This was a very interesting book describing the author’s experience dealing with stress, anxiety and addiction which led him on a winding path to meditation and mindfulness. He was honest about the panic attack that he experienced in the midst of a Good Morning America newscast and then relayed his healthy skepticism towards both mindfulness and meditation. The book represents his process of accepting that he had a problem, investigating, learning, accepting and changing his mindset and habits through meditation and mindfulness.
Harris was very honest while sharing the challenges that he experienced. He talked about his experience as an eager reporter working diligently and leaving a balanced lifestyle behind as he reported in war-torn countries. He started to feel physically unwell and was diagnosed with depression which was when he started self-medicating with cocaine (leading to his on air panic attack). He received a wake up call from the psychiatrist that his job was in jeopardy as the cocaine was likely the cause of the panic attack. This led to his commitment learn and change his lifestyle.
Professionally, Harris was assigned to covering religion and was interviewing evangelical leaders, born again Christians and reporting on scandals within these faiths. Personally, he was spending a lot of time worrying, fixated on his potential hair loss which he felt would lead to job loss and struggling with his craving for drugs. Both these streams led to research into wellness, Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness.
Initially, he interviewed Eckhart Tolle ( a household name after his book, The Power of Now, was recommended by Oprah) and although he was incredulous to parts of the narrative, he connected with the discussion about the “voice in our heads…engaged in a ceaseless stream of thinking – most of it negative, repetitive and self-referential… talk, talk, talk: the voice is constantly judging and labeling everything in its field of vision”. He learned that the ego was never satisfied, compares itself to others, thrives on drama and is obsessed with the past and future and commented that:
“It was at this moment, lying in bed late at night, that I first realized that the voice in my head – the running commentary that had dominated my field of consciousness since I could remember – was kind of an asshole”.
Harris moved on to meet Deepak Chopra calling him a “self-help superstar” but still looking for answers as to how to feel better met Dr. Mark Epstein. Epstein was a psychiatrist and a practicing Buddhist, who became a friend and mentor. He focused on a need to be present and taught Harris about Buddha and acceptance that the “world is constantly changing, we suffer because we cling to things that won’t last”. One concept that stuck out was that of the “monkey mind” or the churning inner conversations. He started thinking about pausing, looking around and savouring things.
“What mindfulness does is create some space in your head so you can, as the Buddhists say, “respond” rather than simply “react”.
As Harris learned, he started hearing more and more about meditation and decided to give it a try despite his lingering skepticism. He struggled to keep his mind clear and shared all the random thoughts that came to his mind. He noted that meditation did offer a solution to calming the “monkey mind” but that initially, it was very difficult.
“Focusing on the breath as a way to temporarily stop the thinking was like using a broom to sweep a floor crawling with cockroaches. You could clear the space briefly, but the the bugs came marauding back in”.
In an effort to improve his experience with mindfulness and meditation, Harris embarked on a 10 day retreat of silence. He detailed each day and described how he felt, sharing his frustration, deep emotion and subsequent calmness. He learned, from his mentor Joseph Goldstein that “it’s ok to worry, plot and plan… but only until its not useful anymore” – a tip that resonates with me! I am not sure that I could stop talking for 10 days but found his experience very interesting.
Harris even got his chance to meet the Dalai Lama who reassured him that if scientists discover something that contradicts his faith that he will change his beliefs. From him, he learned the importance of compassion to others. He made an effort to smile and greet everyone, avoid gossip and be positive. He shared that “not letting my mind get locked in negativity made space for something else to emerge”.
Harris learned a great deal during his investigation into meditation and mindfulness. His skepticism waned as he experienced the benefits of a calmed mind. I appreciated the author’s frankness and honesty when sharing his serious challenges. I enjoyed learning about his research and may do some additional reading about mindfulness and meditation based on his suggestion in the book. It was very entertaining to read about his 10 days of quiet and the thoughts he entertained during this retreat. I look forward to discussing this book with my book club friends tomorrow. Overall, although I found the book a slow start, I did enjoy learning about a new way to calm the “monkey mind” that we all experience from time to time.