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

ABC News' Dan Harris describes some of his missteps when it came to mediation.

ByABC News
January 13, 2015, 11:25 AM

— -- 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.

ABC anchor Dan Harris' on air panic attack and his lesson for you.
ABC anchor Dan Harris' on air panic attack and his lesson for you.

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

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

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.

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.