I absolutely loved Sapiens, a book by a historian that was like no history book I'd ever read before. It was filled with wonderfully fresh insights -- Big Astounding Ideas rather than little boring facts.
My blog posts about the book will give you a feel for what the author, Yuhal Harari, wrought.
"Religion is just one of many stories humans have imagined"
"Imagined orders -- like religions -- depend on shaky myths"
Given how much I admired Sapiens, when I saw the title of a post by Ezra Klein on the Vox site, I knew that I had to read "Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, on how meditation made him a better historian."
Since I also have embraced a meditation practice that's centered on following my breath, I was pleased to see Harari does pretty much the same thing. Except, he engages in a 60-day silent meditation retreat once a year, and I just meditate for 20 minutes once a day.
Here's some excerpts from the Vox piece.
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?
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.
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.
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.