How a skeptical anchorman became a Buddhist
by Dan Harris, CNN, April 10, 2015
New York, USA -- If you had told me as recently as a few years ago that I'd ever become a Buddhist -- never mind that I might even admit to it publicly -- I would have coughed my beer up through my nose.
<< Dan Harris is author of "10% Happier" and an anchor of ABC News.
I was raised by secular scientists in The People's Republic of Massachusetts. (I did have a Bar Mitzvah -- but only for the money.) I've spent my career as a proud skeptic. My favorite part of being a journalist is the right -- the obligation, really -- to doubt everything and everyone.
And yet, here I am ... a Buddhist.
This declaration means both less and more than you might think.
Less, because Buddhism is not really a faith -- at least not as I understand or practice it. And more, because the version of Buddhism I've embraced is something that could be useful to millions of skeptical people who might otherwise reflectively reject it. Maybe even you.
But first, how the hell did this happen to me?
An on-air Waterloo
It all started with a panic attack on national television.
In 2004, I was filling in on a show called "Good Morning America." (Hint: it airs on a network not named CNN.)
My job that morning was to come on at the top of each hour and read a series of short stories off the Teleprompter. A few seconds into my first newscast, I was overtaken by an overwhelming bolt of fear. My heart started racing, my palms were sweating, my mouth dried up and my lungs seized. I couldn't speak. I had to bail, right in the middle, by breathlessly tossing it back to the main anchors of the show. To say the least, it was pretty embarrassing.
Not long after this panic attack, I went to see a shrink. One of his questions was: "Do you do drugs?"
Rather sheepishly, I said, "Yes, I do."
At which point, he leaned back in his chair and flashed me a look that said, "Ok, moron ... mystery solved."
There's a backstory here: As an eager, young reporter, in the aftermath of 9/11, I had volunteered to go overseas to cover the ensuing conflicts -- frankly without thinking much about the psychological consequences. I spent the following years in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel, Palestine and Iraq.
In 2003, after a long stay in Baghdad, I came home and sank into a depression. Embarrassingly, I didn't know I was depressed, although I was exhibiting what I now know to be some of the telltale signs: I was having trouble getting out bed and felt like I had a constant low-grade fever. At this point I made a toweringly stupid move: I began to self-medicate with recreational drugs, including cocaine and ecstasy.
To be clear, it wasn't like "The Wolf of Wall Street." My drug use was sporadic and short-lived. But it was enough, according to my doctor, to artificially raise the level of adrenaline in my brain, and prime me to have a panic attack.
Sitting there in his office, in the wake of my on-air Waterloo, I knew I need to make some changes in my life. Right away, I made two: I stopped doing drugs, and I agreed to see this shrink once or twice a week, indefinitely.
This is not a clean, tidy little story, however. It's not like I quit drugs, became a Buddhist and my life immediately became a nonstop parade of rainbows and unicorns. Something else -- something totally unforeseen -- had to happen first.
The voice in our heads
This development came in the form of an assignment I very much did not want to take. My boss at the time, ABC's legendary anchorman Peter Jennings, told me that I was going to start covering faith and spirituality for the network. I tried to explain that I was, at best, an agnostic -- and therefore not the right guy for the job. He was unmoved.
This initially unappetizing assignment turned out to be a great thing for me.
I spent the ensuing years visiting mosques, megachurches, and Mormon temples. I made new friends, realized how ignorant I'd been about matters of faith, and began to see the value of having a worldview that transcends your own narrow interests. That said, none of the material I encountered during this time spoke to me personally.
That changed in 2008, when a producer with whom I worked recommended that I read a book by a self-help guru named Eckhart Tolle. I had never heard of the guy, but my colleague explained that Tolle had sold many millions of books, was beloved by celebrities (Oprah, most notably) and that he might make for a good story.
At first, I thought Tolle's book was irredeemable garbage. It was filled with pseudoscientific assertions, weird language about "vibrational fields," and grandiose claims about how his writings would provoke a "spiritual awakening" for you, the reader.
Just when I was about to throw the book away, though, Tolle began to unfurl a fascinating thesis about the human condition, one that I had never heard before.
Tolle's argument is that we all have a voice in our head, by which he is not referring to schizophrenia or "hearing voices." He's talking about your inner narrator, the voice that chases you out of bed in the morning and yammers at you all day long. It has you constantly comparing yourself to other people, engaging in ruthless self-criticism, and casting forward into the future or ruminating about the past, to the detriment of whatever is happening right now.
When you're unaware of this nonstop conversation you're having with yourself, it yanks you around. It's what has you putting your hand in the fridge when you're not hungry, checking your email when your kids are trying to talk to you, or losing your temper when it's strategically unwise.
This was a huge aha moment for me. I quickly realized that this voice Tolle was describing was responsible for all of the things I was most ashamed of in my life, such as heedlessly going to war zones, getting depressed without even knowing it, and then blindly self-medicating.
But there was a problem: Tolle didn't seem to offer much in the way of practical advice for dealing with the voice in the head.
I went and interviewed the guy, and when I asked him point blank for practical advice, he took a beat, and said, "Take one conscious breath." At which point, the voice in my head was saying, What is this strangle little man talking about?
Not knowing what else to do, I ventured deeper into America's self-help subculture, where I met a gaggle of celebrity swamis who promise that you can solve all of your problems through the power of positive thinking -- which, sorry to break it to you, ain't gonna happen. The only people I know who've had all of their problems solved through this kind of philosophy are the people who write those books.
I was at wit's end. But then my fiancée (and now wife and baby mama) Bianca, swooped in for the save. She gave me a book by Dr. Mark Epstein, a shrink from New York who writes about the overlap between psychology and Buddhism. As I read Epstein's book, I had another big aha moment. I realized that the smartest material from Tolle was basically Buddhism.
Taming the monkey
Despite ostensibly being a religion reporter, my only prior exposure to Buddhism was when, as a 15-year-old punk kid, I stole a Buddha statue from a local gardening store and put it in my bedroom because I thought it looked cool.
I had no idea that 2,500 years before Eckhart Tolle started cashing his royalty checks, it was the Buddha -- heretofore known to me only as a lawn ornament -- who was talking about the voice in the head.
The Buddha used a different term: "monkey mind."
We're like furry little primates, he said -- swinging through a jungle of thoughts, urges and desires, always clinging to things that won't last, and constantly lurching from one pleasant experience to the next, never fully satisfied.
Think about it: how many great meals, movies and social encounters have you've experienced over the course of your lifetime? And are you done? Of course not. We're insatiable. The pursuit of happiness becomes the source of our unhappiness.
Unlike Tolle, the Buddha had actual actionable advice for taming the monkey. At this point, though, a fresh problem arose, because what he was recommending sounded horrible to me: meditation.
I'd always assumed that meditation was only for people who live in yurts, are really into Ultimate Frisbee, and use the word "namaste" unironically.
My attitude was aptly summed up by Alec Baldwin's character on the TV show "30 Rock," who said, "Meditation is a waste of time -- like learning to speak French, or kissing after sex."
But then I heard about a recent explosion of scientific research into meditation.
This research is still in its early stages, but it's strongly suggestive of an almost laughably long list of benefits. These include: lowering your blood pressure, boosting your immune system, and effectively rewiring key parts of the brain for happiness, focus, emotional regulation and compassion.
Then I learned that meditation doesn't require you to sit in a funny position, light incense or chant. There are no fees, nothing to join, no special outfits to wear. It's simple brain exercise.
The basic instructions include just three steps:
- Sit up reasonably straight, with your eyes closed. (Or not -- some people leave them open.)
- Bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and going out.
- Every time your mind wanders -- which it will, a million times -- gently return your attention to your breath. (The goal is not to "clear the mind" -- which is impossible, unless you're dead -- but instead to focus the mind, for nanoseconds at a time, and then, when you get distracted, to simply start over.)
This wasn't easy for me, especially since I have the attention span of a 3-month-old golden retriever. But I kept at it, and pretty soon, I started to see two big benefits.
First, it boosted my ability to focus. The daily practice of trying to pay attention to my breath, getting lost, and then starting again (and again... and again...) really helped me stay on task at work -- especially in this tech-saturated age that has been dubbed the "info-blitzkrieg."
The second benefit -- and this is the biggie -- is something called "mindfulness."
Don't be fooled by the blandness of the word; it's a game-changing proposition. Mindfulness is the ability to see what's happening in your mind at any given moment without getting carried away by it.
Think about how useful and scalable mindfulness could be. Just as an example: you're driving down the road, and someone cuts you off. What happens in your mind in that moment? Most likely, you think to yourself, I'm angry. And then boom: you immediately and reflexively inhabit that thought - you actually become angry.
Mindfulness helps you short circuit that heretofore automatic, habitual, mindless reaction.
If you're a meditator who gets cut off on the highway, you might notice, Oh, my chest is buzzing, my ears are burning, I'm experiencing a starburst of angry thoughts ... I'm getting angry.
But you won't necessarily have to bite the hook, and chase the other driver down the road, screaming expletives, with your children in the backseat.
Clearly, mindfulness (another term might be "emotional intelligence") has a lot of applications in a work context -- which is why meditation is now being adopted in some surprising places. Corporate giants such as Google, Aetna, Proctor and Gamble and General Mills are doing it. Elite athletes like the Seattle Seahawks and Novac Djocovic are getting involved. Even the U.S. Marines are meditating.
When executives and warriors learn to meditate, they are not generally taught Buddhism, per se, but instead a secularized version of Buddhist meditation known simply as "mindfulness practice." This type of meditation -- often taught in a form called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction -- has exploded in popularity in recent years.
Some Buddhist purists are upset about this trend; they call it "McMindfulness."
While I share some of their concerns, I largely disagree. I think stripping the Buddhist language out of the practice makes it attractive to millions of people who don't want to be involved with religion -- or who fear being dragooned into abandoning their current religious beliefs.
Bottom line: more mindfulness is better than less mindfulness, even if I might quibble with how it is sometimes delivered.
The religion that isn't really a religion
Buddhists may have perfected this kind of meditation, but mindfulness is an innate human capacity. After all, we are classified as homo sapiens -- "the one who thinks and knows he thinks."
Nevertheless, I still think it's kind of a shame that Buddhism is being de-emphasized, for three reasons:
First, what you get from Buddhism that you don't necessarily get from secular mindfulness is an ethical training that I have found to be personally useful.
This is not talking preachy, finger-wagging stuff. The Buddha taught a series of practical steps that can actually make you nicer -- and in a way that appeals directly to your self-interest.
Turns out, it's harder to meditate when you're a jerk; the mind has trouble concentrating when you're fending off creeping remorse, or struggling to keep your various lies straight. Buddhists aim to create a virtuous cycle: when you're nice to others, your meditation improves, which makes you happier, and therefore nicer ... and so on.
Second, what is also lost when Buddhism is shunted to the sidelines is several millennia's worth of truly fascinating philosophy, as well as vital, boots-on-the-ground mental exploration.
For 2,500 years, these people have been meticulously mapping the mind, exploring what makes us tick. They've come up with a system to wake you up to the clang and clatter of your own ego so that it doesn't control you. It's a mental exercise regime that cultivates positive traits such as self-awareness and compassion, and helps you better live in a universe characterized by impermanence and entropy.
Which bring me to my third point: this "religion" is not, in my view, really a religion.
As the writer Stephen Batchelor (author of the excellent book, "Buddhism Without Beliefs") has said, Buddhism is "not something to believe in but something to do." (Emphasis mine.)
The Buddha did not claim to be a God or a prophet. And to the extent that he espoused ideas such as karma and rebirth -- he explicitly told his followers to take them or leave them. He didn't even envision something called Buddhism; he was just teaching his followers to meditate and behave ethically.
It is certainly true, though, that in many parts of the world, people do practice Buddhism as a religion -- complete with elaborate metaphysical claims. But again, you are under no obligation to accept these. And if you are worried that practicing Buddhism will erode your preexisting religious beliefs, it's worth noting that many people of faith say Buddhist meditation has helped them cut down on the mental noise and thereby feel closer to God. One theologian even wrote a book called "Without the Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian."
While I'm clearly a big fan of Buddhism, I hasten to add that it definitely won't solve all of your problems.
I've learned the hard way that it won't make you taller or regrow your hair. Which is why I wrote a book about my experiences as a meditator and called it "10% Happier."
Obviously that's an absurdly unscientific estimate, but I like it -- because it's true enough, and it sounds like a good return on investment. It's also a way to counterprogram against the reckless overpromising I've seen in so much of the self-help world.
After six years of meditating, I am far from enlightened. (If my wife were writing this article, she'd call it, "90% Still A Moron.")
But mindfulness has dramatically cut down on my levels of useless rumination, mindless misbehavior, counterproductive crankiness and general distractedness. It has made me a happier person, a more collegial colleague, and more appreciate of my beautiful wife and our baby son.
I strongly believe that if I had learned how to meditate as a young reporter, I would have been able to have avoided the cascading stupidity that produced my on-air panic attack.
If I can leave you with one thing: give meditation a shot -- whether it's Buddhist meditation, or secular mindfulness. As I like to say, if it can work for a fidgety, skeptical newsman, it can work for you. Or, as one famous Buddhist monk once said, "Happiness is available. Please help yourself."