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

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!

EH: That's the practice!

DH: See, yes, it's not only—yes, it's the practice and the reason it's the practice is when you see how nuts you are, you then are no longer yanked around by the insane voice in your head. And that is why that moment, the moment of waking up from distraction, is so important.

And so I think people need to understand that. That this is a form of exercise, a kind of bicep curl for your brain, where every time you get distracted you begin again and again and again and you're going to have to do that millions of times.

It's just like when you go to the gym. If you're not panting and sweating, you're cheating! And if you—as I like to joke, if you sit down to meditate and all thoughts evaporate and you're flooded with bliss, then you're either enlightened or you're dead. And that is the point that needs to be hammered home over and over and over to people. You're not failing at meditation because you've become distracted. The fact that you noticed you were distracted means you have succeeded.

EH: That makes sense. Okay, so already you're doing some mythbusting for us. So for people who think "I can't do this," that's a fantastic answer for them. And so in Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, you address some other really common roadblocks to meditating. You tell me, but the most common roadblock, I'm imagining, is "I don't have time." So what do you say to folks who say they don't have time to meditate?

This is a form of exercise, a kind of bicep curl for your brain, where every time you get distracted you begin again and again...

DH: So, one of the biggest, if not the biggest obstacles that we encountered was, "I don't have time for this." People are really busy these days, they're really stressed, and I think the perception of time-starvation in this atmosphere of tech saturation is very pervasive and often quite pernicious.

And so you say to people, "Hey, you should meditate because it might reduce your stress," but actually the very proposition increases their stress, because they probably know they should be doing the thing but they're not doing the thing and so they're kind of beating themselves over the head with the thing.

So on this score I have good news and even better news. The good news is that I think 5-10 minutes a day is a great habit, and from what I can tell from talking to the neuroscientists I know that study what meditation does to the brain, 5-10 minutes is enough for most people to derive many of the advertised health benefits and psychological benefits. And the better news is that if you don't feel like you have 5-10 minutes a day, then one minute counts.

And I would say it's one minute daily-ish. And so that's sort of the bar that we as a company are now setting, and that I as a public speaker am now setting, which is: I think a great way to start, if you're really worried about time, is to try to do one minute most days.

And that is a combination of two of my favorite concepts. One is "one minute counts," that one minute truly is enough to engineer a collision with the voice in your head so that you see the voice for what it is and are not so owned by it.

And two, "daily-ish," which is something I picked up from somebody I met at a speech I was giving in Newton, Massachusetts, at my old high school, Newton South, who talked about "daily-ish" being useful because your aim is to do it every day but you have enough wiggle room so that if you don't do it one day, the voice in your head doesn't pop up and tell you a story that you've failed.

EH: It's not a tragedy if you miss a day. You can just start again.

DH: Absolutely, just like you do on the cushion when you get distracted.

EH: Got it. Okay, so the book introduced me to a concept that had never occurred to me before. And that was that meditation can be enjoyable. And so, in the book, my favorite meditation was this one called "Enjoying the Body," which sounds like it should be R-rated, but as your co-author, Jeff Warren, says, it's actually about, "relaxing into your body like you're relaxing into a hot tub." Which is a great image. And so I'll say to our listeners that we've included this meditation at the end of the episode, so be sure you stick around and you can try that out for yourself. But Dan, for you, you note that this idea of enjoyment was a new perspective for you too. So what was your practice like before and then after this revelation that meditation could be enjoyable?

DH: Yeah, my practice was not a pretty place. And still in many ways is not. You know, I have this tendency to kind of grit my teeth and do what I know to be good for me.

EH: Like, eat your vegetables, exercise, exactly.

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.

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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