A lifelong skeptic became the kind of guy who meditates two hours a day.
In 2004, after having a panic attack live on Good Morning America in front of 5 million viewers, news anchor Dan Harris changed his life. He stopped using recreational drugs. He saw a shrink. And, by happenstance, his boss at ABC assigned him to cover faith and religion. A spiritual agnostic and lifelong skeptic, Harris eventually became the kind of guy who now meditates for two hours a day—which is “fucking bonkers,” as he puts it.
He wrote about his unlikely self-help odyssey in his first book, 10% Happier, a #1 New York Times bestseller. 10% Happier was “an argument dressed up as a memoir,” he told me. He thought that chronicling the profound effect that meditation had on his life would convince people to meditate. His book worked for some, but for others it “turned into a beach read.” In the three and a half years since 10% Happier was published, it’s become obvious to Harris that “habit formation and human behavior changes are incredibly tricky.” Many people are sold on the benefits of meditation but mysteriously still don’t meditate.
So Harris’s latest book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, out January 2018, addresses common hangups about meditation—beliefs like “I don’t have time for this” and “if I get too happy, I’ll lose my edge.” It’s a taxonomy of obstacles and, through Harris’s ridiculous road trip with his coauthor, Jeff Warren, a story of solutions. Here’s my recent conversation with Harris, on anxiety, his “New Age” allergy, and how to stay wildly ambitious without losing your mind:
In the book you say that you're an anxious guy—and your catalyst for finding meditation was an on-air panic attack. How does meditation help you cope with your anxiety?
I am definitely not of the view that it’s a silver bullet—that you start meditating and all of your anxiety evaporates. I think anybody who says they have something that can do that for you is full of shit. But at least in my case, I find that [with a consistent meditation practice] I relate to my anxiety a little differently, and I am not as swept away by it. So I see my meditation as kind of a no-brainer, just like getting enough sleep, exercising, having good relationships, eating well—all those things can help you deal with anxiety, depression, and panic.
But I still would call myself pretty anxious. I'm very ambitious and get anxious about my career. I also have a child who’s almost three, and I get anxious about him and his health. What I find is that the death spiral I used to enter into doesn't go as far as it used to.
There's all this scientific research into the efficacy of meditation—and I think sometimes this research is a bit overhyped—but the area where it's the strongest is anxiety and depression. I've wrestled with both of those things, including panic and substance abuse, and I've found it to be very helpful. Again, meditation is not the only thing that's going to do it for you. This is why I go with the whole “10 percent” thing; it’s my way of counter-programming against the howling sea of bullshit that is the self-help industry.
I almost wonder if that hype is counterproductive, because people have these grand expectations about meditation, and when it doesn't totally change their lives, they quit.
Yes, I think that's really true. People start meditating and if everything in their lives isn't immediately rainbows and unicorns, then they quit.
The other thing is that the traditional artwork around meditation sends this message that when you start meditating everything's going to be blissful. In the imagery, people meditating have these deitific looks on their faces, like they're floating off into the cosmos. And I think that is super counterproductive, too. Because that is not what meditation is like. Especially in the beginning, it’s hard, it's frustrating. You’re trying to focus on one thing at a time—usually that’s your breath. And you're going to get distracted a lot of times. But because people have seen imagery of these happy meditators, they think that when they get distracted that's a failure. But, in fact, the moment you notice you've become distracted is a huge success, because you’re waking up to a fundamental fact that we’re fucking crazy and our mind is just this boiling cauldron of random impulses and desires, mostly negative ideas and obsessions, and self-reverence. And as soon as you see that this is happening, that is the first step towards not being owned by it.
Your book flies in the face of the notion that people who meditate take themselves too seriously. Do you think meditation has made you funnier?
I don't know if I'm funnier. But I think generally speaking the kind of de-clenching that can come from a commitment to a short daily dose of meditation can make you less stuck in your own head, and therefore more spontaneous. The source of comedy is usually the ability to react to what's happening right now. And I find that in my life, where I anchor a morning show where there are all these other lunatics on the set with me and I can't control what anybody is going to say at any given moment, the ability to not be so stuck in my head and worrying about how we're going to get to the commercial break or whatever makes me more available to react to whatever's happening right now.
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But there is still that anxiety of trying to fill the empty space or silence [on air], right? So do you still try to come up with quips and narratives and stuff like that in your head while people are talking? Or do you try to just be present and open-minded?
The impulse to fill a space or to worry is still there. What meditation helps you do is see that it's there and not feed it. You can just let it go, let it pass. I might be on the set live on Good Morning America, and I don't know where the conversation is going. Maybe it's getting really weird or maybe we're running out of time and the producer is screaming in my ear[piece] that I need to get us to a commercial break. I can see some anxiety coming up—on the good days, when I'm mindful—and I can let it pass so that I'm not so stuck with the anxiety, and I'm listening to the things that are being said, which gives me the opportunity to gracefully get us out of whatever predicament we've dug ourselves into. And that is just such a valuable tool that I think is available to anybody.
But many times I also give in [to anxious impulses, worrying, getting in my head] and screw up. That’s when I make the jokes that fall the flattest or say the thing that just doesn't work. And over and over again, like a dog being taught how not to poop on the rug by having its face shoved into the poop, I have to learn this lesson: When I plan things out too carefully, get stuck in my own little tree house, that’s when things are the least authentic.
Are you familiar with Arianna Huffington’s sleep campaign?
A friend of mine recently said that she doesn’t think Huffington would be as successful now if she herself had gotten eight hours of sleep every night throughout her career. Do you feel like you would have gotten to where you are now if you’d started your career meditating?
I certainly wouldn't have had the story to tell that I tell now, which people seem to enjoy—you know, me making an ass of myself on national television and finding meditation. If I had meditated when I was 22, none of that humiliation would have been available to me that I have since used to my benefit and hopefully to the benefit of people who hear the story. So I think it would have really removed the opportunity that I have now to present myself as a nontraditional meditator, which hopefully allows skeptics who otherwise would reflexively reject the practice to give it another look.
That being said, I do think my life and career may have flourished in entirely different ways if I'd been able to withstand the pressures more successfully. I don't know what new and fresh opportunities would have opened up to me if I'd been less of an asshole.
In your new book you describe hating when Jeff Warren [Harris’s coauthor, a “Canadian socialist,” as Harris calls him] namaste-s you, and say that meditation clichés make you want to put a pencil through your eye. What to you is particularly irritating about New Age terms?
I guess that I find them annoying and cloying, and part of that is that I maybe just don’t believe them. They’re these things that people fall back on because they're just habitual expressions. So when people talk like that, they're just saying things they've heard other people say and mindlessly repeating them. Specifically with Jeff though, my beef was that I know that my distaste for this kind of talk is not unique, that a lot of people find this stuff off-putting. And every time Jeff reverted [to New-Age-y language], I suspected that we hurt our cause of helping people change their minds about meditation.
What I sort of struggle with in the book is that it's decidedly not New-Age-y, but still kind of inevitably borrows from ancient-turned-New-Age traditions. Like you wrote, "the default mental condition for human beings is dissatisfaction," which sounds a lot like the Buddhist principle of "dukkha," or suffering. So there is this kind of tension between hating New-Age-y spiritual terms and aspects but also having to draw on them just because of the nature of the practice.
I guess what I would say is I have no problem with Buddhism—I’m a Buddhist. I'm fascinated by Buddhism. I think the Buddha was a genius who understood the nature of the mind. My problem is that the way people talk about Buddhism now is often incredibly annoying. I'm trying to take Buddhism and make it accessible to modern, hard-charging, skeptical people. And I know as somebody who is skeptical and ambitious that Buddhism, when distilled to its essence and communicated clearly without all of the didgeridoo music, is super compelling.
So to me there's no tension because this ancient tradition of Buddhism is a gold mine of super practical wisdom, like a treasury of incredible advice, and I've only begun to mine it. The only thing I don't like about it is the way some modern people talk about it.
Do you think meditation is a fad, or is it with us to stay?
I hope it's not a fad. I don't know for sure, but I strongly suspect that it’s a public health revolution that is here to stay. It'll probably slow a little bit as these things do, but I think the perfect comparison is physical exercise. People used to be super skeptical. In the 1940s, if you told somebody you were going running, they would have said, "Who's chasing you?”
What changed everybody's minds was the science. And that's where we are with meditation, I think. It's mental exercise. And I think the robust embrace we're seeing now in corporations and in athletes and celebrities and scientists—we even have a meditation room at ABC News—is the beginning of a major trend. What makes me really excited and optimistic is that, while the physical fitness revolution is amazing and resulted in greater cardiovascular fitness et cetera et cetera, what meditation can do is change behavior. And if you think about the ramifications for parenting, for politics, for education, for any number of important areas in our lives, it has the potential to be extremely beneficial.
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