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From Skeptic to Meditator

Dan Harris & Melli O'Brien






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From Skeptic to Meditator

Dan shares how he ‘tamed the voice in his head’ and how you can too.

I'm your host Melli O'Brien.

And with me today, I'm really delighted

to introduce you to Dan Harris.

Dan is a news reporter and he's

also the co-anchor for Nightline,

and Good Morning America.

And the reason that we're talking to him

here today is because he's written this

book called 10% Happier: How I Tamed the

Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without

Losing My Edge and Found A Self-Help

That Actually Works, A True Story.

Now this book is really the story

of how Dan went from being really,

really skeptical about meditation

to being not only a meditator, but a

very public advocate of meditation.

So Dan, thanks so much for

spending this time with us.

Thanks for having me.

So as we just mentioned, you were

really quite skeptical about meditation.

And so I'm curious to know your story

of how somebody who was so skeptical

really even ended up opening your

mind to giving meditation a try.

Could you tell us the story about that?

Well, there's a bit of a

backstory I'll try to tell it in

as concise manner as possible.

I had a panic attack on national

television 11 years ago.

And after the panic attack,

I went to a doctor to try to

get to the root of the problem.

And he asked me a bunch of questions

and one of them was, do you do drugs?

And my answer was somewhat

sheepishly was yes.

I had spent a bunch of time in war

zones as a young year reporter.

And I had gotten depressed and I started

self-medicating with recreational

drugs, including cocaine and ecstasy.

And the doctor explained that even though

my drug use was reasonably intermittent,

it was enough to artificially raise

the level of adrenaline in my brain

and prime me to have a panic attack.

So that was, that was step number one.

I really realized at that point I

needed to kind of get my act together.

So I quit doing drugs and

started seeing a shrink.

But then there was something else that

happened, which was, I was assigned

to cover faith and spirituality

for the broadcast network that I

worked for, which is ABC News, not

to be confused with your ABC news.

American Broadcasting Company.

And I was a lifelong atheist and I

still am really, but through covering

faith and spirituality, I ended up

stumbling upon an Eckhart Tolle book.

I'm sure your viewers

will know who that is.

I had no idea who he was, but he

was the first person I ever heard

talk about the voice in the head

or the ego which was a real, which

was a real wake up call for me.

So I went and interviewed him, found him

to be very, very frustrating, fascinating

and frustrating in equal measure.

I didn't, he didn't seem to have

any sort of actionable advice for

dealing with the voice in the head.

And so then I kind of thrashed around for

a little bit and some, and then I, and

I heard about Buddhism and meditation.

And I always thought meditation was

really just for hippies and freaks and

weirdos and people who are like live

in a yurt and are really into whatever.

But I then heard about all of the

science that shows it can, you

know, boost your blood pressure

and excuse me, reduce your blood

pressure and boost your immune system.

And on some, some days it

boosts my blood pressure.

And, you know, rewire key parts of your

brain and all that stuff, I don't want to

over-hype the science, but it certainly

strongly suggests, it's compelling.

So, so I just started.

I started doing it.

And this was about six years ago.

So well, after my panic

attacks, I started doing it.

And I'm, and I've just found it

to be really beneficial and I

feel like at least in my country,

it has a big PR problem still.

And so I thought that if I talked

about it from my vantage point as

a Type A, ambitious, a person who

swears a lot that maybe some people

who otherwise would reflexively

reject it might get interested in it.


And you talk about, you know, when

you encountered Eckhart and kind of

came maybe for the first time into

this noticing of the voice in the head

now, This reminds me in your book,

you, you were actually thinking of an

alternative title for the book, right?

Which was The Voice In

My Head Is An Asshole.

Now this, first of all,

that's a catchy title.

Second of all, it speaks to

something about our human experience

that I think is worth noting.

And so I was interested in whether

you could explain what your experience

was like of, what's it like to have

a voice in the head that's an asshole?

What kinds of things does it say or

how was that affecting your life?

Well, I think everybody, the voice

in everybody's head is an asshole.

And when the Buddha, the Buddha's

first utterance, you know, in

his four noble truth was life is

suffering, which is a mistranslation.

Suffering doesn't really mean

suffering as we consider it in English.

It basically means that

life is unsatisfying.

It's just another way of saying the

voice in your head is an asshole

because nothing is good enough, we're

always, you know, no, no amount of

pleasure we get ever truly satisfies us.

We're always thinking about the net, the

18th cookie or the next job promotion.

We're always ruminating about the past or

fixating on the future to the detriment

of whatever's happening right now.

And that suffering and that's the

voice in your head being an asshole.

I think mine was particularly bad

because it was actually the voice, as

one of my friends that joked, the voice

in my actual mouth was an asshole too.

So, I mean, I was a really ambitious

young, oftentimes arrogant and brash guy.

And I, you know, I like to joke that my

wife thinks that I should retitle the book

90%, Still A Moron, because you know,

I, I, it's not solved all of my problems.

And that's part of the PR problem

around meditation is that, you know,

it's sometimes, it's sold as this

panacea, you know, quick enlightenment.

It is not that at all, which is

why I named my book 10% Happier.

I think it's, it can make you

incrementally calmer, more focused and

less yanked around by your emotions.

And that's a huge value add, but

it's not, it's not a silver bullet.


And so, you know, in the title of

your book, there's two things that

I, that I'd love to ask you about.

So the first one is, you know, seeing

that you've, you've tamed the voice

in your head to some degree, and so

how is the relationship with that

asshole voice in the head changed?


I mean

Is it the way you relate to it

that's different or is it the

actual content that's different?

How has that changed over time?

Great question.

So the, the title may be a case of

overstatement because it depends how

you interpret the, the, the term tamed.

I, it's not like I took a lion and

made it into a domestic short hair.

So it's not thoroughly tamed.

I think it is by degrees tamed.

And I think what's interesting is

that the first thing that happens

in meditation practice, at least in

my experience, is that not that the

voice says different stuff, just that

your relationship to it is different.

You have a lens, an internal lens, some

sort of ability to see the contents of

your own consciousness so that you aren't

blindly yanked around by the voice.

The second thing that seems to happen,

at least from people I've talked to

and in my own experience is, is over

time, once you clear up a little

bit of space, it does make room for

different thoughts and ideas to emerge.

And so I think it's a two-fold process,

but the first part is the big one,

which is, you can't expect that when

when you start meditating, you're

no longer going to be self-critical,

you're not, you're no longer going

to be judgmental of your neighbor.

What you may be better at is noticing

when anger arises, and then not

saying the thing that ruins the next

48 hours of your marriage, or not

checking your email in the middle

of a conversation with your kids.

That, that is the, I think the

initial benefit and really a huge game

changing skill available to everyone.


And actually, you know, I think in

your book, I feel like you illustrate

that so well, the, the facts that

you would sometimes have a judgmental

thought about somebody and kind of,

you know, box them into one frame.

And then in your book, you really

illustrate quite well the process of

noticing that thought and then questioning

it and saying, well, hang on a second.

Maybe that's just a judgment and

not the actuality of the situation.

So I think that's really, yeah,

really an empowering thing as well.


I mean, I think I'm like the anti

blink, you know, that Malcolm

Gladwell book about the, this, the

sort of wisdom of the subconscious.

My first impression is

usually so, totally wrong.

My subconscious is not wise at all.

So in the process of the book, in

the book, it's basically me, you

know, misjudging people and then

realizing that they were right

all along and I was the idiot.

And then that process, well, maybe not.

I can tell you that

process has not stopped.

I mean, it continues to

happen to me all the time.

I think I'm a little bit better at not

taking so seriously the initial judgment.

So the, the other thing in your book

title that I really wanted to ask you

as well is the part about reducing

your stress without losing your edge.

Now, most of my friends are entrepreneurs,

CEOs, definitely A types and I know

that this is a concern that comes

up for so many of those people.

They, I think, have a concern that

if they start to meditate, that

they're going to calm down too much.

And perhaps there's even a, a subconscious

belief that maybe the stress, the

anxiety, the competitiveness and the

drivenness that's what makes them great.

And so they're afraid if they

stop, you know, that whole area of

their life they're going to fail.

So what would you say to someone,

Dan, if they were sitting across from

you and they said, look, Dan, I'm

not going to do meditation because

I'm, I don't want to lose my edge.

A couple of things to say that first

of all, I understand the concern.

It was exactly the concern I had.

I think when people assume that if

they get happier or calmer, that

they're going to be ineffective.

They're actually mistaken.

They're confusing happiness

with complacency and

they're not the same thing.

It doesn't, I think people think

that they're, when they picture

themselves happy, they're reclined

with 17 women waving palm fronds

at them and feeding them grapes.

That's not the deal.

Happiness is, I mean, first of all,

what's interesting about the English

language is that we, we have our

conflicted feelings about the concept

of happiness are reflected in the

etymological roots of the term.

Happ, HAPP is the same root of

the word haphazard or hapless.

It means luck or haphazard.

It, in that reflects our

view that somehow happiness is

dependent upon exogenous factors.

In fact, this, the, what, what is

so radical and empowering about the

science around meditation is it shows

that happiness is actually a skill

that you can develop in just the way

you can develop your bicep in the gym.

As to on the job effectiveness, you know,

I, I talk about this in the book, but

I, I was raised by a very ambitious dad.

He's still ambitious in the seventies,

who had an expression, which is the

price of security is insecurity.

You know, the more you worry,

the better you're going to do.

And I embraced that with gusto.

And to be honest, I

still think that's true.

However, we tend to make our

suffering worse than it needs to be.

Yes, it is true that if you're going

to be great at anything, there's,

there's a certain amount of worrying

and plotting and planning and stress,

I think, inherent in the endeavor.

But, but we tend to go down the rat

hole of useless rumination and I

think that with mindfulness, the great

gift of mindfulness to an ambitious

person is that it can help you draw

the line between useless rumination

and what I call constructive anguish.

And so maybe on the 17th time, you're

wondering about how well you, you, that

a spreadsheet came out or whether you're

going to miss your flight or whether

somebody else is going to get the job

you want, maybe on the 17th time that

you're worrying about that you can,

you can ask yourself, is this useful.


And I've found that that makes you less

miserable, easier to live with, easier

to work with and work for, and less

caught up in blind reactivity and hatred

so that you're making better decisions.


And don't just take my word for it.

There's a reason why meditation is

now being practiced in the executive

suites at Twitter, Google, Aetna,

Proctor and Gamble, General Mills,

the people who make Hamburger Helper.

And it's now being done by professional

athletes, Novak Djokovic, who won the

Wimbledon recently, is an avid meditator.

Entertainers, lawyers, scientists, very

ambitious people in our culture are doing

this, because again, it goes right to some

core attributes needed for leadership and

achievement, which are focus and emotional

reactivity or emotional intelligence.

And anyway, so that's my take.


And so how long have you

been meditating now for, Dan?

So the book was written, is

it five, is it five years that

you've been meditating now?

Six years?

Six years.


Six years.

And you've also done some

retreat time in that time.

So you've had your regular practice

and you've done some retreat time.

So I'm, I'm curious to know,

you know, what kinds of benefits

have have unfolded in that time?

What kind of insights and realizations

and, and, you know, as time has gone on,

you know, is it a continuing journey?

Is it, has it crescendoed?

What's the journey like these days?

So if anything, I'm more into the

practice itself than I've ever been now.

One of the things that I was looking

forward to after finishing the book

was to doing more practice and doing

less writing about the practice.

And so that didn't happen as quickly as I

wanted, because to my great satisfaction,

the book did reasonably well.

And so then I had a lot of invitations

to go talk about it and stuff,

which was great, but obviously

not really conducive to practice.

So now that things are slowing

down, I've definitely increased

dramatically my daily sitting time.

After a couple of years of not being

able to go on retreat, I'm going

on a 10 day retreat in the Fall.


You know, I have a teacher who I studied

with, Joseph Goldstein, is very well

well-known speaker who offered to

be my teacher and I read a lot and I

take a, I take a class, I, excuse me,

I listen to a lot of Dharma talks.

I read very frequently.

And I also have been taking a class

through a great place called the Buddhist,

the Barre center for Buddhist Studies.

They're in Massachusetts, which is in

the United States and they offer an

online class, which I signed up for.

They just started doing this and

it's about early Buddhism and

what the texts do and do not mean.

And, and so for me, going beyond 10%

Happier and getting into sort of, what

I would refer to as the deep end of

the pool has become really a primary

preoccupation for me in recent months.

And it's, I think endlessly fascinating.

It may be where I lose my audience,

but it is what is happening.



And so the, the sort of just, you know,

the benefits in your work-life, in

your relationships, in any other sort

of concrete, are you more productive?

Do you, is it affecting

your relationships?

What's, what are those

kinds of things like?

It definitely has

affected my relationships.

The most important being

the one with my wife.

We had a good relationship to start with,

and she was in fact the one who, although

she doesn't meditate interestingly, but

she was the one who, after, during my

post Eckhart Tolle confusion, she was

the one who did this key thing of giving

me a book by a Buddhist author named Dr.

Mark Epstein.

And that is what turned

me on to meditation.

And so I think with practice, I'm

definitely much less of a, the

voice in my mouth is much less

of an asshole than it used to be.

Although again, I retain the

capacity to be a schmuck, but I,

I feel like it's less frequent.

So our relationship

definitely benefits from that.

We had a kid eight months ago and, and,

and I do think that having the daily

training of trying to focus on one

thing, getting lost and starting again,

which is basically one description of

meditation, has really helped me just

pay attention when I'm with, the times

when I'm with my child, as opposed to

thinking about what am I going to do

next or what's, what's that email I

didn't answer, et cetera, et cetera.

No, I still do some of that.

No question.

I think I'm just better at

it than I would otherwise be.

And I, so I would say right now

the biggest benefit and the most

important benefit is my external

relationship in many ways.

It, it's certainly not perfect.

I have definitely once in a while,

will fire up in ill-advised email

or say something I wish I hadn't

said, but I think my, my, the amount

of time I spend angry is, is vastly

reduced and my apology time quicker.



Is there anything else

that you'd like to, to add?

Anything else you'd like

to share before we close?

So what would I say in

closing, it's worth it.

Stick with it.

The one thing that's really, one of

many things that's really helped me

is, is making sure I do it daily.

And I often employ something called, that

I just called the accordion principle.

which is, even on a really bad

day, I still do something even

if it's two to five minutes.

And I find, I, I, I see people who get

really excited about practice, they

say they're going to do 30 minutes or

60 minutes a day, and then they get

on a bad stretch and then they fall

off the wagon and they're discouraged.

And that's it.

So I just, for me, one of the things

that maybe will help be helpful to

other people is just do something every

day, because it really is in my view,

the daily collusion with the asshole

in your head that helps you fend off

its shitty suggestions, you know?

And so that's, that's, that's

what I, I guess one practical

piece of advice I'd close on and,

and, and yeah, keep it going.

I think it's worth it.

I, I, I don't know anybody who, who has

started a meditation practice, stuck with

it and feels like it's a waste of time.

And I just have one more closing

question that I've been asking everyone

who's taken part in this summit.

And that is, you know, they say that

mindfulness has gone mainstream.

I really think, you know, what's

happened is it's, it's entering

mainstream culture as an idea.

It's certainly being de-stigmatized

thanks to a lot of people like yourself.

If mindfulness would have truly hit

critical mass, I'm talking like,

you know, maybe 50% of the world's

population was practicing, how do

you think that would change things?

I think it would be amazing.

You think, I think it has the

potential to, to have a genuine

impact on the way society functions.

So if you think about public health

revolutions of the past - oral

hygiene, physical exercise, those

both were major public health

revolutions of the 20th century.

They had lots of great

benefits - fewer cavities,

increased cardiovascular fitness.

This is something that speaks,

however, to not only to the

physical health but behavior.

And so if mindfulness were to take

off in a, in a big way, imagine the

impact on bullying, on road rage, on

parenting, on workplace discrimination,

on discrimination at all in the

world, on politics on journalism.

I, I think that it would, on business,

on the climate, on all of these problems

where, and many of these problems,

especially the climate, where it's a sort

of a tragedy of the common issue where

nobody really has the incentive to, to, to

make a change unless everybody else does.

I think that mindfulness has the

potential to have a real benefit.

I, I, I hate the idea of being

super naive or over hyping it.

But I've run this scenario through

in my head so many times and just

extrapolating from my own experience.

I think even if it wasn't 50%, even if

it was whatever the percentage of people

who like belong to a gym now, you know,

maybe that's 20 to 30%, that's a lot of

people having a real effect in the world.

And it makes me very optimistic in a, in

a world in which I get a front row seat

at many trends that make me pessimistic.

This is a good news story.

Well, Dan, thank you so much for

sharing your time with us here today.

And I have to say I absolutely

loved reading your book.

It is so well-written and I

highly recommend all of you who

are tuning in to check it out.

It's a really great read.

So all the best to you,

Dan, and see you next time.

Thank you very much.

Appreciate it.

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