Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics Summary and Review

by Dan Harris, Jeff Warren and Carlye Adler
Has Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris, Jeff Warren and Carlye Adler been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. The past decade or so has brought meditation away from being only a practice for monks and hippies. Today, it’s an almost mainstream activity. Now, even doctors and psychiatrists have recommended meditation for their patients, and now, movie stars, singers, and celebrities have even started recommending meditation apps to their audiences. However, you might still be a skeptic, or perhaps you think of yourself as far too impatient of a worrier for meditation to actually work for you. Well, that’s pretty much what author Dan Harris thought, too. He was certain that he was far too fidgety for meditation to work for him, and now, he wants to share with you that these excuses are complete nonsense. With nothing but time and practice, it’s possible for anyone to be able to appreciate the benefits of meditating. These benefits go far beyond simply easing your stress levels, too. Just by meditating regularly, you can actually better your immune system, as well as your ability to focus on day-to-day work. The reality of it is that meditation is actually very easy to get into—all it takes is pausing every once in a while to take ten simple deep breaths. Do this, and you’ll be on the right path toward forming a lifelong habit of self-improvement. In this summary of Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris, Jeff Warren and Carlye Adler, you’ll discover
  • how having a meltdown on-air can actually be the important wake-up call you needed;
  • which US congressman is spreading the joy of mindfulness; and
  • the difference between the RAIN and STOP meditations.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics Key Idea #1: Daily life can easily stress you out, and meditation has been scientifically proven to help.

Today, there are plenty of fast-paced, city-dwelling professionals who believe that meditation is nothing but new age nonsense. The author, Dan Harris, understands this feeling rather well since, not long ago, he was one of those people. If he’d been told, back in his twenties, that one day he’d be promoting the benefits of meditation, he probably would’ve laughed so hard that beer would have shot out of his nose. However, the reality is that life is full of the unexpected, and sometimes, these unexpected turns can be brought about by times of extreme stress. For Harris, one of these big changes came in 2004, when he was working as an anchorman for ABC News. During a live broadcast, in front of an audience of over five million viewers, he suddenly started to stutter and slur his words—he was feeling the effects of a panic attack. Like most panic attacks, however, this incident wasn’t an isolated event. In Harris’ case, he had sunk into a state of depression after spending years reporting from war zones. However, because he was such a busy person, he hadn’t realized the symptoms he’d been experiencing. These symptoms included having trouble getting out of bed each morning, and a feeling that resembled a fever that never fully disappeared. After briefly attempting to self-medicate with cocaine and ecstasy, this meltdown on-air was Harris’ own personal rock-bottom. However, it turns out that this meltdown was actually a good thing. It was the wake-up call Harris needed, which prompted him to make some much-needed changes in his life, leading him to discovering the benefits of meditation. Like a lot of people, Harris was what you’d call a “fidgety skeptic” when it came to meditation. However, once Harris did some serious research, he was surprised to discover that there was a lot of solid and scientific evidence which showed that meditation was a proven stress-reducer. The benefits he found that were related to the practice included lowering blood pressure and the reduction of symptoms from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Harris also discovered legitimate scientific data behind the fact that meditation can strengthen your immune system and rewire the neurons in your brain to improve certain attributes, from self-awareness, endurance, and compassion.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics Key Idea #2: The goal of meditation is to find inner peace via focusing on a sensation that works best for you.

Regardless of the type of meditation you’re doing, the starting step is always the same: making yourself comfortable. So, make sure before you begin, you take some time to get yourself situated in your favorite chair and begin by taking a few deep breaths and straightening your spine. To start, try an easy five to ten minute long meditation. Remember, this practice is about finding peace of mind – so the most important part of the process is to start out with a positive, easy going attitude toward meditation. This means dropping all competitive feelings and preconceived notions of what’s the right or wrong way to meditate. In the beginning, you’ll likely find it difficult to sit quietly and peacefully. You’ll likely get annoyed by nearby noise, or find yourself easily distracted by negative thoughts. If this happens, don’t give up. It’s important to keep in mind that there’s no right or wrong way to meditate, so if you’re fidgety, like Harris was at first, this doesn’t mean that meditation isn’t for you. So, make sure that you leave your expectations behind when it comes to what meditation is supposed to be, and focus your energy on staying calm and open to the process. The next most important thing to understand is that meditation involves focusing your attention on one single sensation. The most common sensation, and definitely the most traditional, is the act of breathing. So, to start, focus your attention on your breathing rhythm without changing anything about your breath cycle. Focus your attention on how air enters through your nose and moves into your lungs, making your chest and stomach expand and contract. Or, try to make your focus a little more general, simply paying attention to the rhythm of your breath and nothing more. As you get into this zone, make sure you try to enjoy whatever the experience is for you, thinking of each breath as something to be savored, in the way you may enjoy each bite of an amazing meal, or each sip of a beverage you love. To maintain focus,  it might help to count or “take note” of each breath, by silently saying “in” for each inhalation, and “out” for each exhalation. However, the sensation you focus on doesn’t have to be your breath. You can choose to focus on anything, from the sound of a ticking clock, to the sight of a flickering candle’s flame, to the feeling of your body resting on the chair or your feet resting on the floor. Whatever you choose to focus on, make sure you keep it up for five to ten minutes.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics Key Idea #3: Start out your practice with shorter meditations, slowly leading up to longer ones.

Dan Harris hears a lot of concerns about meditation, but one of the most common ones is about the amount of time the practice requires. So many people believe that they simply won’t be able to find the time to meditate during their hectic, daily schedules. However, in actuality, forming a daily meditation practice doesn’t require more than just a couple minutes here and there, throughout your day. In fact, just 60 seconds can be enough to get your practice started. One of the most difficult parts of the process is making meditation a daily habit, which is also the most important thing when it comes to experiencing the full benefits. So, if all you have is one minute today, then use that minute and be proud that you accomplished it. If you really think about it, there should be plenty of moments throughout your day where you can allow yourself to have a meditation minute. How about the moment after you brush your teeth? Or after your first cup of coffee? Many people have even found that their morning commute on the train or bus is the perfect time to close their eyes and meditate for a few minutes. There’s a helpful guide when it comes to making the most of a one-minute meditation: it’s called the ten breaths meditation, and it’s super easy. Wherever you happen to be, just silently count along as you take ten long, deep breaths in… and out… Doing this will instantly start to shift your attention in a new direction and away from your current worries and preoccupations. On top of this, most people actually find that doing these short meditations actually helps them find the time to start meditating for longer periods of time. While at first, fitting in a ten-minute meditation might seem absolutely impossible, once you begin, you might actually find yourself wanting to make the time to meditate for longer sessions. Meditating for one minute today might lead to a five minute meditation tomorrow, and then, possibly ten minutes later on, perhaps a couple weeks later. If this happens, it’s a great sign—it means you’re moving from extrinsic motivation, which is you thinking, “I have to meditate,” to intrinsic motivation, or thinking to yourself, “I love meditating!” This new found intrinsic motivation means that you’ll be more inclined to make meditation a regular part of life.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics Key Idea #4: While it’s been a tough battle for mainstream acceptance, meditation sure has a lot going for it.

Have you ever been worried about what your friends might think if you tried meditation? This is another one of the most common concerns the author comes across. But here’s the truth: meditation has become far more popular than you may know. While it’s truly been an uphill battle for meditation to gain mainstream acceptance in the United States, recent years have definitely brought along some changed attitudes when it comes to the practice. In the past, the conservative world of business and politics has criticized meditation as a practice, but even here, these ideas are shifting. On Washington’s Capitol Hill, Congressman Tim Ryan has written a book called A Mindful Nation, which promotes the benefits of meditation. In the book, Ryan speaks highly of the practice, and says that not only is meditating good for the individuals who do it, but it could potentially be good for the nation. He says that it could lead to better governmental policies on a range of issues, including education, health insurance, and even military training. Ryan views mindfulness and meditation as something that could greatly benefit everyone, from schoolchildren to soldiers. And Ryan has walked his talk, too. He is the founder of a meditation group near Capitol Hill, and he even convinced a public school in his home state, Ohio, to be one of the first to introduce mindfulness in the classroom. And while he, of course, encountered some resistance, he’s also been able to collect tons of information, comebacks, and statistics that can counter nearly any argument about the practice. When parents insist and worry that meditation involves some sort of spiritual, or even religious element, Ryan points out that mindfulness is not forbidden by any religion, nor is it inherently spiritual to begin with. He then brings up the scientific evidence that shows how beneficial it actually is to developing, healthy brains. Ryan is also able to cite the long list of diverse, high functioning, and successful people who have benefited from a meditation practice, from tennis champion Novak Djokovic to Steve Jobs. Practically anyone who has doubts about the practice more than likely has a public figure they respect who meditates, which can make it much harder for them to maintain any skepticism. So, with any lingering doubts put to rest, let’s explore some more advanced practices.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics Key Idea #5: Meditating is a fantastic way to revel in some laziness and allow yourself to connect with a companion.

If someone recommended a two-hour meditation, your first thought might be to politely say, thanks, but no thanks. But, as the saying goes, “don’t knock it until you’ve tried it” – because you might end up loving it. Basically, a two-hour meditation is your free pass to live a life of leisure for a while. Unlike other forms of meditation, this type of meditation is done lying down on your back – either on the floor, in a bed, or on the couch. If desired, you could even have the TV on or have music playing—the best part about this type of meditation is that there are no rules. To start, close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and revel in how your body slowly relaxes. Next, imagine yourself sinking into the floor, couch, or bed, and feel yourself letting go of everything. To visualize this letting go, you can lift your arms and allow them to flor back down to your sides, encouraging the sensation. For the next two hours, continue this clearing away of any worries and stress you may be holding onto. If you happen to fall asleep, don’t worry. Remember, there are no rules. And if your mind wanders, don’t panic. The important thing is that you bring your mind back to your sensation, and continue your letting go. You can also do this meditation with a companion, for example, a close friend or partner. To begin, lie down on your backs and snuggle up close to your companion, using your proximity to their body as a way to heighten the sensation you focus on during meditation. While you meditate, it might be a good idea to focus on the connection you have to your partner’s body, or any slight movements that might be caused by your companion’s breathing. This can also help you to develop a deeper sense of compassion and love for your companion, as well as for yourself. As with any meditation, be sure that you’re not forcing any feelings. It’s important that you’re open and welcoming toward your partner, and if you do feel compassion and love for them during the session, make sure that you gently register this feeling through making a mental note of it. While this meditation is supposed to last for two hours, it can be as long or short as you’d like it to be. The important thing is to show yourself kindness, and create a space where it feels okay to let go of the anxious world that surrounds you.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics Key Idea #6: Meditation allows you access to the tools that will help you deal with your emotions.

When you experience unwanted emotions, do you tend to run from them, bottle them up, or pretend they aren’t there? Well, one quality of meditation that makes it so valuable is the fact that it gives you tools that will help you stop running from, and instead, face your messy emotions. If you happen to have a friend who’s involved in massage therapy, you’ve likely heard them say, “our issues are in our tissues.” This is in reference to the tight knots and sore muscles we carry, often due to our stress and anxiety. However, this means that, when we relax our clenched jaws and tight shoulders, we’re able to release the emotions that tightened them up in the first place. The thing is, when it comes to getting the most from meditation, we need to avoid running away or attempting to control any newly freed emotions that you might encounter during your session. Instead, do the opposite, and act like a curious observer who’s trying to identify the feelings and track them back to their origins. To do this, try employing the R.A.I.N. method, which stands for Recognize, Accept, Investigate, and Non-identification. So, if you’re meditating and a strong emotion comes up, the first step is to truly recognize it and become familiar with its sensations. Does it cause your chest to feel heavy? Does it make your throat tighten up? Be sure to pay close attention to every detail, because it’ll allow you to recognize it quickly next time you experience it. The second step is to accept that you have this emotion. If it’s a negative emotion, like anger or jealousy, it’s important not to deny it, simply because it’s an emotion you’d rather not be feeling. It’s more important to accept it and allow yourself to have and feel that emotion, because it will actually help it to pass quicker. Next comes the investigation, where you try to figure out the origins of this feeling. Are you maybe feeling guilty because you forgot to call your mom on her birthday? Perhaps the resentment you’re feeling is due to someone else getting the contract you were after? Being able to understand what’s caused your emotions will allow you to them master them, instead of your life being controlled by them. Finally, there’s non-identification, which has to do with learning that your identity is not determined by whether or not you feel certain “good” or “bad” emotions. Everyone experiences unwanted emotions—they are just storm clouds that will eventually pass to reveal the blue sky again. While this idea is difficult at first, it will get easier with daily meditation, and of course, there will always come times when you need help, which is when a professional therapist can be valuable.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics Key Idea #7: For people in high-pressure jobs, the S.U.R.F meditation tool might help you to improve your performance.

So many people have stressful jobs, but for some people, one bad day at work can be a matter of life or death. For people in medicine, law enforcement, or safety, a standard workday might have far more pressure than simply being able to meet a deadline on time or deliver a presentation successfully. Meditation is one of the best ways to cope with high-pressure jobs, which is why Sylvia Moir, chief of police in El Cerrito, California, has brought a regular meditation practice to the table for the members of her team. Moir’s decision to add this program came after she read a number of studies which showed that both performance and quality of life improve when people in dangerous lines of work begin a meditation practice. This holds true for police, as well as military soldiers and firefighters. Statistics reveal that meditation improves short-term memory, helps speed up the recovery from traumatic events, and reduces the body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol. While some of the police officers in El Cerrito were initially hesitant, they soon embraced the practice as the benefits became more apparent. It ended up helping officers recover faster from difficult incidents and bring home less stress and tension, which allowed for them a calmer family life. One of the specific techniques used by those with dangerous jobs is called the S.U.R.F. meditation, which stands for Stop, Understand, Relax, and Freedom. This type of meditation is in the form of a quick pause, which is taken whenever you find yourself in a stressful situation. It’s intended to keep you from making a mistake or reacting in a way that you’ll surely regret. The first step is to stop, and take a moment to pause and think before reacting to the situation. For example, if you’re dealing with a client who might be antagonizing you, be sure to stop and breathe for a moment before taking the bait and deciding to snap at them. The second and third steps, to understand and relax, involve recognizing the emotion or urge you’re experiencing and understand what that urge wants you to do – for instance, an urge to punch someone in the nose – and instead responding by doing the opposite and reacting with a calm, measured response. The final step, freedom, is about embracing the fact that you’re in control, which means that you don’t have to automatically respond to provocations with anger or violence. All it takes is some mindfulness and practice.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics Key Idea #8: Keep yourself attuned to meditation’s benefits, working yourself toward the goal of focusing on nothing at all.

If you decide to start meditating today, you’ll probably think: this is great! I have a new practice that’ll improve my life! But the real challenge is keeping it up and staying consistent, even when you catch a cold or go on vacation. This is because if you miss a day or two, you might decide it’s okay to miss another, leading to it slipping away completely. This is why it’s of the utmost importance to stay focused on the benefits. Human beings are very similar to lab rats pushing a lever once they discover that doing so rewards them. But if we’re distracted, we can easily forget about those benefits, move on, and start pressing another lever. So, it’s important to put the appropriate value on what you might gain from meditation, so that you can enjoy how calming and relaxing it is. Also, be sure to recognize all the transformative effects it can have on your life. According to Bill Duane, a manager at Google, the company’s employees have reduced their stress levels by 19 percent thanks to meditation classes. Now, personally, you probably can’t reproduce such precise statistics, but with some effort, you’ll be able to recognize how meditation has reduced your own stress and anxiety. Keeping track will help you stay motivated in your practice. The final step is to elevate your practice by attempting to meditate on absolutely nothing at all. In order to accomplish this and not focus on your breath, or a sound, or anything, it’ll take throwing away your training wheels. But this doesn’t mean you have to remove them suddenly. You can easily transition to expert level by making the sensation you’re focusing on more subtle each time you meditate until you reach nothing. It truly isn’t easy to focus on nothing at all while also doing nothing at all, but it can be incredibly rewarding to actually let go of everything. It’s likely that this process will be frustrating at first, since your mind will probably revolt and revert to its usual unhelpful worries and distracting thoughts. However, the important thing is to simply keep acknowledging these thoughts as they come and letting them go just the same. And remember: there is no right or wrong in meditation. Just relax, and enjoy.

In Review: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics Book Summary

The key message in this book: Meditation isn’t only for hippy-dippy folks who smell of patchouli oil. Rather, meditation is a scientifically proven practice that can improve your health and sharpen your skills (especially if you happen to be a working professional in a dangerous line of work). Simply by incorporating meditation into your life and turning it into a daily practice, you’ll be able to make strides toward a happier, less stressful you. Actionable advice: Increase your capacity for compassion by meditating with a certain person on your mind. The benefits of meditation go beyond just making you feel more relaxed and happy. It can also make you more compassionate. If this sounds like something you’d enjoy, attempt engaging in a short compassion meditation. Start by coming up with someone who currently needs your love and support. With this person on your mind, spend about 30 seconds solely focusing on your feelings of compassion and love for them. When you make this a regular part of your practice, you’ll likely soon find yourself acting more kindly and compassionately toward everyone around you.