I recently read the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris and thought I would share a few impressions.
Since I meditate mostly everyday, I didn’t need to be convinced of the benefits of meditation and becoming mindful. However, I’m always curious to learn how and why people make it part of their lives. Seeing their realization that it’s a great thing to do is a source of endless fascination.
The book begins with Harris describing his early career tackling stories in war zones. The adrenaline rush and violence, then his early drug use. To me it felt like a book focused on an audience of hyper-masculine young men and was losing my interest rapidly.
When I was young, I used to always finish books that I started. Sometimes I would finish books that I hated from the beginning to the end. Then I’d be upset that I couldn’t get that time back.
I started thinking, “Who said you have to finish?” I realized that I was the one making the decision, so I stopped. Now, if I’m not feeling the book or many other things, I don’t finish and cut my losses.
Since I was really curious, I kept reading and got to the parts that I truly enjoyed. We see Harris, who is quite the skeptic, slowly make his way to trying and believing that mindful meditation works. He finds that it makes him “10% happier.” It’s a step-by-step process and he brings us with him for the ride. Harris is now such a believer that he even has a website and an app to help you learn to meditate as well.
It’s also very interesting, especially to me as a black woman, seeing how Jewish male friendships are a big part of his story. I went to Brandeis University for my undergraduate degree, so I was part of the Goyum on campus. Believe me. I didn’t know the word until I got there and started being referred to that way. But that’s another story.
So anyway, Harris has a whole chapter called “The Jew-Bu” where we meet Dr. Mark Epstein. He is a a New York psychiatrist and writer who writes “about the interface of Buddhism and psychotherapy.” Epstein’s writing really spoke to Harris. Like with many other authors, Harris wanted to learn more, so they met in person for a “man-date” as he describes it. Below are some passages from the book.
It hit me that what I had on my hands here was a previously undiscovered species: a normal human being. Epstein, it appeared to me, was the anti-Tolle, the anti-Chopra. Not a guru in the popular sense of the word, just a regular guy with whom I was having a drink on a Friday night.
We started to talk about his background. He, too, had grown up in the Boston area. His dad was also a doctor. He didn’t have some fancy backstory, à la Tolle or Chopra. No sudden late-night spiritual awakening, no hearing of voices. …
I asked what a beginner should do to get deeper into this world. … As I madly typed notes into my BlackBerry for future reference, it was impossible not to notice that nearly all of these names were Jewish: Goldstein, Coleman, Kornfield, Salzberg. ‘This is a whole subculture,’ he said. The little cabal even had a nickname: The ‘Jew-Bus.’ …
Mark also pointed out that mindfulness was a skill — one that would improve as I got more meditation hours under my belt. In that spirit, he said I should consider going on a retreat. … Specifically, he recommended that I sign up for a retreat led by someone named Joseph Goldstein, who Mark referred to as ‘his’ meditation teacher. He spoke about this Goldstein character in the most glowing terms, which intrigued me. I figured if a guy I revered revered another guy, I should probably check that other guy out.
As we were paying the bill, I said, ‘If you’re up for it, I’d love to get together every month or two.’
‘Sure,’ he said, looking up from the remains of his drink and meeting my gaze. With uncontrived sincerity he said, ‘I want to know you.’ That was one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to me. After we’d finished, as we said good-bye, he gave me a hug. It was touching, and I appreciated his willingness to be my friend, but there was no way in hell I was going on a retreat.
We hear so much about female friendship, but I think male friendship is very important too. As we get older it’s harder to make new friends. But it can happen and this book shows it beautifully.
It takes a lot of vulnerability and strength to tell someone that you want to be their friend. Plus, it showed the same strength and vulnerability to write about it. I’m glad that Harris put it out there.
Coincidentally, in addition to what I’ve recently read, I recently watched an old episode of Seinfeld when Jerry becomes friends with New York Mets baseball player Keith Hernandez and they go on a “man date.”
Also, I just recently listened to a podcast of This American Life where two men are set up on blind “man date” to see if they can become friends.
While I loved reading about the friendships that formed, it also left me wondering. Was Harris only able to receive and implement this new information because it was placed before him by men who were just like him?
If he had not learned about the “Jew-Bus” would he have ever been convinced about mindfulness and meditation? If not, would he have ever written this book? And what does that say about us as people? How often do we learn something new from someone very different from us? And then want to become friends with them. Not very often.
What books have you recently read?
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Image Credit: HarperCollins Publishers