Dan Harris, ABC News Anchor, suffered a panic attack live on Good Morning America in 2004. 10% Happier is Dan’s memoir documenting the circumstances that led up to his attack, and the pursuit for answers that followed. Prior to publication of this book, Dan had kept his drug addiction and issues with anxiety a secret for fear of losing his highly competitive position with ABC News. His book spans several years of what on the surface was investigative journalism on religious matters, but became a deeper personal inquiry into finding resolution with his own suffering. His research and interviews took him on a path toward meditation, a daily practice he continues today.
In July of 2003, after several tests for lyme disease, HIV, chronic fatigue syndrome, and even testing his New York apartment for gas leaks, Dan Harris broke down and saw a psychiatrist who immediately diagnosed depression.
As I sat on the couch in this Upper East Side office, I insisted to the kindly, sweater-wearing shrink that I didn’t feel blue at all. He explained that it is entirely possible to be depressed without being conscious of it. When you’re cut off from your emotions, he said, they often manifest in your body.
Shortly thereafter, the in-denial Harris took to weekend binges of cocaine and ecstasy. He limited his drug abuse to weekends so it wouldn’t affect his day job, at least that was his thinking. As he put it, “the tug of airtime was stronger than the power of drugs”. The drug abuse, though “controlled”, coupled with the stresses of being a war correspondent and a general pessimistic self talker, eventually manifested itself through panic attacks, a few of which occurred live on television. It was at this point that Dan realized he had to do something about his problem or risk no longer being able to do his job. He began psycho-therapy, which he admits to have helped. At around the same time, after covering the 2004 elections, Dan took up the religious beat. He interviewed and reported on many evangelical preachers, church organizations, and heavy hitters such as Ted Haggard, whom had a strong influence on voters in the Midwest and South. Being agnostic and reporting on some shady characters, Harris didn’t find any personal answers in organized religion and became more disillusioned perhaps by what it offered. In an effort to steer away from what had become sensational journalism and a consistent negative portrayal of religion, Dan widened his reporting to spiritual leaders. During this period he hosted debates and interviewed several prominent spiritual leaders both on and off air.
We are constantly murmuring, muttering, scheming, or wondering to ourselves under our breath, wrote Epstein. I like this. I don’t like that. She hurt me. How can I get that? More of this, no more of that. Much of our inner dialogue is this constant reaction to experience by a selfish, childish protagonist. None of us has moved very far from the seven-year-old who vigilantly watches to see who got more.
Dan shares his interviews and conversations with individuals such as Eckhard Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Sam Harris, Dr. Mark Epstein, the Dalai Lama, and Joseph Goldstein, among others. Each person he engages with along this journey slowly, often indirectly, guide him toward meditation. Tolle talks about being in the Now, but provided little actionable advice for Harris. Deepak came across as the polar opposite of the quiet Tolle, with his flamboyant mannerisms and self promotion. Dan found more helpful and practical information in Mark Epstein’s books which were Buddhist teachings and introduced meditation. Harris became good friends with Epstein; it was he and another conversation with Sam Harris, a devout meditator himself, that led Harris deeper into meditation. They persuaded and helped Dan get into a 10-day silent retreat with the guru of meditation, Joseph Goldstein. This retreat, while agony at times, provided the breakthrough Dan needed to learn he could quiet the voice in his head, learn to observe, and be more present.
Despite it’s difficulties, though, meditation did offer something huge: an actual method for shutting down the monkey mind, if only for a moment.
On perhaps a misconception that Buddhism requires an embracing of suffering and an abstinence of pleasure Dan writes:
Goldstein makes clear, as he did the other night, that he’s not saying we can’t enjoy pleasant things in life. But if we can achieve a deeper understanding of “suffering,” of the unreliability of everything we experience, it will help us appreciate the inherent poignancy of everything in the world.
An enlightened moment on our never ceasing pursuit of happiness:
In a world characterized by impermanence, where all our pleasures are fleeting, I had subconsciously assumed that if only I could get the weekend GMA gig, I would achieve bulletproof satisfaction—and I was shocked when it didn’t work out that way. This, as Joseph (Goldstein) had pointed out on retreat, is the lie we tell ourselves our whole lives: as soon as we get married, get a promotion, get to the airport check-in, get through security and consume a bouquet of Auntie Anne’s Cinnamon Sugar Stix, we’ll feel really good. But as soon as we find ourselves in the airport gate area, having ingested 470 calories’ worth of sugar and fat before dinner, we don’t bother to examine the lie that fuels our lives. We tell ourselves we’ll sleep it off, take a run, eat a healthy breakfast, and then, finally, everything will be complete. We live so much of our lives pushed forward by these “if only” thoughts, and yet the itch remains. The pursuit of happiness becomes the source of our unhappiness.
I found Dan’s conversation with the Dalai Lama of particular interest. Dan, when presented with an opportunity to sit with the Dalai Lama, asked him about selfishness, or self-centeredness—a question I often grapple with. Dan questioned whether we can be completely selfless, arguing for the need of a healthy dose of self-centeredness to be successful. The Dalai Lama agreed stating “self-cherishing is in our nature”, elaborating that having compassion for others does benefit oneself and one shouldn’t try to remove those feelings from their actions, or as motivators of those actions.
Yes. Practice of compassion is ultimately benefit to you. So I usually describe: we are selfish, but be wise selfish rather than foolish selfish. —Dalai Lama
Essentially, we help people because it makes us feel good—that’s more than alright.
Can meditation make you 10% happier? I don’t know, I’ve yet to try it. I do know Dan presents some compelling evidence, even if primarily a study of one, to persuade me to look into it further. Maybe meditation provides a skillset to not necessarily control the thoughts in one’s head, but to give them less, or the appropriate, importance.