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Lions Roar : May 2019
Then I can bait-and-switch you and say, ‘Here’s Sharon Salzberg.’” When Harris first approached Salzberg about working with him on the app, he gave it to her straight, saying, “You people think you’re so main- stream? You’re not.” He would, he promised, be the American Buddhist world’s conduit to the masses. The plan appears to be working. The 10% Hap- pier company doesn’t release specific user numbers, but says people have clocked in for more than fifty million minutes of mindfulness. The podcast has been downloaded more than ten million times. Goldstein and Salzberg have both encountered new students on retreats saying they came after being introduced to meditation through the app. Salzberg says, “A middle-aged man came up to me, cry- ing, and said, ‘I’ve been trying for seventeen years to practice. I now have a reliable practice. I had a breakthrough because of the app.’” Harris’s regular-guy aversion to “woo-woo” spirituality makes him the perfect conduit to the masses—and a great fit for Buddhism, Goldstein says. “I appreciate the combination of his dedica- tion to the practice and his skeptical mindset,” he says. “It’s something the Buddha himself recom- mended—not to take things on blind faith but to really investigate it.” DAN HARRIS HAS BEEN APPLYING his journalist’s mentality to Buddhism since 2008, when a series of chance events in his life led him to practice. It began in 2004, when he had a panic attack on national television dur- ing a broadcast of Good Morning America. He had struggled with anxiety and depression since return- ing, the year before, from war zone coverage in Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, and Iraq. To cope, he had turned to sporadic use of cocaine and ecstasy, which, he later learned, only compounded the chances that he’d eventually have a panic attack. At the same time, his boss at ABC Nightly News, Peter Jennings, assigned him to cover religion. He resisted, pleading intense skepticism. Jennings wasn’t swayed. Soon enough, Harris was digging into his new beat enthusiastically, find- ing it full of juicy stories from politically powerful evangelicals to mosques facing a post-9/11 world to the growing self-help movement. In 2008, a producer recommended he read a book by Eckhart Tolle, the Oprah-approved guru who wrote The Power of Now and A New Earth. Harris read some Tolle, thinking the author might make a good story. Harris was both intrigued and appalled as he paged through Tolle’s work. Most of it was nothing more than what he calls “pseudoscientific asser- tions” and “grandiose claims.” But one thing Tolle said sparked his first real spiritual realization: that we all have a “voice” in our heads, an ongoing con- versation that isn’t necessarily helpful. It judges and prods and generally jerks us around, encouraging us into mindless coping mechanisms like doing a little coke. But if we could just separate ourselves from that voice, Tolle taught, we could make some serious headway in life. Harris interviewed Tolle, eager to figure out what to do with this insight. But he was disap- pointed when he asked Tolle for practical advice in dealing with the voice and Tolle’s only answer was, “ Take one conscious breath.” That hardly seemed like enough. It wasn’t until Harris complained about his frustration with Tolle’s wisdom and its limits to his then-fiancée, Bianca (now his wife), that he made some headway. She said Tolle’s insight sounded an awful lot like Buddhism. She recommended Harris read Mark Epstein, a New York City–based psychiatrist who writes about Buddhism and psy- chotherapy. His works up to that point included Psychotherapy Without the Self and Thoughts With- out a Thinker. Like a good journalist, Harris not only read Epstein’s work but tracked him down. He began meeting regularly with Epstein, asking questions about the Buddhist path and recording the conver- sations, taking the same methodical approach he “I don’t know if I believe in enlightenment per se,” Harris says, “but it’s scientifically proven that the mind is trainable. That’s the central promise of Buddhism, as I understand it.” LION’S ROAR | MAY 2019 52