Preparing to interview Yuval
Noah Harari is no small task. The historian-philosopher-meditator is the author
of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,
and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century,
which have been translated into more than 65 languages and have sold more than
35 million copies. Yuval earned a PhD in history from Oxford University and
lectures at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, specializing in the history of
human evolution, global political history, and artificial intelligence. He is
one of the most influential public intellectuals in the world. His ability to
weave together grand narratives that cover every facet of human life has been a
major source of inspiration to me for the last five years, so having the
opportunity to speak with this charismatic and compassionate person was a real
honour. Kory Goldberg
In this interview, I asked Yuval, over Zoom, about his
spiritual journey and the role meditation played in his life as a public
intellectual. We also discussed how meditation and self-reflection might help
cut through the illusion of free will, better understand our personal biases,
navigate through post-truth society, and shed light on our unwitting complicity
in institutional oppression. Our conversation also explored the territories of
artificial intelligence, big-data algorithms, and the function of storytelling,
all from a contemplative perspective.
The text below is based on the transcript of our Zoom session on April 13th, 2022. It has been edited for clarity.
Kory Goldberg: Can you start by telling us what brought you to Vipassana? How did you come to your first course?
Yuval Noah Harari: I did my first course in 2000. I was in the middle of my PhD at Oxford, studying history, and also in the middle of some kind of existential crisis. Despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t figure life out. I didn’t understand what was happening in the world, why there was so much suffering, or what could be done about it? As a PhD student, I was very deep into intellectual studies, not just history, which is my field, but also philosophy and religion. I would read almost anything that seemed like it might answer my questions. And with each passing year, it became more and more apparent that it was hopeless, that it was absolutely impossible for humans, or at least for me personally, to understand the meaning of life in any real way.
And then a friend nagged me for about a year to take a Vipassana course. I thought it was some kind of mystical nonsense, so I didn’t want to go. I thought to myself, “I’m a very serious person, a scientist studying at university; I’m not going to try meditation.” But truthfully, I had no idea what meditation actually was. However, because my crisis was so deep, and my friend persisted, I finally gave in.
If I try to reconstruct what went
on in my mind at the time, I remember that I was most attracted to the silence and
being able to disconnect, to retreat from the world for a while. I remember
that, after only the second day, I was completely awestruck. It was so far from
the mystical mumbo jumbo that I had expected. I felt that it was the most
scientific, rigorous practice that I had ever encountered. I wasn’t asked to
believe in or accept anything. The instruction was simply to directly observe
what is happening right now. By the evening of the second day, I was convinced
that if there really was a way to understand reality, then this was the way.
KG: I can also relate to that experience. On my first course, after receiving the initial Ānāpāna instructions, I thought to myself, “This is it, this is what I was looking for!”
I imagine that you have a really busy schedule, filled with lecturing and teaching and giving interviews like this one. How do you fit meditation into your life, and find time to sit and serve courses every year?
YNH: For me, meditation is the first priority because it’s the basis for everything else I do. It happens from time to time that I miss a sitting, but it’s quite rare. Normally, the first thing I do every day is meditate for one hour, and then usually again in the afternoon, like around three or four o’clock. If I push it later, then I’m too tired. I also sit a long course every year, and find time to serve at least two 10-day courses, sometimes three, sometimes even more. Contrary to what people might think, I’m actually not a very busy person. <laughter> I know lots of people who are far busier than me. I have a friend who’s a single mom raising two kids by herself. She’s a very busy person; I’m not in her league.
Meditation really is the basis for me. If I didn’t sit regularly, I couldn’t do the rest of the things that I do. For instance, I’m giving this interview today. During the last 48 hours, I gave eight other interviews, one after the other, to different TV networks and journals. I have to be extremely focused. If I say the wrong word, it has reverberations. So, meditation is the basis for having a clear mind.
And if I didn’t meditate
regularly, I just couldn’t be giving interviews, writing articles and books,
and holding classes at the university. The difficult thing is staying focused
on the really important stuff, keeping my train of thought on track, noticing
when I start to go off track, and not deviating into the thousands of other
pressing topics. So, having a very clear mind is really the basis.
KG: Does your work as a historian and a public intellectual also shape your understanding of meditation and the Dhamma?
YNH: It helps with my understanding of institutions, like the Vipassana organization, for example. This understanding is often informed by my historical studies of human organizations in general, and religious organizations and spiritual movements in particular. We are all human beings, and most people in our Vipassana organization are not yet enlightened. Therefore, we’re prone to the same problems, to the same issues, that many other organizations and people have gone through before us.
Take adiṭṭhāna, strong determination, as an example. On day 4 of a 10-day course, students are instructed not to change their posture or open their eyes or their hands for the entire hour. I noticed over the years that I developed an attachment to this one-hour adiṭṭhāna; that I kept trying to extend it and stretch it, not just during courses, but also at home. And why just one hour? That’s for beginners. I’ll try for two hours, three hours. Thankfully I talked about this with some Vipassana teachers who helped me realize that this was a mistake in my practice. I also realized that this is what happens to people with all kinds of practices. When you look at it historically, you see it happening in so many places and movements. People take one part of a teaching and then try to expand it and stretch it.
It often happens because the mind is lazy—this is just the way we are—and it’s difficult to do many things at once. And, of course, when you’re given something easy to do and something difficult to do, the tendency is to go for the easier one. New meditators sometimes think, “This adiṭṭhāna is really difficult. Sitting for one hour without changing my posture is too difficult.” But, in reality, it’s not very difficult. If you say to someone, even someone without any experience in meditation, “I’ll give you a million dollars if you manage to sit for one hour without moving,” that person will have quite a good chance of doing it. Sure, it’ll be very painful and difficult, but for a million dollars they’ll probably do it. You can give yourself such a command and do it.
However, if you tell somebody, “Observe your sensations without reacting to them and without letting your mind wander for five minutes—not an hour, just five minutes—and I’ll give you a million dollars,” that person probably won’t be able to do it. It’s much, much more difficult. When you give the mind the choice between these two tasks—simply sit without moving for one hour, or observing sensations for five minutes without reacting, without running away—it will tend to go for the easier one.
Similarly, we see the same thing
in so many religions and spiritual traditions, where one guru or teacher will
advise fasting for a day, while another instructs the students to develop
compassion. Now, not eating for a day is much easier than developing
compassion. So, you then see people becoming very attached to their fasting,
eventually extending the length of time of not eating. They think,
“Compassion—that’s not so important. But if I fast, then I’ll definitely get
enlightened.” Being able to see these patterns in so many other movements helps
me to see it also happening in my own practice, on the cushion.
KG: I’d like to bring our conversation towards Artificial Intelligence (AI) and meditation, to see if there might be any connections. AI breakthroughs in biotechnology and information technology have been giving us control over our lives in ways that we never imagined. Are there any ways in which you think Artificial Intelligence can enhance our understanding of consciousness and even our experience of meditation?
YNH: So far, not so much. I don’t know what will happen with breakthroughs in technology in fifty or a hundred years, but at the moment we don’t see any very deep insights coming from that direction.
On day 9, Goenkaji tells a story about somebody who wants to overcome his anger, so hires a private secretary for 24 hours a day. When anger comes, the secretary says, “Look master, anger is coming!” <laughter> When Goenkaji was telling that story [in the 1990s], it was funny because it was impossible. Who could afford to hire a private secretary for 24 hours a day to tell you that anger is arising? But today, it’s not a joke anymore. New biometric devices and developments in AI are making it a reality. We are very close to the point where you can have a private secretary on your smartphone connected through some biometric device to your body, which will tell you that anger is happening. Increasingly, people are likely to experience their own inner reality through the mediation of technology.
As people increasingly have this
technology mediating between themselves and their sensations, thought contents
and inner reality, it will impact the way that we manage and conduct meditation
courses, especially in having to deal with aspects of social media and
smartphones. When I first came to Vipassana, people said, “Vipassana. Oh, this
is where people stay silent for ten days.” Now I hear people say, “Oh,
Vipassana. This is where you have to separate from your smartphone for ten
days.” <laughter> It’s becoming
a major issue. For some people, if you tell them, “No, you can’t keep your
smartphone with you during the course,” they get upset. It’s almost like
withdrawal from a drug.
KG: Yes. When I sat my first course after getting a smartphone, a couple of years ago, I had had it for only a few months. I remember how difficult it was to deposit it at the registration table to be locked away. I was shocked at my reaction, but I understood, “Ah, this is the addiction that so many people are feeling.”
Let’s steer the conversation towards free will, the idea that humans have the ability to make their own choices and determine their own fate. This is a philosophical concept that you challenge. Can you speak to the wisdom and science that debunks free will?
YNH: Free will is one of the most misunderstood concepts in science. It’s an idea taken from Judeo-Christian theology. It assumes that there’s a soul, some kind of permanent eternal entity, and that there are desires, or a will, that belong to the soul. And the soul can somehow choose its desires freely.
There’s also a difference between will and free will. Obviously, people feel desires, they want to do things. These desires are the most basic experience we all have. Sometimes people argue, “Oh, you say that there’s no free will, but I feel that I want to do something, so there is will.” But that’s not the question. The question is, did you choose your desires freely? Say you want to eat a piece of chocolate cake. Did you, a second earlier, choose to desire to eat chocolate cake? No, of course not; it just popped up from somewhere. When I observe my thoughts, my desires, they just pop up in my mind. I don’t choose which ones will pop up. They just do. Of course, I do have a choice, to some extent, whether or not to act upon them.
Looking at it from a slightly different perspective, the big question is not whether you believe in free will or not. That’s not so important; that’s a philosophical issue. The real question regarding free will relates to our curiosity about ourselves. If you believe in the traditional view of free will, you’ll think, “Why did I choose X? Because of my free will.” But then you lose all curiosity about what’s actually happening inside of you because you already have the answer.
For instance, why did I choose this political party? Why did I choose to buy this brand of coffee? Why did I choose to date this person? If you say, “Because of my free will,” then that’s the end of the story. There’s nothing further to investigate. Doubting free will is really a kind of a research agenda. You ask yourself, “Wait a minute, why did I really vote for this party? Why did I really choose this brand of breakfast cereal?” And then you start investigating. In science, you can investigate with brain scans and genetic studies, and you will soon realize that genes have some influence, and brain activities have some influence, in all kinds of ways that we don’t imagine.
A statistically valid example is a study showing that smell has an immediate impact on people’s political opinions and choices of the moment. Some people were put in a room with a very unpleasant smell, like sewage, and asked their opinions about immigrants. The researchers saw that their subjects became more anti-immigrant when there was an unpleasant ambient smell compared to when there was a pleasant smell. This is due to deep biological activity. Unpleasant smells activate certain kinds of disgust mechanisms in us that connect to hatred and animosity towards foreigners. It’s no coincidence that a bias against foreigners very often has to do with smell. Unpleasant smells have a deep biological connection to dislike of certain people. So, simply putting people in a room where there’s a bad smell can shift their political and social views a little. This is not free will. This is something that impacts you.
Some will believe, “No, my
desires, my opinions, these are my free will.” Then this kind of research means
nothing to them. But you might have a doubt, “Wait a minute. Why do I really
have this political opinion?” So, you start investigating, and then you
discover all kinds of interesting things about yourself. But let’s not be
dogmatic. Maybe after all your investigations, you eventually discover that there’s
still a level on which you do have some kind of freedom of choice. Okay, that’s
fine. But this should be the end result of your investigation, not the initial
assumption. For me, when I sit and meditate, it’s partly this kind of
experiment. I sit, I close my eyes, I try to observe my breath, the sensations,
the things that pop up. And, over time, I get to learn how and why certain
things appear and not others.
KG: Would you say that it’s meditation, as well as philosophical investigation, that will help us see through this illusion of free will? Do we need to be asking these questions?
YNH: We don’t have to. To meditators, they are irrelevant. You don’t have to ask yourself, “Is there free will?” or, “Is there not free will?” or, “Do I believe in it or not?” You can practice meditation perfectly well without concern for them.
But if the question of free will
does arise, I wouldn’t be dogmatic about it. That would be useless. The point
is that there are some very important things you don’t know about yourself. The
key question is about your research agenda. If you have a strong belief in free
will, and therefore you never question the origins of your desires, then that’s
unfortunate. You have lost your curiosity about yourself. But if you are
somewhat skeptical about the idea that your desires are simply the result of
your free will, then this might actually cause you to investigate. This can be
done through meditation, or through other kinds of scientific methods. You will
gain a better understanding of yourself and of other people. So that’s a plus.
And if, at the end of all these investigations, you still think that there’s
some kind of free will, well, that’s perfectly
KG: In your book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, you write, “Terrorism is both a global political problem and an internal psychological mechanism.” To me, this quote calls attention to the ways in which the Buddha’s three unwholesome roots, also known as the three poisons—craving, aversion and ignorance—might manifest as collective and even structural problems. Would you comment on this?
YNH: I think that insight into ourselves, into our own minds, is very important on the personal level, but of course, potentially, it also has implications for how we understand other people, how we understand society, and even lengthy historical processes. So, questions of war and terrorism often go back to some very basic beliefs that people have about humanity: Are humans essentially bad, or essentially good? And, where does violence come from? Some people believe that violence is an inherent feature of humans, that it’s some kind of law of nature. As a historian, I think this is completely wrong. And, as a meditator, I also think this is completely wrong.
As a historian, I look at history. I see there are periods that are much more peaceful than others because people manage to build better institutions and better cultures. And it’s the same in my own mind. Sometimes anger arises, I feed it and it becomes worse and worse, and it can spill over into hatred and external violence. It’s not that there’s a permanent level of hatred or fear or anger in the mind.
with terrorism, which above all is a psychological weapon. Terrorists are usually very weak groups. They’d like to
take over a territory or country, but they can’t because they don’t have an
army. Instead, they stage a terrifying spectacle of violence. And people see
it, especially in today’s world of modern media, again and again and again. A
terrorist kills ten people, and a hundred million people start to fear that
there’s a terrorist behind every tree. Very often this fear creates far more
damage than what the terrorists can do directly by their actions. In recent
decades, entire countries have been destroyed, collapsing into violence,
because of an overreaction to terrorism. I’m not implying that one shouldn’t do
anything—just observe, let the terrorists kill people. Of course not. One needs
to take action; but not overreact. The action should be astute. But very often,
because now you have a hundred million people afraid of terrorism, governments
find that they have to stage their own spectacles of mass violence in order to
assure their citizens: “Don’t worry, we’re defending you.” But we need to remain realistic, and not allow the
terrorists to hijack our imaginations and turn our minds against us. We need to
remind ourselves, “Yes, this is terrible. A terrorist has killed ten people,
but that doesn’t mean there are terrorists around every corner, that we should
be biased against an entire people or attack entire countries.” No, we should
have a balanced response. This is our responsibility.
KG: So, we need to truly understand the difference between a real tiger and a paper tiger; to know what’s a rational fear and what’s merely created in our own minds.
YNH: Yes. It goes back to the
question that we often ask ourselves, literally or figuratively, in meditation.
What is really happening right now? If you see a terrorist in action on
television and your mind starts running wild with all kinds of terrible
scenarios, you need to stop and ask yourself, “Wait a minute. What is really
happening? These scenarios in my mind, am I creating them?” Yes, it’s certainly
terrible that a terrorist kills ten people, but this is not the same as what I
create in my mind. So, let’s go back to reality.
This is what we do in meditation. And this can also be very helpful in many political situations.
KG: Following this idea of reality versus fiction, I’ll bring my next question to the notion of post-truth. We live in a post-truth society where information is deliberately distorted for political and economic ends. Our beliefs and our emotions are constantly manipulated by distorted facts that aim at bringing our thoughts and attitudes into alignment with whomever is doing the manipulation.
YNH: Yes, true.
KG: I don’t know about you, but I find this very distressing. It makes me distrustful. And if I’m not careful, it makes me cynical, which I find even more upsetting. So, to what extent might meditation help us understand these manipulations and distinguish wrongdoing from justice?
YNH: First, it should be obvious that this has always been an issue. Fake news, conspiracy theories—these are not new. If you went back to a medieval town, somebody would come along saying that the old lady who lives in the forest with all her cats is a witch, and she’s the one causing the hailstorms that are destroying our crops. Within minutes, you’d have a mob with pitchforks going to murder this nice old lady. And this is without Twitter or Facebook. So, this is not a new problem; people have always had to deal with this.
The key is to preserve your trust in institutions. You cannot do your own research about everything; it’s absolutely impossible. You cannot research epidemiology, how viruses spread, how the economic system works, the war in Ukraine. You can’t do all that by yourself; you have to trust certain institutions, whether they’re newspapers, medical experts or academic authorities. Otherwise, if you allow yourself to be overtaken by mistrust and become cynical about everyone, thinking everyone’s lying, then that’s very dangerous. People who push the view that everyone’s lying are themselves the worst liars. Liars want people to suspect everyone. If they’re accused of something, they’ll say “Everybody’s lying to you.” No, that’s not true. You’re lying to me, not everybody.
There are honest people. When we reach the point where we stop believing that there are honest people out there, that there are honest institutions out there, when we start thinking that all the newspapers are telling lies and all the institutions are corrupt, then that’s the end of society. Society cannot function without trustworthy institutions. Of course, it doesn’t mean that we have to believe everyone and everything. Life is hard. Part of what makes it hard is knowing whom to believe and whom not to believe. But starting with the cynical assumption that everybody’s lying, this is extremely dangerous. It plays into the hands of those who are trying to destroy society.
One very important way to know whom to believe institutionally is by an institution’s self-corrective mechanisms. What does this mean? It means the ability for an institution to say, “We made a mistake.” If someone says, “I’m always right,” this is a bad sign. It’s counterintuitive. Institutions and people who are able to admit their mistakes are the ones that should be trusted. This is what differentiates scientific institutions from religious institutions. Religious institutions might be able to admit that individual members sometimes make mistakes. “Yes, this priest, this rabbi, this mullah, he made a mistake. But not the institution; the institution is perfect.”
What is unique about scientific institutions is that they’re able to admit institutional mistakes. If you ask biologists about the history of their discipline, they’ll acknowledge its mistakes. Almost all of them would admit that in the early 20th century the science of biology was guilty of systematic racism and institutional misogyny. This was not the fault of a particular professor or group of scientists who were bad people. This was institutional. Now they’ll say, “We’re ashamed of the mistakes that we made, and we’re aware that they could happen again.” This is an institution that I’m willing to trust.
Institutions are made of human
beings, and the vast majority of them are still not enlightened. They’re prone
to error. So, it’s important for an institution to have the courage to admit
that, as an institution, they got some things wrong, and that’s fine, but now
they are trying to improve things.
KG: In 21 Lessons, you suggest that the global dimension of our personal lives means that it’s more important than ever to uncover our religious and political biases, our racial and gender privileges, and our unwitting complicity in institutional oppression. I’m curious to what extent meditation might help us uncover these biases and privileges, whether they’re personal or institutional. Also, what would be the broader ethical implications of such knowledge, such understanding?
YNH: Meditation is, of course, not a magic bullet, but it can help because it exposes to ourselves who we really are. Very often we don’t want to know the unpleasant truths about ourselves. If we discover something positive, then we’re happy. But often in meditation we discover unpleasant things. We made mistakes that we thought were okay, say in a relationship, but actually we’re guilty of having done something wrong. Meditation can help us uncover not just incidental mistakes; it makes us more familiar with our repeated patterns. Institutional mistakes are different from personal mistakes in that their patterns are not related to a single person in a single incident. One of the wonderful powers of meditation is exactly this ability to uncover our patterns.
People sometimes have this idea
that meditation is a kind of relaxation during which you unwind from the
tensions of the world. But no, it’s hard work. All the things that we don’t
want to know about ourselves, all the things that we run away from in daily
life, these are the things that we’re most likely to encounter during a 10-day
meditation course. Sometimes we encounter painful truths that we avoided for
decades; they catch up with us, or we catch up with them.
KG: You’ve written that sometimes listening to oneself is a really difficult task because the voices in our head aren’t always trustworthy. Who knows where they might be coming from? They might reflect state propaganda or ideological brainwashing, commercial interests, or even biochemical bugs. If we can’t always trust these voices in our heads, who can we trust? And if we can’t know ourselves, can we actually trust ourselves? How do we reconcile this?
YNH: I think this is the wonderful thing about the teaching of Vipassana. Goenkaji keeps repeating, “Just observe, just observe.” You sit for meditation and something comes up. A story begins to formulate in your mind, “Aha. It’s because of this” or “Oh, this is the soul.” But no, just observe. No matter what story comes in your mind, just keep observing. This is the immense power of the practice. The danger is when something very deep comes in the mind and a story begins to formulate. It’s very easy to fall for that story and start rolling in it. “Oh, now I understand why I did this.” Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not true. Maybe you’re just repackaging your old opinions in a new form.
When I first began to meditate, I had so many questions and went so many times to the teachers with these stories. I had to learn to forget about all this, to keep observing the breath, keep observing the sensations, avoid rolling in these stories. The more you observe, the clearer the truth will become for you. If, on the other hand, you forget about the breath, you forget about the sensations, and you start developing a story, then you lose track.
And when you look at the religious
traditions that formed throughout history, they often began due to someone’s
intense experience. Somebody meditated, maybe for a week or a month or a year,
and had a very profound experience—not full
enlightenment, but a deep experience in meditation—and then began to formulate
a story around it. Someone had an experience of, say, peacefulness and oneness
and said, “Ah, I have encountered my soul,” and started to create an entire
tradition. Maybe this wasn’t their soul, merely some intense meditation
experience. In Vipassana, we develop the ability to stop building stories
around experiences. We just stay with the experience—don’t give it a name, don’t
try to interpret it. It’s difficult because our tendency is always to develop
the story, while the practice is to not create a story, but just keep
KG: It’s difficult, because everything in society is telling us to build stories. So, when we sit for meditation, then of course the mind is going to go on some heroic journey, some epic voyage of the self. We’re basically going against the grain by not continuing with that story.
YNH: Yes, it is very difficult.
You start seeing words and images forming in your mind, and this little voice
says, “Just a little, just a little. I want just a little more time to develop
this thought and then I’ll get back to the breath.” But you have to cut it.
KG: Yes, absolutely! So, let’s move to big data and see where meditation might fit in. We have the largest datasets in human history, and they’re governed by algorithms. Can you first give a brief summary of what these algorithms are and how they affect us?
YNH: Throughout human history, governments and big business have wanted to monitor people in order to get to know them better, in order to control them. But it was never possible, even in a totalitarian state like the Soviet Union. They couldn’t have a KGB agent following everyone twenty-four hours a day; it was just impossible. They didn’t have enough agents. And even if there was an agent following you twenty-four hours a day, he’s a human being. At the end of the day, he’ll write a paper report that will be sent to headquarters in Moscow. There will be a mountain of paper reports, and somebody will have to read and analyze all of them.
Now, with these big data algorithms, it’s becoming possible, basically, to follow everyone all the time. You don’t need KGB agents; you have the smartphone. You carry it on you. You’re paying for the agents who collect your data. And even if you don’t have a smartphone, when you go online there are cameras and microphones. There are drones and satellites. Lots and lots of data about you are constantly being gathered. These data are not analyzed by humans. There’s so much data that no human can possibly read and analyze them.
But there’s no need for humans; now we have algorithms, computer programs that can go over enormous amounts of data in a very short time, analyze them, and find patterns. They can get to know you, sometimes better than you know yourself. They will know your political views, your sexual preferences, your taste in food and music, whatever. Sometimes it’s big corporations that use these data to sell you stuff; sometimes it’s political parties that use them to sell you a politician. And if you live under a dictatorial regime, then it becomes even more dangerous. They will use these data in order to clamp down on any kind of rebellious thinking or attempted organization before it even begins.
Here’s an example of my own life. I came out as gay, only when I was
twenty-one, but it should have been obvious to me when I was fifteen or sixteen
that I was attracted more to boys than girls. Somehow, even though I thought I
was a very intelligent person, I didn’t know that. It’s one of the biggest
mysteries of my life. How could I have missed it? But the fact is, I missed it.
When I was fifteen a big data algorithm could have told me in five minutes that
I was gay.
KG: How? By whom you were looking at, or what you were doing?
YNH: By very simple technology. You don’t need to implant anything in people’s bodies. No, it’s very simple. Today we have cameras that track our eye movements. Our eyes constantly look from place to place. They focus here, they focus there; they dilate, they contract. We have both the cameras and computer programs to analyze your eye movements and learn things about your personality, things like your sexual preference. You see an attractive man and a pretty woman walking on the beach. Where do your eyes focus? Very, very simple. You might not know something about yourself—we have an immense capacity for self-ignorance and self-delusion—but the computer will know.
It is now possible to collect enormous amounts of personal data on us, and then
use these computer programs, these algorithms, to analyze the data and
discover all sorts of things about us. It’s not science fiction. Another
example. There are today certain kinds of algorithms that corporations use to
target particular customers. Recently there was a notable but unfortunate story
about companies selling cosmetics or plastic surgery or whatever, targeting
girls with low self-esteem between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. These
companies knew that their best audience was precisely these teenage girls
because those with higher self-esteem wouldn’t follow their online inducements.
These companies used big data algorithms to focus on the social-media universe
and hone in exactly on the vulnerable girls,
bombarding them with tempting commercials. We are now exposed to more and more
of this type of manipulation.
KG: Do you have a smartphone and Instagram account that you follow, or do you stay away from these things?
YNH: I try to stay away. I try to
use them and not be used by them. I have an emergency smartphone that I use
when I’m flying somewhere, like to India for a 60-day meditation course. On the
way to the course and on the way back I can use it to arrange taxis and for
communication. But for most of the day, it’s off, shut away in some drawer. I
do have Facebook and Instagram accounts for my work, but they’re work tools.
They’re not for personal use. I don’t conduct my personal relationships via
KG: Circling back to the question of free will, if algorithms are in a position, and will increasingly be in a position, to decide for us who we are and what we should know about ourselves, will there still be a reason to meditate?
YNH: I hope so, very much, but it’s not clear. If I become overly dependent on technology, relying on technology to mediate between me and my body and mind, then my ability to directly observe myself, which is at the heart of meditation, might become more and more difficult. I’ve spent much of my time in recent years warning people about the dangers of surveillance technology, about the dangers of big data algorithms. But they’re also within the field of meditation.
Technology itself isn’t bad; it can also do wonderful things for people. I met my husband on an online dating app. This was a huge improvement, because I grew up in a small Israeli town at a time when people were very homophobic. How do you meet guys in the real world? There were no places. And then these internet sites and dating apps came along. That was a very good thing. I’m not trying to say that all technology is bad, but we should be especially careful to use it and not be used by it. When it comes to meditation, a very real danger is that the more we rely on technology to mediate between our own bodies and minds, the more difficult it becomes to directly observe sensations and what’s actually happening in the mind and body.
KG: You talk about how AI, especially concerning automation, will someday
push people out of the job market and decrease their ability to learn new,
important skills, which will create what you call the useless class. When I
look at certain monastic or religious models that focus primarily on
meditation, on prayer, on study, on debate, etc., I often see that these models
have been successful in terms of finding happiness and meaning. Is there any
chance that the useless class might someday turn into the meditating class?
YNH: I use the term “useless class” as a kind of warning that if we aren’t careful, if we don’t make good decisions, wise decisions, then that could be the result. It’s not inevitable. It’s not deterministic. Of course, what is the meaning of useless? Nobody’s ever useless from the perspective of their loved ones, their family, their friends, society. Everyone fulfills an important role in their own life and the lives of others. The question is: What kind of society are we building? I don’t think that we should protect jobs; we should protect people. If certain jobs disappeared from the world, it would be a good thing. We don’t need to protect them.
We need to protect the people. First of all, we need to provide them with the basic necessities of life. Even if they lose their jobs to a robot or computer, they shouldn’t lose their livelihoods. We can envision a future society in which some of the necessities of life are taken care of relatively easily by relying on new technologies. This is a good thing, so that people are not left outside to die of hunger and disease. And then, of course, there’s the question of meaning. A lot of people find meaning in their work, but, as you imply, this isn’t absolutely necessary. They can find meaning in community service, in a spiritual practice, or with family and friends. That’s absolutely possible. I don’t think that we have to work at a job in order to find meaning.
KG: That’s right. There are lots of really valuable activities that aren’t included
in the GDP: volunteer work, recreation, hanging out with our friends and
neighbours, cooking with friends and family.
YNH: True. The most basic things, like taking care of our old parents or taking care of our kids, don’t appear in the GDP. These things are not work, they’re not jobs. But, you know, these are some of the most important things that people do in life.
KG: I’d like to shift our attention to stories and storytelling. Political,
religious and economic leaders all tell fictional stories, which enable their
followers to construct viable identities and give meaning to their lives. But
stories are never completely factual. As you tell us, they’re full of holes,
they’re just fictions. And, as Goenkaji often said, “Story is story!”
<laughter> What are the consequences when we see our stories as timeless,
universal narratives, representing pure absolute truth?
YNH: We lose touch with reality. Stories are very important. We can’t have a functioning society without stories. Our laws are stories. Money is a story. These pieces of paper—you can’t eat them, you can’t drink them. It’s a story that a certain piece of paper is worth one banana. As long as everybody believes it, then we can have a trade network, we can have an economy. It’s not bad, as long as people are able to differentiate between fiction and reality. It should always be the case that fiction serves reality, and not the other way around. If you forget that money is a created, shared fiction, and you begin to think that the most important thing in life is to make money, then people will be valued according to how much money they have. Then you’re divorced from reality; you’re living in a fiction; you’ve misunderstood something.
Money is a story that we’ve created. It’s good, we need it. We can’t go to the supermarket and buy things if we don’t have money. But it’s not the ultimate reality. To kill people for money—that’s a bad idea, destroying something truly valuable for a fictional entity. It’s the same thing with sports. Everyone would agree that the laws of football, or baseball, or whatever, are just stories that we invented. And that’s fine. It’s good to play football. But if you forget that football is just a story, and let’s say you lose a game and begin to fight with the other team, beating on each other—then you’ve switched from fiction to reality.
Nations too are just stories in our minds; they don’t have any objective reality. They’re not a physical or biological entity. They’re not bad, they can be very good. We can’t have a healthcare system without a nation. But what is a nation? It’s millions of people who care enough about each other to pay taxes. I pay taxes so that somebody on the other side of the country can receive healthcare. This is a nation. It’s good. But if we start thinking that the purpose of the nation isn’t to help people, that people exist to serve the nation, then we might be willing to start a war with a neighboring nation, kill people and sacrifice ourselves for the glory of the nation. No, this is wrong, it’s backwards. We’ve privileged the fictional story over the reality that it’s supposed to serve.
The key is always to be able to differentiate between what is real and what is fiction. One way to do so is to ask the question, can it suffer? If you want to know whether a character in a story is a real or fictional entity, ask whether it can suffer. A human being or an animal can suffer; they’re real. Money can’t suffer. A nation can’t suffer. A corporation can’t suffer. Even if a corporation goes bankrupt, it doesn’t suffer. If Google loses all its money, Google won’t feel anything because it’s not real. It’s just a story, a legal fiction that we created.
KG: So, what about enlightenment? Is that just a story? <laughter>
YNH: I don’t know. I’m not enlightened <laughter>, or even close <laughter>. It’s one of those questions that constantly arises. I would say—and I think that I’m not deviating from our meditation tradition here—that for us, it’s a story. As long as we’re not enlightened, enlightenment is just a story. And we don’t need to believe it. So many people, for example students during a 10-day meditation course, will ask, “When I’m enlightened, will this or that happen? Will I be able to do this or that?” I say, forget about it; it’s just a story in your mind. Go back to your breath in this very moment. That’s the reality.”
KG: Great. I think this is a perfect place to end the interview. Thank you so much, Yuval. This has been such a privilege. You’re an important and relevant voice for our time, so I’m confident that our listeners [readers] will benefit from your words. Thank you so much.
YNH: Yes, I hope they will. This interview has been different than most that I’ve done lately. It was very amiable, a pleasure. Thanks to the people who might listen to us.