RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Imagine having one of the worst moments in your professional life play out in front of 5 million people. ABC News anchor Dan Harris doesn't have to. In 2004, he had a panic attack on live television after years of working in war zones and using drugs to cope with the stress. That moment led him to start meditating. He wrote a book called "10% Happier" about his experiences with meditation and its potential health benefits. It became a best-seller, but he still thought the impact fell short.
DAN HARRIS: In that first book, I made this naive assumption that anybody who did read it would want to meditate and actually would meditate. And it was pretty quickly after the book came out that I started to realize that that is just not true. It's just complete underestimation of how hard it is for us to create healthy habits.
MARTIN: Now, Harris is out with a new book with co-author Jeff Warren. It's called "Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics."
What was the No. 1 obstacle you heard from people when they described why they just couldn't get into it or why they haven't been able to maintain a meditation practice?
HARRIS: Time. When I wrote my first book, I was dealing with this - the No. 1 obstacle at that time was that people thought meditation was weird. I think that...
MARTIN: Yeah - some kind of stigma.
HARRIS: Yeah. I think that's still true, but I think it's going away. But so now we have this new issue, which is that people want to do meditation, especially at this time of year, the whole new year, new you thing. But they feel like it's just another thing on their to-do list that is further stressing them out, which of course defeats the whole purpose. And so for people, my answer to this fear is I've got good news and even better news.
The good news is that I think five to 10 minutes a day is a great meditation habit, and I've spent a lot of time talking to the neuroscientists who study what meditation does to the brain, and they haven't cracked the dosage question fully, but generally speaking, people, the scientists, say, yes, five to 10 minutes should be enough to derive the advertised benefits of meditation. So that's the good news. The better news is that I truly believe one minute counts and that it doesn't need to be one minute every day. You can shoot for daily-ish (ph).
MARTIN: So let's talk about this.
MARTIN: Because I read the book clearly and that stood out to me. Oh, I only have to do this one minute a day. So I sat the other day for a minute, and my mind was all over the place. And I guess that's supposed to improve. But by the end of the minute, I just felt like, well, now I just know how undisciplined my brain is.
HARRIS: Let me reframe that whole experience for you...
HARRIS: ...As a victory because the primary insight for beginning meditators is that it is a zoo inside of our skulls. We are having this nonstop conversation with ourselves about which most of us are unaware. But when you tune into it, you see how negative, repetitive, ceaselessly self-referential it is. And when you see that, that is a victory. Why? Because when you see how absolutely bonkers you are, you have a much better chance of not being owned by the insanity so that the voice in your head, which is in the business of giving you terrible ideas, like, oh, yeah, you should finish that sleeve of Oreos or you could say the thing that is going to ruin the next 48 hours of your marriage or whatever, that voice has less purchase over your actual action.
MARTIN: So you're saying that just by recognizing in this 60 seconds that I'm meditating if there is just one moment when I recognize that I've wandered and I've brought myself back, that is the work, that is the practice and the victory.
HARRIS: Yes, yes. That is the bicep curl for your brain. And this is what shows up on the brain scans in the areas of the brain that regulate attentions or your ability to focus but also in self-awareness, which is, in meditation speak, mindfulness. But this self-awareness, this ability to see your inner urges, impulses, desires, conversation, without being carried away by it is a game-changing skill.
MARTIN: You ended up talking with some young people who were transitioning from prison to life on the outside. This was in California. And this was interesting because you came in thinking, oh, we can help these guys learn some meditation skills that will hopefully help them make this really challenging transition. And it turned out that they were already employing a lot of these strategies in their own life. They may not have - they just weren't calling it mindfulness or meditation, right?
HARRIS: It's really useful and humbling for somebody like me who is, you know, an unabashed meditation evangelist that there are lots of ways to increase your wellbeing. And meditation is one of them but not the only one. And that really hit home for me in spending time with these kids who are part of a group called InsideOUT Writers, which is run by screenwriters in Hollywood. And they teach formerly incarcerated youth and presently incarcerated youth how to write as a way to deal with their life situation. And we spent some time with the alums of the program who regularly meet and write together. And what I saw is that they have a practice.
There are all sorts of practices that have beneficial results. And for them, the act of writing, the act of fellowship, that boosts their self-awareness muscles and their compassion muscles every bit as much as meditation does. And so it is so important when talking about well-being not to get stuck on one thing only. I think it's important to, you know, use every arrow in the quiver, and that includes sleep, nutrition, exercise, having good friends and meditation. I just think meditation needs to be in there as well.
MARTIN: You reveal in the book that you meditate for two hours a day. Come on.
HARRIS: I know. It's ridiculous.
MARTIN: How do you - where do you find - I mean, that is such a cliche question, but literally where do you find the time?
HARRIS: First of all, let me just issue this caveat. I'm reluctant always to talk about my meditation dosage because people - I'm...
MARTIN: It's a pretty high standard.
HARRIS: It is.
MARTIN: Like, no one's going to get there (laughter).
HARRIS: Right. And I know how the mind of a skeptic works, which is you're just looking for an excuse not to do the thing.
HARRIS: And so I don't want this to be an excuse. I don't want people to say, oh, well, that's where this thing goes and I don't have time for it - not true. One good way to think about this is like exercise. You know, most of us, if we exercise, we know that we need 30 minutes of cardio a certain amount of days per week, and we do it grudgingly. There are some people, however, get really into it and do triathlons. And so for me, I think five to 10 minutes a day is an incredible habit - or just one minute a day.
But I got really interested. I'm writing these stupid books about meditation. I'm really into this thing, so I just allow myself to do it whenever I can - in the back seat of taxis, on airplanes, in my office before or after a show. And for me, it's just - the reason I want it to go up is the mind is trainable. Happiness is a skill. And if you can become 10 percent happier, what's the ceiling? And I really am interested in deriving the benefits at an even higher level.
MARTIN: Dan Harris - his new book is called "Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics." Dan, thank you so much.
HARRIS: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "A WALK")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.