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Dan Harris may be the least likely advocate of meditation you'll encounter.
From an early age, the ABC News correspondent and Nightline co-anchor has been a skeptic of anything exuding "a whiff of the Age of Aquarius or New Age." But after an on-air panic attack in 2004, Harris realized he needed to explore non-traditional ways to quiet the "inner voice" that had driven him to both success and depression.
That same inner voice had urged Harris to take on journalistic assignments in war-torn countries and active war zones, where adrenaline would fuel his days. Once safely home, he became depressed and began to self-medicate with cocaine and Ecstasy. He would later learn that these narcotics were supplying his brain with the same levels of adrenaline he had experienced in places like Afghanistan and Iraq - and that they were responsible for his panic attack.
Harris recently talked about his health crisis and how meditation has helped him reduce stress and anxiety in advance of his visit to the Mercy Center in Madison on Saturday, June 7, at 2 p.m. as part of a joint program presented by R.J. Julia Booksellers and the Madison Happiness Club. He will discuss his New York Times bestselling book, "10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works - A True Story."
Q. Tell me about the incident that prompted the book - the on-air panic attack. What was going on that day?
A. I didn't have any reason to (anticipate it). I thought it was just like any other morning. I was reading the news update at the top of every hour on "Good Morning America" ... When I was a couple [of seconds into the reading] I was overtaken by fear - I couldn't breathe. My heart was racing; my mind was racing. I felt like I had no other choice but to quit in the middle, and it was honestly really embarrassing ... I knew what had happened, but I didn't want to tell people.
Q. Had you experienced panic attacks before?
A. I'd had low- to middle-grade (anxiety) my entire life, but I'd never lost my ability to speak.
Q. What was the immediate aftermath?
A. I consulted with my parents' (who are doctors) doctor friend ... and was put on some anxiety drugs, but I didn't really get to the root of the issue until the second (panic attack). Then, I went to see (an expert in anxiety) who asked, 'Do you do drugs?' and I said, 'Yeah, I do,' and he said something to the effect of 'mystery solved.' The background to that was that I had started self-medicating with cocaine and Ecstasy ... I wasn't aware that I was coming down off of the drug of adrenaline that you get when you're in a war zone ... and (cocaine and Ecstasy raise) the level of adrenaline in your brain ... and that causes you to have a panic attack. I wasn't even using that much, and it was for a short period of time, maybe a year and half; it was pretty sporadic ... I didn't think; it was just a mindless thing ... So (the panic attack) was a huge wake-up call. I realized what a moron I'd been.
Q. How did you hit upon meditation as a tool to calm your inner voice.
A. After the panic attack I had been assigned to cover religion for ABC by Peter Jennings, and I didn't want to do it because I'm agnostic and was not raised in a religious environment ... But it turned out to be a really interesting thing for me ... As a part of covering spirituality, (I covered spiritual teacher) Eckhart Tolle. I thought it was mostly (nonsense), but the thing he says about the voice in the head - the inner narrator - that struck me as basically true and it was also very true that he points out that if you aren't aware of that voice it can (destroy you).
(Then I found) Dr. Mark Epstein, a shrink in New York City who uses (an approach that combines psychiatry and Buddhism) ... and I realized that all the stuff that I liked in Tolle was all this stuff in Buddhism ... I bought into all of the stereotypes; then I found out that none of the stereotypes were actually true. Meditation is a really simple brain exercise and there's an enormous amount of science that says it can lower your blood pressure and boost your immune system.
I had tried every traditional way, but I was more interested in the root, which is that voice in the head ... Most of us aren't aware that we're having this non-stop conversation with ourselves all day long - you think it's 'you' ... I ruminated a lot, which I thought was the price of success ... but I had to find the fine line between instructive anguish and unconstructive rumination.
Q. Did you ever feel that meditation took away your edge?
A. I think at times it did. I misapplied it. The point of meditation is not to make you a lifeless blob ... Within a professional context, it really should be a superpower that allows you to be the calmest, least emotional person - emotional in the pejorative sense ... It helps you not get carried away with your emotions ... and to make a calm, wise decision rather than just react. It's a major value add for a minimal investment.
Q. What was one of the most surprising things you found in the process of researching and writing this book?
A. I think the science is incredible, and the fact that there is this elite group of people (practicing meditation) - from CEOs, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marines (to) 50 Cent ... Katy Perry ... to elite athletes.
This is something you use to boost your edge, and not for nothing, it might make you nicer in the process. I really think this is the next big public health revolution and if it takes off, the impact it will have on society will dwarf (gyms). Even if only 10 percent (of the population meditates), imagine the impact on road rage, politics, the quality of journalism, parenting.
Even with novice meditation, after eight weeks of a short daily dose of meditation the gray matter in your brain associated with self-awareness grows ... It's like you're doing neurosurgery on yourself.
Q. How would you pitch meditation to a skeptic?
A. The ability to focus is a diminishing resource ... Here's a really simple, secular, free way to do that - no special outfits required; it won't contradict your beliefs if you happen to have religious beliefs ... It's similar to reps of bicep curls - reps of trying to focus, getting lost, starting over ... and you do that and you change your (brain).
Just start with five minutes. It should not be something that you add to your to-do list or that adds to your stress ... (People say), 'I can't do it because my mind is too busy,' which I hear a lot ... but if you have 45 children and three jobs, you still have five minutes a day.
The good news and the bad news is that you're not special; everyone's mind is out of control ... If meditation can work for a fidgety, skeptical news guy, it can work for you.
What: R.J. Julia Booksellers and the Madison Happiness Club present Dan Harris, author of "10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works - A True Story"
When: Saturday, June 7 at 2 p.m.
Where: Mercy Center at Madison, 167 Neck Road
Cost: A copy of the book, purchased at R.J. Julia, is the ticket to the event. Those who cannot attend can order signed copies by visiting www.rjjulia.com.
Info: Call (203) 245-3959