Dan, you famously had a panic attack on live TV. This incident led you to delve into meditation as a way to manage your anxiety. In person, you always give off a sense of calm — even though you are very busy. How has your life changed thanks to meditation?
Harris: I would say the biggest difference for me is not being so owned by my emotions. I still experience plenty of difficult emotions — most notably for me is anger. But it’s like you have an inner meteorologist who can see the storm before it makes landfall. You’re less likely to be carried away by it. That makes a huge difference. [Neuroscientist and prominent atheist] Sam Harris talks about the “half-life” of anger: the amount of damage you can do in an hour of anger vs. 2 minutes is an incredible reduction in so many ways. I’m definitely of the view that meditation is not a miracle cure (thus the “10%” idea).
You are building up the skill of seeing clearly what is happening in your head so on the one hand you don’t get knocked around by it and on the other you get better and better at it. The core of my whole side hustle as a meditation proponent is that the mind is trainable. People don’t point this out in Western culture. All the things we want most — happiness, calm, patience, gratitude, compassion, peace of mind — these aren’t factory settings you can tinker with but skills you can work on. That’s an incredibly radical and empowering notion.
Dan, you wrote your NYT best-selling book “10% Happier” to get people to meditate. Then you realized there are all sorts of things that stop people from meditating. You then wrote this new book to address the stumbling blocks and misconceptions people have about meditation. What do you think is the biggest misconception out there?
Harris: The biggest misconception — which is a true misunderstanding — is the idea that you have to clear your mind. There are thousands of kinds of meditation. The one I talk about is mindfulness, which involves sitting in a reasonably quiet place and focusing on the feeling of your breath coming in and out. Every time you get distracted, you start over again — and again and again.
For many people, the moment they get distracted their ego tells them that they are failed meditators. What you need to know is that the moment you notice you were distracted, that’s a victory! It means you’re doing it correctly. You’re noticing again and again how distractible or emotional or negative you tend to be. The result is that you aren’t so yanked around by these tendencies. That’s an incredibly important and powerful process.
The biggest obstacle — also a misconception — to meditation is that meditation requires a bunch of time. People often tell me that they’d like to meditate but don’t have time. The answer there is that I have good news and better news. Five to ten minutes a day is a great meditation habit and scientists agree that even this short amount of time allows you to access the benefits: a boosted immune system, less vulnerability to anxiety and depression, etc. The even better news: If you feel like five to 10 minutes is too much, one minute counts. Really.
In this book, you went out on the road to meet everyday Americans and share insights about meditation. We learn about the twists and turns (some very funny) of this journey in your book. How would you sum up your experience of this trip looking back on it now?
Harris: Eye-opening. You see the depth of the misunderstandings and the difficulties people face in adopting a simple habit that is manifestly beneficial. Evolution did not bequeath us a brain and a mind that is good at adopting long-term healthy habits. We evolved to detect threats on the savanna and to find sources of pleasures like food and sexual partners so we could pass on our DNA. It’s really hard for us to do the things we need to do to take care of ourselves.
I learned a lot about how to work around these impediments to give people a whole variety of tools — a panoply of approaches — that are flexible and elastic and can help people.
For me, adopting meditation was reasonably easy. That’s not to say that I’m disciplined; in the not too distant past I ate so many Oreos that I woke up that night and puked. But because I suffered with anxiety and depression my whole life, I embraced the habit much more easily when I saw the data around how meditation can help and when I noticed the benefits in my own life. I underestimated how hard it can be for people from social workers to celebrities to cops of various ages and gender and races to sit and meditate.
Dan you have a wonderful sense of humor that your ABC viewers love (as do I). Has meditation made you funnier?
Harris: I feel like it makes me more spontaneous. My best moments are when I can get out of my own inner planning and rumination and focus on whatever is happening right now. Doing so has immeasurably boosted my ability to respond spontaneously. I work in a TV context and do a lot of interviews that are unscripted and live — I learned to systematically get out of my own way. I found out that when I’m not always feverishly planning on what I’m going to say next, something useful and maybe even funny can come up.
It’s interesting to watch how that happens. I’m not perfect at doing it. There are times when I get nervous or distracted or stuck in a rabbit hole of worry or even wake up on the wrong side of the bed. But it’s very interesting for me to notice that I can trust that something will come if I’m not tying myself up in knots. It’s never really let me down.
I’m confident this has nothing to do with me. Someone told me once that one of the translations of the way Tibetans talk about enlightenment is “clearing the way and bringing forth,” which is what we’re talking about here: Clearing away the self-referential chatter and bringing forth our universal ability to respond wisely.
Now you have made it your mission to bring meditation to our everyday lives. It’s one thing to receive the benefits from a practice like meditation but what inspired you to want to share and teach meditation to others?
Harris: I was reading a bunch of books [on meditation] that were excellent but also a little cloying and syrupy. I had an entrepreneurial hunch that if I could write a book with a little bit more of a skeptical and even cynical tone, it might appeal to people like me. There are no original ideas in my book, my innovation is that I tell jokes, add the f-word and tell embarrassing stories about myself. That’s really what made me want to get in the game.
The second reason is having experienced the benefits meditation personally and waking up to the fact that the mind is trainable. That fact is what keeps me in the game beyond the initial impulse. When I talk to people and see them light up when they tell me how their lives change as a consequence of meditation, it is incredible. Or seeing those stories on my Twitter feed.
Emma Seppala, PhD, is Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and Co-Director of the Yale College Well-being Program at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She is author of The Happiness Track (HarperOne, 2016).
Read more from Inspired Life: