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,
Episode #183

DH: Yeah! Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Much of it driven, frankly, by vanity. You know, I work in television, I have to look at my stupid face all the time.

Although I would say in meditation a lot of that was not driven by vanity, but it was driven by a lifelong intimacy with depression and anxiety, not to mention the panic attack and substance abuse. And it was clear to me from looking at the research that this was a useful tool for dealing with anxiety and depression, and then when I started to do the thing, it was obvious that yes, it is. It's not a panacea, but it's certainly a great tool to have in your tool belt, so to speak.

So Jeff, let me just say a word about Jeff. He is this young—and by young I mean he's my age, mid-forties, so probably not young, but anyway. Young actually by the standards of meditation teachers. He's a meditation teacher from Toronto. I first discovered him 'cause he wrote this excellent piece in The New York Times about a month-long silent meditation retreat he did basically in somebody's backyard and it's really funny—

EH: That's hardcore.

DH: It's hardcore! But I like to point out, don't let that be a turnoff. 'Cause when you're looking for a trainer, you want somebody like my trainer. She was a Golden Gloves boxer, and has a thousand hours of yoga training, did all sorts of crazy things that I would never do but I want her for my trainer 'cause she's an expert.

It was clear to me from looking at the research that this was a useful tool for dealing with anxiety and depression.

And that's what Jeff is. He's somebody who basically has dedicated his life to this practice and does weeks and months at a time of silent meditation retreat so that he can get under the hood of other human beings and help them get better at this practice. And I just love the guy although we did almost kill each other in the course of writing this book, which I talk about openly in the book, and it was 75% my fault.

So Jeff is a wonderful human being and an incredible teacher and he very accurately diagnosed that my meditation practice had a sort of, he called it like an inner gulag. That it was very, very grinding -- basically he exposed that I'm a huge hypocrite 'cause I walk around telling people all the time that the whole point of the practice is to give yourself a break, when you notice you've become distracted to start again and again and again, but what had happened to me is I was not so forgiving with myself.

And I had a very, as you said, very eat-your-vegetables kind of grim, death-march approach to my own practice. And there wasn't a lot of enjoyment. But it's totally fine! While it is true that you don't wanna strive to reach some special state in meditation, you can enjoy the experience to the extent to which it is enjoyable! And sitting back and just enjoying this feeling of being—this is going to sound a little cheesy and I picked on Jeff for saying things like this during the trip, which is one of the sources of tension that I described throughout the book—but enjoying the massively obvious but almost universally overlooked fact that you are alive and have a body actually can be the source of true enjoyment.

EH: It's a little trippy!

DH: Yeah, it's a little trippy! You're tuning in—like, we were born without asking to be born, we're here, we don't know why, and we don't know when it's all going to end, and here we are! And like, okay, it's actually worth tuning into that. It gives you a whole new perspective on your existence.

So I found that Jeff's injunction—he's not saying that you have to enjoy every meditation session, because sometimes physical pain arises or difficult emotions, but he's saying that you can tune into that when it's available and you can turn this practice from a grind into something that's more like a privilege. And that has been an incredibly important thing for me to hear.

EH: So in your previous book, 10% Happier, you also tell this story of how in 2011 you went through this period of what you called drift. You had started meditating, you had the practice, but you were really struggling to balance some of the benefits of meditation, so being less reactive, being more compassionate, while still being assertive and keeping up your game in your field, this cutthroat world of TV news. So how did you solve that dilemma and what advice can you give for people who are concerned that meditation will make them soft or complacent?

DH: If it is making you soft and complacent you are misunderstanding the point, as I did.

So this is a big concern, actually. It's one of the myths that we address in the book—in fact we spent some time with cops in Tempe, Arizona. Their chief was recommending meditation, and some of the cops worried that it would somehow make them soft and perhaps even put their lives at risk in this dangerous job. And so, you know, this is really a really important myth to address.

And I'll just address it through my own personal experience. In 2011 or 2010 we got at ABC News a new news president by the name of Ben Sherwood, who's very dynamic, energetic, ambitious, wildly intelligent guy. And he and I knew each other before he got the job and had had a pretty good relationship, but he arrived at a time when I wasn't his cup of tea for some reason. And it was pretty obvious that big assignments and things like that weren't going to me when he got there.

And normally, the old me, the sharp-elbowed version of me would have gone into the office screaming and yelling. But I kind of... I had this feeling at that time, I had been meditating for a couple years, I was writing this book, I was like, "You know, that's not me anymore. I'm not that guy anymore." And so I kinda went limp and things got even worse with him and my career was not going in a good direction as a consequence.

And it was my wife who shook me out of it. She was like "What is the matter with you? Go talk to him and figure out what you can do to fix things." And I realized that I had been misapplying the lessons of meditation. The lesson of meditation isn't that you should be passive. It's that you can compete without being cruel. That you can do your best and be ambitious but not be so attached to the results that you are crushed every time things don't work out. And so I actually kind of crafted a kind of middle-way approach with my boss. I went to his office and instead of yelling about how I wasn't getting the assignments I wanted, I said, "It's clear to me that things aren't going really well. I'm pretty sure that the onus is on me to fix it, so please tell me, what can I do? What is your advice for me for making a comeback?" I could see his entire view of this—'cause I think he thought I was coming in to rend garments...

EH: To yell at him, to pick a bone.

DH: To gnash teeth, yeah! And things like that. I could see his entire mindset shift. And actually, then he became my ally. And he was like, "Yeah, here are a bunch of things you can do that I would like to see from you." And so I aggressively attacked his suggestions. And he's a very good boss, he is probably the best boss I've ever had, and he's a great coach. He was highly attuned to my subsequent efforts and cheered me on and I ended up getting promoted to be the co-anchor of Nightline as a consequence. And my relationships at ABC and my attitude about work has been really transformed as a consequence.


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