Dan Harris is a co-anchor for ABC News show Nightline and the weekend edition of Good Morning America. Harris has travelled the world covering major news stories, including the 2002 Passover bombings in Netanya, Israel, the 2006 Lebanon War and invasions into the West Bank and Gaza. In addition, Harris has covered in-depth stories on faith and spirituality.
Harris is a leading expert on mindfulness and the New York Times bestselling author of 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.
Harris was recently in Toronto to present mindfulness as the new superpower at Collaborating for a Cure, an event in support of pancreatic cancer research, a partnership between Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University and Pancreatic Cancer Canada.
You write in your book that five million people saw you lose your mind on the set of Good Morning America on June 7, 2004. What happened to you and why?
I was anchoring the news updates.… I suddenly had this overwhelming experience of terror. My heart and mind were racing, and my lungs seared up. I couldn’t breathe, so I had to quit right in the middle and tossed it back to the main anchors of the show. I knew I had had a panic attack, but I didn’t know why until I went to see a doctor, who asked me a bunch of questions. One of the questions was, “Do you do drugs?” I had been doing drugs because I had been spending a lot of time overseas in war zones. I had come home and became depressed and self-medicated. I wasn’t doing drugs every day, but it was enough according to the doctor to change my brain chemistry and raise the level of adrenalin in my brain, and that primes you to have a panic attack.
When did you embrace the idea of mindfulness?
I started covering religion in the early part of the last decade, so it wasn’t until 2008 that I read a book by self-help guru Eckhart Tolle.… I was really intrigued by what he wrote about the human mind: that we are constantly thinking of the past and the future to the detriment of whatever is happening right now. I had never heard anybody describe the fact that we have a voice in our head.
What is mindfulness?
The ability to know what is happening in your head at any given moment without being yanked around by it. For example: you know you are angry without acting on that anger blindly. You know you are bored, so you don’t think that, in fact, you are hungry and find yourself with a hand in your fridge looking for salvation. Most of our behaviour is governed by what I have described as “the malevolent puppeteer of our ego,” the voice in our heads. Mindfulness is our birthright. We have this ability to see what’s happening in our head without taking the bait and acting on it – and that’s huge.
How does one tame the negative voice in their head? How do you stay in the now?
The voice in our head is our inner narrator constantly yammering at us. Most of the time we don’t know that we are engaged in this non-stop conversation with ourselves – and it’s not all bad, but a lot of it is pretty negative and repetitive. In my case, I was really motivated and ambitious and hardworking, but I was making myself miserable in the process and doing some really dumb things as a consequence. The thing that works the best is meditation. In mindful meditation, what you’re doing is trying to focus on one thing at a time, usually it’s your breath – the feeling of your breath going in and going out – and when you get lost, start again. Your mind will wander. It’s a skill you are training. People think that when they get distracted, they have failed, but actually that’s the win – you are waking up from this sleepwalking that we do all the time.
You devote a chapter in your book to the “Jubu.” Who are they?
There is a whole group of people called the Jubus: Jewish Buddhists. They are a group of mostly New York City Jews who went off to fancy colleges, like Harvard and MIT, and met either on-campus or while travelling through India, learning from meditation masters. They went on to become many of the most prominent scientists and teachers and writers in the meditation world
How is mindfulness the new superpower?
To have self-awareness and not be dragged around by your ego is a superpower. In an age of constant distraction, and in an age of incredible polarization, to have the wherewithal to stay focused and not be owned by whatever neurotic obsession is passing through your mental windshield is a superpower.
What are the scientifically proven health benefits of mindfulness?
There has been an explosion of research into mindfulness. I think we are in the early stages of this, but it’s exciting. What the studies strongly suggest is that there is a long list of really tantalizing health benefits to be generated from short daily practices of meditation, including lowered blood pressure, boosted focus, boosted immune system response. Where things get really interesting is brain science. It shows that you are literally rewiring key parts of your brain that have to do with self-awareness, compassion and focus. Science may get you to meditate, but you don’t keep meditating because you think your prefrontal cortex is more attractive than a brain scan. You keep meditating because you are less of an a–hole to yourself and others – that is the fruit.
How long have you been practising mindfulness and how often do you practice?
I started in 2009. I practise two hours a day. My rule is I can do it in as many increments as I want, whenever and wherever I want. People fear they don’t have the time for it. We have a huge campaign called One Minute Counts. It’s an app where we serve up one-minute meditation to people, because in one minute – actually in one second – you can wake up from the autopilot on which most of us live our lives.
What’s next for you?
I’m focused on building my company. I have a new book coming out at the end of the year and I’ve started working on another book – a whole class of meditation practices designed to make you more empathetic, patient, generous and kind.