Once in a while, in this deluge of books claiming insight and enlightenment, a book actually surfaces that speaks to the truth of meditation, practice, mindfulness, and truth of being human. Dan Harris, ABC journalist and anchor of Nightline and the weekend edition of Good Morning America, throws himself wholeheartedly into telling us his story of anxiety, self-doubt, and finding the path through it. Harris describes his adrenaline-fueled life as a young correspondent for ABC and his slide into drug use to deal with the experiences of reporting on the war in Iraq. As he pulls out of the drug use on his own, he’s left with a hyper-regulated physical system that leads to an on-air panic attack. Harris puts it succinctly:
All of us struggle to strike a balance between the image we present to the world and the reality of our inner landscape. p. 10
This very real tension, fuelled by an inner critic that continuously natters to him about his inadequacies, leads him to therapy. There, his psychologist offers him the opportunity to learn about meditation from a Harvard colleague’s book (I’m dying to know who that was). Harris is skeptical but circumstances contrive to lead him along a path of cautious yet incisive inquiry into the benefits of meditation.
The strength of the narrative is twofold. First, Harris fearlessly lets us into his thinking brain, making us privy to his every experience, evaluation, and re-evaluation at a very human level. The train of thought that takes him from an event to (mentally) ending up in a “flophouse in Duluth” resonates deeply. (My inner critic drops me off under the Rideau Street bridge to live in a cardboard box!) If he holds a strong opinion on an experience, we’re right there. If he has a change of heart/mind about his opinion, we’re right there. Second, Harris draws from his investigative journalistic skills and work on religious topics to give us a vibrant picture of gurus and giants in the meditation field. He describes encounters with blatant honesty and does not shy away from pointing out naked Emperors – well, at least garishly dressed ones.
What I found in this distinctly American subculture (of self-help) was beyond crazy – a parade of the unctuous and the unqualified, preaching to the desperate and, often, destitute. p. 82
It’s a personal thing but I came to appreciate the kindly balanced way Harris pointed out the difficulties with Eckhart Tolle’s “befuddling” teachings and capping it by pointing out Tolle’s work was primarily unattributed material from Buddhist teachings. He might well have taught me to be kind about Tolle. Harris’ interviews and meetings with Deepak Chopra are mini-series-worthy; he pointedly writes that “(i)t was intriguing that someone could strive so nakedly and yet claim to be without stress. (p. 82)”. The issue though is not the toppling of gurus whose supposed teachings suck in the ill-informed or desperate. The lesson for us is in Harris’ unrelenting inquiry, an approach we should all use in assessing whether someone should have access to our vulnerabilities and pain.
That important lesson notwithstanding, Harris’ book is not about the dark side of the self-help subculture. It is very much about one man’s journey into and through his own life. In one way, it is a life no different from many of ours being populated with demons of all varieties and sinkholes of all sizes. In another, it is a life that has a privileged vantage point on human foibles and frailties. As part of the team on the Sunday edition of World News, Harris launched several stories on religious and cultural issues, giving him access to leaders in those fields. Once he began to inquire into meditation, this access included the top names in Buddhist thought and eventually the vast field of Mindfulness.
Still, I appreciated his honesty and humility as he encountered the various teachers, reacted to their styles, and recanted when they revealed more skillful ways of teaching. Harris is nothing if not forgiving! His description of his first 10 day retreat is a worthy read which will either allow you to forgive yourself for one you’ve gone on or convince yourself that you too can survive one. Of course, here again, we need to note that most Insight Meditation Center retreats by the “big names” are impossible to get into without some pull and we’re not likely to be invited to an interview with the big name teacher; at least he was honest about how he got in.
Harris covers the ground of contemporary mindfulness well. He draws from his own growing personal experience of meditation and adds a healthy desire to understand the complex process of meditating. He confronts the “dark side” of becoming too attached to the idea of compassion, a slippery slope that almost leads to his career sliding out from under him. (This is so rarely discussed that it alone is worth the price of the book!) He finds that Middle Path between equanimity and indifference, kindness and being a doormat, compassion and becoming enmeshed, appreciative joy and hypocrisy.
More important, Harris doesn’t oversell his new-found life. He says it’s helped him become 10% happier. He’s realistic about stress and his inner critic: “It’s about mitigation, not alleviation. (p. 160)” He’s insightful about his practice and the core values they reflect: “This is aspirational, not operational. (p.205)” Although Harris doesn’t see himself as enlightened, these are the 1-2-3’s of enlightenment!
This is a book for anyone who carries the burden of a harsh inner voice, who wonders how to wade through the innumerable programs and teachers offering relief, who is fearful that taking a mindful approach to their life may dull their edge in a competitive world, or who simply wants to aspire to be more available for what life has to offer.