After an on-air panic attack, ABC newsman Dan Harris embarked on a journey of faith — and discovered a path to well-being.
When ABC television correspondent Dan Harris was told — by Peter Jennings, no less — that he would now be covering religion, his response was not exactly enthusiastic.
“I thought organized religion was bunk,” Harris remembers, “and that all believers — whether jazzed on Jesus or jihad — must be, to some extent, cognitively impaired.”
If you think that statement paints Harris in an unflattering light, know that he would now be the first to agree with you. In 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works — A True Story (It Books, 2014), Harris’s marvelous (and very funny) memoir, the author does not refrain from calling out his own behavior.
He had been hooked on the thrill of journalism, which he likens to heroin, as well as less-metaphoric drugs. He was prone to prejudgment, as well as being competitive and self-focused, with a “master of the universe” complex. And he was bedeviled by an inner voice that, he writes in retrospect, was “kind of an asshole.”
It all came to a conspicuous head when Harris had a panic attack in 2004 on Good Morning America before millions of viewers. The teleprompter was running, but Harris couldn’t speak. His heart raced, his palms filled with sweat, his brain and voice all but severed ties. After stumbling through two of the six news items he was supposed to report, he rambled off a hurried “Back now to Robin and Charlie,” which was half right — it was supposed to be “Diane and Charlie.”
How did he beat, or at least tame, these beasts? Through, of all things, a journey of faith.
Harris first discovered spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle thanks to a colleague’s recommendation. Though skeptical, Harris was fascinated by Tolle’s description of the nonstop rambling voice in everyone’s head, a concept he well understood. And Harris was intrigued by Tolle’s insistence that we live in the present, instead of the past (regrets) or future (worries).
Harris’s newfound curiosity led him to Mark Epstein, MD, a psychotherapist who integrates Buddhist thinking. Epstein presented Buddha as the “original psychoanalyst,” according to whom “we suffer because we cling to things that won’t last.” We have restless “monkey minds,” Epstein says, constantly subject to prapañca, the proliferation of ideas. And Epstein had a practical bit of advice for Harris: Give meditation a try.
When Harris imagined meditation, he thought of hacky sack–playing Deadheads — and he was reminded of the words of 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy: “Meditation is a waste of time, like learning French or kissing after sex.” Harris didn’t even want to be associated with meditation.
But after reading more about it — and growing cautiously curious — he took the plunge.
What he discovered was that meditation was hard.
During his early efforts, “tawdry and banal” thoughts popped up constantly, sending him into “mini shame spirals.” It was an incredible challenge — and, he decided, one “badass endeavor.”
He was inspired.
Before long, Harris was attending meditation retreats and meeting the Dalai Lama. Today, he is known as the “Zen guy” at work: Compassion and mindfulness — rather than ego and arrogance — guide him. And he writes that he feels calmer, nicer, and yes, happier.
Harris’s travels to reach this point were not easy, or straightforward, but they are illuminating — and deeply affecting to anyone who reads his story.
He offers some guideposts to his own transformational discoveries along the way:
Meditation is now part of the scientific mainstream. Studies have shown numerous health benefits related to meditation: It can help us battle stress, depression, addiction, irritable bowel syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and more.
And it may also change the way our brains work. Researchers at Yale found that meditation can deactivate the default-mode network, the section of our brains that broods on the past and obsesses about the future.
Meditation might become a part of the corporate mainstream. Companies such as General Mills now have meditation rooms and advocate “purposeful pauses” during the day to improve productivity and efficiency. Wired magazine calls meditation Silicon Valley’s “new caffeine,” and Harris dubs it a “software upgrade for the brain.” Even the U.S. Marine Corps initiated a study into the effects of meditation on posttraumatic stress disorder and reactivity on the battlefield.
All you need is mindfulness. In Harris’s words, mindfulness is “the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now — anger, jealousy, sadness, the pain of a stubbed toe, whatever — without getting carried away by it.” Being mindful means noting what you think, without judgment.
Harris learned a valuable acronym from psychologist and meditation instructor Tara Brach, PhD. RAIN stands for Recognize (your thoughts and feelings), Allow (those thoughts or feelings to be), Investigate (what those thoughts or feelings are doing to you), Non-identification (acknowledge that those thoughts or feelings do not define you; they, too, shall pass).
Tied to mindfulness is a simple question, courtesy of meditation leader Joseph Goldstein: “Is this useful?” It’s not bad to worry or plan. But when those emotions snowball, just ask yourself if they’re useful.
“Be simple, not a simpleton.” One of Harris’s biggest fears was that meditation would turn him into an inertia-dulled zombie, as he writes. But it is possible to be calm and proactive.
The key is nonattachment. The Buddha did not discourage ambition. Striving, however, might lead nowhere, or to a place you didn’t anticipate or want to go. Nonattachment to those unexpected or unwelcome outcomes allows you to minimize the regrets and dive back into the doing.
“Happiness is a skill.” Harris writes that meditation is a “rigorous brain exercise” and, like any kind of workout, requires training. The more you do it, and the more consistently, the easier it will be to focus and keep your mind from wandering — and the more likely you will be to sense the results in your everyday life.
Harris amusingly calls the title of his book “shtick,” a “counterprogramming against the overpromising of the self-helpers.” But it’s hard not to be thoroughly convinced by his message when he describes the “waves of happiness” he feels while practicing metta, a goodwill-based meditation. The Buddha explained that if we realize that much of what we do in life is pleasure-seeking or pain-avoiding, we can learn to generate happiness ourselves.
Compassion. As Harris explains, you can “train yourself to have compassion rather than aversion as your ‘default setting.’” Why would you want to? Studies show that compassionate people are “healthier, happier, more popular, and more successful at work,” he writes. They are also better at dealing with stress, and research indicates that kindness and cooperation are evolutionarily the smart way to go.
Plus, there is, as Harris explains, a “virtuous cycle”: If you have more compassion and less anger, you’ll make better decisions, and be 10 percent happier in turn.