Guest Post: An Excerpt from 10% Happier
by Dan Harris
It was the longest, most exquisite high of my life, but the hangover came first.
Here’s what I’m mindful of right now: pervasive dread.
I’m sitting in a cafe in San Francisco, having what I assume will be my last decent meal before I check in for the Zen Death March. As I eat, I leaf listlessly through the mimeographed information sheets sent by the people at the retreat enter. The place is called Spirit Rock, which sounds like a New Age version of “Fraggle Rock,” populated by crystal-wielding Muppets. The writing is abristle with the type of syrupy language that drives me up a wall:
“Retreats offer a sacred space, protected and removed from the world, intended to allow participants to quiet the mind and open the heart.”
The sheets request that we “take whatever room is offered,” whether it’s a single or a double. (This sends unpleasant images dancing through my head of potential roommates who are all gray-haired, ponytailed, beret-wearing, Wavy Gravy look-alikes.) The chefs will “lovingly prepare” lacto-ovo vegetarian food. We will be assigned daily “yogi jobs,” either in housekeeping or in the kitchen, or “ringing bells,” whatever that means. There’s a lengthy list of “What Not to Bring,” seemingly written in 1983, which includes beeper watches and “Walkmans.” The retreat will be conducted in “noble silence,” which means no talking to one another and no communication with the outside world, except in case of emergencies.
The whole ten-days-of-no-talking thing is the detail that everyone I told about the retreat keyed in on. To a man (or woman), the people I had the courage to admit how I was spending my vacation asked something to the effect of, “How can you go without talking for that long?” Silence, however, is the part that worries me the least. I don’t imagine there will be many people at the retreat I’ll be dying to chat with. What truly scares me is the pain and boredom of sitting and meditating all day every day for ten straight days. For a guy with a bad back and a chronic inability to sit still, this is definitely a suboptimal holiday…
I call a cab for the hour-long ride to northern Marin County. As we cross the Golden Gate, I feel like a lamb leading itself to slaughter. I get an email from Sam [Harris] saying he’s “envious” of the experience I’m about to have. His timing is impeccable. It’s an encouraging reminder that, apparently, these retreats can produce remarkable moments. In fact, I recently read a New York Times op-ed piece by Robert Wright, a journalist, polemicist, curmudgeon, and agnostic not known for either credulousness or mystical leanings. Wright wrote that he had “just about the most amazing experience” of his life on retreat, which involved finding “a new kind of happiness,” and included a “moment of bonding with a lizard.”
However, major breakthroughs—known in spiritual circles as “peak experiences”—cannot be guaranteed. What is almost certain, though—and even Sam acknowledged this—is that the first few days will be an ordeal. Classic prapañca: I’m casting forward to day two or three, envisioning myself marooned and miserable.
We roll up to Spirit Rock at around four in the afternoon. As we pull off the main road and onto campus, I spot a sign that reads YIELD TO THE PRESENT.
The place is beautiful, though, like something out of a French Impressionist painting. We are surrounded by hills covered in pale gold, sun-bleached scrub grass, with clusters of vivid green trees nestled throughout. The center itself is a series of handsome wood structures with Japanese-style roofs, built into the side of a hill.
As I wheel my luggage up to the main office, I catch the first glimpses of my fellow meditators. They are solidly, solidly NPR-card-carrying members of the socks-and-sandals set.
We line up for our room assignments and yogi jobs. (I’m starting to figure out that yogi is just another word for “meditator.”) I’m told I will be a “pot washer.”
Hallelujah: I get a single room, on the second floor of one of the four dorm buildings. The accommodations are spare, but not gross. There’s a single bed next to a window. The walls are white. The carpet is tan. There’s a mirror and a sink. The communal bathroom is down the hall.
At six o’clock, dinner—and my first big shock: the food is excellent. It’s a buffet of smashed-pea dip, just-baked bread, salad with dill dressing, and soup made out of fresh squash.
I wait my turn in line, load up a plate, and suddenly find myself in one of those awkward, high school cafeteria-type situations, in which I don’t know where to sit. There are around one hundred of us. The crowd consists overwhelmingly of white baby boomers. A lot of these people seem to know one another—they must be regulars on the West Coast meditation scene. Since we haven’t yet been told that we have to stop talking, everyone’s kibitzing happily.
I find a spot next to a kindly, older married couple, who strike up a conversation. I express my fears about the first few days being brutal. The wife reassures me, saying it’s not that bad. “It’s like having jet lag,” she says.
As we finish eating, Mary, the head chef—a chipper, cherub-faced woman with short brown hair—gets up and makes a little presentation. There will be three meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and a light supper. There are rules: no food in the rooms; no entering the dining hall until invited in by one of the chefs, who will ring a bell; after eating, we must line up, scrape off our plates, and put them in plastic tubs for the kitchen cleaners. For hard-core vegans, there’s a special side area of “simple foods.” And for people who really have special dietary needs, there’s a “yogi shelf,” where they can keep their personal stash of wheat germ or whatever. Mary has none of the severity I was expecting. I had pictured a Buddhist Nurse Ratched. “I want you to think of this as your dining room,” she tells us, and she seems to actually mean it.
The official opening session is held in the meditational hall, located in a stately building on an outcropping of rock set apart from the dorms by a hundred yards or so. Before entering, everyone takes off their shoes in a little foyer. The hall is large and airy, with shiny wood floors and lots of windows. There’s an altar at the front with a statue of the Buddha. Arrayed before it are roughly a dozen mats in neat rows. Many people have shown up early to claim their spots and have built elaborate meditation nests out of small wooden benches, round cushions called “zafus,” and thin, wool blankets. They’re sitting, with legs crossed and eyes closed, waiting for the proceedings to begin. This sends my “comparing mind” aflutter. I’m clearly out of my league.
For those of us who can’t hack the traditional postures, there are several rows of chairs lined up behind the mats. So, much as I’d done as a sullen punk kid in high school, I find myself sitting in the back of the room.
As soon as I’m settled, I look over to see a row of teachers walking into the hall, single file. They’re all silent and stone-faced, with [Joseph] Goldstein bringing up the rear. I recognize him from the pictures on his book jackets. He’s taller than I expected. He walks in long, slow strides. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and khakis that ride high on the waist. There’s a roughly three-inch strip of baldness down the center of his head, flanked by short brown hair on either side. The centerpiece of his angular face is a large, elegant protuberance of a nose. He’s wearing a goatee. He looks very, very serious. The overall effect is a little intimidating.
The teachers take their seats in the front row and one of them, a fiftyish Asian woman named Kamala, welcomes us in that artificially soft, affected manner of speech that I’m now thinking they must teach at whatever meditation school these people have attended. She formally opens the retreat and declares that we have now officially “entered into silence.” More rules: no talking, no reading, no sex. (I’ve read that there’s such a thing as a “yogi crush,” a silent longing for one of your fellow meditators, at whom you steal furtive glances and around whom you construct feverish fantasies. As I look around the room, I realize this will not be a problem for me.)
In her contemplative purr, the teacher tells us that the goal on retreat is to try to be mindful at all times, not just when we’re meditating. This means that all of our activities—walking, eating, sitting, even going to the bathroom—should be done with exaggerated slowness, so we can pay meticulous, microscopic attention.
At this point, I get my first look at the schedule we will be following for the rest of the retreat. It’s even more brutal than I’d imagined. The days will start with a five o’clock wake-up call, followed by an hour of meditation, then breakfast, then a series of alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation of various lengths, lasting all the way up until ten at night, broken up by meals, rest and work periods, and an evening “dharma talk.” I do some quick math: roughly ten hours a day of meditation. I honestly do not know if I can hack this.
My alarm goes off at five and I realize, suddenly and unhappily, where I am.
I pick out one of the three pairs of sweatpants I packed in anticipation of long, sedentary days. I pad down the hall to the bathroom, perform the ablutions, and then walk outside into the chilly morning air and join the stream of yogis heading out of the dorms into the meditation hall. Everyone’s walking slowly, with heads down. I realize that these people are really taking seriously the injunction to be mindful at all times.
As I walk amid the silent herd through the predawn darkness, I resolve to go balls-out on this retreat. If I’m going to do this thing, I’m going to do it right, damn it.
So, when I enter the hall, instead of going to the chair I’d picked out the night before, I wade into the archipelago of mats. I put two cushions on top of each other and straddle them, imitating the sitting style of some of the more experienced meditators…
… Almost immediately, I realize that sitting on cushions is a terrible idea. I am assailed by back and neck pain. The circulation to my feet feels like it’s dangerously choked off. I try to focus on my breathing, but I can’t keep up a volley of more than one or two breaths.
Holy crap, I think my feet are going to snap off at the ankle.
Come on, dude.
It feels like a dinosaur has my rib cage in its mouth.
I’m hungry. It’s really quiet in here. I wonder if anyone else in here is freaking out right now…
… A few minutes in, something clicks. There’s no string music, no white light. It’s more like, after days of trying to tune into a specific radio frequency, I finally find the right setting. I just start letting my focus fall on whatever is the most prominent thing in my field of consciousness.
Sizzle of rustling leaves.
Breeze on my forearm.
I’m really enjoying putting cashews and raisins in my oatmeal at breakfast.
Neck. Knee. Neck. Neck. Knee, knee, knee.
Hunger pang. Neck. Knee. Hands numb. Bird. Knee. Bird, bird, bird.
I think I know what’s going on here. This is something called “choiceless awareness.” I’d heard the teachers talk about it. It’s some serious behind-the-waterfall action. Once you’ve built up enough concentration, they say, you can drop your obsessive focus on the breath and just “open up” to whatever is there. And that’s what’s happening right now. Each “object” that “arises” in my mind, I focus on with what feels like total ease and clarity until it’s replaced by something else. I’m not trying; it’s just happening. It’s so easy it feels like I’m cheating. Everything’s coming at me and I’m playing it all like jazz.
And I don’t even like jazz.
Funny lights you see behind your eyes when they’re closed real tight.
Murderous itch on my calf.
Knee. Knee, knee, knee.
Itch, knee, back, itch, itch, itch, knee, airplane, tree rustling, breeze on skin, knee, knee, itch, knee, lights, back…
… It’s like I’d spent the past five days being dragged by my head behind a motorboat and now, all of a sudden, I’m up on water skis. This is an experience of my own mind I’ve never had before—a front-row seat to watch the machinery of consciousness. It’s thrilling, but it also produces some very practical insights. I get a real sense of how a few slippery little thoughts I might have in, say, the morning before I go to work—maybe after a quarrel with Bianca, a story I read in the paper, or an imagined dialogue with my boss—can weasel their way into the stream of my mind and pool in unseen eddies, from which they hector and haunt me throughout the day. Thoughts calcify into opinions, little seeds of discontent blossom into bad moods, unnoticed back pain makes me inexplicably irritable with anyone who happens to cross my path.
I’m remembering that time when my friend Kaiama stumped me by asking how anyone can be in the present moment when it’s always slipping away. It’s so obvious to me now: the slipping away is the whole point. Once you’re achieved choiceless awareness, you see so clearly how fleeting everything is. Impermanence is no longer theoretical. Tempus fugit isn’t just something you inscribe in books and clocks. And that, I realize, is what this retreat is designed to do.
Having been dragged kicking and screaming into the present, I’m finally awake enough to see what I could never see in my regular life. Apparently there’s no other way to get here than to engage in the tedious work of watching your breath for days. In a way, it makes sense. How do you learn a sport? You do drills. A language? Conjugate endless verbs. A musical instrument? Scales. All the misery of repetition, the horror of sitting here in this hall with these zombies suddenly seems totally worth it…
… the waves of happiness just keep coming. Everything is so bright, so crisp. I feel great. Not just great—unprecedentedly great. I’m aware of the urge to cling to this feeling, to wring out every last bit of flavor, like with a tangy piece of gum, or a tab of ecstasy. But this is not the synthetic, always-just-about-to-end buzz of drugs. This is roughly a thousand times better. It’s the best high of my life.
Dan Harris is a correspondent for ABC News and the co-anchor for the weekend edition of Good Morning America. Before that, he was the anchor of the Sunday edition of World News. He regularly contributes stories for such shows as Nightline, 20/20, World News with Diane Sawyer and GMA. Harris has reported from all over the planet, covering wars in Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine and Iraq, and producing investigative reports in Haiti, Cambodia, and the Congo. He has also spent many years covering America’s faith scene, with a focus on evangelicals — who have treated him kindly despite the fact that he is openly agnostic. He has been at ABC News for 13 years. Before that, he was in local news in Boston and Maine. He grew up outside of Boston and currently lives with his wife, Bianca, in New York City.
*All of the excerpts on my blog are from books that have stayed with me for some reason—because the concept was awe inspiring, changed how I view the world, was beautifully expressed, or all three. I personally curate all of the book excerpts, and I always obtain the author’s final approval before posting their work on my blog.