Imagine having a panic attack in front of five million people on national television. That’s what happened to Dan Harris on Good Morning America in 2004. He was filling in for a colleague as the news anchor at the top of the hour.
“It started out fine…But then, right in the middle of the second voice-over, it hit,” recalls Harris. “Out of nowhere, I felt like I was being stabbed in the brain with raw animal fear. A paralytic wave rolled up through my shoulders, over the top of my head, then melted down the front of my face. The universe was collapsing in on me. My heart started to gallop. My mouth dried up. My palms oozed sweat.”
Unfortunately for Harris, he had no place to hide. As he continued, he was starting to lose his ability to speak, “gasping as I waged an internal battle against the wave of howling terror, all of it compounded by the knowledge that the whole debacle was being beamed out live.”
But Harris recovered. He tells the story in his book, 10% Happier, recounting how he found a way to reduce his stress through meditation and developing a new life philosophy.
Harris says meditation has a reputation for being a soft solution to a wide range of problems. But he argues that it is really just a brain exercise, something that prevents “the voice in your head from leading you around by the nose.” Meditation is not a miracle cure, but he estimates it will make you 10 percent happier, making it a reasonably good investment of time and energy.
Many people think that whatever their temperament or personality traits, they are “born that way,” says Harris. But he insists that many of the attributes we value in ourselves and others are skills we can learn in the same way as we develop abilities in any other endeavor.
Harris, who has road-tested meditation in one of the most competitive environments imaginable – television news – thinks meditation can work for anyone.
In the Buddhist tradition, Harris ultimately decided to create a list – called “The Way of the Warrior” — to help guide others toward finding insight and peace through ten steps:
- Don’t be a jerk: Have compassion. It helps you make better decisions, be happier, and win allies. And it makes you a vastly more fulfilled person.
- (And/But…) when necessary, hide the zen: Be nice, but remember, you don’t have to be a pushover. Sometimes you’ll need to compete aggressively, plead your own case, or even say something sharp to someone. Stay calm, and don’t make the issue personal.
- Meditate: Benefits include better health, increased focus, a deeper sense of calm, but most of all, it allows you to respond instead of react to your impulses and urges. Instead of being driven by desire and aversion, meditation allows you to watch what comes up in your head nonjudgmentally.
- The price of security is insecurity – until it’s not useful: Tap mindfulness to help you separate wheat from chaff, for understanding when worry is worthwhile and when it’s pointless.
- Equanimity is not the enemy of creativity: Don’t worry that being happy will shut down your creativity. Harris says that on retreat, he’s flooded with ideas.
- Don’t force it: It’s hard to open a jar when every muscle in your arm is tense. Take purposeful pauses and learn to embrace ambiguity. Don’t bulldoze your way to an answer.
- Humility prevents humiliation: Don’t dig in your heels and let your ego drive your response. Humility will help you navigate tricky situations in a more agile way. But again, you don’t have to be a pushover either.
- Go easy with the internal cattle prod: Stop indulging in harsh self-criticism. Instead, be firm, but kind to yourself. Forgive yourself your mistakes and flaws and you’ll be far more resilient.
- Nonattachment to results: Do your best, but “don’t assume the fetal position if things don’t go your way,” says Harris, who adds that that’s probably what T.S. Eliot meant when he talked about learning “to care and not to care.”
- What matters most: Ask yourself what’s really worth worrying about. After all, there’s only so much suffering anyone is willing to endure.
Robert Schneider, the lead singer for a psych-pop group called Apples in Stereo, was one of the happiest people Harris ever met. How did Schneider stay so positive? “The most important thing to me is probably…being kind and also trying to do something awesome,” he explained.
Learn more: 10% Happier, by Dan Harris, itbooks, 2014.