For Scott Haber, practicing meditation helped him see the world differently, sparking a new attitude about life.
By Joyce Wiswell
Scott Haber had no idea the low-pressure elective he took during his senior year at the University of Michigan would help change his life.
“A friend told me about this meditation class — it was supposed to be an easy A, and I thought, ‘Hey, I can nap outside,’” recalled the Ann Arbor resident. “I was extremely uncomfortable at my first class and I walked out saying, ‘I will never take one of those classes again.’ But I was too lazy to switch out.”
But it slowly began to dawn on Haber he was getting real benefits from meditation. “Looking back, it showed me how uncomfortable and stressed I was internally,” he said. “There is something about this course where I am learning more about myself and not looking at life as an adversity, but as a joy.”
That realization set Haber on a path he’s still enthusiastically navigating. Now 26 with a bachelor’s degree in cellular molecular biology and a master’s degree in biomedical engineering, he’s left bioengineering and medical device entrepreneurship behind as he pursues a decidedly more philosophical path.
And he’s hoping to share his enlightenment in a book he is writing, tentatively titled How the Modern World Creates Unwellness & What We Can Do About It.
“Overall,” said Haber, an alumnus of Hillel Day School and West Bloomfield High School, “I am most driven by the relationship between humans and the natural world, and how this affects the health of people and the planet.”
Literal Hit on the Head
Four years ago on New Year’s Eve, Haber was tackled, fracturing his skull after his head smashed into concrete. After three days in the ICU, he jumped right back into his demanding studies — probably before it was medically prudent — but soon noticed he had a new attitude about life.
“I had a sense of lucidity, of cleanness,” he said. “I felt that life was inherently precious and valuable, each and every second.”
He continued meditating in earnest, even teaching the practice to fellow students, but became increasingly conflicted about his future.
“Something about this whole other side felt right,” he said. “I felt like I was helping others for once and not hurting.”
Then he heard about U-M’s Bonderman Fellowship, a program that offers four graduating students $20,000 to travel the world. Participants are required to visit at least six countries in two regions over eight months, immersing themselves in the local culture and writing about their experiences.
“When I found out I won, I was ecstatic,” he said. “I had never wanted something so much in my life.”
Wandering the World
Haber ended up taking a year-long journey, starting in Bali (“probably the most Westernized place”) and visiting Malaysia, Borneo, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal and India, then traveling to South America to explore Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.
“I wanted to see cultures that still live traditionally and live with different nature-based societies,” he said. “That is where life starts and the conversation starts, where I really came into myself.”
One unexpected obstacle he faced was overcoming shame from his life of white privilege.
“I realized I have been given every opportunity where others have not been given even one opportunity — what it was like to have white skin, blond hair and blue eyes. Doors were literally opened for me.”
Haber shared those feelings of guilt with someone he met in India (coincidentally, a man from Michigan) who told him, “You have confidence and that is not a bad thing if you are using it in service to the world. Being empowered can be used for good.”
Haber embraced that realization and, the more he traveled, the more he also came to believe that nature is vital to wellbeing.
“People in the cities had trouble looking each other in the eyes, were always in a rush, were in competition and had less of a sense of community,” he said. “And I was seeing that people with less things were content with what they had and not always seeking more. Their relationships were more fluid and joyful. I started to think about what this means for our way of life.”
Keen to continue his travels, Haber applied for a prestigious Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow-ship, pouring about a thousand hours into submitting the perfect application. He was shocked to not even score an interview.
“Being a person who was persistent and persuasive and charming, I didn’t hear the word ‘no’ often, and that had cheated me a little bit,” he said. “It made me realize I was being challenged, that this was not going to be an easy path.”
Back to America
In 2017, Haber was living in Bolivia, playing semi-pro basketball and struggling in an unhappy love relationship when he came back to Michigan for his sister’s wedding. He was not looking forward to visiting the U.S.
“I felt so estranged from home,” he said. “It seemed we have so much but that it doesn’t really help us. I was putting up judgments that were acting as walls that were not letting me see my country objectively.”
He was particularly dreading a trip to New York City, “the place I would criticize most,” but instead had an epiphany while watching a joyous crowd spontaneously dancing at an art installation.
“I had a big ‘aha’ moment and I got goosebumps. I realized that uplifting energy is right here; it’s been here the whole time,” he said. “I rediscovered what America means to me and realized I could live in the United States.”
Now he’s settled in Ann Arbor where he works as an editorial producer for a global collective of change makers called Summit, and is collaborating with an international team to host a 2020 conference on biodiversity in China, where he will guide efforts to develop a storytelling platform. And he is assisting the Shiwiar community in the Ecuadorian Amazon to construct a tourism-based proposal to protect their land from petroleum company acquisition.
The book, however, takes up the lion’s share of time. It explores how while modernity has many beneficial and useful aspects, it can lead to unhappiness.
“The things we have aren’t inherently bad but a lot of the way we have used them has created unbalance and mental angst,” Haber said. “How do we calibrate? I want to show people how we can live better, to find the balance. Sure, I want it to be a bestseller, the next Walden, but I don’t think it will be that; I just know from listening to my own voice that it’s a part of my path.”
Practicing nature-based mindfulness — “to be an observer of life, to deepen our bond with the natural world” — is key, Haber believes. He practices what he preaches, spending time outdoors every day.
“The more I engage with my senses, the more my mind gets a break and I feel restored,” said Haber, who also does yoga and meditates daily. “The process of finding yourself and your work is never easy but always worth it.”
Haber spoke about his Bonderman Fellow experiences to eighth-graders at his alma mater, Hillel Day School.
“His presentation did not just tell a tale of visiting foreign lands and interacting with cultures other than his own,” said Director of PE Nicole Miller. “Scott provided a lesson on striving to become the person who you are truly meant to be, a person who will truly make you happy. Scott’s openness and willingness to speak freely about his experiences was a life lesson from which we could all learn — growth and being open-minded offer a world of possibilities.”
Haber currently does not practice any religion but credits his Jewish upbringing with shaping his early years.
“Jewishness gave me the experience of community, of cultural values, of loving oneself and loving others, and guiding the sentiments of hard work, love, ethics and value,” he said.