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Author of ‘Sapiens’ on how meditation made him a better historian (vox.com)
222 points by prostoalex 188 days ago | hide | past | web | 87 comments | favorite

Does anyone else have experience meditating this much? Many people seem to attribute a lot of their success to meditating daily and swear its benefits elsewhere in life. However, two hours a day as well as one sixth of the year nonstop is a lot of meditating. At that point are you meditating just because you enjoy it or is it still beneficial enough to be worth the time commitment?

I've been doing regular week-long retreats for 15 years and recently did a 30 day retreat. Personally I just think there's way too much variation amongst my experiences, let alone if you include the gamut of others', to come to any solid conclusions. For example I've met people that meditate more than me that I consider a social liability. Correlation does not imply causation and all that. Are coffee drinkers more productive or are possessors of palettes predisposed to coffee's chemicals/culture more productive?

What is the magic ingredient in meditation that the mainstream seem to be missing out on!? I'm sticking my head out and firmly stating: nothing. All the scientific and anecdotal evidence derives purely from the sober and unromantic intention to pay attention to something -- how you pay attention, the sincerity with which you pay attention, the subconscious emotions and intellectual knots illuminated from such attention, these are the factors that determine the various reports we find concerning the 'magic' of meditation.

I think attention alone is enough. Pure attention leads to 'magic'.

I think this phrasing works for certain kinds of people, but turns off other kinds of people, and worse even misleads another category of personality.

I agree with you if the attention you are implying is focus. I think we draw to us things we focus on, good or bad. I have been meditating off and on for over 15 years and perhaps many of us have been daydreaming far longer. Daydreaming is similar to visual mediation. I find value in silent-non- visual and visual meditation. I find value and get results with 10 minutes or hour long meditation. Some of the results I have gotten are good physical health, sound mental health and goal attainment. Any more than an hour and I run the risk of taking a nap or sleeping.

Think of meditation as exercise for the mind. the more time you spend, the healthier it can be. Although like anything, in excess it can cause problems. Think of an elite athlete. They can be injured or need to retire early or surgeries from over use. Too much meditation can bring a person too far away from their physical reality. Everything in moderation.

I meditate between 1-2 hours a day. Sometimes I will do more and sometimes less. I find it saves me more time that it costs. I get distracted less, I need less sleep and I find myself in the right place at the right time more often. I also have more clarity on what is important so the time I have, I use wisely.

I disagree that it can bring a person too far away from their physical reality. On the contrary, it can bring to into such acute awareness of all of your senses in the present moment that those around you feel painfully distracted, or even creeped out by your expansive attention.

Not that this a state I attain very frequently :P

Wonderful that you connect to that state at all!

There are certain breath techniques that will land you in the clouds. If you do a practice like that without proper grounding, you are likely to be very disconnected from physical reality. That's my opinion and personal experience. In general (and they have the science to back this up) it heightens awareness of your senses. Though people who meditate have higher pain tolerance -- not because they feel less (since they feel more) -- because they have developed willpower to not react to stimulus the same way. Super fascinating!

I resonate with this. Meditation even though it takes time actually makes you more efficient at work because you don't get distracted as easily. Running a company or programming is mainly mental work and meditation, especially lots of it, helps hone that mental muscle.

Many teachings of meditation also incorporate teachings on compassion and self love which are sorely lacking in modern workplace.

I received so much from meditation (and ayahuasca) retreats it led me to co-found Retreat Guru. http://retreat.guru. Our mission is to get more people on authentic retreats.

I haven't seen any evidence, even anecdotal, that you can _damage_ yourself from too much meditation, in a way analogous to an elite athlete.

Bad technique can lead to problems like depersonalization, and people can get something like an addiction to jhanas - but as far as I know elite meditators simply get more and more "enlightened". In some cases this may lead them to join a monastery or become a hermit, but whether this is problematic depends on your point of view.

It benefits every aspect of ones life. The problem, though, is daily responsibilities make it very difficult, nearly impossible, for most people to meditate that long every day.

But taking time out to go inwards everyday doesn't have to take that long. Just 20 minutes or even 5 minutes every day will do just fine. The key to benefiting from it, as with most things, is to keep the same time every day.

Just pick any time of the day or night that you can afford. And make it a habit.

To take it to another level, find a spiritually-powerful word that you feel comfortable repeating (chanting) to yourself. Then chant it during those times you seat in meditation.

There' are higher forms of meditation, but start somewhere.

With time, you'll begin to see aspects of life that your physical senses cannot perceive. And as you become more aware of the visible and invisible aspects of life around you, you begin to worry less.

One of the primary effects of meditation is weakening and eventually undoing harmful habits of mind and behavior. Everyone has quite a lot of those, and clearing one layer of gunk often reveals a subtler layer to be worked with. Because of this, it can feel like the work is never done with meditation, and the practice is still beneficial. There's a lot more to it, but hopefully that helps.

One starts meditation due to past life patterns and inclinations. Then as you keep increasing the effort, it becomes enjoyable. The purpose of meditation is towards self growth and rest of things are side effects.

>> "One starts meditation due to past life patterns and inclinations" - how is this true ?

It's such a broad statement that it's impossible for it not to be true.

Doesn't sound like healthy skepticism or productive empiricism to me...

"broad statement that it's impossible for it not to be true?" - Do you have more examples of these ?

I found some:

    You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
    You have a great deal of unused capacity, which you have not turned to your advantage.
    Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
    You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
    You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others statements without satisfactory proof.
    You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
    At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
    At times you are extroverted, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
    While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.

In the literature these are called Barnum Statements (after PT Barnum, of "there's one born every minute").


"My entire life lead up to this point"

I think what he's getting at is people often start to 'fix something' from there life. They don't start because it's enjoyable but because they see it as a solution to a problem they have.

This is mainly from personal observations and after reading tons of material. The answers to all personal or self issues are deep within us and that can be bubbled up only through deep meditations. I remember when I was a kid, started reading books on yoga and meditation all by myself even though there was no one in my family doing it. I sometime reflect on why at that age felt the need to do meditation. The only reasoning is due to past life habits and inclination.

I meditated even though sometimes it gave me headaches but now i can easily sit 2-3 hours.

The only reasoning is due to past life habits and inclination.

I suspect there may be other explanations at least as plausible.

I think that's just his way of saying that things we like to do or don't like to do in this incarnation are informed by events from previous incarnations.

That makes sense if you believe in reincarnation.

I parsed it as "past (life patterns) and inclinations" which seemed vacuously true to me, since everything anyone does is influenced by these things.

Apparently, others parsed it as "(past life) patterns and inclinations", which does sound like an unsubstantiated claim about reincarnation.

Thank you for helping me understand the skepticism expressed in this branch of the comment tree.

Depends what kind of meditation. For the practice the author is talking about (vipassana) It became much more enjoyable and that didn't decrease the benefits I got. It moved beyond working through letting go of patterning, into understanding the nature of my human-ness and being able to work with that better(insight). And... I'm certainly not done with patterning haha....

I do think it starts to S curve on the benefits received against time committed. When you get to that point though, your overall life will be more than likely at a fantastic point.

For me the take away to this podcast was not that Harari spends a lot of time meditating. It's that he's good at it. He's learned how to distinguish what is real from what is not, and how to focus his attention for long periods of time. It's not surprising that those skills are useful when it comes to intellectual pursuits.

So, yeah, he spends quite a bit of time meditating. That's kind of like noticing that top athletes spend a lot of time exercising.

I have attended many long meditation retreats and can say they transformed me into a better person each time. They helped me especially to be kinder to myself and accept myself as I am.

But after getting married, having kids, and founding a startup, my meditation practice has largely dried up. There is always something vying for my attention it seems (including Hacker News).

I aspire to go on retreat again to hopefully bootstrap a daily practice. Ironically my startup is Retreat Guru!

Is there something that happens in your life every day that you can anchor a meditation habit to? For example, my personal anchor is the fact that I take public transportation to work every weekday morning. Overlaying my meditation practice onto my daily commute gives me 15-30 minutes of meditation time* 4-5 days a week.

* eyes open or closed, standing or sitting, breath or open or metta or body scanning, all are doable

Great idea. I often remember to practice simple driving mindfulness when i drive my car to work. Other than that I just need to find the discipline to go to bed early and wake up early to practice.

There's a lot of Bob Roth in those videos. I fell in the rabbit hole and came across his short presentation of TM[0].

It feels like a huge PR stunt to sell his certified "Transcendental Meditation®" trainings. Does anyone here have an insight into that?

[0] https://vimeo.com/87931619

Having done TM as well as Vipassana (discussed in the original article) and other meditations, I do not recommend TM. You will do just fine (or better) with other things. TM happens to have some famous exponents (e.g. David Lynch) but I find it a somewhat cult-like money extraction machine, and the actual meditation they teach to be less worthwhile than the other flavors of meditation in which I have experience.

If nothing else, I could see meditation helping with history work in that it sort of forces you to be more honest with yourself. I say 'sort of,' because that way of writing it may give the wrong impression. It's like, you can see your alternate motivations at play more readily and decide against following up, whereas ordinarily we trick ourselves into thinking we have only pure motivations.

To give an example, consider how this might affect authors of literature. Hemingway among others has made a big deal about writing that is 'truly honest'. Part of the difficulty there is that when you're writing, you have competing motivations in constructing all aspects from high level plot and characters to individual sentences. Some of those motivations have to do with vanity, career goals, laziness, etc. (e.g. writing in a style that establishes your intelligence, rather than because it serves communication). After enough time practicing meditation of a certain style (excellent description in the article), you start seeing the presence of these other factors as you work on things and can more easily choose to let them go.

>> human rights are a fictional story just like God and heaven

What a heretical thought. It makes me want to read the book of the author. Somehow similar like http://www.harrybrowne.org/articles/GiftDaughter.htm

It does not seem as heretical when taken in context (rights do not exist, biologically speaking).

Neither do maths, physical laws, etc. I think it is wrong and dangerous to equal Human Rights, which are an ethical decision, to religious beliefs, which are cultural construct much closer to "fictional stories" for non-believers. This new trend in anti-humanism carried by Harari, who is read widely, or Peter Singer, is frightening.

Interesting, I interpreted it as human rights not having basis in physical science and therefore all the more important for individuals and society to champion. However I do see how the quote can be seen as equating human rights to cultural fiction of arguable merit, which I agree is dangerous.

By "wrong" do you mean "morally wrong", or "factually incorrect"?

If the latter, in what way are human rights not just a human invention? What metaphysical or transcendental status do they have, and how do we know?

60 days of retreat sounds so difficult and also impossible for somebody like me who is tied to daily job. Curious s where is the retreat that he visits every year? Also any other daily practice which can have an equivalent effect?

Of course you can bring Harari’s emphasis on focus to bear here: is pondering the effects of 60 days meditation distracting from the simple task at hand? In which case, perhaps a better question is, what accessible and practical thing can I do now to get me on the road to where I'm going?

I say this because I would find it impossible to generalise the effects of the regular retreats I've made over the years. I recently sat for 30 days and although it was useful, I didn't find it 4 times as useful as, say, some 7 day retreats I've done. Personally I think science will never discover anything profoundly new from its studies of meditation -- watching the breath is literally just watching the breath, there's nothing else magic that we're as yet unaware of. It's just an incredibly fruitful context to work on whatever "stuff" is personally significant for you at any given time. In that sense I wouldn't be surprised if the similarly simple activity of running is also empirically associated with increased emotional catharsis, spiritual breakthrough, improved non-physical productivity, etc, etc.

It reminds me of a Zen story;

    A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
    Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?
    The monk replied, “I have eaten.”
    Joshu said, “Then you had better wash your bowl.”
    At that moment the monk was enlightened.
Yeah, so perhaps thinking something magic happens on a 60 day retreat is a similar example. It's almost certain you already know exactly what to do in your situation.

I don't think you can expect a daily practice to have "an equivalent effect" to a 60-day retreat. I know there are 10-day retreats for vipassana meditation just about everywhere in the world (probably for many other types of meditation too), though I've never been to one (scares the hell out of me to be honest, must be so incredibly hard - both mentally and physically).

I recently started meditating for 20-30 minutes at a time, once or twice a day, and the eerie calmness that settles in when I'm done (for the "good" sessions) is a great feeling. I can only imagine what 10 and 60 days can do.

It's worth it. I've done two 10 day courses and you learn to develop your focus in ways that are pretty hard to believe without going through it.

I know about a dozen people who have done the 10-day Goenka course. It is definitely hard work because you are meditating for around 10 hours a day, but it isn't actually what I would call hard to do; all your needs and schedule are taken care of and you just give into it.

A lot of the resistance for me was actually preparing family and clients for me being completely offline and unreachable for 10 days, and going through that was a revelation separate from the benefits of the meditation.

The recommendation I give to everyone is that if you have any interest, just book a course several months out when you think you may be able to make it. If you end up not being able to or not feeling ready, then you can very easily cancel in advance, and there is usually a waiting list anyway. However, booking a spot seems to set the wheels in motion.

Thanks for sharing, good to hear stories from people that have done it.

good to hear stories from people that have done it.

FYI, there are now many articles/blog posts/etc. by people who have done these Vipissana retreats -- this Google search will find you some:


(Here's one with the details of the daily schedule (among other things), if that's of interest:

https://oneshrinksperspective.com/2013/06/27/i-am-slowly-goi... )

It's important to note that the sales line of this being purely practical without dogma is completely false. Goenka is very clear in the lectures that meditation is all about purifying yourself for reincarnation. There's tons of anti science stuff, like claiming Buddha knew more about physics than the inventor of the cloud chamber.

The entire time, he chants in a dead language, and they want you to blindly recite things in said dead language. He purposely plays with his accent and speaking in order to push a bit of mystical properties to what he's saying (repeating words over and over, laying on a thick accent, whereas at other times he is capable of speaking very clearly).

The actual practise may be fine, but I found the woo-factor to be incredibly high - false advertising.

You don't have to attend a retreat for X number of days to get the same benefit. Just 5 minutes of meditation or contemplation every day will give you the same or even better benefits.

Just keep at it, but don't push.

Or daily job and being a parent.

You could follow the Buddha's example and ditch your wife and kids, running off in the night... haha...

In addition to this interview with Ezra Klein, Harari was also interviewed recently by noted proponent of Vipassana meditation, Sam Harris, in a podcast episode released earlier today:


What would be a good way to start meditating? Nothing too intense - just to dip a toe in.

I would recommend the buddhist mindfulness method, this site has one of the best explanations I have seen (I have shared this multiple times around the web)


The meditation has four progressive stages leading to a highly enjoyable level of concentration. To start with five minutes per stage is a good period of practice.

1. In the first stage you use counting to stay focused on the breath. After the out-breath you count one, then you breathe in and out and count two, and so on up to ten, and then you start again at one.

2. In the second stage you subtly shift where you breathe, counting before the in-breath, anticipating the breath that is coming, but still counting from one to ten, and then starting again at one.

3. In the third stage you drop the counting and just watch the breath as it comes in and goes out.

4. In the final stage the focus of concentration narrows and sharpens, so you pay attention to the subtle sensation on the tip of the nose where the breath first enters and last leaves the body.

I found the app "Headspace" to be a good introduction to the process and concept.

After completing the first 10 guided sessions, I read most of "Mindfulness in Plain English" by Henepola Gunaratana. It was good for a deeper dive into Vipassana meditation in particular and did a good job of keeping the more religious overtones to a minimum. I definitely recommend it.

Agree with the Headspace recommendation. It seems cheesy to need an app to concentrate, but Headspace makes it so easy to get started...

I highly recommend Headspace. Its founder, Andy, has guided me through over 100 sessions, the most recent being this morning.

> I read most of "Mindfulness in Plain English" by Henepola Gunaratana. It was good for a deeper dive into Vipassana meditation in particular and did a good job of keeping the more religious overtones to a minimum. I definitely recommend it.

It was the book I started with, and I just wanted to second this. As a lifelong skeptic by nature, finding a book that introduced meditation without the "woo" made all the difference.

For more of the same, look up the podcasts by Gil Fronsdal and Audiodharma. Like with Mindfulness in Plain English, it comes from a Buddhist starting point but he goes to the same length to keep the religious parts out of it.

Seat in a comfortable position with your back straight in a quiet place. Close your eyes, and try to observe the way the air goes in and out of your nose for 10 minutes. Don't try to relax or achieve something, just observe. When you realize are not observing anymore for whatever of the 1000 possible reasons, which can happen quickly and a lot, simply try again without pushing yourself. The beauty of this exercise is that you can't fail. Keep at it regularly until you feel to take a more serious course with somebody experimented around you. Don't try to get anything special from it as meditation is very ordinary. Do not worry about you being bad at it or being boring. None of what you experience will prevent you from benefiting for it.

The Mind Illuminated book. It's new and is pretty quickly becoming a go-to recommendation for meditation how-to for lots of various practitioners.

You can start by chanting HU [1] for 5 minutes every day. No need to go to a retreat or embark on a Buddha-type adventure.

Just you, in your home, for 5 minutes every day.

[1] http://www.eckankar.org/Video/play.php?name=Miracles+in+Your...

I love Hu. Very good to help fall asleep. My goto version https://rootlight.myshopify.com/products/hu-sacred-sound-ins...

Maybe more than a toe dip based on the price, but for me, getting a MUSE device helped me start meditating and I haven't stopped since. The thing I like about it is that it gives you feedback when your mind is focused (and feedback when you are not) and quelled my own internal fear of 'am i meditating correctly?' I can't vouch for the scientific basis of it but it has helped me in my everyday life.


(I am no way affiliated with this company)

I went through a period where I used a Muse almost daily, and it's definitely fun/useful when you're starting out, but I found the positive feedback (birds) only kicks in when you have a particular type of focus on your breath. There are both false positives (you may be distracted and thinking while keeping a superficial focus on the breath and the device will report that you're totally focussed) and false negatives (you are well-focussed on both body sensations and breath but the device is reporting that you are distracted).

So it works for a particular type of meditation, if you're relaxed in a particular way, if the battery level and contacts are good, if the initial calibration went well. It's great for starting/restarting a meditation habit but I would say one outgrows it fairly quickly.

Edit: the following pay-what-you-want course really helped me; it even improved my Muse scores! I have no affiliation.


Step 1: Observe your breath.

Step 2: Don't get distracted. If you get distracted, go to step 1.

One observation here from someone who has taken a mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) class but isn't currently meditating (but would like to get back to it!):

Expect to get distracted a lot, like your mind wandering continuously. The key here is to observe that happening, and gently bring yourself back to your breath. Don't let it frustrate or discourage you. Watching yourself become distracted and gently bringing yourself back is part of the process of meditating, not some sign that you're failing at it. The noticing of the distraction is in itself mindfulness.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests, you need to approach this with non-judgmental moment-to-moment awareness.

I'd second this: the way you deal with distraction isn't stopping it, it's calmly returning to the object of focus after realizing you've been distracted. This is a 'rep' if you want to compare meditation to training a muscle. In time you get distracted less, but it's not because you 'stop yourself' from getting distracted, it's because in time your tendency to not getting distracted develops through meditation practice.

You could also listen to or read the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris. It's motivating and extremely funny. I recommend the audio book[1] which is narrated with the author's booming newscaster voice.

I happen to own more Audible credits than I can spend. If anyone wants to listen to the audio book, email me and I can give away around 20 copies. Contact info is in my HN profile.

[1] http://www.audible.com/pd/Self-Development/10-Happier-Audiob...

I got started with this book: https://www.amazon.com/Minute-Meditation-Expanded-Quiet-Chan...

I highly recommend it.

I found this on Hacker News and found it useful https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13523943

Tim Ferris has done quite a few episodes on meditation. I like the podcast with Tara Brach. But he also recommends Headspace and you can easily find quite a few references with a quick search.

Check meetup for meditation meetings around you.

Also, I think meditation is very practical, so just try to sit 5 minutes, forcing thoughts to go away. That's it.

Except don't 'force' them! These is very central to the whole practice: you make things worse by forcing, your mind settles on its own if you just learn how to not disturb it for a sufficient amount of time. (Source: hundreds of hours studying meditation literature and listening to lectures, daily practice for ~2 years.)

A common example is to compare the mind to the surface of some body of water: it starts rough and active and you'd like it to be still. However, any mental action you take in attempt to still it (as opposed to allowing it to settle on its own) is akin to using your hands to 'settle' the water's surface; you just disturb it more.

In case anyone is interested, you can do a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat for free. You can sign up and read more about it at http://dhamma.org

They have locations all over the world and are run by volunteers. It is not affiliated with any religion.

I highly recommend it! (I have done two 10-day retreats)

A great book. I listened to Audible on my last roadtrip.

> The Israeli historian’s mind-bending tour through the obama of Homo sapiens is a favorite of, among others, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Donald Trump.

I have never seen the word 'obama' used like that. Is that a typo?

Edit: NEVER MIND - I got duped by a joke extension that I forgot I had added a long time ago.

The unbelievable part for me wasn't the use of "obama" as a noun, is that I can't bring myself to visualize Donald Trump reading a book, specially not a historic one (at this point I think everyone knows why that is)

He's probably read The Art of the Deal at least once.

But I doubt he actually read it. It's more likely that he listened to the audio version.

Funny part is that when I see now the article I read this > 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.

Help, please.

What does "the trump of Homo sapiens" mean?

Victory in natural selection?

Wouldn't that be "the trump by Homo sapiens"?

English is strange.

Pretty sure it's just a typo and they meant "triumph".

If one thing trumps another, it means the first thing displaces or achieves victory over the second.

"Trump of homo sapiens" means they were victorious, as they trumped the other party.

Thanks. I'm familiar with "trump" as a verb. But not as a noun. And I've always had trouble with "of". So "the victory of Homo sapiens" is sounding better now.

I feel like there's a chance that they wanted to say 'triumph' but muscle memory took over after 'tr'

Made me chuckle. Your view of current affairs must be so confused by now! :-)

You played it well. Especially with that last name. Folks are bound to get alarmed and fact-check the source.

What a schmuck :D

Please stop posting unsubstantive comments here.

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