Dan Harris suffered a very public panic attack in 2004. Trevor Noah talks to him about meditation mindfulness and how it changed him.
Mindfulness meditation and panic attacks; Dan Harris and Trevor Noah
Among the more interesting meditation book releases from 2018 is “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics” written by Dan Harris, Jeff Warren with Carlye Adler. Harris is an ABC news anchor who talks in an interview on The Daily Show about a panic attack he experienced during the Good Morning America broadcast in 2004. Millions saw the attack unfold both live on TV but also as a YouTube clip. Although originally a meditation skeptic, when Harris came into contact with evidence that meditation can lower your blood pressure boost the immune system and lead to functional and structural change in the brain he started to take the idea more seriously.
Harris recounted to fellow TV personality Trevor Noah how the ability to find a secular approach had been important in his meditation journey. But he revealed that mindfulness didn’t solve all of his problems, rather it made him “less of a moron”. He described his own practice as a simple form of breathing meditation accessible to anyone, and that as little as a minute of mindfulness might be worth attempting. In the interview meditation is broadly defined as paying attention to what you are doing, whilst this is not a universally accepted explanation, it does indicate the functional approach the book is trying to promote.
Can meditation make you “less of a moron”?
It’s clear that Dan Harris is a convert to meditation, he speaks in glowing terms about the simplicity of the concept and the ability of mindfulness to deliver real world benefits. His panic attack appears to have been the catalyst to his meditation journey, it may be part of the reason why he talks about meditation in such a down-to-earth and open way. Ending the interview on a lighter note Harris strongly suspects that Donald Trump does not meditate but welcomes enquiries from the President by call or Tweet!
Mindfulness researchers and practitioners from across the south east are being invited to a one day free event by the Eastern ARC and the University of Kent. The day will be structured in two parts, the morning will be given over to presentations explaining the applications of contemporary mindfulness in different contexts. The afternoon sessions will be workshop driven, focusing on skills training.
The event is free, will be based in Keynes College in Canterbury and is open to students, staff, and external partners.
I have just reviewed a recent (2017) meta study that pooled the results of ten research papers exploring the connection between mindfulness and stopping smoking? The headline is that there was no apparent benefit to giving up smoking attributable to mindfulness meditation.
The findings are somewhat surprising because speaking from experience, there is a very low incidence of smoking among meditators in general. It should be pointed out that the review highlighted a number of significant methodological weaknesses in the research (an unfortunate recent trend in contemplative science). However smoking cessation and meditation can be regarded as still being at the preliminary stage.
A distinction should be drawn between secular mindfulness meditation studies and traditional forms of meditation practice. Particularly where mindfulness participants are encouraged or ‘obliged’ to meditate as part of university undergraduate programmes. In traditional schools, meditation tends not to be used as a specific therapeutic intervention. Rather it offers holistic development to the meditator, enabling them to make choices about what they want to do with their lives and it hopefully supports them by providing the necessary mental surplus.
Running mindfully in the Medway towns. One day course with Stuart McLeod and Cesare Saguato. Full details at their Facebook page.
“This one-day workshop has been designed to provide a full introduction to a range of mindfulness skills and practices and their application to running. The day will be suited for beginners in both running and meditation as well as those who have experience in one or both.
Running is now one of the most popular forms of exercise in the UK, with studies suggesting a range of benefits for the health of our body and mind, such as helping to prevent obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure, and boosting sleep quality and mood.
At RUNZEN, our new workshops combine mindfulness meditation methods in movement through running, enabling the act of running to become a medium through which mindfulness can be practiced and established. We believe the integration of mind-body awareness can both improve mental health and our running simultaneously for greater all-round wellbeing, which can then be brought back into our everyday life.
We will cover core themes and practices during the day – which will also act as an introduction for anyone interested in attending our four-week Mindfulness for Runners course.”
Obstacles to meditation include resistance to start and a failure to continue. Perhaps meditation groups in prison can offer us some inspiration?
Ongoing institutional meditation programmes demonstrate the ability of Buddhist approaches to benefit a wide range of people, even in challenging situations. Compassion Works for All is involved in activities including the running of meditation groups in US prisons.
Cliff Plegg has been volunteering for Compassion Works for a year, his primary role is leading a monthly meditation class in an Arkansas correctional institution. In addition to teaching meditation, Cliff is also compiling a list of yoga and meditation resources that prisoners can engage with when they are released. Plegg has overcome a plenty of challenges in his own life having been diagnosed with avascular necrosis. This pattern of someone overcoming personal obstacles, then moving on to trying to help others is a pretty common theme in meditators.
So what does a volunteer meditation programme in an Arkansas prison have to do with UK meditators? Meditation is taught by different organizations in prisons around the world, some more well known than others. The universal appeal of meditation transcends geographical and cultural barriers. Meditation has an appeal which inspires both teachers and practitioners from all parts of society. Unfortunately the challenge isn’t only getting people to start a practice, but also to continue it to the point where it has a lasting effect. This ‘biting point’ of meditation is the moment at which the benefits become apparent at the level of personal experience. When someone knows something is delivering a significant and sustainable benefit, it becomes much easier to make an informed choice regarding the value of the resource.
Just one session can be enough to get a sense that meditation is a useful or interesting activity, this however may not the ‘biting point’. Only when the student understands, (however fleetingly), that they have some control over their experience of the world can the meditator pass to an intermediate level of practice. I am a great believer that all meditation is useful on some level, most of my own students have tried meditation of some informal kind before they engage with a more regular practice. But such is the hype of the meditation ‘industry’ that a casual observer might imagine that sitting on a cushion once or twice may be sufficient to unravel years of negative thinking.
The common factor between meditators in Canterbury, Rochester or Arkansas is that we all see the potential of meditation to offer us solutions for our day to day problems. Once that important first step is taken, the next goal is to establish a practice, to continue to the point of realizing what the method is able to do. I don’t take a prescriptive approach to meditation, students must want to do it and feel it’s right for them. My advice has been the same for at least a decade, if you want to meditate, find a reliable teacher (or guidance), use an authentic and appropriate method and put in the necessary effort.
I offer good wishes to Cliff Plegg and all meditators, particularly those currently incarcerated.
Biome and meditation, what you eat and drink may be exerting a strong influence on your meditation practice.
One of the biggest problems in researching the benefits of meditation is understanding the potential confounds. In essence, what factors other than the meditation method itself exert an influence on subsequent behavior. Lifestyle questionnaires normally reveal significant differences between long standing meditators and the wider population. Given the range and diversity of meditation methods available, generalisations are quite difficult . However I’d expect experienced meditators from the Buddhist schools to eat less meat and take fewer intoxicants than the wider population. There are also more subtle variations. For example, in some approaches, meditators may drink alcohol yet abstain from scallions (the food group that includes garlic and onions). Another group might have a tendency to eat meat but not consume any food after their lunchtime meal. So does this matter and if so why?
The emerging research of the human microbiota (microorganisms living in or on humans, primarily in the gut) is demonstrating an increasingly close connection between gut bacteria, health and wellbeing. This is a dynamic area of enquiry but studies have implicated gut bacteria in conditions as diverse as obesity, migraine and depression. Typically science demonstrates a correlation between gut bacteria and a particular condition. For example people that suffer from migraines tend to have different bacteria when compared to people not suffering from migraines.
The key message is that meditators should think about what they eat if they want to maximize the benefits of their meditation practice.
The early signs are that the human biome may be more influential than causal in health. Meaning that your gut flora makes it more or less likely that you will or won’t suffer from a particular condition. Our gut flora is established at birth but it is subject to changes throughout our lives. We introduce bacteria from a range of sources, primarily from what we eat and drink. So if, for example, it was discovered that bacteria associated with eating chicken was linked to depression (which it isn’t as far as I know). It would have implications for meditators working with depression.
All this won’t come as any great surprise to long standing practitioners, many of the people in my own meditation circle already think about what they eat quite carefully. The influence of the biome on human health shouldn’t really make any difference to meditators. Reliable meditation is likely to have an effect in every instance, although your practice might be strongly influenced by what you eat.
Nicole Perkins and Cesare Saguato are running a Mindfulness Retreat in February. The venue is Gayles, a beautiful retreat centre in outstanding countryside on the South Downs in the South East of England.
Nicole and Cesare trained to teach mindfulness with Bangor University and Oxford Mindfulness Centre respectively, and are both UK Network registered teachers who run 8-week courses, talks and workshops on mindfulness. Nicole is currently completing a research PhD in compassion at King’s College London and Cesare runs a private psychotherapy practice. They are delighted to come together to offer this retreat.