Month: July 2018

Review: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris & Jeff Warren

Review: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris & Jeff Warren

I received a digital ARC of this book from Spiegel & Grau (part of Random House) on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Spiegel & Grau for their generosity and am happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

Stumbling Upon Meditation
Admittedly, in February when I received this book, I wasn’t searching for a book on meditation—I was scrolling through available books on NetGalley and 10% Happier caught my eye. I was going to be starting yoga teacher training shortly and anything that might give me ideas for theming a class or making a mind-body connection sounded appealing. I was also at a point in my own yoga practice where meditation sounded like a next step—the power yoga I do a CorePower is constantly pushing me physically; meditation would be the mental push that came next.

Set Up and Structure
Strictly speaking, 10% Happier isn’t really a How-To Book on meditation, but rather, it’s an engaging mash-up of memoir of a meditation road-trip with nonfiction explanations of how to address common roadblocks to meditation and demystifying the practice. Interspersed within this narrative are meditation vignettes that, as the book progressed, were surprisingly well-matched for the text. For example, when addressing the common stumbling block of not having time to really sit and meditate, one of the ways Harris and Warren come at this is by introducing the idea of moving meditations—meditations on the sense and feel of every-day activities, bringing mindfulness to the feel of a toothbrush on gums or water hitting skin in the shower. There then appears a meditation vignette on exactly this practice. For those feeling like they just need rest, not something in their head, there are practices for restful meditation and self-compassion meditation.

As I read, admittedly I skimmed the vignettes. Most of the time while reading, I wasn’t in a place—physically or mentally—to stop, drop, and meditate when a vignette came up. I also don’t know that I understand how it’s possible to meditate while simultaneously reading something. For me the vignettes were less guides to meditate, than an introduction to how that particular practice or focus would work in a meditation so I was familiar when I came back to it.

Book + App
Harris and Warren realize that reading and meditating probably doesn’t go hand-in-hand for many people and the idea of memorizing the “rules” of a meditation ahead of time so I can do it “right” later probably isn’t the point. There’s a 10% Happier app where all of the guided meditations that appear in the book can be found—however, there is a cost here. This app then begs the question of why the book is necessary. If you’re sold on meditation and just want samples to guide you through meditations of different kinds and lengths, you can probably skip the book and go to the app. The app, it should be noted, does cost $100 a year ($8.33 a month) and comes with a seven-day free trial. The book is obviously significantly cheaper, but without the benefit of the guided audio. (Full Disclosure: I’m not at a place where I’m pulling that $100 trigger; however, there are legitimate studies that show that imposing a “cost” on something can make it more likely that we use it—we’ve invested $100 into the practice and so we’re more likely to practice than if it were totally free. So, I’m not buying it today, but I’m not ruling it out.)

Heavy on the Normal, Light on the Woo-Woo
If, like me, you think meditation sounds like a good thing you should try tomorrow (and tomorrow and tomorrow), this is a book you may want to pick up. I appreciated the background and the “why” of each of the meditation options. 10% Happier isn’t just about selling you the benefits of meditation (several time Harris insists this is not the purpose of the book, though of course they come up) but rather about bringing meditation down to something that seems less hard and never-achievable, and more like something anyone can do at any time. Harris and Warren, while being a little woo-woo (particularly Warren, not really Harris), made meditation seem like a totally normal thing that, well, normal people do.

Indeed, Harris has rather interesting “cred” for an author of a book on meditation. As he makes clear on literally the first page, he once suffered a debilitating panic attack live on ABC’s Good Morning America during a time period when he was engaging in some “recreational” stimulating activities…namely cocaine and E to combat an undiagnosed mild depression. (Apparently this video is relatively easy to find on YouTube but I refrained because it seemed cruel to add to the view counts and, well, I actually have no desire to watch someone have a mental health emergency that people consider “entertainment.”) Meditation is how he restores his equilibrium now—both a cheaper and healthier practice than his previous recreational activities. (It is important to note that Harris also takes a respectful stance towards the benefits of meditation for mental health. He makes it clear that meditation can help depression and anxiety but never presents it as a cure for either—a line I think is critical to maintain.)

Harris is also a terrible poster-child for holier-than-thou, which normalized the practice. One of the takeaways of this book is that if Harris—a news anchor with a high stress job, perfectionist tendencies, and some anger issues—can keep meditating, then I certainly can. Throughout the text, Harris and Warren (who has diagnosed ADD) both talk about where they still have room to grow in their practices, where they still “mess up” or get stuck. 10% Happier isn’t a book about people who’ve already arrived, but rather a book of people somewhere in the middle of their journeys, turning around to offer a hand to the people just starting.

If you’ve been vaguely interested in meditation but not sure where to start or if it can possibly fit into your lifestyle, 10% Happier is definitely a book worth picking up. The value in it for me was less the meditations (though I will come back to them), but rather the explanations of what meditation looks like in the real world and how accessible it truly is for different people with different capacities at different times. Right now, my boss is taking her first vacation where she is unreachable in about twenty years (not exaggerating). I’m stepping up to fill her shoes and it’s already feeling overwhelming after two days. I do not have the capacity to add a twenty-minute practice to my day because to do so would be sacrificing time when others need me at work, when my partner needs the 45 minutes of attention I can afford to give him right now, or the sleep I desperately need to keep this going for three weeks until my boss is back. And yet, Harris and Warren have a meditation for that. At a time when I think I can “afford” it least from my time, yet need it most, 10% Happier has introduced me to ways that this practice can work for me.

Published: December 26, 2017 by Spiegel & Grau (part of @RandomHouse)
Author: Dan Harris & Jeff Warren
Date read: July 7, 218
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

Spring 2018 Wrap-Up

Spring 2018 Wrap-Up

I didn’t do a wrap up for May since there weren’t many books I didn’t want to write about as their own posts or theme posts (look for a post on writing about mental illness coming soon-ish).   In May, I finished seven books and two audiobooks for a total of 2,143 pages; 23 hours and 28 minutes of books. June was also seven books, one very long audiobook (Children of Blood and Bone) for 2, 354 pages; 17 hours and 54 minutes. For the year, that brings us to 15, 841 pages for the year; 187 hours, 31 minutes. You know, in case you were wondering.

And without further ado, here are some mini-reviews of some of the books I enjoyed in June that, oddly enough, are all partially or totally set in California.  Accidental theme?

The Ensemble
“What’s inner harmony?” Brit asked. Daniel laughed, but she continued, “No, really. How can you harmonize with yourself?”

Daniel stopped laughing abruptly. He folded his hands on the table. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I contain many pitches. It’s about moving from polyphony to harmony. People are so much music. People don’t recognize that enough.”

The Ensemble is one of those books that getting a lot of hype—more than one book subscription chose it this summer, Girls Night In chose it for their July read, and Modern Mrs. Darcy chose it as one of her Summer Reading Guide books. This is a book that, for once, mostly holds up to that hype. The Ensemble follows leader Jana, prodigy Henry, scrappy Daniel, and quiet Brit—the Van Ness Quartet—over the span of almost twenty years making music together.

If you’ve read much around here, you’ll know that I talk quite a bit about balance—books that hit the right note (pun intended!) of lightness of story with depth of substance. The drama—driven by external events and internal conflict—kept the book moving at a comfortable clip so I never felt bored while reading. At the same time, The Ensemble was highly character driven—Gabel drew you into the world of these four characters—they made you care, they made you a little mad, a little crazy with their choices. All four of them were also relatable—despite the fact that I’ve never been in the professional music world, I could see something in each of them that I identified with (except maybe Henry. No one has ever accused me of being a prodigy at anything). The quartet’s world was also accessible—you hear about “world building” in the context of fantasy books but Gabel had to do a fair bit of that here. The majority of her readers are probably not within the world of high-stakes career musicianship and it would have been easy to make the book insider-ish. I never felt like I didn’t understand what was happening, nor did I feel like Gabel was speaking down to me. There were no awkward asides, no characters explaining things in a way that felt unnatural. Gabel masterfully opened this world as she revealed her characters. The Ensemble is a definitely a worthwhile summer read.

Far From The Tree
Far From The Tree is the story of three siblings, separated at birth—Grace and Maya were both relinquished at their births while Joaquin was removed from their mother’s care around age 1. None of them knew about each other before now. While Grace and Maya seem to have had it “easy” by being adopted, you quickly realize that families are complicated, whether formed by choice or blood. Joaquin, having been in foster care for almost seventeen years, seems to finally have it good and yet, people can always disappoint you. As the three come together and begin to search for their birth mom, the search will turn up more than any of them ever expected.

The more YA I read as an adult, the more I wish YA had been like this twenty years ago (yes, I am that old), or that I had known where the books like this were when I was the target audience of the YA author. Far From The Tree tackles tricky subjects—teen pregnancy, adoption, foster care—with grace and depth while using situations and language that are appropriate for a high school audience.   Even the children’s birth mother is shown grace as the children discover who she is and how she came to make the choices she made. As a final note, Benway also made an effort to include diverse characters—Maya is a lesbian while Joaquin is mixed-race. I loved these characters, I appreciated the depth Benway brought to the adoption conversation, and I never felt like I was being preached at or that Benway was taking the easy way out on difficult topics.   Studies show that reading books makes readers more empathetic—with books like Far From The Tree I can see how that is the case.   This is a book I highly recommend for both adults and young adults alike.

Goodbye, Vitamin
Goodbye, Vitamin is thirty-year old Ruth’s chronicle of an unexpected year at home following the end of her engagement and her father’s diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer’s. As a child, Ruth’s father kept a small diary of funny things she said and did, little milestones. Ruth’s documenting of this year at home is the reverse—while she does write much about her own life (particularly at the beginning during the set up), as she settles into life in her parents’ house again, she chronicles her father’s life. His moments of brilliance even as the disease progresses. As the year goes by and Ruth finds her place again with a family she had lost connection to, Ruth writes less until the last chapters have only a few entries per month. Goodbye, Vitamin is poignant and short—I actually felt it was a little too short. I think Khong’s point was that Ruth was reforming her connections to her family and to what life could be as she wrote—as Ruth actually engaged with them, she spent less time writing. What it felt like was that Khong ran out of steam and the book petered out. This really was my only criticism. Ruth won’t be everyone’s favorite protagonist—in many ways she has the sense of life happening to her rather than having agency in her choices as the book opens (I mean this more about her job and place in life, and not in her fiancé’s being a total ass). I wasn’t wild about her as the book began, but I stuck with it and she leveled out for me and I grew to care about her a few “months” (chapters) into the book and, by the end, wanted more of her.

Well that’s it, friends.  Did you read anything good in May or June? I’d love to hear your spring recommendations, dear readers.

Header picture credit: Annie Spratt