Illuminating a nonjudgmental personal path to taking better care of mind and spirit, author Dan Harris made the case for a daily dose of meditation before 75 students, faculty, and staff in the newly redesigned lobby of the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. The hour-long event on Thursday, October 19—part of Inauguration Week 2023 marking the installation of Linda G. Mills as NYU president—helped listeners step out of the eternal, internal loop of “worry and expectations” by having them sit quietly and feel themselves breathing for about 10 minutes.
“Flourishing Together: Meditation and Mindful Connections” highlighted research findings showing the value of meditation for cultivating inner calm, balance, and mindfulness. A former anchor for ABC News, Nightline and Good Morning America who discovered this “ancient technology” after suffering a panic attack on live TV and writing a best-selling book—10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story—Harris offered insights in a Q&A with Krystal McLeod (CAS’16), director of the NYU Center on Violence and Recovery. For some attendees, the event was a welcome pause amid the stress of midterms, and a chance to participate in an Inauguration Week special event. For others, it was an opportunity to try meditating for the first time.
Mills’ participation in such an event would not surprise many on campus who are familiar with her years of efforts promoting mental health and wellbeing at NYU. As a senior administrator who was a clinical social worker early in her career, she acted as a driving force in destigmatizing wellness and improving access to key programs and services for students. One fruit of her efforts is the 24/7 Wellness Exchange hotline, available to students who have any question or issue about their wellbeing or want to engage with a professional. The hotline is a popular gateway to NYU’s broader counseling services, such as student appointments and walk-ins, wellness workshops, and referrals for long-term care. Still another is MindfulNYU, which fosters stress management, balance, and compassion through workshops, yoga, and group meditations. The Reality Show: NYU, which she co-created, is a musical that gives student performers a chance to voice sensitive thoughts, feelings, and conflicts.
Fielding a series of open-ended questions from McLeod, Harris described himself as a one-time skeptic of meditation who said he “self-medicated” after covering US military conflicts overseas. He was living “on autopilot,” he recalled, and saw a therapist on the advice of friends and loved ones before looking deeply into the history of meditation, yoga, and other traditions, and at the contemporary research evidence indicating its effectiveness.
“What really changed my mind was the science,” Harris said. “There’s a lot of science that strongly suggests that short daily doses of meditation can lower your blood pressure, boost your immune system; it’s been shown to be very helpful for anxiety and depression, both of which I’ve struggled with since I was a kid. And really cool research shows how a little bit of meditation can rewire key parts of your brain associated with attention regulation, focus, stress, self-awareness, compassion.”
The practice of meditation may be thousands of years old, but these days it’s more relevant than ever. Many experts consider it as routine and useful as getting enough sleep, eating healthfully, and exercising, explained Harris.
“Life is not linear—you cannot control much of what happens in the university; it’s chaotic, and impermanent, and fluxing—and that’s really uncomfortable,” he said. But even in times of relative prosperity and safety, personal anxiety still runs high because “we have been living lives where we are not experiencing that much friction.
“When we experience some anxiety,” he continued, “we tell ourselves a whole story that this is wrong, and then we cascade down. But if you’re not anxious, you’re dead. That is the human condition…that is part of being alive, and we need to develop a new relationship to impermanence, to entropy, and that’s a tough assignment. But shirking that assignment leads you pretty quickly to anxiety and struggle and suffering."
In response to the question about how to stay on track during the most difficult times, Harris told McLeod, “The world’s insane—and, how do you want to relate to it? Do you want to relate to it from a position of fear, anger, distress, trauma—some or most of which is absolutely natural. But to the extent to which you want to be as useful as possible in this world…is it by scrolling all the time? Is it by screaming at your intimate friends or screaming at strangers on the internet? Is that helping?”
As for the notion of being happier—whether by 10 percent or even more—Harris explained that “it’s your job to be happy. There is a geopolitical case for you to get your [life] together, because we need people who think constructively and engage with the problems with the world. And happiness doesn’t mean jumping up and down with excitement like you just got a cupcake or you just won the lottery, happiness is just a sense of balance, contentment, and wellbeing….It’s our jobs to put our own oxygen masks on first, as the cliché go—and then we’re able to help.”
One audience member asked Harris about the utility of meditation for those struggling with elemental challenges, whether poverty or violence, which Harris admitted is a circumstance that he—”an upper-middle class ex-anchorman who lives in the suburbs with his kids and four cats”—maybe be less qualified to answer. But, he noted, “meditation is being introduced into high-need populations. I have three quite close friends who run an organization in Baltimore and they go into some of the most challenging schools there, and they specifically ask for the most challenging students…and then they teach them yoga and meditation, and they’ve being doing this for 20 years, and they’ve been studied many times over by academics, and the outcomes are fantastic. So, I do think there’s a reason you’re seeing meditation offered in foster care, in prisons, in juvenile detention centers, because I think access to this ancient technology should also be a basic human right.”
The event was well received. Before returning to studying for her midterms and essay assignments, Luella Zhang, a master’s student in education and social policy at NYU Steinhardt, said, “I actually want to get in the habit of meditating.” She added that she was especially intrigued by how meditating can contribute to a good night's sleep, and how it might even help one to find “peace in your heart.”