Busting the Myths of Meditation with Dan Harris

This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen talks to award-winning journalist and news anchor Dan Harris to bust the myths that stop you from meditating, plus gets a little coaching along the way.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
19-minute read
Episode #183

corporate workers meditating

You know meditation is good for you. You know you should probably try it. But somehow, you just can’t make it stick. Maybe you don’t have time, think it will make you soft, or worry you have to sit in the lotus position or grow a man bun. Have no fear!

Special guest Dan Harris will help put those fears to rest. Dan is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and the co-anchor of ABC's Nightline and the weekend editions of Good Morning America. He is the author of 10% Happier, a #1 New York Times bestseller. He went on to launch the 10% Happier podcast and an app called 10% Happier: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics (which, by the way, I think is the best title ever). He lives in New York City with his wife, Bianca, their son, Alexander, and three ASPCA cats. His new book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, is part road trip documentary, part mythbusting, part meditation how to, and is available now.

In our conversation, Dan problem-solved the biggest roadblocks that keep us from meditating, such as...

  • I don't have time.
  • I can't do it. Common variations on this include, "I can't clear my mind," "My attention span is too short," "I am too restless/distractable/anxious/ADHD, etc."
  • Meditation is weird and woo-woo.
  • Meditation will make me soft and complacent.
  • Meditation is like eating your vegetablesit's good for me, but unappealing.
  • I don't need another thing to check off my to-do list.

Read on to have your meditation conundrum solved!

Ellen Hendriksen: I really enjoyed both of your books, 10% Happier and Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, but for our listeners who might not be familiar with your story, can you give us a short background on your, some would say, unlikely path to meditation?

Dan Harris: Yeah, I'm not a stereotypical meditator, definitely.

EH: You are not.

dan harris's book meditation for fidgety skeptics

DH: Not a stereotypical meditation evangelist. Yeah, I quite famously had a panic attack on national television back in 2004 on Good Morning America. I was anchoring the news updates, which is the person who comes on at the top of each hour and delivers the headlines. And I just lost my ability to speak because I was just freaking out. And you can see it on YouTube if you want.

EH: That's very brave of you!

DH: You can type in "Panic Attack on Live Television" and it's the first result that comes up.

EH: Lucky you.

DH: It was caused by some dumb decisions in my personal life. At the time, I had spent several years overseas in war zones as a young, ambitious, idealistic reporter, and had come home and gotten depressed. And then this is where things got really stupid: I started to self-medicate with recreational drugs, including cocaine and ecstasy.

And that was enough, according to the doctor I later consulted, to artificially raise the level of adrenaline in my brain and to sort of amplify my baseline anxiety and make me more prone to have panic attacks. So that discovery and that kind of cascade of mindless behavior set me off on a path that ultimately landed me on meditation.

EH: And since then, so you say in the book that—I love this quote—that "meditation has been the victim of the worst marketing campaign for anything ever." So what's wrong with the current image of meditation, and how, in your eyes, can it be addressed?

Meditation has been the victim of the worst marketing campaign for anything ever.

DH: Well, I think I have a bunch of things to say about this. If you look at the traditional art that depicts the meditation experience—you know, the Buddhas, the little Buddha statues that you see in airport spas—it has guys folded up into a pretzel or women folded up into a pretzel with these beatific looks on their faces like they're floating off into the cosmos, and, you know, it's all bliss and light...

EH: It's all very airbrushed, yes, sure.

DH: Yes. Yes! And so that creates the impression that, a) meditation is weird, and b) that you're going to do it wrong unless you ultimately, you know, immediately end up in a state of bliss. And that is not how meditation really is! It's exercise for your brain and for your mind, and often it is hard. Really hard! Because what you're doing in meditation is trying to focus on one thing at a time. Usually you're sitting—you don't have to sit cross-legged, you can just sit in a chair if you want—and you're trying to bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath usually. And then this is the key, every time you get distracted, which you will, a million times.

EH: That's what brains do.

DH: Yes, yes! You begin again and again and again. But because of this facetiously labeled "horrible marketing campaign," people sit down to meditate, they immediately get distracted, and they immediately conclude, "I can't do this." I mean, yesterday I heard it twice from people: "Oh, yeah, yeah, I tried to meditate, I can't do it."

And that's like saying, you know, somebody hands you a violin and you can't play it, because you've never taken a violin lesson before, and you conclude you can't play the violin. It's a skill! You know, you need to learn how to do it. You get better and better and better at doing it. 

But you're always quote-unquote "failing" at meditation. That is meditation. It's not about getting to a special state of a bliss zone. That may actually happen at the deep end of the pool, but for most of us, myself included, generally speaking this process of meditation is seeing that you've become distracted and beginning again and again and again. And by the way, that is the important part!


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.