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Dan Harris: Love, Skepticism, & the “Cheesy Upward Spiral”

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Dan Harris is the host of the hit podcast, Ten Percent Happier. Dan’s show and the Ten Percent Happier meditation app have helped bring practical Buddhist techniques for managing anxiety and stress and leading a happier life to millions of people all over the world.

Dan is a former ABC news anchor who reported from all over the world, covering wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and producing investigative reports in Haiti, Cambodia, and the Amazon. But after experiencing an on-air panic attack while hosting Good Morning America, he knew he had to make changes. 

Despite initial misgivings, he turned to meditation. His experience enriching his life through meditation is documented in his number one New York Times bestselling book, 10% Happier. Dan now lives in New York with his wife and son, where I had a chance to talk with him a few weeks ago.

[00:01:30] Scott Snibbe: Dan Harris, I can’t believe you’re on our podcast, I’m so thrilled to have you here. I’m a huge fan of your work in popularizing meditation and also your honesty, humility, and skill as an interviewer. Thank you so much for joining us on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment.

[00:01:48] Dan Harris: Thank you, I appreciate it.

Dan Harris’ introduction to meditation

[00:01:49] Scott Snibbe: I want to start out with a well-worn story of yours which is that you found meditation at a point of desperation and it offered you a new way of thinking about your life and your mind. I wonder if you can just talk a little bit about how meditation first affected you?

[00:02:07] Dan Harris: Yeah, the well-worn story part of it is that I—as you probably will have mentioned in your introduction—used to be a TV news journalist. I spent a lot of time covering war zones and came back in the middle of that experience and got depressed and started to self-medicate with recreational drugs and that culminated in a panic attack on television, which was inconvenient to say the least.

Dan Harris on ABC news
Source: ABC News

Just to be clear, I wasn’t high on the air when that happened, but my psychiatrist—the shrink who I consulted afterwards—pointed out that the sort of ambient level of drug use in my life made it more likely for me to freak out and have a panic attack. So that kind of set me off on a path that ultimately led me to meditation. I found it just incredibly useful because I’d spent my whole life really just owned by this voice in my head. By which I’m not referring to schizophrenia but the sort of inner narrator that is constantly yammering away at you.

“I found meditation incredibly useful because I’d spent my whole life really just owned by this voice in my head.”

When you’re unaware of this non-stop conversation—which as I often joke, if we broadcasted aloud, you would be locked up—when you’re unaware of all of these neurotic obsessions and compulsions flitting through your mind, then they just completely own you. And that was true for 39 years of my life. It’s still largely true now but less true at 51.

“When you’re unaware of all of these neurotic obsessions and compulsions flitting through your mind, then they just completely own you.”

[00:03:38] Scott Snibbe: Can you talk a little bit about what meditation did for you initially?

[00:03:42] Dan Harris: Oh yeah, I’m actually in the middle of rereading my first book as we speak. I haven’t read it since it came out nine years ago. But the 10th anniversary is coming up and I’m writing a new preface for it. So I have this odd experience of rereading the book and remembering a lot of things. 

Side note, I have this friend Sam Harris who’s quite a popular podcaster and author. I remember before my book came out having lunch with him and he was talking about one of his books. And he said that it felt like another person wrote it. I thought that was sort of out there and strange thing to say and now I feel that way as I read this book. 

But it does give me fresh memories of what it was like to start meditating for the first time. I think the first thing that I noticed was that it wasn’t bullshit. I had long assumed that meditation was in the same bucket of hippie nonsense as hacky sack. But actually sitting and having this structured collision with the voice in your head where you’re trying to focus on one thing at a time—usually, it’s the feeling of your breath coming in and going out—and then every time the mind wanders you start again and again and again.

And people think, Oh, I noticed my mind has wandered, I must be bad at this. But actually that waking up from distraction is not proof of failure. It’s proof of success. It’s the whole point. 

“Waking up from distraction is not proof of failure. It’s proof of success.”

What you want to do in meditation is not achieve some thought-free, blissed-out state, although I think that’s possible at the deep end of the pool. But generally speaking, for most of us, the point is to see how wild the mind is so that you’re not so owned by it. I think I got that pretty quickly. I’d read enough books before I’ve actually started to meditate and it was just abundantly clear to me my first experience as a meditator, Oh yeah, this is exercise for the brain and the mind. 

“For most of us the point of meditation is to see how wild the mind is so that you’re not so owned by it.”

I think it took a few weeks before the benefits kicked in. The first data point was when I overheard my wife at a cocktail party telling one of our friends that I was less of a shithead, which actually is a funny story, but also a serious data point in some ways. Because it’s hard to gauge your progress in meditation, it’s not like with exercise where you might see changes in your body. It can be hard to gauge your progress. So to hear my wife say that was actually meaningful and funny. But for me, internally, noticing that I was just a little bit calmer, more focused, and most importantly, less yanked around by my emotions.

I think the big faith-inducing development—and by faith, I mean more like confidence-inducing—in the early stages in meditation, in my experience, and I think for a lot of people, is that first moment when you notice the urge to do something, like to say something that’s going to ruin the next 48 hours of your marriage or to eat a sleeve of Oreos or whatever it is, and you allow that urge to arise and pass.

You’re not squelching it, you’re just kind of interested. I see this thing coming up, and then I can let it pass. And that is a very empowering moment where you’re like, Oh yeah, I don’t have to be at the mercy of, what the great meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein calls, the tiny dictators in my mind. These thoughts march through our consciousness and we just act them out as if we have to. But you don’t have to. And for me at least, that’s the beginning of real progress.

“These thoughts march through our consciousness and we just act them out as if we have to. But you don’t have to.”

What role does meditation play now in your life compared to when you first started?

[00:07:09] Scott Snibbe: It’s 10 years later since you wrote that book; how has meditation in your life changed since then? What role does meditation play now in your life compared to when you first started?

I’ve noticed your theme music changed from kind of Eddie Van Halen rock and roll to a more ambient Brian Eno music. I wonder if that reflects some inner change in you as well?

[00:07:37] Dan Harris: Yeah, the music on my podcast changed not because of necessarily any shift in my personality or penchants or proclivities. It was more that, when I first started the podcast, it was housed within ABC News and they were not willing to pay for good music.

So they just took something out of an audio library and it was just a piece of shit crap track of like a guitar riff that it is just terrible. We got complaints about it over the years, and they were all correct, every person who complained. Then finally we just got our act together.

Now, the podcast is not owned by ABC. I don’t work at ABC anymore. I love ABC, this is in no way to denigrate my former employer; I have a lot of loyalty and love for them. But anyway, I now have the freedom to get new music and I reached out to the front man from one of my favorite indie rock bands, Islands, Nick Thorburn.

He actually did the music for Serial which is a reasonably well-known podcast so he did our new track. Anyway, to answer your actual question meditation’s a huge part of my life. I think a significantly bigger part of my life now than when 10% Happier came out nine years ago in that I do more of it and I go on more meditation retreats and my whole career—I’ve quit ABC News—is built around meditation and sort of happiness or psychological well-being more broadly.

I think my practice involves way more loving-kindness meditation than it did when 10% Happier came out. I’d say that’s probably the biggest single shift.

What is loving-kindness meditation for you?

loving-kindness friendship pali word metta

[00:09:14] Scott Snibbe: Can you describe what loving-kindness meditation means for you? Something I’ve learned talking to so many different people is that these words have different definitions for people.

[00:09:26] Dan Harris: First, like many Buddhist terms, once they’re Anglified, once they’re put into English, usually, the translation’s fucking terrible. So loving-kindness is a very annoying phrase, in my opinion, it’s not attractive. When I first heard the term loving-kindness, I was like, what? This sounds terrible. Or maybe pornographic, I don’t know, just not interesting to me, probably my male conditioning.

But the ancient Pali word is metta. Pali is the language that was spoken at or around the time of the Buddha. It’s unclear to me whether the Buddha actually spoke Pali but it’s definitely the language in which his teachings were written down. I think a better translation for this ancient Pali word, metta, would be just friendliness. Actually, that is closer to what the word actually means.

That’s a great and interesting term that you can develop just kind of a coolness. And by cool, I don’t mean in the pejorative, it’s like you’re just kind of cool with everybody and everything, including yourself. Not in a resigned way, but it’s like your biases are shifted toward warmth. I know that might contradict my use of cool just a moment before but I think you can follow me.

The practice itself is very annoying, at least at the beginning—many of your listeners will have heard of it or have heard these instructions—generally, you start with an easy person. Interestingly, in Asia, the progression is you start with yourself and then move through a succession of beings, people, or animals and send them a bunch of rather trite phrases that I’ll share with you in a second, well-wishes. But because in the West we have this pronounced tendency towards self-hatred, many teachers have done this sort of bait-and-switch tactic where you start with an easy person.

So that can be a kid or an animal, a pet, and you just generate an image in your mind or a felt sense of them, and you repeat phrases like, May you be happy, safe, healthy, and live with ease. Then you move on to yourself, a mentor, a neutral person, somebody you overlook but is around you, a difficult person, generally best not to start with Hitler. Maybe just like a mildly annoying person. And then finally all beings everywhere. I did not like this practice when it was first introduced to me. It just sounded really treacly enforced and saccharin.

I had a very powerful experience, however, doing it on a meditation retreat. Then I learned all of the science that shows that this practice can have very powerful physiological, psychological, and even behavioral benefits. So now it’s a big part of my practice and it’s definitely made my world a better place. I’m no utopian but I do think it would improve the world at large if this practice was applied in a more widespread way.

“I’m no utopian but I do think it would improve the world at large if loving-kindness was applied in a more widespread way.”

[00:12:31] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it’d be nice to sit down with Vladimir Putin and do 10 minutes of loving-kindness meditation, see how it worked.

[00:12:39] Dan Harris: Lock him up at the Hague, that might be more effective.

The transition from TV journalism to the world of meditation

[00:12:42] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, start with that, then he’d have more time to practice.

This phrase about not being the same person is very famous. I think Heraclitus said, you never visit the same river twice, which is the metaphor for how we’re constantly changing. You’ve changed a lot. The role meditation plays in your life, as well as your career, moving from network tv journalism to the wellness, yoga, and meditation space.

How does that transition in your personal identity feel to you?

[00:13:11] Dan Harris: Mostly very positive, I’m a significantly happier person now than I was when I wrote the book, for sure. I would say there have been moments of struggle over the last 18 months since I left ABC News, some identity stuff. Who am I without being on television? But that seems to come and go pretty quickly. And I’m pretty sure I will do more TV. I don’t think I’m going to go back to being a news anchor, I wouldn’t rule it out, but I doubt it. I suspect I’ll do some stuff, whether it’s in news or a documentary, in the future.

So I’d say the toughest stuff is around that but most of it is really positive. It’s an incredible opportunity to build my whole career around what I’m interested in. My days are spent almost entirely writing my next book, which isn’t fun, but it feels important, and hosting my podcast. That’s like the vast majority of my time. And that’s a pretty cool opportunity as opposed to my old life. I loved being a journalist but balancing that with my side hustle and meditation was very hard.

Also after a while, I think the fire went out around chasing every bit of breaking news. I have covered so many horrifying things. I think I just was ready to not do that anymore, not only because of the difficulty of actually covering the stories but just what it does to your life to not be in control of your own schedule. At age 50, after 30 years of being tethered to the news in that way, it’s nice not to do that anymore.

“Also after a while, I think the fire went out around chasing every bit of breaking news.”

[00:14:59] Scott Snibbe: Sounds like you’re more in control of your life and your mind now.

[00:15:04] Dan Harris: Yes.

The sequel to the 10% Happier book

dan harris book 10% happier

[00:15:06] Scott Snibbe: You mentioned a new book you’re working on, I don’t know if you’re willing to talk about what that is exactly?

[00:15:12] Dan Harris: I’m happy to talk about it. It’s a straight-up sequel to 10% Happier. So the action in this book picks up when 10% Happier comes out. And in the first book, which was called 10% Happier, the inciting event, if you think of it like a movie, the event that kicks out—and I actually do kind of think about these books as movies in a way that I want them to be very entertaining, that you can read them in an afternoon.

“I actually do kind of think about these books as movies in a way that I want them to be very entertaining, that you can read them in an afternoon.”

In order to do that though it takes me 5, 6, 7 years to learn all of the stuff and then make a hyper-palatable narrative. So the inciting event of the first book was me having a panic attack fueled by cocaine. And the inciting event for this book is what’s called a 360 review which is—if you’ve ever worked in the corporate world—this corporate technique where some executive coach will identify a particular executive and then they’ll do an anonymous survey of that executive’s bosses, peers, and direct reports to get a 360 sense or panoramic sense of their strengths and weaknesses.

So I did that but I added in my wife, my brother, and some meditation teachers, plus my colleagues at both my company, my Ten Percent Happier company, and also ABC News. So 17 people gave hour-long anonymous interviews, and I was pretty cocky. I didn’t think I was perfect, my book was called 10% Happier, so I didn’t walk around thinking I was some enlightened guru, but I didn’t think my behavior was as bad as was reflected in that report, and it was completely devastating for me.

So I kind of ripped up my life and spent—this happened in 2018—the last five years working on the issues that were identified in that report. That wild, painful adventure is what I’m writing about in this next book. And oddly it’s become a book about love and how friendly you can be towards yourself and the virtuous cycle that can create if you have a good relationship with yourself, that improves your relationships with other people.

And because those relationships with other people are, according to all the data I’ve seen, the most important variable in human happiness that then gives you warmer inner weather for yourself, and then that improves your relationships even further. I call that the “cheesy upward spiral”. And I’ve really seen that play out in my life.

“Those relationships with other people are the most important variable in human happiness that then gives you warmer inner weather for yourself, and then that improves your relationships even further. I call that the “cheesy upward spiral”.”

Anyway, so the book is tentatively entitled Me: a Love Story. My publisher hates that title but I think it’s really funny so I’m probably going to do it.

[00:17:40] Scott Snibbe: Coming from you I think it’s fantastic because you’re quite critical of all these soft or new agey words. So to hear you say love so sincerely I think is quite heartwarming.

[00:17:51] Dan Harris: I don’t know how sincere it is. I mean it’s very sincere on one level. I really do mean it, and when I say “Me: a Love Story,” it’s not just about self-love. It’s about my relationships with everybody.

So it’s a holistic understanding of love and also knocking love off of its, this is the less sincere part, pedestal. In other languages they have many words for love. There are many different types of love that are taxonomized, say in ancient Greece, for example. But we have this one word that we use to cover a whole range of relationships.

I’m trying to get people to think about love in a more capacious way. In Me: A Love Story, I mean it as a joke but it’s also kind of true. Anyway, I’ve been having some fights with my editor so we’ll see where this lands. Just for the record, my publisher on the first book tried to get me to change the title to 20% Happier. So I won that fight. We’ll see if I won this one.

“I’m trying to get people to think about love in a more capacious way.”

The importance of relationships and the skill of love

[00:18:56] Scott Snibbe: Amazing, the Buddhist definition of love is quite different than the one we look up in the dictionary, in U.S. English.

So can you just talk about what the word love means when you do it in meditation?

[00:19:11] Dan Harris: Well, it’s back to the discussion about metta, in my view, friendliness. There may be Buddhist scholars listening who disagree with me but to my understanding in Buddhism, I think of love or compassion as really anything north of neutral. This is wired deeply into us via evolution. I’m not making a new point here but we’re social creatures. The reason, for better or worse, that we achieved our status as the apex predator on this planet is that we have this capacity to connect, communicate, cooperate, to take down larger, stronger animals, to bend nature to our will. Again, for better or worse.

“I think of love or compassion as really anything north of neutral.”

But if you understand that about the human animal, it becomes quite obvious that we spend so much time, so many of us, working on our happiness via working out, getting enough sleep, and meditating. All of these things are very important, but again, the data show that the quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life. That’s a quote actually from the great Esther Perel, she’s a magnificent human being and host of her own podcast and sort of well-known couples and relationship therapist. And so this is just indisputably true. It’s so obvious when you think about how we evolved and yet not the first thing people think about when they start optimizing for health and happiness, but it should be.

“The data show that the quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life.”

That’s a word salad on how I think about love as covering anything from your relationship to the barista, to your romantic partner, and all the relationships in between. What’s so amazing about Buddhism and meditation, and this is born out in the science, is that this is not a factory setting. It’s a skill, you can work on your love game through meditation and lots of other skills, and it will benefit you and everybody around you. And of course, the line between you and everybody around you is pretty porous. That’s another thing that’s interesting to contemplate.

“It’s a skill, you can work on your love game through meditation and lots of other skills, and it will benefit you and everybody around you. “

[00:21:29] Scott Snibbe: I really like hearing you talk about the benefits of meditation, strengthening relationships, because I don’t think that’s typically the way people think of meditation. They usually think of it as something inward, private, that makes you sort of happy all by yourself, which can happen.

But one of my teachers too, Venerable Sangye Khadro, when I asked her, how do you know whether your meditation’s going well? She said the same thing, that your relationships get better, that that’s the best measure. I like hearing you say about that primacy of relationships, and as you mentioned, it’s borne out by scientific evidence too.

[00:22:00] Dan Harris: Absolutely, and you. Back to the beginning of Buddhism, although the Buddha didn’t call it Buddhism. I think that the word Buddhism is a pretty new term. But back to the beginning of the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, there were these three—the Buddhists tend to talk in these grand ways—jewels in Buddhism: the Buddha (the avatar of enlightenment, the possibility of waking up), the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), and the sangha (the community of meditators).

So right from the jump in this practice, doing it with other people and having relationships is baked into it. And there is an HOV lane effect to meditating with other people. Even if you don’t have a community of fellow meditators, just watching how your capacity for mindfulness—not being owned by your emotions, thoughts, and urges—and your capacity for kindness, compassion, and friendliness benefit your relationships, putting you on the aforementioned “cheesy upward spiral.”

“There is an HOV lane effect to meditating with other people.”

What role does Buddhism play in your life?

buddhist monks on the beach

[00:23:10] Scott Snibbe: Well, you mentioned Buddhism, so I want to ask you what role Buddhism plays in your life. Initially, I think you shied away from talking explicitly about Buddhism, although you’ve had all of the greatest Buddhist teachers on your podcast.

Do you consider yourself a Buddhist or someone who draws from Buddhist meditation and philosophy What’s your perspective on Buddhism?

[00:23:36] Dan Harris: I would call myself a Buddhist. I now feel like somewhat of a renewed expert on my first book since I’m reading it again. So I can tell you—having read parts of it a few hours ago in that book—there’s a lot of dharma. There’s a lot. It is me really reckoning with this new set of ideas that I’d never encountered before. In retrospect, it seems to be a pretty deeply Buddhist book. So, yeah, I would call myself a Buddhist. I’ve gotten ever deeper into the practice in the subsequent years.

“I would call myself a Buddhist.”

In my opinion, Buddhism is not like some dogmatic evangelical faith, it’s not even necessarily a faith. It is practiced as a faith by millions of people and that’s beautiful. I don’t have anything to say to denigrate that. And yet one of my favorite expressions about Buddhism is that it’s not something to believe in, it’s something to do. 

So I’m a Buddhist in the way that I’m a journalist. It’s a thing that I do. It’s a practice every day. And faith is an important part, that’s a word that’s used a lot in Buddhism. But it’s not necessarily believing in things you can’t prove. It’s just confidence in the efficacy of the practices because it’s not just meditation, it’s how to live your life in the best possible way.

“I’m a Buddhist in the way that I’m a journalist. It’s a thing that I do. It’s a practice every day.”

I definitely think of myself as a Buddhist and I would recommend everybody check it out. I think there’s a lot of wisdom there. But that’s not to say that there isn’t an amazing amount of applicable wisdom in other traditions from stoicism to Sufi Islam and on and on.

[00:25:17] Scott Snibbe: I want to come back to the “10% Happier.” You’re famous for that phrase, and you fought your publisher for it, which is a great story, but has meditation only made you 10% happier at this point? What do you think?

[00:25:31] Dan Harris: Definitely not. I’m now stuck with math jokes for the rest of my life and I hate math. But I do think the truth is it’s like an investment and the 10% compounds annually. So I am way more than 10% happier. I’m not a hundred percent happy. But I may be 100% percent happier than I used to be.

“I’m not a hundred percent happy. But I may be 100% percent happier than I used to be.”

And that doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days. I have plenty of stress in my life and there are areas in my life where there’s more conflict than I would like, thankfully not in my home life. Becoming a dedicated meditator does not mean that there are no vicissitudes in life.

It’s just like, can you handle them better? I was bemoaning in a meeting with some colleagues how I kept doing the same stupid thing in one of my relationships and my colleague said to me that his therapist had recently said to him—because he had recently made the same complaint—Well, are you doing it less and is it less horrible than it used to be? And he was like, Oh, yeah, that’s true.

And that is true for me. I have the same patterns. If I haven’t gotten enough sleep they can still reemerge and be counterproductive but the train doesn’t tend to run off the tracks as much as it used to.

[00:26:51] Scott Snibbe: Well, if you compound the interest, then maybe you’re 140% happier or something like that.

[00:26:56] Dan Harris: You’re definitely better at math than I am, that sounds right.

Do you believe enlightenment is possible?

[00:27:00] Scott Snibbe: How much do you think about the idea of enlightenment? The idea of enlightenment says you can be infinitely percent happier, more or less, and that our good qualities are limitlessly improvable.

So what do you think about enlightenment? Do you believe some version of enlightenment is possible?

[00:27:18] Dan Harris: Man, I have a friendly agnosticism on that. I’m reading this part of my old book now where I’m really kind of turned off by it. The time period that I’m describing in this part of the book is like 2010, where I’ve come to believe that meditation’s really helpful, but I can’t understand why all these seemingly sane people like Joseph Goldstein and other incredible meditation teachers who’ve had such a big effect on my life, are also talking about this magical transformation at the end of the rainbow, where you go from 10% happier to 100% percent happy.

It’s a huge turnoff for me. Now I think I’ve made the shift to being very intrigued and very curious about how far can you go here. I have a little bit more faith, i.e. confidence, that you can go pretty far. Just from my job now, hanging out with serious meditation teachers and practitioners. That’s what I do.

Many of these people move through the world in a much different way than I do, and most people do. And it seems to suggest to me that there’s something going on here. Now it’s possible that the causal link is that they became great meditators because they were already wired that way. But I’m not sure that’s true. I’m thinking about Joseph Goldstein, for example. As I did, he came out of a neurotic Jewish family and I think he probably would’ve ended up like a neurotic Jewish architect or lawyer. But now he is a way less neurotic meditation giant.

I’ve spent a lot of time with Joseph, he’s slept over at our house, I have gone on many retreats with him, I have started a business with him. I have spent a lot of time with Joseph, have observed him on many social occasions, in many different contexts. And the dude has never let me down. So 50 years of meditation, or more actually, he’s definitely not perfect and he wouldn’t say he was perfect, but something’s different.

I spent a couple of weeks recently in the orbit of the Dalai Lama and it’s the same thing. I’m a pretty skeptical guy but you spend some time around the Dalai Lama, like something is up there. He is a different kind of dude. So it does give me some curiosity and some degree of confidence that you can take this meditation thing pretty far.

dan harris and dalia lama, guide to happiness

Dealing with work and relationship struggles

[00:29:57] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, when you meet someone like His Holiness, it certainly seems that enlightenment is possible.

This is a little personal but you’re very open with your own struggles. What are you still struggling with psychologically, and what meditative and philosophical tools are you finding helpful in those struggles?

[00:30:16] Dan Harris: A lot of it is work related. Luckily for me right now, my personal life is quite blissful. I married very well. That relationship is consistently a source of support and happiness for me. We have an eight-year-old son who’s healthy and just awesome. So that part of my life is really good. And my work life is great but there are areas of conflict for me.

And it’s not hostile. I’ve had periods of time at ABC News where it was war or competition and fights and going to the management and complaining about somebody else, way back in the day. That is not what’s happening right now. It’s a pretty polite situation but there are interpersonal dynamics within my world that are hard to manage and that can cause me to literally lose sleep.

Like, I didn’t sleep well last night. And that can make me just less up for doing what I have to do on a day-to-day basis. I’m not sure any of these personal details would be super interesting or practical for people but I do have something to say about this that might be. Joseph, the aforementioned Joseph Goldstein, I talk to him a lot, he’s just a huge figure in my life. He knows all about what I’ve been dealing with. By the way, when I say dealing with that makes it seem like I’m the good guy, but it’s not like that, it’s more just that it’s a complicated situation.

Anyway, talking to Joseph about it, he teaches in these little expressions, kind of little mantras, these little slogans that he drops and that are really helpful. He has all these phrases that come up repeatedly in his teaching and in his own practice and he’ll share them with his students. like me. Then I find that they come up in my own mind a lot at times when I need them.

So I was talking to Joseph recently and complaining about this situation at work. He was like, when you notice yourself going down the toilet about this, just use the phrase, “dead end.” You’ve thought about this enough. It’s been going on for a year and a half. There’s nothing new to think about. Dead end. Just think about something else. Change the channel. And then the other little phrase is “love, no matter what.” Again, love can sound like a treacly, empty bromide, but he just means having a baseline of well-wishes of some degree of benevolence and cognitive, if not emotional empathy for the other people.

Another little phrase of his is, “don’t side with yourself.” Try to think through situations from the other point of view. And when I notice, as I do quite frequently, especially if I haven’t slept, that I’m getting cantankerous about whatever it is that I’m dealing with, these phrases can come to mind and can be really helpful.

How does Buddhism mix with capitalism, leadership, and business?

[00:33:21] Scott Snibbe: That’s fantastic. I’d love to ask a little more. I’ve struggled with this myself in forming various organizations and being a leader, you’re not just talent on 10% right? You’re a manager, you’re a leader, you’re an entrepreneur. I’d love to hear more about how you bring ideas from Buddhism and meditation into leadership. Also how that conflicts with profit, the way companies are structured and needing to pay the bills and make payroll and fire people when they don’t perform.

How do you run a profit-making organization according to compassionate principles and is capitalism even compatible with compassion?

[00:33:59] Dan Harris: Oh, that’s a huge question. I’m not operational in the company, in other words, nobody reports to me. I’ve thought about it a lot but I would say that our CEO and other executives have gone way deeper on this than I have. I think my bottom line answer is that it absolutely can be compatible. Like I don’t defend capitalism to the hilt but it is definitely the best system I know of. So this is what we’re operating in; these are the conditions to put it in Buddhist speak.

And I like nice stuff. I like making money. I don’t see that as a huge problem until it’s genuinely a huge problem, that you’re hoarding resources and are not generous and are creating harm for other people. But I don’t think, and maybe this is delusion on my part—actually, it’d be interesting to hear you or others poke holes in this—but I think making a decent living, having nice things in my life, makes me happy and comfortable and gives me the energy and resources to do more things that are useful for other people. So I see it as sort of a mutually beneficial double helix.

“I think making a decent living, having nice things in my life, makes me happy and comfortable and gives me the energy and resources to do more things that are useful for other people.”

You can have income inequality, at the extremes that does become extremely problematic. But I don’t think I’m there but maybe I am. There’s this quote often attributed to the Buddha, people who are overly attached to their views and opinions, wander the world annoying people. I was very annoying for a long time because I would get dogmatic about issues. I’m working through what you’re asking me about in real time and I’m just trying to signal genuine openness, genuine openness to rethinking this.

“I was very annoying for a long time because I would get dogmatic about issues.”

In terms of running the business, running my relationships with people, I don’t have to hire and fire. But I think a lot about staff development, specifically on my little podcast team, there’s like 10 of us. And yeah, I do think a lot about that. Compassion doesn’t mean being catastrophically nice. I’m not going to keep somebody on staff that’s not working for us and not working for them. The most important thing to keep my eye on, in terms of being compassionate, is the quality of the show. And if somebody’s hurting the functioning of the show or not in the best role for them, we have to be nice about it but do the thing we have to do.

I have a quite a bit of confidence that that is doable. I don’t know, you’ve built more organizations than I have. Do you agree with what I’m saying?

[00:36:32] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, in the strain of Buddhism that I come from there’s no object that is inherently bad or good, even billions of dollars, it’s your attachment. So they say you can enjoy anything in life as long as you can do it without attachment which is easier said than done—including money, sex—everything else can be a vehicle for love, compassion, and a better world. But it’s the attachment that’s so poisonous. If you can free your mind from that, you figure out how to wisely use all of those things in the service of happiness and humanity.

“They say you can enjoy anything in life as long as you can do it without attachment which is easier said than done.”

[00:37:06] Dan Harris: Well, I will not claim to be non-attached. I think that money is such an interesting thing to think about from a Dharma perspective. And we’ve done a lot of episodes on this actually. We just recently did in January a couple of episodes on money and psychology and Buddhism, and this is just a really rich, interesting area. I will not claim to have figured this out but I’ve definitely done quite a bit of thinking about it.

Loving-kindness for skeptics

loving-kindness for skeptics in buddhism

[00:37:37] Scott Snibbe: You have agreed to lead a meditation for us, which I’m really looking forward to, and we’ll air that in the week after your interview.

Can you just briefly talk about what that meditation is?

[00:37:47] Dan Harris: Sure, we talked about loving and kindness, so I thought we would do loving-kindness for skeptics. Or not, you don’t have to be a skeptic to do this, but I definitely try to aim my content at people who have some degree of hostility at the content itself or at themselves. I think learning how to exercise your friendliness muscle, sometimes I’ve said exercise your love muscle and people have taken that the wrong way.

I said that on a TV show once with Nick Cannon. I was on his show, I don’t think that show exists anymore. Anyway, he called me out on it immediately and the audience liked it. Anyway, we’re going to exercise our friendliness muscle.

[00:38:31] Scott Snibbe: Now we know what we’re gonna post to Instagram: “Exercise your love muscle, Dan Harris.”

[00:38:37] Dan Harris: That’s right on brand for me.

[00:38:39] Scott Snibbe: And also, what does skeptic mean to you? You mentioned skeptics in one of your books and it’s in our podcast.

What does skeptic mean to you?

[00:38:48] Dan Harris: I try to be a skeptic who doesn’t take anything on faith. I don’t believe it just because the Buddha said it or anybody said something to me. I test it out for myself. And that is actually a very Buddhist notion. One of the rallying cries of the Buddha was something called Ehipassiko which is come see for yourself. Don’t believe anything I’m saying. I, the Buddha, I’m speaking for the Buddha here, which is probably not the best thing to do.

But anyway, he said, don’t take anything I’m saying just on face value, just because I’m saying it, check it out. So I think that’s a healthy skepticism that can keep you out of a narcissistic cynicism.

[00:39:30] Scott Snibbe: Perfect, well Dan, it’s an extraordinary pleasure having you on the podcast. Thank you so much for agreeing to do it in your busy schedule. I think it will have a great positive effect on everyone who hears it. It’s wonderful hearing you tell your story on the other side of the microphone.

Thank you very much.

[00:39:48] Dan Harris: Thank you.

Thanks for joining me for my conversation with Dan Harris. You can check out his podcast Ten Percent Happier, wherever you listen to podcasts and at tenpercent.com.

If you enjoyed this episode, please consider making a donation to our podcast. A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment is a nonprofit organization supported entirely by donations that keep all our content free and ad free. To support us now, visit our website at skepticspath.org. We accept cash, credit, Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies and your donations are tax-deductible in the U.S.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
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