Many years ago I read (at least some of) Wherever You Go, There You Are by John Kabat-Zinn. The point that stayed with me all this time is that if you’re not really fully present and engaged with the now, you’re not really living.
Which doesn’t mean that I am always, or even particularly frequently, fully engaged with the present. I am a hopelessly plan-y person, which makes for a lot of thinking ahead! But I at least had that idea, in the back of my mind, that if you’re going to do a thing, you do that thing, you focus on it, and you really appreciate it. And at least occasionally, I would actually do that.
Kabat-Zinn’s technique for getting better at being present and mindful was (and still is) meditation. That practice, I never adopted. I think I tried a few times, but it never stuck.
Jump ahead to January 2018. TV journalist Dan Harris is the guest on The Daily Show, talking about his new book Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book. A lot of people are interested in trying meditation, he says, but think they don’t have the time. His pitch to them? Five to ten minutes, he says—that’s enough. Don’t even have five minutes? One minute will do.
Then he adds that it’s nothing complicated, that it doesn’t require wearing of yoga pants and becoming a mystic, and that you’re not failing if you don’t manage to clear your head. The attempt to clear your head is what matters.
I finally bought the book this spring, and after a few bouts of anxiety left me wishing I had some better coping techniques, this summer I actually read it.
After an introduction to what meditation is and what its benefits are, the book is divided up into chapters based on people’s excuses for not doing it. I thought I’d only have to read the first two: “I can’t do this” and “I don’t have time for this.” Then when I actually started trying it, it was a bit uncomfortable, so I figured I should also read the third chapter: “People might think I’m weird.” (What’s actually weird? That so many people find being alone with their thoughts so off-putting they are actually willing to give themselves electric shocks as a distraction.)
In the end, I found something of value in each chapter, even the ones that appeared to have nothing to do with me: “Meditation is self-indulgent”—as if I have any trouble with self-indulgence. Or, “If I get too happy, I’ll lose my edge”. Yep, that’s me all right, miserable and edgy, and wanting to stay that way!
But the “self-indulgent” chapter included tips for if you thought you maybe had the opposite problem (of perhaps being a little selfish), and the “edge” chapter included some great techniques from managing worries (the “Is this useful?” mantra).
Furthermore, the book was just more interesting and fun to read than I expected from a “self-help” type. There was a running story-line of going on a meditation tour and trying to gain recruits. Meditation techniques are not “one size fits all”, it turns out.
But did the book work? Yes, absolutely, in that for the first time in my life, I am meditating regularly. (Turns out that my office has a meditation room! Who knew?)
And am I now 10% happier? Is the meditation itself working? Well, that’s hard to say. The whole thing is subtle (the promise is about a 10% happiness increase, not a complete transformation of your entire outlook) and the effects take time. At first it just seemed weird and a bit pointless. Now, sometimes I actually look forward to it. I can’t say for sure, yet, whether I’m developing better long-term coping strategies. But maybe?