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What Meditation Did For Me – and Can For You Too

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Dan Harris

Dan Harris

You may have heard all the fuss about meditation -- the health benefits, the celebrities who are doing it, etc. But, if you're anything like me, you probably have some serious reservations. You might be under the impression that meditation is only for hippies, acid freaks, and robed gurus. You might believe you could never do it because you can't “clear the mind.” Or maybe you've written it off because you believe you simply don't have the time.

Allow me to systematically dismantle each of these assumptions, and then show you, in the simplest possible terms, how to meditate -- and what you’ll get out of it.

Quick backstory: If you had told me a few years ago that I would ever become a public evangelist for meditation, I would have coughed my beer up through my nose.

I am a fidgety, skeptical anchorman for ABC News. In 2004, I had a panic attack on national television. Through a weird and winding series of events, that freak-out eventually led me to meditation, something I’d always considered ridiculous. While the practice has by no means solved all of my problems -- I'm still shorter than I want to be, and would love to have more hair -- it has been a genuine game changer. Which is why I wrote a whole book about it -- and even started a new app to teach it -- both called “10% Happier.” (That’s an entirely unscientific estimate, but it’s, you know, close enough.)

OK, so let's tackle the most popular excuses for not meditating.

'It's Only for Flakes'

Contrary to popular belief, meditation does not involve joining a group, adopting exotic new beliefs, wearing special outfits, or sitting in a funny position.

ruby the catThat's one of our cats, Ruby. (My wife, who took the picture, does not like when I point out that this cat is basking in the reflective glow of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”)

There are thousands of kinds of meditation, but I am proponent of what's called “mindfulness meditation.” It's derived from Buddhism, but has been stripped of all the metaphysical claims and religious lingo. It is the kind of meditation that has been studied the most in the labs. (See more about this below.)

'I Can't Clear My Mind'

I hear this all the time. People tell me, “I know meditation is good for you, but you don’t understand -- my mind is too busy.” I call this, “The Fallacy of Uniqueness.” The good news and the bad news is: You’re not special. Welcome to the human condition. All of our minds are chaotic.

Continued

But here’s the real headline: Meditation does not require you to stop thinking.

I suspect this misconception is a result of the traditional imagery of meditation -- which shows people with beatific looks on their faces, floating off into the cosmos. For example, this cover shot for Time magazine.

time magazine cover

Sadly, you are unlikely to look or feel this way – especially as a beginning meditator.

I think this is a better way to think about the practice:

brain tamer

The goal is not to magically clear your mind; it’s to focus your mind, usually on your breath, for a few nanoseconds at a time. And every time you get lost, you just start again.

I won’t lie: It kinda sucks, especially at first. It’s not unlike going to the gym. If you work out and you're not panting or sweating, you’re probably cheating. Likewise, if you start meditating and find yourself in a thought -- free bliss field, you’ve either rocketed to enlightenment -- or you’re dead.

'I Don't Have Time'

Yes, you do. I don’t care if you have 17 jobs and 25 kids, you’ve got 5 to 10 minutes a day. That’s what I started with -- and that’s what I recommend everyone set as their initial goal. I suspect if you did 5 to 10 minutes a day forever, you would derive most of the advertised benefits.

Speaking of Which… What Do I Get Out of It?

In recent years, there’s been an explosion of scientific research into meditation. While this science is still in its early stages, it strongly suggests a long list of tantalizing health benefits, including:

  • Lowering your blood pressure
  • Boosting your immune system
  • Reducing the release of stress hormones
  • Helping lower anxiety, depression, ADHD, and age-related cognitive decline

Continued

And here’s where things get sci-fi:

monk getting eeg

Scientists are now peering directly into the brains of meditators, and finding that when you meditate, it physically changes your brain.

This is true not just for people who wear robes. One study of novice meditators found that after only 8 weeks of short, daily doses of meditation, the gray matter in the parts of the brain associated with self-awareness and compassion literally grew. And the gray matter in the part of the brain associated with stress shrank.

how to meditate in 3 steps

How You Can MeditateAuthor Dan Harris and meditation expert Joseph Goldberg discuss how even the busiest, most distracted person can find a calmer state of mind.154

INTERVIEWER: The first time

I sat down

to do the basic meditation, I'd

lost my mind.

Is that uncommon?



SUBJECT: It's completely common.

When people first look

into their minds,

they say it's

like a Russian waterfall

or a torrent of thoughts

or feelings of images-- lots

of mental activity.

So that's the first insight

of inside meditation.

It's seeing what the mind is

actually doing.



INTERVIEWER: The insight

is our minds are out of control.



SUBJECT: Exactly.

So that's really

an important insight

because most people don't

realize that.

People are not even

aware of what their minds are

doing.

So the seeing of that

is actually

the first big insight.



INTERVIEWER: After now having

spent a while traveling

around the country proselytizing

on behalf of meditation,

there's one thing I hear all

the time from people, which

is OK.

I get it.

I know there's all the science

that meditation is good for you,

but you don't understand.

My mind is too busy.

I could never do this.

Are there people who are just

too type A to meditate?



SUBJECT: No.

As you say, all of our minds

are all like that

and start like that

before engaging in some kind

of training

to slow things down a bit

and to have a little more

awareness of what it is

that's happening.

But this is common.

This is the common situation

for all of us.

And the good news is that we

actually can train our minds.



INTERVIEWER: So here's

a question everybody's

going to have,

which is how do I know if I'm

doing this right?



SUBJECT: It's pretty simple.

If you're sitting, meditating,

and feeling the breath,

and you're connecting

with the breath

and then the mind wanders

and you get lost and you see

that and you come back

and you simply begin again.

No matter how many times you do

that, you're doing it right.



INTERVIEWER: But that's

the meditation.

That's the whole deal?



SUBJECT: Exactly.



INTERVIEWER: Nanoseconds

at a time on the breath.

You get lost.

You start over.

You get lost.

You start over.

You get lost.

You start over.



SUBJECT: Exactly.

Of course, the instructions also

will expand from the breath

to many other objects

of meditation,

but the instruction remains

the same.

It's to be aware of what's

arising, in this case,

the breath.

We get lost.

Come back.

Begin again.

So that very same instruction

and measure of whether we're

doing it right

continues

throughout the whole practice.



INTERVIEWER: And it is true

that we have sort of a money

back guarantee

that you do this for a couple

of weeks, you will reach

full enlightenment.



SUBJECT: Exactly. [LAUGHS]

Dan Harris, author of “10% Happier.”; Joseph Goldstein, meditation expert./delivery/88/a0/88a07c76-4cf1-448e-8185-892c07095ffb/how-you-can-meditate_,1000k,400k,2500k,4500k,750k,.mp410/31/2016 00:00:0000expert meditator/webmd/consumer_assets/site_images/article_thumbnails/video/how_you_can_meditate_video/375x321_how_you_can_meditate_video.jpg091e9c5e815237ad

How Soon Will I See Results?

For me, the first sign that meditation wasn't a waste of time came within weeks, when I started to overhear my wife at cocktail parties, telling friends that I had become less obnoxious.

Inside my own mind, I pretty quickly began to notice two primary benefits. The first: improved focus. The daily exercise of trying to focus on one thing at a time -- my breath -- and then getting lost and starting again (and again, and again) helped me stay on task during the course of my day.

But the bigger benefit was something called mindfulness. It a boring sounding word, but a phenomenally useful skill. Mindfulness is the ability to see what's happening in your mind at any given moment without getting carried away by it.

One way to think about this is by picturing the mind as a waterfall.

waterfall sketch

The reason this looks like crap is that I drew it, but bear with me.

The water represents your nonstop stream of consciousness -- mostly "me, me, me" thoughts. Mindfulness is the area behind the waterfall, which allows you to step out of the traffic, and view your urges, impulses, and desires without necessarily biting the hook and acting on them.

Continued

Imagine how practical this is. Mindfulness can make you the calmest person in the room during a stressful meeting. It can stop you from eating the 18th cookie, or making the wisecrack that will ruin the next 48 hours of your marriage.

The blazingly obvious utility of mindfulness -- coupled with all of the cool science -- is why meditation is now being adopted in executive suites, locker rooms, hospitals, schools, and even by the US military.

The Bottom Line

Meditation is not a silver bullet, but it is -- once you consider the evidence -- a no-brainer. It's a simple, secular, scientifically validated way to change your relationship to the voice in your head, which is so frequently yanking you around.

What the science around meditation is telling us is that happiness isn't just something that happens to you; it's a skill, which you can practice -- just like you can practice boosting your bicep in the gym. That's huge.

If it can work for a fidgety, skeptical newsman, it can work for you.

Related content from 10% Happier

Dan Harris is an ABC News co-anchor. His 2014 book, “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge and Found Self-Help That Actually Works,” was a New York Times Bestseller.

WebMD Feature from 10% Happier

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