Yuval Noah Harari (born 24 February 1976) is an Israeli public intellectual, historian and a professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Yuval Noah Harari meditates two hours a day. He takes silent retreats once a year. He’s been at it for 17 years. Vipassana is still his practice of choice.
Harari went to Burma and met Satya Narayan Goenka. A man who had such an impact on Harari the he dedicated his latest book ‘Homo Deus’ to Goenka.
Goenka taught Yuval Vipassana Meditation, rooted in two simple tactics:
First, spend two hours a day focusing only on your breath.
Then, once a year, take a silent retreat. Refrain from talking, reading, and all forms of technology for 30–60 days.
Harari credits his meditation with making him a better historian. He told The Guardian that without meditation, he’d still be researching medieval military history instead of neanderthals and cyborgs.
When digging into long range histories, when it’s easy to get bogged down in the details or distracted by nuance, focus is critical.
“You need to constantly remind yourself what is the most important thing that is happening in the world — what is the most important thing that is happening in history. The discipline to have this focus is something I gained from meditation.”
Secondly, Vipassana meditation helps you learn the difference between what is real and what are just stories that we invent in our own mind. Sounds a lot like human history right?
“Most people, they get overwhelmed by the religious stories, the nationalist stories, by the economic stories of the day, and take these stories to be the reality. My main ambition as a historian is to figure out what’s really happening in the world, instead of the fictions that humans have been creating for thousands of years in order to explain or control what’s happening in the world.”
2018 GQ Interview
How has your work changed your relationship to technology?
I don’t have a smartphone. My attention is one of the most important resources I have, and the smartphone is constantly trying to grab my attention. There’s always something coming in.
I try to be very careful about how I use technology and really make sure that I’m using it for the purposes that I define instead of allowing it to kind of shape my purposes for me. That sometimes happens when you open the computer: you have a couple of minutes to spare, so you start just randomly browsing through YouTube, and two hours later, you’re still there watching all types of funny cat videos, car accidents, and whatever. You did not say to yourself, “Okay, I want to spend the next two hours watching these videos.” The technology kind of dictated to you that this is what you’re going to do by grabbing your attention in such a forceful way that it can kind of manipulate you.
How has removing those attention-grabbing technologies changed your quality of life?
I have much more time. I think it makes a much more peaceful… I mean, it’s not such a big secret. The way to grab people’s attention is by exciting their emotions, either through things like fear and hatred and anger, or through things like greed and craving. If somebody [is] very afraid of immigrants and hates immigration, the algorithm will show him one story after the other about terrible things that immigrants are doing. Then somebody else maybe really, really doesn’t like President Trump, so they spend hours watching all kinds of things that make them very, very angry. And it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not—they see this headline of “President Trump Said the World is Flat,” they feel this irresistible urge to click on it.
It grabs your attention because you already have this weakness. But if you kind of sit there and just read infuriating stories for an entire hour you are basically feeding your mind with things that make you more angry and hateful. And this is especially bad if many of these stories are just not true. Sometimes they are true, quite often they’re not. But the net result is that you now just spent an hour feeding your hate and your fury.
It’s the same way with the other side of the coin, with greed. Because if you really want something—the perfect body, the perfect car—and you watch all these videos, you want it more and more. And if you don’t have it, then you feel worse and worse that you don’t have this kind of body, or you don’t have this kind of car. So you just spent one hour feeding your cravings and your greed, and it’s really not good for you.
The better you know yourself, the more protected you are from all these algorithms trying to manipulate you. If we go back to the example of the YouTube videos. If you know “I have this weakness, I tend to hate this group of people,” or “I have a bit obsession to the way my hair looks,” then you can be a little more protected from these kinds of manipulations. Like with alcoholics or smokers, the first step is to just recognize, “Yes, I have this bad habit and I need to be more careful about it.”
So how do you get your news?
I rarely follow the kind of day-to-day news cycle. I tend to read long books about subjects that interest me. So instead of reading 100 short stories about the Chinese economy, I prefer to take one long book about the Chinese economy and read it from cover-to-cover. So I miss a lot of things, but I’m not a politician and I’m not a journalist, so I guess it’s okay I don’t follow every latest story.