Meaning is found in being present right now, and Yuval Noah Harari probably isn’t that afraid of life

Frank Martela wrote about Yuval Noah Harari’s views on meaning in Psychology Today. In Martela’s view Harari advocates a “scientific nihilism”, “gets meaning wrong”, and would benefit from “kind advice” from William James to “not fear life”. I have read Harari’s relevant books (Sapiens and 21 Lessons) and think Martela’s take on Harari’s views is a major misreading of the worldview of an experienced meditator. However, Harari complicates things by not being explicit about everything one would need to understand to appreciate where he is coming from.

Harari has spent 2 hours each day in vipassana meditation practice and, I recall, takes off for at least a month each year for silent retreat. He’s done so since he was a graduate student at Oxford some twenty years ago. From my lesser experience, and also through working in mindfulness research, I know one aggregates quite a lot of silent experiential wisdom in that time that deeply colors the lens through which one sees the world. Harari does not do a great job in explicitly articulating every detail of his worldview and Martela understandably seems unable to grasp the totality of what is being proposed.

Like Martela writes, Harari does dismantle all big narratives as delusions we humans believe. He takes the knife to religions, ideologies, and then meaning itself. In a world without humans, no-one would wonder about meaning – life would just go on. Neuroscientist Sam Harris has pointed out that no-one was wondering about meaning even some tens of thousands of years ago, though anatomically modern humans were already living recognizable (and naturally “meaningful”) lives on the planet. The illusory nature of free will means we don’t really make choices. We just operate, like all life, based on prior causes and conditions. Thus there is unlikely to be a grand purpose.

If there’s no grand purpose, then maybe there is a subjective benefit from believing in the fiction of meaning? This is what Martela proposes, citing Simone de Beauvoir and her thoughts on looking for meaning in psychology instead of metaphysics. Like other delusions, it is possible experiencing things as meaningful and telling stories about their meaning can result in some positive affect. People who believe in god can derive a sense of security from having a father figure who’s watching, or feeling connected to something larger than themselves. Some people obtain a feeling of safety from the thought of guardian angels following them and their children around. Fictions can soothe.

Martela is not advocating we believe in guardian angels though. In his own words, Martela is a proponent of meaningfulness partly, because it, and free will, feel real enough to him. Any fan of angels (or gentle therapy unicorns) could marshal the same defense of wanting to “believe” fiction: “ok, angels may or may not exist, but the thought of angels makes me happy and they feel real enough for me”.

Martela gives examples and tips on how to find meaning. One can think of people and work that feel meaningful and try to maximize how much one spends time with them or at it. I’m sure Harari would have no problem with these tips. He would just say you don’t need the concept of meaning to enjoy these things: they feel good in the present. Because they feel good, you do more of them. And unlike taking heroin, which might also feel good, they don’t create more suffering.

Of course even tips like this can result in suffering if one has little mindfulness and gets caught up in wanting the company of some people (lobha in Buddhism) and not wanting to do certain kinds of work (dosa). Even when following Martela’s advice, it is thus the quality of your presence of mind which highly influences your happiness and how much ”meaningfulness” you experience.

In any case, this is perhaps why Harari would say he wrote his books – it felt good, and did not add suffering – perhaps it even took out some suffering in the world by reducing confusion in many people’s minds. Maybe he had some stories in his mind about what impact the books would have. But he might as well not have had, and he is unlikely to have made much of these stories, and certainly is unlikely to have spent excessive time in thinking about what meaning his work has. On the contrary Harari credits vipassana meditation, the opposite of storytelling and searching for meaning, for his ability to have sufficient clarity and resilience to write the books in the first place – without his meditation practice they would not have been written, he wrote.

Harari has possibly done himself a disservice by couching his points in only talking about suffering, however. To see the pillars of his worldview clearly, one needs to consider the other end of the suffering spectrum: happiness, wellbeing, and positive feeling. When one decreases suffering, one also increases happiness and wellbeing. This is also important in Buddhism (see for instance the practice of brahmaviharas). Harari does not see the world only in terms of suffering. He would just start from reducing suffering instead of searching for meaning. A corollary of this is increasing well-being in the world.

Martela’s examples of spending more time with people you like, doing good for others, and self-actualization, are all ways of increasing happiness and entirely compatible with Harari’s worldview. Harari would just say the story Martela is telling about these things as meaningful is a fiction, and that one would benefit from recognizing it as fiction for added bandwidth to be present in what is happening right now. The positive affect from spending time with loved ones feels good. The fictional story of what this time with loved ones “means” probably does not add much benefit in the grand scheme of things, at least after one has thought about it a couple of times already.

There are significant downsides to spending too much time thinking about fictions, when one does not realize one’s mind is identified with these thoughts, however. The mind wanders around 50 % of the time for the average person. So much so, that we call this the default mode network of the brain. When the mind wanders, and we don’t notice, we become unhappy. And most of the time we don’t notice – we are immersed in thought. Meaning and happiness on the other hand come from being immersed in present experience, and not being identified with whatever thoughts come to one’s mind. Often these thoughts are unhappy: about what one did in the past or what could go wrong in the future.

A lot of happiness and “meaningfulness” can be obtained by just cutting through the veil of thoughts and connecting with life in the present moment: with the people we love, with nature, and with work. One does not need a story about meaning to experience the positive affect here, one simply needs the ability to be present for experiences when they happen.

As a sidebar, “detachment” (as described by Martela) from suffering is not what is sought by meditating. On the contrary, meditators practice to just notice thought and emotions, and to face experiences like suffering just like they are. Eventually this constant exposure to suffering and other experience will increase one’s ability to endure it. A looser relationship with thoughts and stories makes suffering stick less and so its magnitude tends to diminish. This is not detachment, it is exposure therapy. It tends to lead to less attachment to thinking, concepts, and material things, but this is not detachment from suffering as an experience. Suffering is fully felt, but its absolute amount tends to decrease and the meditators experience of it to generate less resistance and thus less additional suffering.

Often the happiest people on the planet are monks who have spent most time in the present and the least time pondering or believing fictions about meaning. The more one meditates, the looser one’s grip on stories and models becomes. The self, free will, meaning, and such start to feel as tools one can employ for problem solving in the present moment. And they do have a purpose in this: it is occasionally good to think a little bit to set one’s priorities straight – to remind oneself it probably results in more happiness and less suffering to call a loved one instead of playing yet more video games or watching more Netflix. But at its core even thinking about these priorities, compared to just living in the present moment, is empty, hollow, and often addictive.

Conceptual thinking will often only catapult one into getting lost in one’s own thoughts about things like what is meaningful. When that happens, one becomes unhappy and is not experiencing life as meaningful. Had one stayed connected to how life feels like right now, as experiences in consciousness, it would probably have been self-evident and natural to connect with the elder relative, smile at the passerby, or do the chores and actually enjoy immersion in the work, instead of thinking how does vacuuming fit into the grand scheme of meaning.

Thus, a person interested in meaning would probably do themselves the biggest favor to sit some meditation retreats and strengthen the ability to let go of thought and truly experience how it feels like to connect with loved ones or to be immersed in any mundane activity on the level of present experience. This person would be surprised about how much “meaning” on the level of bodily affect there is, without much of a story or need to create subjective meaning as a soothing fiction.

References: Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century; Frank Martela: In Harari’s Sapiens, Meaning of Life Is Just a Delusion; Sam Harris: Mindfulness and Meaning (Waking Up app lesson)

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