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Over and Over Again (November 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | November 2014


Over and Over Again

What happens when negative thought patterns are taken to the extreme? MATT BIEBER on his struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and how Buddhist practice helps.

According to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, to be enlightened is to be free of obsessions. Given that I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, I usually feel very far from that ideal. Thanks to practice, though, I have my moments.

An OCD cycle typically begins with intrusive thoughts—unwanted, painful ideas or images that invade my consciousness, triggering profound fear and anxiety. This is the “obsessive” part of OCD, and it can arise anytime. Sitting here typing, for example, I sometimes feel modest pain in my fingers, and my mind kicks into gear: You’re typing too much and causing permanent damage to your hands. Feel those little irritations at the second knuckle of your left ring finger? Those are the harbingers of arthritis.

Then tension begins to build, and I feel as if I will drown if I don’t take immediate action. Here’s where the mental terrorists make their demands. Type slower. Put your wrist guards on. Stop typing altogether. Then you won’t have to feel this way. These are the OCD “compulsions”—ritualized behaviors meant to alleviate anxiety.

The whole process is immensely confusing, in part because I don’t have a handle on the source of my intrusive thoughts. Some of them do bear at least some relationship to reality—repetitive stress injury does happen—even if the fears and risks I imagine are unlikely. Sometimes, however, the intrusive thoughts part company with reality entirely.

Matt Bieber is a freelance writer in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He writes about obsessions, personal and political.

Read the rest of this article inside the November 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Inside the November 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine Print

Look inside the November 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine

FEATURING: Sylvia Boorstein, Thich Nhat Hanh, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and more on getting free from habitual patterns of thinking, relating, and acting; Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche on three principles that bring dharma into our lives today; ABC News anchor Dan Harris talks meditation with Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Mark Epstein; Norman Fischer's "Useless Advice," book reviews, "About a Poem," and more.

Click titles below to read excerpts and select complete articles.

This issue's editorial:

• A World of Skillful Means

Melvin McLeod on the communication of dharma in a world of new media.

Special feature section: Get Off the Wheel of Habit

Getting free from habitual patterns of thinking, relating, and acting — it's the whole point of Buddhist meditation.

• From Getting Mad to Going Shopping: What's Your Pattern?

Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein on five styles of habitual reaction—and how to free yourself from yours.


• A Bad Day at the Airport

Sylvia Boorstein shares a practice for working with your mind when things aren't going well. 


• Watering the Seeds of Happiness

Not all habits are bad. Happiness is a habit too, says Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Here's how you can make it grow.  


• The Sunlight of Awareness

Shine the warm light of awareness on your thoughts and feelings, says Thich Nhat Hanh.

• How to Bridge the Gap

Whether we're relating to lovers, friends, family, or colleagues, habitual patterns separate us from each other and the present moment. Rose Taylor and Ari Goldfield show us how to cut through old patterns and truly connect.

• 5 Ways to Get Free

Helpful techniques to work with habitual patterns as they arise in the moment.

• Over and Over Again

What happens when negative thought patterns are taken to the extreme? Matt Bieber on his struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and how Buddhist practice helps.

• The Natural Liberation of Habits

When you recognize the true nature of mind, says Tsoknyi Rinpoche, all habitual patterns are naturally liberated in the space of wisdom. Plus: Recognizing Clarity, a Dzogchen meditation.


• The Three I's of Twenty-First-Century Dharma

Individuality, Independence, Interdependence—Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche on three principles that bring dharma into our lives today.


• You Can't Fail at Meditation

ABC News anchor Dan Harris gets the inside story on mindfulness and compassion from Buddhist teachers Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Mark Esptein.  


• Useless Advice

Zen teacher Norman Fischer has some surprising advice for university graduates: the best thing you can do in life is something that serves no purpose.  


other voices

• Full Engagement

If you zone out or slack off, you're setting yourself up for failure. In our intimate relationships, says Sakyong Mipham, we need to be fully present.  


• Five Things to Give Away

"Slow Cleaning" isn't just drawn-out housecleaning, says Christian McEwen. It's a chance to bring attention to what we have and decide what to let go.  


• Silent Is Part of the Song

Q&A with Meredith Monk.

reviews & more

• Review: Minding the Earth, Mending the World: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis

Reviewed by Jessica Morey.

• Books in Brief

This issue's roundup includes books on mindful eating, spirituality for atheists, and the art of awakening as you grow older.

• About a Poem

Sherab Chodzin on the poetry of Kay Ryan. 

Shambhala Sun, November 2014, Volume Twenty Three, Number 2.

On the Cover: Rat photo (c) Dave Bredeson /

To order a trial subscription to the Shambhala Sun, click here.

Books in Brief (November 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | November 2014

Books in Brief

A Guide to Spirituality without Religion

By Sam Harris
Simon & Schuster 2014; 256 pp., $26 (cloth)

The author of The End of Faith, Sam Harris is a scathing critic of religion and anything that he deems superstition. Yet he considers himself to be spiritual and has spent many years practicing meditation. As he explains it, human beings experience altered states of consciousness under a wide range of conditions—sometimes they manifest spontaneously, while at other times they’re brought about through drug use, a near death experience, or a spiritual practice such as meditation. Generally, these altered states are interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, but this, Harris says, is a mistake. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and so on can all experience self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, and inner light. Their experiences, therefore, do not constitute evidence in support of their individual religious beliefs, since their beliefs are incompatible with one another. As such, Harris concludes, a deeper principle must be at work—one that’s universal and secular. In Waking Up, Harris explores where spirituality and science meet, including an analysis of the relationship between the brain and consciousness. He also gives readers instruction in meditation as a rational spiritual practice.


A 12-Week Mindfulness Program for Yoga Practitioners

By Anne Cushman
Shambhala Publications 2014; 288 pp., $19.95 (paper)

We often put yoga in a box called “body practice.” Yet as soon as we step our bare feet on a yoga mat, we crash into our mind and the full gamut of human emotions. Likewise, we tend to think of meditation as a mental activity, but our body—with its itchy shins and aching back—follows us to the cushion every time. Body and mind were never meant to be separate, and Moving Into Meditation can help us experience them as a whole. To implement the twelve-step program in this book, it doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned yogi or a relative beginner. And it doesn’t matter if you do Anusara or Ashtanga, Iyengar or Bikram. As long as you know at least an asana or two, you can discover how to deepen your yoga practice and become more intimate with yourself and your world.


A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery

By Polly Young-Eisendrath
Rodale 2014; 288 pp., $24.99 (cloth)

Many have gone through the ordeal of watching their parents or grandparents suffer from Alzheimer’s, and a plethora of books have been written on the illness from that perspective. But as psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath points out in The Present Heart, the experience is significantly different when it’s your spouse who’s gotten the diagnosis. Young-Eisendrath met Edward Epstein on an airplane in 1969. Then, a decade later, chance reunited them. They broke off their existing relationships, married each other, and proceeded to love, work, bicker, and grow together. In 2001, however, Epstein began an insidious decline in his emotional and intellectual maturity, and by 2009 the reason was confirmed: he had early-onset Alzheimer’s. In telling the story of her marriage, Young-Eisendrath brings to bear her many years of Buddhist practice and sheds light on impermanence, pain, and the true nature of love.


How to Live Well While Dying

By Karen Speerstra and Herbert Anderson
Divine Arts 2014; 284 pp., $18.95 (paper)

One day, ten years after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Karen Speerstra arrived home during a storm. The snow was piled so high in the driveway that she couldn’t pull in and had to walk about fifty yards, uphill. As she trudged through the deep snow, fatigue hit her like a wall. It was then that she decided there would be no more chemo for her; it was no longer working, and she wanted quality of life now, not quantity. Speerstra passed away in November 2013, but—working with friend and cancer survivor Herbert Anderson—she has left behind The Divine Art of Dying, which is part memoir and part spiritual, philosophical, and psychological guidebook for gravely ill people who choose to face death head on. As it says in the introduction, “This book seeks to rewrite the old cliché ‘I want to live until I die’ and make it ‘I recognize I can choose to live fully, sometimes sadly, but often joyously and with great gratitude as long as I can.”


Awaken as You Grow Older

By Kathleen Dowling Singh
Wisdom Publications 2014; 240 pp., $17.95 (paper)

“Being old is new for us,” quips dharma practitioner and psychotherapist Kathleen Dowling Singh. “Nevertheless, it’s a bit disingenuous of us to pretend that we’re not aging.” Like dying, aging is a subject we often resist exploring in any depth, particularly as it relates to us personally. Yet aging is inevitable, and the energy we expend in avoiding this truth would be better spent experiencing the simple of joy of right now. Aging does not automatically result in spiritual maturity, so any transformation we undergo is dependent on our own intention. The Grace in Aging is for those who over the course of their lives have been drawn to spiritual practice and who would like to dedicate their remaining years to going deeper and finding more sanity, kindness, and peace. Singh has attempted to present the material as ecumenically as possible, but if you’re far along on a particular path, there may be some phrasing that seems at odds with it. Singh encourages you to “translate” what she says into the view and diction of your own wisdom tradition.


Talks, Essays, & an Interview

By Andrew Schelling
Singing Horse Press 2014; 214 pp., $18.95 (paper)


India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing

Edited by Andrew Schelling
Counterpoint 2014; 294 pp., $24 (cloth)

A longtime faculty member of Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Andrew Schelling is passionate about all facets of language, and The Real People of Wind and Rain reflects this. Schelling’s exploration of storytelling, etymology, poetics, and translation is meandering and makes many surprising connections to ecology and place. Buddhists might particularly enjoy his essay “Zen & the Precepts of Baseball,” which was originally published in the Shambhala Sun. Also from Schelling is the new anthology Love and the Turning Seasons, a sampling of spiritual and erotic poems spanning 2,500 years and all hailing from the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, in this context, the mystical and the carnal blur together. Mahadeviyakka, one of the featured poets, is a good example. Born in the twelfth century, she considered herself wedded to a form of Shiva whom she called “the White Jasmine Lord.” She left her unhappy marriage with a mortal man and, as if drunk on divinity, she took to wandering wearing nothing but her long hair. “O lord white as jasmine,” she asked, “when do I join you stripped of body’s shame and heart’s modesty?”


Unique Culture, Unique Nature

By John Dougill
Tuttle 2014; 192 pp., $34.95 (cloth)

The photography in Japan’s World Heritage Sites is a visual feast. One of my favorite images shows snow nestled in the curly roof of Japan’s iconic Golden Pavilion, a functioning Zen temple. Another favorite image is of the Shingon Buddhist temple, Daigo-ji, in the autumn, with its vermillion shrine and arched bridge the same intense color as the leaves. But this stunning new coffee-table book is more than pictures; it is also a rich source of both cultural tidbits and practicalities. After college, I taught English in Japan and spent my twenty-fourth birthday at Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto’s premier pilgrimage site. But, as I learned from reading this book, while I was there I missed out on a fascinating if eyebrow-raising experience. In the basement at Kiyomizu-dera, there is an unlit hall dedicated to the Buddha’s mother. For one hundred yen, you can fumble around in the pitch blackness, which is meant to symbolize the womb.


By Gina Bates Brown
Wisdom Publications 2014; 24 pp., $15.95 (cloth)

Impermanence, compassion, and mindfulness are heavy topics, yet Zen and Bodhi’s Snowy Day addresses them with a light, playful touch that is appropriate for young children. The main characters are two koala bears: Zen, who wears bunny slippers and stripped pajamas, and Bodhi, who wears orange ear muffs and a polka dot scarf. Using rhythm and rhyme, Gina Bates Brown tells the story of these bright-eyed bears and their host of friends—cardinals, rabbits, deer, and a blue jay. They wake up to a snowy day, make snow angels, taste snowflakes. They feel the cold breeze; they inhale and exhale. These are simple adventures, but it is this simplicity that makes the bears so easy for kids to relate to. Sarah Jane Hinder does a delightful job with the book’s vibrant illustrations.


Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice

By Charles Johnson
Shambhala Publications 2014; 208 pp., $17.95 (paper)

A former professional cartoonist, Charles Johnson is a professor emeritus and writer who won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1990, making him the second black American male to receive this prize, after Ralph Ellison. At age fourteen, Johnson was perusing his mother’s bookshelf when he found a volume on yoga with a chapter dealing with meditation. Immediately sitting down to follow his breath, he felt himself in the here and now. But as peaceful and renewing as this experience was, it also scared him. Meditation felt like such a powerful tool that maybe he couldn’t control it. By 1981, however, he’d found the meditation teachers he needed and began a daily practice in earnest. Now, in Taming the Ox, Johnson explores Buddhist themes, especially the recent emergence of black American dharma practice. While Johnson chews on tough topics in this collection of essays and works of short fiction, it’s an engaging and at times humorous read.


By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press 2014; 128 pp., $9.95 (paper)

While some monastic communities deemphasize food in favor of focusing wholly on the spiritual, Thich Nhat Hanh’s community considers food central to practice. “In the Catholic tradition, in the Eucharist,” Thich Nhat Hanh says, “you see the piece of bread as the body of Jesus. In the Buddhist tradition, we see the piece of bread as the body of the cosmos.” When we mindfully savor each bite, we understand that in bread there’s the sun and rain, the soil and compost, the farmer and baker, because without any one of them there’d be no bread. So, when we eat mindfully, we feel nourished by and connected to the universe. We also become more aware of own bodies and emotions and, thus, naturally eat in moderation, leading to better health. Moreover, mindful eating is a powerful tool for social change. In deeply contemplating our food we find ourselves inspired to advocate for best-farming practices and/or take action on behalf of the world’s hungry. How to Eat is a concise and cheerful guide to mindful cooking, serving meals, eating, and washing the dishes.

From the November 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Useless Advice (November 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | November 2014


Useless Advice

Zen teacher NORMAN FISCHER has some surprising advice for university graduates: the best thing you can do in life is something that serves no purpose.

These days when I visit a university, I feel as if I were in heaven. I imagine that heaven must be exactly like a university campus—everyone young and healthy, spending their time in social and intellectual pursuits, flowers in season, the trees well trimmed, the lawns manicured, the buildings more or less matching and clean.

A university is by definition a place of promise, and students are promising individuals. Because of what you have received—not only from your university but also from your families and friends, who have given you a lot of love and support—you now have the skills and the connections and the obligation to do great things.

That means not only great things for yourselves. You are expected to do great things for others, and for the world. We all have high hopes for you, probably higher hopes than you have for yourselves. Let’s be honest. As much as we discuss and practice wise punditry, we older people don’t really know what the world will require in the coming times. We are a bit bewildered and unsure, though we hate to admit it. To grow old is to gradually cease to understand the times in which you live. So we are placing our trust and our hope in you. No pressure, of course. But the promise of the future really is yours.

Yet the truth is, it is not going to be so easy to survive your promising life.

Zoketsu Norman Fischeris the founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation. His most recent book is Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong. This article is adapted from “How to Survive Your Promising Life,” his 2014 Baccalaureate address at Stanford University.

From the November 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

You Can't Fail at Meditation (November 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | November 2014

You Can't Fail at Meditation

DAN HARRIS gets the inside story on mindfulness and compassion from Buddhist teachers JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN, SHARON SALZBERG, and MARK EPSTEIN.

It was a pretty sweet opportunity, really. The poobahs from the Shambhala Sun Foundation came to me and said: pick your favorite Buddhist teachers, and we’ll set up a public speaking event for you in New York City. Also, they promised to promote my new book (10% Happier—available in fine bookstores everywhere) in the process. A no-brainer.

So I invited three teachers: 1. Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, who is a bestselling author and perhaps America’s premier proponent of loving-kindness meditation; 2. Joseph Goldstein, also a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, author, one of the most respected and revered meditation instructors in the US, and my own personal teacher; and 3. Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who writes brilliant books about the overlap and interplay between psychology and Buddhism.

To be honest, I was a bit nervous, sitting out there alongside three of my beloved teachers in front of a big crowd at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center. It wasn’t until I read this text that I fully realized what a wonderful evening it was. We discussed everything from the Jewish affinity for Buddhism to the controversy over mindfulness in business to the most skillful ways to handle problems in beginning meditation. Even my wife got roped, involuntarily, into the chat. Please enjoy.—Dan Harris

Dan Harris: Let me start by asking you, Mark, why there are so many Jews in the American Buddhist world?

Mark Epstein: Jews have always had to move between cultures. It’s not just Jews in Buddhism. There’s a long legacy of Jews taking the ideas of Islam and the Greeks and moving all through Europe, translating and retranslating.

I was raised much like you, Dan, in a Jewish academic environment with no spirituality. I was grudgingly Bar mitzvah’d because it was important to my father’s mother. In high school, I was attracted to Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco and the Theater of the Absurd—that sort of existential despair verging on humor that I now know can be read in a Buddhist way. When I first read Buddhist texts, and met Joseph and Sharon, I knew that here was something I’d been longing for that I couldn’t have named.


Dan Harris: Sharon, you’ve written two bestselling books on happiness. So what is real happiness? 

Sharon Salzberg: I define happiness as a kind of resourcefulness. It’s a sense of resiliency and the ability to meet things without being defined by them. It’s a source of profound strength inside ourselves, which we don’t always realize we have. Also, happiness is our connection to one another, so we don’t feel so cut off and alone. 

Joseph Goldstein: The Buddha said that the highest happiness is peace. Different things may make us happy at different times in our lives. But in the long haul, the things Sharon talked about actually manifest when the mind is peaceful. The feeling, the taste of peace, is very sweet.


Dan Harris: People say, “I know meditation is probably good for me, but my mind is too crazy. I could never do it.” How do you respond to that?

Sharon Salzberg: Those are my people, the ones who say they can’t do it. Or, people who say “I tried it once, but failed.” I really love those people, because you can’t fail at it. Meditation isn’t about what’s happening; it’s about how you relate to what’s happening. You can have a torrent of thoughts and difficult emotions, but that’s okay. You can be with them not only with mindfulness, but with compassion.

Usually when people start sitting, we say that five minutes is enough. You don’t have to think, “I’ve got to sit here for six hours.” You don’t have to get into some pretzel-like posture and suffer! Just choose an object of awareness—maybe the breath—and rest your mind there. You know that it’s not going to be 9,000 breaths before your mind wanders. It’ll likely be one. Maybe three, maybe just a half a breath!

The most important moment in the whole process is the moment after you’ve been distracted, after you’ve been lost or fallen asleep or whatever. That’s when you have the chance to be truly different. Instead of judging and berating yourself, you can practice letting go and beginning again. That’s the core teaching.

Mark Epstein: If meditation is hard, you’re probably doing it right.

Joseph Goldstein: One of the things we learn in meditation is how untrained our minds are. To me, one of the great beauties of the practice is to see the commonality of the experience. While the content, the stories may be a little different, the way we get caught up in our minds—and the way we let go—is exactly the same. So the more we understand ourselves, the more we understand each other.

When I started meditating, I didn’t have some amazing degree of concentration or anything. My mind just thought all the time, and it was fun! I was entertaining myself with thinking. So if I could come to some understanding of my mind and taste a little bit of peace, anybody can. And the more you practice the better you get at it.

Mark Epstein: One of the things that I’m grateful for is getting to know my teachers as friends. I have no illusions about their meditation practice or who they were. I can see that they were just like me, and that is so encouraging.


Harris: What’s your advice for getting started? 

Joseph Goldstein: Something quite extraordinary can happen in even five minutes. The first time I sat, I was in the Peace Corps in Thailand and going to these Buddhist discussion groups. I was the guy who was asking a million questions and wouldn’t shut up. People literally stopped attending because I was there. [Laughter.] Finally, one of the monks said, “Why don’t you try meditating?”

So I got all my paraphernalia and I set my alarm clock so I wouldn’t over-sit. Even though it was just five minutes, something extraordinary happened. It’s not that I achieved any great state, but I discovered that there was a way to look into the mind as well as look out through it. It was a revelation to see that there was a methodology for looking inward, regardless of what one found. Up until that point I’d always been looking outward. It set me on the path.

Sharon Salzberg: Practicing meditation is a powerful tool. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to go from sweetness to delight to joy to bliss to ecstasy to peace in a straight shot. It’s not like that.

I’m somewhat famous for having marched up to my first meditation teacher, looking him in the eye, and saying, “I never used to be an angry person before I started meditating” [laughter]. I was laying the blame exactly where I felt it belonged—on him!

Of course, I’d been hugely angry before, but I hadn’t really paid much attention to it. So it’s perfectly natural when you start meditating to see a huge array of thoughts and feelings you may have been ignoring. This is one of the reasons why it’s very reassuring to work with a teacher or have a class, a guide, or a community. They can remind you that it’s about being aware of what’s going on, not trying to fight it. Not getting caught up in it. Being able to move your attention somewhere else so you get some relief. Having some compassion for yourself instead of judgment. It’s really useful to be able to tap into that kind of counsel.


Dan Harris: Mindfulness is starting to take off in many parts of society, especially in corporate settings. Is this a good thing?

Epstein: Over the past thirty or forty years, I’ve watched mindfulness meditation take root in the West, first in mental hospitals and the psychiatric profession and now in the corporate world. I think it’s basically a great thing. Whatever helps anybody is wonderful, and it’s bringing all kinds of people into themselves in a good way. Obviously, there’s danger in diluting the profundity of the teachings and I think it’s a shame that mindfulness without progressing to insight is the only exposure that many people are going to get. But so be it.


Dan Harris: What do you mean by “mindfulness without progressing to insight”?

Epstein: Mindfulness is like a technology that you apply to the mind so that you begin to generate insight into yourself and your place in the world. That brings about compassion. Insights into the nature, or non-nature, of the self are very important in Buddhist thought.

Joseph Goldstein: I don’t have a problem with it at all. As Mark said, if it helps people, then it’s a good thing. I trust that those people who want to take it further will find a path to go deeper. And those many people who might not have that desire? They’ve gotten something.

For me, the main concern is that the opportunity to practice the teachings in depth continues to be available for those who want it. But aside from that, the more people who practice any level of mindfulness the better.


Dan Harris: But if one becomes as peaceful as a Joseph Goldstein, is one going to become ineffective in the world? [Laughter.]

Sharon Salzberg: Of course Joseph is quite effective in the world. But it’s true that being ineffective is what people fear about mindfulness. We tell them, “You’re going to learn how to accept things the way that they are,” and “You’re going to be with things without reacting.” Well, that sounds dull and moronic! I remember starting a sitting once by asking people to listen to the sounds in the room. Somebody raised their hand right away and said, “Well, if it’s the sound of the smoke alarm, should I sit here mindfully knowing that the smoke alarm is going off or should I get up?” I said, “Well, I’d get up.” But the words can make it sound like you’re just going to be inert and not care.

The truth is that if you’re drinking a cup of tea and you’re really feeling the warmth of the cup and really smelling and tasting the tea, it will be a much better cup of tea. But that is secondary to insight—to understanding your life, to understanding the nature of the world. We realize that we are actually all connected, that we should help one another. It’s a completely different way to live. That’s what mindfulness is actually for.

Joseph Goldstein: Just look at the Dalai Lama or Aung San Suu Kyi. They’re people who are dealing with complexity and a tremendous amount of suffering, and you can see how the practice of mindfulness and compassion empowers everything they do. You can’t meet the Dalai Lama and think that he’s flat. He’s so engaged and full of life! These people are models for us.

Sharon Salzberg: Dan, I’m interested in your relationship to loving-kindness meditation. You’ve used the word “annoying” to describe it.

Dan Harris: I stand by that. It’s really annoying. Basically, the shtick is that you picture a series of people and systematically send them good vibes like, May you be happy, May you live with ease, May you be safe and protected. It’s like a Hallmark card with a machete to your throat.

It’s tough stuff, especially when it’s first proposed to you. What I find revolutionary about meditation—straight up mindfulness meditation—is that we assume, consciously or subconsciously, that our happiness is contingent upon external factors: the circumstance of our birth, the quality of our marriage, the quality of our career; whether we’ve hit the lottery, and so on. What has allowed a skeptic like me to embrace meditation is that it’s a skill you can develop. You can practice it just like you can practice building your bicep in a gym. And I find that really exciting.

Compassion is a skill we can learn too. As corny as loving-kindness meditation may seem, it’s not going to make you become some dopey, endlessly, mindlessly loving person in the world. It’s that not seeing everything through a veil of suspicion and hatred actually improves your life. It can make you more popular and is a great manipulation tool around the office. [Laughter.]


Question from the audience: Dan, has there been a change since you “came out” as a mindfulness practitioner at work? Has there been any impact in your relations with folks at ABC? 

Dan Harris: I came out—to use your phrase—in 2010 after I used my summer vacation to go on a ten-day meditation death march with Goldstein. [Laughter.] People kept asking, “Why would you do that?”

That’s how I eventually came up with this whole “10% happier” thing. At first, I’d either clam up and not know what to say, or I’d get overly emphatic and give long lectures about the benefits of meditation. Neither was a successful strategy. Finally, one day I was talking to a close friend of mine at work. She asked me about the ten-day retreat, and I said, “Well, I’m doing this because it makes me about 10% happier.” When the look on her face went from scorn to interest, I knew I had my angle! The people I talk to now range from apathetic to mildly interested! [Laughter.]

I’m not a meditation teacher, but I do like my role as cheerleader. I’m still doing my job the way I’ve always done it. There’s not some huge change where I’m now handing out flowers or meditation tracts around the office. I still swear a lot and my wife Bianca can give you the “90% still a moron” speech. [Laughter] Wait, she has a mike? Oh, this will be great. Bianca, are you meditating?

Bianca Harris: I do not meditate but I certainly support it. It’s on my list of things to do. It has certainly changed Dan in ways that are not entirely measureable but I think we’re much more peaceful than we were, both individually and as a couple.

Harris: Well said. I gave her those lines! [Laughter.]

Bianca: He hasn’t changed that much.


Mark Epstein: At the beginning of your book, Dan, you talk a lot about Peter Jennings. Is there some relationship between the way Peter Jennings influenced you to perfect your journalistic work, and your relationship with your Buddhist teachers?

Dan Harris: What’s different dealing with Joseph and Sharon as teachers, as opposed to dealing with Peter, is that I’m not deathly afraid of them. It’s surreal when somebody who’s world famous is yelling at you! Peter was also extraordinarily nice to me at really key moments too, but it wasn’t something I could count on. I can count on that with these guys, even when they’re pointing out that I’m being a moron.


Question from the audience: I find that when I meditate thoughts pop into my head and a lot of them are very anxiety provoking. Often they elicit a physical response. Should I embrace this or just be aware of it? 

Joseph Goldstein: What you’re describing is not unusual at all. See if you can relax into the sensations of the anxiety, knowing that it’s okay to feel them.

When I started meditating the major difficult emotion that was deeply conditioned in my mind was fear. I worked with it for a long time, thinking I was being mindful of it. But finally I realized that even as I was recognizing my fear, I wanted it to go away. Then there was a moment when I was doing walking meditation and something shifted. I thought, “If this fear is here for the rest of my life, it’s okay.”

That was my first moment of genuinely accepting my fear. Acceptance doesn’t mean that fear doesn’t arise anymore, but acceptance does change the relationship. It’s the same with anxiety: It’s okay to feel it.

So acceptance is the first step. Once you’re okay with the feeling, then you don’t need to be afraid of the thoughts. You see the thoughts come and go.

Normally, our thoughts have tremendous power in our lives. They are the dictators of our mind: Go here, go there, do this, do that. We’re the slaves of our thoughts. And yet when we are aware of them, when we are mindful that we’re thinking, we see that a thought as a phenomenon is completely empty and fleeting. It’s little more than nothing! It’s tremendously interesting to learn this about one’s mind. It’s very freeing!

From the November 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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