How Writing a Book About Meditation Threw My Own Advice Right Back in My Face

PHOTO: ABCs Dan Harris is a co-anchor on "Nightline" and a "Good Morning America" Weekend Edition correspondent.PlayIda Mae Astute/ABC
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I wrote a memoir about a fidgety, skeptical newsman who reluctantly becomes a meditator – and in the process of publishing it, I occasionally, to my embarrassment, found myself failing to practice what I preach. I was kind of like a dog that soils the rug, and the universe kept shoving my face into it.

For those of you considering a New Year’s meditation resolution, but who are held back by the thought, “I could never meditate,” I’m here to tell you I’m no avatar of perfection myself. But that’s the point.

In a funny way, my missteps only reinforced my conviction in the practice, as well as the changes it can produce in your life.

But let’s go over the embarrassing stuff first.

The bungling of my own advice began even before the book came out. One of my main arguments in “10% Happier” is that meditation – despite its unfortunate association with people who use the word “Namaste” un-ironically, and who are prone to grandiose claims about “spiritual awakening” – can make ambitious people even more effective, by helping draw the line between “constructive anguish” and pointless rumination. And yet, in the weeks before publication, I nearly made myself sick with counterproductive worry.

Watch the full story on ABC News' "Nightline" TONIGHT at 12:35 a.m. ET.

My biggest fear, other than that the book royally sucked, was that I was revealing details about my personal life that would torpedo my career. I wrote about how I had covered wars for ABC News, gotten depressed, self-medicated with recreational drugs, and had a panic attack on television – all of which, combined with some other strange developments, ultimately led me to meditation.

Panic Attack on Live TelevisionPlay
Panic Attack on Live Television

PHOTO: Dan Harris, amongst other journalists, is pictured questioning Hazrat Ali on Dec. 14, 2001 in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan.Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
Dan Harris, amongst other journalists, is pictured questioning Hazrat Ali on Dec. 14, 2001 in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan.

I also wrote about how meditating helped me deal with my competitive feelings toward colleagues, and persistent – if largely irrational – fears about losing my hair, and what kind of impact that would have on my TV gig. As the publication date neared, my misgivings about these disclosures began to escalate.

My anxiety truly went into full-on, mindless hyper-drive when, just weeks before the book was to come out, I received an alarming email from my mom. Although she’d been reading various drafts for months, and had claimed to be comfortable with the material, she’d now concluded that the book would ruin my professional life – that no one would take me seriously as a journalist once it came out.

She urged me to consider pulling the book, even though thousands of copies had already been printed and were sitting in a warehouse somewhere.

I went into a tailspin. I was frantic, desperate. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. No amount of meditation would help. My mind was racing with escape plans.

Even though I had had the book vetted by dozens of smart friends and colleagues, including my own bosses, hearing these concerns from my mother shook me to my core, both because I’m very close with her and also because I respect her enormously. I was now genuinely contemplating trashing four years of work; I was on the cusp of calling my publishers and pulling the plug on the whole endeavor.

As it happened, right around the time that email arrived – like a little, digital grenade – in my inbox, I was scheduled to meet with Diane Sawyer, then anchor of ABC News’ evening newscast, and Ben Sherwood, then president of ABC News. I breathlessly unburdened myself, telling them about my mom’s sudden, late-game request. Both Diane and Ben had the same reaction, which ran along the lines of, “Calm down. Your mom’s great – but in this case, she’s wrong.”

Diane assured me that everything would be OK, and that she and the rest of the news division would have my back; Ben even offered to call my mother on the spot.

PHOTO: Dan Harris is pictured with Diane Sawyer, who signed off on her last broadcast as anchor of World News, on Aug. 27, 2014 in New York City.Ida Mae Astute/ABC
Dan Harris is pictured with Diane Sawyer, who signed off on her last broadcast as anchor of "World News," on Aug. 27, 2014 in New York City.

Having been talked off the ledge, I went ahead with the publication. And, as Ben and Diane predicted, it turned out fine. (Well, largely fine. There was this headline in the Daily Mail: “Redemption of a bald, miserable egomaniac.”)

Hiccups aside, the end result exceeded my wildest fantasies. Thanks in large part to the backing of ABC News, people actually seemed to be reading the book and, more importantly, benefiting from it. My mom went from worried to very proud.

PHOTO: Dan Harris and his wife Bianca wait backstage on the set of Good Morning America on March 11, 2014 in New York City.Ida Mae Astute/ABC
Dan Harris and his wife Bianca wait backstage on the set of "Good Morning America" on March 11, 2014 in New York City.

PHOTO: ABCs Dan Harris having his brain activity monitored during meditation. Courtesy Dan Harris
ABC's Dan Harris having his brain activity monitored during meditation.

In hindsight, it's not that my reputational concerns were unfounded. (Or those of my mother – who could blame her, really?) It's that my hyperventilation was not helpful; it clouded, instead of clarified, my thinking. I seemed to have temporarily forgotten a supremely helpful nugget of wisdom imparted to me in the pages of my own book by the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein.

While conceding that worrying can sometimes make sense, Goldstein also pointed out that on the 17th time that you are, say, envisioning all the horrible consequences of missing a flight, you might ask yourself the following question, "Is this useful?"

As the book continued to hum along, I ran smack into another of my own lessons. In “10% Happier,” I talk a lot about the Buddhist concept of unsatisfactoriness. We are insatiable; we hurl ourselves headlong from one cookie, one promotion, one sexual encounter to the next, and yet we’re never fully sated.

As Joseph Goldstein likes to ask his students, “How many great meals or fantastic vacations have you had? And are you done?”

Meditation, as I professed repeatedly to readers and anyone who would listen, is supposed to help you transcend this internal hamster wheel and find a bit of balance.

But listen to what happened when, shortly after “10% Happier “came out, I got a call from my literary agent, informing me that the book was No. 2 on the New York Times bestsellers list. My first thought was: I can’t believe this is happening. This is so totally fantastic. And then, just as the surge of dopamine was cresting, another thought crept in: Why am I not #1?

Around this time, I also developed a habit of compulsively checking my rank on Amazon.com. It literally became the first thing I did in the morning, and the last thing I did before I went to bed, with hourly checks in between. When it dipped, I despaired. When it spiked, I experienced a little starburst of elation, quickly followed by fantasies of what it would be like if it went even higher.

I knew full well this was all an object lesson in unsatisfactoriness. But was I done? Of course not. At first, I would keep my wife, Bianca, apprised of the ups and downs. Then she lost interest. Then she started to think I was crazy. Then I began hiding my new habit from her completely.

The point of meditation is not to extinguish all desire. It's still kosher to enjoy book sales, baked goods or “Breaking Bad” binges. The goal, rather, is to manage your urges and impulses with more wisdom, to not get so carried away, so addicted. Clearly I had more practice to do.

Notwithstanding my little bouts of wanting more, I did recognize, in my more lucid moments, that the unlikely success of the book was a dream come true. Nevertheless, here’s where I broke yet another of my rules: Don’t be a jerk.

In a chapter entitled “The Self-Interested Case for Not Being a Dick,” I had argued that kind, friendly and compassionate people tend to be happier, healthier more popular and more successful. Moreover, I pointed out that studies have shown that meditation can actually make people nicer. For example, preschoolers who were taught a practice called “compassion meditation” were more likely to give their stickers away to strangers.

In my relationship with my publishers, however, I wasn’t always as compassionate as I would have liked. Even though things were going swimmingly overall, we had a few disagreements about promotion and distribution. Ancient resentments surfaced. (I was still sore about the fact that they had briefly suggested I rename the book, “Be Happy Now,” because they worried that a 10% happiness boost might be insufficiently alluring.)

In my book, I had quoted the Buddha as saying that anger has a “honeyed tip,” but a “poisoned root.” Nevertheless, in the heat of the moment, this newly minted public evangelist for meditation may have allowed himself to send a testy email or two.

While my behavior hardly constituted motiveless malignance, just as the Buddha warned, after the initial rush of self-righteous satisfaction, my tart little missives ultimately left me feeling as if I had toxins running through my veins.

To be clear, meditation is not designed to render you a lifeless, nonjudgmental blob. There are times when you have to speak up for yourself. But you can do this diplomatically instead of blindly – or, as they say on the meditation scene, you can learn to “respond, not react.”

Despite years of meditating, I had allowed myself to get a little carried away. Not long afterwards, I happened to be watching the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou,” and was particularly struck by the scene where George Clooney and his gang of misfit fugitives are watching a manic bank robber being marched off to prison, hollering as he goes.

“It's like our friend George is a alley cat,” says Clooney’s character, “and his own damn humors're swingin' him by the tail.”

One final example of my bumping up against my own advice: Nowadays, I spend a lot of time on the road, giving speeches about meditation. During the Q&A sessions, I constantly find myself reassuring people who feel they are failed meditators. “I can’t do it,” they’ll tell me. “I try to focus on my breath, and my mind keeps zooming all over the place.”

I always say the same thing: Don’t worry about it. Everyone wanders. The whole myth about “clearing the mind” is deeply misleading. If you completely stop thinking, you’re either enlightened – or dead.

The whole game, I explain, is just to notice when you’re lost in thought, and start over. And over. And over. Meditation is unlike anything else you do in life; here, “failing” is succeeding. The moment when you wake up from distraction is in itself a victory. You’re breaking a lifetime’s habit of walking around in a fog of memory and projection.

But then I went and had my brain examined. I was invited to test a machine being developed by Dr. Jud Brewer from the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts.

PHOTO: Book cover of 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, by ABCs Dan Harris.!t Books (An Imprint of HarperCollns)
Book cover of "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," by ABC's Dan Harris.

Jud and his team connected a bunch of electrodes to my head, then had me meditate in short bursts, during which time they measured the electrical activity from my so-called Default Mode Network, the brain regions that are active when you’re engaged in mindless, self-referential, past-and-future-oriented internal chatter. Every time I thought I was meditating correctly, the screen in front of me showed that, in fact, my DMN was spiking like the Dow on a bull run.

I was gut shot. When I talked it over with Jud, he theorized that I was getting in my own way by trying too hard – or, as meditation teachers like to say, “over-efforting.” Not long afterwards, I related this story over brunch to my friend, the meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. To which she casually responded, “It helps to have a sense of humor.”

Booyah: that was what was missing. In essence, I had forgotten the basic instructions; the stuff I tell audiences all the time. My practice was suffused with striving and self-judgment. I was making my meditation a grim, overheated test of my abilities. I needed to take my own medicine, and give myself a break.

Having now trotted out my many missteps, I will say this in my own defense: as I argue in the book, my whole 10% thesis buys me a lot of leeway to continue being a schmuck. (If you were to talk to my wife, she’d give you her “90% still a moron” spiel. Similarly, my brother, Matt, has suggested an alternate title to my book: “From Deeply Flawed to Merely Flawed.”)

While I may sometimes struggle to practice what I preach, my post-mistake recovery time has dramatically improved. To wit: I’ve since lightened up and improved my meditation practice, and I’ve patched up my relationship with my publishers. Also, I totally have my Amazon-checking under control; down to, like, 17 times a day.

And there’s the rub: just because you’ve started meditating – or even if you’ve written a whole f------ book on the subject – doesn’t mean your life is going to become a nonstop parade of rainbows and unicorns. As I said, the whole game is starting over.

“On the cushion,” this means noticing when you’re lost in thought, and then hauling your attention back to the breath. In the rest of your life, this means seeing when you’ve messed up, engaging in a little bit of what the Buddhists call “wise remorse” (as opposed to unconstructive spirals of self-flagellation), picking yourself up, and getting back into the fight.

The bottom line is that the lessons learned through meditation run so counter to our instincts – to let the voice in our head run wild, to chase pleasure blindly, to grasp at things that won’t last – that we need constant reminders, and constant permission to fail and begin again. I find this notion hugely comforting, and so should anyone who tells themselves they’re not cut out for meditation. In the end, we’re all pooping on the rug.

The more I travel around and talk about meditation, the more convinced I am that this practice is something truly and universally useful. Unlike what you hear from self-appointed celebrity swamis, there are no silver bullets. (The only people who have had all their problems solved through self-help are the people who write those books.)

But 10% happier – even if it is a completely unscientific estimate – is doable for pretty much anyone. I’m not saying I’m going to move to the Himalayas and become a monk or anything, but I will probably write another book about meditation.

At the very least, it’ll give me a new Amazon rank to check obsessively.