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Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, on how meditation made him a better historian

What kind of mind creates a book like Sapiens? A clear one.

Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Yuval Noah Harari’s first book, Sapiens, was an international sensation. The Israeli historian’s mind-bending tour through the trump of Homo sapiens is a favorite of, among others, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Barack Obama. His new book, Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow, is about what comes next for humanity — and the threat our own intelligence and creative capacity poses to our future. And it, too, is fantastically interesting.

I’ve wanted to talk to Harari since reading Sapiens. I’ve had one big question about him: What kind of mind creates a book like Sapiens? And now I know. A clear one.

Virtually everything Harari says in our conversation is fascinating. But what I didn’t expect was how central his consistent practice of Vipassana meditation — which includes a 60-day silent retreat each year — is to understanding the works of both history and futurism he produces. In this excerpt from our discussion, which is edited for length and clarity, we dig deep into Harari’s meditative practice and how it helps him see the stories humanity tells itself.

To listen to my whole conversation with Harari — which delves into AI, the future of work, Harari’s favorite books, and more — subscribe to my podcast, The Ezra Klein Show, on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your fine audio programming, or stream it off SoundCloud.

Ezra Klein

You told the Guardian that without meditation, you'd still be researching medieval military history — but not the Neanderthals or cyborgs. What changes has meditation brought to your work as a historian?

Yuval Harari

Two things, mainly. First of all, it's the ability to focus. When you train the mind to focus on something like the breath, it also gives you the discipline to focus on much bigger things and to really tell the difference between what's important and everything else. This is a discipline that I have brought to my scientific career as well. It's so difficult, especially when you deal with long-term history, to get bogged down in the small details or to be distracted by a million different tiny stories and concerns. It's so difficult to keep reminding yourself what is really the most important thing that has happened in history or what is the most important thing that is happening now in the world. The discipline to have this focus I really got from the meditation.

The other major contribution, I think, is that the entire exercise of Vipassana meditation is to learn the difference between fiction and reality, what is real and what is just stories that we invent and construct in our own minds. Almost 99 percent you realize is just stories in our minds. This is also true of history. Most people, they just get overwhelmed by the religious stories, by the nationalist stories, by the economic stories of the day, and they take these stories to be the reality.

My main ambition as a historian is to be able to tell the difference between what's really happening in the world and what are the fictions that humans have been creating for thousands of years in order to explain or in order to control what's happening in the world.

Ezra Klein

One of the ideas that is central to your book Sapiens is that the central quality of Homo sapiens, what has allowed us to dominate the earth, is the ability to tell stories and create fictions that permit widespread cooperation in a way other species can't. And what you count as fiction ranges all the way from early mythology to the Constitution of the United States of America.

I wouldn't have connected that to the way meditation changes what you see as real, but it makes sense that if you're observing the way your mind creates imaginary stories, maybe much more ends up falling into that category than you originally thought.

Yuval Harari

Yes, exactly. We seldom realize it, but all large-scale human cooperation is based on fiction. This is most clear in the case of religion, especially other people's religion. You can easily understand that, yes, millions of people come together to cooperate in a crusade or a jihad or to build the cathedral or a synagogue because all of them believe some fictional story about God and heaven and hell.

What is much more difficult to realize is that exactly the same dynamic operates in all other kinds of human cooperation. If you think about human rights, human rights are a fictional story just like God and heaven. They are not a biological reality. Biologically speaking, humans don't have rights. If you take Homo sapiens and look inside, you find the heart and the kidneys and the DNA. You don't find any rights. The only place rights exist is in the stories that people have been inventing.

Another very good example is money. Money is probably the most successful story ever told. It has no objective value. It's not like a banana or a coconut. If you take a dollar bill and look at it, you can't eat it. You can't drink it. You can't wear it. It's absolutely worthless. We think it's worth something because we believe a story. We have these master storytellers of our society, our shamans — they are the bankers and the financiers and the chairperson of the Federal Reserve, and they come to us with this amazing story that, "You see this green piece of paper? We tell you that it is worth one banana."

If I believe it and you believe it and everybody believes it, it works. It actually works. I can take this worthless piece of paper, go to a complete stranger who I never met before, give him this piece of paper, and he in exchange will give me a real banana that I can eat.

This is really amazing, and no other animal can do it. Other animals sometimes trade. Chimpanzees, for example, they trade. You give me a coconut. I'll give you a banana. That can work with a chimpanzee, but you give me a worthless piece of paper and you expect me to give you a banana? That will never work with a chimpanzee.

This is why we control the world, and not the chimpanzees.

Ezra Klein

But there are ways in which those stories create fragility, too. You take something like the 2008-’09 financial crisis. What happened there was the global financial markets had told themselves a story. They had told themselves a story about how much risk there was, in particular subprime mortgage debt, and that story turned out to be wrong. All of a sudden, they had to tell themselves a different story, and then all the stories built on that story collapsed — stories about how stocks in the lumber industry would do, and how many people would have jobs in a year. And eventually that changed reality.

A fragility here is when you begin to mistake your stories for reality, and you overestimate both their permanence and how difficult it would be for them to be changed or moved.

Yuval Harari

Yes, it goes both ways. Because it is based on stories, human society is far more flexible and dynamic than any other society on earth, and at the same time, it's also far more fragile.

Think, for example, about revolutions. Among other animals, it's very difficult to change the social system overnight. It's almost impossible. If you think about, for example, a beehive, the bees have had their social system for millions and millions of years, and they cannot change it unless through a very slow and very complicated process of natural selection and evolution. The bees cannot just wake up one morning, execute the queen bee, and establish a communist dictatorship of worker bees.

But among humans, we do have such social revolutions. Exactly a century ago, 1917, you had the communist revolution in Russia, where the revolutionaries executed the czar and established a completely different social system in Russia within a few years just by changing the story Russians believed. They no longer believed in the divine right of the czar. Instead, they now believed that authority comes from the workers, from the people.

This is why every society invests so much effort in propaganda and brainwashing people from a very early age to believe in the dominant story of the society, because if they don't believe, everything collapses.

Ezra Klein

Before we leave the topic of meditation, I read that you do routinely 60-day retreats. That is an experience that I cannot imagine, so I would love to hear what those are like for you and what role they serve in your life.

Yuval Harari

First of all, it's very difficult. You don't have any distractions, you don't have television, you don't have emails, no phones, no books. You don't write. You just have every moment to focus on what is really happening right now, on what is reality. You come across the things you don't like about yourself, things that you don't like about the world, that you spend so much time ignoring or suppressing.

You start with the most basic bodily sensations of the breath coming in and out, of sensations in your stomach, in your legs, and as you connect to that, you gain the ability to really observe what's happening. You get clarity with regard to what's happening in your mind. You cannot really observe anger or fear or boredom if you cannot observe your breath. Your breath is so much easier than observing your anger or your fear.

People want to understand their anger, to understand their fear. But they think that observing the breath, oh, this is not important at all. But if you can't observe something as obvious and as simple as the breath coming in and out, you have absolutely no chance of really observing your anger, which is far more stormy and far more difficult.

What happens along the 60 days is that as your mind becomes more focused and more clear, you go deeper and deeper, and you start seeing the sources of where all this anger is coming from, where all this fear is coming from, and you just observe. You don't try to do anything. You don't tell any stories about your anger. You don't try to fight it. Just observe. What is anger? What is boredom? You live sometimes for years and years and years experiencing anger and fear and boredom every day, and you never really observe, how does it actually feel to be angry? Because you're too caught up in the angry.

The 60 days of meditation, they give you the opportunity. You can have a wave of anger, and sometimes it can last for days and you just, for days, you do nothing. You just observe. What is anger? How does it actually feel in the body? What is actually happening in my mind when I am angry? This is the most amazing thing that I've ever observed, is really to observe these internal phenomena.

Ezra Klein

It impresses me that you have the presence or the commitment to continue doing this. Sapiens was an international runaway best-seller. It's a huge hit in Silicon Valley. When I had Bill Gates on this podcast, he recommended Sapiens to me and to the audience. Mark Zuckerberg has talked about Sapiens. Barack Obama has talked about Sapiens. I imagine the demands of your time, the speaking engagements, the paid speaking engagements, the conferences and meetings that you get invited to now, I'm sure there's vastly more than you can do. I'm curious if your relationship to meditation has changed at all in the past couple of years after your success.

Yuval Harari

There is always temptation to take another speaking engagement or another conference, but I'm very disciplined about it because I know this is the really important stuff. This is the source of my scientific success, so when I plan the year in advance, the first thing I do is — I already know that in 2017 I'm going from the 15th of October to the 15th of December to India to sit at a 60-day meditation retreat. That's the first thing I put in the schedule. Everything else has to be arranged around that. It was the same last year in 2016.

Actually I heard about Trump’s election only on the 20th of January, because this is when I came out of the retreat. I entered in early November, and I missed the elections. As I said, you have absolutely no distractions. You have no connections with the outside world, no emails, no television, no nothing, so you don't know what's happening on the outside, but what's happening on the inside is so interesting.

Ezra Klein

Beyond the two hours of meditation you do daily, how do you structure the information you receive during the day? How do you separate what is real and important and what is ephemera or mere stories?

Yuval Harari

I try to set my own agenda and not to allow technology to set the agenda for me. I tend to read books, long books, rather than short passages or tweets. I think another thing that has happened over the last century is that we have moved from an information scarcity to a deluge of information. Previously the main problem with information for people was that they didn't have enough of it, and there was censorship, and information was very rare and hard to obtain. Now it's just the opposite. We are inundated by immense amounts of information.

We really lose control of our attention. Our attention is hijacked by all kinds of external forces. For me, not just in meditation, but when I work, I try to be very, very disciplined with my attention not to allow external forces to take control of my attention.

Ezra Klein

It's surprising to me how much context this gives me for Homo Deus. To give a very capsule summary of the book, you're arguing that human beings used to have a society centered around stories about God. They moved to one in the last couple hundred years centered around stories about human beings. And now they're moving to one that is centered around stories about data.

To the degree that we will be honored for our contributions to society, you say it will be for the contribution we make to the data streams that various computer-assisted algorithms are using to generate value and create production. I felt, reading the book, that that scenario looks more plausible to you than it does to me, but perhaps it is because you are stepping a little bit further out of the daily cacophony, and so the change and the degree to which everybody is obsessed and immersed in a lot of data all of the time is more clear.

Yuval Harari

Yeah, I think it's a very good summary of the new book. The way that I live influences the way I think, and hopefully the conclusions I reach in my research fit back into the way that I live — because just to reach a theoretical conclusion that has no influence on how you actually live, what's the point?