Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Hearing Voices

I watched a really interesting video yesterday, about Dan Harris' 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 (2014).

Harris acknowledges that, instead of this unwieldy title, he had wanted to call the book, "The Voice in My Head Is An Asshole."

In 2004, Harris had a panic attack on national TV.  He was doing a brief news segment for Good Morning America, when he was suddenly, inexplicably, overwhelmed and unable to finish.

His video--and his book--discuss what was at the heart of that (in effect, recreational drug use in the wake of traumatic experiences as a war correspondent, coupled with a lifetime of self-doubt and negative internal monologues).

I highly recommend both the video (if you're short on time, know that the first 30 minutes is Harris, and the last 20 minutes is a Q&A with the audience) and the book.

Harris is an advocate of meditation, something he really never thought he'd advocate.  As he points out, meditation has been surrounded with a lot of wifty wording and vague claims of nirvana, and he--like many a skeptic--found that fact extremely off-putting at first.

In 10% Happier, Harris traces his investigation of various self-help gurus--most notably, Eckert Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and the individuals behind the promulgation of The Secret.

While Harris finds one of Tolle's claims quite fascinating, he is quick to point out that it wasn't Tolle who actually came up with it.  Tolle essentially repackages a key concept of Buddhism by putting it in wifty (and often downright incomprehensible) language that (for some reason) seems appealing to celebrities like Oprah and the mass-market audience.

As far as The Secret and the "power of positive thinking" goes, Harris points out in the Q&A session at the end of his talk that "there's a scientific term for it"-- namely, "Bullshit."

If wishing could make it so, the world would obviously be a better place.  Harris has nothing but contempt for the self-help con artists behind The Secret who seek to make million-dollar profits by promising a better life with little or no effort beyond simply thinking "positively" about what you want.

In the case of Tolle and and Chopra, Harris felt that they weren't really proposing realistic solutions.  They offered little or no practical advice for dealing with the stresses of day-to-day reality, and my guess is, this isn't surprising: if they did, no one would need to buy their books anymore.  Just the one best-seller would have taken care of it.

As he points out in his video, when he asked Tolle how he managed to "not get pissed off" when someone cuts him off in traffic (for example), Tolle says, "I just take one conscious breath."

As Harris observes when viewing the tape in retrospect, "Yeah.  What the fuck is that?"

I think it's a point we can all relate to.  When it comes to the self-help movement, people are reluctant to say when the emperor has no clothes.

Harris finds help from the work of Mark Epstein (more about him in a later blog post).  Epstein is a psychotherapist who is interested in the intersections of psychology and Buddhism.

Unlike many, Epstein (ironically) seems to suggest that therapy may not be the solution for everyone, if it simply consists of making people feel that they need to "move past" their problems.

Life is a problem--a series of problems, in fact--and Epstein's point is that we need to find ways to integrate who we are and what has happened to us into our lives in ways that work for us--and not simply suggest that things need to be "put behind" us.

(For a quick glimpse into Epstein's perspective, I recommend his August 3, 2013 article in The New York Times, "The Trauma of Being Alive.")

It is Epstein who encourages Harris to consider meditation--specifically, he advocates what is known as "mindfulness" meditation.

Briefly, when you mindfully mediate, you 1) sit upright, with your back straight,  2) focus on your breath, and 3) whenever your mind begins to wander to thinking about anything and everything, you bring your attention back to focusing on your breath.

That's it.  That's all there is to it.  Harris suggests doing that for 5 minutes a day.

What was particularly convincing for Harris is the fact that, in recent years, scientific studies have proven that meditation has clear neurological benefits--the effects of meditation can actually be picked up on an MRI scan.

As Harvard neuroscientist Susan Lazar points out in this May 26th Washington Post interview,  when people who have never meditated before are scanned both prior to and after an 8-week meditation course, there is evidence of significant "differences in brain volume ... in five different regions" of the brain.

Specifically, the changes appear in the regions of the brain associated with cognition, focus, stress and empathy.

Questions remain as to how often a person needs to meditate daily to achieve results.  As Lazar points out, studies about the neurological benefits of meditation are still in the early stages:
...just like exercise, it can’t cure everything. So the idea is, it’s useful as an adjunct therapy. It’s not a standalone. It’s been tried with many, many other disorders, and the results vary tremendously – it impacts some symptoms, but not all. The results are sometimes modest. And it doesn’t work for everybody. ... It’s still early days for trying to figure out what it can or can’t do.
Lazar has actually posted a list of FAQ about meditation on her research website

Like Lazar, Harris is quick to caution that meditation won't "fix your life" or "solve your problems."
But, he insists, it will help you deal with stress and maybe even become a better person along the way.

In his own case, Harris feels that mindful meditation has helped him to focus and to manage the stresses caused by his high-pressure job in broadcast news and his own internal monologue--the voice in his head that has been such an asshole for so many years.

I think many people have that same asshole in their heads (in a manner of speaking) and, as Harris points out, the basics of mindful meditation are freely available.  There's no need to purchase expensive clothing or equipment or memberships or apps, if you're simply interested in giving it a try.  (After all, Buddhists who take vows of poverty have been doing it for years.)

While the results will obviously vary, Harris points to the title of his book as a "wildly non-scientific" indicator of what he thinks is a conservative estimate: over time, daily meditation can make you "about 10% happier."

And while that may not seem like much, as Harris ultimately points out, "It's a good return on an investment."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."