What Meditation Did For Me – and Can For You Too

6 min read
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.

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

The Harris's cat, RubyThat'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 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.

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.

Cover of Time Magazine showing "The Mindful Revolution"

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:

Taming the brain

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.

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.

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

And here’s where things get sci-fi:

Monk with electrodes on head

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.

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.

Mindfulness waterfall drawing

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.

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.

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.

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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.