Ten Percent Happier
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Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris
Episode Show NotesEpisode Show Notes

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Saleem Reshamwala Hey y'all. It's Saleem here. We did it. Last week for five straight days, we came together to talk openly about our feelings of dread. We tried out some ideas on how to cope better. We learned that we are most certainly not alone, whether it's in our fears about the distant future or anxiety over that Zoom call that you're about to have in an hour. We also uncovered some unexpected lightness, some humor, even some joy. And there's a lot more to take away and to reflect on. So in this episode right here, you're gonna hear me in conversation about all of that with Dan Harris, the host of the Ten Percent Happier podcast. He interviewed me for his show so we could debrief about how The Dread Project went for the thousands of y'all who participated. It was a fun hangout. We even drew our own visions of dread together. And if you haven't listened to The Dread Project Challenge yet, this is a great way to get some highlights. If you did participate this is the episode where you get to sit back and just listen to how you helped this project come alive. It's a fun conversation, especially just ahead of some of the holidays where there might be some sneaky dread lurking around the corner or at a dinner table. Okay, here's my conversation with Dan Harris.

Dan Harris Saleem, Reshamwala, welcome to the show.

Saleem Reshamwala Thank you so much. It's so good to be here.

Dan Harris It's great to meet you. I've listened to your voice so many times, I feel like I kind of know you.

Saleem Reshamwala Yeah. You know, in the same kind of podcast network here, listening to each other's stuff it's good to actually get the real Zoom connection happening between us.

Dan Harris All right. So let me ask you an obvious first question, which is why and how did you get interested in dread?

Saleem Reshamwala Yeah, that's a great question. So it's funny because when people are asking about the project, they're assuming that it's all darkness and doom and gloom, and there was an element of that, in what started it. But we get really fun emails from our listeners on our show about all kinds of emotions. And in season one, I put a call out for folks to reach out with things they were interested in. And somebody wrote us with an email asking about dread, and it was this really poetic email from a listener named Razz who said that they remembered as a child waking up in the middle of the night with the feeling that they might fall between stars. And that was kind of their introduction to existential dread.

Saleem Reshamwala And that kind of struck everyone on the podcast team. I personally have been interested in feelings of dread for a bit. Without going into specifics, a few years ago my family was in a situation where we received some medical news and there wasn't really anything we could do about that. You know, you just know something's going to happen in the near future and it can feel a little paralyzing, you know? At the same time, we met some friends who had been in a similar situation and had figured out ways to find little pockets of joy, even though something real challenging was in their future. And that was intriguing to me. Like, what do you do in these situations where you feel almost paralyzed, right? Where you might have something really heavy weighing on you that you know is coming down the line or something you're afraid of. It would be silly to think that you could just make that all magically disappear or magically flip a switch on that just, you know, have it all be sprinkles and happiness and all that. But we all got to get by in the face of things in the future that are increasingly within our sphere of knowledge. Right? Like there's so many more places to get information about what might be coming in the future that we gotta adjust and we gotta figure out ways to live life and be human and feel good, even with those tricky realities that either might happen or we know are going to happen in some cases.

Dan Harris So you you've got this sort of medical sword of Damocles hanging over your head and you're feeling dread as a result of that. And yet, at the same time, confusingly, but also maybe helpfully, you're able to find, as you said, pockets of joy in the midst of it.

Saleem Reshamwala Yeah. And a lot of it was once we heard how other people had been dealing with dread, dealing with things that they're worried about in the future, you know, you start seeing that, oh, there's more information that can be shared about how to get through stuff. When you are dealing with something by yourself you can feel really isolated. A recurring theme that we found when we started talking to people about dread is this feeling of like a looping thought that's just like hanging and you keep coming back to it's almost like a default thought is this worry sometimes, you know? And so how can you stop having that default thought? And maybe, maybe stop having is the wrong phrasing. How can you introduce other thoughts? How can you, without trying to make something go away?

Saleem Reshamwala Because dread can be useful. Dread's giving you information and alerting you to something, being an important thing to wrestle with or deal with, or think about or prepare for. Everything from like these heavy things that are kind of alluding to to like lighter questions that are you're like Sunday scaries about going to the office of Monday. Well, okay, that's telling you there's something about the office that you can process and think about. So I started getting really interested in what people were doing that was working in those situations. Because dread is universal, right? Like everyone's dreading something.

Saleem Reshamwala And so whether it's like one specific big situation or a tiny thing, there's some similar things happening we found when we talked to people. So we chatted with the podcast team. They were really intrigued by this email that we've got and it seemed like an area where we could start reaching out to experts, and that's what we did. And it's an area where even when you're reaching out to experts, everyone has a personal story. So it's not a thing where, you know, you've only felt dread, which we're kind of looking at is like fear plus time. These anxieties that are about something that's not immediately in front of you yet. Everyone, once you start talking about it, has some story related to that. And anytime there's something where people aren't talking about a problem or aren't talking about a feeling that they're having. But people are finding solutions. Then it's good to share some of those solutions or tools, again I'm saying solutions. It's not about making something go away magically, but things that allow you to keep living your life. 

Dan Harris I like that definition fair plus time. And you've also kind of usefully and helpfully taxonomize, dread, and you reference this a little bit in what you just said, which is that there is existential dread: what's our role in the universe? How do we wrestle with our own mortality? And then there's I don't want to go to work tomorrow or I have a dentist appointment on the calendar. So it can it really runs along a spectrum.

Saleem Reshamwala Yeah. Yeah. And once you start getting into the feelings and talking about like how your body might be reacting to that. Once you start describing those things, you start finding all kinds of things that trigger that. And you kind of alluded right there to it being a spectrum, and it could run from everything from your walking down the street and 200 meters away from you, you see somebody who you had an awkward encounter with and you've been dreading bumping into them for months to existential dread, which I think all of us it's very human to have some kind of doubts or fear around death. And that spectrum holds so many things.

Saleem Reshamwala You know, we we did a thing where we set up in a coffee shop and just filmed for a day, friends and strangers coming through and talking about dread and hearing them list things out. You know, they mentioned soccer games, but it is a person who loves soccer, but it's like even a thing you love. You could dread some element of it as you're like in the lead up. They mentioned work, somebody mentioned first dates, but it almost any day there could be some step of negative anticipation on that road, on that lead up.

Dan Harris You on the show have some experts come on and talk about the utility of dread. And you referenced this a little bit earlier, but we've got a clip of these experts or at least one of them talking about it. Can you tee up the clip?

Saleem Reshamwala Yeah. So we talked to Dr. Ali Mattu, who is a clinical psychologist. He's an anxiety expert. And he just let us know that we shouldn't dismiss dread as just a negative thing to get rid of. That dread exists for a reason. And if you think about dread throughout the history of humankind, you didn't want to be a person who didn't anticipate things and didn't have some kind of feel that something bad might be happening or approaching.

Ali Mattu That's where I think it's important to remember why we even have this emotion. In so many ways, it's such a adaptive thing. The purpose of dread is not to paralyze you. The purpose of dread is to help prepare you. It's to help you think about what might happen. It's to help you take actions that you can right now.

Saleem Reshamwala Oh, interesting.

Ali Mattu A healthy amount of dread is needed to show up, to work and to make a earthquake preparedness plan and all of that kind of stuff.

Dan Harris And that makes total sense. I mean, on the savanna, in evolutionary times, if you were a dread less human, you're probably about to be eaten by a predator.

Saleem Reshamwala 100%. And so many practical things, you know, you think of an ominous sky is a phrase you hear sometimes. Like if there's a storm brewing, it's okay to feel a little bit of anxiety around that and have that prompts you to take some action. That's a great thing.

Dan Harris But again, the trick is how to and this is the balance - how can we extract the good part of dread without letting it overwhelm us? And you very helpfully in this Dread Project that you've launched, have a lot of practical advice. Which brings me to another clip I'd like to get you to tee up. And this will start the practical section of this episode, which is the first piece of advice is journaling. Can you tee up this clip?

Saleem Reshamwala So we spoke to Dr. Hala Alyan, who's a clinical psychologist, a writer, writes absolutely beautiful poetry, that's been published in The New Yorker. And we chatted with her about journaling, which is one of those practices that I feel like many of us know are useful for things, but it's really hard to just keep going. I don't know if you've experimented with journaling, if you're a regular journaler, but even folks who are professionals in the media are often talking about wrestling with try to write every day. She had a great note as someone who is literally a published poet, in The New Yorker. etcetera has all these books that we can all be a little easier on ourselves when we're thinking about our own journaling practices.

Hala Alyan The biggest thing I can say is like, don't let the what is it? Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The thing that I often see happen around self-care practices that is so just counterintuitive and unfortunately I think just discourages people from doing them is that there is an expectation and a really high standard that people attach to even their self-care practice. And that's a very quick way to make yourself miserable doing something that's ostensibly, hopefully making you feel better.

Dan Harris Can you say more about the how to aspect of journaling? Because I realize now that we're having this conversation, we've never actually done an episode on journaling. So how would journaling help with dread and how do we journal?

Saleem Reshamwala Great question. So the single biggest thing that writing does that people mentioned was get stuff out of your head. Right? So even the act of putting something on paper can sometimes stop something from looping because you just wrote it down. Now it's down on a sheet of paper. Another benefit is that you can start getting it on paper outside of you, and then it becomes this other thing that you can look at and think about in different ways. Right? So now that it's not just something that's spinning in your head and causing you anxiety and causing you frustration, you can look at it as a written idea and you might say, "Oh, shoot. That's not as serious as I thought," is one possibility. If it is really serious, you might say, "Oh. The way I've been processing it isn't the most useful way to process this very serious thing." There might be an action you could take.

Saleem Reshamwala When it comes to how to actually do it. Hala really stressed that you could do it with just a scrap of paper. A bic pen. It didn't need to be some like super fancy, beautifully leather bound journal. I actually use this app that you could Google "the most dangerous writing prompt" and it is an it's a website that as you type for 15 minutes, is the setting I use, it will delete everything you've written if you stop typing. And I know that's ridiculous to lean on, but for me it helped me like figure out like, okay, cool. I'm going. I got to go for 15 minutes. I get it all out of my body, you know? So that thing of getting it out of your brain, any place other than your brain and working on it that way was something that just kept coming up.

Dan Harris It's good to know that we don't write to like light a candle and have an altar and the best possible notebook and a quill pen or whatever, that we can just do it on a scrap of paper. It's also I think you're putting your finger on something incredibly important here, which is getting the story out of your head. And there are many ways to do that that we're going to discuss. And the second way to do it that we are going to discuss it right now, I hope, is drawing about dread. What's that all about?

Saleem Reshamwala Sometimes you might not want to put something to words in a certain way. You might be hesitant. We talked to a clinical art therapist about this. Her name is Naomi Cohen-Thompson. She mentioned you can kind of create metaphors with drawing that you wouldn't actually encounter otherwise, perhaps. Like I drew with Naomi, I do with Jeff Warren, who's a writer and meditation teacher. And while we were drawing, each time my dread came out completely different, completely absurd and childish each time. But it looked different every time I drew it. And it just made me realize, like, oh, this is a really useful tool for seeing things with different metaphors.

Dan Harris You mentioned Jeff Warren. He's a good bud of mine. We wrote a book together about meditation, and he's been on the show a bunch of times. And I know you have a clip of him that I'd love to get you to tee up. And as I understand it, in this clip, he gives you a piece of advice that he has given me in the past that I will say for me has been utterly transformative. So let me shut up and let you tee up, Jeff. 

Saleem Reshamwala Yeah. You know, similar to you, look, I'm constantly in conversations with people about this kind of stuff. But it's hard to actually let all different kinds of emotions in or all these different feelings happen that you might not always want to have happen. And he had this great metaphor for how to think about each feeling as it comes to the top of your mind.

Jeff Warren This idea of welcoming everything in your experience as a guest. It makes it kind of fun, you know? It's gonna be a party in there, you know? Some parties are fun. Some parties are going off the rails. Sometimes you really don't feel like you have the energy for another party season. But guess what? You don't always get to choose. So it's like [exhales] just taking that out breath and reaching down and like finding that inner resource that's going to allow you to open, you know, genuinely let all the characters be there, even if some of them are raiding your fridge and falling asleep on the couch and making a mess in the bathroom or whatever party guests do.

Dan Harris I mean, this little mantra, I use it all the time. I'll be sitting in meditation and then, you know, the urge to plan a homicide or, you know, whatever will come up in my mind. And it's like, all right, welcome to the party. I didn't invite this thought. It's just some ancient, neurotic program trying to protect me unskillfully. And instead of fighting it, which, by the way, only makes it stronger, it's like shooting at The Hulk. You can welcome it to the party, which is not indulgence. It's just an acceptance, patting it on the head gently, whatever visitor has come. And then you can move on in a saner fashion. Anyway, that's how I compute it. How do you compute it?

Saleem Reshamwala What's fun about this specific example is I heard this example from Jeff just as we were doing a prompt that was like, draw your dread as a character. And Jeff drew a character that was based on Judge Dredd. And if you remember this, like, Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

Dan Harris Well, I'm old...Jeff and I are both old, so I will get all of his cultural references.

Saleem Reshamwala He drew a character based on that, and that immediately like framed the way that I thought of this idea of welcome to the party. And it was all these creatures just seeing these feelings as little beings that were in the room that were allowed to just vibe out. Didn't mean I had to elevate them to president of the party or anything like that. But just to let these creatures in and imagine them in the same space just doing their thing. But that doesn't mean, you know, if someone rolls up to your party, it doesn't mean that they're in control of you. You know? It doesn't mean that they're leading the party. But they're just a guest. They're just in the space. They're just interacting.

Dan Harris Yeah. And I think you can have affection. You know, this may just, I don't know, maybe sound a little weird to people, but my principle demons are anger and selfishness. And if I'm looking carefully beneath the anger and the selfishness is this swirling undersea monster of fear. And fear is driving, I think, most of my interactivity. But that big undersea monster has this, you know, soft, opalescent underbelly, meaning that it has a positive intention, which is it's trying to protect you. And so you can welcome the dread or whatever obnoxious party guests are arriving in your mind, not only with with gritted teeth, but with a sense of, yeah, thank you for your service. I'm gonna take your gun away, though.

Saleem Reshamwala Yeah, that's a way of reframing it. That's, you know, Naomi actually mentioned reframing when she described the activity. And we can listen to her words of that, if you like.

Naomi Cohen-Thompson I would say reframing is often really helpful for people when you're allowed to kind of like almost take all of these different parts of how you're feeling and thinking about something. It allows us, I think, to root ourselves in what is being felt just in a new way, just in its newness. I think that it just shifts the way that someone is able to think through the same idea.

Dan Harris I like this reframing, and I see how you're connecting it to welcome to the party. It's this cognitive shift of instead of having an aversive reaction to this very unpleasant feeling of dread. It's to see it in an entirely different way as trying to protect you. And all of a sudden, the monster is at least temporarily defanged. 

Saleem Reshamwala 100%. And that's part of the benefit of this theme we keep coming back to, of getting it out of your head, because it's hard to reframe something that's just like stuck in your head looping and looping and looping. It seems like the only thought that's there, right? But getting it out as a silly drawing or a character, a stick figure, then you can look at it and be like, "Oh, this is outside of me. Let me think about what other way I might view that." 

Dan Harris Stay tuned for more of my conversation with Saleem, where we both try drawing our dread. I'll admit to me the whole drawing thing struck me as a little bit, I don't know, out there. But I'm actually convinced now. So you'll get to hear us do that. And we'll talk about perhaps the biggest, scariest source of dread - death.

[midroll break]

Saleem Reshamwala We're going to do this drawing exercise and I would emphasize we're not trying to create art here. We're just try to create something. So let's time, how about two minutes? Draw your dread. I'll draw my dread. And then we will show each other our pictures and describe them to each other.

Dan Harris Dear Listener, as Saleem and I do our drawings. We're not going to make you sit through two minutes of our terrible scrawlings, or at least my scrawlings will be terrible. We're gonna fast forward right to the results. 

[scribbling sounds]

Dan Harris I don't wanna rush the artist.

Saleem Reshamwala Oh, shoot. But, you know, if you don't rush it, sometimes it doesn't get done.

Dan Harris Okay, well, I'm done. I'm done.

Saleem Reshamwala Let's do it. I'll start.

Dan Harris Okay.

Saleem Reshamwala Just reminding myself that we were gonna do this activity in the moment just now. Made me realize that I was dreading something that I hadn't even realized I was dreading. I don't know if you can see this on the Zoom, but this is the back of a car. It requires some interpretation for me to explain this. I'm about to go on a trip and I got a lot of work to do before the trip. I am dreading packing for this trip. So the car itself, the boxes are beasts. And that's me, tiny on the side trying to deal with a couple of work problems falling from the sky at me as I get ready for this road trip. What you got? 

Dan Harris I am dreading, I have mentioned this on the show before. I have been experiencing an extremely destabilizing and convenient resurgence of claustrophobia, and it's been making elevators and airplanes really hard. And the treatment is to do exposure therapy. So you have to like go expose yourself to stuff you don't want to expose yourself to like elevators and airplanes. Actually, I was with a friend last night, shout out to Corrie, and she and I were going to an event, and the only way up to the event and down from the event was on an elevator, so she had to hold my ha

Dan Harris So here's my undersea leviathan of fear. He's got big, sharp teeth and a scary, slimy body. But the key point is right here. I wrote the word underbelly and put an arrow right up until this monster's gooey I put one of my least favorite signs there a heart, right on the underbelly of the monster, because the truth is, I mean, fear, panic, anxiety is incredibly uncomfortable. And yet it is the organism trying to protect itself. And it's the brain computing danger where there is none. And yet the intention beneath all of it is, you know, barfing unicorn gooey. It is really trying to help you out. It's just screwing it up. So, yeah, that's my drawing.

Saleem Reshamwala The teeth on your drawing are terrifyingly large. You know, one of the things that is helpful for me with this, you know, I'm looking at a drawing right now. I'm not actually going to get eaten alive by creatures while I'm packing this car. You know, it helps me sometimes see where my brain is overemphasizing something that maybe is not a life threatening danger in this particular case, you know?

Dan Harris Yes. Yes. Okay. But there are dangers that are genuinely life threatening and we don't want to minimize that. So let's lighten the mood now and talk about death. Because you do go there in a pretty robust way in the course of The Dread Project. So what did you learn about the dread of death?

Saleem Reshamwala Yeah, we spoke with Rachel Menzies, who's a clinical psychologist, an author and a post-doc who has written multiple books on death. And she spoke about the concept of Memento Mori, which you just mentioned, exposure to fear. This is kind of a similar thing. The idea that being exposed to death, remembering death actually helps you. And is actually more, it kind of normalizes something that's happening to all of us, and it's going to happen all around us. Avoiding thinking about death as humans who are mortal and are going to die is actually not really possible long term. We're going to be faced with a death around us. We're going to be faced with something that reminds us of our own mortality.

Saleem Reshamwala So Rachel brought up some of the different ways that even other cultures approach death. That can be beneficial in a way. You know, for me, I spent a lot of time living in Japan. And one thing you'll see there, for example, is these little statues sometimes by the side of the road, sometimes outside of temples that are symbols of when someone's had a miscarriage or an infant death sometime. And that's something that, you know, recently is being talked about more in the US but is often seen as kind of a taboo. And yeah, it's an example of a form of something related to death that having a ritual around or a visual symbol can be helpful with for a lot of people. Here's Rachel.

Rachel Menzies One of the most helpful ways to do that is to start surrounding yourself with what's called Memento Mori. Little symbolic or visual reminders to keep death at the forefront of your mind. These are things which are specifically trying to help you remember that time is finite and you've only got so much of it and use it how you want to use it.

Dan Harris I really see the wisdom for sure, of Memento Mori. We've got some Mexican handicrafts around the house that I picked up when I was doing some reporting in Mexico that are skulls, which it's a big motif in Mexican art. And as I get older, I've noticed that a very prominent Memento Mori is called The Mirror, because every time I look in the mirror, I'm like, "Oh man, that dude's old." And it reminds me I was watching TikTok the other day and there was some kid interviewing people on the street and he interviewed an older guy and the guy said he was 67 and the kid said, "What's it like to be 67?" The guy said, "Every day I wake up and it feels like I played a game of tackle football yesterday and I walk around and I'm sore all the time. And then at some point during the day I look in the mirror.". 

Dan Harris And I actually think that's a really healthy way to go because death is non-negotiable. And so what do you want to do? Spend as much time, you know, whistling past the graveyard and trying to avert your eyes from the abyss? Or do you want to get comfortable with this thing that is coming down the pike at all of us? 

Saleem Reshamwala Yeah. You know, I know you spent a lot of time investigating certain aspects of this. It's surprising how folks who have regular contact with death are not necessarily dark, sad beings, right? You know, I want to be careful and not make light of, like the real challenges of things. Like, for example, during COVID, the the ways that health care workers had to suddenly be surrounding it in a way that was felt very out of their control for a lot of situations and things like that. But there's people who are able to approach it with intentionality because of either their careers or their belief systems. We had a conversation with a death tool named Alua Arthur, and you know when our producer reached out to her, she wrote back and was like, "This is gonna be fun." Which is, you know, a pretty surprising response to are you up for talking about dread of death? But she's been around it so regularly and built so many rituals about it that she sees it as a thing that teaches her about life.

Alua Arthur I don't know how much time I have. I want to take time to look at the hummingbirds in awe and listen to my niece laugh and look into the eyes of my beloved and feel loved. When we're talking about death, we're bringing our entire lives into focus. Talking about death to me is one of the most enlivening things that reminds me that I'm still very present. I'm still very much here. Now, how can I fill up all the edges of this very limited time I have here?

Saleem Reshamwala I love this idea of thinking of life as a container to fill to the edges. 

Alua Arthur Brim. Make it bubble over.

Saleem Reshamwala How do you actually get to that mindset, though?

Alua Arthur I'm not sure what happened, but I do know that I've seen a lot of it. I've been with a lot of sick people, dying people, people right after they've died. And to consider a body that once was animated with a spark of life, now just an empty vessel of tissue and bones with no life inside of it. To think that this person will make no new memories. They won't speak anymore words, they won't walk anywhere ever again. Like the profound stillness in a dead body is something that is jarring. When I when I see that there is a finite end to life, then it encourages me to be here in it for as long as I've got it. Yes, it's coming. But until that day, I'm gonna live. I'm gonna live. 

Saleem Reshamwala That was one of those interviews where there's a line that just sticks with you and loops in the best way possible. And that line of her saying, "Brim. Make it bubble over." Talking about kind of the cup of life, she's not saying at all that death isn't sad and that it won't involve sadness and that, you know, she's not denying permission to be sad and grieve. But noting, I think, that someone in a job like hers often ends up reminded of life and of its shortness. You know, in almost every tradition, whether a tradition that talks about a hereafter or not, we're reminded that our time on Earth is relatively short in a lot of ways. And the idea of just trying to pack it as full of joy and connection as possible, I mean, that one just hung with me.

Dan Harris I totally agree. And I had said a bunch of responses to listening to that clip. One is that people don't want to look at death. They feel it's morbid or whatever, but it actually is morbid, but in the best possible way. And Alua Arthur is walking proof of the fact that looking at this forbidden truth is extremely, extremely helpful. It's enlivening. It reminds you of what's important. And that's why that brings us back to Memento Mori, the reminder of death, because we are programed for denial. We are programed to get caught up in stupid shit. And so having as many reminders, whether it's your mirror or some Mexican skulls or a stone you carry in your pocket. Or a meditation practice. Or volunteering in a hospice. Or whatever it is to remind you that this, that pre-game is over. This is all zipping past and it's now literally or never. I think that's incredibly important, the reminding part of it.

Dan Harris The other thing I was going to say is that is an interesting coincidence. I was in the same room with Alua Arthur last night. The event I referenced where my friend Corrie had to hold my hand was a premier of a TV show. That's by the time this episode is posted, will be airing on Disney Plus, starring Chris Hemsworth, who's best known as Thor. And the TV show is called Limitless.  And Chris tests his limits in all sorts of ways in the final episode is is about death and it features Alua Arthur who then came on and did a little Q&A with the audience. And she's just extraordinary.

Dan Harris And the final thing I was going to say after listening to that clip, and this is just supportive of the argument that people who are around and you made this argument earlier are people who are around death are often counterintuitively, quite lively. I made a really close friend, this guy, Ronnie Geter, who was sent to a hospice where I was volunteering. He was sent there. He was told he had a couple of days to live. He ended up living for five years in this hospice and to the point where they actually sent him home, he ended up dying after a year of being at home with his sister Ernestine. And anyway, one day I used to hang out with Ronnie a lot and I just remember one day I bought him some hot wings. He liked hot wings. And he turned to me. He was eating them and he said, "This shit is spicy. It'll remind you that you're alive." And that line has never left me. And this guy, Ronnie, was living in a hospice. His neighbors were dying all the time, and he was one of the most lively, alive people I've ever met because he didn't take anything for granted. 

Dan Harris Okay, so that's just a vomiting up of responses to that great quote. But I do have a question for you. You've mentioned it so far in this interview that in the West, we have a way of sort of quarantining death so we don't have to see it. The sick go to hospitals and then we rush them off to funeral homes where we put makeup on them and make them look better than they did often when they were alive. And so there's a way in which we're we're protected from the reality of this. And you come from two distinct cultures and the cultures through which you've moved. One is often required, sometimes to wash bodies. Can you say a little bit more about that? 

Saleem Reshamwala Yeah. In the Islamic tradition, it's not unusual to be called to help wash the body of a relative. And it's something that it's a process that I've been involved in. It's definitely man, I mean, you want to talk about something that makes you really aware that it's real. You know, there's no when you're that close to someone you know well and you're you're literally touching their body, you can't pretend that death hasn't occurred, you know? There's no more literal way to face it that I can think of, right? And in that tradition is treated as something that's very good for a person to do, to be a part of that practice of assisting. And, you know, I think it's something that after being involved in that process, really did make me think a lot about how distant death is in daily life and how it's really happening. We're just not seeing it. Of course, it's not that it's not happening to everybody in the West. It's obviously happening to everyone, but it is far away. And when it's not far away, you can't help but think about your own life after that and think about what you want to do with your day, your year, if you're lucky, your decade if you're lucky.

Saleem Reshamwala It's a really challenging question, of course, like how to think about the time you have. You know, you'd act differently if you have ten seconds, you'd immediately call a loved one maybe or differently if you have a year differently, you if you have ten years. I'm not saying it generates like an automatic magic plan, but it definitely causes a kind of attentiveness, if that makes sense? Because immediately afterwards, for myself, and I can't speak to other folks. The world around me was suddenly very, very present. And I was very you see things in a different way. And that sounds kind of cliche, but sometimes cliches are just true.

Dan Harris Yeah. Well, cliches achieve their status by being true. 

Saleem Reshamwala That's right. Yeah.

Dan Harris So I'm curious, having had this experience, has it had any impact on your personal dread levels vis a vis death?

Saleem Reshamwala That's a great question. I haven't thought of it as something that shifted. The way I think about dread, but almost by definition, something that shifts your attention. Or shifts the way you perceive the world around you, shifts how much time you might spend in a looping thought about death. Does that make sense? So here I'm not speaking as I'm not the most culturally knowledgeable person about my own traditions, you know, all the time. Like all of us, the things that we're raised it are sometimes are defaults, right? But for me, anything that makes me spend a different part of the pie chart of our life, of our days, feeling more attentive to the people around us. That's taking me out of a a state of mind where I'm being paralyzed by dread, you know?

Saleem Reshamwala And that, for me, is a real value that's come from experiences like that. Just seeing your family differently, you're living family differently after something like that. It didn't make me feel more fear, which again, I'm just speaking of my own case was kind of surprising. And that that was a recurring theme in in folks we talk to as well, that being more connected to things surrounding what you dread - connected as opposed to just gaining informatio, right? Being more connected, even if it would seem like it would make you think more about that thing or dread something related to that thing that you're now connected to, for whatever reason, didn't seem to cause that. It caused people to feel more human. Like it's not necessarily that it makes you cheerful. That's not necessarily the immediate outcome, but something about feeling more human makes you less scared in some ways, in some cases. Or at least makes you more able to be with the people you're with and take action with the people you're with and interact with the people you're with in a very present way. 

Dan Harris Yeah, I hear a couple of things there. One is that having had a real intimate exposure to death, you shift your focus in your day to day life toward like what's actually happening right now and being grateful for the time you have. And that can't but reduce the ratio of stuck in dread time. And then the other thing I heard you say, and this is a bit of a projection on my part, is that it's a kind of exposure therapy, just like I have to do with my claustrophobia. Riding elevators with my wife, which I now I'm slightly embarrassed to admit I do, to get comfortable with it. It reduces the fear I've got to approach the thing I'm scared of. And so washing a dead body can have a similar effect. 

Saleem Reshamwala Yeah. You know, I would emphasize, too, that different people will have different reactions to that experience, you know, so some folks might you could imagine, for example, becoming more connected to the idea of the hereafter after an experience like that. But that also causes you to move through the day differently and causes you to pay different kinds of attention. So that's the recurring theme for me with those kind of exposures is that they do change how you see the world and the way you move through it. And anything that makes you take positive action or connect with community takes you out of that paralysis and the negative side of fear sometimes that can happen with thoughts just looping and looping and looping.

Dan Harris Okay. We're going to take a quick break. And after the break, Saleem and I are going to talk about another common source of dread, eco-dread or the dread of the climate crisis. We're also going to hear some listener responses from folks who have already done The Dread Project, and we'll get a sneak peek at the rest of the season on More Than A Feeling.

[midroll break]

Dan Harris Let's talk about one last aspect here of dread that you explore in the course of The Dread Project, and that is eco-dread or fear of impending climate disaster. Impending might even not be the right word, since it's already here in many ways. But what did you learn on this score? 

Saleem Reshamwala So I actually took a field trip for this one. I went to the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. The canal is infamously polluted, and there's a lot of jokes about the Gowanus Canal, and it's a Superfund site, which means the government's like, this is bad enough that we're going to spend a lot of money cleaning it up. It is not at all a place, I would think, to help one's thinking about eco dread, it seems like a spot that would make one terrified, perhaps. But I got a chance to talk to Aurelia Casey, who's a nature educator. She's a youth program manager at the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and founder of Inner City Ranger. She does all these activities where she encourages people to find positive aspects of nature. She talked about how connecting with nature and observing nature can take you out of just this barrage of negative information into something that feels good. Observing nature feels good. And that connecting the people who are working in nature can move you towards action. So I got to sit on a park bench next to her and I'll let you see what she described. 

Aurelia Casey If you take a moment and you realize how hilly a place is, you take a moment and sort of look at the rocks and figure out how old they might be. You look at the trees and how broad they are, how tall they are. I also would encourage people to just look up what indigenous people use to occupy this space that they now live upon. The Lenni Lenape people, the Canarsie people further down in Brooklyn, right? What it looks like here for them. We now live on this land. We now use it for multiple different things, but still our trees are still here and they still manage to survive. The birds still migrate here yearly. You'll see new insects. You'll see insects that are native here. And then most importantly, you see people interacting, right? People are just walking through the space to get home or to get to their next destination, or this is their destination. So that's where we are. That's the Gowanus Canal to me. I don't mind it. I think it's cool. It's quirky. 

Dan Harris So let me see if I can restate this. The argument seems to be that connecting with nature, while it won't necessarily fend off the climate crisis, does give you a certain grounding and sanity and calm that will allow you to navigate whatever comes more skillfully. 

Saleem Reshamwala Yeah. You know, one of the people we talk to about dread in general was Dr. Ali Mattu, who's a clinical psychologist, creator of the show called The Psych Show. He said this in kind of a light way. He was saying that often we think of the opposite of dread as being hope, but sometimes he thinks of the opposite of dread as being action. And just feeling more connected to nature helps you be aware of what's around you locally, right? So one of the things that Aurelia pointed to was, hey, you can right where you are at this very moment. Learn something about the land around you. Learn who historically, the stewards of that land were. Try and research without too much work, you can find out what the land used to look like before it was covered in buildings. Now you can kind of be connected to the nature that actually is around you. You can take some pleasure in it, right? So taking pleasure in nature rather than just being afraid of the loss of it. 

Saleem Reshamwala And you need to get to some kind of baseline before you can take action. If you're just like totally freaked out about climate change and reading negative tweets about climate change all the time. Again, that can come back to that thing we keep coming back to of paralysis. And connecting to local nature is a step towards connecting to local activists around nature and just actual action that you can take. And, you know, we talked to a somatic therapist named Patty Adams who had a really simple tip. And it was any time you need to find nature, look for a sunset, because almost no matter where you are, there's going to be natural beauty at the end of each day. And so if you're feeling disconnected, if you're feeling like nature is just a thing that you're fearing losing, but not something you're getting any pleasure from in your life, just stepping outside at sunset, even if you're in the city, you're going to see some natural beauty there taking that moment, recentering there, and having that first step to get you out of that loop of nature. Just being something that you're afraid of losing.

Dan Harris I think it makes a lot of sense. Agency is an antidote to dread.

Saleem Reshamwala Yes.

Dan Harris Can apply to nature, but also our politics. You know, just volunteering locally to help your community. Just merely voting. All of this falls in the category of agency as an antidote to dread. Before I let you go, I'd love to hear what kind of feedback you're getting on The Dread Challenge.

Saleem Reshamwala Oh, the feedback's been amazing. We've had it be really interactive. We even had a local event here in my city in Durham, where we had some of the folks that we've interviewed come and meet each other. And over the course of doing these five challenges, we got a lot of voice memos. Our first clip's from a listener named Rachel.

Rachel Hi, I'm Rachel and I live in England and I've just joined The Dread Project, which I just love the title of it. It just makes me laugh. And it's so nice hearing other people talk about their dread because sometimes it just feels as though it's just you and everyone else is living this extremely fulfilling and happy and joyous life. And it's just you dreading barreling towards death and etc. So it's so nice to normalize it. And I'm also a psychologist and I think that there's this very strange idea that I have and other people have that because I'm a psychologist, that I don't experience these very strong feelings, and I absolutely do because I am just a humanoid like everybody else. So, thanks. 

Saleem Reshamwala It is not just her. It's not just you. It's not just me barreling towards existential dread. So that was a recurring theme is people just feel good hearing each other talk about it, you know? We also got people who shared what they drew. Since you mentioned nostalgia for certain time periods, here's another.

Diana Hi, this is Diana from Durham, North Carolina. My drawing of dread is informed by Day One's exercise of writing to dread, where I sort of discovered that my dread is there supposedly to protect me. So my drawing is kind of like that big giant marshmallow man from Ghostbusters, but kind of fuzzy and maniacal. And he's holding me, supporting me in his arms but constantly poking me with lightning bolts and getting me to freak out. So that's how I see my dread. Thanks.

Saleem Reshamwala I love the idea of a fuzzy marshmallow man being the thing that is terrifying someone. We've also had people get pretty creative. We had someone who made an entire text exchange between them and dread.

Jennifer Jennifer Markowitz from Ontario, Canada. Today I sent a text to dread. I said, "I've been meaning to ask, what is it that you want from me?" And dread replied, "I want you to feel suffering. To suffer is to be human. I serve to remind you." 'Seems cruel," I replied. "I know I am a human. I suffer. What's the point in reminding me of something I know and feel?" Dread replied, "Ever notice I come visit? When you're feeling blessed? I wanna balance things and you make it easy for me to do just that." "Will you always visit?" I asked. And dread replied, "That is up to you."

Saleem Reshamwala I mean, that's they're just writing theater for us. That's how deeply they're engaging. And it's been wonderful to see.

Dan Harris So a lot of people listening to this might be now suddenly quite intrigued. However, the challenge is over. Can people join now?

Saleem Reshamwala Oh, 100%. You can actually go to dreadproject.com and you can get an email every day that will tell you for five days what the prompt for the day is. We're still here. We're at podfeelings on Twitter. But these activities are useful anytime that you could take a moment with them. And, you know, I want to keep emphasizing the thing we brought up. It's not about every tool being a step by step exact thing that's going to magically cure every listener of dread. But it's a collection of tools that you can use to approach dread and that you can try out and see which ones help you out and how they help you out.

Dan Harris And I want to say that if you want to go listen to the episodes, you should go over to the More Than A Feeling podcast and we'll put the links in the show notes, for sure. Speaking of More Than A Feeling, the show, you've got some other non-dread episodes coming up and I just want to give you a chance to play a few clips so that we can get folks intrigued and over onto your podcast feed. One of the episodes is about one of my favorite topics. Favorite probably isn't the right word, but it's just, let's just say resonant topic, unfortunately for me, grudges. 

Saleem Reshamwala If somebody says the word grudge, you immediately want to hear the story behind it, right? Like, it's such an intriguing thing. And we got to talk to the author of a book called How to Hold a Grudge. That's Sophie Hannah. And we also talk to Matthew Hepburn, who is a friend of yours as well, and a meditation teacher, and had a wonderful description of what it's like to hold a grudge. 

Matthew Hepburn There is kind of a like deliciousness in holding a grudge. Like a sword in your lap that you just sharpen, you know, aimlessly. But usually they don't really feel good. It's like the sword's in our lap, not in somebody else's lap. So every once in a while, you try and adjust postures and you nick your leg. 

Saleem Reshamwala Which is a brutal description.

Dan Harris So true. Totally true. You're also doing an episode on forgiveness. Tell me about that. 

Saleem Reshamwala Yeah. One of our reporters, Yasmeen Khan, has been friends with a woman who works in what might be called violence interruption. She goes by Coco and is on the ground in Brooklyn just everyday working in the community. And even though she's in what might seem like extreme situations, she's got a lot of concrete takeaways on how to use empathy any time the stakes feel really high. 

Coco You have to understand that when someone dies and someone goes through a tragedy like that on both sides, whether it's the perpetrator, whether it's the victim, everyone is hurt, right? Everyone is hurt, no matter what. They all feel hurt. So you have to understand that hurt and you have to respect that hurt. 

Dan Harris It sounds like you've got some incredible episodes coming up. And let me just say, with regard to the aforementioned, Yasmeen Khan as the reporter on the episode about forgiveness. Yasmeen also hosted a podcast called Childproof at this point, not producing new episodes, but there are a ton of her initial episodes, which are really a great listen and lots of good advice for anybody who is rearing children right now. So we'll put links to Yasmeen's show in there as well.

Dan Harris So to you. Saleem, I want to say thank you. Great job on this Dread Project, you and your whole team. Before I let you go, I just want to check in, though. Is there anything that you wanted to say that I can give you an opportunity to say?

Saleem Reshamwala Mainly just that this project is an exploration. And as the person doing the exploring, it's been such a good reminder that there are tools that can help us feel better in all kinds of situations and that we can learn from each other. Even if all the tools don't work all the time, even if we are an intermittent journaler, even if we have to voice memo instead of getting a pen and paper, even if we've never drawn, that experimenting with things that have helped other people really helps me move through life. And helps me. And I'm super grateful to everyone who's shared the way they've been dealing with dread with us.

Dan Harris Amen. Again, great job on this project and great job in this interview. Thanks for coming on, Saleem.

Saleem Reshamwala Thank you so much. It's been a joy to talk about it with you.

Dan Harris Oddly, yes, it's been a joy to talk about dread. So thanks again.

Saleem Reshamwala All right. I want to thank you all for listening to my conversation with Dan Harris. If you haven't heard our Dread Project series yet, you can go back and listen in our podcast feed and try out all the challenges. Or you can go to dreadproject.com to sign up for the reminder emails so you get the full five day experience. I want to thank Dan Harris, Kimmie Regler, and the Ten Percent Happier podcast team for having me on. And a big thank you to my talented colleagues at Ten Percent Happier who worked on this multimedia dread project with us: Jeremy Borthwick, Allison Bryant, Dara Continenza, Matthew Hepburn, Clea Stagnitti, Alicia Mackey, Toni Magyar, and Steven Montoya. More Than A Feeling is produced by Reva Goldberg, Yasmeen Khan, Stacia Brown, Palace Shaw, and Kim Buikema. Ben Newman was co-producer of The Dread Project with help from Tara Anderson. Our executive producer is Jen Poyant on. Scoring and mixing by Ultraviolet Audio. Our manager of technical operations is Connor Donahue. We'll be taking a little breather next week, but we'll be back December 6th with the rest of our season, starting with an episode about grudges. And letting them go. Or not. And much, much more.

Sophie Hannah It's like waves in the sea. Like there'll be the sea'll be calm one minute, then you'll remember something, you'll be like, ugh, this huge surge of grudge comes up again.

Saleem Reshamwala This is More Than A Feeling. See y'all then.

[theme music] 


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