Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with ABC News anchor Dan Harris (@danbharris), who, after a nationally televised panic attack on Good Morning America in 2004, found himself on a bizarre adventure to rein in the voice in his head, discovering a solution in meditation. A lifelong nonbeliever, meditation was something Dan always assumed to be either impossible or useless.
In 2014, Dan published the book 10% Happier, which takes readers on a ride from the outer reaches of neuroscience to the inner sanctum of network news to the bizarre fringes of America’s spiritual scene and leaves them with a takeaway that could actually change their lives. In 2017, Dan followed up with Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-To Book.
In 2016, Dan launched the 10% Happier company with co-founders Ben Rubin, CEO, and Derek Haswell, VP Product. The company was rebranded to Ten Percent Happier in 2019.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. My guest today is Dan Harris. Who is Dan Harris? After ABC News anchor Dan Harris had a nationally televised panic attack on Good Morning America in 2004, he knew he had to make some changes. He found himself on a bizarre adventure to reign in the voice in his head that provoked his on-air freakout and found a solution in meditation.
A lifelong non-believer, meditation was something Dan always assumed to be either impossible or useless. In 2014, Dan published the book 10% Happier, which takes readers on a ride from the outer reaches of neuroscience to the inner sanctum of network news, to the bizarre fringes of America’s spiritual scene, and leaves them with a takeaway that could actually change their lives.
In 2017, Dan followed up with Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, subtitle, A 10% Happier How-to Book. In 2016, Dan launched the 10% Happier company. That’s number one, zero, then percentage sign, with co-founders Ben Rubin, CEO, and Derek Haswell, VP of product. The company then was rebranded to Ten Percent Happier, all spelled out, in 2019. You can find Dan on Twitter @danbharris, that is Harris with one S, on Instagram @danharris, and Facebook @DanHarrisABC. Dan, welcome to the show.
Dan Harris: Thanks for having me.
Tim Ferriss: I’m so excited to dig into many, many, many things, and it’s going to be nonlinear because that is my wont in terms of Memento-style interview approach. I’d like to begin with something I found in the process of doing homework, and that is a quote. Feel free to correct this if it’s not accurate, but here we go. This is from you. “My career has been guided by a motto bequeathed to me by my dad, who is a successful academic physician.” And here’s the motto. “The price of security is insecurity.” Could you please explain what this means and means to you?
Dan Harris: Yeah. I have so much to say about that. It really was my guiding light, and still is in many ways. But in particular, as a young journalist who was extremely ambitious, and again, I don’t necessarily need to use past tense on all of this. Some of it is present tense. But in my younger days in particular, I really believe that any success I was achieving as I was working my way up the ladder at ABC News, et cetera, et cetera, was directly correlated to the intensity of my anxiety.
And that motto handed down to me by my father, who was an academic physician, was until recently, until he retired, an academic physician at Harvard and a varsity worrier, long-time handwringer himself, was just my way of almost venerating the constant worrying. I later found out from my dad that he made that expression up not to put worrying on a pedestal, not because he wanted me to be worrying all the time, because if you think about it, it’s maybe not the kindest thing to say to a kid. He, in fact, made it up because he wanted me to feel better about the fact that I was anxious. And I think that was—
Tim Ferriss: To give you permission to feel the anxiety.
Dan Harris: Correct. I was a really anxious kid and that carries into my adulthood. I would say now, here I am 11 years post beginning meditation, I still believe it is true that a certain amount of stressing, plotting, and planning, careful thinking is necessary if you want to be great at whatever it is you set your mind to. Your work, parenting, volunteer work, relationships. Except what I’ve now started to see very clearly, and I’m imperfect at applying this, but what I see really clearly is that we take the worrying too far. We take the insecurity too far and we cross the line between constructive anguish and useless rumination. And really, the self-awareness that I’ve generated through meditation, imperfectly for sure, has helped me balance that much more effectively.
Tim Ferriss: We’re going to go back to the scene of the crime, or more accurately the scene of the car accident, psychologically speaking, back on air. We’re not going to raise that just yet, but because you mentioned this line and I’m going to, I suppose, apply it metaphorically here, but I had never heard of something called—and I’ve only read this. I could not figure out how to pronounce it. The Yerkes-Dodson law that, I believe Dr. Luana Marques, Brazilian-born, now at Harvard, had told you about. Perfectly or imperfectly, could you describe what the Yerkes-Dodson law implies or claims to describe it in some fashion? Because this is quite freeing to me, in the way that I read it.
Dan Harris: Yes. It really is. Luana Marques came on my podcast right at the beginning of the pandemic. I wanted to do an episode about how to handle all of the stress that I knew we were all feeling, and were going to continue to feel for a while. She talked to me about this, I think it’s called the Yerkes-Dodson law.
Tim Ferriss: I knew I was fucking that one up before I said it.
Dan Harris: I mean, you could be forgiven. It’s a weird—I think it’s the name of two scientists, hyphenated, who came up with this idea that a certain amount of anxiety—Luana Marques, the aforementioned Harvard-affiliated anxiety expert, was talking about a certain amount of anxiety, you can think of it as like a curve, like a bell curve, a certain amount of anxiety is useful in that it gets us moving. It gets us protecting ourselves. It gets us doing the things we need to do. So that’s the beginning part of the curve, the upward slope. At some point, it starts to slope downwards. You can think of that as the point of diminishing returns, where the anxiety is no longer motivational. It’s paralytic. So walking that line seems to be, in my own life, it really has become one of the most important arts. Again, it’s art, not science, and I am nowhere near perfect. And I don’t expect—I don’t think perfection is on offer.
Tim Ferriss: Well, it also seems to showcase, for me, the fact that there is an evolutionary value to anxiety if we were to define it as the ability to foresee future threats and perhaps forestall or mitigate them. Right? But when it bleeds over into expecting catastrophe and wringing your hands and biting your nails at all times, then it ceases to be of utility. Right? It actually ends up being disabling. But the seeing it in graph form, or in visual form, with the Yerkes-Dodson law on Wikipedia, there we go, corrected on lucky number three, was really freeing in a sense, because there’s a desire that I find myself succumbing to, which is to erase or remove all anxiety, and vilifying anxiety is this shadow that I can’t rid myself of. I liked reading about it. I’ll just put it that way. It’s like give yourself a break on some level.
Now, speaking of giving anyone a break, if “the price of security is insecurity” was a motto that you kept in the back of your mind, and assuming that you don’t want your kids to have a motto like “Only the paranoid survive” or something like that, what might be a motto you would want your kids to have in the back of their mind as they navigate their lives the first 20 years, 30 years, whatever it might be?
Dan Harris: Can I give you two?
Tim Ferriss: You are allowed to give me three, if you’d like.
Dan Harris: I love mottoes. I love little expressions, mantras that you can use to kind of drop into your mind because it’s so easy. You can listen to an inspirational podcast or read a great book or whatever, and feel really like you’re invigorated, you’re awake to some important truth. But the habits of mind, the old habits of mind, reassert themselves really quickly. So we need to find ways to continuously wake up and to remember our aspirations. So these little mottoes, I think, they can be a little bit cheesy, but they’re really helpful in my experience.
So one of them that specifically applies to this question of how much insecurity or anxiety is too much. I got this motto from my meditation teacher, a guy named Joseph Goldstein. Now I’ve heard you talk on this show and I’ve heard you, you also talked the one time we met in person, when you came on my show. I’ve heard you drop the name of Jack Kornfield, who is a legendary meditation teacher, has had a huge impact on your life. Jack and Joseph are old, old, old co-conspirators from the ’60s and ’70s when they met, both of them, along with Sharon Salzberg, who’s just another meditative titan, the three of them all spent a lot of time in Asia and came back to the states and co-founded something called the Insight Meditation Society. Then Jack broke off and started something called Spirit Rock Meditation Center on the West Coast. IMS is on the left, on the East Coast.
So they’re really responsible for bringing mindfulness to the West in many, many ways. And so the first meditation retreat I ever went on was at Spirit Rock, where I know you’ve done meditation retreats, or at least one, and—
Tim Ferriss: Right. Or anxiety nervous breakdown retreats!
Dan Harris: I won’t talk about that!
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
Dan Harris: So I was on my first meditation retreat at Spirit Rock, and even though that’s the place Jack founded, Joseph was teaching for 10 days there. And our mutual friend, Sam Harris, got me off the waitlist for this—
Tim Ferriss: No relation, I should note.
Dan Harris: No relation. Although I wouldn’t be embarrassed, because I love the guy. So I’m at this retreat and I’ll spare you the whole story of the retreat. But the key moment as it pertains to this question was, toward the end of the retreat, Joseph is talking to the assembled yogis, the meditators, and he says something like, “Okay, we’re heading toward the end here now. And you might find your thoughts start turning to the things you have to do when you return to your life. But to the best of your ability, try to let those thoughts go.” And I raised my hand because this was a Q and A, you were allowed to talk on an otherwise silent retreat.
I said, “Well, wait a minute, dude. If I miss my flight, that has real-life consequences. Why would you tell me not to think about that?” And he said, “No, you’re absolutely right. But on the 17th run-through of all of the horrible knock-on effects of your missing that flight, maybe ask yourself one simple question: is this useful?” That is a great motto because, of course, we’re going to do some worrying. And I, as a long-time inveterate fretter, I’m borrowing that phrase from the great meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein, as an inveterate fretter myself, I’m cool with some worrying. I think you need to do some of that. But at some point, maybe ask yourself: is this useful?
At that point, it’s probably not, and you can pay attention to what your child is trying to tell you, or not mindlessly say something that’s going to ruin the next 48 hours of your marriage, or whatever. Just live your actual life. So that, to me, is a really useful motto. I’ll stop there before I go onto the second one, in case you have something you want to add or clarify.
Tim Ferriss: I have a follow-up question, but I don’t want to interrupt the flow to number two. So let’s go to number two.
Dan Harris: No. No. No. Go ahead. Because the number two is so—it’s kind of off on a different thing and I don’t want to mess up your flow. So go ahead.
Tim Ferriss: Well, my flow, as such, is absolutely going to take us off on a wild tangent, but that’s okay. So you mentioned a few names. You mentioned Joseph—is it Goldstein or Goldstein? I always mix this up because there are so many different Goldsteins and Goldsteins. How does he pronounce his last name?
Dan Harris: He’s a Goldstein. Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So Goldstein, Salzburg, and Kornfield. Right? So I asked Jack at one point, “Jack, I have to ask you…” This was in private because, of course, this is not the kind of thing that you always want to ask in public. But I said, “Jack is there any reason why all of these meditation and mindfulness teachers, these pioneers from the West and the ’70s, are Jewish?” And he said, “That’s a really good question,” and we talked about it. He said, “Yeah, it sounds like a law firm.” I would just love to hear if you have any thoughts on why that is the case. Is it just coincidental? Is there something that maps from Judaism to Buddhism, or otherwise? Do you have any thoughts on that? Because it is kind of uncanny.
Dan Harris: Yes. I was just going to say, as it happens, Tim Ferriss, I have a lot of thoughts on this. These people are all like really good friends of mine now. And they go—there’s a, I don’t know how they feel about this name, but there is a name for this whole coterie, which is the JewBus, the Jewish Buddhists. And the prototypical JewBu is actually a JewHu—or, say, he’s a Hindu. But his name is Ram Dass.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yes.
Dan Harris: So you will be as, because I know you’re a real connoisseur of, a supporter of psychedelic or plant medicine, and Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert, a Jewish guy from Boston, became a Harvard professor along with Timothy Leary. They got fired for running experiments on their students with either LSD or psilocybin. He went off to India, Richard did, and discovered a Hindu guru, and named himself, changed his name to Ram Dass and came back to the states. And there’s lots of good documentaries on him. I think some of them on Netflix. And was extremely influential.
And the slightly younger generation included lots of people with, like, Jewy, Jewish names like Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein, Mark Epstein, who’s a psychiatrist in New York City. He’s written a whole beautiful series of books about the overlap between Buddhism and psychology. Daniel Goleman, who was a Harvard PhD, then went on to write, become a science journalist for The New York Times, and then wrote a book called Emotional Intelligence, which is, obviously, a huge book. On and on. Tara Brach is a slightly younger iteration of the same sort of trend. On and on and on, you have these great Jewish meditation teachers. So what’s going on here? And I say this as a half-Jew, bar mitzvah-ed guy, what’s going on here? The Jews have a cultural tendency toward anxiety, which I would argue as well earned from the pharaohs through Hitler.
That yearning for some sort of remedy to this really difficult anxiety, that plus the fact that Judaism in America is largely, not entirely, of course, but largely secular, I think, created both a hunger for answers to anxiety, and maybe a sense that there wasn’t enough spirituality in their lives. Throw in the ’60s and all the psychedelics and Vietnam and the searching nature of that era, and you get the JewBus. That’s my sense. Of course, they may all yell at me for being wrong about this, but that’s my sense.
Tim Ferriss: You’re entitled to your opinion and perspective on the whole thing. I certainly, I’m not part of the club, so it’s harder for me to have a strong opinion of any type about this. It’s also been a long-standing fascination of mine, I have a lot of Jewish friends, to observe this, what seems to be fairly ubiquitous anxiety in many of the families I grew up around, many of the friends I developed close friendships with in high school and college. How much of that do you think is cultural and how much of that is survival of the fittest, in the sense? If you think about Jews as having been persecuted for, like you said, millennia, since the time of the pharaohs, is there just a sort of selection process over time where the people who are the first to flee, or sense danger and move, are the people who then end up producing sort of modern-day Jews? How do you think about that, if you think about it at all?
Dan Harris: I think the evolution produced the culture. So we have this culture of anxiety because the Jews that survived learned to worry. And another—this is skipping back a question, but I think another aspect of the sort of causality that led to this remarkable group of young Jewish people, mostly from New York and some of them from Boston, who went over to India or Asia and learned how to meditate, and came back and really became these—Jon Kabat-Zinn. I left him out, who was the granddaddy of mindfulness-based stress reduction. Without him, there is no secular mindfulness movement. New York Jewish guy, went to MIT, studied microbiology, and then found Zen and then invented MBSR.
I think another aspect of this is that all of these people, all of these names that I’ve listened to, these are all people that I know quite well, they’re incredibly smart. I think if you add the anxiety, the spiritual yearning, and the braininess, it all is a perfect storm for Buddhism. Because Buddhism is incredibly interesting. There’s the practice element, which, you know, thinking can be a big impediment to the practice, but the intellectual infrastructure that supports the practice is dense and fascinating. It’s a lifetime’s supply of ideas to wrestle with. I think that’s another component of why these people found this teaching so irresistible.
Tim Ferriss: I think one might also argue that being well-educated and having a lot of CPU cycles in your prefrontal cortex is also a perfect recipe for grist for the mill in the form of anxiety and rumination and open loops for the salve, in the sense, that then is mindfulness practice. So let’s dial up the volume on the anxiety to 11, to use a Spinal Tap reference. I know you have told this story a lot, but there will be people listening who have no idea what the catalyzing event looked like, what preceded it, and so on. Could you walk us through your life from, say, 2000 and 2004. Obviously, we’re going to use a montage of some type. Or 2001 to 2004 to, let’s call it “the event” in quotation marks.
Dan Harris: Sure. In the year 2000, I, as a 28-year-old plankton from local news in Boston, I’d spent like seven years in the local news in Maine and Boston with ill-fitting suits and way too much plaid. At 28, I rode the escalator up into ABC News at the headquarters on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You’ve been to our building because you came on my podcast, so you know that escalator. I was terrified. I had watched Peter Jennings my whole life. He was the legendary anchor of World News Tonight until he died in the mid-aughts. I was so thrilled, but terrified. This is where “The price of security is insecurity” kicked into high, high gear.
I had gotten this job, just complete luck that I had gotten this job. I just threw myself into it. Skipped all my friends’ weddings. Worked seven days a week. Just was clawing and scratching to get ahead in an incredibly venomous, really competitive, unsafe in many ways, psychologically, environment at ABC News. It’s improved vastly since then, I’m happy to report. Then, not long after I arrived, 9/11 happened. And I, again, driven by my anxiety and also my idealism about the role of journalists, our duty to bear witness at the tip of the spear, I raised my hand and volunteered to go overseas after 9/11.
I ended up in Afghanistan with the Taliban in Kandahar, their capital at the time. I think I was one of the last people to get a Taliban visa before they were overthrown, and just fell in love with combat reporting. Not because I liked the gore, but because there’s just, it felt so thrilling and so important. And, of course, there was the ego aggrandizement of it, too. That you’re doing this important work. You’re living in this hyper adrenalized way, and you’re getting on TV all the while. So I got hooked and spent so much time in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. I covered the Second Intifada in 2002. So Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and then Iraq happened. Spent months and months and months, and probably, altogether, like a year on the ground in Iraq.
And in the summer of 2003, I came home and I got depressed. But I was not self-aware enough to know I was depressed, so I started to sort of—I did something incredibly stupid, which is I started to self-medicate with recreational drugs, including cocaine and ecstasy. So I was in my early 30s at this point, and I had never—I’d smoked weed and, obviously, drank a lot of beer in college, but I’d never done any hard drugs. And cocaine in particular, really, my depression manifests itself as a kind of low-giness or a low energy—had trouble getting out of bed. Felt kind of vaguely ill all the time. And cocaine, this kind of synthetic squirt of adrenaline, really fixed that.
Of course it had horrible side effects, like feeling awful the next day, et cetera, et cetera. And then an even worse side effect, which is the aforementioned event on a warm June morning in 2004, I was filling in on Good Morning America. At the time they had a job called the newsreader. Somebody would come on at the top of every hour and read the headlines. The person who had that job at the time was named Robin Roberts, who’s now the main host of Good Morning America. They don’t have that role anymore. But I was in a rotation of regularly filling in for Robin. And so I wasn’t particularly nervous on this morning, but for some reason, when the main hosts of the show, Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer tossed it over to me to do my little spiel, I just lost it.
And you can see this if you type “panic attack on live television,” it’s the first result. So, go for it. You can see it. Has millions of millions of hits. So I start reading and then my lungs basically seize up, and my heart starts racing, my palms are sweating, my mouth dries up, and I can’t talk, which is a prerequisite for anchoring the news. It was horrifying. And so if you watch the tape, it actually looks like—I definitely look flustered. But a lot of people will say it didn’t look that bad. And that’s because I had the luxury of being able to squeak out “Back to you, Charlie and Diane,” and they took it back. But I had to cut the whole thing short. I think I had read like two and a half stories by the time the freak out hit.
It was awful, and really scary, not only because a panic attack is horrifying, but because I just thought, “Well, this is the end of my career.” My mom was watching that morning and she, and she called me backstage and said, “Oh, you just had a panic attack, dude.” She didn’t say “dude,” but anyway. She said, “You had a panic attack.” And she hooked me up with a shrink, and the shrink asked me a bunch of questions to try to figure out what was going wrong, and one of the questions was, “Do you do drugs?” And I kind of said, sheepishly, “Yeah.” And he gave me, I like to make this joke, he gave me this look, one of these shrinky looks, I’m sure you’ve gotten this look before, Tim, from the shrinks with whom you’ve worked, he gave me a look that communicated the sentiment of “Okay, asshole. Mystery solved.”
He pointed out that even though my drug use was pretty intermittent and short-lived, I wasn’t like, you know, I wasn’t like one of the people from The Wolf of Wall Street or anything like that, but it was enough to change my brain chemistry and make a panic attack more likely. So that’s the story.
Tim Ferriss: On that day, was there anything different about that day leading up to it? Anything at all that could have hinted that this was not a day like any other? Do you have, like, itchy feet, and your eyeballs feel too big? Was there anything symptomatically to indicate that something was just slightly off or more than slightly off? Or did it really come out of left field?
Dan Harris: Left field, man. I wasn’t high in the air. I hadn’t been, I don’t think—I don’t remember. I definitely hadn’t been partying the night before or anything like that. Maybe in the week before. But I had no reason to foresee what was about to happen and it sucked, uncontrollably.
Tim Ferriss: So my understanding is, after all of this happens and we’re probably skipping a few things, so feel free to fill in the blanks if you think that that we should, but you were then assigned to cover faith and spirituality against your own wishes, right? So you began exploring mainstream religion, self-help, spirituality, neuroscience, and so on. And somewhere in that sort of chopped salad of spirituality and so on was meditation, like in there, like a crouton, you found meditation amongst everything. Before we jump to meditation though, I’d be very curious to know, was there anything else that you got exposed to that was interesting to you? Not because it was salacious or completely a hoax, but is there anything else that really seemed like it could be a value to you outside of meditation?
Dan Harris: First of all, the metaphor about the chopped salad is awesome. The thing that really landed with me about religion, the religions that I spent time marinating in. I spent a lot of time with evangelicals, Mormons, Muslims. I, as the child of atheist scientists, constitutionally, I just can’t get myself to believe in things for which there’s no evidence. So I had a bit of an allergy, that may be understating it, to the dogma and to the faith claims, the metaphysical claims, and all that stuff. But what struck me was that these folks were, with regularity, contemplating their place in the cosmos, which I was not doing. I was utterly unreflective in many, many important ways. And these guys, on 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning, or whatever time, on a Friday afternoon if you’re a Muslim, or Saturday for the Jews, they were getting together and talking about the universe.
That really hit me as somebody who—I had a sense of my own selfishness and how that was making me unhappy. I didn’t know what to do based on what I was encountering from these folks of faith, because I found so many of their beliefs to be really hard to swallow. But I had this kind of—I don’t—now I’m going to use a word that I don’t know how to pronounce. I think it’s inchoate. This kind of beginning sense—
Tim Ferriss: I know the word!
Dan Harris: You know that word, right? You see it in like fancy books and never know how to pronounce it. But had this kind of beginning inkling that, yeah, there’s something here that I should pay attention to.
Tim Ferriss: So as you’re paying attention then, how does meditation first come over the transom? What was the first exposure that actually made you raise an eyebrow and go, “Huh? Hmm. Maybe there’s something I should pay attention to here.”
Dan Harris: I’m a hard case. So it took me a while, but the first exposure was, I was shooting a story, was when right after Sarah Palin was nominated by John McCain as his vice-presidential candidate. And I was—she’s a Pentecostal. So I was doing a story in Jersey City about Pentecostals. I was shooting at a street fair with some Pentecostals, and trying to get a sense of like what that flavor of evangelicalism was like, to educate the American public. Sorry. Did you have something you wanted to say there?
Tim Ferriss: I was just going to say for people who don’t know anything about Pentecostals, you should add some color here, because it is a fascinating flavor.
Dan Harris: Yeah. So these are the folks that speak in tongues. I mean, there’s a—I don’t want to describe Pentecostalism as a monolith because there are flavors within the flavor, and there are non-Pentecostals who speak in tongues, too. But they’re sort of charismatic and that’s actually a term of art, the charismatic Christianity where some of them will handle snakes during services or speak in tongues, which is a kind of like, speaking in tongues is like you’re speaking a nonsense language that is in some way divine, that you’re being taken over by the Holy Spirit. So, it’s really dramatic, and again, I think I’ll use the word charismatic, form of Christianity.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for the context, please continue. I didn’t want to interrupt too much.
Dan Harris: Oh, interrupt me anytime because I like tangents. So anyway, I’m out shooting this story, this story about Pentecostalism has nothing to do with what is about to happen, which is that I was waiting—when you’re shooting a story there’s lots of downtime, and so I was chit-chatting with the crew, the cameraman, the sound man, and our producer, Felicia Biberica, who is still actually—she’s quite senior producer at World News Tonight. At that time she was a field producer. So she and I were covering this story together.; we had known each other for quite a while. And she started talking about a book, a self-help book she was reading by a guy named Eckhart Tolle, who I had never heard of. And Felicia said something like, “Dan, you should read this book. It’s all about controlling your ego.”
And me and the crew started laughing because it was clear to us that she was saying “You have an out-of-control ego,” which, by the way, was true. And so, it was very funny, but it wasn’t what she meant. What she meant, and what Tolle means by the ego I subsequently learned because I went out and ordered his book and read it, or one of his books and read it, what Tolle means by the ego is the nonstop conversation we are all having with ourselves. This inner narrator. This constant flow of thought and urges and emotions coursing through our minds into which very few of us have any visibility. And so, I started to read Tolle’s book and at first I thought it was complete nonsense because he layers in lots of talk about vibrational fields and spiritual awakenings and all of this other stuff.
But when I got to the stuff about the ego, which again, he has a much more expansive definition of this sort of inner, ghostly sense of you that is constantly spewing sort of self-centered thoughts, hurling us into the future or ruminating about the past to the detriment of the here and now. When I read his diagnosis of the ego, which is essentially just the human condition, that was a gigantic waking up moment for me. Because first of all, it was just like, “Oh yeah, that is true.” And it also really explained my panic attack because it was my ego, and again, not just the sort of stereotypical parts of the ego, the self-aggrandizing part, but also all of the fear and idealism and all this sort of unseen mental machinery that propelled me to cover combat without really thinking about the psychological ramifications.
It was the ego, the sort of mindless inner conversation that allowed me to come home, get depressed, not see it, and blindly reach for cocaine as a medicine, and that all produced the panic attack. So it was reading Eckhart Tolle that was really the first step toward me getting interested in meditation. And the problem with Eckhart Tolle was that he didn’t offer any actionable advice. Felicia and I ended up flying to Toronto to meet Tolle; he lives in Vancouver but he was giving a speech in Toronto and he gave us an audience in a beige hotel room. I interviewed him and I asked him—it was actually the first interview I did with anybody in the faith world where I felt like I had some skin in the game because I was really interested.
I tried to get him to answer, “What do you do about the voice in the head?” And I remember at one point he said, “Take one conscious breath.” And my voice in my head was saying, “What the fuck does that mean? What are you talking about? Give me something to do here.” A friend of mine has described Tolle as correct, but not useful. And so he woke me up to a thunderously obvious but regularly overlooked fact, which is that we all have minds and are thinking, but he didn’t give me anything to do about it.
Tim Ferriss: It’s still very valuable to say, “Hey, bro, you got a huge abscess in your gums,” or whatever it is, right, even though he might not be the surgeon or orthodontist or whatever the specialty would be to take it out. A helpful first step.
Dan Harris: Correct. It was, it was a really helpful first step. I’m thankful for him.
Tim Ferriss: What happens at that point? You’ve diagnosed, I don’t want to say the problem, the condition, let’s call it, to where does Dan Harris go at that point?
Dan Harris: Shamelessly leveraging all the privilege of my journalistic perch. I basically started with the aforementioned Felicia. We started doing lots of stories about self-help because I thought somebody ought to be able to tell me more about what to do about this. So I ended up doing all these stories about Deepak Chopra, who I think is on the far—I mean, I make fun of Deepak with gusto in my book, but nonetheless I think he’s on the far benign end of the self-help spectrum. And then, I did lots of stuff on the folks who are way more questionable, the sort of solve all of your problems through the power of positive thinking crew, you know, The Secret. And I did a lot of stuff on James Arthur Ray, I believe his name is, the guy who had that sweat lodge ceremony where people died.
And basically, I was completely, completely unimpressed, depressed, confused, didn’t know what to do. Actually during this period of time, I came home one night to my then-apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and my then-fiance, and now baby mama Bianca, gave me a gift as I walked into the apartment that evening. She said, “I’ve been listening to you talk about Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle and blah, blah, blah and not making much sense as you do, but it vaguely reminded me,” this is her talking, “It vaguely reminded me of a book I read many years ago, and here it is.” And the book was by a guy I mentioned earlier on the show when we were talking about the JewBus, named Dr. Mark Epstein.
I liked him right away because he had actual credentials. He’s, as I said, a shrink, lives and works in New York City, and he’s written all these incredible books about the overlap between Buddhism and psychology, modern psychology. And so I started reading one of his books that night. The book I started reading was Going To Pieces Without Falling Apart.
Tim Ferriss: A great title.
Dan Harris: It’s a great title and it’s a great book. I highly recommend it. And it was my first introduction to both Buddhism and meditation.
Tim Ferriss: Did you begin some type of practice after that book? Did it give you the prescriptive how-to in a form of self-help that you did not have anaphylactic shock in response to?
Dan Harris: Yes. I had hives on the regular when I was in recovery.
Tim Ferriss: Just ontological hives popping out everywhere?
Dan Harris: That’s a really good phrase. I might steal that.
Tim Ferriss: Steal away. I have like five million milligrams of caffeine in my system, so I’m on fire. Please continue.
Dan Harris: So yeah, well, as somebody who has a panic disorder, I can’t have caffeine. But I’m just—
Tim Ferriss: It’s the poor man’s caffeine. Continue.
Dan Harris: So, I am a tough case, as I’ve referenced before, so I read about Buddhism, was really interested in Buddhism but the talk about meditation I found repellent. And so, I was very, very resistant, and what finally brought me over to trying it was—so this is like 2009—as I started researching meditation, I came across some of the science that really strongly suggests that meditation can confer a long list of tantalizing health benefits. And at that time, that science was not well-publicized and so I had this inkling of, “Oh, this is a huge story that people don’t know about.” And I had this kind of entrepreneurial itch of meditation appears to be really helpful, and all of these books I’m reading, or many of the books I was reading, because I started reading a ton, are really annoying.
And I could write a book that uses the word “fuck” a lot and tells embarrassing stories and maybe that would reach people who otherwise would never do this thing. And so I started, after really looking at the science and kind of reviewing it with my wife as a scientist, I was really convinced that there was something here. So I started doing five to 10 minutes a day and it really helped. And then, after about a year of that, I met Sam Harris. I actually re-met him. I had met Sam once years before and then I met him again. I was moderating a debate that he was in against Deepak Chopra and he actually dismantled him. You can see that on YouTube, too. And Sam I loved, and I still love Sam.
Tim Ferriss: As a general rule, you do not want to debate Sam.
Dan Harris: No. It’s very scary. But actually, the thing about Sam, and you know this, Tim, because you know him, is he can seem very intimidating but if you interact with him, especially if his wife’s around, and his wife is an extraordinary person, Annaka Harris, who’s written a great book on consciousness. She can reduce him to like a giggling, red-faced ball, a puddle, which is amazing. And he’s really warm and incredible, and he told me about Joseph Goldstein and got me into this meditation retreat and that really cracked things open for me. I would say since doing that retreat for the last decade is just a non-negotiable part of my life.
Tim Ferriss: Is it part of your life on the frequency of daily, a few times a week? What is the current, or when you are your best self, let’s just say, what is your frequency of practice?
Dan Harris: So, I’m going to bifurcate the answer here, because I’ll answer for me and then I do want to say a few things about—because I think the question that’s probably coming up in the minds of some of your listeners is what’s the least I can do to get all of the advertised benefits? So I’ll say something about that too, but I don’t want you to be discouraged by what I’m about to say, which is that for me it’s every day. Once in a blue moon, I will miss a day because something has—like it’s just gotten totally crazy or whatever. I went through a period where I did two hours a day, which was way too much. It was nuts. It was just eating up too much of the rest of my life.
So now I do about an hour a day, but I’m much more relaxed about it. And I kind of do it—my rule has always been, and this was true even when I was doing two hours a day, it was like I can do it whenever I want, wherever I want, and in whatever increment I want. So it may be five minutes here, 10 minutes there. On a really good day, I’ll get a long set, 30, 45, 60 minutes. But on many days it’s just a succession of smaller sets or I’ll do a walking meditation. So yeah, I’m pretty consistent, but I don’t think that’s necessary for beginners. I really think the access point here is really easy and user-friendly. What I say for my two little mantras, little slogans, here I go again, for beginning meditators, one is, “One minute counts.”
I really think, and we can talk a little bit more about how to do the practice, but I really think that even in a minute, you can start to get a sense of, “Oh yeah, I’ve got this inner cacophony and I don’t need to be owned by it.” It’s the visibility that is the kryptonite for the ego, that seeing it really de-fangs it, which is kind of amazing. And that can happen in a minute. Would I love to see you do five to 10? Sure. But we know that habit formation is really hard, diabolically hard. So setting the bar really low, I think, is very helpful.
And then, the other little slogan is, “Daily-ish.” Yes, would it be great if you were doing this every day? Sure. But if you grit your teeth and tell yourself you’re going to do it every day, the first day you miss, which inevitably you will, the voice in your head will swoop in and tell you you’re a failed meditator and then, like deuces, you’re out. And so I think “daily-ish” has elasticity or flexibility in it that I really like.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s like brushing your teeth, right? You miss a day, your teeth aren’t going to disintegrate. You miss 20, 30 days, then you might have an issue that starts to crop up.
Dan Harris: You go back to the abscess.
Tim Ferriss: Back to the abscess—I don’t know why I’m so focused on dentistry today. But a question for you about the subjective experience of this is a regular practice. And for me, in my own personal experience, the value of meditation, which I can find tremendous benefit in 10 to 20 minutes a day done consistently, I find tremendous value. The value is not always obvious when I am doing it, but it becomes more obvious if I suddenly stop for a period of time. I would just love to hear what does Dan with meditation look like compared to Dan without? And if you suddenly go cold turkey for a period of time for whatever reason, or however you’d like to tackle that? Just so people can get a grasp on the benefits as you experience them.
Dan Harris: Well, that was just really well-articulated when you talked about your own practice, because this is perhaps the hardest thing to understand about meditation, because all of us, I’m making an assumption here but I think it’s safe for your audience, we’re all type-A people. We do something and we expect to succeed. We expect to win. And so we go into meditation with expectations, which are the most noxious thing you can bring to the party. So in an individual sitting or walking meditation, in an individual session of meditation, the goal is not to feel any certain way. In fact, going into it if you’re expecting or hoping to feel a certain way, it pretty much blocks you from getting there. The goal instead is to feel whatever you are feeling clearly, so that you build the muscle of not being owned by your feelings.
Let me just say that again, because it was a little hard to understand. When you sit to meditate, you really don’t need to will yourself into a bulletproof bliss bubble. Instead, you should just be noticing whatever’s coming up. I’m planning lunch, I’m planning a homicide, I’m jealous, I’m remembering primordial anger toward my younger brother, whatever is coming up. And that is correct meditation because the visibility is the kryptonite. Seeing clearly the cacophony of your own inner landscape is how you are no longer owned by it. And over time, so you can have a whole week of quote, unquote, bad sits, where you’re totally distracted, or you’re restless or you’re sleepy, but over time, the net effect of it is that you are more self-aware and therefore less yanked around by the malevolent puppeteer of your ego.
And so for me, what I notice, and actually this is why falling off the wagon can be really helpful because it can increase your faith in the practice. What I notice is that if I miss a few days, my inner weather becomes much more stormy and I’m likelier to do and say, to eat too much or to make a nasty comment, be impatient, beat myself up more. People are judgmental when I look in the mirror, et cetera, et cetera, I can just really see the venom quotient increase when I’m not doing this thing.
Tim Ferriss: You used the word weather. I can’t remember who shared this imagery with me at some point, but they said the difference between experiencing as you experience without meditation and with meditation is like standing outside in the rain in a storm versus standing inside looking out the window at the storm. And there are a bunch of other analogies that I like. I mean, one would be being 18 inches outside of the washing machine looking at the clothing versus being inside, or sitting in the audience watching the movie of your emotions versus being in the movie. All these analogies or metaphors that to me imply a level of observation and detachment, although I’m sure some psychologists would take issue with that term. What does the practice look like? What does your actual practice look like? Because there’s so many ways to meditate, right? It would be like saying, “I do sports.” It’s like, well, what are we talking about? Racquetball, swimming, curling? What are we talking about here? So, in meditation, what is your particular format? What does it look like?
Dan Harris: That’s exactly right, that there are many, many forms and people can get pretty dogmatic about their support for whatever meditative team they’ve chosen. The kind of meditation that I generally talk about publicly, and that we teach on my app and everything, is called mindfulness meditation, which is derived from Buddhism. But, and I talked about Jon Kabat-Zinn before, this was his innovation. He was this MIT wiz kid who discovered Zen and then he was on a Buddhist meditation retreat and had this insight that like, “Oh, if we strip this of its religious lingo and metaphysical claims, we could teach it in secular contexts, such as healthcare, and people who otherwise would reject it might embrace it.” And he invented an eight-week protocol for teaching what’s called mindfulness-based stress reduction and secularizing it and giving it a structure of an eight-week teaching program.
That is what allowed for scientists to come in and say, “Okay, well this is replicable now. We can run this on a bunch of different populations and measure their cortisol levels and look at their brains, et cetera, et cetera.” And that’s what’s given us this, in large measure, that’s what’s given us this explosion of research into what meditation does to the brain. So, that’s the kind I was initially attracted to and the kind of meditation that I now evangelize for. I have over time, and this is totally optional, but for me, I’ve over time gotten more interested in the Buddhist antecedents. And so, I would describe myself as a Buddhist, but in the sense that, there’s a great author named Stephen Batchelor, who wrote a book called Buddhism Without Beliefs. He describes Buddhism not as something to believe in but as something to do.
And in that sense, I’m a Buddhist, maybe in the same sense that I’m a journalist. It is something that I do regularly, but I wouldn’t sit here and pound the table on behalf of rebirth. But I do think that the Buddhist practices are just a revelation and just a vast treasury, really. But so what does the practice look like? Beginning mindfulness meditation really is very simple. You just find a reasonably quiet place and sit with your spine reasonably straight. You don’t have to be uptight about that. In fact, being uptight is not recommended in any aspect of this. If you don’t want to sit, first of all, you don’t have to fold yourself into a pretzel. I don’t. You can sit in a chair. You can also lie down.
If you’re feeling sleepy and are worried about falling asleep, you can stand up. By the way, falling asleep is not a problem, very common, and actually a good sign that maybe you need more sleep. So that’s the first step. Find a reasonably quiet place, a comfortable position, close your eyes. If you don’t like to close your eyes, you can kind of just gaze softly at a neutral spot. Second step is bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. Pick one spot like your belly or your chest or your nose, and just kind of commit to feeling that. And that’s a key word here, feeling, because we spend most of our life trapped in thought. But actually we’re, in this practice, kind of dropping below the level of thought and tuning into the raw data of the physical sensations of the belly rising and falling, the chest rising and falling, the air entering or exiting the nostrils.
And so, that’s step number two. Oh, by the way, I should say that some people find the breath to be anxiety-producing and that’s actually not uncommon, especially now with like COVID has a pulmonary implication obviously, and BLM has a lot of stuff about not being able to—I can’t breathe has become a really resonant in a difficult way phrase. So, if the breath is hard for you, you can just focus on the feeling of your body sitting or lying down or standing or pick one spot on your body like your hands, whatever they’re touching, and just commit to that. And the third step is, as soon as you try to do this thing, which is going to sound reasonably simple, you’ll realize it’s infernally difficult because your mind will go into mutiny mode. It’s like trying to hold a live fish in your hands.
It’s just slipping away from you all the time. It’s like you’re planning lunch or you’re planning some expletive-filled speech, you’re going to deliver to your boss or like random, what was Casper the Friendly Ghost before he died, just like your mind’s all over the place. And that is the moment most people think they are failed meditators. But I’m here to tell you that is the moment, when you notice you’ve become distracted, even if it’s for the whole session, just noticing that you’ve become distracted is proof that you are meditating correctly. Because, as I said before, the goal here is not to—actually, I haven’t said this yet, this is really important, the goal is not to clear your mind, because clearing your mind is impossible unless you’re enlightened or you have died.
The goal here is instead to focus your mind for a nanosecond or two on something like the feeling of your breath or the feeling of your body sitting, and then every time you get distracted you start again and again and again, and that act of noticing the distraction and starting again is like a bicep curl for your brain. And this is what we see on the brain scans of meditators. This is the mechanism by which we’re training your attention. We’re boosting your ability to focus. We’re boosting your self-awareness. And that self-awareness, that regular sort of systematized collision we’re engineering in meditation with the voice in your head, that is revolutionary because as soon as you start to see how chaotic your mind is, and I know I’m banging on about this point but you can’t say it too much, as soon as you start to see the chaos of your own mind that’s the first step toward not being owned by it.
You used a bunch of analogies earlier. Another analogy that Jon Kabat-Zinn uses is you can think of the mind like a waterfall and the thoughts and urges and impulses, that’s all the water flowing ceaselessly down the waterfall. Mindfulness, which is the self-awareness that we’re generating through meditation, is like the crevice in the rock face behind the water that lets you—and now I’m mixing my metaphors—kind of step out of the traffic and to view the contents of your consciousness with some nonjudgmental remove. And this is not new-age nonsense. We are classified as a species as Homo sapiens sapiens, the one who thinks and knows he or she thinks. And yet that capacity, this birthright of yours, is atrophying for many of us because in our culture, at least, nobody points out that we have this bonus level in our brain. And so, that’s what you’re developing in meditation.
Tim Ferriss: I want to come back to the bicep curl because I think it’s a helpful way to view the practice. At least it’s been helpful for me. And that is, I’ll pull from a different type of meditation for just a second, because for all the criticisms levied against TM, I do think that some transcendental meditation teachers, which is a mantra-based practice, have a way of setting the pass-fail bar very low to help you practice consistently in the beginning. And I think that’s really important. I mean, if you decide, as a type-A person, anything worth doing is worth overdoing, therefore I’m going to sit in full lotus two hours a day, five days a week. That’s my resolution. The likelihood of you failing is almost a hundred percent. But if you instead come into it as I was advised at one point, when I’ve practiced TM, is if you say your mantra once, I mean, this is like one or two syllables, if you say it once in a 20-minute session, that is a successful session.
Then for someone who’s accustomed to trying to put points on the scoreboard and compete, it’s the proper sort of mental contortionism and trickery to get me to do it two or three days in a row. I found that extremely helpful. And I can’t remember if it was Tara Brach or Sharon Salzberg who said to me, I think it was one of the two who said that the bringing the attention back from Casper the ghost to your breath, even once, like that’s the bicep curl. That’s the repetition. That is the practice. The practice isn’t sitting there like a bodhisattva in this single-pointed experience of universal consciousness for 20 minutes.
The practice is thinking about PornHub or Diff’rent Strokes or Dunkin Donuts, and then coming back to the breath once. That’s the rep, that’s when you earn the points, which was just an incredibly helpful reframe for me. You can have an incredibly messy, seemingly messy meditation practice and still consider it successful, which was difficult for a sort of compulsive type-A personality, like yours truly, to get a toehold on in the beginning.
Dan Harris: Amen to everything you just said. That was just all perfect. And difficult for me too, which is why to me, the biggest revolution in my own practice, and this goes back to me being a hard case because this is recent for me, when great meditation teachers give the beginning instructions, they often say, “It’s not a cold, clinical detachment with which we’re viewing the contents of our consciousness. It’s actually…” They often use the word, which I’ve traditionally found quite overwrought, but like, “A loving awareness.” And I completely ignored that part of instruction.
And over time, what I have found, this actually will bring me to the second slogan I was going to try to get to earlier in this conversation, over time I’ve really started to add into the mix instead of like a cold, maybe you might say journalistic, remove on the various machinations of my ego that I’m witnessing when I sit in meditation, to bring a warmer, friendlier, again maybe even loving sense, as I’m viewing all of my ugliness. That has been a revelation, which brings me to the slogan. I think in our Western individualistic culture we think of spiritual quests as like slaying the dragon, which is pretty violent. And so I actually think it’s more like hugging the dragon.
And that is a radical disarmament, because I’ve just noticed as I see my own selfishness or my own jealousy, or what else, my own impatience, my own self-laceration, if I can see that as ancient—and I heard you talk about this recently on that incredibly brave podcast you did about the childhood abuse you suffered—if you can start to view these storylines as they’re ancient storylines, they’re ancient inner characters who are trying to help you. And they made sense, they were adaptive at some point in your life, but they aren’t working now. But instead of slaying those dragons, which by the way will only make them stronger, if you hug them, if you give them a high five and a seat at the table and a party hat, they will quiet down and you can then make a better, smarter decision.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, totally. For whatever reason, I was thinking of this tiny Huffy bike that I had as a kid. Huffy, some people will recognize that name, but this tiny Huffy bike with the padded handlebars, BMX with training wheels, and that’s a great bike when you are the proper size. But if you’re still trying to ride that when you’re in your 20s, 30s, and 40s, you’re going to have some panty pinches. That’s very uncomfortable, right? So, it was perfect for a time and is no longer the right tool for the job, but it doesn’t mean you have to throw it in a trash compactor and write curses all over it.
It also brought up a memory of a pin that my mom bought for me. I think it was last summer for my birthday, which says, “Sometimes I wrestle with my demons, sometimes we just snuggle.” And I thought that was a pretty good reminder for mindfulness practice. What is your relationship with anger? And that could be past tense and present tense, but I have read that one of the, let’s call it difficult emotions that you still experience regularly—this was at least in an interview in 2018—was anger. Could you speak to your relationship with anger or how that has been a presence in your life?
Dan Harris: A prominent inner player, and I’m still kind of working on this. What I’ll say is just maybe going to be not polished. Just as a joke to start, Chris Cuomo, who used to work at ABC News, we became friends back then, but he’s now CNN primetime host. He wrote an article years ago for some men’s health magazine or something like that. He talked about his emotional landscape having two gears: anger and self-pity. Which is great and so perfect for me in some ways because those two emotions are just so prominent for me and particular anger. It’s a knot, man.
It’s just a—I will get angry because—just say I’ll get angry at somebody I’m working with because if they’re not doing a good enough job, it threatens my high standards for my work, which then threatens my safety. It triggers my anxiety and I will lash out. Then I’ll lash back at myself for being such a horrible, mean person. That is really hard to untangle.
This is where the hugging the dragon becomes really useful to see at the root of that is fear. Anger is often described as a secondary emotion. It’s usually something that happens as a knock-on effect of a more primary emotion. In my case over time, I’ve just seen that the emotion that seems to be at the root of so many of my problems is fear of anxiety. It can lead to as a knock-on effect that this anger at other people, but primarily it’s not so much blowing up at other people going on in my life now, but a lot of anger at myself.
I can get into whole loops around—I’m approaching 50 and the abs that I had in my mid-30s are now not visible in any way, unless you have a high-powered microscope. I can get onto a whole thing around that. It’s this anger at myself for being sloppy or not being up to my old standards or whatever, and the same thing can happen around my productivity levels.
There’s a great phrase I heard from a podcaster named Jocelyn K. Glei. She has a phrase “Productivity shame,” which I just love that. I know you’re writing a book, I’m writing a book right now. If I’m not hitting my cadence for completing a chapter, it’s just there’s so much anger at myself. It’s been really useful. I’ve worked with this coach who I know you know, Jerry Colonna, and I’ve been working with Jerry for years. He’s an executive coach, but in many ways it’s very close to therapy. I’ve been working with him for years and really, he definitely helped me attune to A, the fact that there was notwithstanding my meditation practice, quite a bit of anger and, B, that beneath that was a lot of fear.
Tim Ferriss: Since you invoked the name of the coach with the spider tattoo, I’m going to use that and ask you a question that I’ll paraphrase. I’m sure I’m not getting it entirely right. But the question that Jerry often asks is how are you—well, he encourages you to phrase it in the first person, so: “How am I complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want?” That is a Colonna-ism. How would you answer that? Or actually, how would you have answered that in, say, pre-2010, and has the answer changed?
Dan Harris: I suspect—it’s funny, that’s not a question—I’ve heard him ask that question, but it’s not one we’ve worked on a lot, so I don’t have a ready answer. I’m going to have to process it a lot in real-time. I suspect it all comes back to the fear and anxiety, too, that in particular pre-2010 or whatever, before I started getting really serious about meditation, but even after too, because it doesn’t solve all of your problems. Hence, the whole 10% schtick.
I would say the anger that flows out of the fear was creating a lack of collegiality for me in my work relationships, and could sometimes be a really tough thing for my wife to deal with, as well. I want to be clear, it’s not like I was a rageaholic or anything like that. It’s more just I could go inward, I could withdraw, and that is hard for people to read. But nonetheless, I could also lose my temper and that would be scary or annoying for people.
I think now—back then, if I felt like I had too much stress in my life, too much conflict in my life, I think I was complicit because I hadn’t taken a look at the sources of my own fear and anger. I would say, now the answer would change to be more around the anxiety, which I worry—one of the things I really learned from Jerry and what Jerry focuses on the leadership in organizations is that a primary thesis of his is that when you have unexamined baggage as a leader in an organization, you pass your pathology along willy nilly throughout the rest of the organization. It just starts to mirror your idiosyncrasies.
Now that I’m helping to run an organization, I guess I have a leadership role at ABC News, but within the 10% Happier company I worry about—and Jerry and I’ve talked a lot about my anxiety bleeding out into the rest of the organization. I really have to watch that.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned long ago in this conversation, actually, let’s not go long ago. There is something that I’ve bookmarked for later discussion. But the withdrawal, not in the drug sense, but the emotional withdrawing is something I’d like to dig into a little bit.
I’m looking at some of my notes and one says that you’ve had the experience or the habit of tending to avoid social engagements. Is that related to the withdrawing, or are you more of—would you consider yourself an introvert? I ask, in part, because I generally withdraw from social engagements. I find them more depleting than reenergizing, generally speaking, particularly if it’s a larger group, particularly if it’s people I don’t know very well from the outset. Could you speak to any aspect of that non-question that I just threw at you?
Dan Harris: It’s not a non-question. That was super redundant when I just said, not a non-question, but it’s a real question. I think actually the reason why I’ve had a big shift on this. I was not very good at keeping up with my friends and prioritizing social engagement for a long time. Largely, well, it started a little bit what I stopped doing drugs, and that could have a negative relationship on your friendships with—it can have a negative impact on your friendships with people who are still partying.
There was that. Then as I started to write 10% Happier, and then all of the stuff that happened after 10% Happier, like launching a podcast and a company, all that stuff, I was just—I told myself I was too busy. I was really letting my friendships starve.
I am not an introvert though. I actually get an enormous amount of energy—I think I have some introverted tendencies. Annaka and I started, Annaka Harris and I started talking recently about this and we never finished the conversation. I think she might have a good diagnosis for me, but I have some introversion in me, but generally speaking, I really love seeing my friends.
There was an episode a couple of years ago where my wife and my son and I went to a rooftop party. It was a goodbye party for two of my colleagues at ABC News. It was just a small group of my ABC News colleagues. It was so much fun. I got in the car afterwards and I was like, “Why am I in such a good mood?” I realized it’s because I don’t do this anymore. I’m not making this a priority.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve completely switched that, and which is hard during COVID, but we moved out of the city. We had the incredible good luck to be able to—our lease was ending in the city, so we were able to get out of our apartment in the city and rent a house up in the suburbs and it has a pool. Over the summer, we were able to bring our friends over all the time, and my happiness level went through the roof from regular social engagement.
This actually speaks to a huge issue in our culture, which is the lack of prioritization of social connection, which has led to a pandemic that predated the current pandemic, which was the pandemic of loneliness. Which is a major contributing factor from the evidence I’ve seen to depression, anxiety, drug abuse, suicide. There are many contributing factors here from the way we live, the way our societies are structured, the myth of individualism where we think we can do everything alone, social media, which is further taking us out of seeing each other in person.
I think this is a gigantic social issue and on an individual level, to be practical about it for your listeners, I think being deliberate about cultivating interpersonal relationships will pay unbelievable dividends. We’ve talked a lot about meditation, but I’m not a meditation fundamentalist. I think there are many, many, many levers to pull here.
There’s one incredibly powerful one is just having good relationships. It’s just right there in our evolution. We evolve to be social creatures. This is how we survived. We killed the mastodon as a group. Yet we have, as the great writer, Johann Hari has written, we’re the first generation to voluntarily dissolve the tribe, but we need the tribe. Making your own tribe, and if you’re introverted for you, Tim, it might be about a smaller, close-knit group of really, really, really powerful intimate relationships, but we need those relationships. I would recommend to people being super deliberate about keeping those up, even in a pandemic.
Tim Ferriss: Maybe especially in the pandemic.
Dan Harris: Yes.
So the 10% Happier schtick, your words, not mine. You used those earlier. I have a comment and then a whole slew of questions. The comment is, I think you called it the 10% Happier schtick because you were alluding to the fact that many of the emotional experiences that you had before meditation, you still have post-meditation. It made me think of, I’m going to paraphrase here, but a parable in a book called Awareness by Anthony de Mello, who is a Jesuit priest. I suppose you’d call him a psychotherapist or therapist. But he tells this parable of this enlightened master who says, “Before enlightenment, I was depressed. After enlightenment, I was still depressed.” But he goes on to say that the relationship to the depression changed, and I’m going to take some creative liberties here.
But in brief, effectively says “Before enlightenment, I was depressed. Then after enlightenment, I continued to experience what we would call depression, but it was more of a there is depression or I am making myself depressed.” It was that level of observer status that allows you to, or certainly facilitates decreasing the half-life of depression.
Sam Harris has talked about the half-life of anger. If you can reduce that from two hours to two minutes or five hours to one hour, the benefits are huge. Even if the subjective experience at times can still feel the same pre and post. I thought that was something very important that you alluded to when you were calling it the 10% Happier schtick. Let’s talk about that. You publish 10% Happier, excellent title, by the way.
Dan Harris: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: It does very well. It spawns all of these various businesses, apps, and so on that both contribute, I think, incredible tools to those who are open to them and has also made you into—I’m going to use a little bit of hyperbole here, but a very unlikely self-help guru.
You have spent a lot of time as, and probably still do, as the skeptic, the debunker of self-help pundits in a sense. When you were writing or contemplating writing what became 10% Happier, how did you approach it? I think there are probably quite a few things that I’m digging for here.
One is how did you create a book that, or think about creating it, that ended up being very successful in a hugely crowded category? Because I would imagine at the time, if you had said to some of your friends, “Hey, I’m thinking about writing a book on meditation,” they were like, “Well, yeah, if you want to be number 5,676,000 on the list of meditation books, knock yourself out.”
Nonetheless, it cut through the clutter. How did you think about writing this book? You mentioned a little bit in brief earlier, but it really cut through and stood out so effectively in a crowded category. I would just love to hear anything that you would have to say about that.
Dan Harris: When I mentioned to Barbara Walters one time that I was working on this book, she turned to me and literally said, “Don’t quit your day job.” I say this as somebody who had already outed himself as an atheist or an agnostic or whatever, but this was a complete leap of faith. I had no reason to believe this was going to be a success. I did not think it was going to be a success. I thought it was going to be mildly embarrassing and then go away. My publisher—
Tim Ferriss: Let me push back just for a second, though. A book is a hell of a heavy lift. That is not an easy thing to do. What were you hoping this book would do? Because as we both know, book economics, if you are a huge outlier, can produce some income, but they’re not the best. It’s like relying on music royalties or something like that. Why do it? You might not have had high expectations, but maybe you had some hopes related to it for that amount of work.
Dan Harris: There was the fantasy, which I really was aware that was a fantasy. Then there was the thing that kept me going day to day. The fantasy yes, was that I was, and still am, a B or C-level network news person who I worried about ever really cutting through in that industry. Also, could see quite clearly that it’s not an industry that’s kind to its senior statesman, so what was my future here?
My fantasy was that I would create a whole new brand for myself in some ways and that it would really help a lot of people who would reflexively reject meditation in the ordinary course of events, but if talked about in the right way would really embrace it. That was my fantasy, but I didn’t allow myself to indulge in it that much because all the messages I was getting, including from my own publisher, were that this was not going—first of all, I couldn’t sell the book. I had a fancy book agent and he couldn’t even—he got me one meeting and that one editor—
Tim Ferriss: That’s a lot of eggs in one basket.
Dan Harris: Yes, and that one editor bought it, but for very little money and—
Tim Ferriss: Was the title 10% Happier at the time?
Dan Harris: They then tried to bargain me up to 20 or 30% Happier. I was like, “You don’t get the joke.” They also, at one point, tried to get me to change the title to Be Happy Now, which I did have a real temper tantrum about that, and it was not good. The initial print run was 15,000. I really didn’t think it was going—I honestly didn’t think it was going to succeed, but of course, I had the fantasies.
But the thing that got me going from day to day—because I remember I had many conversations with people in my life, including my brother who’s really my closest advisor and probably the smartest person I know. I remember him just marveling at like, “Dude, you are—” It took me five years to write that book and he was just like, “You are spending so much time on this thing and you have no idea if it’s going to be published or whether it’s going to be a success. What are you doing this for?”
I think it was because I needed to figure this stuff out. I know you know this, Tim, because you’ve written so many books. There was a great expression I heard once that you should only write a book if you have to. I felt like I had to write this book because I was trying to figure out these incredibly important issues to me around anxiety and ambition and the voice in the head and the remedies for that, or the ways to work with it. I only fully started to get some level of understanding as I was writing. That’s really what kept me going.
Tim Ferriss: Five years. That’s a long time. When did you have—
Dan Harris: The book I’m writing now is, much to the consternation of the people in my orbit, is going to take me, at minimum, four.
Tim Ferriss: What are you working on right now? Can you say, or is that under cover?
Dan Harris: I think it’s similar to what you’re working on in some ways is, because I know you’re writing a book about healing and I would say I’ve only recently started using this formulation of—I think it’s a book about love. Which is, and I think love has gotten a really bad rap because it comes down to us through Hollywood movies and love songs and All You Need Is Love, which I love that song, but it’s definitely not true. You also need to brush your teeth and whatever. There are lots of other things you need.
I also think we don’t think about love in the right way. Our understanding is limited to the romantic or maybe the way we feel that our kids, but in a lot of Buddhist circles that you can think about love as anything north of neutrality, just like the human capacity to care. You can also think of it as omnidirectional, which I think is perhaps the most interesting aspect here, which is, and this gets to the hug the dragon aspect of it. It’s like, if you can start to love yourself, and I don’t mean love yourself like you’re walking around giving yourself hugs or talking about how great you are, but have some warmth towards your own inner ugliness. Or as Ram Doss has said before he passed, he said, “It’s not about defeating your neuroses. It’s about becoming a connoisseur of them.”
If you could think about self-love in that way, well, that’s like the unlock that can improve your relationships and lead to a really virtuous cycle of, okay, so your inner weather is balmier, then your relationships get better, and as a consequence of your relationships getting better, because we know that relationships are in many ways like the apex predator of self-care techniques or self-care, like aspects of self-care, then your inner weather gets better and then your relationships get better. Then it goes into a virtuous cycle, upward spiral.
For me, that’s what I mean when I’m talking about love. I wrote a subsequent book to 10% Happier called Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics. I wrote it really quick and I made myself and everybody around me miserable. In the end, the book was fine, but it wasn’t—it’s not as impactful, I don’t think, as 10% Happier. My goal for this next book, and I may fail, but I’m willing to make the leap of faith and the investment largely because I’m trying to figure this shit out for myself. It’s just going to take me a long time.
Tim Ferriss: Books. What an Everest books are. I’m on the fence. I will be honest, I have, God knows how many words, 50,000, 100,000, 150,000 words are gathered largely in the form of notes and rough drafts and so on for this healing, this book about—I should personalize it because I don’t think it’s one-size-fits-all, but my own healing journey. I’m not going to lie that I have become largely de-motivated, which is not necessarily a bad thing after releasing this podcast about the childhood abuse, because that was the big reveal that was going to be, in a sense, the nucleus of this book. I feel like the live dialogue with my friend Debbie Millman was a more suitable format in a way. It was a more emotionally charged, appropriate format for that reveal than text. I’m not saying that’s true for all things. I think that many, many things are better explored in the printed word.
But since releasing that into the wild, I have all of these notes and I’m not—I’ve lost a bit of the internal pressure and the—this is going to be really dramatic, but the devil whipping me at my back to get that out into the world, if that makes any sense. Which I think is a good thing in a sense, because I’m having, I’m not having to, but I’m choosing to leave more slack in the system, which I have done for the last month or two and it’s deeply uncomfortable. Deeply, deeply, deeply uncomfortable.
It’s like if you’re thrashing around in the kiddie pool, it’s like, yeah, you don’t have to look at the stuff that’s at the bottom of the pool, but you’re just creating so much surface froth with frenetic activity and lots and lots of projects and so on, which I’ve always not just done, I would say, to cover things, but because I enjoy that. It’s like the park or sixth gear, to borrow from your friend’s two-gear analogy.
When do you feel most at ease and expansive? Or when do you feel the greatest sense of spaciousness?
Dan Harris: I’m going to answer that, but can I just go back to your book for a second?
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
Dan Harris: I don’t want this to be a devil whipping you, and I think it’s totally fine to never write the book because the service you provided by releasing that podcast is already immense. But so I say this very gingerly because I, again, this not to apply pressure, but it’s maybe to—it’s a perhaps weak attempt at remotivation if that’s even appropriate with—because I think there’s a difference—because the podcast was stupendous in many ways, because I, of course, for people who suffered trauma and as you guys exposed on there or described on there, it may be as high as one of every three women and one in every six men and perhaps even higher given the shame around reporting it among men. That’s a huge population.
But beyond that, there were the themes that you described that really resonated with me, who luckily didn’t suffer any childhood abuse. There were the themes you’ve described in there that are very similar to the things that I’m describing, which is viewing these adaptive patterns, behavioral patterns, the storylines that we adopt in childhood. You talked about dissociation, which made a lot of sense, was brilliant as a kid, but not so useful as you got older.
That, the universality, I think, of bringing some warmth, exploring through various modalities you’ve described: therapy, CBT in particular, but also psychotropic drugs, and meditation. Hearing you walk through that narrative in a much more granular way and letting us watch your process, I think there is an enormous amount of value you could provide there. I, again, I’m not saying you’re fucking up if you don’t do it, but I could see how it would serve a lot of people if you did do it.
Tim Ferriss: I appreciate the pep talk, Dan. It’s not absolutely off the table. It’s not absolutely off the table. I have a—Seth Godin would give me a stiff drink and give me another talking to, if he heard me saying this, but I have this, I think developed a certain apprehension around writing because I really haven’t written a monster book. Not that this would need to be a monster book, but it probably would, knowing me and my tendency to write phone books. Was 2011, so it’s been a long time. You have Tools of Titans, which did have quite a bit of original writing, probably 150 to 100, 150 pages of original writing, but it was connective tissue for the rest of the book, Tribe of Mentors, which was one of the incredible demonstrations of efficiency in having other people write a book for you, which I can’t recommend highly enough.
There’s some apprehension around it, but I’ll be getting back into the writing game. I think I need to sharpen up my ice skates and take a bunch of shots on goal that are in a practice setting before I get back to real, live gameplay. But I suspect I’ll get there.
Very early on in this conversation you mentioned, I don’t want to say reverence, that’s too strong, but an appreciation for how adherence to these various religions you were exposed to through your assignments had a regular cadence of contemplating their place in the cosmos, contemplating the universe in whatever capacity. Have you found an opportunity or a vehicle for doing that yourself, or is that still a non-essential or non-present, at least, element in the puzzle that is Dan Harris?
Dan Harris: No, it’s totally essential. It really comes in the form of Buddhism, and it’s not just Buddhism. I don’t want to be too sectarian about this. It’s just living an examined life generally. For me, that can happen in the form of my meditation practice and going on meditation retreats, but it’s also hosting a podcast where I get to interview all sorts of people, including you. It’s listening to other people’s podcasts, yours, Sam’s, our mutual friend, Peter Attia. It’s reading books. It’s walking in nature. It’s anything that can jar you out of the constricted sense of being an ego, being a small self, peering fretfully out at the world through your eye holes, and more into—God, this is where you get into this cliched stuff, but feeling connected.
I haven’t toyed much with psychedelics, although I’m very interested in it, but you can get that in psychedelics. I can get it pretty easily in meditation. I can get it in socializing with my friends. I get it with, I have a five-year-old, a son, and he is just a constant source of this, and also worry and frustration too. In engaging in the lifelong exercise and project of being in a marriage.
There’s so many, for me, that seems like such a target-rich environment for contemplating externally and internally. That has been just such an incredible shift in my life since those days when I was reluctantly exposed to the faithful and had that inchoate sense of maybe there was something I was missing, but I didn’t want exactly what these guys were doing. I feel like I figured that out. I haven’t figured out much, but I figured out how to—the various access points for me to start this investigation.
Tim Ferriss: Just a quick side note on psychedelics for people who may not have any exposure to other conversations about them. This may seem odd, but I just pulled it up because I thought it might be fun and instructive for folks. There’s a book called Island written by Aldous Huxley.
Dan Harris: I’ve read it.
Tim Ferriss: Aldous Huxley, who also wrote The Doors of Perception, considered Island his most important work. It was a novel about Pala, this utopian island. There’s this psychedelic brew, this psychedelic medicine called moksha. Moksha-medicine. There’s a portion, if you don’t mind me indulging myself on this podcast, I’ll just read this real briefly. Here we go. This is a dialogue between two characters in the novel.
“The moksha-medicine takes you to the same place as you get to in meditation.”
“So why bother to meditate?”
“You might as well ask, ‘Why bother to eat your dinner?’”
“But, according to you, the moksha-medicine is dinner.”
“It’s a banquet,” she said emphatically. “And that’s precisely why there has to be meditation. You can’t have banquets every day. They’re too rich and they last too long. Besides, banquets are provided by a caterer; you don’t have any part in the preparation of them. For your everyday diet you have to do your own cooking. The moksha-medicine comes as an occasional treat.”
“In theological terms,” said Vijaya, “the moksha-medicine prepares one for the reception of gratuitous graces—premystical visions or the full-blown mystical experiences. Meditation is one of the ways in which one co-operates with those gratuitous graces.”
“By cultivating the state of mind that makes it possible for the dazzling ecstatic insights to become permanent and habitual illuminations. By getting to know oneself to the point where one won’t be compelled by one’s unconscious to do all the ugly, absurd, self-stultifying things that one so often finds oneself doing.”
And I think that’s a great I suppose, description, narrative, painting of a scene to compare or put side-by-side psychedelic compounds and experiences with meditation. Because there is the, I think the tendency among, also many type-A driven personalities when they hear the description of, say, a very strong psilocybin experience or ayahuasca experience as 15 years of therapy in two nights, they’re like, “Great, I’ve been looking for the shortcut, let me go do this and get on the front lines and take a thousand bullets to the face in a short period of time to get this over with so I can move into my more enlightened phase.”
And that’s a very problematic approach and can backfire, can destabilize, can really un-tether people also. I used the expression “ontological hives” earlier in the conversation, which I don’t know, I’m not sure where that came from. But, there is a term that, I don’t know if the scientist would be comfortable with me using his name, but a very well-known scientist would call ontological shock where people come out of these experiences so, I’ll just use the same word, destabilized, because of the richness, vividness, comprehensiveness of their experience under psychedelics that they lose their faith in the fidelity and the realness of this, let’s call it ordinary reality.
And that may sound like word salad to some, but it can be a not just terrifying, but persistent issue for some folks. And there is a reason that psychedelics prior to that becoming the default term, were called psychotomimetics, right? They were used to instigate what clinicians at the time assumed to be psychotic episodes, even though neurobiologically they’re actually quite different if you were to look at say a functional MRI or the activity, they’re quite different but subjectively, they can seem quite similar.
So that is not something you want to do on a daily basis. It may be something you’ll never want to do, but meditation allows you to access many of the same channels without having it at Spinal Tap 11 of volume. So that’s soliloquy complete! But if we flash forward, say three years, I like three years for these kind of thought exercises. For you to be in retrospect, looking back at the past three years, this is three years from now, what would you like to see in your own life? You can—that’s deliberately very broad, but if we were to flash forward to Dan Harris three years from today and sort of ask, “Are you happy with the last three years? Are you satisfied, are you content, pleased?” Choose your adjective. How would you—what assessment would you run? What are the things you would look for? Anything in particular?
Dan Harris: Well, look, there’s a superficial level that’s not unimportant, but the superficial level of—I’m really focused on professionally on building a brand and a company that is going to help a lot of people and grow and be good for our employees and writing the book is related to that. And so all of that stuff, which I would put on the more superficial end of the spectrum, well again, not being unimportant, that’s there.
I would say deeper is this stuff again, just to invoke this cheesy little hug the dragon phrase. That seems to me to be incredibly onward leading and to have profound ripple effects for every aspect of my existence. The more I can switch my response to my own to get to use this phrase again, inner ugliness, from anger or just blind obedience to a sort of slightly amused warmth, that just strikes me as really consequential in terms of how I’m treating myself and then how I’m treating other people. And then all of the ramifications of that dynamic.
And so it will show up in lots of ways like, how am I—about my own feelings about my own body or towards food or toward productivity, or how am I in my marriage, how is all of this, how is all of that modeling, which of course your kids going to see. How is that all impacting him and what kind of human he’s going to become and all of the ripple effects of his actions in the world? So yeah, that seems like the project to me. And it’s not just as simple as—you talked before about kind of—and I didn’t respond to it because we moved on but there was—you were talking before about selflessness or not-self. The idea in Buddhism that there is no solid self here. So instead of saying, “I’m angry,” you can just say, “There is anger.”
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Dan Harris: And I see that as related to this. It’s not just that you have a warm relationship to your anger, you see that the anger isn’t as solid, identifying with it as my anger. Instead of seeing it and this is kind of radical as nature. We again think of ourselves as atomized individual egos, right? Just nature is outside of us. We’re looking at it through this lens of me, but absolutely can’t be true, to go to the cliche about the atoms that make up your body are from the first exploded stars. You are a part of nature.
And so, therefore, all of the horrible little things that you’re thinking, all of these things that feel so much like you, that’s nature too. And that helps you not identify with it. It doesn’t have to be your anger anymore. It can just be anger. And so the combination of viewing it with some warmth and then viewing it as just nature, as a selfless phenomenon that you don’t have to claim, that project seems like—I would love to be further and further along in the development of those twin mutually reinforcing capacities over the next three years.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, me too. You mentioned the weather patterns earlier in the conversation, right? I mean, getting—I very rarely, I would say, never get angry at the day for being overcast or raining or—fill in the blank, right? So getting closer to that level of equanimity detachment/connection with the occurrences of emotions and viewing them similarly, that’s something to aspire to.
Dan Harris: You can view your emotion as a weather pattern. This is not my analogy.
Tim Ferriss: Exactly.
Dan Harris: You can view the—what is a hurricane or any storm? It’s a confluence of meteorological atmospheric events that come together to create a storm, but you can’t find any core to the storm. There is no essential nugget of storm. It’s a coming together of a variety of phenomena. And the same is true for your anger, but we just don’t see it that way. And so starting to just play with the idea of this anger may just be a naturally occurring phenomenon, just like a storm can take the—as Joseph Goldstein often says, it takes the nutriment of I out of it and makes it so much less loaded.
Tim Ferriss: There’s a question that keeps popping into mind for me. I don’t know why I want to ask it but I’m going to ask. If I were to ask, Dr. Bianca, your partner in crime, partner in life—or not I, if I were to rather put her in a situation with you where she is saying to you, “Dan, I’m so proud of you for…” just looking back over the last, it could be last few years. It could be last week. It could be anything, but what might she say to you?
Dan Harris: I don’t have to guess actually because Jerry Colonna, not that long ago, he and I were having a Skype session and he asked me something to the effect of what would—a similar question to what you just asked. What would Bianca say, and I said, “Well, we don’t have to guess. Let’s bring her in,” and she’s pretty shy, so she was mad at me for doing this, but I pulled her over in front of the camera and he asked her about—she loves him, so she was happy to see him. So he asked her a bunch of questions and she said the following, which was—just by way of background, I got involved with Jerry because I had a 360 review. This was two and a half years ago for those of—
Tim Ferriss: Brutal! Brutal.
Dan Harris: Yeah, okay. So have you ever had one?
Tim Ferriss: I have.
Dan Harris: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: It took me a while to recover from it.
Dan Harris: So I was still recovering. This was like two and a half years ago. And I had a 360 review. I did it a cute little thing that I thought might be a good element for a book that I was writing.
Tim Ferriss: Now let’s—do you want to, just for people who don’t know what it is, describe what this is?
Dan Harris: Yes, I will. So a 360 review is a corporate thing, mostly, where you hire a company—an executive will hire a company or the executive’s boss will hire a company that comes in and interviews said executives, superiors, peers, and subordinates. So you get a 360 view of how they’re performing in the company. I, with Jerry, did the colonoscopy version of this where we interviewed 16 people, both from my professional life and my personal life. So my wife, my brother—
Tim Ferriss: There be dragons!
Dan Harris: Exactly! There be dragons, which, by the way, I’ve learned how to hug, but I didn’t know this. I didn’t have a lot of warmth toward my inner dragons when we did this two and a half years ago and the results were devastating. I mean, I was—
Tim Ferriss: Because everybody—the feedback is reported anonymously.
Dan Harris: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Dan Harris: That’s the key point.
Tim Ferriss: This is key.
Dan Harris: It’s like basically, I got to eavesdrop on a conversation that 16 of my closest colleagues and friends and family members had behind my back and all the feedback was anonymized. And it was—I was sick for days. And that’s the book I’m writing now. That’s the panic attack of the book I’m writing now. So the first book began with the panic attack, this book begins with the 360. And so I thought it was going to be like a cute little device I would use for a book. It turned out to be so devastating that it became the whole book. My sort of dealing with what I learned in this 360 and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me, as horrifying—one of the best things that ever happened to me, as horrifying as it was. And so anyway, Jerry called Bianca over and she said that she was incredibly proud of me for dealing with all of the contents of the 360, which she has read. First time she read it, she cried.
She said she was very proud of my dealing with it forthrightly and really digging in. And I said at the moment, “Well, Bianca, I’m writing a book about this. So I’m essentially getting paid to do this work. And, I don’t know, I have trouble giving myself too much credit.” And she’s had to say this to me time and time again and it’s really a relief. She’s like, “I don’t care why you’re doing it. You’re doing it and you can’t fake the doing of it. Whatever your motivations are, if you’re really doing it, you’re really doing it.” And the benefits for her, for my son, potentially if I do my job correctly and write the book well, the benefits for other people should be real. So that was—I was just—I audio record all my conversations with Jerry because I often write about them and I was just re-listening to that the other day. So your question is serendipitous because I happen to have her words fresh in my mind and yeah, it was very moving for me to hear.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. “I don’t care why you’re doing it.” That’s a good partner right there. That’s a good intervention. Just a few more questions and we’ll do a couple—we’ll end on some candy, some shorter questions. The answers don’t have to be short. Books you’ve gifted the most to other people outside of your own. What books have you gifted the most to other people, anything that comes to mind, and why?
Dan Harris: Yeah. So the books that I most recommend all, it won’t surprise you, all going to be, with one exception, they’re all going to be sort of meditation books, although the one exception has some pretty strong ties to it too. For people who are interested in learning more about this, I recommend Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright, Waking Up by Sam Harris, Buddhism Without Beliefs by Steven Batchelor, Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg. And now there’s a new entrant, which would be You Belong by Sebene Selassie.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dan Harris: The non-meditative book I would recommend, but it actually has some pretty strong Dharma overtones, is perhaps the best novel I’ve ever read. And it was sent to me by Sebene Selassie, who I just referenced, who wrote that book, You Belong. She’s a meditation teacher. And her love language is to send people books. And so she sent me a book recently and it was called The Overstory. Did you read it?
Tim Ferriss: This is where I’m going to drown in my own productivity shame because this book has been recommended to me so many times. It’s on my Kindle and I haven’t yet gotten past page one, so I need to read it. But please describe it for people.
Dan Harris: Well, page one is tough, actually; I can see why you wouldn’t get past page one because he—but it’s a barn burner of a story. And so in fact, you don’t need to look at this as homework because it’s a massively pleasurable read. The only warning I would give you is that as a fellow writer, I found the book to be utterly humiliating because I realized that he has more skill in a single paragraph than I will ever muster in my entire writing career.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Dan Harris: This guy is a force of nature. And the book is about nature. The book is ostensibly about trees, but it’s really about humans and their relationship to trees. And he is able to render these incredible characters and create this really page-turner of a book that is, again, ostensibly about trees, which makes it sound very boring. But now, I’m fascinated by trees and I loved the book and I just couldn’t believe, I still can’t believe, how talented a writer he is. It’s not fair.
I will just finally say that one of the great joys of my life recently has been having a son and—or a child that—he happens to be a boy. And we moved to the suburbs and we’re doing the most quintessentially cheesy suburb thing, which is he’s a Cub Scout now and he loves nature. So we will—we have these Cub Scouts pamphlets and we walk around the yard trying to identify trees. And that has been sparked and fueled by the reading of The Overstory.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have any favorite documentaries or documentaries you most recommend or tend to recommend a lot? And I also have a question about—well, very personal, I suppose, approach to documentaries, but how would you answer that?
Dan Harris: I love—I’m a sucker for a rock doc. So I will watch pretty much any rockumentary that comes out. So I’ve—obviously, the king of them is The Last Waltz, which is a Martin Scorsese movie about the final concert put on by The Band. There actually is a new documentary called Once Were Brothers, I believe, and it’s also about The Band, Robbie Robertson. It’s on Hulu right now and I loved that, but I will watch—my wife and I just watched a Showtime documentary about The Go-Go’s and it was amazing. I watched a decidedly mediocre, Netflix documentary about the K-Pop band BLACKPINK, but I loved it anyway, even though it wasn’t really that good. No Direction Home about Bob Dylan. The Song Exploder, which is the new Netflix show where they do a half-hour on a song that I watched one last night, just last night, about Losing my Religion by R.E.M. And it’s basically a doc, a little mini-documentary about how they made the song and ended up telling the story of the band as part of that. And so yeah, that’s what I find myself watching when I’m looking to relax.
Tim Ferriss: So perhaps when people are not looking to relax necessarily, but could you please describe Guardians of the Amazon? I feel I would be remiss not to bring that up.
Dan Harris: I did a documentary, an hour-long documentary about this Amazonian indigenous tribe. We finished it and posted it in February. It’s on YouTube. You can watch it there. It’s also on Hulu. And I went and followed this indigenous tribe that they started their own paramilitary organization to go out and do this incredibly dangerous thing of arresting illegal loggers. Illegal loggers are basically the tip of the spear when it comes to deforestation. The way it works is the loggers come in, they take all the valuable trees, and then, people come in and flatten the whole part of the forest and turn it into grazing land for cattle.
If you want to know why we have so much deforestation, you can largely blame your cheeseburger. This tribe that was incredible and we went out on—we embedded with them on a mission and they—we were right. It just so much action unfolded in front of our lenses as they went out and found these loggers. And they’re armed with bows and arrows, machetes, muskets, rifles, pistols, it’s extraordinary.
Tim Ferriss: It is visually and emotionally arresting. If people just watch the trailer for Guardians of the Amazon, my reasons for saying that will be extremely clear. You’ve given a few mottoes, few mantras and if you had a billboard, metaphorically speaking, to reach billions of people, message to put up, it could be a quote, could be a word, could be an image, it could be anything at all. What might you put up on that billboard?
Dan Harris: I don’t know if this would work on a billboard, but the most exciting idea I’ve ever encountered, and I think it’s now my job on the planet to spread the word about this, which is in part why I was badgering you about writing your book because I think your book will make this point in a beautiful way. The most exciting idea is that the mind is trainable and we are not stuck with all of the things we don’t like about ourselves, that you can through various modalities, including meditation therapy, psychedelics, walks in nature, working on your relationships.
There are so many ways that you can train your mind. It was a great—I’m obsessed with music and I used to—back when record stores were a thing, I would always go to Newbury Comics in Boston and spend an hour or so flipping through the new records and they would have this whiteboard that listed all of the upcoming releases and I was so interested to see what new records were going to come out. And there was an expression above the list and it said, “All dates can change; so can you.”
That is the truth, dude. You can change. And you’ve demonstrated, this is why I was sort of galvanized by listening to your podcasts. And I knew some of it because when you came in to do my podcast a while ago, you actually—I think we had stopped rolling, but you had told me some of the story and so I was aware of some of what I was going to hear on the podcast, but just hearing more about the work you’ve done to recover from this grievous injury makes that point that we can change. It’s not—I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but it is doable. And what are the options?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. All dates can change and so can you. I like it. And that stuck clearly. I mean, that I guess—what was it? Sign, poster, board, the letters that fit into those grooves. I’m just imagining one of those announcement boards in high school: all dates can change and so can you. I think that’s a good place to start to wrap up. Dan, is there anything else you would like to say, request, complaints, comments, anything you would like to posit or request of my audience listening?
Dan Harris: No, I just—I’m very grateful to you for having me on, thank you. And it was actually good, really fun. So that’s all I have.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, this has been a whole hell of a lot of fun. Dan, I always enjoy our conversations and can’t wait to see the new book when that is done and people can find you online quite easily. They can find the book, 10% Happier. Also, the follow-up Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, your 10% Happier how-to book. You have the 10% Happier company with the app and so on Twitter @DanBHarris. Instagram @DanHarris, Facebook @DanHarrisEBC. Is there anywhere else, any other URLs, or anything that might be helpful to mention for people who want to see and learn more about what you’re up to?
Dan Harris: I mean, you can check out the podcast. We’ve had illustrious guests such as Tim Ferriss and many of the—all of the meditation teachers who’ve been referenced in the course of this show are regulars on the show where we post episodes twice a week. So basically, it’s a fiesta. If you enjoy—if you like thinking about human flourishing, that’s all we talk about and just like Tim and Sam and others do as well. You can check that out.
Tim Ferriss: What is the name of your podcast?
Dan Harris: Also called 10% Happier.
Tim Ferriss: Easy to remember.
Dan Harris: Brand continuity. I know you’re a big investor in companies and so brand continuity is reasonably important.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, very important. Dates can change and so can you, but your brand shouldn’t change every Tuesday. That is something that you probably want to keep more constant. Dan, once again, thank you so much for taking the time. This was just a great way to wrap up this week. We’re recording on a Friday and really appreciate also what you’re doing in the world and what you’re sharing. I think it’s incredibly valuable and incredibly practical also coming at it from the perspective of a skeptical investigative wartime journalist, who is loathed to believe in any mythologies or fairytales. I think that appeals to an entire large segment of the population who would otherwise not be open to even test driving any of these tools that can so demonstrably help. It’s quite a service that you put into the world. So I want to thank you for that. And to everybody listening, everything we’ve talked about will be linked-to in the show notes. So you can find all of that at tim.blog/podcast. And until next time, thank you for tuning in.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.
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One Reply to “The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Dan Harris on Becoming 10% Happier, Hugging Inner Dragons, Self-Help for Skeptics, Training the Mind, and Much More (#481)”
Like virtually everyone else, Dan’s comment on how quickly we forget our newfound inspirations resonated with me.
He says, “I love mottoes. I love little expressions, mantras that you can use to kind of drop into your mind because it’s so easy. You can listen to an inspirational podcast or read a great book or whatever, and feel really like you’re invigorated, you’re awake to some important truth. But the habits of mind, the old habits of mind, reassert themselves really quickly. So we need to find ways to continuously wake up and to remember our aspirations. So these little mottoes, I think, they can be a little bit cheesy, but they’re really helpful in my experience.”
I’ve found a great way to “send reminders to my future self”, in the form of highlights from books on my Kindle or snippets of text I’ve saved. I use the Readwise app (which Tim has mentioned usiing), to get a handful of these inspiring thoughts sent to me in a daily email. Hugely beneficial.
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