ABC News’ Dan Harris on Ambition, Mindfulness and Reaching Peace of Mind

In 2004, Good Morning America’s Dan Harris experienced the last thing a TV anchor would ever want: a panic attack on live television in front of more than 5 million viewers. What many would have considered a career-ending event, actually set Dan on a path which led him to meditation and in turn to writing his mega-bestseller 10% Happier as well as starting his popular podcast which boasts respected guests like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sam Harris, the Dalai Lama, and many others. The obstacle is the way, right? Or as the Buddhists put it, the obstacle is the path. Dan is also the author of his new book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, which is out now.

We reached out to Dan and explore his views on mindfulness and meditation. Dan’s answers are both funny andy helpful—he gives specific tips to implement a meditation practice, how to reconcile ambition and spirituality, and what are the worst ways to get someone to meditate. Enjoy our interview with Dan Harris below!

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Can you tell us about your story of what actually led you to write 10% Happier  and all the adventures that you describe in it? Some readers might be surprised to learn that a big part was driven by a panic attack you had on national television?

Back in 2004, I had a panic attack while delivering the news on Good Morning America. In front of 5.019 million views.

So, yeah, that sucked. (If you’re in the market for a nice dose of Schadenfreude, you can readily find the clip on YouTube. Just search for “panic attack on live television.”)

The good news is that my public meltdown set me off on a weird, windy road that ultimately led me to meditation, which – while it is certainly not a panacea – has significantly improved my life.

It has been more than three years since you published 10% Happier. The book hit #1 on the New York Times list and currently sits at #12 on Amazon’s Most Sold list. The book has done really well and clearly resonated with a lot of people. Why do you think it provoked such a strong reaction? And looking back now, what are some lessons that you’ve learned since that you wish were part of the book?

I like to joke that my book contains no original ideas; my only innovation was to talk about meditation while using the word “fuck” a lot.

If I had to guess, I’d say that the reason the book caught on was that public interest was (and is) rising in the subject – due largely to the explosion of scientific research that suggests meditation is really good for you – and that people were looking for a way into the practice that didn’t involve crystals or didgeridoo.

(More on the lessons I’ve learned since the book came out below.)

What are your everyday meditation and mindfulness habits that our readers can try? Our readers love specifics so you are welcome to provide as much detail as you’d like.

Glad you asked.

In the years since I wrote 10% Happier, I’ve come to realize that I made one major miscalculation: I naively assumed that if I made the practice relatable and aspirational, people would automatically start doing it. Turns out, habit formation is a great deal trickier than I had anticipated.

Which is why I’ve written a new book, called Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, in which my coauthor and I systematically taxonomize and tackle the major obstacles to establishing a practice.

The number one stumbling block appears to be finding the time. On this score, I have good news – and even better news.

The good news is that I usually recommend that five to ten minutes a day is a great way to get started. The better news is that if five to ten minutes sounds like too much, one minute counts.

Here’s how to do it:

  •         Find a reasonably quiet place (it doesn’t have to be pristine – and if it’s a little noisy, just wear headphones)
  •         Set the alarm on your phone for one minute
  •         Sit comfortably with your back reasonably straight (so as to prevent an unintentional nap – although, to be honest, worse things could happen)
  •         Bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. Pick a spot where’s it’s most prominent: your nose, your chest, your belly, wherever…
  •         Whenever you get distracted – which you will, a million times – just gently start over

(You can also check out the 10% Happier app – which is free to download and get started – where we have tons of one minute meditations.)

What would be your reply to someone who lives in the West and struggles with balancing their more Western ambitious and worldly goals and the spirituality and detachment more prominently found in Eastern philosophy. How should they balance these two different approaches?

I wrestled with this for years. I work in a hypercompetitive industry (TV news). My career has been guided by a motto bequeathed to me by my dad, who is a successful academic physician: “The price of security is insecurity.”

When I first encountered meditation, I was intrigued by the notion of achieving greater peace of mind, but I worried that if I got too happy, I’d lose my edge. Or, worse, I’d end up wearing my wife’s yoga pants to work.

Turns out, meditation does not require you to abandon all stress. In fact, I still believe the price of security is insecurity. If you’re going to achieve anything great, it will, in my opinion, inevitably involve some plotting, planning, and wringing of hands.

However, what meditation has taught me is that we tend to make our suffering worse than it needs to be. Mindfulness – the self-awareness generated through meditation – has helped me draw the line between useless rumination and what I call “constructive anguish.” This made a huge difference for me – boosting my resilience and creativity at work, while improving my relationships at home. (Although I am far from perfect. My wife believes my book should actually be called 90% Still a Moron.)

The word “stillness” appears multiple times in Marcus Aurelius‘s Meditations. At one point he writes that if you cut yourself free from the future in the past, you can make yourself, quoting Empedocles, “a sphere rejoicing in its perfect stillness.” At another: “To shrug it all off and wipe it clean—every annoyance and distraction—and reach utter stillness.” He also uses the metaphor of the rock and the sea: “To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.” When have you experienced these moments of utter stillness? Do you experience them more frequently now since you started meditating?

I do occasionally experience moments of stillness in meditation. But, in my experience, it’s a mistake to strive to achieve a certain experience. Often the striving prevents you from getting wherever you’re hoping to go. The goal in meditation is not to reach some special state; it’s to see whatever is happening in your mind clearly. Why is this important? Because when you see your thoughts and feelings clearly, they have less power to yank you around.

An important part of Daily Stoic is making practical philosophy more accessible for people. And you have largely done the same for meditation. What have you found to be an effective approach to communicating the benefits of something that many people might be resistant to delve into? And perhaps, what are the ineffective approaches that do not work for those subject matters?

The science is truly the best weapon in the fight for greater public adoption of meditation. Preliminary studies suggest the practice can lower your blood pressure, boost your immune system and rewire parts of your brain that regulate focus and compassion. This is the stuff that got me – a lifelong curmudgeon – to embrace meditation, which I had long considered to be abject bullshit.

The worst way to get people to meditate is to lecture them about it. My rule is that I only talk about meditation when asked. For example, until recently, my own wife didn’t meditate!

I try to keep in mind a great cartoon that recently ran in The New Yorker. It depicted two women having lunch. One says to the other, “I’ve been gluten free for a week, and I’m already annoying.”


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