After ABC anchor Dan Harris had a panic attack on live national TV in front of 5 million people, he turned to meditation, something he had previously thought was "uniquely ridiculous and only for people who were collectors of crystals or really into ultimate Frisbee." But he learned that meditation, or what he calls a "bicep curl for your brain," might help you eat less and enjoy your food more. He is the author of the best-selling book 10% Happier.
David Leite: How does meditation and being 10 percent happier, to use the title of your book, connect with food and eating?
Dan Harris: I always thought meditation was uniquely ridiculous and only for people who were collectors of crystals or really into ultimate Frisbee. As it turns out, it's just simple brain exercise.
One of the things it does for you is make you more aware of what's happening in your mind at any given moment so that you're not carried away by it. Which, if you think about it, is a superpower. We're often yanked around by our urges and impulses, which are what have us losing our temper and regretting it later, checking our email when we're supposed to be listening to our children, and doing things like putting our hand in the fridge when we're not actually hungry. There is a direct bearing on how much we eat and how much we enjoy it from meditation.
DL: Do you think that people who are meditating are more aware of what they're eating and therefore maybe can control their eating patterns?
DH: Correct. Although I have to say that I've been meditating for a couple of years, and last night I overdid it at dinner. It's not uncommon for me to do that, hence the name of the book, 10% Happier. I am certainly not claiming to be an avatar of perfection.
But meditation or mindfulness, which is the term of art, the ability to see what's going on in your head without being carried away by it, that can be directly targeted at eating. It has been targeted at eating by scientists and researchers and it's been shown to work.
DL: Can meditating and being more mindful create more pleasure when you're eating?
DH: Absolutely. Think about how often you eat while doing other things. I do it all the time still, but if you can take just a few seconds to notice what you're eating and how it tastes, you will enjoy it a lot more than you will if you're simultaneously sending emails.
By the way, if you're noticing what you're eating and noticing how full you are at any given moment, you may not eat as much. One of the reasons why diets often fail is that there's a feeling of deprivation or a fear of deprivation. With mindful eating, the trick is that you're supposed to reach a pleasant satiety. You need the mental wherewithal, the mindfulness, to notice when you've reached that point.
DL: I'm sure you're familiar with the phrase "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." What was the first step that took you on this journey of meditation?
DH: The first thing was that I had a panic attack on national television. This was in June of 2004. I was reading the news updates on Good Morning America and I just basically lost the ability to breathe. I had to quit right in the middle. It was extremely, extremely embarrassing.
The root of it was that I had spent many years overseas covering wars for ABC News in the early part of the 2000s. After 9/11 I was in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. When I got home, I got depressed and I just made a very, very dumb decision: I self-medicated with recreational drugs.
Even though this was a very brief period of time -- I never did it when I was working, and definitely not when I was on the air -- after I had the panic attack, I learned from my doctor that the drugs I was using raised the level of adrenaline in my brain and primed me to have this panic attack. That moment of figuring out what a moron I had been really set this whole thing in motion. [Ed. note: Harris wrote about his experience here.]
DH: I don't think it's complicated. First of all, it doesn't involve joining any group, paying any money, believing in anything in particular or wearing special outfits. I'm talking about 5 minutes a day of completely secular meditation, which can coexist with whatever your faith is or work with people who are like me, agnostics.
I think it will change the relationship in your life to the voice in your head that yanks you around and has you doing all the things that many of us live to regret like eating too much or, in my case, in a very high-profile example, making some bad personal decisions that blow up in your face on national television.
I can teach you how to do it in fewer letters than it takes to send a tweet. I'm going to give you a slightly longer version than the tweet version, but it's still pretty short.
1. Sit with your spine straight and your eyes closed.
I say have your spine straight -- you don't have to get militant about it. It's mostly just because I don't want you to fall asleep.
2. Notice where you feel your breath most prominently: your nose, your chest, your belly.
Try to focus on the feeling of the breath coming in and going out. There's nothing special about the breath except that it's always there unless you're in real trouble. It's something that's very portable that you can focus on. It's portable and perennial -- you can focus on it all the time.
3. Every time your mind wanders, catch yourself and bring your focus back to the breath.
The third step is the key. Your mind, you will find, is going to wander to a million things: Why am I doing this? What am I going to have for lunch? Why did I say that stupid thing to my boss? Every time your mind wanders, catch yourself and bring your focus back to the breath. When you do that, you're breaking a lifetime of habit of walking around in a fog of memory and projection, and actually focusing on what's going on right now. That's a bicep curl for your brain.
That's it. It's a series of failures and then finding the grit to start over again.
David Leite is the publisher of the website Leite's Culinaria, which has won two James Beard awards. He is the author Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression, as well as The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors from Europe's Western Coast, which won the 2010 IACP First Book/Julia Child Award. His writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Pastry Art & Design, Food Arts, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Washington Post and the Charlotte Observer. His awards include a 2008 James Beard award for Newspaper Feature Writing Without Recipes, a 2006 Bert Green Award for Food Journalism, and Association of Food Journalists awards in 2006 and 2007.