Considered one of the top thinkers of our time, Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari was in Mumbai recently to talk about his new children’s book – a simplified version of the iconic ‘Sapiens’. He spoke to Namita Devidayal about repurposing the stories we tell ourselves, the imminent need for global cooperation, and why he believes in the meditation practice of vipassana
Sapiens means wise. Do you think that humans today are wise?
On the individual level, absolutely. We have an amazing capacity for wisdom and compassion. But if you look at the species as a whole, it is a bit ironic to call ourselves homo sapiens or wise humans, because we behave in a very stupid way as a collective. On the ecological level, we are undermining the very basis of our survival and that of so many other animals and plants. Also, we could be on the verge of another world war, with the invasion of Ukraine and the growing tension between the US and China. We need global cooperation and regulation to ensure that new technologies, like artificial intelligence or bioengineering, are used for good, but we don’t seem to be wise enough to unite. The World Cup is an amazing example of global cooperation. So, you can have very strong national loyalties, but everyone has to agree on the same rules for the game. This should be the model that is applied to climate change and artificial intelligence.
Why have humans become so anthropocentric?
When you get a lot of power, you become very egotistic and focused on yourself. It happens to individuals and to entire species. We became so powerful as a species that we think the entire world is about us. Humans now even deny that they are part of the ecological If the ecosystem collapses, we will also collapse. Actually, kids intuitively understand this.
You explain how tiny changes accumulate and become big change – like water drips onto a solid rock and, thousands of years later, forms a deep hole. Why should we know epic timelines?
Because many of the changes in the world that shaped us, and continue to shape us, are gradual, and people have dif ficulty understanding that. When I was a kid, I was afraid of spiders, and that’s quite common, but nobody is afraid of cars, which is strange because spiders hardly kill anybody, but cars kill more than a million people every year. It takes a long time to develop fear as a species. Cars are just a hundred years old, so we haven’t had the time to develop the fear. We are very good at seeing cause and effect connections when it is immediate – like if you put your hand on fire it will get burnt but we cannot make gradual long-term connections!
You are a regular practitioner of Vipassana, the Buddhist practice of meditation. Tell us more.
Looking at this as a scientist, the mind is like a factory of sto ries. When you are told to meditate, it is a matter of seconds before your mind runs away to some story, or a memory or some fantasy People never see reality because they build a story about themselves and then keep repeating their stories – like blaming someone else for their problem – whether as individuals or countries. You cannot see reality because you are stuck in the story. Vipassana is about forgetting the stories in your mind and focusing on what is happening right now, starting with your breath. It trains the mind to let go of all the stories. And you can take this skill and apply it to any problem.
Since humans create stories, how can we change the narrative about our planet?
It just takes time to change or create a big story. Some of the most powerful stories in society have changed-like patriarchy. Girls used to be forbidden from going to school, and almost every religion said that only boys could be priests. That was the story. Over the last 100 years, it has changed. There is still great inequality, but in most countries, girls do go to school and can become anything. I think it is the same with the ecological situation. For thousands of years, we got used to the story that we are above the ecological system. But I hope there is still enough time to change. I think one of the ways is to reconnect to our own bodies. People live too much in their mind. So, reconnect to the body of the world.
You have commented extensively on Putin. What is your assessment?
Putin wants to make his country better, but the money that should be used towards creating schools and hospitals for the Russian people is being used to create bombs and inflicting misery. It goes back to stories in your mind. He is protecting his people from the imaginary danger and vague threat that exists in his mind. This is the source of most conflicts in the world. The ego is our connection to an imaginary story.
One word of advice you would give children.
Don’t be afraid to ask big questions that maybe nobody can answer. Real wisdom starts with acknowledging ignorance. Then, you will always learn something new.