A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation

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Photograph by Adam Golfer

With his boyish features, severely parted hair, and perfect anchorman’s baritone, Dan Harris hardly comes off like a meditation guru. But the award-winning ABC News correspondent makes a pretty convincing case for the practice in his new book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story. Harris spent a good portion of the 2000s covering wars in the Middle East and now is the co-host of Nightline. His book, part journalism memoir and part self-help tome, describes his quest to find some sense of peace following a string of strenuous reporting tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I’ve tried meditating and I don’t think I’ve lasted more than a couple of minutes. It’s brutal.
Yeah, but if you waited your whole life to go running, you’d find that brutal, too. The first time you try to play an instrument, it’s really hard. It’s a new skill. Meditation is not relaxation. It’s not sitting there and zoning out. You’re taming your mind. It’s hard work – just the way rock climbing or swimming a mile is. But it has benefits just like those activities do.

You were skeptical about meditation when you started.
If you had told me that I would ever be interested in meditation, I would have laughed at you. But after September 11, I went to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and then I was in Iraq during a very intense period, right at the beginning of the insurgency. I had friends die or get hurt and saw a lot of things that I think would qualify as traumatic. But I didn’t feel traumatized – I missed being in the war zone. When I got home, I became very depressed. I had trouble getting out of bed. I had no energy. I was seeing doctors about it, and nobody could figure out what it was. Then a friend offered me cocaine. I felt better immediately. I was never really a drinker, and weed always freaked me out. But cocaine, and then ecstasy, really did it for me. But I overdid it. I had a panic attack. Then I had another panic attack.

Both attacks occurred when you were reading the news on Good Morning America. What was that like?
It felt like the world was ending. It was the worst moment of my life. Finally I met a psychiatrist who asked me if I did drugs. He explained that cocaine and ecstasy build up adrenaline in the brain, which makes you more likely to have a panic attack. He also thought I was experiencing adrenaline withdrawal. I quit the drugs, but I knew that wasn’t going to be enough. I was appalled that I had been so stupid – I had gone into war zones without thinking through what the ramifications were psychologically. I had taken drugs without really thinking why. The fact that I missed all that was a pretty big wake-up call.

What led you to meditation?
ABC moved me to the religion beat. I started looking at the self-help industry, and then Buddhism, and the smarter nuggets I found were focused on something we all have: that inner voice that is constantly screaming at us and getting in the way of the direct experience of actual life.

You originally wanted to call your book The Voice in My Head Is an Asshole.
My inner voice is a huge pain in the ass – constantly commenting, judging, wanting, rejecting. I realized that it was this voice that led me to do all the things I was least proud of in my life. The Buddhists have a very clear prescription for how to deal with this: meditate.

What was your first session like?
It was horrible. The act of trying to watch your breath and then hauling your attention back to your breath when your mind wanders is really, really hard. I couldn’t go more than half a breath before getting lost. I realized that meditating wasn’t at all what I thought it was. I thought it was classic hippie nonsense. It’s exercise for your brain.

How has meditating changed things for you?
There is a phrase I really like: “Respond, don’t react.” Say you’re in line at Starbucks and somebody cuts you off. You think to yourself, “I’m angry.” And immediately, instantaneously, reflexively, you inhabit the thought and become angry. Meditation teaches you to put a little bit of a break between the thought and the emotional state. You recognize that you’re angry or annoyed or impatient, but instead of blindly going with the emotion, you have a buffer between stimulus and response. As a result, you’re often the smartest person in the room. Not because of your intellectual horsepower but because of what social scientists call emotional intelligence and what I call the ability to manage your own shit.

It’s easy to understand the benefits of meditating – but not so easy to actually start. What do you suggest?
You just have to do it. Do it for five minutes. If you set that as a goal and say you’re never going to go any higher, it’s a lot easier to begin. Do it every day for three weeks. And you will see benefits almost immediately.

Is war reporting different now, given all that you’ve learned about mindfulness?
I’m more aware of how intoxicating it is. And coming home is easier. I used to come home and be in a bad mood all the time. Now I can feel the storm clouds gathering and understand that for what it is.

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