Dan Harris: How mindfulness can tame your inner critic Sometimes that nagging inner voice is your own worst enemy. Author and podcast host Dan Harris explains how loving-kindness meditation can quiet your inner critic and improve your relationships.

How meditation can teach us to love ourselves and others

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Temple talked about different ways that people interpret the world. Later in the show, we'll investigate where creative impulses come from and how we might enhance our brains in the future. But first, let's consider how an ancient practice makes sense in the modern world.


DAN HARRIS: We have this little inner narrator that chases us out of bed in the morning and is yammering at us all day long, constantly sort of wanting stuff, not wanting stuff, judging people, judging ourselves, comparing ourselves to other people instead of focusing on what's happening right now.

ZOMORODI: Dan Harris is the host of the "Ten Percent Happier" podcast, and he has been on a years-long journey to tame that nagging inner voice.


HARRIS: I worked at ABC News for 21 years. It was a very stressful job.

ZOMORODI: Here he is on the TED stage.


HARRIS: In fact, I had a panic attack live on the air in 2004. The good news is that my nationally televised freak-out ultimately led me to meditation, which I had actually long rejected as ridiculous. I was raised by a pair of atheist scientists. I'm a fidgety, skeptical guy, and that kind of led me to unfairly lump meditation in with aura readings, vision boards and dolphin healing. But the practice really helped me with my anxiety and depression. And so my goal became to make meditation attractive to my fellow skeptics. And I saw that there was all this science that suggested it's really good for you. And that kind of provoked me to get interested in Buddhism and meditation.

ZOMORODI: Dan ended up writing a bestselling book called "10% Happier." This led to hosting his podcast and building a business, all with the goal of bringing some inner peace to people who were skeptical about meditation, too. And on a personal level, Dan felt like he'd really grown. So after a few years, he made an interesting choice.

HARRIS: Well, the story is pretty embarrassing, actually.

ZOMORODI: He requested a 360 review.

HARRIS: I wanted to get the 360 in part because I was genuinely curious about how I was doing.

ZOMORODI: A 360 is pretty common in the corporate world. Consultants interview all your colleagues about you and then compile a report on how you come across in the workplace.

HARRIS: And I should say that my version of the 360 was much more intense than the normal corporate 360 because...


HARRIS: ...I included my wife and my brother, a few of my meditation teacher friends. So it was the colonoscopy version of a 360 review. I didn't think it was going to be that big of a deal. That was an underestimation and humiliatingly so. And when I read the 360, it just, you know, melted me.

ZOMORODI: Do you remember reading some of the harsher notes?

HARRIS: I will never forget reading that document because, adding to the embarrassment of the moment, I was so confident and so sort of cavalier and careerist about this move that I had video cameras rolling on me and my wife as we read it together.

ZOMORODI: Oh, no, no, no.



HARRIS: The first 13 pages were dedicated to my sterling qualities. People talked about how hardworking and intelligent I was. Then came 26 pages of beatdown.


HARRIS: He's self-interested and self-involved. It's a joke that whatever we show Dan, he doesn't like.


HARRIS: Some reviewers noted that I had a penchant for being rude to junior staffers.

He is intentionally intimidating when it serves him.


HARRIS: I was called emotionally guarded, a diva and an authoritarian.

There's a flavor of the prima donna in Dan. He likes people to be serving him, and his is more important than other people's agenda or time.


HARRIS: Some people even questioned my motives for promoting meditation. It got so bad that at one point, my wife, who was reading it with me, got up and went to the bathroom and cried.

ZOMORODI: That is brutal. I will say, though, I have to admire your diligence because after the 360 review, you signed up for a nine-day silent retreat. Man, some people would be like, I don't want to think about this. But you went to a place where all you could do was think about this.

HARRIS: Yes. But - just to say that after I got the 360 review and, you know, people were saying really harsh things about me - that I was overcommitted in my professional life, that it was making me really unpleasant to be around - I read all of that. And my first instinct was, I'm going to go into the fetal position and never come out. And then pretty quickly, I started to have a series of conversations with people in my life that helped me turn this around. So one of the many things that I did was to sign up for a nine-day silent meditation retreat in which we were practicing a kind of meditation called loving kindness meditation. The ancient word for this is metta, M-E-T-T-A. Another translation of metta is friendliness. And we have this tendency, I think, most of us, to think that we are hardwired for a certain kind of temperament.


HARRIS: But actually, the data around this kind of meditation and other related practices show that these are not factory settings. You can boost your capacity for warmth. And so that's why I wanted to do that retreat.

ZOMORODI: OK. Can we talk more about loving kindness, the steps that you are supposed to go through generally?

HARRIS: It's not complicated. My first impression of this practice was extremely negative. I sometimes say that it struck me as Valentine's Day with a gun to my head. But the seated formal meditation version of this is - so I sit in a chair and close my eyes and start by calling to mind somebody, like, really easy to love. And you repeat four phrases. May you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you live with ease. And then once you've done that with an easy person, we move into yourself. Usually the next step is a mentor, then a neutral person, somebody you might overlook, then a difficult person and then finally all beings everywhere. And this kind of bicep curl for your brain can impact your capacity to feel love for yourself and for other people. And that's pretty radical.

ZOMORODI: In a minute, the struggles Dan faced as he attempted to train his brain to be kind to himself. It's Part I of our series Mind Body Spirit. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.


ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, we are exploring the mind as part of our series Mind, Body, Spirit. And we were just talking to Dan Harris, host of the podcast "Ten Percent Happier." Dan is now known for his expertise in mindfulness, but when he was first introduced to the centuries-old practice of loving-kindness meditation, it seemed to be utterly at odds with his personality.

HARRIS: I didn't want to do what my teacher was recommending. In fact, she said, you know, when you see your demons arise, you know, when you see your capacity for anger or desire or self-aggrandizement, she said, you should put your hand on your heart and say, it's OK, sweetie. I'm here for you. And I was like, hard pass. I don't want to do that. And a couple of days into the retreat, I was really struggling, and I did it. I put my hand on my chest. I didn't call myself sweetie. I just talked to myself the way I would talk to a friend. I was like, all right, dude, I know this sucks. It's hard to see this stuff. You're good. Just keep going. And that approach, I later learned, is really backed up by the science, that you can talk to yourself the way you would talk to a friend - you don't have to use sweetie if you don't want to - and that this will have beneficial psychological and physiological ramifications. And so the radical disarmament of your inner critic is to give him a hug. Be like, thank you. I don't have to listen to you exactly, but I appreciate the impulse. It is the organism trying to protect itself.

ZOMORODI: And the idea being that the only way to feel love and kindness towards others in the world is if you can do it to yourself. Because why?

HARRIS: It's not as simple as saying you can't love other people if you don't love yourself because I think we all know people who are very hard on themselves but extremely generous. But it's harder to love other people if you're constantly running yourself down. Even though that might feel like a humility, you know, I'm keeping myself in check, it actually is a kind of self-centeredness because you're just stuck in your own head in this dialogue. If you can cut that off, well, then you have more availability and bandwidth for other people. And there's another piece of this. When you see how much suffering you're doing, it just naturally and inexorably leads to increased empathy and compassion for other people.


HARRIS: Self-love, properly understood, not as narcissism but as having your own back, is not selfish. It makes you better at loving other people. I consider love to be anything that falls within the human capacity to care, a capacity wired deeply into us via evolution. It's our ability to care, cooperate and communicate that has allowed Homo sapiens to thrive. And it is a failure to exercise that muscle, it is a lack of love, that I think is at the root of our most pressing problems, from inequality to violence to the climate crisis. Obviously, these are all massive problems that are going to require massive structural change, but at a baseline, they also require us to care about one another. And it is harder to do that when you're stuck in a ceaseless spiral of self-centered self-flagellation.

ZOMORODI: There's something ironic about this, though, Dan, is that I can't help but think, despite the Eastern roots in meditation, that in some ways, this is a very individualist approach to societal systemic problems. You know, I bet people would have a hell of a lot more loving kindness if there wasn't - I don't know - police violence in their community, if they had enough to eat, if they could pay for their housing. Do you feel like this is a message for a certain segment of the population and that in some ways, gosh, we have a whole lot of other things to fix in addition to trying to be more at peace with ourselves?

HARRIS: Well, I think you're on to something very important there. I don't think meditation alone is going to fix our massive systemic problems. We need systemic political policy-level approaches to all of this. The one part that I am not sure I agree with, though, is that this is a message for just a narrow band of society. We know these practices work, so why should only wealthy white people who shop at Whole Foods - and by the way, I say that with no hate in my heart to those people because I am one of those people. But why should we be the only people who benefit from this? I think it's beautiful that these practices are being taught in foster care and prisons, and this really should be for everybody. It's not either or. It's yes and.

ZOMORODI: But, Dan, I have to say, to get to this point, you've gone through what feels to me like an exhaustive amount of therapy and meditation and different strategies. And, I mean, the whole other part of you, the part that's hard charging and asks difficult questions as a journalist, the part of you that wanted to start a business, do you feel like that part can coexist with this more, dare I say, mellow person?

HARRIS: Definitely. First of all, just to say, you don't have to do all the stuff I'm doing. I'm coming back with things that you can fit into your life in really easy ways. You know, this loving-kindness meditation practice is something you can do for a few minutes before you go to bed or first thing in the morning, and it will help you. And the second thing to say is that by no means am I not ambitious anymore. What I do find, though, is that I am better at connecting to the more positive end of my motivations. I'm a little more focused on, you know, can I make things in the world that really do help people and that, in the process, give me what I need to live to keep motivated and happy, which is, you know, some level of remuneration, you know, payment. And I view that as, like, kind of an exchange of love.

ZOMORODI: OK, so tell me where you are in this process. Are you practicing it every day? Have you seen results?

HARRIS: Well, the most tangible piece of evidence is that three years after I got my first 360, I got a second 360 with many of the same people contributing, and it was radically different.

(Reading) He pauses and listens, makes sure he's hearing things correctly. There's real compassion in that, especially knowing that he has strong opinions, where he's able to watch what he's feeling and shelve it if he has to in order to be there for the other person. He's genuinely curious and interested. He's less negative in day-to-day interactions. In the last few years, he's become very emotionally intelligent. He's very self-aware, asks about feelings and if he could do something more or less. Dan is so much kinder and more compassionate than he used to be. The way his ego has shrunk is really quite remarkable.

ZOMORODI: Oh, that's a big change.


ZOMORODI: So, Dan, this connection between the mind, body and spirit, there have been people trying to make sense of it for thousands of years. I feel like in the West, it has kind of become a cliche. What do you make of this connection?

HARRIS: The mind - you know, there is no you the way you think about it. Yes, if you, Manoush, look in the mirror, you'll see a reflection of a human being. That's true. But on some really fundamental level, all the atoms that make you up right now are going to dissolve. And so we are solid the way a hurricane is solid. It's just a coming together of atmospheric conditions that will come apart at some point. And the fact that life is short and unpredictable and chaotic means that what you really have is right now. There are very meaningful things you can do to be of service, which will make you happier and the people around you happier, and to be of use to yourself and others in a way that will make whatever time we have as good as possible.

ZOMORODI: That's Dan Harris. He hosts the "Ten Percent Happier" podcast. And earlier, we heard from Temple Grandin. Her latest book is called "Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts Of People Who Think In Pictures, Patterns, And Abstractions." You can see both of their talks at ted.com.


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