"The Mental Health Story of the Century"
I had been preparing to write this newsletter using several research studies on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) when I found myself watching Dan Harris, author of 10%
Happier, How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without
Losing my Edge, and Found Self-Help that Actually Worked-A True Story, as interviewed by Charlie Rose (following the John Brennan interview) on PBS, March 13, 2015.
I must admit I am never comfortable with what appears to be a
quick fix program or what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls a "dime store remedy." A
lifelong meditator myself, I had found Kabat-Zinn's MBSR program, the
most efficient, well-designed, skill-based way to share the principles
of meditation. (Kabat-Zinn, an engaging speaker, scientist and person of
great integrity, developed the MBSR curriculum which lies at the heart
of the most significant research studies on meditation in existence
I respected had told me about Dan Harris' book, but I had never
actually read it. Yet, here I was, supposed to be writing my Spring
newsletter, finding myself engaged by Dan Harris, and putting my work
hold as I listened, was impressed, and then jettisoned my previous
content, deciding to transcribe most of the interview for you.
To watch the full interview of Dan Harris by Charlie Rose, click here.
It was a full panic attack that occurred and completely derailed me as I
was reading the news for ABC's "Good Morning America." That, and
something else were responsible for my seeming stumble upon meditation.
The severe panic attack led me to see a physician who asked me if I I
did drugs. Indeed, I had been self-medicating since my journalistic work
covering the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The something else was that
my boss, Peter Jennings had asked me to cover Faith and Spirituality for
ABC news which I hadn't wanted to do, but he insisted. Going to
mosques, churches and mega temples gave me an education about how the
world works, the lenses through which people things, and how ignorant I
was. I hadn't had a serious conversation with a person of faith until
that assignment and for the first time, I saw the value of having a
worldview that transcends your own interests.
I like about meditation in particular (there are a lot of things I
don't like about it) is that it's a way of hammering home that
understanding into your cells daily, and that appeals to me. It's a very
practical thing to do to provide you with perspective. I do it 30
minutes a day, but I hesitate to admit that because people then feel
they don't have time for this. I think 5 to 10 minutes a day is enough. I
started with that.
I have not been able to overcome one thing about this. Friends of mine,
serious people of great accomplishment say this is one of the most
important things about their life and that it has added to their lives
in monumental ways. What does it do that napping doesn't? Convert me.
DH: Like you, I also host a morning show and I have a
newborn. I am just saying that this is something you add on top, not
saying you shouldn't nap. The word meditation is like the word sports. It describes a whole variety of things. When I am talking about meditation, I am talking about mindfulness meditation. There are two big benefits.
CR: "Here comes your introduction to meditation."
DH: The first big benefit is your ability to focus. We live in an era which could be described as the info blitzkrieg. We are besieged by tweets and texts and status updates.
CR: And information overload.
DH: What you're doing in most meditation is you're
going to try to focus on one thing and then you're going to get lost.
You're going to start thinking about what am I going to have for lunch?
Why did I say that dumb thing to my boss? Why didn't Dances with Wolves beat Goodfellas for
best picture in 1991. Your mind is going to go nuts. The whole game is
to notice when you got lost and to start over. And that's a
muscle. You are exercising the focus muscle in your mind and that is
very useful when your attention is being besieged all the time. That's
benefit number 1.
Benefit number 2 is mindfulness.
It's an ancient term, kind of a boring sounding term, but in my view
it's a game changer. There are many definitions but one of them is to
know what's going on in your head right now without getting carried away
CR: Without getting carried away by it?
DH: Yes, the ability to see what's happening in your
mind without necessarily being the fish that bites the hook and gets
yanked around by it. So, you, whether you're aware of it or not, have an internal Charlie Rose
that is yammering at you as soon as you open your eyes in the morning,
maybe before. All day long this voice in your head has you wanting
stuff, not wanting stuff, judging other people, making choices, many of
them impulsive, comparing yourself to other people, thinking about
yourself. My friend, Sam Harris who also wrote a book about meditation
says that when he hears the voices in his head he feels like he's been
kidnapped by the most boring person alive who just says the same stuff
over and over again, most of it negative.
CR: So how are the voices in your head different from the voices in mine?
DH: I think there are a lot of similarities between
everybody's voices because they seem to have a number of shared
tend to be focused on the past or the future to the detriment of the
present. They are focused on you. They are largely negative and very
repetitive. Mindfulness is or can be kryptonite to the voice.
CR: How did you come to find meditation and the right
form for you and "how to tame the voice in your head, reduce
stress without losing your edge and find self-help that actually works?"
DH: When I was assigned to cover religion by Peter, I
stumbled into self -help and got turned on to Eckhart Tolle, who is a
massively successful self-help guru. He'd rather call himself a
spiritual teacher. At first I thought his book was irredeemable garbage,
but then he started to unfurl a theory about the human condition that
I'd never heard before, that we all have a voice in our head that most
of us are unaware of. I was intrigued and went to interview him and
asked him, "What do you do about the voice in your head? He said,
"Take one conscious breath." The voice in my head said, "What the hell
does that mean?" It was like he had pointed out that my hair was
on fire and refused to give me a fire extinguisher. So then I started
hanging around with a lot of self-help people who believed you can get
whatever you want with the power of positive thinking, which I think is a
horrible, horrible idea. But, then, finally, my then fiancé, now wife
and baby mama, (who happens to be a physician) said it sounded like a
book she'd read a few years ago, and she handed me book by a Buddhist
psychiatrist. I started reading it and I realized that all the stuff I
loved the best about Eckhart Tolle seemed to be taken from the Buddhist
Buddhists, unlike Eckhart Tolle, have a really practical program for
dealing with the voice in your head. I didn't want to do it. I thought
it was only for hippies, freaks and weirdos and people who are really
into Cat Stevens and use the word, "Namaste" with no irony - completely
My parents were hippies and they made me go to yoga where I had a negative experience that turned me off to all things new agey.
on my journey researching mindfulness meditation, I found out there is
an enormous amount of science that shows that meditation can actually
lower your blood pressure and boost your immune system, and literally
re-wire key parts of your brain that have to do with focus, compassion,
and basic well-being. I then decided to do it.
CR: How long did it take you to get into it?
DH: It's a more complicated question than you might
imagine because the first time I did it, I hated it, but I also realized
it was not hippy nonsense, but it was in fact, exercise for the brain.
I had two simultaneous reactions: (1)This is really hard and I suck at
it; (2) I get this is why it can be really helpful, and I'm going to do
it. And I resolved that I was gong to do 5 to 10 minutes a day in
perpetuity and I stuck with it and it has made a big difference.
CR: What difference?
DH: I think the key difference is this word mindfulness. Most of the things we do in our lives about which we're most ashamed are the results of impulsive, mindless actions.
CR: I agree with that.
DH: So for me, it was, "What was the most mindless
thing I ever did?" For me as an ambitious young journalist, it was going
to war zones without thinking about the consequences, coming back home,
and getting depressed and being too unaware to know it, and then
mindlessly self-medicating with cocaine and ecstasy. I think if I had
had meditation onboard then, I would have avoided it. Mindfulness
meditation helps me navigate a very stressful career in ways that reduce
my emotional reactivity and make me calmer, a better listener, a better
colleague, a better husband. I'm less likely to eat the 18th cookie,
I'm less likely to say the barbed comment to my wife that will ruin the
next 48 hours of my marriage. I'm more likely to just look at my baby
cooing rather than checking my email. Those are the benefits.
CR: Having just said what you said, if you didn't do
that, 10 minutes a day, on the 7th day, would you be more likely to be
the old Dan?
CR: That's amazing. That's what napping does for me. I wake up fresh, fresh, fresh.
DH: I can see that. Also, to Charlie: "Of course, if you don't sleep, you will lose your mind."
CR: There is significant research on the benefits of sleep.
DH: I'm not proposing that meditation is a silver bullet that will solve everything. That's why I went with the title: 10% Happier.
When it comes to happiness, I'm a maximalist, I think we should pull every lever we have, eat well, sleep well, etc.
CR: Is there a substitute for meditation?
DH: I don't think anything does in my experience.
People ask me, "What about my gardening or running? I'm not
anti-gardening and definitely not anti-running, I think meditation can
be anything you pay attention to. It's about paying attention. I just think you need a few minutes a day of formal practice. I'm talking specifically about mindfulness meditation
which has been the focus of most of the scientific studies. It is
simple and secular. You don't have to join a group or wear special
outfits or believe in anything. It is derived from Buddhism but
has basically all the Buddhist language and metaphysics stripped out.
I'm not going to make you do it, but I'm going to explain how to do it.
I taught one of the tech reporters of The New York Times how to do this in fewer letters than it takes to send a tweet, so it's not super-complicated.
first step is to sit with your spine straight and your eyes closed. The
second step is to focus your full attention on the feeling of your
breath coming in and going out. The third step is the key: As soon as
to focus on the feeling of your breath, your mind is going to go nuts. It's going to start wandering.
You're going to be asking yourself questions, you'll be working on your
to do list, or whatever. And then, you just want to notice when your
mind has gotten carried away and start over, and start over again and
again and again. And every time you do that, it's a bicep curl for your brain. You're literally re-wiring your brain.
And, by the way, it's a radical act because most of us have trouble paying attention in the present moment. Our life is a daydream. We are wrapped up in rumination about the past and projection about the future.
CR: So how has this changed your life?
DH: It's made me calmer and happier, but if my wife was here, she would give you the "90% still a moron speech."
CR: How does that speech go?
DH: She would just list the dumb things I've done in the last 18 hours.
CR: I like your wife even though I've never met her.
DH: She doesn't take me too seriously. Publishing
the book has been really interesting. I really worried about the drug
stuff. I thought it had the potential to derail my career. And my Mom,
to whom I'm really close, sent me an email 4 to 6 weeks before it was
published and said, "Don't do it." It was already in the
warehouses. I freaked out.
Serendipitously, I had two meetings that day, one with Diane Sawyer and
the other with Ben Sherwood who ran ABC news at the time. They said, "We
love your Mom, but she's wrong and we've got your back. Publish the
book." And I'm glad I did it. It's the best and most impactful story
I've ever covered, and I'm not talking about me. I'm talking about this
public health revolution that's brewing with meditation. It's the good news mental health story of the century.
And, to be able to talk about it in a way that some people have reacted
to positively has been extremely gratifying and also humbling. You know
how people get up when they get an Oscar and say it is humbling? When
they say it, I don't believe it. But, when I say it, I truly mean it.
All this concern about the reputational issues for me, most people don't
really care about me. They find my misadventures mildly titillating,
but what they really want to know is, "What do you have for me?"
DH: And that is humbling in a good way. And what I realize is what I'm recommending to people I have more and more faith in every day.
* * *
this with wishes for well-being in your life and the world, as we in
New Jersey, begin to leave this winter behind, and open to nature's, and
our own, new beginnings.