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10 mins

Dan Harris: One Minute Counts – Transcript

Read the transcript of Caitlin’s interview with Emmy Award-winning journalist and NYT bestselling author, Dan Harris
by Carrie M. King | Jan 31 2019

Caitlin Schiller: Welcome to Simplify. I’m Caitlin Schiller.

Ben Schuman-Stoler: And I’m Ben Schuman Stoler.

Caitlin: We’re back! It’s 2019. So this is Season 5. We’ve been making this thing for what, like almost two years now?

Ben: Yeah, every first episode feels like the very first episode.

Caitlin: Right. It’s been a while. Ben’s got a fresh haircut.

Ben: Yeah, a new sweater.

Caitlin: Yeah, I feel like there’s just a new start on the horizon. So speaking of new starts, today we have a pretty cool guest, Dan Harris.

Ben: Right, not to be confused with Sam Harris. So who’s Dan Harris?
Caitlin: All right. So Dan Harris, he’s kind of a household name. He has been on Good Morning America, he’s been in a bunch of different stuff. He is a news anchor and a reporter. He’s this hard-nosed news guy really. But he’s also recognized among hardcore meditation people. So I thought this combination of news guy and meditation was really interesting because they seemed like worlds that shouldn’t meet. So I picked it up, was really won over by his style, he’s really funny, he has an obvious love of words, which you’ll hear in the interview. And it was a great read, so I wanted to have on the show.

Ben: So why… We talked about first episodes of the seasons, we’ve had some pretty big names Gretchen Rubin, Charles Duhigg, Dan Savage, other people. Like what’s the one big idea that you learn from Dan Harris and why do you think it was a good choice for the first episode of Season 5?

Caitlin: Dan Harris is headlining Season 5 because I thought that his approach to meditation was really really refreshing. Meditation is a thing that a lot of us out there have tried and failed at. And a really wonderful thing that Dan Harris does is he sort of takes the pressure off of it and reframes it in a way that I found super refreshing.

He takes great pains to emphasize that clearing your mind is just not a thing. He says either your enlightened or you’re dead if your mind is clear of thoughts. And so noticing the interruptions, noticing the constant regions of rushing thoughts is really what meditation is about. Noticing them so that we can begin again and again.

Ben: So should we just kick off Season 5 and jump into the interview?

Caitlin: Let’s do it.

Ben: All right, and for anyone who’s new to Simplify, stick around for after the interview because Caitlin and I do something we call The Bookend. We chat a little bit more about the interview, and then we make a list of reading recommendations that fit on the theme of the episode. So if you want to learn something, stick around.

Caitlin: Great.

Ben: All right, see you in a bit.

Caitlin: Bye!

Caitlin interviews Dan Harris

Caitlin: Hi Dan! Thanks so much for joining me today.

Dan Harris: Thanks for having me.

Caitlin: Excellent. Could you introduce yourself the way that you like to be introduced?

Dan: Well, I have a lot of titles. Dan Harris a journalist at ABC News. I’m also an author: I wrote a book — a couple books — the best known one is called 10% Happier. I host a podcast called 10% Happier and I co-founded a tech company called 10% Happier that teaches people how to meditate through an app.

Caitlin: Very very cool. And you also wrote a book called Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.

Dan: Yes, so Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics in some ways was the practical follow-up to a memoir I wrote five years ago called 10% Happier. And in that book I talk about… In the first book I talk about how I went from dyed-in-the-wool skeptic to daily meditator. And the inciting event was that I had a panic attack on National Television, which is inconvenient to say the least.

I was anchoring a show we do at ABC News called Good Morning America. So I was the guy who came out of the top of each hour and read a series of headlines. And I was in the middle of my schtick one morning, a warm June morning in 2004, and I just lost it. Heart racing, lungs seized up, palms sweating, mouth dried up. I just I couldn’t speak and I had to squeak out a “back to you” to the main hosts of the show. It was very embarrassing for me.
And I later learned that what had caused that was a very unwise decisions in my personal life. I had spent a lot of time in war zones as a young idealistic curious ambitious reporter in my early 30s after 9/11. And during that period of time I had become depressed and I didn’t know I was depressed, and I did the supremely unwise thing of self-medicating with recreational drugs, including cocaine.

And even though I wasn’t doing that much of it, and even though I wasn’t high the morning I was on the air, it was enough according to the doctor I later saw to artificially raise the level of adrenaline in my brain and make it more likely for me to have panic attacks. And so that was a big moment and it kind of set me off on a weird windy journey that ultimately landed me on meditation.

And meditation made a big difference for me. Notwithstanding the fact that I thought it was, you know, bullshit, but I ultimately did some research and saw that there’s been all of this science that suggests that it’s really good for you, it can lower your blood pressure, boost your immune system and rewire key parts of your brain. And I also realized after having done it, that the way meditation is traditionally presented – a very syrupy saccharine way – was off-putting to tens of millions of people who would otherwise adopted as you know mental exercises, so that’s why I wrote the first book.

Caitlin: Do you think that it’s off-putting to people because we’re so focused on being productive with all of our time now and there’s something about meditation that feels at first glance unproductive?

Dan: I think there are a couple of reasons why meditation as it’s traditionally – to answer your actual question – why meditation as it’s traditionally presented is off-putting or has been off putting is: one – a lot of us, you know, don’t respond well to didgeridoo music and, you know, chakras and third eye and all that stuff, you know, just write it off as just bullshit.

Two – it’s often the traditional art around meditation depicts people with these beatific looks on their faces and their floating off into the cosmos. And that sends the message that the only way to meditate is to be in this, you know, bulletproof bubble of bliss and your mind is clear and all that stuff. Well, that’s not true. Clearing the mind is impossible, unless you’re enlightened or you’ve died. And nobody tells you that, but that’s important to know! That meditation is not about clearing the mind. It’s about focusing the mind for nano seconds at a time usually on the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. And then every time you get distracted, which you will a million times, the point is just to notice that you’ve become distracted and to start again, and again, and again.

And that act of seeing your distraction and going back to the breath is like a bicep curl for your brain and it boosts the areas of the brain associated with attention regulation, it reduces the area of the brain associated with stress, and again increases the other another area of the brain associated with emotional reactivity, so that you’re not so yanked around by your emotions.

And these are life-changing benefits that should be available to everybody and not just people who, you know, have a third lens in their sunglasses so they can cover the third eye. You know, like that’s what I’m trying to do.
And I would say a third big obstacle that people have to meditation is they assume it’s going to be very time consuming. And you know that’s also not true. We have a lot of one minute meditations on the 10% Happier app. And I one of our little slogans is “one minute counts.”

Caitlin: I love that and I really want to get to that later and talk about free-range meditation with you. But I also wanted to touch on, you said one of the things that can be off-putting to people about meditation is the traditional art where people are depicted as these, you know, beatific beings and bubbles of bliss. And as you talked about in Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics went off on something that seems to me the opposite of a bubble of bliss. It was a tour bus of of semi bliss. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose to go on this cross-country trip with your meditation MacGyver Jeff Warren and what you discovered?

Dan: I wanted to write a book, you know, “how to meditate” book because I thought one of the deficiencies of 10% Happier was that I felt like it made a pretty good argument for meditation, but didn’t follow through that well on teaching you how to do it. So I really wanted to write a book about meditation, and specifically I wanted the book to tackle the big excuses. There are, you know, seven or eight big excuses that people use or hurdles that need to be overcome before people can start meditating.

And we came up with this conceit, this idea that “oh, let’s let’s get a tour bus and go across the country.” And we decided to do that in 11 or 12 days. The goal was to meet people who want to meditate, but aren’t meditating, and to really do a sort of taxonomy of all of the major hurdles. And in that, I think, we succeeded, in terms of it being a research mission.

I think we really were able to figure out what are the big reasons people are not meditating. Well, they include finding the time, doubts about whether they’re doing it right, fears that maybe it’s self-indulgent that particularly we see that among women and moms, fear that you might lose your edge or you might look weird.

And we were able to not only develop this taxonomy, but also to develop a really good set of rebuttals. And so that really the cross-country trip is the narrative of the book, but the heart of the pedagogy of the book is teaching you how to meditate, and also teaching you how to surmount these various obstacles.

Caitlin: Which one do you enjoy dismantling the most?

Dan: The one I enjoy dismantling the most is the “I can’t do this” excuse. People say to me a lot “Oh, you know, I get it, Harris, you know, you make a good case for meditation, but I can’t do it because my mind is too busy.” And the good news and the bad news is that you’re not special. We evolved, all of us, for a racing mind. You know, human life developed on the savannah, we are constantly scanning the horizon for threats. And also scanning for sources of pleasure, like food and sexual partners. And so we have as a consequence this hyper-vigilant mind, and this is the human condition. And if it wasn’t the case, we probably wouldn’t need meditation.

And the problem is that it goes back to what I was saying before about the way meditation is traditionally depicted of people, you know, all the little Buddhas at airport spas look like they’re having a great time while meditating. But in fact it is like exercise for your brain and for your mind, and it’s going to be difficult. And you know, if you go to the gym and you’re not panting or sweating, well then you’re cheating. And if you sit down to meditate and all of your thoughts have evaporated and you’re just floating off into the cosmos, then as I said before you’re either enlightened or you’re dead. And that’s the thing to know. To know that the experience of meditation is getting distracted and starting again. Getting distracted and starting again.

And the moment you get distracted, that is not a failure, it is your ego will tell you “Oh, well, this is proof that you can’t meditate.” But in fact it needs to be reframed as the win. The moment you see you’ve become distracted is a huge win because when you see how crazy you are, that craziness has less of an opportunity to own you. That is the goal of meditation. To develop a kind of familiarity with your own mind, to build a telescope, an inward-facing telescope that allows you to see all of the churning and tumult of your own mind so that you’re not yanked around by it all the time.

It wakes you up to a thunderously obvious fact, which is that we have a mind and are thinking. If you stop somebody in the street and you ask them “Do you have a mind that producing thoughts?” They’ll say yes, but we live our lives as if that is not the case. And as a consequence, we have this malevolent puppeteer, which is our inner narrator, our ego, the voice in our head that is yanking us around all the time, and it’s why we find ourselves with our hand in the fridge when we’re not hungry, or we’re checking our email in the middle of a conversation with another human, or we lose our temper when it strategically unwise.

And all that meditation, or it’s not all that meditation is doing, but one of the huge functions of meditation is to wake you up to this non-stop conversation you’re having with yourself, so that it doesn’t control you all the time. And that’s why the seeing of the distraction is a win and I find that saying that to people, I can see the lights. I can literally see the lights go on for people, even though I am saying the same words every time. When I’m saying that to people, it’s enormously satisfying to see it when people get that. Because that changes the way they understand their lives, because this is what your life is about.

If you’re paying attention, your life is a non-stop cascade of me-me-me thoughts, urges, impulses, overwhelming emotions, and we have no visibility into this process. You’re just acting it all out reflexively. When you actually have this self-awareness that’s generated this mindfulness that’s generated through meditation, well then actually you can respond wisely to things instead of reacting blindly. And that is the game-changing proposition of meditation.

Caitlin: Absolutely. I also find that really really heartening. I’ve never really been a successful meditator, but I have done quite a bit of yoga and I remember when I figured out “Oh, there’s no such thing as stillness, really.” Even if you’re in a position that you’re holding successfully – or it looks like you are from the outside – what you’re actually doing is swaying and making micro adjustments and noticing that you’re always a little bit in motion. And if you can bring it back to the intent of whatever motion you’re making, whether that’s breathing and meditating, or staying in a Trikonasana, it’s just really liberating to know that stillness isn’t a thing. You don’t really arrive anywhere except a friendliness toward motion.

Dan: I’m not a huge yoga doer – I do a little bit, I don’t usually admit that but the comparison is not bad, the analogy is not bad. And you know, in meditation, it’s possible sometimes on a deep state of meditation that you may go for a while where you’re just fully aware of whatever it is you’re focusing on, the feeling of your breath coming in and going out, and the discursive thinking can slow way down.

But most of our daily meditation, if you’re just doing a few minutes a day, which is what I recommend most people aim for, is going to be this constant series of humiliations, where you’re just seeing what an idiot you are, and how you’re just randomly thinking about, you know, “what kind of bird was big bird, and do I need a nap?” You know, “why do celebrities only marry other celebrities?” And blah blah blah all the time.

Or you know, you’re planning some, you know, profanity-laden speech you’re going to deliver to your boss or whatever and it’s cool, like that’s fine that you didn’t invite those thoughts, like we don’t know where your thoughts even come from. That’s the mystery of consciousness, which is a whole big area to discuss. The point is just to see that this is how it is. And then when you’re ambushed by anger and off the cushion in your actual life. Well, you might actually be able to see the hurricane before it makes landfall, and you don’t have to be so wrapped up in anger that you do a ton of dumb stuff.

A friend of mine, Sam Harris, a great podcaster and author who has written a beautiful book about meditation called Waking Up, Sam talks about the half life of anger. And he says one of the most valuable functions of meditation is that “it cuts down on the half-life of anger” so that, you know, the amount of damage you can do in an hour of rage, as opposed to two minutes, that comparison is incalculable. And again that just gets to how your life can change as a consequence of adopting this practice.

Midroll:

Caitlin: We are all here because somebody or something believes that we should exist. In my case, it’s two nice folks named Debbie and Steve, and in Simplify’s case––it’s Blinkist. Think of Blinkist as Simplify’s book-loving parent, OK? Blinkist takes the key ideas from really great nonfiction books, like Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, for example, and transforms them into these powerful little digests of audio or text that take only about 15 minutes. So, if you’re somebody who loves exploring new ideas or has a really aspirational booklist that, if you’re being real with yourself, would take you the next 20 years to get through, you need Blinkist in your life. So you can go ahead and read, or hear what I mean, and try it out. Go to blinkist.com/nc/friends and try Blinkist for free for 14 days by using the voucher code dailyish. That’s Dan Harris’ word: dailyish. All right, that’s it. Let’s get back to the show with Dan Harris!

Interview Contd.

Caitlin: I want to get back to how long one needs to do this practice that you just discussed. You said earlier that just a minute counts. I’m a little bit skeptical of that, could you talk to me about how a minute can be useful for meditation?

Dan: So I think time is the biggest obstacle from what I can tell. On the cross-country trip that seemed to be the biggest obstacle we encountered. And on this score, first of all, I’m sympathetic. We’re very busy and I think there’s a real perception of time starvation. So I have good news and then better news. The good news is that I have spoken to many neuroscientists, there’s a whole class of neuroscientist who study what the impact of meditation is on the human brain. But while we have not or well, they have not answered the dosage question. You know, what’s the minimum you could do, and still, you know see some of the the advertised benefits, I was able to generate something of a consensus that “hey, if you’re doing 5 to 10 minutes a day, well, you should see some of these benefits.” So that’s a good news.

The better news is that if you feel like 5 to 10 minutes a day is not something you can do – and I think a lot of people feel that way – well, then I really do think one minute counts. And there are actually two little slogans that we generated as a consequence of the road trip that we did for the book. One is “one minute counts” and the other is “daily-ish.”

So, you know, if you tell somebody you got to do something every day, if they miss a day for reasons outside of their control or whatever, whatever reason, well, then their ego or the voice in their head is likely to swoop in and say “oh you messed this up now, you’re off the wagon, you’re done.” And so I like to lower the bar and then provide some elasticity. So the combination of “one minute counts” and “daily-ish,” we have found to be a really great way to get people over the hump

So that’s a lot that I just said, but I’m not even sure I answered your core question, which was does a minute of meditation actually count. So look, if it was up to me you do more, but can you in a minute do achieve the fundamental insight which in my view is at the heart of meditation which is to see you know, that the voice in your head is an asshole, and that you should not take all of its shitty suggestions all the time – absolutely. As soon as you sit, even if it’s for 60 seconds, and try to feel your breath coming in and going out, you’re going to be ambushed by all these random self-centered mostly negative thoughts.

And as soon as you see “okay, this is happening” and then you start again and again and again, well that is the thing to know about your mind in order to have a much more successful life. And that can happen, that kind of waking up, can happen in 60 seconds.
Caitlin: I love that. I love this idea of elasticity and and being a little bit maybe anti perfectionistic isn’t the right way to say it. But anyway, I’m totally behind that. I like the idea of lowering the bar enough for people to start a habit. You said when you sit down and you start to listen to yourself, you can notice these nasty assholic, negative thoughts come in and one of the concepts that I loved, reading about that I’d never heard it before.

Prapañca, Could you talk to me a little bit about Prapañca and how meditation can help with with that?

Dan: Yeah. It’s so funny. This is one of these words that I never would have thought when I first started writing about meditation that this random word in the language of Pali. It was the language spoken by the Buddha 2,600 years ago on the Indian subcontinent. And they had this word per punch, which literally translates into the imperialistic tendency of mind.

And as soon as I explain what it is, people are going to get it. It’s such a satisfying, it’s so cool to know – and wait for the explanation – but it’s so cool to know that somebody came up with a word for a thing that we’ve all experienced but never been able to articulate. Which is, so something happens, you get a piece of news or your stub your toe or whatever, and you immediately make this mental movie of all of the horrible consequences of this.

So you get an email dinner’s canceled tonight, “Oh my God. The date I had tonight canceled on me, he or she doesn’t like me, I’m never going to get married. I’m going to live alone forever with 55 cats, and nobody’s going to know when I die.” Like that it just happens like that so fast. And that is Prapañca, that’s the imperialistic tendency of mind. Some negative data point arises in the present moment and you colonize the future in this phantasmagoric way. And we’re doing this all the time, and not seeing it of course is detrimental to us because when we’re walking around with these negative fantasies all the time, well, how is that not going to affect our behavior?

And so one of the beauties this sort of delicacies of Buddhism and of the meditation endeavor generally is that you can you can kind of name some of these little neurotic patterns we have, and then not let them, you know control us so much.

Caitlin: Oh, yeah. It’s so helpful. I love that. We’re doing this all the time that spiral that you catch yourself in. And meditation does it help because it gives you that moment of space between this negative thought you had and allowing the spiral to increase around you?

Dan: Yes, it’s really about clear seeing, you know. The word for this kind of meditation in Buddhism is Vipassanā, which roughly translates to insight. So all we’re trying to do here is see clearly. It’s actually you’re not trying to fix anything, as it turns out there is a magic of just seeing things clearly. So when I name a Prapañca for you, and then you train up yourself awareness through this active meditation, again trying to focus on your breath, and then every time you get lost starting again and again, and again, well, then you can see the Prapañca layout for yourself.

And that is a massively empowering because when you see it, you’re not owned by it. And that provides a buffer between all of the stimuli in our lives, and our habitual reactions to them. So that we have an opportunity to, as people like to say in the meditation world, respond wisely instead of reacting blindly. That buffer between stimulus and response is one of the main benefits of meditation. It gives you that space so that you’re seeing clearly how your mind is operating and you’re not just acting out every neurotic impulse, you know, habitually reflexively and blindly.

Caitlin: Thanks for explaining that. I completely agree: there some things so beautiful and satisfying with getting a word for a thing that you’ve never known there was a single term for. I felt like that learning German a lot of times. There are so many words that I was like, “oh, of course, that’s what it is.”

Dan: Yeah, I mean it’s like it tells you a lot about the culture too, like the Germans came up with Schadenfreude – the joy and other people’s suffering.

Caitlin: Oh, yeah.

Dan: The Buddhists came up with the opposite of Schadenfreude – Muditā is the joy in other people’s joy, which as it turns out, I mean, I found that concept to be uniquely unappetizing. I loved there’s a t-shirt that says “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little bit.” I always thought that was really funny. But as it turns out actually Muditā is quite a delicious thing if you can train it up. But so yeah the idea that some cultures have named these quirky little aspects of our mind is somehow really satisfying.

Caitlin: Totally. Do you know the German word “Kummerspeck?”

Dan: No, it sounds like a delicious side dish.

Caitlin: You know what, it kind of is. “Kummer” means sadness and then “Speck” is bacon. So it’s the sadness bacon, which is the weight that you gain when you’re emotionally grieving something, usually a heartbreak.

Dan: That is a great one. I love that.

Caitlin: I thought you might like it. I was really excited to talk with you about words. And I’m glad I got to share one with you. So I want to just make sure that I get this standard that I like to ask everybody who comes on Simplify which is if there’s a central idea about meditation that you would really like to leave every listener with today, what would that be?

Dan: Yes! The good news is that the mind is trainable, that we, I think, assume consciously or subconsciously that happiness is something that happens to us, it’s reflected in the very roots of the word. “Happ” is the root of happy is also, you know, they’re in haphazard and hapless. So it suggests an element of luck.

And so I think a lot of us think that happiness is the consequence of the quality of our childhood, the quality of our marriage, the quality of our work life, all of which are super important and I in no way am I here to diminish them. But what in fact the science is showing us is that happiness is actually a skill. That you can train, just the way you train your body in the gym, and we spend so much time so many of us on our bodies, our stock portfolios, our interior design, our resume, but no time most of us on the one filter through which we experience everything. And what is it that we want at the end of the day, we may think if you were to make a wish list, that we want to set of experiences and things.

But what is underneath all of those? Mental states. And as it turns out, all of these mental states we most want – fulfillment, calm, gratitude, generosity, connection, happiness – these are skills. They’re not factory settings that can’t be changed. You’re not born with a certain amount of ease of mind. This is something you can train and that is Incredibly good news. And so that’s what I walk around talking about.

Caitlin: That is incredibly uplifting. Thank you.

Dan: Yeah, it doesn’t mean you’re never going to be an asshole again because I’m an asshole all the time. It just means that you have the capacity to be less of one.

Caitlin: Yeah. I like it. Dan Harris, thank you so much for taking the time to talk today. I really appreciate it, it’s been a delight!

Dan: My pleasure, great questions.

Caitlin: All right, bye!

Dan: Bye!

The Bookend

Ben: Welcome to The Bookend, where we end with books.

Caitlin: Hang on, I need just like 20 more seconds to finish my one minute meditation.

Ben: I’m gonna wait.

Caitlin: No.

Ben: I mean, when you said in the intro you like the way he talks about meditation that’s why you wanted him to be season 5 episode 1. I get it. I get it now. It does make it seem doable. Like, I don’t have to wear weird clothes or be the Buddha himself.

Caitlin: No, or be really into gongs.
Ben: Or be into gongs. We should put together like a photo series of stereotypical objects related to meditation.

Caitlin: I like it.

Ben: Yeah, those things are irrelevant now kind of. We’re kind of past that as a generation, I feel.

Caitlin: Maybe. I don’t necessarily think everybody is though. If you’re into that, look, if you like the incense, and the gongs, and the flowing white robes, and that stuff, that’s great. I’m actually kind of into a little bit of that.

Ben: No, I just mean that when I think of meditation now, I don’t think of a 10-day retreat. Although that could be part of it, and that’s great. But I also think of the myriad apps, and services, and workshops, and business consultants talking about how you should meditate in a meeting. It’s now become part of sort of a daily life for a lot of people, I think.

Caitlin: Yeah, and Dan Harris makes a lot of references to meditation being like a bicep curl for your mind. And I think that that is really the way that people are beginning to look at this. Meditation as an exercise to train your brain, to get it in the habit of focusing, to get it ready to do the things that it needs to do on a daily basis. And it’s so true. And what I find is nice about having a meditation habit as it gives you one focused space to just really tune in. And even if that is only one minute, even if that is only 5 minutes, it’s one point in your day where you’re not thinking about the 67 things you have to do later, and the 40 things you just did, wondering whether or not you did them the right way, or at least that’s how my mind works.

Ben: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. I think that’s healthy. And even just that little bit probably will improve people, which is probably why it has such traction, really why people are still talking about meditation.

Caitlin: Indeed.

Ben: So you got books?

Caitlin: Of course I got books. When do I not have books? Awesome. So the first one is How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett. So a lot of what meditation about is getting between our emotional reactions to thoughts and feelings. So I thought that it would be interesting to get at the building blocks of what’s behind emotions, too. And this book does exactly that. So we’ve been taught to believe that emotions are these hardwired evolutionary responses, but science shows us that no, they’re actually not.

They’re super individual. They’re not the same for everybody. I’m not going to get angry about the same things as you do. It’s not a given that I’m going to react in a certain way. They’re not hardwired. In fact, they’re trained into us by really individual experiences. And because they’re trained, just like focus training, just like meditation training, we can train ourselves into different emotional responses. So this is kind of background on how emotions are made in you and in the human corpus.

Ben: Why do you feel like it relates to this? Because of the idea of being able to have control over your emotions or be aware of our emotions?

Caitlin: Yeah, I think that so much of the benefit that a lot of people talk about meditation giving them is training to have a moment of space between inciting incident and emotional reaction. So I thought that it would be interesting to look at how emotions are actually made, so what’s behind an emotional reaction is an emotion.

Ben: Cool. Do you have another book?

Caitlin: I do. I just want to repeat that that one was How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett, just so we don’t we don’t lose that.

I do have one more book. It is called Altered Traits, it’s by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson. This book is also for meditation skeptics. So two sciency Harvard guys do an empirical examination of meditation and its effects on our mental well-being. It’s good for beginners to because it looks at the different types of meditation that are out there and breaks down the various benefits it has on depression, on anxiety, on levels of compassion and focus, and lots more too.

A really simple thing that surprised me about this one was that there are two basic meditation practices: one – focusing on a thing, and two – letting go of everything. So focusing on a thing like, notice your breath, it’s usually the breath that you’re focusing on, right? And the second one––letting go of everything––is this practice of focusing more on noticing a thought, letting go of the thought, noticing the thought, letting go of the thought.

Ben: Yeah. Altered traits. So I have books.

Caitlin: Awesome! Wait. Did you say books? Multiple?

Ben: I mean, I just wanted to mention the Search Inside Yourself book, which is by Google meditation trainer (Chade-Meng Tan).

Caitlin: Yeah, you love that one, don’t you?

Ben: I mean, it’s been sort of passed around here because the director of content, Ben Hughes here, is a big fan of it and did the workshop and he’s sort of passed on some of the stuff through the content team. And like this idea of meditation as a bicep curl for your brain, I think, originally appeared in that book. Like, you fail, meditation is about failure. You try to focus your thoughts, you fail and in that failure you become stronger, you become better at recognizing why you let your mind wander. And exactly what Dan Harris said in the interview. And I just think that’s a really sticky thing, and I just want to point people towards that book if they like that––the bicep curl idea.

But the other book I want to recommend was just, I feel like Dan Harris’s app and a lot of his ideas sort of exist on a spectrum about meditation. How we as a generation don’t get spooked by this idea of like meditation is an Eastern religious practice or something. So the app Headspace, right, which is now what, five years old? The founder, and until a while ago the only audio voice you hear in the app, Andy Puddicombe wrote a book called Get Some Headspace. And I think the subtitle is something like, “ten minutes is all you need” or “10 minutes is enough.” And it’s interesting, like back then it was like, wow, yeah, I only need 10 minutes. You don’t need to go on a 10-day silent retreat. And now Dan Harris is saying, “1 minute daily-ish. It’s okay. You just do what you can.” I just think that Headspace, whether you like the app, or maybe like one of its competitors like Calm or something else, it was really important in making that sort of mainstream. You just need a couple minutes a day, and you just need your phone. You don’t need a guru next to you. You can just take a minute for yourself. And I don’t know, I think that’s really relevant here. And I think it’s really powerful to think that these ideas have been around for a few years.

Caitlin: Cool. Yeah, I actually haven’t read either one of those.

Ben: It’s kind of the basics: Search Inside Yourself has a lot of tools, like daily tools you can be like, “I’m feeling angry. I’m going to do some stuff.” The Headspace book is like more about the basics of meditation that I think you’re probably familiar with, but for example, might help you reduce stress. And that concept was more interesting, I think, five years ago than now when we think, “Yeah. Well, just finding time for myself is enough to be healthier.”

Caitlin: Yeah, you know, a thing that I’ve been thinking about as I was reading Harris’s book and as I’ve been doing a little bit more research about meditation, I’m kind of wondering like, we keep paring it down: one minute is enough, 10 minutes are enough. Are we turning it into some just one more kind of hustle toward productivity? Toward packing in the maximum amount of life in the minimum number of minutes in order to just be more effective and do more stuff?

Ben: I mean, I think yes, but I also think that that’s okay to a certain point, like it depends what your goal is. I mean, I think that you’re not going to get the benefits of it if you do it in seven seconds. But if you’re just looking for something to practice before meeting starts or something to help you focus, take something from meditation and do that and take 5 seconds to take one breath, and think about what the point of the meeting is today. That’s not going to make you an expert meditator. Do you know what I mean? But it’s taking something from what has made meditation powerful into something you can use in your daily life. I think that’s where we’re headed.

Caitlin: Yeah. I think you’re right. I guess I was just more wondering about is there any place in life anymore where we just say, “I’m going to do something and take as much time as it needs” as opposed to continuing to hack it down and to like microwave serving size.

Ben: What do you think? I don’t know. I think there are people in Season 5 who would say yes, you can find time to do what you need. If you think you don’t have enough time, you can change the story, and make as much time as you need to do what you want to do.

Caitlin: Look what you just did! You just made me feel really hopeful, Ben.

Ben: Good.

Caitlin: All right, I needed that. All right. So…

Ben: Simplify was produced by me, Ben Schuman-Stoler, Caitlin Schiller, Nat Darozhkina, and Ben Jackson, who wanted us to tell you about the history of balloon fishing in Newfoundland, but I don’t think we have enough time right now, so I don’t know check back in later this season maybe we’ll get into it a little bit.

Caitlin: Yeah, it’s deep and rich, can’t do it right now. Cool. So if you enjoyed this episode of Simplify, please consider reading it and leaving us a little review in the iTunes Store. It helps other people find us and it just makes our day really, so if you could do that, that would be awesome!

Ben: Yeah, and if you want to tell us about your experiences with meditation, or if you have a good book that we didn’t mention, or just want to teach us a cool new word because Caitlin likes words, we’re also on Twitter: Caitlin is @CaitlinSchiller, and I’m @bsto. Also you can email us at podcast@blinkist.com

Caitlin: Right, cool. So then that’s it. We’ll be back with more Simplify next week!

Ben: Yeah, we did the first episode. We’re back! I feel like, I feel alright.

Caitlin: Yes, good to be back.

Ben: Oh, I wanted to say hi Felix, hi Lucille. Love you guys! Bye from Uncle Ben. All right, checking out.

Caitlin: Checking out.

Read the show notes from this episode here!

THINK SMARTER
10 mins

Dan Harris: One Minute Counts – Transcript

Read the transcript of Caitlin’s interview with Emmy Award-winning journalist and NYT bestselling author, Dan Harris
by Carrie M. King Jan 31 2019

Caitlin Schiller: Welcome to Simplify. I’m Caitlin Schiller.

Ben Schuman-Stoler: And I’m Ben Schuman Stoler.

Caitlin: We’re back! It’s 2019. So this is Season 5. We’ve been making this thing for what, like almost two years now?

Ben: Yeah, every first episode feels like the very first episode.

Caitlin: Right. It’s been a while. Ben’s got a fresh haircut.

Ben: Yeah, a new sweater.

Caitlin: Yeah, I feel like there’s just a new start on the horizon. So speaking of new starts, today we have a pretty cool guest, Dan Harris.

Ben: Right, not to be confused with Sam Harris. So who’s Dan Harris?
Caitlin: All right. So Dan Harris, he’s kind of a household name. He has been on Good Morning America, he’s been in a bunch of different stuff. He is a news anchor and a reporter. He’s this hard-nosed news guy really. But he’s also recognized among hardcore meditation people. So I thought this combination of news guy and meditation was really interesting because they seemed like worlds that shouldn’t meet. So I picked it up, was really won over by his style, he’s really funny, he has an obvious love of words, which you’ll hear in the interview. And it was a great read, so I wanted to have on the show.

Ben: So why… We talked about first episodes of the seasons, we’ve had some pretty big names Gretchen Rubin, Charles Duhigg, Dan Savage, other people. Like what’s the one big idea that you learn from Dan Harris and why do you think it was a good choice for the first episode of Season 5?

Caitlin: Dan Harris is headlining Season 5 because I thought that his approach to meditation was really really refreshing. Meditation is a thing that a lot of us out there have tried and failed at. And a really wonderful thing that Dan Harris does is he sort of takes the pressure off of it and reframes it in a way that I found super refreshing.

He takes great pains to emphasize that clearing your mind is just not a thing. He says either your enlightened or you’re dead if your mind is clear of thoughts. And so noticing the interruptions, noticing the constant regions of rushing thoughts is really what meditation is about. Noticing them so that we can begin again and again.

Ben: So should we just kick off Season 5 and jump into the interview?

Caitlin: Let’s do it.

Ben: All right, and for anyone who’s new to Simplify, stick around for after the interview because Caitlin and I do something we call The Bookend. We chat a little bit more about the interview, and then we make a list of reading recommendations that fit on the theme of the episode. So if you want to learn something, stick around.

Caitlin: Great.

Ben: All right, see you in a bit.

Caitlin: Bye!

Caitlin interviews Dan Harris

Caitlin: Hi Dan! Thanks so much for joining me today.

Dan Harris: Thanks for having me.

Caitlin: Excellent. Could you introduce yourself the way that you like to be introduced?

Dan: Well, I have a lot of titles. Dan Harris a journalist at ABC News. I’m also an author: I wrote a book — a couple books — the best known one is called 10% Happier. I host a podcast called 10% Happier and I co-founded a tech company called 10% Happier that teaches people how to meditate through an app.

Caitlin: Very very cool. And you also wrote a book called Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.

Dan: Yes, so Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics in some ways was the practical follow-up to a memoir I wrote five years ago called 10% Happier. And in that book I talk about… In the first book I talk about how I went from dyed-in-the-wool skeptic to daily meditator. And the inciting event was that I had a panic attack on National Television, which is inconvenient to say the least.

I was anchoring a show we do at ABC News called Good Morning America. So I was the guy who came out of the top of each hour and read a series of headlines. And I was in the middle of my schtick one morning, a warm June morning in 2004, and I just lost it. Heart racing, lungs seized up, palms sweating, mouth dried up. I just I couldn’t speak and I had to squeak out a “back to you” to the main hosts of the show. It was very embarrassing for me.
And I later learned that what had caused that was a very unwise decisions in my personal life. I had spent a lot of time in war zones as a young idealistic curious ambitious reporter in my early 30s after 9/11. And during that period of time I had become depressed and I didn’t know I was depressed, and I did the supremely unwise thing of self-medicating with recreational drugs, including cocaine.

And even though I wasn’t doing that much of it, and even though I wasn’t high the morning I was on the air, it was enough according to the doctor I later saw to artificially raise the level of adrenaline in my brain and make it more likely for me to have panic attacks. And so that was a big moment and it kind of set me off on a weird windy journey that ultimately landed me on meditation.

And meditation made a big difference for me. Notwithstanding the fact that I thought it was, you know, bullshit, but I ultimately did some research and saw that there’s been all of this science that suggests that it’s really good for you, it can lower your blood pressure, boost your immune system and rewire key parts of your brain. And I also realized after having done it, that the way meditation is traditionally presented – a very syrupy saccharine way – was off-putting to tens of millions of people who would otherwise adopted as you know mental exercises, so that’s why I wrote the first book.

Caitlin: Do you think that it’s off-putting to people because we’re so focused on being productive with all of our time now and there’s something about meditation that feels at first glance unproductive?

Dan: I think there are a couple of reasons why meditation as it’s traditionally – to answer your actual question – why meditation as it’s traditionally presented is off-putting or has been off putting is: one – a lot of us, you know, don’t respond well to didgeridoo music and, you know, chakras and third eye and all that stuff, you know, just write it off as just bullshit.

Two – it’s often the traditional art around meditation depicts people with these beatific looks on their faces and their floating off into the cosmos. And that sends the message that the only way to meditate is to be in this, you know, bulletproof bubble of bliss and your mind is clear and all that stuff. Well, that’s not true. Clearing the mind is impossible, unless you’re enlightened or you’ve died. And nobody tells you that, but that’s important to know! That meditation is not about clearing the mind. It’s about focusing the mind for nano seconds at a time usually on the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. And then every time you get distracted, which you will a million times, the point is just to notice that you’ve become distracted and to start again, and again, and again.

And that act of seeing your distraction and going back to the breath is like a bicep curl for your brain and it boosts the areas of the brain associated with attention regulation, it reduces the area of the brain associated with stress, and again increases the other another area of the brain associated with emotional reactivity, so that you’re not so yanked around by your emotions.

And these are life-changing benefits that should be available to everybody and not just people who, you know, have a third lens in their sunglasses so they can cover the third eye. You know, like that’s what I’m trying to do.
And I would say a third big obstacle that people have to meditation is they assume it’s going to be very time consuming. And you know that’s also not true. We have a lot of one minute meditations on the 10% Happier app. And I one of our little slogans is “one minute counts.”

Caitlin: I love that and I really want to get to that later and talk about free-range meditation with you. But I also wanted to touch on, you said one of the things that can be off-putting to people about meditation is the traditional art where people are depicted as these, you know, beatific beings and bubbles of bliss. And as you talked about in Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics went off on something that seems to me the opposite of a bubble of bliss. It was a tour bus of of semi bliss. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose to go on this cross-country trip with your meditation MacGyver Jeff Warren and what you discovered?

Dan: I wanted to write a book, you know, “how to meditate” book because I thought one of the deficiencies of 10% Happier was that I felt like it made a pretty good argument for meditation, but didn’t follow through that well on teaching you how to do it. So I really wanted to write a book about meditation, and specifically I wanted the book to tackle the big excuses. There are, you know, seven or eight big excuses that people use or hurdles that need to be overcome before people can start meditating.

And we came up with this conceit, this idea that “oh, let’s let’s get a tour bus and go across the country.” And we decided to do that in 11 or 12 days. The goal was to meet people who want to meditate, but aren’t meditating, and to really do a sort of taxonomy of all of the major hurdles. And in that, I think, we succeeded, in terms of it being a research mission.

I think we really were able to figure out what are the big reasons people are not meditating. Well, they include finding the time, doubts about whether they’re doing it right, fears that maybe it’s self-indulgent that particularly we see that among women and moms, fear that you might lose your edge or you might look weird.

And we were able to not only develop this taxonomy, but also to develop a really good set of rebuttals. And so that really the cross-country trip is the narrative of the book, but the heart of the pedagogy of the book is teaching you how to meditate, and also teaching you how to surmount these various obstacles.

Caitlin: Which one do you enjoy dismantling the most?

Dan: The one I enjoy dismantling the most is the “I can’t do this” excuse. People say to me a lot “Oh, you know, I get it, Harris, you know, you make a good case for meditation, but I can’t do it because my mind is too busy.” And the good news and the bad news is that you’re not special. We evolved, all of us, for a racing mind. You know, human life developed on the savannah, we are constantly scanning the horizon for threats. And also scanning for sources of pleasure, like food and sexual partners. And so we have as a consequence this hyper-vigilant mind, and this is the human condition. And if it wasn’t the case, we probably wouldn’t need meditation.

And the problem is that it goes back to what I was saying before about the way meditation is traditionally depicted of people, you know, all the little Buddhas at airport spas look like they’re having a great time while meditating. But in fact it is like exercise for your brain and for your mind, and it’s going to be difficult. And you know, if you go to the gym and you’re not panting or sweating, well then you’re cheating. And if you sit down to meditate and all of your thoughts have evaporated and you’re just floating off into the cosmos, then as I said before you’re either enlightened or you’re dead. And that’s the thing to know. To know that the experience of meditation is getting distracted and starting again. Getting distracted and starting again.

And the moment you get distracted, that is not a failure, it is your ego will tell you “Oh, well, this is proof that you can’t meditate.” But in fact it needs to be reframed as the win. The moment you see you’ve become distracted is a huge win because when you see how crazy you are, that craziness has less of an opportunity to own you. That is the goal of meditation. To develop a kind of familiarity with your own mind, to build a telescope, an inward-facing telescope that allows you to see all of the churning and tumult of your own mind so that you’re not yanked around by it all the time.

It wakes you up to a thunderously obvious fact, which is that we have a mind and are thinking. If you stop somebody in the street and you ask them “Do you have a mind that producing thoughts?” They’ll say yes, but we live our lives as if that is not the case. And as a consequence, we have this malevolent puppeteer, which is our inner narrator, our ego, the voice in our head that is yanking us around all the time, and it’s why we find ourselves with our hand in the fridge when we’re not hungry, or we’re checking our email in the middle of a conversation with another human, or we lose our temper when it strategically unwise.

And all that meditation, or it’s not all that meditation is doing, but one of the huge functions of meditation is to wake you up to this non-stop conversation you’re having with yourself, so that it doesn’t control you all the time. And that’s why the seeing of the distraction is a win and I find that saying that to people, I can see the lights. I can literally see the lights go on for people, even though I am saying the same words every time. When I’m saying that to people, it’s enormously satisfying to see it when people get that. Because that changes the way they understand their lives, because this is what your life is about.

If you’re paying attention, your life is a non-stop cascade of me-me-me thoughts, urges, impulses, overwhelming emotions, and we have no visibility into this process. You’re just acting it all out reflexively. When you actually have this self-awareness that’s generated this mindfulness that’s generated through meditation, well then actually you can respond wisely to things instead of reacting blindly. And that is the game-changing proposition of meditation.

Caitlin: Absolutely. I also find that really really heartening. I’ve never really been a successful meditator, but I have done quite a bit of yoga and I remember when I figured out “Oh, there’s no such thing as stillness, really.” Even if you’re in a position that you’re holding successfully – or it looks like you are from the outside – what you’re actually doing is swaying and making micro adjustments and noticing that you’re always a little bit in motion. And if you can bring it back to the intent of whatever motion you’re making, whether that’s breathing and meditating, or staying in a Trikonasana, it’s just really liberating to know that stillness isn’t a thing. You don’t really arrive anywhere except a friendliness toward motion.

Dan: I’m not a huge yoga doer – I do a little bit, I don’t usually admit that but the comparison is not bad, the analogy is not bad. And you know, in meditation, it’s possible sometimes on a deep state of meditation that you may go for a while where you’re just fully aware of whatever it is you’re focusing on, the feeling of your breath coming in and going out, and the discursive thinking can slow way down.

But most of our daily meditation, if you’re just doing a few minutes a day, which is what I recommend most people aim for, is going to be this constant series of humiliations, where you’re just seeing what an idiot you are, and how you’re just randomly thinking about, you know, “what kind of bird was big bird, and do I need a nap?” You know, “why do celebrities only marry other celebrities?” And blah blah blah all the time.

Or you know, you’re planning some, you know, profanity-laden speech you’re going to deliver to your boss or whatever and it’s cool, like that’s fine that you didn’t invite those thoughts, like we don’t know where your thoughts even come from. That’s the mystery of consciousness, which is a whole big area to discuss. The point is just to see that this is how it is. And then when you’re ambushed by anger and off the cushion in your actual life. Well, you might actually be able to see the hurricane before it makes landfall, and you don’t have to be so wrapped up in anger that you do a ton of dumb stuff.

A friend of mine, Sam Harris, a great podcaster and author who has written a beautiful book about meditation called Waking Up, Sam talks about the half life of anger. And he says one of the most valuable functions of meditation is that “it cuts down on the half-life of anger” so that, you know, the amount of damage you can do in an hour of rage, as opposed to two minutes, that comparison is incalculable. And again that just gets to how your life can change as a consequence of adopting this practice.

Midroll:

Caitlin: We are all here because somebody or something believes that we should exist. In my case, it’s two nice folks named Debbie and Steve, and in Simplify’s case––it’s Blinkist. Think of Blinkist as Simplify’s book-loving parent, OK? Blinkist takes the key ideas from really great nonfiction books, like Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, for example, and transforms them into these powerful little digests of audio or text that take only about 15 minutes. So, if you’re somebody who loves exploring new ideas or has a really aspirational booklist that, if you’re being real with yourself, would take you the next 20 years to get through, you need Blinkist in your life. So you can go ahead and read, or hear what I mean, and try it out. Go to blinkist.com/nc/friends and try Blinkist for free for 14 days by using the voucher code dailyish. That’s Dan Harris’ word: dailyish. All right, that’s it. Let’s get back to the show with Dan Harris!

Interview Contd.

Caitlin: I want to get back to how long one needs to do this practice that you just discussed. You said earlier that just a minute counts. I’m a little bit skeptical of that, could you talk to me about how a minute can be useful for meditation?

Dan: So I think time is the biggest obstacle from what I can tell. On the cross-country trip that seemed to be the biggest obstacle we encountered. And on this score, first of all, I’m sympathetic. We’re very busy and I think there’s a real perception of time starvation. So I have good news and then better news. The good news is that I have spoken to many neuroscientists, there’s a whole class of neuroscientist who study what the impact of meditation is on the human brain. But while we have not or well, they have not answered the dosage question. You know, what’s the minimum you could do, and still, you know see some of the the advertised benefits, I was able to generate something of a consensus that “hey, if you’re doing 5 to 10 minutes a day, well, you should see some of these benefits.” So that’s a good news.

The better news is that if you feel like 5 to 10 minutes a day is not something you can do – and I think a lot of people feel that way – well, then I really do think one minute counts. And there are actually two little slogans that we generated as a consequence of the road trip that we did for the book. One is “one minute counts” and the other is “daily-ish.”

So, you know, if you tell somebody you got to do something every day, if they miss a day for reasons outside of their control or whatever, whatever reason, well, then their ego or the voice in their head is likely to swoop in and say “oh you messed this up now, you’re off the wagon, you’re done.” And so I like to lower the bar and then provide some elasticity. So the combination of “one minute counts” and “daily-ish,” we have found to be a really great way to get people over the hump

So that’s a lot that I just said, but I’m not even sure I answered your core question, which was does a minute of meditation actually count. So look, if it was up to me you do more, but can you in a minute do achieve the fundamental insight which in my view is at the heart of meditation which is to see you know, that the voice in your head is an asshole, and that you should not take all of its shitty suggestions all the time – absolutely. As soon as you sit, even if it’s for 60 seconds, and try to feel your breath coming in and going out, you’re going to be ambushed by all these random self-centered mostly negative thoughts.

And as soon as you see “okay, this is happening” and then you start again and again and again, well that is the thing to know about your mind in order to have a much more successful life. And that can happen, that kind of waking up, can happen in 60 seconds.
Caitlin: I love that. I love this idea of elasticity and and being a little bit maybe anti perfectionistic isn’t the right way to say it. But anyway, I’m totally behind that. I like the idea of lowering the bar enough for people to start a habit. You said when you sit down and you start to listen to yourself, you can notice these nasty assholic, negative thoughts come in and one of the concepts that I loved, reading about that I’d never heard it before.

Prapañca, Could you talk to me a little bit about Prapañca and how meditation can help with with that?

Dan: Yeah. It’s so funny. This is one of these words that I never would have thought when I first started writing about meditation that this random word in the language of Pali. It was the language spoken by the Buddha 2,600 years ago on the Indian subcontinent. And they had this word per punch, which literally translates into the imperialistic tendency of mind.

And as soon as I explain what it is, people are going to get it. It’s such a satisfying, it’s so cool to know – and wait for the explanation – but it’s so cool to know that somebody came up with a word for a thing that we’ve all experienced but never been able to articulate. Which is, so something happens, you get a piece of news or your stub your toe or whatever, and you immediately make this mental movie of all of the horrible consequences of this.

So you get an email dinner’s canceled tonight, “Oh my God. The date I had tonight canceled on me, he or she doesn’t like me, I’m never going to get married. I’m going to live alone forever with 55 cats, and nobody’s going to know when I die.” Like that it just happens like that so fast. And that is Prapañca, that’s the imperialistic tendency of mind. Some negative data point arises in the present moment and you colonize the future in this phantasmagoric way. And we’re doing this all the time, and not seeing it of course is detrimental to us because when we’re walking around with these negative fantasies all the time, well, how is that not going to affect our behavior?

And so one of the beauties this sort of delicacies of Buddhism and of the meditation endeavor generally is that you can you can kind of name some of these little neurotic patterns we have, and then not let them, you know control us so much.

Caitlin: Oh, yeah. It’s so helpful. I love that. We’re doing this all the time that spiral that you catch yourself in. And meditation does it help because it gives you that moment of space between this negative thought you had and allowing the spiral to increase around you?

Dan: Yes, it’s really about clear seeing, you know. The word for this kind of meditation in Buddhism is Vipassanā, which roughly translates to insight. So all we’re trying to do here is see clearly. It’s actually you’re not trying to fix anything, as it turns out there is a magic of just seeing things clearly. So when I name a Prapañca for you, and then you train up yourself awareness through this active meditation, again trying to focus on your breath, and then every time you get lost starting again and again, and again, well, then you can see the Prapañca layout for yourself.

And that is a massively empowering because when you see it, you’re not owned by it. And that provides a buffer between all of the stimuli in our lives, and our habitual reactions to them. So that we have an opportunity to, as people like to say in the meditation world, respond wisely instead of reacting blindly. That buffer between stimulus and response is one of the main benefits of meditation. It gives you that space so that you’re seeing clearly how your mind is operating and you’re not just acting out every neurotic impulse, you know, habitually reflexively and blindly.

Caitlin: Thanks for explaining that. I completely agree: there some things so beautiful and satisfying with getting a word for a thing that you’ve never known there was a single term for. I felt like that learning German a lot of times. There are so many words that I was like, “oh, of course, that’s what it is.”

Dan: Yeah, I mean it’s like it tells you a lot about the culture too, like the Germans came up with Schadenfreude – the joy and other people’s suffering.

Caitlin: Oh, yeah.

Dan: The Buddhists came up with the opposite of Schadenfreude – Muditā is the joy in other people’s joy, which as it turns out, I mean, I found that concept to be uniquely unappetizing. I loved there’s a t-shirt that says “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little bit.” I always thought that was really funny. But as it turns out actually Muditā is quite a delicious thing if you can train it up. But so yeah the idea that some cultures have named these quirky little aspects of our mind is somehow really satisfying.

Caitlin: Totally. Do you know the German word “Kummerspeck?”

Dan: No, it sounds like a delicious side dish.

Caitlin: You know what, it kind of is. “Kummer” means sadness and then “Speck” is bacon. So it’s the sadness bacon, which is the weight that you gain when you’re emotionally grieving something, usually a heartbreak.

Dan: That is a great one. I love that.

Caitlin: I thought you might like it. I was really excited to talk with you about words. And I’m glad I got to share one with you. So I want to just make sure that I get this standard that I like to ask everybody who comes on Simplify which is if there’s a central idea about meditation that you would really like to leave every listener with today, what would that be?

Dan: Yes! The good news is that the mind is trainable, that we, I think, assume consciously or subconsciously that happiness is something that happens to us, it’s reflected in the very roots of the word. “Happ” is the root of happy is also, you know, they’re in haphazard and hapless. So it suggests an element of luck.

And so I think a lot of us think that happiness is the consequence of the quality of our childhood, the quality of our marriage, the quality of our work life, all of which are super important and I in no way am I here to diminish them. But what in fact the science is showing us is that happiness is actually a skill. That you can train, just the way you train your body in the gym, and we spend so much time so many of us on our bodies, our stock portfolios, our interior design, our resume, but no time most of us on the one filter through which we experience everything. And what is it that we want at the end of the day, we may think if you were to make a wish list, that we want to set of experiences and things.

But what is underneath all of those? Mental states. And as it turns out, all of these mental states we most want – fulfillment, calm, gratitude, generosity, connection, happiness – these are skills. They’re not factory settings that can’t be changed. You’re not born with a certain amount of ease of mind. This is something you can train and that is Incredibly good news. And so that’s what I walk around talking about.

Caitlin: That is incredibly uplifting. Thank you.

Dan: Yeah, it doesn’t mean you’re never going to be an asshole again because I’m an asshole all the time. It just means that you have the capacity to be less of one.

Caitlin: Yeah. I like it. Dan Harris, thank you so much for taking the time to talk today. I really appreciate it, it’s been a delight!

Dan: My pleasure, great questions.

Caitlin: All right, bye!

Dan: Bye!

The Bookend

Ben: Welcome to The Bookend, where we end with books.

Caitlin: Hang on, I need just like 20 more seconds to finish my one minute meditation.

Ben: I’m gonna wait.

Caitlin: No.

Ben: I mean, when you said in the intro you like the way he talks about meditation that’s why you wanted him to be season 5 episode 1. I get it. I get it now. It does make it seem doable. Like, I don’t have to wear weird clothes or be the Buddha himself.

Caitlin: No, or be really into gongs.
Ben: Or be into gongs. We should put together like a photo series of stereotypical objects related to meditation.

Caitlin: I like it.

Ben: Yeah, those things are irrelevant now kind of. We’re kind of past that as a generation, I feel.

Caitlin: Maybe. I don’t necessarily think everybody is though. If you’re into that, look, if you like the incense, and the gongs, and the flowing white robes, and that stuff, that’s great. I’m actually kind of into a little bit of that.

Ben: No, I just mean that when I think of meditation now, I don’t think of a 10-day retreat. Although that could be part of it, and that’s great. But I also think of the myriad apps, and services, and workshops, and business consultants talking about how you should meditate in a meeting. It’s now become part of sort of a daily life for a lot of people, I think.

Caitlin: Yeah, and Dan Harris makes a lot of references to meditation being like a bicep curl for your mind. And I think that that is really the way that people are beginning to look at this. Meditation as an exercise to train your brain, to get it in the habit of focusing, to get it ready to do the things that it needs to do on a daily basis. And it’s so true. And what I find is nice about having a meditation habit as it gives you one focused space to just really tune in. And even if that is only one minute, even if that is only 5 minutes, it’s one point in your day where you’re not thinking about the 67 things you have to do later, and the 40 things you just did, wondering whether or not you did them the right way, or at least that’s how my mind works.

Ben: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. I think that’s healthy. And even just that little bit probably will improve people, which is probably why it has such traction, really why people are still talking about meditation.

Caitlin: Indeed.

Ben: So you got books?

Caitlin: Of course I got books. When do I not have books? Awesome. So the first one is How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett. So a lot of what meditation about is getting between our emotional reactions to thoughts and feelings. So I thought that it would be interesting to get at the building blocks of what’s behind emotions, too. And this book does exactly that. So we’ve been taught to believe that emotions are these hardwired evolutionary responses, but science shows us that no, they’re actually not.

They’re super individual. They’re not the same for everybody. I’m not going to get angry about the same things as you do. It’s not a given that I’m going to react in a certain way. They’re not hardwired. In fact, they’re trained into us by really individual experiences. And because they’re trained, just like focus training, just like meditation training, we can train ourselves into different emotional responses. So this is kind of background on how emotions are made in you and in the human corpus.

Ben: Why do you feel like it relates to this? Because of the idea of being able to have control over your emotions or be aware of our emotions?

Caitlin: Yeah, I think that so much of the benefit that a lot of people talk about meditation giving them is training to have a moment of space between inciting incident and emotional reaction. So I thought that it would be interesting to look at how emotions are actually made, so what’s behind an emotional reaction is an emotion.

Ben: Cool. Do you have another book?

Caitlin: I do. I just want to repeat that that one was How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett, just so we don’t we don’t lose that.

I do have one more book. It is called Altered Traits, it’s by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson. This book is also for meditation skeptics. So two sciency Harvard guys do an empirical examination of meditation and its effects on our mental well-being. It’s good for beginners to because it looks at the different types of meditation that are out there and breaks down the various benefits it has on depression, on anxiety, on levels of compassion and focus, and lots more too.

A really simple thing that surprised me about this one was that there are two basic meditation practices: one – focusing on a thing, and two – letting go of everything. So focusing on a thing like, notice your breath, it’s usually the breath that you’re focusing on, right? And the second one––letting go of everything––is this practice of focusing more on noticing a thought, letting go of the thought, noticing the thought, letting go of the thought.

Ben: Yeah. Altered traits. So I have books.

Caitlin: Awesome! Wait. Did you say books? Multiple?

Ben: I mean, I just wanted to mention the Search Inside Yourself book, which is by Google meditation trainer (Chade-Meng Tan).

Caitlin: Yeah, you love that one, don’t you?

Ben: I mean, it’s been sort of passed around here because the director of content, Ben Hughes here, is a big fan of it and did the workshop and he’s sort of passed on some of the stuff through the content team. And like this idea of meditation as a bicep curl for your brain, I think, originally appeared in that book. Like, you fail, meditation is about failure. You try to focus your thoughts, you fail and in that failure you become stronger, you become better at recognizing why you let your mind wander. And exactly what Dan Harris said in the interview. And I just think that’s a really sticky thing, and I just want to point people towards that book if they like that––the bicep curl idea.

But the other book I want to recommend was just, I feel like Dan Harris’s app and a lot of his ideas sort of exist on a spectrum about meditation. How we as a generation don’t get spooked by this idea of like meditation is an Eastern religious practice or something. So the app Headspace, right, which is now what, five years old? The founder, and until a while ago the only audio voice you hear in the app, Andy Puddicombe wrote a book called Get Some Headspace. And I think the subtitle is something like, “ten minutes is all you need” or “10 minutes is enough.” And it’s interesting, like back then it was like, wow, yeah, I only need 10 minutes. You don’t need to go on a 10-day silent retreat. And now Dan Harris is saying, “1 minute daily-ish. It’s okay. You just do what you can.” I just think that Headspace, whether you like the app, or maybe like one of its competitors like Calm or something else, it was really important in making that sort of mainstream. You just need a couple minutes a day, and you just need your phone. You don’t need a guru next to you. You can just take a minute for yourself. And I don’t know, I think that’s really relevant here. And I think it’s really powerful to think that these ideas have been around for a few years.

Caitlin: Cool. Yeah, I actually haven’t read either one of those.

Ben: It’s kind of the basics: Search Inside Yourself has a lot of tools, like daily tools you can be like, “I’m feeling angry. I’m going to do some stuff.” The Headspace book is like more about the basics of meditation that I think you’re probably familiar with, but for example, might help you reduce stress. And that concept was more interesting, I think, five years ago than now when we think, “Yeah. Well, just finding time for myself is enough to be healthier.”

Caitlin: Yeah, you know, a thing that I’ve been thinking about as I was reading Harris’s book and as I’ve been doing a little bit more research about meditation, I’m kind of wondering like, we keep paring it down: one minute is enough, 10 minutes are enough. Are we turning it into some just one more kind of hustle toward productivity? Toward packing in the maximum amount of life in the minimum number of minutes in order to just be more effective and do more stuff?

Ben: I mean, I think yes, but I also think that that’s okay to a certain point, like it depends what your goal is. I mean, I think that you’re not going to get the benefits of it if you do it in seven seconds. But if you’re just looking for something to practice before meeting starts or something to help you focus, take something from meditation and do that and take 5 seconds to take one breath, and think about what the point of the meeting is today. That’s not going to make you an expert meditator. Do you know what I mean? But it’s taking something from what has made meditation powerful into something you can use in your daily life. I think that’s where we’re headed.

Caitlin: Yeah. I think you’re right. I guess I was just more wondering about is there any place in life anymore where we just say, “I’m going to do something and take as much time as it needs” as opposed to continuing to hack it down and to like microwave serving size.

Ben: What do you think? I don’t know. I think there are people in Season 5 who would say yes, you can find time to do what you need. If you think you don’t have enough time, you can change the story, and make as much time as you need to do what you want to do.

Caitlin: Look what you just did! You just made me feel really hopeful, Ben.

Ben: Good.

Caitlin: All right, I needed that. All right. So…

Ben: Simplify was produced by me, Ben Schuman-Stoler, Caitlin Schiller, Nat Darozhkina, and Ben Jackson, who wanted us to tell you about the history of balloon fishing in Newfoundland, but I don’t think we have enough time right now, so I don’t know check back in later this season maybe we’ll get into it a little bit.

Caitlin: Yeah, it’s deep and rich, can’t do it right now. Cool. So if you enjoyed this episode of Simplify, please consider reading it and leaving us a little review in the iTunes Store. It helps other people find us and it just makes our day really, so if you could do that, that would be awesome!

Ben: Yeah, and if you want to tell us about your experiences with meditation, or if you have a good book that we didn’t mention, or just want to teach us a cool new word because Caitlin likes words, we’re also on Twitter: Caitlin is @CaitlinSchiller, and I’m @bsto. Also you can email us at podcast@blinkist.com

Caitlin: Right, cool. So then that’s it. We’ll be back with more Simplify next week!

Ben: Yeah, we did the first episode. We’re back! I feel like, I feel alright.

Caitlin: Yes, good to be back.

Ben: Oh, I wanted to say hi Felix, hi Lucille. Love you guys! Bye from Uncle Ben. All right, checking out.

Caitlin: Checking out.

Read the show notes from this episode here!

ABOUT THE WRITER
Carrie M. King

Carrie is the Managing Editor of Blinkist Magazine, and is usually found somewhere between a good book and a bad movie. Feel free to email her about all things editorial.

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