[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than a million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
Today’s very special episode on the Science of Success, this is episode 100. I couldn’t imagine more than two years ago when we set out to start doing this show that we would do over a hundred episodes and we would interview so many amazing, incredible experts, but I’m super excited today. In this episode we’re going to discuss how our guest went from a hard-nosed skeptic who thought self-help was BS to someone who uncovered the evidence-based growth strategies that actually work.
We talk about our guest’s journey from meeting self-help gurus, to spiritual leaders, and neuroscientists to discover the biggest lessons about improving your mind and body and the simple scientifically validated tools that evidence demonstrates are the best way to be happier, with our guest; Dan Harris.
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In our previous episode, we discussed the groundbreaking research behind the ancient molecule that fuels peak performance, look at the foundations of neuro-economics, talked about how our brains react during social interactions. We examined how our brained are designed to connect and built to work cooperatively, and we dug into the power of oxytocin and how you can increase it in your life, with Dr. Paul Zak. If you want to know the science behind what makes your brain happy, listen to that episode.
[0:03:13.2] MB: Today, we have another awesome guest on the show, Dan Harris. Dan is a correspondent for ABC News and the co-anchor for the weekend edition of Good Morning America. He regularly contributes to Nightline 2020 and World News and has covered stories from all over the world, including war reporting in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as investigative reports in Haiti, Cambodia, the Congo and much more.
Dan is the author of the book 10% Happier and his work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Dr. Oz, Good Morning America and much more.
Dan, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:45.0] DH: Thanks for having me on. Appreciate it.
[0:03:46.7] MB: We’re very excited to have you on here today. I’d love to start out, you have a fascinating background and story around what kind of lead you down this path of studying self-help and meditation more deeply. Could you share that story?
[0:04:00.8] DH: Sure. First, let me apologize for any background noise you may hear. I’m actually at my hose and there’s possibility for noise in the background. If that happens, I apologize in advance. I am a reporter, a pretty skeptical guy. I didn’t have a lot of preexisting interest in things like self-help and meditation. I think it’d be safe to say that I was, for most of my life, I thought that stuff was bullshit would be probably the technical word.
What started to change that for me was that back in 2004, I had a panic attack on live television. I was anchoring the news updates on Good Morning America, so that’s kind of a term of art for the person who comes on at the top of each hour and reads the headlines. Just gives you a basic rundown of here are the headlines of the day. I had been — At that state in my career, it wasn’t my full-time job. I was kind of filling in that morning on that beat, but I had done it many times before. So there was no specific reason that I was aware of for what was about to happen, which was that I basically just freaked out. It was like 7:04 in the morning and that the main hosts of the show tossed it over to me and said, “Okay. Here is Dan. He’s going to give us the headlines in the morning,” and just a few seconds into — All I had to do was read six voice overs, just basically quick stories off of the teleprompter and then I’d be done.
Again, I was in my early 30s. I had been doing this work for, at that point, 10 years. Again, this was a pretty basic assignment for me and a few seconds into it I just was overcome with fear. My heart started raising, my lungs seized up, I couldn’t breathe, my mind was raising, my palms were sweating, my mouth dried up. It was just classic fight or flight response, and I had to do something radical to get myself out of the situation, which was I just basically quit. I somehow squeaked out, “Back to you,” to the main hosts of the show, and they looked a little surprised and just took over from there.
As embarrassing as that was, actually what was more embarrassing was what caused it. I was and still am, really, a very ambitious news reporter and that point in my life I had spent a lot of time overseas covering the aftermath of 9/11, so the war in Afghanistan. I’ve spent a lot of time in Pakistan as well. I covered The Second Intifada in Israel. I spent a lot of time in the West Bank in Gaza. I made something like six trips to Iraq covering the war there, and that had produced for me an undiagnosed depression. I was having trouble getting out of bed. I felt like I had a little grade fever all the time, and the coping mechanism, which was extraordinarily stupid, was I started to self-medicate with recreational drugs, including cocaine and ecstasy. Just to be clear, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, where there’s pounding Quaaludes every five minutes. My drug use was not like that. It was pretty intermittent and it was never when I was working, and I was never high in the air or anything like that.
After I had the panic attack I went to a shrink who is an expert in panic and he’s asking me a bunch of questions trying to figure out what went wrong. One of the questions he asked was, “Do you do drugs?” I officially said, “Yeah, I do a little bit.” He gave me a look, one of those classic shrinky looks that communicated the following sentiment, “Okay, asshole. Mystery solved.” He pointed out that even though I hadn’t been doing drugs that long or that frequently, it was enough to artificially raise the level of adrenalin in my brain and primed me to have a panic attack.
That was a huge aha moment for me, and I realized very quickly that I’ve been very stupid and that set me off on a long, winding, weird journey that ultimately led me to meditation. I’ll stop talking there, but that’s the basic fact story.
[0:08:12.9] MB: One of the most interesting things that I really connected with about your story was how the panic attack itself was really a manifestation of years of buildup and things all kind of culminating in that single moment. It wasn’t just something at that particular time that triggered it, but it was all of these kind of underlying factors that slowly accumulated.
[0:08:35.0] DH: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Sorry, you’re hearing a little noise. It’s what I would call a sort of a cascade of mindlessness. It was the opposite of mindfulness, which is what you learn in meditation. Where I just wasn’t in touch with my own — I wasn’t in touch with a thunderously obvious fact that most of us are not in touch with, which is that we have a voice in our heads by which I’m not referring to schizophrenia or hearing voices or anything like that. I’m talking about your inner narrator, the voice that chases you out of bed in the morning and is yammering at you all day long and asks you constantly, like wanting stuff or not wanting stuff, judging people, comparing yourself to other people, judging yourself, thinking about the past or thinking about the future to the detriment of whatever is happening right now.
I have a friend, a guy named Sam Harris, who’s maybe familiar to some of your listeners. It’s a good friend of mind and he’s also really into meditation. He has this wisecrack that he makes occasionally, which is that when he thinks about the voice in his head, he feels like he’s been hijacked by the most boring person alive who just says the same shit over and over, most of it negative, all of it self-referential.
What I realized, what I came to realize in my journeys after the panic attack was that when you’re unaware of this nonstop conversation that you are having with yourself, it yanks you around. It’s why eat when we’re not hungry or we check our email in the middle of a conversation with our child or we lose our temper when it’s really not strategically wise. For me, the voice in the head is why I had gone off to warzone without really thinking about the psychological consequences. I was really sort of wrapped up in idealism and curiosity and ambition, and then I came home, got depressed and was insufficiently self-aware to even know it, and then I blindly self-medicated and it all blew up in my face.
[0:10:27.7] MB: I think that’s so powerful, and you see — One of the things that you talk about in the book and in the stories that you’ve shared is that often times all of these kind of self-help literature strikes many chords in the sense that it can kind of identify some of these problems and in many instances does a great job of pointing out that there’s negative voice in our heads, but sometimes can kind of go too far or doesn’t really offer practical strategies and solutions for resolving that.
[0:10:55.4] DH: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Just to fill in some of the blanks there. Many years after the panic attack, I ended up reading on the recommendation of one of my colleagues actually, a book by Eckhart Tolle, who may be familiar to your listeners, huge self-help guru. I had never heard of the dude. My producer recommend that I read him, because at the time, one of my areas of interest as a reporter was faith and spirituality, which was an interesting, I say areas of interest. I was forced to be interested in it, because I was raised basically by atheist parents. I did have a Bar Mitzvah, but only for the money.
Mind boss, Peter Jennings, who’s now no longer with us, but he had the kind of strong-armed me into taking over the faith and spirituality feat. As a consequence to that, one of my producers recommend that I read this Eckhart Tolle book, and Tolle was the first person who pointed out to me via his book that I have a voice in my head, again, not schizophrenia, but this inner narrator that we’ve discussed, and it was just a massive, massive headline for me. I just was unaware. I knew that I had thoughts, etc., etc., but nobody had really articulated this idea of our ego, this inner yammering that we have all the time and how negative and destructive it can be when you’re unaware of it.
The problem with Eckhart Tolle in my view, and I’m going to paraphrase a friend of mine who says, “Tolle is correct, but not useful.” In my view, Eckhart Tolle beautifully articulates this phenomenon of the voice in the head, but there are several problems. One is like he’s really weird about it at times and gauges his pseudoscientific dabbling and also like a lot of grandiose promises about spiritual awakenings and blah-blah-blah. That’s one problem for me. The other problem for me is that I had a hard time finding any actionable or practical advice about dealing with the voice in the head in his material. Ultimately, that’s what got me to — I’m very grateful to Eckhart Tolle. I make fun of him a lot. But if I hadn’t read his stuff, I never would have ultimately found meditation, which is a really simple secular scientifically validated tool for dealing with this fundamental fact about the human situation, which is that we have this stream of consciousness often driving us to do phenomenally stupid things.
[0:13:36.6] MB: In your journey, you met with self-help gurus, spiritual leaders, scientists, people across the board. What was kind of the resounding conclusion from all of these different spheres of influence?
[0:13:49.0] DH: Yeah. The self-help, my peregrinations in the self-help world, which I write about in the book, I mostly put in there for entertainment of value, because I think we really get much useful information out of it, but it was pretty weird, so it makes good copy, so I write about it.
Once I started talking to scientists, specifically, neuroscientists who are looking at what meditation does to your brain and to your body, that’s really what — That for me was the signal moment. Just seeing that there’s this little community of what’s called contemplative neuroscientists, and now not so little, but smaller at the time when I was looking into it many years ago. When I started to look into it, they were doing this path, this groundbreaking research. For years, the dogma, the received wisdom in the world of neuroscience was that the brain doesn’t change after like your mid-20s.
In fact, what the research on meditation has shown us is that you can train your brain very specific ways. In fact, we’re all training our brains all the time, mostly in negative ways, mindless ways, we’re training it to eat crappy food or to watch crappy television or to be totally distracted by our devices, but actually the act of meditation, and we can talk about what that actually is. The act of meditation is training up the qualities that I think most of us would agree we want, like the ability to focus, the ability not to be yanked around by your emotions, the ability to be nice to other people, the ability to be nice to yourself, the ability to have patience, the ability to be grateful for stuff. All of these qualities that we want are trainable, and that is a radical nation, because most of us think that happiness is dependent upon the quality of our childhood, the quality of our marriage, the quality of our work life, all of which are super important. I’m not down playing that at any way. I’m focused on all of those things.
In fact, what the science is telling us is that happiness is a skill, that you take your responsibility for it and train and your own just the way you can work on your body in the gym. If you think about it, most of us spend so much time working on our bodies, working on our stock portfolio, our interior design, our cars, but no time working on and maintaining the one filter through which we experience everything, and that is our mind. To me, the resounding headline out of my time with this theory of scientist was that.
[0:16:19.5] MB: When you talk about meditation and people throw around different strategies and types of meditation, everything from mantra-based meditation, mindfulness meditation, etc., what do you think kind of the — How would you define it and what do you think the most effective forms of meditation are?
[0:16:35.5] DH: I’ve read some of your writing about meditation as well, and I think it’s important to honor the fact that there are thousands of kinds of meditation and I don’t think it’s useful for me or anybody to get orally dogmatic about the superiority of one over another. The word meditation, as one of my scientist friends like to say, the word meditation is a bit like the word sports. It describes a whole range of activities. Water polo and badminton don’t have a lot in common. There are tons of kinds of meditation.
I have gravitated towards something called mindfulness meditation, because that is the kind of meditation that has been on the receiving end of most of the scientific research. Not all. Lots of other kinds of meditation have been studied too, but most of the research that I’m aware of and the strongest research appears to really be centric around mindfulness meditation.
I also like it because it’s a validly secular. Mindfulness meditation is derived from Buddhist meditation, and you can make an argument, as I often do, that Buddhism itself isn’t even really a religion. It can be practiced as one, but in my view, it’s an interesting religion, because the more fundamentalist you get, the less metaphysical you become in my view within Buddhism. Some people disagree with me on that, so I want to be clear that that’s my view.
Anyway, mindfulness meditation is derived from Buddhism, but it’s stripped of all of the metaphysical claims and religious lingos and it’s delivered as a secular exercise for the brain and the mind, and some might say the heart, although I try to avoid that kind of language, because it can be off-putting to people like me.
Basic mindfulness meditation is really simple. The beginning instructions are to sit comfortably with your spine straight so that you’re not falling asleep, although if you fall asleep, worst things could happen. It just probably means you need more sleep. Sit comfortably with your spine straight. A lot of people close their eyes, although you don’t have to. You can kind of soften your gaze and stare at a neutral point on the floor or whatever. That’s the first step. There are only three.
The second step is just to kind of focus on the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. Usually you pick a spot where it’s most prominent, like your nose or your chest or your belly, and this is an important step, because you’re not actually thinking about your breath. You’re doing this interesting thing of just feeling it. You’re just feeling the raw data of the physical sensation of the breath coming in and going out.
Then the third step is the key to mindfulness meditation, and this is the money move here, which is as soon as you try to do this seemingly simple thing of just feeling your breath coming in and going out, your mind is going to mutiny, your mind is going to go crazy. You’re going to start thinking about all sorts of stupid shit, like what’s for lunch? Do I need a haircut? Why Dances with Wolves beat Goodfellas for best picture in 1991? Blah-blah-blah. The whole game is just to notice when you become distracted and to start again and again and again and again. This is like a golf game with a million mulligans.
In fact, a lot of people feel like they can — I hear this all the time. In fact, I’m writing a book that’s coming out at New Year’s that’s about all of the reasons why people don’t meditate. I would say the number two reason why people don’t meditate is because there’s this feeling of, “I can’t clear my mind.” The good news is you don’t need to clear your mind. In fact, clearing your mind is impossible unless you’re enlightened or dead.
The way to think about meditation is similar to going to the gym. If you go to the gym and you’re not panting or sweating, you’re cheating. If you sit to meditate and all thoughts have disappeared, like you might want to go to the hospital, or you should go to the mountain top, because you are enlightened.
Really, the whole game of meditation is just to over and over have this collision with the voice in your head, and the reason that’s valuable is that the more you become familiar with the insanity of your inner narrator, your ego, the less owned you are by the insanity. The goal of meditation is not to clear your mind. The goal is to focus your mind for just nanoseconds at a time on the feeling of your breath coming in and going out, coming in and going out. Then when you get lost, start again, and start again.
The three benefits that really emerge from this are; one, just a greater sense of calm; two, a greater focus, because you’re engaged in this daily, this exercise of trying to feel your breath coming in and going out and then when you get lost, just start again. That’s like a bicep growth of your brain on your ability to focus. Third is this word mindfulness. Mindfulness is just the ability — This is the most important benefits. It’s the ability to see what’s going on in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it. That benefit is derived from just over and over and over seeing how fucking crazy you are but not reacting to it. Just trying to see it nonjudgmentally, “Oh, yeah. That’s right. I just gotten distracted by a big blast of anger or I’m planning something or I’m thinking about something random or whatever. I don’t have to deal with it right now. I see what it is. I’m going back to my breath.”
Then the value of that is in your — The rest of your life, when you’re ambushed by a big blast of anger or you’re tempted to eat the 18th cookie or you’re tempted to say the thing that’s going to ruin the next 48 hours of your marriage. You can catch it before you actually do it. It’s like having an internal meteorologist that’s pointing out the hurricane before it makes landfall. That, to me, is the game changer.
[0:22:19.0] MB: I think that’s a great description, and I’ve heard one of the simplest kind of explanations to that is that meditation is the return to breath. It’s not this kind of state of having no thoughts, but it’s really the act of returning to that state whenever your mind wanders.
[0:22:34.4] DH: Yes. It took me years to internalize this, because all the basic meditation instructions — For years, I was a phenomenal — And I’ve been meditating for eight years. I’ve been publicly evangelizing for meditation for the last three and a half since my book came out and since I started this app also called 10% Happier, and a podcast also called 10% Happier. I’m not a pretty public evangelist for this thing.
For much of that time, I have been a massive hypocrite, because when I first heard the beginning instructions of meditation as a type A driver, I basically ignored the third step, which is when you get distracted, start again, because I told myself, the cocky asshole that I am, I told myself, “I don’t need that step, because I’m going to win at this thing. I’m going to get so good that I’m not going to get distracted,” which is that it’s just impossible and so phenomenally stupid. It ignores that what you just said, which is that the act of meditating is noticing you’ll become distracted and starting again. That is the magic moment. If you can be cool to yourself in that moment instead of doing what I’ve done, which is engaging in endless and useless rounds of self-flagellation around my inability to focus, then the whole thing starts to flow with much more ease.
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[0:25:22.2] MB: Tell me the story of how you kind of fell off the wagon and maybe fell out of the rhythm of meditating.
[0:25:29.3] DH: That has never happened actually for me interestingly. It is a real issue for many, many people. I don’t want to pretend that I’m especially disciplined. Just by way of an example to prove this to you, not long ago I have a huge problem around food. I’m a slim guy, but I have a huge sugar addiction, because I am an addictive personality. True story, not long ago I ate so many Oreos one night while watching TV with my wife that I woke up in the middle of the night and puked.
I tell you that, because I don’t want you to think that I’m somehow some militaristic, inhuman, disciplined dude. I’m not. I have never fallen off the meditation wagon largely because I’m now like so publicly associated with meditation that I’m not willing to live with that level of hypocrisy, A. B, more importantly, because I have a lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety and it’s so clear to me that when I do less meditation, like if I’m like on a big breaking news story and I’m only getting a few minutes a day, that I can see how much more noxious my inner weather becomes.
I do many things in my life to stay off what Winston Churchill has called the black dog of depression and like daily exercise. It’s not because I’m super disciplined, it’s because it sucks so badly when I get depressed that I’m willing to be quite regimented about a few things in order to make sure it doesn’t happen.
[0:27:08.4] MB: That’s something that I’ve dealt with as well, and I totally agree. It’s really funny, because the simplest things are often the most effective, right? Meditation, getting enough sleep, exercising on a regular basis, if you just do those, you’re 80% of the way there into battling back the anxiety and depression.
[0:27:26.7] DH: Yes. I would add to that. I know you weren’t trying to make a comprehensive list, but I would just amplify your excellent point by adding in proper diet and having good relationships and meaningful work, whether it’d be volunteer work or your actual career, like a sense of meaning in your life and also a sense of social connection either to family members or friends. These are the things you need to do in order to maintain mental fitness in my view.
There’s a funny story of my shrink, who’s a really great guy and a sort of no nonsense dude, also quite ambitious and very, very willing to point out when I’m being an asshole. Early on, when he was helping me avoid panic attacks, quit doing drugs, etc., etc., he used an animal analogy to explain to me that I really need to take care of myself, because of how prone I am to anxiety, depression and panic, the wonderful trifecta there.
Years later, I went back to him and I said, “Remember that animal analogy you told me that I needed to treat myself like a stallion?” He’s like, “No. No. No. No. I said thoroughbred.” Of course, I, being the, as I mentioned before, cocky bastard that I am, heard stallion. In other words, if you are prone to these conditions, you do need to treat yourself like a finicky thoroughbred, a hothouse flower, you need to take care of yourself, because this is what will lower the odds or recurrence. There’s no silver bullet. Let’s just be clear about this. I certainly don’t think meditation is that silver bullet. There’s a reason why all of my endeavors are branded under 10% Happier, the book, the app, podcast, because I don’t want to do what I think — I don’t want to be guilty of what I think is rampant in the $11 billion howling sea of bullshit that is our self-help industry where they pedal these sort of reckless panaceas. I just think meditation is another arrow for your quiver.
[0:29:30.7] MB: Tell me a little bit about the new project that you’re working on and kind of diving into why people don’t meditate.
[0:29:37.4] DH: Yeah. It grows out of the — About two years ago, I started to work on a meditation app with my meditation teacher; Joseph Goldstein, who’s this kind of legendary teacher. We launched a sort of minimum viable product about two years ago and then we actually put up a much more fulsome 10% Happier app about a year ago, but we’re still very much in the early stages. Although growing fast, faster than I would have expected, because there seems to be a real appetite for this kind of instruction.
I’ve learned so much in the course of becoming, in essence, a small businessman, an entrepreneur. What I’ve really learned is that I made some mistakes in my first book, because I kind of cavalierly assumed that if I demystified meditation and made it seemed fun and useful and told a funny story about it, that everybody would go and do it, but the human behavior changes so complex.
I think we now — The culture has really changed on meditation. When I first started getting in it back in like 2008, 2009, there was a huge stigma around it. I think there still is in many quarters, but that has really — That stigma has declined in many ways. Where I think we are now as a culture, is that we have millions of people who know they ought to be meditating, but aren’t, can’t get over the hump to do it.
In the course of doing, building this app, we did a lot of market and consumer research and started to identify the main, we call them secret fears, but basically another way you describe them is just main obstacles or myths, misconceptions and self-deceptions that could stand in the way of people meditating. That led to a book idea, like let’s taxonomize these myths and misconceptions, like make a full list of them and then really help people get over the hump. We did this ridiculous things where we rented an orange rock to our bus, and me and one of my favorite meditation teacher, a guy named, Jeff Warren, he’s a Canadian, hilarious meditation teacher. Me and him and a whole crew of people, we got in this bus and we drove across county over the course of 11 days and we met people who sort of embodied these various obstacles and we help them get over the hump and actually start a habit.
Actually, the book isn’t out until January, but a lot of the material from the road trip is available on the 10% Happier app, so you can see the videos and get access to some of what we learned and also learn how to meditate there for free.
Just a taste of some of the obstacles we encountered. The most obvious ones are — The biggest one, first of all, is time. People feel like I don’t have time to do this. I have good news on that score and then I also have better news. The good news is I think what you should be shooting for is 5 to 10 minutes a day-ish, daily-ish, trying to get 5 to 10 minutes in most days. That’s, I think, a really good goal to have.
Here’s the better news; if you don’t feel like you’re ready to do that or if you, on one day, you’re just too busy to sneak that in, I believe firmly that one minute counts. We are on the app building a lot of — We have them up there now and we’re actually going to be doing even more, one minute meditation. As a way to help people get over what is the biggest obstacle, which is finding time for meditation. Too often, people think they need to do a really dedicated ton of time to it, and then it becomes another thing on there to do list, which is stressing them out, which is defeating the whole purpose of meditation, which should help you reduce stress.
The second fear which we discussed, which is the idea that you’re supposed to clear your mind, which I think we’ve thoroughly debunked that in the course of this conversation. Others include, and this is particularly prevalent among women I found, the idea that meditation is self-indulgent. That sitting with your eyes closed and doing nothing. It’s just like a complete waste of time and you ought to be out doing much more useful things.
My wife labored under that illusion for a long time. The answer to that of course is that if you are not taking care of yourself, you’re not equipped to help other people. It’s like that cliché from the airline safety instructions; put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others.
Let me think of one other obstacle. Yes, I think will, I think, resonate with your audience. Another main misconception that stands in the way of a lot of people meditating is the idea that you’ll lose your edge if you do it. We spent some time in our road trip with police officers in Tempe, Arizona, and some of them were really worried that in their dangerous, fast-moving, stressful job, that if they started to meditate, that they would be ineffective. In fact, that it could be downward dangerous.
Again, I think this is a misconception. I think there’s a reason why we’re seeing some of the most — People who are engaged in the most high-octane works; athletes, executives, scientists, lawyers are now using meditation, because it sharpens your edge. It puts you in the zone. It allows you to be less yanked around by random emotions so you can stay on task and be maximally effective. That’s why we’re now seeing a lot of police departments and Marines and soldiers embracing meditation. That’s kind of a sampling of some of the obstacles we found. If you want a full dissection, you’ll get it soon.
[0:35:19.5] MB: There’s a couple of those that I’d love to break down. The idea that you’re losing your edge, I’ve definitely heard that, and it’s so funny, because when you really start practicing it, you can see how much more clear the edge has become. You’re so much more centered and focused. My reaction to stressful situations now, and it reminds me of, I think, a quote from — I think it’s Marine Corps snipers, which is slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. In the midst of crisis, my reaction is often to slow down, because if you’re slow and methodical, you can see all the pieces moving around and you can figure out, “What do I really need to do right now?” If you’re reacting really rapidly, you’re getting whipped around by kind of the winds of fate and running around like a chicken with your head cutoff. Often times you’re not only not being effective in trying to actually achieve what you want, but you’re being counterproductive.
[0:36:10.7] DH: Yes, I think that was beautifully said and I think it’s fully accurate. I write about this a lot in my book, this lose your edge myth was a massive factor for me, and it is possible to misinterpret the message of mindfulness and to be passive in the face of life’s challenges. I’ve actually fallen into that rut, and I actually go into embarrassing detail about how I’ve done so in the book.
Really, that is the opposite of what meditation should teach you to do. It doesn’t mean that you should be lifelessly and non-judgmentally observing everything and passively resigned in the face of challenges and emergencies, etc., etc. The goal is that you should learn how to responds wisely to things instead of reacting blindly.
Most of time, there’s no buffer between the stimuli in our life and our blind reaction to it, but with meditation you’re able to get enough self-awareness so that maybe 10% of the time, when something infuriates you or scares you, you are able to respond, take a breath and respond with some wisdom rather than just getting yanked around by it. That is massively valuable in stressful situations, in strategic situations, in interpersonal relations, from your marriage, to your colleagues, to your bosses. This is a huge game changer.
Again, it’s why we’re seeing some of the people we admire the most, the Chicago Cubs, the U.S. Marines, 50 Cent. That dude got shot nine times. I’m glad he’s using meditation to get some peace of mind. Some of the most aspirational figures in our culture are embracing this precisely because it enhances rather than erodes your edge.
I think it speaks to a deep misconception in our culture, which is that if you get to happy, you’ll get complaisant. I think that is to misunderstand what happiness is, that people think that happiness is this like sort of passively resting on your laurels, but that to me isn’t what happiness is.
[0:38:27.7] MB: I think you’ve kind of hinted at something that I think about a lot, which is how do we strike a balance between sort of acceptance and mindfulness, versus achievement. How do you think about that balance?
[0:38:41.2] DH: Yeah. There’s something I’ve learned from my teachers, which has been really useful to me, which is the idea of non-attachment to results, which is going to sound counterintuitive at the beginning. If you’re achievement-oriented, it’s very natural to feel attached to the outcome of whatever project you’re working on. I have a startup company that is teaching people how to meditate through an app. I’m attached to whether we succeed. I have been writing a book that comes out in January. I’m attached to whether that succeeds, or that’s my inclination is to get overly attached.
However, that is to willfully overlook some rather obvious things, which is that you’re not fully in control of the universe and everything is interacted multifactorial and the wise stands for an ambitious person, is to recognize that it makes sense to work really hard and stress and plot and plan on whatever you’re working on, but then to recognize that at some point you lose control. If you’re not overly attached to the outcome of whatever you’re working on, then you have more resilience to bounce back.
I have so many projects that I’m working on my life; my journalism career at ABC News, where I’m constantly launching investigative projects, to the app that I’ve mentioned, the books that I’m writing, I have a podcast, and I’m always pitching new ideas. Sometimes things don’t work or they don’t go as well as I’ve planned. If I’m so knocked out and paralyzed by any setback, because I’ve become so overly attached to the success of a thing, it hinders my ability to be resilient and, really, to analyze with dry ice what went wrong so that I don’t do it again.
Yeah, that to me has been just incredibly valuable lesson. Don’t get me wrong, I still — I’ve had a couple of setbacks lately that really threw me for a loop and I mourn the loss of things when they don’t go my way, and I can probably be pretty unpleasant if my wife just walked into the house and I gave her the phone, she would probably tell you how unpleasant I can be in the days or weeks after something doesn’t go my way. I think my bounce back time has gotten much better.
[0:41:07.4] MB: If we falloff kind of on the opposite end of this spectrum in terms of going down the rabbit hole of thinking really fundamentally that everything is so interconnected, so multifactorial, that it’s really beyond our control, how do we — If we’re in kind of that deep end of the pool, how do we pull back and still strive to build or achieve things in the world?
[0:41:29.3] DH: Yeah, it’s a great question among many great questions. That’s to misunderstand, and that’s like one of the classic pitfalls of this path is to fall into a kind of nihilism that like, “Oh, yeah. Everything is so deeply interconnected, so fleetingly impermanent, that there’s no way I can have agency.” That’s not true. It’s somewhere in the middle there that you certainly have some agency and some ability to affect the universe, the world around you. You’re just not the master of the universe. Sort of figuring out that titration is key, and figuring out what leverage you actually can impact and which you cannot is really key. I don’t have some secret sauce, some magic, some silver bullet that will allow you to navigate this. It’s I’m constantly trying to figure out in my own life. The best way to proceed is from a position of clearly seeing what reality is and that, like it or not, is reality.
[0:42:30.7] MB: I think that’s a great point, and something that meditation I think really helps crystalize is the ability to both see and accept things as they are as supposed to as you want them to be.
[0:42:42.5] DH: It’s exactly right. Again, it’s not like I don’t struggle with this. I do. Maybe there are meditation masters out there who have some beautiful equipoise that allows them to move to the world like a ninja without getting upset when things don’t go their way. That’s not me. Again, it goes back to my whole 10% happier thesis. This is not about perfection. This is just about marginal improvement. I would add, since I’m now stuck with this stupid 10% joke, that I kind of pulled that on my butt. The 10% compounds annually. The more you practice, the better you get at this stuff.
[0:43:20.0] MB: That’s another great point as well and something that I think about a lot kind of on this journey. In many ways, the journey of the podcast as a whole is about this compounded improvement and the idea that if we can make incremental improvements in our ability to manage our emotions, to think more clearly about reality, to understand, as we talk a lot about in this show, the mental models that kind of govern the world. Those improvements compound overtime to produce a really drastically different kind of understanding of the world, of yourself, and really your ability to create and achieve things in that world.
[0:43:54.0] DH: I think that’s exactly right. I think it’s a really positive useful message to be spreading, so good on you.
[0:44:00.4] MB: For somebody wants to get started with meditation, what would either be maybe kind of the simple piece of homework you would give them as a starting point, or just something that you would say to them as like, “Here’s the dead simple way you could start literally today and just try it out.”
[0:44:19.3] DH: Yeah. One overarching thing is that it should be cheap or free. I’d be a little weary of somebody asking you for a ton of money to learn how to meditate. There are lots of options. The three that come to mind are; one, the way I learned how to meditate, which his by reading a few good books. As I articulated earlier, the basic instructions are pretty simple. It’s very easy to lose your way though, because usually people start to have a lot of questions. I just read a few basic meditation books and just went from there.
One that I like in particular is called Real Happiness by my friend, Sharon Salzberg, who’s just a master teacher. Pick that book up and it will explain the basics to you and you’re up and running. Come January, the book that I’m working on about the obstacles to meditation will be the book that I will recommend the most, because that book will also include a ton of, “Here’s how to meditate.” Anyway, one option is just pick up a good book.
The other option is an app. Obviously, on partial, our app, 10% Happier, but there are a lot of good apps out there and all of them, to my knowledge, teach you the basics for free. For example, if you download our app, there’s a whole course teaches you how to do it. You don’t have to pay us anything and you can use that material as long as you want. Frankly, you never have to pay us anything. If you want to subscribe, great, we love that, but it’s not mandatory. If you don’t like our app, there are plenty of options out there. That’s another tip I would recommend, so book, apps.
Then third is if you live in a city where you can go to an in-person class, I highly recommend that. I think it’s really useful to be in a room with other people who want to do it. I think that has kind of an HOV lane effect, and to be in a room with a teacher who you might want to taste test a little bit, go to different places. I live in New York City. There are tons of options. There are a bunch of — There are meditation studios all over the city. Some of them are Buddhist, some of them are Hindu, some of them are secular. Like this one chain that I particularly like called Mndfl, M-N-D-F-L, which is run by a friend of mine.
L.A. has a bunch of both secular and Buddhist meditation centers. We’re seeing secular meditation centers popping up in Miami, Austin, Chicago, Washington D.C. and elsewhere. Also, if you live in a smaller place, you may not have a meditation studio per se available, but there are often teachers who will teach some MBSR; mindfulness-based stress reduction, which is, again, the secular meditation secular, which is an eight-week course and it’s offered all over the country. Just do a little Googling. You might be able to find somebody in your area. If you live in an area where there are no meditation teachers and you really want a teacher, there are teachers who are willing to teach via Skype.
[0:47:10.9] MB: What has been the hardest thing for you about becoming a consistent meditator?
[0:47:15.7] DH: Like I said before, for me, consistency hasn’t been that hard and I feel a little sheepish saying that, because I think it really is hard for a lot of people. Working on this book, the thing I learned about human behavior change is perhaps the most important attitude with which to approach it is one of experimentation and exploration. You should know, we are not wired as — We did not evolve for long-term planning about our health and well-being. We evolved to escape from saber-toothed tigers and get the meal today. We evolved for pretty immediate gratification and also to get our genes into future generations.
Changing your behavior to improve your health and wellness is a really hard thing, and I think just being aware of that and giving yourself a break and going into any formation of a new habit with a spirit of like, “I’m going to experiment. I know I’m going to fail, and that’s cool.” Rather than trying to rely on the extremely ephemeral and unreliable internal reservoir of willpower, which is a huge — I think often sort of destructive myth. In the behavior change world, people think, “Oh, well. I don’t have willpower.” No. You need to experiment and see what works for you. What works with your schedule? What provides you with the benefits you need to be pulled along by the benefits, by the positive outcomes of the practice rather than trying to whip yourself over the back and force yourself to do the thing, because that’s not a recipe for a sustainable habit.
Boiling it down; just experiment. Try different times a day, try different apps, try different books and just know that you will fail and that you just need to have the resilience to get up and start again once you fall off the wagon. It’s totally fine.
[0:49:17.2] MB: For listeners who want to learn more about you, want to dig in and read the books, check out the app, where can people find you and these resources online?
[0:49:25.7] DH: Thanks for that. The book is available on Amazon. The app is available — If you have an Apple device, you can download, it’s in the App Store. If you don’t have an Apple, we’re working on an android version, which should be available in the pretty near future, I hope. If you don’t have an Apple device, you can get a web-based version at 10percenthappier.com. The podcast; 10% Happier Podcast, is available wherever you get your podcasts.
I think the pitch for the podcast is that basic meditation is pretty basic. The cliché is that it’s simple but not easy. It can start to feel a little stupid after a while just sitting there and watching your breath. One thing that I found to be incredibly useful is to have sources of ongoing inspiration, and that’s why I started the podcast, because you’ll hear from great meditation teachers, you’ll hear from celebrities. We’ve had the lead singer of Weezer on. We’ve had athletes on. We’ve had Marine Corps, folks from the U.S. Military. Josh Groban, the singer. Blah-blah-blah. We have lots of people on and we talk about meditation. How it plays out in an individual mind and life. Talked to cops. We talked to all sorts of people. I find that, for me, as the host, and hopefully for the listener, that this is just a way — It’s just like a support for your [inaudible 0:50:39.6].
[0:50:40.3] MB: Dan, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your amazing story and all of these wisdom about meditation.
[0:50:47.9] DH: Thanks for having me. Great questions. Really appreciate it.
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