Dan Harris originally wanted to title this book The Voice In My Head Is an A-hole.
Throughout his career as a journalist and reporter, he – along with most of us – found that the voice in his head started as soon as he opened his eyes in the morning and then, pretty much all day long, it heckles us with thoughts of the past and the future, much to the detriment of whatever we are doing in the present.
Though he didn’t find the path to enlightenment, he did find that a number of things he did – when done together – made him about 10% happier.
Where does 10% come from? Basically, what you are about to learn made Harris a much happier and more productive person, but he didn’t have a transformational experience that led him to a state of 100% bliss. So, finally, to explain why he now spends so much time focussing on mindfulness and practicing meditation, he says it’s because it makes him 10% happier. A totally unscientific number, but one that completely explains why he does what he does.
If you can quiet the voice in your head for the next 10 minutes, join me on a journey towards becoming 10% happier in everything you do.
The Voice in Your Head
One of the defining moments in Dan Harris’ career was when he had an on-screen meltdown. After years of nailing his on-screen time at ABC, he had a full-blown panic attack in front of millions of people.
It was the culmination of years of stress caused by the endless chatter in his mind. How many stories did he have on the air that week? What was the state of his relationship with his boss (the legendary Peter Jennings) right now? What else did he have coming up that might catapult him ahead of the other people vying for the plum jobs that were soon to open up?
That was his first step on the path to discovery. That in order to prevent that from happening again – which would surely be the end of his on-air career – he would have to find a way to quiet the voice is in his head.
He started to read books that he never would have even glanced at before, like Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. He was intrigued enough about the ideas in the book that he tracked Tolle down for an interview.
The problem, Tolle said, is our ego. The ego is our inner narrator and it is never satisfied. No matter how many creature comforts we accumulate, how many gourmet meals we consume, or how many rungs we climb on the career ladder, it always wants more.
One of the biggest problems our ego presents is that it is a comparison machine. It is always comparing itself to others. That explains why we are always measuring ourselves agains the looks, wealth and social status of others.
Finally, and perhaps worst of all, it does all of that while thinking about the past and the future. As Tolle points out, we “live almost exclusively through memory and anticipation.”
Which is a real problem, because the only time that we ever have, in the literal sense, is now.
The biggest insight that Harris pulled from his time researching people like Tolle and scientists doing rigorous research on the human mind, was that your brain can be trained.
Happiness, therefore, is a skill.
Once you get on the path to finding happiness, you almost always find your way back to the idea of mindfulness and thus, the precepts and ideas of Buddhism.
According to Buddha, we have three natural responses to everything we experience in our lives – we want it, we reject it, or we zone out.
Butter tarts – a fine Canadian dessert hard to find south of the border? Want it. Flies in the house because somebody left the front door open? Reject it. The latest celebrity gossip? I zone out.
Everybody has their own ways of reacting to things, but they all find themselves neatly into one of those three buckets.
However, there’s a fourth option beyond judging an experience that is even more helpful – mindfulness. Here’s a formula that one of the mindfulness teachers taught Harris, neatly tied together by the acronym RAIN: Recognise, Allow, Investigate, Non-Identification.
To walk through this process and see how it works, let’s pretend that you’ve just had a stressful experience, like getting turned down for an important promotion at work.
The first step would be to admit that you’ve just had a stressful experience and you are in the midst of all of the emotions that come along with it.
The next step is to “lean in” to the experience. The goal with mindfulness isn’t to detach ourselves from the world, but to be fully present to it. Don’t resist the experience or emotions you are feeling. Let them happen.
In this step we start to pay attention to how the experience is affecting us, in the moment. Start by examining your body. Is your face flush? Is your head throbbing? Is your breathing short and shallow? Almost every emotion comes along with clear physical signs – your job is to get familiar with them.
In this last stage we consciously bring to mind the fact that just because right now we are angry and jealous at being passed over, it doesn’t mean that we are angry and jealous people.
Once you’ve gone through the RAIN cycle of truly being present to your experiences and feelings, you can finally let it go and move on to experience whatever comes next – like getting back to work so that the next time a promotion comes up, you get it.
As Harris continued his journey of discovery, he started to go deeper and deeper into what helped him become a happier and more productive person.
He boiled what he learned into 10 principles he calls The Way of The Worrier.
The Way of The Worrier
TWOTW #1: Don’t Be a Jerk
One of the great things about Harris’ job is that he gets access to interview people that most of us would only dream of breathing the same air as.
One of the people on that list is the Dalai Lama and one of the biggest lessons he learned from him was that putting ourselves first was a natural human tendency.
As it turns out, the Dalai Lama taught Harris, practicing compassion towards others will actually make you a happier person. Scientists performing brain scans showed that acts of random kindness towards others registered more in the brain like eating chocolate than fulfilling an obligation.
So, don’t be a jerk. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it will make you happier.
TWOTW #2: (And/But . . .) When Necessary, Hide the Zen
The Sufi Muslims have a saying: “Praise Allah, but also tie your camel to the post.” In other words, while there are plenty of practical reasons to be nice to other people, don’t let the world walk all over you.
This is harder than it first might seem. Combining a true inner peace while still getting things done in a cutthroat environment takes practice.
TWOTW #3: Meditation
Meditation has been linked to a ridiculously long list of benefits and is now being used to treat major depression, drug addiction, binge eating, stress among cancer patients, and ADHD.
The easiest way to get yourself on the mediation path are to follow the instructions that Harris was given when he first started.
First, sit comfortably, ensuring that your spine is relatively straight.
Second, notice what you feel when your breath goes in and out. Focus on one spot like your nostrils or chest. If you find yourself getting distracted easily, use a mantra like “in” and “out.”
Finally, whenever your attention wanders (as it inevitably will) forgive yourself and bring it back. What you are essentially practicing is (a) noticing when you are not being present, and (b) brining your attention back to the here and now so that you can be present.
Even doing this for a few minutes a day will make a noticeable improvement in your life.
TWOTW #4. The Price of Security Is Insecurity—Until It’s Not Useful
Some things are worth worrying about, and some things are not. Harris tells us that separating them from one another is one of your key tasks as you start your journey to become 10% happier.
This is where he departs from the wisdom of some of the gurus he learned from, and where you might find solace in the fact that you don’t need to spend your life in a state of bliss in order to benefit from mindfulness and mediation.
When you find yourself worrying about something, stop and ask yourself this simple question: “Is this useful?”
For instance, in business you are wise to be worrying about how to generate more customers or lower your costs when you need to generate more profit. Worrying about things that aren’t important and you can’t influence are things that you can leave to the chumps.
TWOTW #5. Equanimity Is Not the Enemy of Creativity
The quest towards happiness will not make you a blissed out zombie. There’s a myth that all creative people find their biggest inspiration in melancholy.
There’s no current research on this one way or the other, but an equally strong case can be made that once you are freed from useless worrying, you can channel your creativity more often and more effectively.
It’s a lot easier to come up with creative solutions to problems when your head isn’t filled with worry and dread.
TWOTW #6: Don’t Force It
Somewhere on your journey you’ll find yourself finding time for purposeful pauses, and realise that not everything can be solved through constant, unrelenting pressure.
Just like you can’t open a jar when all of the muscles in your body are tense, you can’t solve every problem in your life through sheer force.
TWOTW #7: Humility Prevents Humiliation
When the voice in your head isn’t busy worrying you to death, it’s busy telling you how great you are.
This causes you to make just as many bad decisions as worrying about things you can’t control. As a leader, this can very easily get in your way of producing the results you want to achieve.
So whenever you find yourself thinking those types of thoughts, follow the RAIN process and let them flow right through you.
TWOTW #8: Go Easy With The Internal Cattle Prod
The third main job of the ego (beside worrying and telling you how great you are) is to beat you up with self-criticism.
Many people are driven by their inner cattle prod, thinking that it’s the only way to achieve greatness in their business and life.
However, Harris points out that the people training in self-compassion mediation are more likely to do things like stick to a diet and quite smoking. Why? They are much better at bouncing back from missteps.
A much better approach is to learn from your failures than beat yourself up with them.
TWOTW #9: Non-attachment to Results
Have you ever found that life doesn’t always work out the way you think it should?
This is about coming to the realisation that striving for results is fine, but that the final outcome is out of your control. Do everything you can to succeed and then be fine with letting the chips fall where they may.
This ensures that when you fail (as you inevitably will), you’ll be able to dust yourself off and get ready for the next round.
TWOTW #10: What Matters Most
This entire list becomes a lot easier when you are crystal clear on what you want in your business and life. Instead of just following your ego – which always just wants “more” – get your head straight on what’s most important to you.
What do you really want?
Hope you enjoyed this summary. As always leave me a comment if you did.
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