Anxious? Meditation Can Help You 'Relax Into The Uncertainty' Of The Pandemic

May 19, 2020
Originally published on May 19, 2020 11:42 am

In 2004, ABC News correspondent Dan Harris was broadcasting live on the air on Good Morning America when he started experiencing a panic attack.

"My lungs seized up, my palms started sweating, my mouth dried up. I just couldn't speak," he says. "I had to quit in the middle of my little newscast. And it was really embarrassing."

Harris credits meditation with helping him work through the anxiety that caused that panic attack. He went on to write a memoir, 10% Happier, about his experiences with meditation, and he talks about the subject on his twice-weekly podcast. He's also been hosting a daily meditation online with different leaders in the community of people who study and teach mindfulness techniques.

Harris says that meditation is more important than ever during the global pandemic: "I don't think we should sugarcoat it: It's scary," he says. "I've taken to saying, if you're not anxious right now, you're not paying attention."

Though he's been trying to help people quiet their anxiety with meditation and mindfulness techniques, he's careful to note that meditation isn't a "silver bullet" cure.

"Meditation doesn't make the uncertainty go away," he says. "It's not like I meditate and I'm walking through this pandemic like a unicorn barfing rainbows all the time."

Rather, Harris says, meditation allows people to "relax into the uncertainty. ... It just means that you're able to see that the fear — like everything in the world — will come and go, and that if you just relax for a second, and breathe into it, it will come and go."


Interview Highlights


On how a leading meditation teacher recommended the loving-kindness meditation as the best support during this pandemic

I had a very negative reaction to loving-kindness meditation [at first]. First of all, the name itself. I mean, could you come up with anything more treacly? And then it gets worse when you actually hear what the practice entails. So here's how it works: You sit and close your eyes and you envision a series of beings, so people or animals. Classically, you start with yourself and then you move on to a good friend, it can be your pet or kid, some easy person in your life that it's very easy to generate warmth for. Then you move on to a mentor, a benefactor or somebody who's played a positive role in your life. ... And then you move on to a neutral person, somebody you often overlook. And this is a poignant category right now, because the neutral people — the people manning the cash registers at the supermarkets and delivering our food and mail, and the neutral people for many of us that we often overlooked — are saving our lives quite literally now.

Then you move on to a difficult person — not hard to find for many of us. And then finally, all beings. In each case, you summon a mental image or a felt sense of your targeted being, and then you repeat a series of phrases. Usually the phrases are, "May you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you live with ease." ...

There's a lot of science that strongly suggests that this practice and its variance can produce really meaningful physiological, psychological and behavioral changes. And if you think about it, this is a radical notion, the idea that warmth, friendliness, kindness, dare I say love — these are not factory settings that are unalterable.

You aren't wired a certain way when it comes to your interpersonal relations and unchangeable. In fact, these are skills that you can develop. And that is such a radical notion, that the mind is trainable. I've been doing this loving-kindness meditation now pretty intensively — including going on long retreats where that's all you do — for several years. And I've found it's made a big difference in terms of my inner weather, and how I relate to my own ugliness, because we all have ugliness.

ABC News correspondent Dan Harris (shown here in 2018) credits meditation with helping him work through the anxiety that caused an on-air panic attack in 2004.
Amy E. Price / Getty Images for SXSW

On the important difference between fear and panic

I'm largely stealing this from a rather brilliant woman I met right at the beginning of the pandemic. The first pandemic-themed episode I did was in mid-March. And one of the guests was a woman named Dr. Luana Marques. She's Brazilian by birth, but now works at Harvard as an anxiety expert. And she told me about something called the — I think this is the right name — Yerkes-Dodson [Law]. You can look this up on Google; it's a bell-shaped curve. And it talks about this sort of utility of anxiety, which is an interesting concept. And it kind of gives us permission to not feel bad about the fact that we're feeling a certain amount of justifiable fear and anxiety.

And so at the beginning of the slope, right until you get to the top of the curve, the anxiety and fear that we may be feeling in the face of this pandemic or anything really, makes sense. It motivates us to act. But then it starts to go downhill. And that's when we tip into not very helpful panic, where we constrict and the physiological response is enfeebling and we're not able to make good decisions. That's when we hoard toilet paper or we're nasty to our neighbors or we spread misinformation on Twitter, whatever it may be. So what we want is to be at the top of the Yerkes-Dodson curve with the appropriate amount of anxiety without tipping in to panic. That is where I feel mindfulness meditation — the kind of meditation with which most people are familiar — that's one of the areas where mindfulness meditation can be really helpful.

On how many people are experiencing vivid dreams during the pandemic

I've been having wild dreams — classic anxiety dreams where I'm trying to get somewhere and I can't get there, or I'm being chased or I'm back in school. This is being reported widely across our culture, across the globe, as I understand it, and I was talking to Dr. Mark Epstein about this. ... I had him on the show originally and I was asking him, why do you think we're having these crazy dreams? And, in typical fashion, he gave the disclaimer that he doesn't really know, but his instinct is that we're "processing." That's what we're doing in these dreams is we're sort of flushing out, purging, processing the — this is his term, not mine — the collective trauma and the collective grief we're all experiencing right now. It can be jarring to have these dreams, but you might look at it as the functioning of a healthy brain and mind.

The key part of meditation is to get distracted, to see the wildness of your own mind over and over and over again, and then to begin again — and again and again. - Dan Harris

On how to practice mindfulness meditation

You sit in a quiet enough spot and you then bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. You don't have to breathe in any special way. This is not actually a breathing exercise. And there's nothing special about the breath per se, we're just picking something south of your neck to pay attention, we're going to get your attention out of the swirling stories in your head and onto the raw data of your physical sensations.

So it can be your breath. For some of us, the breath right now is triggering, given the fact that COVID-19, has pulmonary consequences. So you might want to pick just the feeling of your full body sitting or lying — or maybe your hands touching, or your bottom on your chair, just picking some physical anchor to where you can place your mind and you just kind of commit to it, gently, that I'm going to pay attention to this for one to five to 10 minutes.

That's the second step, and then the third step, the final step really, and this is the most important step — as soon as you try to do this, your mind will go into a mutiny mode. You're going to start thinking about, when can I get a haircut? Where do gerbils run wild? Why did Dances with Wolves beat Goodfellas for Best Picture in 1991? Blah, blah, blah. And the whole game is just to notice when you've become distracted and to start again, and again, and again.

And this distraction, by the way, is not a failure. It is not a malfunction. It is part of the meditation. The key part of meditation is to get distracted, to see the wildness of your own mind over and over and over again, and then to begin again and again and again. ... It is the seeing of the wildness of the cacophony that is really important, because when you see it, it doesn't own you as much.

On why meditation isn't about controlling your mind

It's actually not about trying to tamp down on or control the way the mind works. It's about familiarization. Just getting to know how nutty it is inside your brain, inside your mind, is incredibly important, because when you've tipped over into panic or any other unhelpful, unskillful mind state — like greed or anger or hatred — then you might notice it. And then you have a choice: Am I going to be owned by this panic right now or am I going to be owned by this anger right now? Or am I going to be so controlled by the anger that I'm going to say something that's going to ruin the next 48 hours of my marriage? Or am I going to eat the 75th Oreo?

Having this self-awareness — otherwise known as mindfulness — which is what's developed through the process of seeing your distractions and then beginning again (gently over and over and over again), that is a game-changing skill. Because ... this nonstop conversation ... is a central feature of your life — whether you know it or not, we're all walking around with this inner narrator that if we broadcast loud, you would be locked up. And when you're unaware of this cacophony internally, it's owning you all the time. And what we're doing in meditation is dragging all of this nonsense out of the shadows and into the light.

On why focusing your energy on helping others can quiet the feelings of loneliness and despair during the pandemic

Helping other people puts you back in touch with what is good about you. And it can take you out of the black hole of self-obsession. And those are two really useful benefits of helping other people. It doesn't have to be grandiose. It doesn't have to be giving away all of your money. It can be running errands for your elderly neighbor. It can be checking in on friends. It can be making small donations to charity. It can be volunteering at a safe social distance with local nonprofit groups. There are lots of ways to help out. Adopting a cat, adopting a dog — many, many ways to get you out of the self-obsessed dialogue and put you in touch with your best characteristics, which are helping.

Radio producers Amy Salit and Therese Madden and web producers Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Deborah Franklin contributed to this story.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. So how's your anxiety level been? My guest Dan Harris has been trying to help people quiet their anxiety and panic during the pandemic with meditation and mindfulness techniques. He's been hosting a daily meditation online with different leaders in the mindfulness community, and he hosts a podcast twice a week where he interviews various meditation teachers as well as researchers who study the neurological and biological effects of meditation.

Harris doesn't pass himself off as a guru. He's actually a newsman, a correspondent for ABC News and host of the weekend edition of "Good Morning America." He was also a co-anchor of "Nightline" until he left last year. A live on-air panic attack on "Good Morning America" back in 2004 is one of the reasons he got into meditation. His podcast, online sessions and an app are an outgrowth of his 2014 book "10% Happier," a memoir about how he discovered meditation and how it tamed the negative voice in his head.

Dan Harris, welcome to FRESH AIR.

DAN HARRIS: Well, thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.

GROSS: So how is the pandemic affecting your anxiety level?

HARRIS: It is definitely affecting my anxiety level. I've taken to saying, if you're not anxious right now, you're not paying attention. I don't think that we should sugarcoat it. It's scary. And, you know, we're not wired as a species for uncertainty. And we are (laughter) living with really grave uncertainty. And I find that I go through this loop where I try to project into the future, to plan, and every time I project, I bump up against a wall of fog because I have no idea what's going to happen.

And that looping, that continuous process of trying to plan and then bumping up against the fog and then getting a little squirt of adrenaline in my brain, like a fight-or-flight response to the uncertainty, over and over, is very painful. And I'm so glad I have meditation onboard because now I am catching that process and able to sort of let it go much more than I would have if I entered into this pandemic without having had 11 years of meditation under my belt.

GROSS: Well, how is meditation helping you deal with uncertainty because that is a real thing that we're all going through. I mean, you try to look ahead, and we really don't know. I mean, to be really honest, some of us are thinking, who knows if I'll even be alive? I mean, it's a virus that is killing a lot of people. So you don't know if you'll have a job. You don't know if you'll be working at home or at the office. You don't know how you're going to get to your job if you have a job. You don't know about your income. And all these things can strike terror (laughter).

So like you said, you know, fear is a very rational response to what we're dealing with now. So what do - what story are you telling yourself when you bump into that fog and uncertainty and fear about the future? What's the narrative in your head?

HARRIS: Well, I'll tell you one - I'm going to answer that in the affirmative. I'll tell you what the narrative is, but let me just tell you what the narrative is not. I am - meditation doesn't make the uncertainty go away. There are no silver bullets here, and that's why my little shtick is 10% happier. I'm trying to sort of counterprogram against some of the reckless hope that I find peddled in certain corners of the self-help industry. So it's not like I meditate and, you know, my life is just, you know, every - you know, I'm walking through this pandemic like a unicorn barfing rainbows all the time. That's just - it doesn't work that way.

What meditation allows you to do is to - this may sound a little counterintuitive - but to relax into the uncertainty, to be OK or a little bit more OK than you otherwise would have been with the uncertainty. So I catch myself projecting to the future. I catch these storylines. So, you know, I have elderly parents. I worried about my kid. He's 5. We're now hearing all these terrifying reports about what the disease may be doing to some kids in some cases.

And so - or I worry about my company and our employees or my contract at ABC News. You know - and I'm, by the way, on the way far end of the privilege scale. You know, I'm very, very lucky, and I'm worrying. So how anxiety-provoking must all of this be for people who have lost a job or lost someone or worried that they may lose their life, imminently?

So all of that comes up for me. And can I just catch that this is happening? And instead of our habitual responses - which are fighting it, feeding it or trying to numb out with, I don't know, alcohol, shopping, gambling, drugs - can I just sit with it? Can I just let it be there and investigate it with some curiosity and with some warmth? And so we can talk about the blocking of - blocking and tackling of how you do that in meditation.

But that is the move. It doesn't make it go away; it just means that you're able to see that the fear, like everything in the world, will come and go and that if you just relax for a second and breathe into it, it will come and go, and then once you're on the other end of it, you can make calmer, saner decisions. And that - the one cliche about meditation that I really love is that it teaches you how to respond wisely to things, instead of reacting blindly. And so we want to be - we want to respect our fear, but we don't want to be owned by it.

GROSS: Before we get into specific techniques for meditation and mindfulness, what is some of the advice you've been getting from some of the people you've been interviewing, advice that's been most helpful for you in dealing with the uncertainty and fear about the present and about the future?

HARRIS: Well, I've been doing a lot of talking about what I think is the quiet pandemic here, the mental health crisis. You know, I think we have - I know we have a public health crisis, and we also have an economic crisis, and those two combine to create a mental health crisis that is not being talked about enough in my opinion. And so I'm trying to give people tools throughout this. And frankly, if I'm honest, there's some selfish motivation here. I'm getting tools myself 'cause I, too, am living through this.

And one of the things that I heard early on that has - there's so many things that stick with me, but I'll just give you one. I was interviewing a great and legendary and mighty meditation teacher by the name of Sharon Salzberg, who is really one of the most influential teachers in the West and is a good friend of mine and has made a big difference in my life in many ways. And I said to her, what's the best kind of meditation, do you think, for a pandemic? And she said, loving-kindness meditation.

GROSS: And you've said that loving-kindness meditation seemed like exactly the thing that you would hate, that you'd have, like, no place for in your life.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And now you're writing a book about love and loving-kindness meditation. So why don't we just start with - 'cause a lot of other people might have your preconception about how this is going to be corny, like, greeting card kind of thing that they would not like. So let's start with your negative reaction, and then we'll go with what you like about it, what you learned to take away from it.

HARRIS: (Laughter) Sharon's going to love this because she's really the premier purveyor of loving-kindness meditation in the West, and she's run into a lot of saltiness from me about this (laughter). And - but I'm a convert, but a reluctant one. So yeah, loving-kindness - I had a very negative reaction to loving-kindness meditation. First of all, the name itself, I mean, could you come up with anything more treacly? And then it gets worse when you actually hear what the practice entails. So here's how it works. You sit and close your eyes. And you envision a series of beings, so people or animals. So you usually start with your - classically, you start with yourself.

And then you move on to a good friend. It can be your pet or kid, some easy person in your life that it's very easy to generate warmth for. Then you move on to a mentor, a benefactor, somebody who's played a positive role in your life. And for me, I often use my father. And for my easy person, I use one of our cats, Toby, and then my son. So I usually double down on the easy person. My son is 5. His name is Alexander.

And then you move on to a neutral person, somebody you often overlook. And this is a poignant category right now because the neutral people, the people manning the cash registers at the supermarkets and delivering our food and mail and - the neutral people, for many of us, that we often overlooked are saving our lives quite literally now.

And then you move on to a difficult person - not hard to find for many of us - and then, finally, all beings. And in each case, you summon a mental image or a felt sense of the - your target, your targeted being. And then you repeat a series of phrases. Usually the phrases are, may you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you live with these. So yeah, this struck me as a Valentine's Day with a gun to my head.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HARRIS: Just awful. But there's a lot of science that strongly suggests that this practice and its variants can produce really meaningful physiological, psychological and behavioral changes. And if you think about it, this is a radical notion, the idea that warmth, friendliness, kindness, dare I say, love - these are not factory settings that are unalterable. You aren't wired a certain way when it comes to your interpersonal relations and unchangeable.

In fact, these are skills that you can develop. And that is such a radical notion, that the mind is trainable. And so I've been doing this loving-kindness meditation now for - pretty intensively, including going on long retreats where that's all you do, for several years. And I've found it's made a big difference in terms of my inner weather and how I relate to my own ugliness, because we all have ugliness.

GROSS: You know, something interesting about the loving-kindness meditation and also, like, a more gratitude-focused way of thinking - they're both similar to types of prayers. They're very secular. So...

HARRIS: Yes.

GROSS: ...It's a way of expressing things that some people might express through prayer.

HARRIS: Yeah. There's been quite a bit of research about the overlap between the physiological and psychological benefits of prayer and meditation. It's actually not an area where I know that much. But I can say, one difference for me, as a secular person who just seems to be unable to believe in things I can't prove - just by way of background, I was raised in the People's Republic of Massachusetts by two left-of-Trotsky...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HARRIS: ...Academic physicians. So my parents are, you know - this was not a religious household. I did have a bar mitzvah. But as I often joke, that was only for money.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HARRIS: So I'm not a particularly spiritual person. So the one difference between loving-kindness meditation and prayer is that you're actually not petitioning. You're not actually asking for any outcome, per say. You're just generating the wish. So as I - if I picture Terry Gross and I wish for you to be happy and safe and healthy and live with ease, I'm working on the desire for those things. But I'm not actually asking a third-party power, a creator of the universe, to make those things happen. So that's a difference.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dan Harris, a reporter for ABC News, a weekend anchor of "Good Morning America" and author of the book "10% Happier" about how he discovered meditation and learned to better deal with stress. Now he has a "10% Happier" podcast that's gone to two times a week because of the pandemic. And also during the pandemic, he's doing online meditation sessions on YouTube. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GILAD HEKSELMAN'S "DO RE MI FA SOL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dan Harris, author of the book "10% Happier" about how he discovered meditation, and how it's helped him with anxiety and stress and the negative voice in his head. He's been hosting online meditation sessions during the pandemic. And in addition to those sessions, he has a "10% Happier" podcast that, during the pandemic, has gone to twice a week. He's a reporter for ABC News. He was a co-anchor of "Nightline" and is an anchor of the weekend edition of "Good Morning America."

One of the issues you deal with in your interviews is the difference between rightful fear, which we all have right now, and panic, which we're all trying to avoid right now. So what is the difference between fear and panic? - because you, of course, suggest that meditation can help prevent the panic part of the equation.

HARRIS: So I'm largely stealing this from a rather brilliant woman I met right at the beginning of the pandemic. So the first pandemic-themed episode I did was in mid-March. And one of the guests was a woman named Dr. Luana Marques. She's Brazilian by birth but now works at Harvard as a anxiety expert. And she told me about something called the - I think this is the right name - Yerkes-Dodson curve. You can look this up on Google. And it's a curve, bell-shaped curve. And it talks about the sort of utility of anxiety, which is an interesting concept.

And it kind of gives us permission to not feel bad about the fact that we're feeling a certain amount of justifiable fear and anxiety. And so at the beginning of the slope, right until you get to the top of the curve, the anxiety and fear that we may be feeling in the face of this pandemic or anything, really, makes sense. It motivates us to act. But then it starts to go downhill. And that's when we tip into not very helpful panic, where we constrict. And the physiological response is enfeebling. And we're not able to make good decisions.

That's when we hoard toilet paper, or we're nasty to our neighbors, or we spread misinformation on Twitter - whatever it may be. So what we want is to be at the top of the Yerkes-Dodson curve, with the appropriate amount of anxiety without tipping in to panic. And yet, that is where I feel mindfulness meditation, the kind of meditation that most people - with which most people are familiar, that's where - one of the areas where mindfulness meditation can be really helpful.

GROSS: So getting back to some of the stresses and anxieties and just unusual psychological things that are happening as we live through this pandemic, you've talked about vivid dreams, how people are having more vivid dreams. And Mark Epstein, who's a psychiatrist and practicing Buddhist and who meditates a lot, you've interviewed him. And he concurs that people are having very vivid and often strange dreams right now.

I'll confess, I think I'm remembering fewer of my dreams now than I typically do. And I don't know. Maybe I'm too afraid to dream (laughter), maybe too afraid of what the dreams will say. I don't know. But what kind of strange, vivid dreams have you been having, if you're willing to share any of them?

HARRIS: Sure. So I'm interested to hear - so you say you're not remembering as many dreams. Are you sleeping well?

GROSS: It's funny. Like, this week, I've had a little bit of trouble. But at the beginning, like, for weeks, I was actually sleeping better, I think maybe because I was so exhausted, you know, that I had no choice but to sleep. I don't know. I'm not the greatest sleeper in the world. But, yeah, I feel like I've been remembering fewer dreams. And you?

HARRIS: Yeah. So I'm not the greatest sleeper either. It usually takes me a while to fall asleep. Meditation is actually quite helpful. So I will meditate right before I go to bed. And if I'm tossing and turning, I'll get up and meditate again. And then sometimes, you know, I'll have to do it a few more times until I can fall asleep. And sometimes I'll combine that with reading something really boring. And usually, it works. But the dream thing, yeah, I've been having wild dreams, just, you know, classic anxiety dreams where I'm trying to get somewhere and I can't get there. Or I'm being chased. Or I'm back in school.

You know, this is being reported widely across our culture, across the globe, as I understand it. And I was talking to Dr. Mark Epstein about this. Mark is an old friend, really, somebody who has been hugely influential in my life, because my then-fiancee and now wife, Bianca, gave me one of his books years ago. And it was my first introduction to Buddhism. And I actually called Mark up and, essentially, out of the - definitely out of the blue. And I said, hey; you know - I basically asked him if we could be friends. And he, for reasons that I still don't understand, agreed and, really, mentored me and my whole introduction to Buddhism and meditation.

And so I had him on the show recently. And I was asking him, why do you think these - we're having these crazy dreams? And in typical fashion, he gave the disclaimer that he doesn't really know. But his instinct is that we're processing, you know? That's what we're doing in these dreams is we're sort of flushing out, purging, processing the - you know, this is his term, not mine - the collective trauma and the collective grief we're all experiencing right now. And so it's - you know, it's - it can be jarring to have these dreams. But you might look at it as the functioning of a healthy brain and mind.

GROSS: Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dan Harris. He's a reporter for ABC News, a weekend anchor of "Good Morning America" and author of the book "10% happier" about how he discovered meditation and learned to better deal with stress. Now he also has a "10% Happier" podcast, which during the pandemic has gone to twice a week. And he hosts online meditation sessions. And there's also a 10% Happier app. We're going to take a short break. And then we'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "GOON DRAG")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Dan Harris. He's the author of the book "10% Happier" about how he discovered meditation and how it helped him with anxiety and stress and the negative voice in his head. He's been hosting online meditation sessions on YouTube during the pandemic. And in addition to those sessions, he has a "10% Happier" podcast which has gone to twice a week during the pandemic. He's also a reporter for ABC News and was a co-anchor of "Nightline" and is an anchor of the weekend edition of "Good Morning America."

Let's get to the basics of meditation. It's not that fancy (laughter), you know. So let's start with just, like, basic breathing meditation. Can you describe, like, a simple approach to that that you find to be effective?

HARRIS: Yes, I can. And you're absolutely right when you say it's not that fancy, and that's one of the things that helped me get over the hump to do this because when I first, you know, met Dr. Epstein and started to poke around in meditation back in, you know, 2009, I think it was, I had a very bad attitude about it, just as I did with loving-kindness meditation, which I adopted later. It's not uncommon for me to have a bad attitude, generally.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HARRIS: And I really did have that toward meditation. Actually, it's one of the things I'm kind of working on, my sort of tendency to reach snap judgments. And so I definitely did that with meditation, the snap judgment that this is for people who, you know, live in a yurt and are really into, you know, Cat Stevens.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HARRIS: And that's not actually entirely wrong. But it was the science that helped me get over the hump, that - again, there are all these positive physiological, psychological, behavioral consequences to meditation. And what you just said about it not being fancy - mindfulness meditation, which is the kind of meditation I'm going to describe, it's derived from Buddhism, but it has been thoroughly secularized and stripped of any metaphysical claims or religious lingo. It's a very simple exercise for your brain.

So here's how you do it. You sit in a quiet-enough spot, and you then bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. You don't have to breathe in any special way. This is not actually a breathing exercise. And there's nothing special about the breath, per se. We're just picking something south of your neck to pay attention, where we're going to get your attention out of the swirling stories in your head and onto the raw data of your physical sensations.

So it can be your breath. For some of us, the breath right now is triggering, given the fact that COVID-19 has pulmonary consequences. So you might want to pick just the feeling of your full body sitting or lying or maybe the - your hands touching or your bottom on your chair; just picking some physical anchor where you can place your mind. And you just kind of commit to it gently, that I'm going to pay attention to this for one to five to 10 minutes. That's the second step.

And then the third step - and the final step, really, and this is the most important step - is that as soon as you try to do this, your mind will go into mutiny mode. You're going to start thinking about, you know, when can I get a haircut? You know, where do gerbils run wild? Why did "Dances With Wolves" beat "Goodfellas" for best picture in 1991? Blah, blah, blah. And the whole game is just to notice when you've become distracted and to start again and again and again.

And this distraction, by the way, is not a failure. It is not a malfunction. It is part of the meditation, a key - the key part of meditation is to get distracted, to see the wildness of your own mind over and over and over again and then to begin again and again and again. And it is the seeing of the wildness of the cacophony that is really important because when you see it, it doesn't own you as much.

GROSS: And if I'm not mistaken, mindfulness meditation is also about trying to really quiet those distractions and gain some control over them, but not in a way that you panic, like, oh, no, my mind is wandering; I'm bad at this (laughter). So it's not about that kind of self-criticism. But you suggest starting with focusing on an itch or the locality of a pain that you're having. Why is that a good place to start? And what would you be doing if you start with, say, itch?

HARRIS: OK, so there's so much in what you just said that I just want to unpack, and I'll try to do it with some speed. But just to go back to something you said at the beginning of that question about quieting the mind or controlling the mind, that - just want to tweak that slightly.

GROSS: Yeah.

HARRIS: It is actually - it's actually not about trying to tamp down on or control the way the mind works; it's about familiarization. Just getting to know how nutty it is inside your brain, inside your mind, is incredibly important because when you've tipped over into panic or any other unhelpful, unskillful mind state - like greed or anger or hatred - then you might notice it, and then you have a choice. Am I going to be owned by this panic right now? Or am I going to be owned by this anger right now? Or am I going to be so controlled by the anger that I'm going to say something that's going to ruin the next 48 hours of my marriage? Or am I going to eat the 75th Oreo?

Having this self-awareness, otherwise known as mindfulness, which is what's developed through the process of seeing your distractions and then beginning again, gently, over and over and over again, that is a game-changing skill because then this nonstop conversation that is a - the central feature of your life, whether you know it or not - we're all walking around with this inner narrator that if we broadcast aloud, you would be locked up. And when you're unaware of this cacophony internally, it's owning you all the time.

And what we're doing in meditation is dragging all of this nonsense out of the shadows and into the light. And so it's not about controlling it; it's in some ways - the great meditation teacher Ram Dass once said, it's not that I've conquered my neuroses; I've become a connoisseur of them. And over time, you just become - you have a warmer, friendlier attitude toward all of the inner neurotic programs injected into you by the culture or by your parents or whatever, these habitual storylines, and then they aren't running you as much. And that is so - in my experience, so liberating.

GROSS: So are you kind of putting those inner voices and those negative voices and fears a little bit outside of yourself, observing them as if it's outside of you so that they're not controlling you, but you're observing them and then acting in a sensible way?

HARRIS: Yes. Yes - perfectly said. And, you know, you're a journalist. I'm a journalist. There is a - you know, you can bring some journalistic objectivity to your emotions, to your thought patterns. And to me, the key is when you combine mindfulness with loving-kindness, then that - for me, this has been the huge innovation post the writing of "10% Happier" in my life - is that I noticed in the last couple of years that my mindfulness practice had a gritted-teeth quality to it, a subtle aversion. I would see my anger come up or my selfishness or whatever, and I was, you know, observing it with some nonjudgmental, dispassionate remove, but there was a real subtle aversion.

With loving-kindness, as I've - as my inner weather has become balmier, as I'm more friendly not only toward other people but - and this is really key - toward myself, then you can give your demons a hug, and that disarms them. And that has been massively powerful for me, more - dare I say - than "10%."

GROSS: Tell me what you mean by giving your demons a hug. Can you give me an example of a demon...

HARRIS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That you've learned to live with through this meditation?

HARRIS: Yeah, so I'll talk about selfishness. For me, this is one of the things in my own mind that provokes the most shame. I'll tell you a story. I - toward the beginning of the pandemic, I just started to notice that a lot of my effort, too much of my efforts to meet the moment through doing live, daily guided meditations on YouTube or, you know, promoting the app or doing all these podcasts, I was just wondering, like, am I doing this to help people? Or am I doing this so I can get on Terry Gross' show and, you know, get more - you know, get more business and - you know, and get my name out there? What's - you know, what's my real motivation here?

And I was trying to look at that honestly, and I didn't like everything I saw. You know, it's not to say that I don't care about helping people; I care deeply about it, but I just was seeing too much of that selfishness in there. And it was causing me a lot of shame and pain. And so I called my meditation teacher, the teacher that - with whom I worked personally. His name is Joseph Goldstein. I, you know, kind of gave him my little cri de coeur here about - you know, I'm worried about, you know, what's my motivation here? Am I all about me?

And he said two things that were enormously helpful. One was, welcome to the human condition. We're all selfish. That is just the way we're wired and for good reason in many cases. We need - the organism needs to protect itself. And so selfishness is going to be there maybe up until the point where you're fully enlightened, and then that's a whole other discussion.

But the second thing he said is there's a variant of the aforementioned loving-kindness practice where you actually focus specifically on people who are suffering and you - instead of saying, may you be happy, may you be safe, may you be healthy, you say, may you be free of suffering or may you be free of physical pain, may be free of depression.

And so I've really started to triple-down on that practice in my own life, to summon images of friends of mine I know who are suffering. I have one friend in particular who's gravely ill. I can summon images from my news coverage of people who are dealing with lost jobs, food insecurity, health issues and wish for them to be free from suffering. And that really can change - has helped me change the equation in my mind away from this shame-inducing selfishness, which - by the way - is not going to be eradicated, but you can kind of switch the ratio a little bit, toward reminding me to focus on what it is that, really, actually makes me feel good, which is, you know, being useful.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dan Harris. He's a reporter for ABC News, a weekend host of "Good Morning America" and author of the book "10% Happier" about how he discovered meditation and learned to better deal with stress. Now he also has a "10% Happier" podcast, online sessions and an app. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHELLE LORDI'S "WAYWARD WIND")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dan Harris, author of the book "10% Happier" about how he discovered meditation and how it helped him and continues to help him with anxiety and stress and the negative voice in his head. He's been hosting online meditation sessions during the pandemic. In addition to those sessions, he has a "10% Happier" podcast, which is twice a week, and he also has a related app. He's a reporter for ABC News and was co-anchor of "Nightline" until he stepped down last year. He's also a co-host of the weekend edition of "Good Morning America."

An issue I know you've dealt with in your life is ambition. I mean, you have to be competitive and ambitious to make it in television news, and you've had a great career in television news. So ambition versus equanimity - and this became an issue for you when you started meditating, you know, to have - you know, equanimity to have a more measured approach to things. That doesn't always go along with, like, chasing the story, being competitive with others, getting it first, being very tough-minded. So can you talk about trying to find that balance in your life?

HARRIS: Yeah, that was really the issue with which I was obsessed as I was writing my first book because I loved and continue to love TV news, but it is so competitive, and it was really making me unhappy. This doesn't happen for everybody, but it was - the way I was computing it because of the aforementioned fear and anxiety that I think is kind of a baseline to my mental makeup, I was caught up in the stress and the comparing myself to other people, which is a really painful mind state, the comparison.

By the way (laughter), that's why social media has been so heavily correlated with depression and anxiety, the comparing mind, because it just - it's as if somebody has - an expert I once met described it as ego itching powder. But so in TV news, you know, I'm constantly looking at who's getting the story I want, who's got a better relationship with the bosses right now, who's getting promoted - blah, blah, blah. And it was just causing me a lot of internal strife, and then it was having a real impact on my relationships.

But I didn't - and so I wanted to calm that down, but I didn't want to, you know, lose my edge. And what I realized is there's a bit of a false dichotomy, that, you know, if you look at the really effective, successful people who've embraced meditation, meditation is not eroding their edge. Do you think it would erode your edge if you were calmer, more focused and less yanked around by your emotions? Or would it sharpen that edge?

So I found that it really sharpens the edge and that I'm better able to stay on task because this act of trying to pay attention to one thing at a time and then when I get distracted, I start again - doing that over and over again changes the part of the brain associated with attention regulation. Being more familiar with my inner landscape and, therefore, not so yanked around by it means I make better decisions.

And then a key thing is that the - two of those added together, the ability to pay attention and the lowered emotional reactivity, improves your relationships. And improving your relationships at work is directly correlated to success. And so you add that all together, and I - where I netted out was that being happier does not make you less successful unless you misunderstand what happier means. If you think happiness equals complacency, then maybe it'll make you less successful. I just think that's a misunderstanding of happiness.

GROSS: What is some of the most interesting scientific evidence you've learned about that various forms of meditation techniques can actually have a physiological effect on the body and a neurological effect?

HARRIS: I'll tell you about one study. This is actually not even a recent study, but it just made a huge impact on me. It was done at Massachusetts General Hospital. It took people who had never meditated before and scanned their brains. Then they had them do eight weeks of a little bit of meditation every day. And then they scanned their brains again, and what they found was in the area of the brain associated with self-awareness and with compassion, the gray matter literally grew, and in the area of the brain associated with stress, the gray matter literally shrank.

And that was just super compelling to me. And my mom, who was, until recently, a pathologist at Mass General and is a - way more curmudgeonly and skeptical than her son, that study single-handedly convinced her to meditate. So yeah, it's just really - the neuroscience here is really exciting because it goes back to this thing that I keep harping on, which is that we can change.

We can change our brains and, by extension, our minds. And that just goes against - first of all, it goes against received wisdom. The dogma in neuroscience for years was that the brain stopped changing after around the age of 25, when in fact you can train the brain at any age. And the consequence - the knock-on consequences for your inner life and your outer comportment are profound.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dan Harris, a reporter for ABC News, a weekend anchor of "Good Morning America" and author of the book "10% Happier" about how he discovered meditation and learned to better deal with stress. Now he has a "10% Happier" podcast that's gone to two times a week because of the pandemic. And also, during the pandemic, he's doing online meditation sessions on YouTube. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL FREEDMAN'S "LOVE TAKES TIME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dan Harris, author of the book "10% Happier" about how he discovered meditation and how it's helped him with anxiety and stress and the negative voice in his head. He's been hosting online meditation sessions during the pandemic, and in addition to those sessions, he has a "10% Happier" podcast. He's a reporter for ABC News. He was a co-anchor of "Nightline" and is an anchor of the weekend edition of "Good Morning America."

Let's talk about what led you to meditation. Let's start with your live on-air panic attack (laughter) in 2004, which - I feel so bad for you watching it. Describe it from your perspective. What was going on for you? And this was in 2004. You were, I think, around 32 years old. And you were reading a live news update on "Good Morning America" in front of around 5 million people.

HARRIS: Yeah. And I just basically lost the ability to breathe. I started to - you know, my - I'd never had this - I'd had a minor stage fright before, which is weird for somebody going into TV news. I think I described my career as a triumph of narcissism over fear in my book. But I never had something like this, where I just really - my lungs seized up. My palms started sweating. My mouth dried up. I just couldn't speak, which is inconvenient if you're trying to anchor the news. And then my mind really is freaked out in response to the physiological stuff that was going on, and that made the physiological stuff worse, and that made my mind worse. And then it becomes a downward spiral.

And so I had to quit in the middle of my little newscast. I was filling in as the news reader that morning. That's the person who comes on at the top of each hour and reads a few headlines. And the main anchors of the show at the time, Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer, looked quite surprised when I, just a few seconds into my shtick, said back to you. And it was really embarrassing.

GROSS: They let you back on the air after that.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

GROSS: Were you afraid that that was the end of your broadcast career?

HARRIS: Yes. After it happened, everybody said, what happened? And I lied and said, I don't know. And I guess they believed it and - because they let me on the air the next hour, and I was fine. But when I went backstage, my mom called me and said, you just had a panic attack. And I knew I'd had a panic attack, too. And so I went to go see a shrink. My mom hooked that up. And the shrink asked me a bunch of questions. And one of the questions was, do you do drugs? And I said, yes. And he gave me a look that communicated, OK, mystery solved.

And the backstory here is that I'd spent a lot of time as an ambitious, young reporter after 9/11 in war zones - Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza. And I'd come home and gotten depressed and had, very unwisely, started to self-medicate with recreational drugs. My drug career was pretty short-lived and intermittent. I wasn't high on the air or anything like that. But the shrink explained that it was enough to change my brain chemistry and make it more likely for me to freak out.

GROSS: Explain a little bit more why drugs might lead to a panic attack, especially if you were taking it to feel better, not panic.

HARRIS: So the primary drug I was abusing is cocaine. And so that just kind of raises, according to this doctor, the baseline level of adrenaline in your brain. And that's the key ingredient in panic attacks. So yeah, it just - it also - you know, what I've learned with panic is you're much more likely to panic when you're - if you're prone to panic, you're more likely to actually freak out if you're dysregulated - if you haven't had enough sleep, if you've had too much coffee.

And so the advice for dealing with panic that I've received is to kind of do all the things your mom tells you to do, which is get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, meditate to keep yourself regulated, healthy, calm and happy. And that lowers the odds that you'll freak out.

GROSS: If you have a negative voice in your head, having work of some sort to focus on, especially if it's work you like, it can distract you from that negative voice and, therefore, quiet or at least sideline that negative voice. So many people now are without work. And so many people are not only without work, they're home alone without work or home with, like, one or two people without work.

And so I think it's easier for the negative voice to become more in the foreground if you don't have something to focus on. And you end up focusing on that negative voice. So I'm wondering if you have any suggestions about that, for people who find themselves in that position.

HARRIS: Yeah, I do. I think you're right. When you slow down, voluntarily or otherwise, yeah, those voices in your head are going to get - are going to become more salient. And so there are lots of coping mechanisms. We might, you know, try to up our soda bread baking game. We might try to increase our Instagram followers. We may, you know, start drinking or eating or gambling or shopping more. Or are there constructive choices?

Obviously, I'm a fan of meditation, which is a way to help you lean into what's happening and explore it with some objectivity and warmth so that it doesn't control you as much. But there's something even simpler that I think, you know, having spoken to experts throughout this pandemic, can really help in the face of loneliness or the despair that can set in on lockdown, whether you are alone or with a bunch of other people, and that is service, which is counterintuitive. But helping other people puts you back in touch with what is good about you. And it can take you out of the black hole of self-obsession.

And those are two really useful benefits of helping other people. And it doesn't have to be grandiose. It doesn't have to be giving away all of your money. It can be running errands for your elderly neighbor. It can be checking in on friends. It can be making small donations to charity. It can be volunteering at a safe, social distance with local nonprofit groups. There are lots of ways to help out - adopting a cat, adopting a dog - many, many ways to get you out of the self-obsessed dialogue and put you in touch with your best characteristics, which are helping.

GROSS: Well, Dan Harris, I wish you and your family good health. Thank you so much for talking with us.

HARRIS: Oh, it's a pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Dan Harris is the author of the book "10% Happier," hosts the podcast of the same name and hosts a daily meditation online. He's also a co-anchor of the weekend edition of "Good Morning America." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be journalist Bart Gellman, whose new book is about reporting the story of Edward Snowden and American surveillance programs. Gellman broke stories about Snowden's leaked documents, then found his iPad going haywire as mysterious hackers tried to steal his secrets. His book describes his turbulent relationship with Snowden and reveals new information about U.S. surveillance. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.