How Meditation Helped This News Anchor Recover from Addiction
“In the years after abandoning drugs, a lot of my life has been about finding healthier ways to redirect my search for dopamine.”
READ ON TO DISCOVER:
How Dan Harris recovered from an on-air panic attack
Which piece of wisdom from Eckhart Tolle changed his life
Why meditation can have incredible benefits for all
Dan Harris is a correspondent for ABC News, the co-anchor for the weekend edition of Good Morning America, and the #1 bestselling author of 10% Happier and Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. He recently joined renowned psychologist and creativity researcher Scott Barry Kaufman on the Psychology Podcast to discuss how meditation helped him conquer panic attacks, beat drug addiction, and take control of his life.
Scott: You write in your book, “Our mind is a feverish swamp of urges, desires, and judgements. It’s fixated on the past and the future to the detriment of the here and now.” I thought we could start off talking a little bit about your own private swamp. Your friend Simon said you have the “soul of a junkie.” Your mom described you as an impatient kid. In eighth grade, an ex-girlfriend said that you “piss on the present.”
Dan: Yeah, all of those things are true. I have a tendency toward impatience, to think about the past or future to the detriment of whatever’s happening right now, and I have the soul of a junkie. Even though I no longer use drugs, I still want them, and I have all sorts of new destructive addictions—I struggle a lot around food. The junkie has not been exorcised, although he often needs to be.
Scott: Well, maybe the broader point there is that you’re a dopamine junkie, a junkie for novelty and stimulation.
Dan: Yes, yes.
Scott: I am too, because I’m ravenously curious. With meditation, you can apply that radical curiosity to your own mind, right?
Dan: Absolutely. You can have healthy compulsions, and you can have negative ones. In the years after abandoning drugs, a lot of my life has been about finding healthier ways to redirect my search for dopamine. I have developed this deep meditation habit, and I think it’s largely healthy.
Scott: Did something happen on June 7, 2004 that was out of the ordinary for you?
Dan: Yeah, I had a panic attack on national television on Good Morning America. My job that day was to deliver the news headlines at the top of each hour on the show. I came on at 7:00 that morning. A couple of seconds into my shtick, I just lost it. My heart started racing. My palms were sweating. My mouth dried up. My lungs seized up. I couldn’t breathe. I had to quit right in the middle, and it was really embarrassing, really destabilizing.
The more embarrassing story is actually what produced the panic attack, which relates back to the quote from my friend Simon. I had spent a lot of time hunting for dopamine in war zones as a young, idealistic, ambitious news reporter after 9/11, and I kind of developed an addiction to the thrill of being in a war zone. When I came home, I got depressed, and didn’t know I was depressed, and did this incredibly stupid thing of self-medicating with recreational drugs, which made me feel better.
After I had the panic attack I went to a doctor—a shrink who’s an expert on panic—and he pointed out that drug use was enough to artificially raise the level of adrenaline in my brain, exacerbate my baseline anxiety, and produce this panic attack.
When the doctor pointed out that I had given myself a panic attack through stupidly snorting cocaine, I was smart enough to quit doing drugs, and I was smart enough to go see this doctor once or twice a week for a year. I still see him, but I didn’t find meditation until many years later.
I’m not of the view that meditation is a panacea. I called the book 10% Happier, but I don’t think it cures panic disorder. I think it is one arrow in the quiver for boosting overall well-being, and it can reduce the likelihood of a panic attack, but I don’t want to present this as something that is a cure for depression, a cure for anxiety. I think it’s a good tool.
Scott: Absolutely. I have a lot of empathy for [you regarding] the panic attack. I used to have a lot of anxiety, used to walk around with the beta blocker pills in case that would happen. You just pop the pill and you immediately go down to a 65 [bpm] heart rate. I’ve been there, so my heart goes out to you in that moment.
Let’s move beyond 2004. When you went searching [for a healthier outlet], why didn’t Ted Haggard convince you that [religion] was the thing instead of meditation?
“This inner conversation is responsible for most of the things about which we are most embarrassed.”
Dan: So I quit doing drugs and started seeing this shrink. Around that time, I was also covering faith and spirituality for ABC News, so I ended up spending a lot of time with pastors like Ted Haggard, and imams, and disciples of the Mormon Temple—lots of different religious folks.
I was raised by scientists, and I’m now married to a scientist. So constitutionally, I’m kind of not able to believe in things you can’t prove. Now, having spent a lot of time with people of faith, I am not anti-faith. I don’t like divisive wings of organized religion, but I personally have not yet been capable of faith in the way we traditionally talk about it.
Scott: That’s interesting. In a lot of his books, [renowned spiritual teacher] Eckhart Tolle sets the stage [by saying], “This book will wake you up.” Tell me what your experience with him was like.
Dan: For the uninitiated, Eckhart Tolle is a huge self-help guru. My initial response to him was of deep skepticism, bordering on disgust. He writes books with lofty titles like A New Earth and The Power of Now, and he makes all these grandiose claims about how he’s going to give you a spiritual awakening. He uses lots of pseudo-scientific language, and he talks about how, after his own spiritual awakening, he lived on park benches in London for two years in a state of bliss.
I remain critical of all of that, but what he did that I have to give him credit and eternal gratitude for is point out something that nobody else had ever pointed out to me—that we all have a voice in our heads. He was not referring to schizophrenia, or hearing voices, or mental illness, but the inner narrator, your ego, the voice that is yammering at you all day long. It’s this nonstop conversation you’re having with yourself that most of us are unaware we’re even having and, therefore, are controlled by it. We’re eating when we’re not hungry, or we’re losing our temper when we don’t need to, or, in my case, going off to war zones without thinking about the psychological consequences, then coming home, getting depressed, and blindly using drugs. This inner conversation is responsible for most of the things about which we are most embarrassed. Eckhart Tolle was the first person to wake me up to that fact, and it had profound implications.
Scott: It could be that, even if his language doesn’t technically make sense, it still theoretically makes sense. [Like,] “Become aware of the inner energy field of your being.” Now, my initial reaction is to roll my eyes at that. However, that is meaningful when you don’t look at it from a scientific perspective.
Dan: That’s absolutely true. I mean, if you sit down, close your eyes, and feel what it’s like to have a body… You can feel it. You’re an animal with a body, and that is what it feels like to be alive. There’s value to feeling that, because tuning into that can tune out a lot of the [craziness] that is yanking you around. Eckhart is right on that one.
My Spidey Sense about him is that he’s not full of shit. I’ve spent time with a lot of self-help gurus, and I didn’t get a real mercenary vibe off of him. I didn’t get a sense that he was faking it. It is possible that he did have some sort of psychological/spiritual breakthrough, and has trouble talking about it in comprehensible terms. He would say—and I think he actually does say this—that he knows that some of the language in his books is hard to grok, but he’s actually trying to circumvent your conscious mind and speak to your subconscious.
There’s a great quote from him. It’s something [about how] he’s so confident in his spiritual enlightenment that if he met the Buddha, and the Buddha told him he was not enlightened, he would say, “Oh, that’s so interesting. The Buddha can be wrong.”
Scott: Tell me about this retreat that you were engaged in. And how much do you meditate now?
Dan: In the book, I talk about this 10-day silent meditation retreat that I went on. It was totally, totally miserable for the first four or five days. But then it was amazing—I had an experience of my own mind that was different than any I’d ever had before. I got a sense of what it’s like when our dispersive thought patterns slow down, and we have a much more potent experience of being alive right now. That was accompanied by a huge blast of serotonin. I had about 36 of the happiest hours of my life and then, like everything, it faded, and I went back to being miserable, and then happy again. So that’s the first part of your question.
“I’m better at drawing the line between useless rumination and what I call ‘constructive anguish.’”
The second part of your question is, what’s my meditation like now? I’ve continued to go on retreats every other year, and get a lot out of it. In my daily practice, I [meditate] about two hours a day, but I believe that 5 to 10 minutes is enough to derive benefits. In fact, I think even one minute counts.
Somebody recently asked me if I could sum up the benefits of meditation for me. I think it really comes down to being less of an asshole. That sounds cheeky on some level, but I think you progressively become less of an asshole to yourself and others. I worry about the state of my career and balancing that with my meditation career—I’m writing more books, yet I’m also a newsman. So there’s a lot for me to worry about, but I think I’m better at drawing the line between useless rumination and what I call “constructive anguish.”
Scott: [How is] loving-kindness compatible with working in such a competitive field? When you think about asking someone a question that might not be a compassionate question, do you pause an extra second now? How have you changed in that regard?
Dan: Yeah, I do pause. I think a little bit more about how I would feel being on the receiving end of that, and when I’m writing stories, I think about how I’m portraying people. The great Sharon Salzberg [says] that you can compete without being cruel. I think that’s true—I am in competition with other news networks, even other correspondents and anchors within my own organization. But you can be competitive without wishing ill on others. If you do find yourself rooting for the failure of others, just be aware that it’s happening, and then don’t feed it with compulsive thoughts. It’s all just an interesting dance.