You’ve probably read or heard about the benefits of meditation, but you’ve never given it a try because it all seems a bit too woo-woo. You’re not alone. My guest used to be a skeptic himself, but after falling into drug use and suffering a nervous breakdown on national television, he gave meditation a try and found that it made him calmer and more resilient. He’s now on a mission to make meditation approachable for the masses — no meditation pillow required. His name is Dan Harris. He’s a news reporter at ABC who you can see on Nightline. He’s also the author of the books 10% Happier and Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.
Today on show, Dan shares the story of his nervous breakdown in front of millions of people and how that led him to meditation. He then takes us through the latest research on the benefits of meditation, including the way it reduces depression and anxiety. Dan and I then discuss some of the myths that people have about meditation, such as the idea that it takes a lot of time, requires you to sit on a pillow, and will cause you to lose your edge. We end our podcast with Dan taking us through a 1-minute guided meditation which will you give you a nice moment of practical zen.
- How Dan ended up becoming a meditation advocate
- How Dan’s Middle East war reporting contributed to his depression and anxiety
- How Dan’s skepticism about meditation turned into belief
- The benefits of meditation to our mental and physical health
- The various types of meditation — and what Dan practices, which is mindfulness meditation
- How to give yourself more compassion, and the real-world benefits of doing so
- How much time do you really need meditating to get the benefits?
- Meditation, mindfulness, and feelings
- Advice for people who think meditation is just really boring
- How can you measure this? How is progress gauged?
- Can meditation make you too chill? Will you lose your edge?
- Is meditation really just self-indulgent? Will it make you preachy?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Dan’s 2004 panic attack on live TV
- Dan’s first book: 10% Happier
- A Primer on Meditation
- Eckhart Tolle
- Mark Epstein
- Altered Traits
- What Every Man Should Know About Focus
- Mindfulness meditation
- 7 types of meditation
- 4 Questions to Kill FOMO
- The Joy of Missing Out
- How Emotions Help You Achieve Your Goals
- Meditation-related Onion headlines — click here and here
Connect With Dan
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. You probably read or heard about the benefits of meditation, but you probably like a lot of people never given it a try, because it seems a bit too woo-woo, you’re not alone. My guest today used to be a skeptic himself, but after falling into drug use, and suffering a nervous breakdown on national television, he gave meditation a try, and found that it made him calmer, and more resilient. He’s now on a mission to make meditation approachable for the masses. No meditation pillow required. His name is Dan Harris. He’s a news reporter at ABC, and you can see him on the show Nightline. He’s also the author of the books 10% Happier in Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.
Today on the show Dan shares his story of his nervous breakdown in front of millions of people and how that led him to meditation. He then takes us through the latest research on the benefits of meditation, including the way it reduces depression, anxiety, and I then discuss some of the myths that people have about meditation, such as the idea it takes a lot of time, requires you to sit on a pillow will cause you to lose your edge. In our podcast with Dan taking us through a one minute guided meditation, which will give you a nice moment of practical zen, whether you’re on your way to work, or just sitting in your office. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/meditation. … All right. Dan Harris, welcome to the show.
Dan Harris: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: You are the co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline. You do weekend editions of Good Morning America. In your spare time you’ve become a meditation advocate. How did this happen? Because I think of TV journalists, hard charging, have you done war stuff?
Dan Harris: Yes.
Brett McKay: War correspondent.
Dan Harris: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Okay. You’ve done that. Type A. How did you become this advocate for meditation, and being mindful, and quieting the mind?
Dan Harris: The war stuff is actually part of it. I spent a lot of time after 9/11, I’m dating myself now, I’m almost 47. When 9/11 happened, I was actually reasonably young. I think, I was 30 years old, and I was very ambitious, and single, and just pretty new to ABC News at that time, and really just left into the fray, and spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and then the second intifada happened in Israel, so I was in West Bank, and Gaza, and then Iraq happened and I was there six times.
In the middle of that, got depressed, and didn’t actually know I was depressed and then I did this dumb thing that I talk about quite a bit, publicly, now, but for those who haven’t heard it before I started to use recreational drugs, including cocaine, and that produced a panic attack on live television in 2004 on Good Morning America. I was the news reader that morning, I was the guy who comes on and reads the headlines of the morning at the top of each hour, and I was in the middle of my little shtick, and I just lost the capacity to breathe, or speak.
That was really embarrassing, and then I went to a doctor afterwards who was an expert in panic, and he’s trying to figure out what happened, and he asked me whether I do drugs, and I said, “Yeah,” I told him it was pretty intermittent, it wasn’t like, oh, I wasn’t high on the air, and it wasn’t like, I often point out that it wasn’t like the Wolf of Wall Street where they’re pounding Quaalude every minute, but it was enough according to the doctor to raise the level of adrenaline in my brain, and make it more likely for me to have a panic attack. That moment of realizing, what an idiot I’d been kind of set me off on a journey that talk about extensively in my first book, and I won’t bore you with it now, but the punchline is it ultimately led me to meditation.
I had no interest in meditation. I thought it was bullshit, but what changed my mind was the science, that all this science is suggests it can rewire key parts of your brain, having to deal with focus, and self awareness, and compassion, and that it can lower your blood pressure, and help your immune system. That really got me interested, and I kind of had this entrepreneurial feeling. You know, you and I were chatting before we started rolling about the entrepreneurial feeling you had in law school that all the publication, the men’s publications weren’t speaking to you, and I was at this point in 2009 reading a lot of stuff about meditation, and it always felt like there was a little pan flute playing in the background.
It was very smart, and I’ve now become very close friends with a lot of these people, but it’s a little annoying, and it’s written I think for baby boomers, and people who had exposure to the hippy generation, and I came up in the age of punk rock and Indy rock, and Generation X, and nihilistic sarcasm. I wanted something that was more embarrassing, and told more embarrassing stories about what it’s like inside any human mind, so that’s why I wrote my first book, 10% Happier, and then I followed it up with a much more sort of howto oriented book called, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.
Brett McKay: I’m curious, was there a person you encountered that introduced you to the science of meditation, or were you researching something for a story you were doing? How did you go from, okay, meditation is for these baby boomers like pony tailed guys wearing Birkenstocks to, oh, this can actually benefit me? What was it that caused you to actually look at the science of it?
Dan Harris: There were a few people. I can’t remember the exact order of operations, now. I had read a book by a guy who I’m going to say, I’m going to talk about him, but I’m not necessarily recommending him per se, but out of sheer happenstance for a variety of reasons that we don’t need to go into now I ended up reading a book by a self help guru named Eckhart Tolle, who some of your listeners will have heard of. He’s a really successful self help guru, and I thought the book was, at least the first blush, like incredibly ridiculous.
As I was continuing to read it, and again at this point meditation wasn’t on my radar in any way, I was reading the book largely because I was thinking about doing a story on this guy, because he’s so popular. He started talking about this notion that we all have a voice in our heads, and he’s not referring to schizophrenia or any mental illness, he’s just talking about the human condition that we have this nonstop conversation in our heads all the time, a voice that chases you out of bed in the morning, and it’s just yammering at you all day long, it’s just blah, blah, blah, all the time, thinking about the past, thinking about the future instead of focusing on what’s happening right now. Criticizing people, or criticizing yourself. Wanting stuff. Judging. Just this none stop nattering.
Tolle’s argument is when you’re unaware of it, it owns you. That was a very powerful thing for me, because I realized, yeah, that’s definitely true for me, and this idea of the voice in the head really explained my panic attack, because it was because of my ego, my inner voice, that I went off to war zones without thinking about the consequences, and then I came home and got depressed, and didn’t even know I was depressed, and then did a very dumb thing where I was reaching for recreational drugs, and so that was really powerful, but it totally did not have any advice that I could discern for dealing with the voice in the head.
I started looking around, at first I looked in some very unfruitful places, I don’t even know if that’s a word, but in places that were not fruitful, like self help, and then I ultimately, my wife gave me a book by a shrink in New York City named Doctor Mark Epstein who wrote about, he writes beautiful books about the overlap between psychology and Buddhism, and I realized that all this stuff I liked the most in Eckhart Tolle who had been taken from somebody known as the Buddha. That the Buddha actually did have practical advice, which was meditation. At first, I was like, well, I’m not going to do that, so next.
Then, I don’t know it might have been just Google, well, I actually met Mark Epstein, I called him up, and said, “Will you have a beer with me?” We became friends. We’re still very good friends. Maybe he pointed it out to me, maybe I googled it, but I realized that there was this explosion of scientific research at that point had knocked out, and a lot of press attention. I then started to cover that stuff, and I made friends with the preeminent neuro scientist who has really looked into this, his name is Doctor Richie Davidson, Richard Davidson, he goes by Richie, he’s at the University of Wisconsin, and he’s done many of the most sort of prominent studies on what meditation does to the brain.
I started reporting on that, and in that process I just started to do it. I realized that it wasn’t hippy nonsense. That it is exercise for your brain, and that it has all these benefits. In fact, then I started to learn that all these really impressive people in C-suites, you know executive suites, and athletes, and entertainers, and all these really sort of high performing people have been embracing the practice, and even in the military, because the benefits are becoming clear. Then I really started to think, okay, there’s something I can do here, which is to hopefully make the practice more attractive to people who would otherwise just reject it.
Brett McKay: You mentioned some of the benefits in the beginning, but flush them out, what does the research say that meditation does to our brain, and to our overall, I mean, even physical health?
Dan Harris: Yeah. This will be slightly repetitive, but I’ll flush it out. It reduces the release, and there’s just a really long list, actually, before I get into that, let me just step back and just say one thing, which is that the science moves slowly, and it kind of moves if you’re paying attention in a sort of one step forward two steps back kind of way, because it’s basically, science is an argument taking place in public, because scientists in different labs are doing different kinds of research under different theories, and they’re trying to prove their points, and then other people try to replicate their points to see if they’re full of shit, or whatever. You got to be careful.
I’ve really learned, and my wife is a scientist, my parents are scientists, I was not good enough at math to be a scientist, but I have a lot of respect for it, and I’ve tried to learn not to over hype the science around meditation, because at times people in my position talk about it in ways I think are irresponsible. I just want to issue that caveat. With that being said, the research is really impressive, and so it’s been shown to reduce the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, which is linked to all sorts of, you know, stress is a killer. It’s been shown to reduce blood pressure. It’s been shown to boost your immune system, so they’ve shown that short daily doses of meditation can make you less likely to get sick.
It’s been shown to have a salutary effect on things like irritable bowel syndrome, and psoriasis, both of which are linked to stress. It’s been shown to help with ADHD. One of the areas where it’s the strongest, the research is the strongest is anxiety and depression, both of which I’ve dealt with since I was a child. That’s a really big deal. Then I would say we get into the neuroscience and it’s so fascinating. It shows that it changes the structure of your brain, this science has actually overturned a long lived piece of dogma in the medical community. It was received wisdom for generations. It was in textbooks. But the brain doesn’t change after age 25, or something in there about.
In fact, what this research has shown is that the brain is always changing. It’s been called the organ of experience. It changes based on what you do. If you start practicing violin, certain areas of your brain are going to change in response, having to do with manual dexterity, and other things. Meditation is a systematic way to change key areas of your brain. Focus, is a big one. This is an area where the research is reasonably strong. It has shown that you can through this daily exercise, and we can talk about what it is, but very briefly, in its simplest sense meditation is just paying attention, and then every time you get distracted you start again, and again, and again.
You usually just pay attention to the feeling of your breath coming in, and going out, and then your minds going mutiny on you, and you’ll start thinking all these random thoughts, and that’s totally fine, the whole game is just to notice you’ve become distracted, and start again, and again, and again. This daily kind of mental bicep curl changes the area of the brain associated with focus. Another study that shows that your daily doses of meditation literally grows the gray matter in the areas of the brain associated with self awareness, and with compassion, and it shrinks the gray matter in the area associated with stress. We’re talking about physical changes on the level of your brain.
Another interesting one, since you asked me to geek out, is a study that shows that it changes the default mode for our brain. There’s a network of brain regions called the default mode, so if I was to stop talking, and we would agree to sit in silence for a minute the odds are one or both of our brains would go into what’s called the default mode, which is thinking about yourself, worrying about stuff, thinking about the past, thinking about the future. This is where the mind goes when we are just defaulting to our baseline. Then you can see this in the brain scans. You can see the default mode activating.
When people are meditating, the default mode actually goes quiet, and really interestingly experience meditators actually are seeing much less activation in the default mode even when they are not meditating. In other words, their lives change. What is your life? Your life is whatever is happening in your mind right now. That is your life. You’re mostly not paying attention to it, therefore if your default mode is like most humans, much of your life is just this nonstop, mostly negative yammering internally. That can change.
See, to me this is the animating insight of the whole thing, which is that we think that our traits, our attributes, our psychological attributes are factory setting that cannot be changed, that we are born with a certain amount of patience, compassion, calm, focus, gratitude, whatever, all the things that we want. We may think we want actual things, but what do the things give us? They give us mental states. They make us feel happy, or excited, or fulfilled, or connected, or whatever.
At the end of the day, what we really want are positive mental states. All of these positive mental states actually are not factory setting, they are skills that you can train. The mind is susceptible to training, and that is what meditation is. It’s not sitting on a mountaintop with loincloth, and the wind blowing through your hair the way it’s been presented as part of what I call the worst marketing campaign for anything ever. We’ve been sold a bill of goods when it comes to meditation, and that robs us of our birthright, which is to take responsibility for the nature of our mind. I stumbled across all this. I did not set out to be a self help guru, or whatever the hell I am.
Brett McKay: Right.
Dan Harris: But this is really important stuff, and it’s the best story I’ve ever covered, so I talk about it.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think that flipped a switch for me on meditation is thinking of it as, I barbell train, so I’m thinking when I meditate, it’s like dead lifts for my brain.
Dan Harris: Yes.
Brett McKay: I’m exercising my brain.
Dan Harris: Yes.
Brett McKay: All right. What you do in this book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, it’s your second book, it’s a howto book, but what I love about you, you layout the most common hurdles, or excuses people give for not meditating, well, before we get to that, let’s talk about this, what kind of meditation are you talking about? Because there’s lots of meditation out there.
Dan Harris: Yes.
Brett McKay: There’s transcendental meditation, which I think is the one that a lot of people think of when they do the om, or they say a word over, and over again. There’s mindfulness meditation. There’s loving kindness, or self compassion meditation, so what it is that you’re talking about when you talk about meditation?
Dan Harris: Yeah. That’s a great clarifying question. Richie Davidson likes to say he’s the neuroscientist, that the word meditation is a bit like the word sports, so you know bad mitten, and water polo don’t have a lot in common, so when you use the word meditation generically you could be referring to any number of things, some of them completely ridiculous, and most of your listeners would never want to do them. When I talk about meditation, I’m talking about mindfulness meditation, which is actually derived from Buddhism, but it is stripped of any metaphysical claims or religious lingo, and it’s taught in a secular context in corporations, and the military, in schools, all over the place.
Mindfulness meditation is, the beginning instruction is mostly just to pay attention to the feeling of your breath, coming in, and going out. Then you’re going to get distracted a million times, and then the whole game is just notice that you’ve become distracted, and to start again, and again, and again. There is, you referred to loving kindness, which is kind of an annoying word. We try to reframe that as friendliness, in other words to train the ability to kind of have an overall friendly attitude toward yourself and others, which is actually a much more congenial way to go through life. That is often taught as, and we teach it as, it’s also a Buddhist practice, it’s also been secularized the way mindfulness has, and they’re taught in conjunction, I think, in a very powerful way, because as it turns out there’s a really deeply self interested case for not being an asshole.
When you can reduce your asshole quotient when you can be nicer to yourself, and to others, that changes the nature of your inner weather, and that makes for a better atmosphere for happiness generally, but also for mindfulness meditation. These two practices where you learn how to kind of calm the mind, focus the mind, and become more self aware, that would be mindfulness, twined with friendliness where you train yourself and I can tell you how to do it, it’s a little bit annoying, but actually there’s a lot of science that shows its very good for you, when you twin these two practices, that is where the sweet spot come.
Just because we’re on it, love and kindness meditation, or friendliness meditation, whatever the hell you want to call it, and this is going to sound incredibly annoying to people, and you’re not wrong to think it, it basically asks you to envision, usually you start with yourself, you envision yourself, and then you say these little phrases, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe, may you live with ease, and then you go to a next person, usually it’s a mentor, and then you go to a close friend, which can be a human, or an animal. I have a cat on my lap, right now.
Then you go to somebody you don’t really pay attention to, often referred to as a neutral person that you overlook, and then you go to a difficult person, and then you go to everyone. I have referred to this exercise as Valentine’s Day with a knife to your throat. It really is annoying. However, there is a significant amount of science that shows it has very serious health benefit, and that it can change behavior. I’d like to point out, what is it like in that moment when you do a small act of kindness?
If you hold the door open for somebody on your way into a building, or out of a room, or whatever, if you’re paying attention, what does that feel like? It feels good. That feeling is infinitely scalable and trainable, and that is what you’re doing in this exercise. Those are the two things we teach. Just to answer your question about transcendental meditation, that is derived from Hinduism as opposed to Buddhism. It involves a mantra, which is a word you repeat to yourself, silently. I think there’s plenty of evidence that it’s really good for you, and I have no beef with it, but it’s not what we teach, it’s just a different kind of meditation.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Going back to the benefits of self compassion, or compassion meditation, they found that it is actually showing having self compassion actually boosts success than being hard on yourself. Right?
Dan Harris: Yes.
Brett McKay: Like, I suck. Cutting yourself some slack can actually help you do better.
Dan Harris: Yes.
Brett McKay: Whatever you’re trying to do.
Dan Harris: This is so counterintuitive for me, and I think for a lot of people, because most of us feel that the internal cattle prod is the source of any success that we’re achieving, as it turns out it is possible to have high standards, but to not be so self lacerating, so self flagellating, so self critical that you actually reduce your ability to recover after inevitable setbacks. Nobody’s perfect, A, and B you’re not in control, man, the universe is characterized by entropy and impermanence, and you can work as hard as you want on your podcast, or your YouTube channel, or whatever it is, and exogenous forces way outside of your control can ruin the thing, and you need to be resilient in the face of this, and your inner weather, your inner dialogue, the way you talk to yourself is a huge part of this. This training actually boosts your ability to do it. You’re not telling yourself, hey, sit on the couch, and eat ice cream in perpetuity, you’re just saying, yes, you do need to work hard, but when there are setbacks you don’t need to crush yourself for it.
Brett McKay: It’s not pity. It’s not self pity.
Dan Harris: No.
Brett McKay: Right. There’s a difference. Okay.
Dan Harris: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Let’s get into these hurdles, here. The one hurdle that you often hear people say, “I just don’t have time for that.” Right? “I’ve got kids. I got my career. I’ve got stuff after my job that I have to do. How do I make time for sitting on a cushion, and thinking about my breath?”
Dan Harris: Yeah. I have a lot of sympathy for that. I get it. We’re busy, and I think the perception of time starvation is even more prominent now, because of technology. I’m not anti-technology, by the way, but I think one of the downsides of technology is that we feel besieged, so I have a lot of sympathy for this, and my little shtick is that I have good news, and then I have even better news. The good news is that I think five to 10 minutes a day is a great meditation habit, and while the science has not yet answered, everybody wants to know, what’s the least I can do to derive the advertised benefits? Science has not answered that question, but I have spoken to many scientists, and the sense I get is that five to 10 minutes a day would be a great way to get many of the benefits. You can always scale from there, if you want.
The better news is that I actually leave one minute daily-ish counts. If you did one a minute in most days, you would get a lot of benefits. The two most prominent are one is just this ability to stay on task, to notice when the mind has wandered, and bring it back. The bigger one is mindfulness, which you could call it, self awareness. The skill of knowing what’s happening in your head right now without getting carried away by it, and it’s these mindlessness, the un-self awareness that leads us to do all the stupid shit we do. It’s why you find yourself with your hand in the fridge when you’re not hungry, or you’re checking your email in the middle of a conversation with somebody else, or you’re sending an inappropriate email, or making a comment that ruins the next 48 hours of you’re married, whatever, that’s all because you’re just carried away by your emotions, you’re yanked around.
Meditation throws you up against this inner conversation, as soon as you sit and try to focus on one thing, your breath, you’re going to see how crazy you are, because all these thoughts are going to rush into your head, motions, random factoids from your childhood, whatever, and seeing that is the gain. That is the important thing, because it gives you more of a leg up for when you’re ambushed by anger, or whatever during your daily life, and you’re better able not to get carried away.
Brett McKay: All right five minutes. Everyone’s got five minutes, instead of scrolling through Instagram you can meditate for five minutes, just think about your breath for five minutes.
Dan Harris: Yeah. You know, I really like what you just said, because I go through Instagram, but I think one of the things you see when you start to have a little bit more self awareness is at some point Instagram goes from being kind of a fun little diversion to maybe sparking promo, or making you think that your life is insufficiently curated, or you don’t have enough money, or you’re just doing it for reasons you don’t even understand, and you’re sucked into a hole, whatever. I actually think that you can do both. You know, you may use that as a trigger to say, “Oh, you know, I’ve done this for a couple minutes, but now that I’m on my phone, let me use an app to meditate.”
I think there are lots of ways to create habits, and that may be one of them. I mentioned apps, there are lots of really good meditation apps, I’m obviously partial to mine, which is called, 10% Happier. I do love the fact that this industry has grown up to sort of co-opt the phone, which is the engine of our distraction, and often misery, and use it to teach you how to do what can be kryptonite for the before mentioned, unhappiness.
Brett McKay: Right. Time is not an excuse. You don’t need to do very much meditation, five, 10 minutes. Okay. What about- This is one that my wife brought up, what do you say to people who say, “It’s just really boring to sit there,” how do you get people over that hurdle?
Dan Harris: Boring, is just another thing to notice. What we’re doing in meditation is really just getting a sense of what our actual life is about, and getting a sense of how rapidly thoughts come and go, and how powerfully emotions take us over, and boredom is just one of those emotions. The anecdote to that is to get curious about it, like what is this? What kind of thoughts are accompanied by boredom? How does it show up in my body? Do I get a dull feeling in my head? Then when that boredom hits you in the middle of a conversation with your elderly aunt, or in the middle of work, you’re not so busy to ignore your aunt’s and be unkind, or pull yourself away from the task that you actually need to get done, and reflexively go check Twitter, you actually are surfing your emotions as opposed to drowning in them.
Boredom is one thing, anger is another. Sadness is another. All of these emotions for guys, we don’t like to talk about, I’m not big on talking about emotions, but I think we can all admit its incontrovertible fact that we have them, and when we’re unwilling to sort of become a contessour of our neurosis they own us. Then they dominate how we show up in relationships. They dominate how we show up at work. They dominate in how we perform in our work. Boredom is a very powerful force, and it’s gotten more prominent in an era when at any given moment you can conquer boredom on your phone. I think it’s worth looking at your life as like how constructive is that for you? If you actually boosted your ability to be curious, to pay attention, how much more effective would you be?
Brett McKay: Right. Lean into the boredom.
Dan Harris: Yes.
Brett McKay: Actually just observe it. Okay.
Dan Harris: What we do in meditation is this counter intuitive thing, when we’re over taken, so we’re sitting there paying attention to our breath, just a slight correction we’re not actually thinking about our breath, we’re doing this counter intuitive thing of just feeling it, the raw data of the physical sensation. Feeling the belly rising and falling. Then we’re carried away. We’re off very quickly. Half a breath in, some thought comes along, and you know that you’ve become distracted, and you start again, and again, and again, but if you get ambushed or overtaken by a powerful emotion, boredom, sadness, anger, then the move is to investigate.
To see what kind of thoughts accompany this? What does it feel like in my body when I’m overtaken by this emotion? That curiosity boosts your familiarity with what an emotion is like, and then how does that show up in real life? What’s the point? You’ll be having a conversation with your wife, she’ll say something that annoys you, and then 10% of the time instead of just being on a hair trigger, and saying something that you’re going to pay for, for years, you might actually understand how anger shows up in your body. What kind of thoughts? Is your face getting red? Is your chest buzzing? Whatever. Then you’re able to, it’s like having an inner meteorologist who sees the storm before it makes landfall, and then you are able to respond wisely to the situation, instead of reacting blindly, and that’s one of the big things we talk about all the time. Respond not react. That’s what this does for you.
Brett McKay: Here’s another hurdle that people encounter with meditation is that we’re goal oriented beings. Right. We have dopamine that makes us want to achieve things, go after things, and we need to see progress. Right? What i love about barbell training is I can see that if I put in the work, the effort I can add weight to the bar. Is there like a metric like that with meditation? How do you know you’re progressing? Right?
Dan Harris: Yes.
Brett McKay: And making progress. Because a lot of people, they say, “Oh, I’m just not seeing any benefit, I’m just going to stop.” How do you stop that from happening?
Dan Harris: I think it’s a great question. I feel the same way. I think we’re heading toward a universe where you’ll have neuro feedback, where you’ll actually start to see, you know, you’ll start to be able to measure your brain activity in real time, and then you’ll really get answers, but in some ways that’s actually, for anybody who’s done and stuck with meditation more than say a month, all of this stuff becomes a little laughable because you may start meditating because you get a brain scan that shows you that your brain is changing, or you’re performing better on some sort of neuro feedback test, but that is not what will keep you meditating. What keeps you meditating is because you’re less of an asshole to yourself, and others. That is what changes your life, and at that point whatever a neuro feedback thing tells you doesn’t make a difference, because it’s irrelevant.
What I see as the tipping point for people in terms of establishing this habit is starting to see that they’re responding not reacting in their actual life. That actually, whatever they’re experience on cushion is irrelevant in many ways. For many of us, myself included, still nine years into meditating I can sit down and meditate and be utterly distracted, that is not the measure. You’re not meditating to become a better meditator. You’re meditating to become better at your life. That is why we do this thing.
I don’t know anybody, or I can only think of one person, and I’ve been in this game for a while, who has meditated more than a few weeks at a time, who has said, “I’m not seeing any benefit, I’m out.” I just haven’t seen it in nature, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, you may have listeners who are raising their hand right now, or pounding their steering wheel saying, “No. I’m that person.” and to you I apologize, but I’ve had this standing challenge since I wrote my first book four and a half years ago, and I said, “Just try meditation for a month, and if you feel like it’s bullshit, send me a note on Twitter and tell me I’m a moron.” People tell me I’m a moron on Twitter all the time, but never for that.
I feel really confident that if you make a commitment to do this for a few weeks that the measurement issue will evaporate because you will notice that in the middle of conversations where you once you would have taken it to an 11 that you’re no longer doing it as much, you will still do it, you will not be perfect, that is not on the table, here, imperturbability and perfection are not on the table, here. But gradual 10% improvement which compounds over time, like any good investment that is on the table, and that is really exciting.
Brett McKay: Another hurdle you talk about, too, is some people say, “I’m not going to meditate, because it’s going to make me lose my edge,” I think one of the examples that was given, it was like, “If I become too chill, because of meditation am I going to become like Rocky in Rocky III.”
Dan Harris: Yes.
Brett McKay: “I get beat up by,” was it Mr. T, that was the one where he gets beat up with Mr. T. Right.
Dan Harris: Yes, it was. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Does mediation cause you to lose that edge, that drive that you have, that you want to just go after things?
Dan Harris: I worried about this for years, because I really believed, you know I have this expression that was, this motto that was handed down to me by my father who’s an academic physician in Boston, his theory is, the price of security is insecurity, which is a great thing to tell your child.
Brett McKay: Right.
Dan Harris: But I really believed that. I still believe it, to be honest with you, that you have to work really hard and a certain amount worrying, and plotting, and planning is part of the deal. It’s inescapable. The question is how far are you going to take it? What are the ramifications? At some point the rending of garments, and mashing of teeth is actually counter productive, and what meditation helps you do is to boost yourself awareness, so that you can see when you crossed the line from what I call constructive anguish, useful worrying into useless rumination, which just reduces your effectiveness, reduces your resiliency, makes you unpleasant, damages your relationships. I am not arguing for what might be described as complacency, that’s different from what I’m arguing for, which is a kind of sort of higher order of happiness, which is more complicated than just being blissed-out and blank.
Brett McKay: Okay. I got you. You highlight that even the military’s exploring meditation for this purpose. I mean, instead of blunting the edge, it actually sharpens it even more, because of the awareness that you build up through meditation.
Dan Harris: Do you think if you were more focused and less yanked around by random emotions that you’d be better or worse at your job?
Brett McKay: Better, for sure.
Dan Harris: Yeah. That’s what we’re doing here.
Brett McKay: I like that. All right. Another hurdle people have is meditation looks self indulgent. I think there was actually an Onion headline about this, mindful a-holes even more of an a-hole since he started mediating.
Dan Harris: Maybe lectures everybody.
Brett McKay: Right.
Dan Harris: Yeah.
Brett McKay: What about that hurdle? It just looks like, oh, you’re just self indulging.
Dan Harris: Okay. I think there are two issues here. I loved that Onion piece, and I can’t remember the headline, so there are two issues. One is, is just sitting there feeling your breath coming in and going out, totally navel gazing, self centered, self indulgent. I mean, I think you could take it too far, and it would become that if you were neglecting your responsibilities, but the cliché that often gets thrown around, which I like, actually, is the airline safety instruction, they always say, put your own oxygen mask on first. You want to be a youthful person in the world, it’s very hard to do so if you’re a mess. A few minutes of mental exercise is roughly akin to the hour or so that many of us spend in the gym.
Is that self indulgent? No, because your kids need you to be healthy. Your wife needs you to be healthy. You’re happier when you’re fit. It makes you a better person. By the same token, a few minutes of doing the barbells for your brain, I don’t think is self indulgent, now, again, you could take it too far. Speaking of too far the Onion article speaks to I think a related issue, which is that are you going to become very preachy, and annoying? That is a real danger, because people, and I think for the best of intentions they start meditating, they start seeing that they’re responding instead of reacting, and it’s a very exciting feeling the first time you start to notice that showing up in a stress test, in the crucible of work, or your relationships, and you start telling everybody about it.
I would recommend strongly that you not do that, because it’s an incredible feeling, and it’s preachy. You’re basically saying to people, your broken, that’s the way the message is perceived. I always talk about, I loved this article, this cartoon that ran in The New Yorker that had these two women having lunch, and one of the says to the other, “I’ve been gluten free for a week, and I’m already annoying.” That is what happens with meditation. I just recommend extreme caution. I love, of course, when people recommend my book, or my app, or my podcast, or whatever, to somebody else, I love that, and I have to tread carefully here, because I don’t want to step on my own you know what in order to help people here, but i do think you need to be very careful in how you recommend this practice to others, and I think there are two modalities.
One, I think is to just talk about what it’s done for you, if it comes up naturally. My rule is I actually never talk about meditation unless somebody asks. The other modality, which I think is the more successful one is just let people come to you. I think most of us if we start to meditate, we will start showing up differently in various areas of our life, eventually somebody’s going to ask you, and I think you can just very simply say, “Yeah. I started meditating, and it’s made a big difference,” and kind of leave it at that, because I think the excitement is off putting for people.
A lot of people really resist meditation for a whole variety of reasons, some of the quite profound. I think you just want to be, you know there’s nothing more intimate than the mind. We can talk about sex in ways that are actually pretty comfortable to talk about, because we’ve reduced it to a cliché, or we’re talking about other people, or we just have a pretty coarse culture these days, whatever, but the mind is like really where the game is played, and so I think it’s a thought freighted area, and I think you just want to step to enjoy them.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Going back to this idea that it’s actually not self indulgent to meditate. I’m sure your wife really appreciates that you started meditating. I’m sure your less of a hair trigger, she doesn’t have to walk on eggshells around you anymore, as much, maybe. Yeah. It actually was great for your relationship.
Dan Harris: Yes. Yes, but it’s not perfect. I retain the capacity to be a schmuck in all sorts of ways. As a side, I’m working on a new book right now about kindness, which is I think a really interesting concept, because it’s hard to talk about kindness without being incredibly annoying. I want to call it the Self Interested Case for Not Being an Asshole, because actually there’s a ton of research that shows that kind, compassionate people are healthier, happier, and more successful at work, and they have better relationships.
As part of this project I did what’s called the 360 review, you may know what it is, some of your listeners may know what it is, I actually wasn’t familiar with it, but it’s this incredibly intense thing where you hire a firm and they interview a dozen, maybe more, people in your life, personal life, and professional life off the record, anonymously and they can say whatever the hell they want about you, and then they write up a report, and you read it.
Two days ago I read mine and it was brutal, and I’ve been meditating for nine years, and I am still a schmuck in many, many ways. It was super, super humbling. This is not going to solve all of your problems, that’s why I called the first book 10% Happier, that’s why my app is called 10% Happier, because I’m counter programming I think against some of the sort of irresponsible people in the self help world, or peddling snake oil.
Brett McKay: Where do people go to learn more about the book, and the app, and what you’re doing?
Dan Harris: I think the one stop shopping is 10percenthappier.com where you can get the app, I mean, the apps available, you know, Google Play, and the Apple app store, and you could do it there, too. The podcast is everywhere you get podcasts. Books are wherever you get books. One stop shopping would be 10percenthappier.com. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Awesome. If your game for it, Dan, would you be game for guiding us through a one minute meditation, like giving-
Dan Harris: Totally. I would just say if you’re driving, listen to this and don’t do it, but listen to it because you can do it on your own later, it’s not complicated. The cliché is that it’s simple, but not easy. It’s actually hard, but it’s not rocket science. For anybody who’s not driving, the first step is to assume the position, which does not have to be cross legged on the floor, or anything like that. You can sit in a chair, if your on a subway, you can sit on the subway, wherever you’re sitting is fine, you can sprawl yourself out on the ground, too, it’s totally fine, too. Even if your standing up, it’s fine.
Wherever your sitting or stranding it’s totally cool. The second is close your eyes. If you’re in a place where you don’t want to close your eyes, if you’re on a subway, and you would actually prefer to just kind of gaze neutrally and softly at a spot on the ground, that’s totally cool, too. Then you can be an incognito meditator. Either close your eyes, or just kind of dim them, and then bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in, and going out.
Pick one spot, like your nose, your chest, or your belly, and you’re not thinking about the breath, but your just like as I said earlier feeling the raw data of the physical sensation rising in the belly, go on to the belly … It might help, I find it very useful to use a little mental note of in and out … Then as soon as you start to do this, you will notice very quickly that you get distracted. You hear some background noises like there’s a big car horn that just honked outside of my building, or you started thinking about what’s for lunch, what do I have to do today, where do gerbils run wild, whatever. The whole game is just to notice when you’ve become distracted, and to start again, and again, and again.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome.
Dan Harris: That’s it.
Brett McKay: Okay. All right. Yeah. I was actually doing a little bit then I heard the car horn in the building. No, it was good. Hey, Dan, thanks so much for your time, it’s been an absolute pleasure.
Dan Harris: Yeah. Great questions. Thanks for having me on, I really appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest here is Dan Harris, he’s the author of the books, 10% Happier, and Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics they’re both available on amazon.com. You can also find out more information about 10% Happier at 10percenthappier.com. You can even try the app free for seven days. Also, check out our show notes, at aom.is/meditation where you can link to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic …
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure you check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you want to check out the rest of our archives from the podcast make sure you go to artofmanliness.com/podcasts and see all 400 plus there. As always, thank you for continuing to support, until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly …