Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris

★★★★ Recommended for those interested in meditation but not transcendence

Goodreads, Amazon

One of my goals this year was to try to create a little more headspace and improve my focus. As part of that, I’ve been practicing meditation. I’d tried meditating once or twice in college, but never since then. I started using the Headspace app, and shortly thereafter I was chatting with a friend of mine who gave me this book. It’s the second from Dan Harris, ABC News anchor and co-founder of 10% Happier (which also has a meditation app). The book made a good pairing with Headspace, as the two have very similar philosophies and approaches to meditation — in fact, they are pretty interchangeable on that front as far as I can tell.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics starts out with a chapter making the case for meditation, then is structured around reasons not to meditate (“I don’t have time for this,” “_____ is my meditation,” etc.) with discussion and counterarguments. I like the format, which is approachable and practical, and the tone, which is light, irreverent, and free of BS. I cared less for the narrative that Harris tries to use to tie the story together into something human and relatable — a bunch of people on a cross-country “meditation tour”. I found it irrelevant to the main content and not particularly entertaining. But you can read it if it appeals to you, or just as easily skip over the chatty dialog bits if you want to focus on the meat of the book. More generally, you can pick and choose where and how far to dive in; there’s no need to read the whole thing before you start get practical benefits from it.

Here are my takeaways on meditation, informed by some combination of this book and 70-odd sessions in the Headspace app over the past few months:

  1. Meditation does not need to have any elements of mysticism or transcendence. In fact, the version represented in Headspace and this book is a perfect fit as one of the “complementary practices” I mentioned needing for Stoicism — a highly analytical and rationalist philosophy. I like Harris’s perspective on meditation as training the mind, and his analogy to going to the gym: meditation is like “a biceps curl for the brain.”
  2. The goal is not (as I thought) to clear your mind, but rather to focus your mind. To be able to see clearly the cacophony of voices in your head, and rather than letting it drive you around, to focus in spite of it. You’re “breaking a lifetime’s habit of walking around in a fog of rumination and projection, and you are actually focusing on what’s happening right now.” The distinction is critical, because as far as I can tell (and I’m no expert), clearing your mind is impossible, and trying is counterproductive. The technique is the opposite — get really interested in something like your breath, and use that interest to hold your attention there.
  3. Getting distracted is not failure, but recognizing distraction and refocusing is success. “The whole game is simply to notice when you are distracted, and begin again. And again. And again.” I found this point of view liberating, since maintaining a singular focus on anything — even for ten seconds — is hard. Recognizing that it’s hard is itself valuable, and accepting that meditation is quite effortful recast the whole exercise for me.
“When you wake up from a distraction, that is the magic moment, the victory. And it is a victory of real consequence. You are achieving the first big insight of meditation: it’s a zoo inside your skull. Why is this important? Because the more you see all this clamor, the less likely you are to be controlled by it. You are no longer trapped inside your thoughts; you’re momentarily stepping outside them, watching them with a combination of horror and amusement and curiosity.”

After a few months of practice, it’s hard for me to say exactly what impact it’s had on me. Meditation definitely feels good while I’m doing it, and perhaps right after, but I’m not sure how much of it I carry into the rest of my day. I wouldn’t argue if you told me I seemed 10% calmer or more focused or whatever than a few months ago, but I also couldn’t make that case myself. I don’t feel particularly different if I skip it for a few days, so maybe that’s a sign that it’s actually not all that valuable as I’m currently practicing it. But everyone is different, and I have friends who consider it highly impactful.

As is so often the case, finding time seems to be the biggest hurdle to maintaining a consistent practice. The best way to build a sustainable habit for any activity is to integrate it into a regular routine, and given my current situation — on paternity leave with a 2 month old and a highly variable schedule— I don’t have much of a routine at at the moment. Once I’m back at work with a regular schedule, meditating at the same time every day would make the most sense. However, I think I’d still have issues sitting for 15 minutes a day (a good length for me), which quickly becomes 25 with overhead. Harris stresses that you can meditate anywhere, at any time, for any duration, even 1 or 2 minutes. I think I could probably find something beneficial to do in that time, but I don’t know if it’s really the same as longer periods; he actually admits about halfway through the book that he meditates for 2 hours a day! Many days I find the best way to make sure I actually do get to it is to combine activities and do a guided meditation while running. It isn’t exactly the same as sitting, but for me I think it’s about 80% as good.

“Remember, you are trying to hack millenia of evolution. We are bred for threat detection and self-centeredness. [Our instincts are] to let the voice in our head run wild, to chase pleasure blindly, to grasp at things that won’t last.”