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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.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #183

So the bottom line is, people think if they become happier, they're going to go soft. But that is to confuse happiness with complacency. I am still incredibly ambitious. I have a start-up company based in Boston that teaches people how to meditate through an app. We have very big plans, we want to be like Nike for the mind. And I have two books I've written, I've got two more on the way at least, I co-anchor two shows on ABC News, I have a podcast. I am incredibly ambitious, but I meditate for two hours a day and talk about it all the time and help people do it and go on meditation retreats and I think the two co-exist nicely because what meditation helps you do is to be more focused, less yanked around by your emotions and more compassionate toward other people and all of those things are things that help you succeed when understood in their proper context. It doesn't mean you can't advocate for yourself, but you don't have to be so carried away by your anger or jealousy that you can't function appropriately or that you lose your ability to bounce back.

EH: So I want to highlight what you've said, that you meditate for two hours a day. But at the same time, I really appreciate that you say that one minute counts. That it doesn't have to be this all-or-nothing, it doesn't have to be two hours a day, it can be just enough to have this showdown with the voice in your head for one minute a day. So I want to highlight that. Also, I love what you said about how meditation allows you to compete without being cruel.

DH: Yeah, I stole that from Sharon Salzberg, by the way.

EH: Well, I think that the more press that phrase gets, the better. 'Cause that's great. And it's a nice segue. So as word of the scientific benefits and the health benefits of meditation gets out, I imagine that there's going to be a lot of ambitious, striving people who pick it up kind of as a performance enhancer. But I imagine that those are the same people who are going to drive it too hard to try to do it perfectly. So how do we know if we're pushing too hard? And what can be done to address it?

DH: Well, Sharon Salzberg is a great meditation teacher. I stole the "you can compete without being cruel" line from her. I'm going to steal another line from another great meditation teacher who's a very close friend of Sharon's named Joseph Goldstein, who was my meditation teacher. Joseph talks about using struggle during meditation, the feeling of struggle and striving, as a feedback. So it's really useful to know if you've got a sense that you're pushing really hard. You should be able to tune into that and to know, "Oh, okay, this is an important feedback. I am pushing too hard."

Meditation is a really hard thing for Type A people to get our head around because we—and I include myself in this category—we expect to do a thing and we do a thing and we expect to get pre-set results. That's not the way meditation works. It's actually where you go in and there's a certain amount of surrender. You're not trying to make any experience happen. You're just trying to tune into whatever arises, physically or psychologically, and to be mindful of it, which is to be nonjudgmentally aware of it. And again, what's the purpose of that? So that in the rest of your life—where, by the way, you can't control everything—when a gust of wind hits you or somebody cuts you off or something untoward happens in the workplace, you are better able to respond wisely to these stimuli rather than reacting blindly. So that's why the skill is so important, that the very skill you're trying to train involves you having to surrender some of your traditional approaches to activities in your life.

EH: And so my last question is—so I have to admit this is a personal question for me. So what constitutes a practice? So like for me, I don't sit on a cushion every day. I don't have a meditation practice. But I like the name you've put on this in the book, I do like to do what you call "free-range meditation” as it occurs to me.

So, for instance, I will quite often try to mindfully shower. I'll, you know, pay attention to the sensation of the water or just the experience thereof. I will try, intentionally, "I will mindfully scrub this frying pan and pay attention to the sensation of the suds or how my arm is moving." But again, I don't have a practice. So is there a line? I call this dabbling. I say I'm a meditation dabbler. Is there a line between dabbling and practice, and if so, what is it?

DH: I think it's a wavy, blurry line. I would not go so far as to say you don't have a practice. Maybe you don't have a formal practice, but you've made it an intention and a habit to do what is definitely meditation in your life with some regularity. So I kind of set the bar pretty low on this personally and think that is a practice.

What I do think is that actually that practice would be turbo-charged by having a short, daily-ish, formal, seated meditation practice, because that's where you are truly doing only the rudiments of the practice. And I think that short, daily-ish practice for you could literally be as short as a minute. And often it helps to draft onto existing habits, like right after you brush your teeth or right after you stretch after you've worked out or right before you go to bed or after you wake up, to physically fit it into the routine seamlessly and to know that if you decide to try to do this, it's got to be a process of experimentation. You know, the mind that we've inherited as a consequence of evolution is really good at avoiding danger, like saber-toothed tigers, and finding pleasure, like food or sexual partners. Why? Because evolution didn't care about your long-term health, it cared about getting your genes into the next generation.

EH: This is Darwinism, yes! Absolutely.

DH: And as a consequence, we're not wired for easy adoption of healthy habits, and so as you or if you decide to tinker with a short, daily-ish formal meditation to put your more ad hoc practice on steroids, I would say it's very important to approach it with a spirit of experimentation, to know you're going to try a bunch of things, even fail and start again, and that's totally fine. That is actually a successful process.

EH: The roadblock for me—I've been thinking about this as I was reading your books and I was like "Why don't I do this?”—so for me, I'm a baseline, pretty responsible, dutiful person. I do a lot of things because they're good for me. I do a lot of the "eating your vegetables." And I feel like, whether this is logical or not, having a formal practice would be another base to touch. It'd be another obligation.

You're not failing at meditation because you've become distracted. The fact that you noticed you were distracted means you have succeeded.

And so I want to shift my mindset from it being an obligation to being something that I'm not just doing to check it off on a to-do list. What, if any, advice do you have for people like me who don't want another responsibility?

DH: Yeah, I get it! I totally get it, I think it's completely legit. So the first thing I'd do is just to validate that emotion or set of emotions. I get it. It does feel like another injunction and therefore not super fun. And so what Jeff did in the book which I thought was really useful is to reframe the thing as a little bit of a luxury. In particular I did this with my wife, who has a similar psychology to yours—

EH: Yeah, I could identify with her very closely, yeah.  

DH: We talk a lot about my wife in the book and her resistance to meditation. And actually it's multi-factorial, but that's one of the things, that she feels like she's doing a lot already and she just didn't want to add this to the list.

And Jeff's reframing was, "Okay, so at the end of the day, after you've put your son to bed and your instinct is to put on some reality TV, like, do that, put the reality TV on, but don't multi-task. Don't also go internet shopping and clean the dishes or whatever. Just in a slovenly fashion, lie down on the ground, turn the volume down on the reality TV, let it kinda be in the background, and just enjoy the feeling of lying there lazily for just a minute or two. And it can be tuning into the physical sensations of your body, the feeling of your breath, the feeling of your limbs resting on the floor, and then every time you get carried off into your to-do list or whatever, starting again. And just do that for a minute every day or something. It feels good lying on the ground!

So it is about reframing this as an indulgence rather than an injunction that I think for somebody with your set of obstacles might be the trick. But I don't promise that it's a silver bullet, because I think silver bullets don't exist. I think it's a thing to try.

And the other approach is to kind of get over to see that you're suffering from this psychology and to get over it because it's in service of the greater good, which is being less miserable. And so the other way to approach this is to tune into what the benefits are, and let the benefits pull you forward to get over the story you're telling yourself about it being another thing to do, and really to tune into the fact that if you did it consistently for a couple of weeks, you might notice that your inner weather is balmier, and that would be worth whatever inconvenience you've convinced yourself it might create.

EH: That makes a lot of sense! Well, Dan, thank you so much. I learned a lot and I really enjoyed talking with you.

DH: Likewise. Thank you for the great questions!

EH: Of course! So Dan Harris wears many hats. Among them, he is the author of 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. His new book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, is out now, and you can check out more meditations with the 10% Happier app and hang out with Dan and some super-cool guests by checking out the 10% Happier podcast. And be sure to stick around and try out a 10-minute version of the guided meditation that we talked about, "Enjoying the Body." 

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