by Harvey Freedenberg
Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris and Jeff Warren with Carlye Adler (Spiegel & Grau $26, 304 pages)
If, like most in the West, the word meditation conjures up for you visions of men with shaved heads in saffron-colored robes chanting in a cloud of incense, prepare to be surprised by ABC News anchor Dan Harris’s Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. Blending journalism, memoir and instruction, it’s an entertaining and, above all, highly practical guidebook for people who want to start their meditation journey or, having done so, have hit some of the inevitable potholes along the way.
As he described in his first book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story, Harris turned to meditation after experiencing a frightening on air panic attack in 2004. Since then, he’s become a self-described “evangelist” for the practice of mindfulness meditation, launching a meditation app and hosting a weekly podcast, all while maintaining his demanding schedule as co-anchor of Nightline and the weekend edition of Good Morning America.
The genesis of all this activity, culminating in this book, was his realization that simply explaining to people the scientifically documented mental and physical benefits of meditation – among them decreased stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, improved immune system functioning and response, better sleep and, in general, a calmer and more focused approach to life – wouldn’t necessarily persuade them to take up this salutary, and thoroughly secular, practice. Profoundly troubled by that reality, he became “fixated on finding specific ways of helping people get over the hump and simply do the thing.”
And so, in January 2017, along with his co-author, Toronto-based meditation teacher Jeff Warren, Harris set off on an 11-day, 18-state cross country trip in a tour bus last used by the band Parliament Funkadelic “to find interesting and diverse groups of people who wanted to practice but weren’t actually doing it.”
As Harris demonstrates in his characteristically smart, but relentlessly casual tone, for all the challenges of life on the road, the pair succeeded admirably. In addition to encounters with everyone from a member of Congress (Tim Ryan, a Youngstown, OH Democrat and dedicated meditator), to cadets at Virginia Military Institute, to police officers in Tempe, AZ, Harris and Warren spread the message of meditation’s benefits at an assortment of diverse stops that included Harris’s former high school in Newton, MA, a Hollywood yoga center and even a portable meditation booth they erected in places like New Orleans’ Jackson Square.
In keeping with its stated goal, each of the book’s chapters addresses one of nine common objections to establishing a regular meditation practice. In answer to the frequent complaint, “I don’t have time,” for example, Harris points out that, while consistency is the goal, as little as five to ten minutes of daily-ish practice can allow someone to experience many of the benefits of meditation and serve to launch them on the road to a fulfilling lifelong practice.
Employing plainspoken prose, and informed by his own practice (he now meditates two hours a day) and the wisdom he’s gleaned from his work with some of the world’s most respected meditation teachers, Harris patiently counters other objections, explaining that anyone is capable of meditating and that, owing to its myriad benefits, the practice is anything but self-indulgent.
Jeff Warren’s contribution to the book lies in sections – interspersed with Harris’s narrative – that explain the theory of mindfulness meditation and, more importantly for readers who simply want to dive into the pool, provide actual meditation exercises. These same guided meditations can be found for free on the 10% Happier app (available on both iOS and Android), which also offers a subscription option for those who want access to courses and other meditations taught by leading instructors like Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg. One of the book’s running jokes is the tension between Harris’s goal of demystifying meditation and Warren’s tendency to wander off into some of its more tangled thickets. Fortunately, Warren’s innate charm and self-deprecating humor keep him on the path.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been meditating daily since August 2015, and I share Dan Harris’s passion for engaging people in more people in what, for me, has been a rewarding practice. For many people, simply finding a point of entry into what they might think is an esoteric practice can be intimidating. While there are many useful instruction books out there, this informative and genial manual is one both novice and experienced meditators will find themselves returning to again and again.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter: @HarvF.