The former news anchor at the center of the mindfulness movement
I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I'm addicted to possibility.
It's not exactly "grass-is-greener" syndrome. It's more like the excitement that comes out of the place in between change. When you've altered course – and in your heart of hearts, you're not sure if it was the best choice – there is so much possibility in all the unknowns ahead.
I've made a lot of changes in my life. I've lived in three different countries, eight U.S. cities. I've bounced around in all kinds of jobs: teacher, retail salesperson, bartender, news producer, war reporter, radio show host. You get the idea. At one point I was working for an NPR show called the Bryant Park Project out of New York and a recruiter from ABC News called me up. A few months later I was starting over again in a new city – Washington, D.C. – with a new company in a medium I had zero experience with – television. It was terrifying. It was also exhilarating, the newness of it all.
When I was there I met this guy named Dan Harris. Well, I didn't really "meet" him so much as say words into a camera after he said my name. Dan was one of the anchors for ABC News at the time and it often fell to him to read the introductions to my stories on the air. We had actually met in real life a few years earlier when we were both reporters covering the religion beat – me for NPR and him for ABC. But in 2008-2009 I was the correspondent and he was the bigwig anchor who I thought was destined to sit in that chair for the rest of his career.
In 2014, Dan Harris published a memoir that was also a beginner's guide to meditation, called 10% Happier. It became such a hit that he made a huge change himself. He launched a meditation app and started a podcast all about mindfulness, and eventually left his job at ABC to focus on this new venture full-time.
When I started this whole spiritual search, and this radio series, I knew right away that I wanted to talk with Dan. I wanted to understand what had happened to provoke such a big change in his professional life. And as someone who has, at times, fallen under the spell of change – as someone who was for many years always on the move – I wanted to understand what he has learned by sitting still.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel Martin: Part of your origin story is this moment that you had on set when things started to go haywire in your brain.
Dan Harris: Yeah, I've been dining out on this freakout for a while. But yes, on the set of Good Morning America in 2004, on a warm June morning, I was filling in for Robin Roberts and I would come on at the top of each hour of the show and read some headlines. I had filled in for her many times before so I didn't have any reason to foresee what was about to happen. A few seconds into my spiel, my lungs seized up, my heart rate started to rise, my mouth got dry and it became impossible for me to speak, which is very inconvenient if you're a news anchor. And I had to bail out and toss it back to the main hosts of the show. It was just terrifying and humiliating.
Martin: So what changes did that provoke?
Harris: It's not a neat and tidy story where I had the panic attack and then became a Buddhist. That's not what happened. But I did make some immediate changes, one of which was that I stopped doing drugs. Part of the panic attack was fueled by the fact that after having spent many years in war zones I, very stupidly, started to self-medicate with recreational drugs, including cocaine.
I learned that even though I hadn't been doing drugs that often, and I wasn't high on the air, it was enough to change my brain chemistry and make it more likely for somebody who had a preexisting proclivity for anxiety and panic to have a panic attack. So I quit doing drugs, I started seeing a psychiatrist very regularly for many years and then eventually through a combination of psychotherapy and my beat as a religion reporter, I stumbled upon meditation and that made a really big difference for me.
Martin: You've spent many years at this point thinking about mindfulness, but it's really changed in America — I mean it's a huge industry now. As someone at the center of the American mindfulness movement ... is mindfulness the same as Buddhism?
Martin: Are you a Buddhist?
Martin: You are?
Harris: Yes. I'm a Buddhist and mindfulness is not the same as Buddhism. Mindfulness as it's currently practiced in the West is, in my opinion, a great thing. There are critiques of the modern mindfulness movement that I actually think have validity, and yet I still think it's a great development, a positive development for the species, frankly.
One of the critiques is that in the West we've taken one of the active ingredients of Buddhism, mindfulness, and pulled it out of its original context, and that can lead to some misunderstandings. I think that's actually true as far as it goes, but I don't think it should doom the entire enterprise.
Mindfulness was one of the qualities of mind that the Buddha, a genius who lived 2,600 years ago, talked about to his followers. You can kind of understand mindfulness as a quality of self-awareness that allows you to see how chaotic your mind is without getting carried away by it. We have this rushing river of thoughts and urges and emotions, but we don't have any visibility into this nonstop cacophony in our minds, and because we don't see it clearly it just owns us most of the time. And mindfulness is a way to kind of step out of the Matrix and to see how wild the mind is – to see the contents of your consciousness so that you don't get carried away by it.
That's an incredibly useful thing that the Buddha talked about, and I'm glad that we're practicing it increasingly in the West. And there's all of this evidence to show that meditation or mindfulness meditation techniques have all of these benefits for the brain and the rest of the body, and even for our behavior. But that's not the whole Buddhist story.
Martin: Right. So these things are separate. You can practice mindfulness and not necessarily ascribe or define yourself as an adherent to Buddhism.
Martin: Is the difference then that mindfulness is Buddhism without the sacrifices that the religion mandates?
Harris: Buddhism is such an interesting thing or not-a-thing to consider. Is Buddhism a religion? Yeah. Is it a philosophy? Yeah. Is it a science of mind? Yeah. It's so many things and I think what is true is that you can practice parts of it. So I'm a Buddhist, but I won't sit here and pound the table and say that enlightenment and rebirth are real because I don't have any evidence.
Buddha was very clear – this is why Buddhism appeals to skeptics like me – he was clear that we should not take anything he said at face value. The phrase he used in the ancient Indian language Pali is "ehipassiko," meaning: Come see for yourself.
Martin: As someone who's known you from afar for a long time – I mean, you were the anchor guy who read my intros to my [weekend reporting] – this is a big evolution for you, Dan.
Martin: It's a big change. But I guess I'm interested in the process by which you arrived at this point. When you were first introduced to meditation, did it take you a while to start to identify as a Buddhist?
Harris: Oh yeah. And I'd still say I'm a secular skeptic in some ways. One of my favorite descriptions of Buddhism is that it's not a thing to believe it; it's a thing to do. And I see Buddhism as a set of practices that help you understand fundamental truths in your bones.
What changed my mind about Buddhism was recognizing that this practice that I was doing, this practice of meditation, was rooted in this ancient tradition that had this incredible intellectual infrastructure around it. That took my secular mindfulness and made it just way more interesting.
Martin: Do you think Buddhism works in American culture?
Harris: Yeah. One of the hallmarks of Buddhism is that it adapts to any culture it enters. I think that's largely beautiful and I think we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that this is in its origin, an Asian tradition. And uh, I think one of the mistakes I think I've made is to get overly focused on the scientists and the western teachers and to deemphasize the Asian roots of this practice; that's a mistake that I'm trying to rectify as my career progresses.
I think it's quite easy for white people in white-dominated Buddhist communities to lose sight of the roots of the practice. And I would just say that that's a blind spot that should be looked at.
Martin: What do you think about the corporatization of Buddhism in America?
Harris: I think I lean toward both-and here. Like this is a cliche, but you gotta speak to people where they are. I'm interested in what works to make people happier or less miserable, however you wanna frame that. And I also think the critiques of the corporatization, what's often called McMindfulness, that can be true at the same time. I agree with some of the critiques and I feel that at the end of the day more mindfulness is better than less mindfulness. I'd rather see this stuff get out there even if it's not the way I would personally do it.
Harris: Are you meditating?
Martin: So it's interesting you should ask. I tried right after 10% Happier came out, and then like most people, life happens and you don't anymore. My excuse forever was that I had this job that I had to get up super early in the morning for, and if you don't carve out that time in the morning then you can't find the time.
And then there have been different periods where a bad thing will happen to a family member or something and I've tried to get back into it. There's just a lot of dark stuff in your head sometimes and it takes real skill I think. It's hard, Dan.
Harris: I didn't ask that to get you to beat yourself up. I hear two things in there that I think are really legit. One is it's hard to find the time. That's super true. And the second is that it's hard to do the practice. Even on a good day it's hard to meditate because the mind is all over the place. But if you've got something upsetting going on in your life, well it's quite possible you're going to get a front-row seat IMAX movie of that if you meditate.
Harris: All of that is true. I guess I would just say that everything we know about the science of habit formation and human behavior change is that one of the most successful things is to start very small. Aim to do one minute most days, or two minutes. That can be a really good way to start.
As for the practice itself and how distractible we are, people often tell themselves a story about how they're bad meditators when they get distracted. But it is the waking up from distraction and starting over that is success. The whole point is to get distracted and start again and again and again. Because when you wake up from distraction you're seeing how wild your mind is. And then when you see it, when you get familiar with the chaos of the mind, then it doesn't own you as much. That's mindfulness.
Tune in Sunday nights to NPR for Enlighten Me with Rachel Martin during All Things Considered.
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