Think you can’t meditate? Let a former skeptic prove you wrong

Think you can’t meditate? Let a former skeptic prove you wrong

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Twenty years ago, Dan Harris appeared to have it all. He had joined ABC News in 2000 by age 29, and had covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to other historic events around the world.

What viewers didn’t see was the tumult behind the scenes: Harris experiencing depression from his time as a war correspondent and anxiety from working in a high-pressure industry. He tried to stay afloat by using cocaine, ecstasy and prescription sleeping pills.

It would all come crashing down on June 7, 2004, when Harris had to sub for anchor Robin Roberts on Good Morning America.

While reporting news updates, he had a nationally televised panic attack that “was the direct result of an extended run of mindlessness, a period of time during which I was focused on advancement and adventure, to the detriment of pretty much everything else,” Harris wrote in his 2014 book, “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.”

But this moment, though frightening, would be the catalyst for a journey that propelled him from anguish, drug abuse and being a meditation skeptic to mindfulness — and to a total occupational overhaul. Now, his career focus is meditation and happiness, and helping others struggling with the thought traps keeping them from a more mindful life.

Harris typically tries to meditate for a total of an hour every day, he said. - Courtesy Dan Harris
Harris typically tries to meditate for a total of an hour every day, he said. - Courtesy Dan Harris

It did take a few years for him to get to meditation, after trying out different psychiatrists and therapy. Before Harris began meditating in summer 2009, “I had no real understanding of it except for a baseline reflexive hostility,” he said. “Not only was I raised by atheists, but they were also recovering hippies. They had forced me to do yoga and go to granola health food stores, and we did a lot of camping, and I just found all that sh*t very annoying.”

Raised by scientists, Harris was convinced by seeing the scientific research on meditation — studies that showed meditation can lower blood pressure, boost your immune system, and alleviate anxiety and depression. A regular practice can also rewire brain regions associated with stress, focus, compassion and self-awareness, science has shown.

He also credits the work of Dr. Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist and Buddhist then in private practice in Manhattan, and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, another scientist who teaches a secularized form of Buddhist meditation and is a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Masschusetts Medical School. (In the preface of the recently released 10th anniversary edition of his book, Harris acknowledges how the focus on Western scientists and gurus devalues the contributions of Asian and Asian American people, and how he has been complicit and tried to rectify these mistakes.)

Harris recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of his book "10% Happier," a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. - Dan Harris/Harper Collins Publishers
Harris recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of his book "10% Happier," a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. - Dan Harris/Harper Collins Publishers

Harris is now a meditation expert himself. “I find that I just am less yanked around by my urges and thoughts and emotions,” he said. “When I screw up, I’m quicker to apologize. I’m more focused on the baseline level of calm that I didn’t have before.”

When it comes to the benefits, perfection isn’t one of them, he noted. “I retain the capacity to be a schmuck,” he added. “It’s more like you can get better with a little bit of work over time. And that work will build on itself — the 10% compounds annually.”

Harris tackled some common barriers to trying meditation for CNN and suggested how you can overcome them.

Change ‘I can’t’ to ‘I’ll try’

One of the most common excuses people have for not meditating is thinking they won’t be able to focus or sit still long enough. But Harris contends that if you notice you’re getting distracted while meditating, that’s actually “proof that you’re doing it right.”

Distractibility is an evolutionarily beneficial aspect of the human condition, as it keeps us safe, he added. “Clearing your mind is impossible unless you’re enlightened, or you have died.”

Therefore, the active “seeing of the distraction is proof of success,” he added, “because what you want over time in meditation is to understand how the mind works.”

“The whole point of meditation is not to stop thinking — it’s to focus on one thing, usually the breath coming in and going out. And then every time you get distracted, you start again and again and again,” Harris said. “That starting over is like a bicep curl for your brain, and that’s the mechanism by which the brain changes.”

Getting familiar with the fact that you’re thinking is key for developing the skill of recognizing thoughts or feelings and intentionally choosing what to do about them, rather than unconsciously and automatically reacting. It’s similar to when you’re exercising for the first time, and the first couple weeks might be challenging, Harris said. Then it can get easier, but it’s not supposed to be effortless.

Others feel they can’t find the time or don’t know where to start. But when you want to form a habit, the best move is to start small, Harris said.

Start at one minute of meditation daily for a couple weeks before increasing your time, he recommends. Over time, you might notice yourself moving from extrinsic motivation — such as being advised to do it or reading the research on it — to the intrinsic motivation that helps you maintain the habit because you feel it’s helping you.

There are many free or inexpensive resources that can help you get started, such as those on apps, YouTube or Harris’ own website, or in books, he said. And some cities have meditation or mindfulness centers where you can learn from a teacher and practice with others — another great way to maintain a habit since it keeps you accountable.

The fear of being well

Some people are also of the mindset that “the only way to survive is to be, like, constantly neurotic” lest they lose their edge or ambition, Harris said.

But consider prominent and successful advocates for meditation that include athletes, musicians, TV hosts or corporate executives, such as LeBron James, Oprah Winfrey, Arianna Huffington, Jerry Seinfeld, LinkedIn Executive Chairman Jeff Weiner and ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos.

“Do these people seem like they’ve lost their edge?” Harris said. “Do you think your edge will go away if you’re more focused, less emotionally reactive and a little bit calmer during stressful situations? No, actually the opposite is true.”

READ MORE: One habit could reduce your fears of public speaking, criticism, failure and more

Harris’ own story is also a testament to how your relationship to work or your values can change once you have reached a healthier place — and how the success in that newfound reality can be different, but maybe even better or more fulfilling, than what you had imagined or planned.

“This is not the version of success the pre-meditation version of me thought was what I wanted. I wanted to stay in network news and climb as high as I could,” Harris said. “But this opened up a whole new realm for me. I publish books, have my own podcasts and social media feeds, and I continue to have opportunities. I started a company, and I’m exploring a new one.

“There’s so much more potential than I had imagined, and I am absolutely not less ambitious.”

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