The Ten Pillars of Cutthroat Zen

I’ve been meditating on and off for the better part of the year. I can currently about fifteen minutes at a stretch and on the days I do get around to it, I definitely feel calmer and more focused than usual. Last week I read a book with the intriguing title of “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works” by Dan Harris’. Them be fighting words and I was certainly skeptical when I started. That being said, I ended up finishing the whole book in a day — something I don’t think I’ve ever done for a serious book.

The book is a great read, starting with the author’s breakdown on live TV and following his path through borderline-fraudulent self-help and finally meditation and a sort of modern Buddhism. The whole book is thoroughly recommended, but it also comes up with of a tl;dr at the end — a summary of what the author learned through his experiences. Harris calls it “The Way of the Worrier”, but I think his discarded title of “The Ten Pillars of Cutthroat Zen” is a better title. While they’re best understood in the context of the rest of the book, they also stand on their own (with a little help from excerpts from the book):

1. Don’t be a Jerk

It is, of course, common for people to succeed while occasionally being nasty. I met a lot of characters like this during the course of my career, but they never really seemed very happy to me. It is sometimes assumed that success in a competitive business requires the opposite of compassion. In my experience, though, that only reduced my clarity and effectiveness, leading to rash decisions.

2. (And/But …) When Necessary, Hide the Zen

Even though I’d achieved a degree of freedom from the ego, I still had to operate in a tough professional context. Sometimes you need to compete aggressively, plead your own case, or even have a sharp word with someone. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to do this calmly and without making the whole thing overly personal.

3. Meditate

Meditation is the superpower that makes all the other precepts possible. The practice has countless benefits— from better health to increased focus to a deeper sense of calm— but the biggie is the ability to respond instead of react to your impulses and urges.

4. The Price of Security is Insecurity — Until It’s Not Useful

Mindfulness proved a great mental thresher for separating wheat from chaff, for figuring out when my worrying was worthwhile and when it was pointless. Vigilance, diligence, the setting of audacious goals— these are all the good parts of “insecurity.” Hunger and perfectionism are powerful energies to harness. Even the much-maligned “comparing mind” can be useful.

5. Equanimity is Not the Enemy of Creativity

Being happier did not, as many fear, make me a blissed-out zombie. I found that rather than rendering me boringly problem-free, mindfulness made me, as an eminent spiritual teacher once said, “a connoisseur of my neuroses.” One of the most interesting discoveries of this whole journey was that I didn’t need my demons to fuel my drive— and that taming them was a more satisfying exercise than indulging them.

6. Don’t Force It

It’s hard to open a jar when every muscle in your arm is tense. I came to see the benefits of purposeful pauses, and the embracing of ambiguity. It didn’t work every time, mind you, but it was better than my old technique of bulldozing my way to an answer.

7. Humility Prevents Humiliation

We’re all the stars of our own movies, but cutting back on the number of Do you know who I am? thoughts made my life infinitely smoother. When you don’t dig in your heels and let your ego get into entrenched positions from which you mount vigorous, often irrational defenses, you can navigate tricky situations in a much more agile way.

8. Go Easy with the Internal Cattle Prod

As part of my “price of security” mind-set, I had long assumed that the only route to success was harsh self-criticism. However, research shows that “firm but kind” is the smarter play. All successful people fail. If you can create an inner environment where your mistakes are forgiven and flaws are candidly confronted, your resilience expands exponentially.

9. Nonattachment to Results

Nonattachment to results + self compassion = a supple relentlessness that is hard to match. Push hard, play to win, but don’t assume the fetal position if things don’t go your way.

10. What Matters Most?

At first, this struck me as somewhat generic, but as I sat with the idea for a while, it eventually emerged as the bottom-line, gut-check precept. When worrying about the future, I learned to ask myself: What do I really want? While I still loved the idea of success, I realized there was only so much suffering I was willing to endure.

If you feel like your life is flying off the handles, or you want some more calm and control, this book might just point you in the right direction. If you’ve been hearing about meditation and want to try it out but are afraid you might want to run away and join a monastery, this book will put those fears to rest. In summary, “10% Happier” is probably the best ~$11 you’ll spend this week.

PS. I came across this book thanks to the excellent Farnam Street Blog, which has been steadily feeding me a stream of useful knowledge and references since I discovered it a few months ago. If you need more convincing, check out their post on the book.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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