“Nightline” and weekend “Good Morning America” anchor Dan Harris realizes that meditation might not seem compatible with a career in hard-charging network news, but it’s been an invaluable tool for him to achieve both serenity and success. In his book, “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,” Harris recounts his process of discovering the practice of meditation and, ultimately, a fix for a lifetime of second-guessing, self-doubt, and anxiety.
Brain World: We should point out you were a true skeptic going into meditation.
Dan Harris: Oh yeah, I completely bought into every stereotype on meditation. I thought it was just for freaks, weirdos, and people who really like aromatherapy and ultimate Frisbee. It wasn’t attractive to me. Two things changed my mind: a) hearing about the science, which is really compelling, and b) learning that meditation doesn’t involve believing in anything or joining a group or getting in funny positions with silly outfits.
BW: How difficult did you find the practice of mindfulness at first?
DH: It was hard at the beginning, and it’s hard now. And I would argue if it’s easy you are either cheating or already enlightened — and the latter is a very hard thing to achieve. It gets easier with time, but it’s still really hard. You’re basically trying to break a lifetime of ruminating about the past and do this very radical thing, which is to focus on what’s happening right now. And all of your habits and conditioning fight against that. But it’s totally worth it.
BW: Can any mind do this, or is a particular person best suited to it?
DH: Certainly there is a huge spectrum. Some people are just naturals, like with athletics. But I don’t think there’s anybody who can’t do it. I’d leave the small asterisk that if you have genuine psychiatric issues you should consult a doctor first. I’m not referring to garden variety depression or anxiety though, which meditation has shown to be very helpful for.
Even people who aren’t reflexively skeptical like I am can benefit from it. Many people think, “Well, I could never meditate; you don’t understand, my mind moves so fast, I’m just constantly jumping from one thing to the next.” My response to that is, for better or worse, you are not special. That’s the human condition. I think meditation will be made acceptable to more people if we can just point out that it is hard and that’s OK. The whole game is to get lost and start again, get lost and start again, ad infinitum.
BW: What is going on in the mind during meditation?
DH: I think there’s a lot of things happening. One is that you’re having a full-frontal collision with the chaos of your mind, which is useful because then in the rest of your life when that annoying inner narrator of yours offers up a dumb suggestion, you’ll be better at resisting it. Another thing that’s happening is, in those brief snatches of time when you’re able to focus on your breathing, that’s like Kryptonite for the voice within your head that’s always got you self-conscious and worrying. As you meditate, you’re actually developing your ability to be mindful. Mindfulness is this bonus level for the brain that most people aren’t even aware they have — the ability to simply be aware of stuff without thinking about it, without judging it. This is a superpower. It allows you to notice things going on in your head without getting carried away by them.
BW: Did learning about the scientific research and benefits to meditation help you to overcome your skepticism?
DH: Oh yeah, without the science I would never have gone on this whole trip. The science is the gateway for skeptics to get involved. I want to stress that the science is still in its embryonic stages, but certainly there’s a large body of evidence supporting the benefits of meditation, including lower blood pressure, boosted immune system, and perhaps most compellingly, the neuroscience has shown that the gray matter literally grows in the areas of the brain associated with well-being and compassion and literally shrinks in the areas associated with stress. It’s hard to ignore this. That said, once you start meditating, you pretty much forget about the science because it’s not like you’re walking around thinking, “Wonder what my brain looks like today?” The science is why you start meditating. Why you keep meditating is because you feel happier.