rewarding life, including but not limited to therapy, medication, and running for hours at a time.
However, in early 2020, COVID broke over those dams. I write about science and medicine, and I had panic attacks while interviewing doctors. That early March, I screamed at my dad to not get on a plane to Texas, and for my mom give up her tickets for the Philadelphia Flower Show – and then catastrophized when they did those things anyway. My friend said that I was a Casandra: shouting about the terror to come with no one believing me, until it was already here.
In a gasp to find some relief, I tried meditation, first through the Calm app, and then Dan Harris book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge, and Found Self Help that Actually Works (quite a subtitle). I would sit at my dining room table in the morning while the dishwasher hummed in the background, and do whatever guided meditation was on the app that day, first through the beginner meditation program, and then in the “Daily Calm” meditation of the day. Harris’ book showed me that it is possible for another type-A media person (he was with ABC News at the time) with a sometimes out of control inner dialogue could mediate too, even if we didn’t think we were good at it.
It helped, until I stopped, for a basket of reasons. I was having my own (non-COVID) health challenges that landed me in the emergency room in April 2020 and didn’t start to be resolved until June of last year. I got really annoyed with the voice behind the “Daily Calm.” I picked up surfing (at 40!), which helped blank out my brain. And then life spun on, if wobbly. I ended up doing other stuff while the dishwasher ran.
I still ordered Harris’ third book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-To, which he wrote with Jeff Warren (who also has guided meditation on the Calm app) and Caryle Adler. I only got to it recently, making it book 16 of 52 in this series. Why did I pick it now? Who knows. I’m still very angry about everything that has impeded truly dealing with this pandemic, and I have a constant burning angst about climate change, voter suppression, and the hellacious laws stripping LGBTQ+ people, trans people, and women of their rights. It also matched my nail polish. I’ve chosen books out of my to-read pile for stranger reasons. Why not give meditation it another whirl?
I can’t say I really enjoyed this one. It felt like the book was built on a gimmick to capitalize on past book sales and to promote the whole 10% Happier enterprise, which now includes a website, app, podcast, newsletter and a paid membership option (which seems to have worked – Harris quit his ABC job in 2021 to focus on this).
The premise of the book is an 11-day road trip to bring meditation to the nation, and they did the trip with the book contract already in hand. Sounds neat, but you never get past the idea that the road trip was for the sake of the book and not the other way around. Also, as someone who has taken very long road trips (my longest was four months), 11 days feels like nothing, and not a lot of time to see much of the country.
In the epilogue, Harris writes how the trio divided the labor: “While I worked on a chapter, Carlye…would comb through the hours and hours of transcripts from our many shoots, creating an outline for me to use for the next chapter. Jeff, meanwhile, was busy writing and inserting all the meditation instructions. As soon as one of us finished our work, we would share it on Google Docs, and everyone would jump in and make their notes, which would show up along the digital margins of the page. The commentary was filled with cheerleading, brainstorming, and spirited debate.”
That end part is nice, but the book is still a mess. You can see all those seams.
What reading this book did do, though, was help me identify a time when I could meditate every day. Now, during the four minutes my coffee brews, I sit again at my dining room table and give myself time to just do it, and try not to feel bad if I’m bad at it. And I have seen some improvements. When a guy in a jacked up, steroided, emission spewing truck yelled at me while I was out running, I only cursed him for about five minutes instead of letting him ruin the rest of my run. When my dog had to go to the vet this morning for a problem that could mean surgery, I told myself to take some deep breaths and try to see onto the other side of my stress while driving her home in heavy traffic.
If you’re looking for guidance, try Harris’ first book, the Calm app if you can afford it, or, if you’re looking for something free, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ free app (I haven’t tried it, but an expert I interviewed for one of those early COVID stories I wrote recommended it). I think Harris is helping people, but this book isn’t his strongest work.
P.S. Having the book contract before the adventure does sometimes work out, and not feel gimmicky. One example? Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.
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