Right there on national TV, live, newscaster Dan Harris froze.
It could have meant the end of his career. As he'd frequently bemoaned - not entirely in jest - he could wind up in a flophouse in Duluth.
But it didn't. And he didn't. He went on to become one of the top newscasters in the country, co-anchoring ABC's Nightline and the weekend edition of Good Morning America, among other high-profile news gigs.
Harris wrote about his journey in a 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. He'll also speak about it Thursday evening at the Franklin Institute as part of an Einstein Healthcare Network event, one of many marking the Einstein network's 150th anniversary.
He gave us a preview, talking about taking up meditation and mindfulness, which is his secret to being 10 percent happier.
What was your previous life like? Why wasn't it working for you?
I was a pretty neurotic, pretty anxious, intensely ambitious and extremely mindless guy. Mindless in that I wasn't self-aware in some key ways that got me into trouble. After 9/11, as an ambitious reporter, I went overseas, spent a lot of time in war zones, and didn't really think about the psychological consequences. When I came home, I got depressed and didn't know I was depressed. Instead of handling it like a grown-up, I self-medicated. And then had a panic attack on national television.
I had a rush of adrenaline, my heart was racing, my mouth dried up, my lungs seized up, I couldn't speak. I had to quit in the middle. It was deeply embarrassing and really scary, because it was an existential threat. If you can't go on television without freaking out, you can't go on television. That's how I earn my living.
So you began to search for relief, and some of what you found didn't work out?
The first thing I found did work out, which was going to a shrink. That was actually very helpful. Several years later, I was reading a book by Eckhart Tolle, a self-help guru. Initially, I thought it was ridiculous. Then he started to talk about something that I had never heard discussed or articulated so clearly, which is that we all have this voice in our head that is yanking us around and giving us really bad ideas. We're mostly unaware of it, and are therefore kind of controlled by it. I found that idea to be incredibly compelling. But Eckhart didn't have actionable advice for dealing with that voice that I could see. That's why I kept looking and found things that weren't so helpful. All these people tell you that you can solve all your problems through the power of positive thinking or whatever, or have you make visioning boards and paying a lot for things like soul retrieval and dolphin therapy. I kind of nosed around in that a little, mostly out of morbid curiosity. And then I stumbled on meditation.
Why did meditation pass the Dan Harris skepticism test, and how did it change your life?
One-word answer: Science. It indicates that you will lower your blood pressure and boost your immune system and literally rewire key parts of your brain.
At first, it was incredibly difficult. The first time you try to meditate, you have a full-frontal collision with the insanity that is inherent in the human condition, which is that our minds are out of control. You may think that when you see someone walking down the street talking to himself or herself, they're insane. But we're all doing that. We're just hiding it better. We have this nonstop dialogue, this conversation with ourselves. And most of it is absurd. And when you try to meditate for the first time, you come face to face with that. The key insight is to know that that's fine. You're not failing as a meditator. The whole game is just to notice when you become distracted and start again, and you have to be willing to do that a million times. It's the same thing as going to the gym. The first time you do bicep curls, it sucks. You have to be willing to do 45 of them every other day, and then you'll have nice biceps.
This is not some fancy woo-woo thing that requires wearing robes and joining a group or believing anything. It's this innate ability we all have to be aware of what's happening in our heads without being carried away by it.
It means that you're not so yanked around by your emotions. It means that you can respond wisely to things instead of reacting blindly. Most of us are just like puppets on a string, controlled by the malevolent puppeteer of ego. We have no awareness that we have this voice in our heads that is constantly blaring at us.
Now, six years into meditating and mindfulness, where are you with it? How do you incorporate it into your life?
Initially, I only meditated five to 10 minutes a day. That's what I recommend all beginners do, not some elaborate thing you add to your already too-long to-do list. Me, specifically, I have been doing it for six-and-a-half years, and I'm really interested in the subject and in going deeper. I do two hours a day. This is an experiment I launched in June. My rule is that I can do it in as many sessions at whatever length I want, and that's how I fit it in. Today, I've done two 20 minutes. When I get home, depending on the status of my baby, I'll do a really long one until somebody tells me I need to stop. Then, once my wife and child go to bed, I'll do another.
My days are crazy. Some days, I'm on the road giving speeches. Some days, I'm anchoring Nightline, some days Good Morning America, some days out shooting stories, so I have to just fit it in where I can. I do allow myself an out, which I recommend to everyone: Whatever you tell yourself you're going to do every day, give yourself a break. Some days are really bad and you're not going to be able to do what you hoped to do. Just do something. If you're having a monumentally bad day, do one minute. What you want to prevent is the voice in your head from offering up a . . . story, which is: I'm a failed meditator. A way to prevent that is to keep your foot in the game by doing something every day.
You've said the 10 percent happier figure is "absurdly unscientific," and have referred to it as "my schtick." So, how much happier are you?
I would say, with a caveat, that '10 percent happier' is kind of a joke, and happiness is not truly quantifiable. With that caveat, the 10 percent compounds annually, like any good investment. What meditation allows you to do is be more awake when good things happen, so you're not sleepwalking through it or busy planning the next thing, and less hobbled, crippled, by the bad things.
While I am really still as ambitious as I used to be, I'm less likely to allow events at the office, negative or positive, to impact the way I am at home. Last week, something happened at the office and I came home angry. But I didn't take it out on my wife. That's very different from being caught up in this mindless fog of blind fury that just makes you globally unpleasant. I still get angry and I still do things I regret, but I'm much quicker to stop the bleeding and apologize.
Dan Harris will moderate "Brain Waves," a series of short talks by experts from the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute and others about how the brain works - consciousness, sports-related concussions, and a toolbox for the aging brain. He also will share the story of how he tamed the incessant voice in his head through meditation. The event, a celebration of Einstein Healthcare Network's 150th anniversary, includes dinner, and Harris will sign copies of his book, 10% Happier.
The event runs from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St.
Tickets are available here.