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Best-Selling Author, Dan Harris, Shares How Mindfulness Changed His Life
By Cynthia Nagrath 23-Apr-15
Have you ever found yourself on stress overload? Too many things to do, too many commitments, not enough time, and an endless stream of voices in your head telling you things designed to distract you, deter you, and ultimately devour you? Well that’s exactly what happened to news anchorman Dan Harris when he had a panic attack live in front of millions of viewers on the popular news show Good Morning America. Appearing at Cape Cod Community College this month, Dan Harris, best-selling 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, shared his experience with mindfulness meditation, explaining that it can transform even the most harried of individuals. Sponsored by Calmer Choice, an organization dedicated to bringing mindfulness training to schools in the area, the talk was sold out. While most of us, thankfully, don’t have to perform before millions of people, we do have a professional and public persona, which requires a certain level of composure and attentiveness. Finding a simple way to perform more effectively in our work and engage in more fulfilling relationships is a goal most people—even the most skeptical among us—can agree is worthwhile. Mindfully Reluctant Coming to a mindfulness practice was not easy for Harris, who admits that he thought people who meditated were tree-hugging hippies. With no particular religious affiliation, other than the fact that he completed his bar mitzvah, (“I was in it for the money only,” he confesses), Harris’ spiritual journey began reluctantly when his colleague and mentor Peter Jennings assigned him the religion beat. After having travelled to Pakistan after 9/11, embedding with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and completing multiple stints in Iraq, he found covering the wars there to be “journalistic heroin.” Harris thrived on the rush of adrenaline that came from the heady combination of danger and reporting live to a nationally televised audience. Panic Attack Coming back to the U.S., Harris found other less healthy ways to replace the thrill of reporting in war zones and began using cocaine and ecstasy for “recreational purposes.” After getting professional help he realized his panic attack was triggered by the cocaine, which increases levels of adrenaline in the brain, setting off the primal fight-or-flight response. Perhaps his mentor, Peter Jennings knew that covering religion and spirituality might be just what the doctor ordered. Harris, however, was not thrilled with his new assignment and considered it as nothing more than a fluff piece, until his next “deployment.” The Voice in Your Head Covering religion had Harris interviewing ministers, pastors of mega churches, rabbis, imams, and even the Dali Lama, but still nothing touched a chord, until he met with an unassuming German man who he had difficulty understanding – Eckhart Tolle. Tolle, the best-selling author of The Power of Now and other books on mindfulness, shared with Harris how everyone has an internal voice that produces an endless array of thoughts and dialogues, which are distracting us from understanding who we are at the deepest level. At first Harris admitted, “It seemed like garbage – hard-core garbage,” but he did recognize the incessant voice in his head, or what he calls “the inner narrator that’s constantly judging, comparing, and thinking about either the past or the future.” Harris describes this inner voice as “self-referential; a non-stop conversation with yourself.” So he asked the self-help guru, “What do you do with the voice in your head?” “You take one conscious breath,” Tolle replied. Plagiarizing Buddha “What the hell does that mean?” Harris asked himself, triggering yet another cascade of skeptical thoughts. As he delved deeper into this idea he came to the conclusion that “Tolle lifted, without attribution, from the Buddha!” Harris realized that “2,500 years before Tolle, there was this Indian dude who talked about the voice in the head and the monkey mind.” The Monkey Mind Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, running around, jumping from place to place, and screeching. We all have monkey minds, with several wild monkeys all clamoring for our attention at once. Fear, anger, desire, sorrow and a cascade of other thoughts and emotions contribute to a state of general anxiety and unease because we don’t have our monkeys under control. The Pursuit of Happiness Humans are in a constant pursuit of happiness that has us seeking one pleasant experience after another and yet we’re never fully satisfied. “After all, how many vacations can you go on? How many lattes can you sip? How many luxury cars can you drive?” asks Harris. This is quite a revelation for a guy whose only experience with Buddha was when he was a teenager and stole a Buddha statue from a local garden store because he thought it would look cool in his room. What is the solution to this monkey mind, the constant voice in the head and our endless pursuit of happiness? Meditation The Buddha taught that there is a simple way to tame the monkeys in your head through meditation. By spending quiet time each day you can calm your mind by focusing on your breathing or a simple mantra. Although you can never fully banish the monkeys from your mind, through meditation, you can become aware of their presence and escort them out of your mind’s door when they make their unwelcome visits. From Distraction to Focus “There are a lot of preconceptions about meditation,” Harris warns, and he harbored many of them, but after his panic attack on live TV, and through his research on religion and spirituality for ABC News, Harris was receptive to trying it to help get his life back on track. The first time he meditated for only five minutes, which he described as the longest five minutes of his life. He noticed that his monkey mind lurched from one random thought to another: “Where do gerbils run wild?” “What was the best thing before sliced bread?” “How much time is left?” Eventually, he built meditation into a daily habit, and much to his surprise, found that he made “a radical break from a lifetime cycle of sleepwalking in a fog,” to a mind that was better focused, more mindful, and quite frankly, nicer to others and himself. Nothing New Although the term mindfulness has become a popular buzzword of late, he reminds us that it’s actually an ancient expression, which in practical terms means, “The ability to know what’s going on in your head without getting carried away with it.” The thoughts will continue to stream into your mind, warns Harris, “but you don’t have to take the bait and act on them.” Harris titled his book 10% Happier because he didn’t want to hype or oversell the benefits of meditation, and proclaim it to be the solution to all of life’s problems, as so many self-help books claim to do. But he says the benefits are irrefutable, “It’s like doing brain surgery on yourself.” Meditation Changes the Brain In his discussion Harris sites a Harvard research study at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), which determined that meditation literally rebuilds the brain’s grey matter in just eight weeks. It’s the very first study to document that meditation produces changes over time in the brain’s grey matter. “The analysis of MR images found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection,” says the study’s senior author, Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical School instructor of psychology. (1) Anyone Can Do It “When people say, ‘I can’t do it because I can’t clear my mind’ or ‘I have no time,’ Harris says, “Nonsense, if I can do it, anyone can do it!” Although mindfulness mediation is derived from Buddhism, Harris says, “It’s simple and secular— you don’t need to join a group, you don’t need to take lessons, you don’t need special clothes, you don’t even need to go to a special place; you simply need to breathe in and out, any time anywhere.” Doing this, recommends Harris, is like a “bicep curl for the brain.” (1) Harvard Gazette article.
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