Toward the end of his book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari begins to ask why humans are moving in a direction of progress. There is an inevitable sense that humans will continue to push toward progress in technology, medicine, social fields, culture, and life in general. There is no stopping this evolution and progress, but Harari wonders if any of it is actually making human life better, happier, or more meaningful. Harari asks what exactly the changes that humans are introducing to the world are doing, and as such, he asks the reader to consider what nebulous ideas like happiness even are and whether such ideas should be pursued.
His questions around happiness allow him to introduce ideas and concepts that have been part of stoicism and Buddhism. Stoic thought encourages that we reflect on ourselves in the present moment and attend to what we can control right now. It recommends that we decide not to pursue hedonistic pleasures, but that we try to recognize what we are doing with our mind and body in this moment. Stoicism encourages us to do our best to make the most of our short time on earth. Buddhism is similar, encouraging us to recognize that our individual thoughts and feelings will come and go, sometimes seemingly for no reason. Striving to maintain or be a certain thought, feeling, or emotion is impossible and so we should instead allow our thoughts, feelings, and emotions to come to us and to observe them without being overjoyed at the good emotions, thoughts, and feelings nor too dejected by the bad. When you manage to do so, Harari writes, “you live in the present moment instead of fantasizing about what might have been.”
I have heard many people over time complain about meditation and being unable to enjoy meditation because they cannot clear their mind. My understanding is that such individuals misunderstand the point of meditation. It is not to sit and focus with a clear mind, but rather to recognize that the mind has thoughts that we cannot seem to control. Meditation allows us to practice returning the mind to a single focus. It helps us see that we are not the random thoughts, feelings, and emotions that flitter through our head on a daily basis. We may be trying our hardest to focus on nothing but the feeling of air moving in and out of our bodies, but our minds can’t help but suddenly think about the thing we forgot at the grocery store, the person we need to call, or the hot person we saw at the gym. We do our best to keep our minds on one topic, but thoughts think themselves, and they pop into our head even when we do not want them. In many ways, we are not our thoughts, our thoughts are simply their own.
Harari writes that when we recognize that our thoughts, feelings, and emotions are not inherently the things that define us, we are able to step back and prevent them from controlling our lives. He writes, “the more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer.” The more we think it is important that we travel and have novel experiences, the more we will crave those things and be unhappy when we don’t travel and have lots of novel experiences. The more we think that the way we feel in any given moment is important, the more we strive to only experience happy and positive emotional states. When we don’t experience those perfect emotional states, we will become more stressed and put more pressure on ourselves to get back to experiencing those positive emotional states. We won’t be present, we will be distracted by trying to control our emotional valence. We won’t experience the world, we will be too busy worrying about our future and fixating on something in the past. Letting all that go, Harari argues, and living in the present moment will give us a greater sense of peace and calm in our lives, and will help us better experience the world we move through.