Getting Your Eyes On
The first phase of naturalism is about identifying crucial experiences that you want to study in greater depth. It’s a lot like preparing slides for observation under a microscope.
This second phase, “Getting Your Eyes On”, is about heightening your awareness of those crucial experiences. It’s like getting your subject in focus by watching carefully while turning the adjustment knobs.
What does it mean to “get your eyes on?”
I grew up in Southern Indiana, on a farm with many acres of forest. Every spring, as soon as the May apples popped up, I’d go morel hunting with my family. Morels are brown wrinkly mushrooms that look very much like the forest floor, so hunting for them is a bit like playing Where’s Waldo, except that Waldo’s on a brown and green background, wearing brown.
But there’s a trick to it. You start out moving quickly, scanning the ground for your first mushroom. Then, when you finally see it, you don’t harvest it right away. Instead, you squat down and watch it for a full minute. Mushroom hunters call this technique “getting your eyes on”.
What I imagine is happening is that you’re training your perceptual systems to consider this particular arrangement of little grayish-brown wrinkles as “foreground”, rather than “background”. Your brain thinks that if you stare at something with full attention for a shockingly long time, it must be important. “Hey, eyes, this isn’t just another bit of deciduous detritus. It’s important. It’s salient. It’s the main thing I care about today.”
Like mushrooms, fulcrum experiences tend to blend in with the background. Before you train yourself to pay attention to them, they mostly just seem like another fleeting mundane experience in a forest of fleeting mundane experiences. They’re hard to study, because they’re practically invisible.
In naturalism, “getting your eyes on” is the process of shifting a fulcrum experience into the foreground of your life. It’s a practice that takes a previously ho-hum experience and makes it stand out, so that you notice when it happens and thereby gain the opportunity to observe it on purpose.
How To Get Your Eyes On
Start by setting out to notice your fulcrum experience just one time. You’ve probably noticed it before, as part of “Identifying Fulcrum Experiences”; but this time, you’ll have a slightly different goal when you notice: your goal this time will be to observe the experience closely while it happens.
For a day, or a week, try to set a small part of your attention to watching all of your experiences, as though scanning the ground for mushrooms. When you finally recognize something that looks like it might be what you’re after, slow way down in whatever you were doing (if you can), and pay a lot of attention to whatever is going on for you.
I think of this special kind of focused observation as “phenomenological photography”. Your goal is to take a “snapshot” of your immediate experience in a particular moment. Here’s how it works.
When you make a painting, you choose precisely which visual elements to capture, and which to leave out. But when you take a photograph with an ordinary camera, your camera doesn’t know what your subject is. You may have aimed the lens at a squirrel, intending to photograph a squirrel, but you also captured the texture of the bark it’s standing on, the shape of the leaves, and the color of the sky. A camera has no concept of a squirrel. The shutter opens, light is recorded, and that is all.
To take a phenomenological snapshot, make yourself like a camera. Use your guesses about how your fulcrum experience will feel to aim and focus the lens, but then click to take a picture of everything in the frame. The shutter opens, and no matter what you’d planned to photograph, record every detail of your experience that makes its way into attention.
What do you notice right now? What has fallen into your attention so recently that you’re still aware of it now?
For me, there is the sound of rain and thunder coming from my speaker, the red-brown of a wooden door, the pressure of keyboard keys against my fingertips, a tightness in my chest and solar plexus that seems tied to my search for the next word, a feeling of concentration, a desire for precision in communication, a squeezing forward in the character of my thoughts, and the imagined sound of this phrase in my head.
This isn’t a complete list of what I’m aware of experiencing. It’s a sampling. It’s just a few of the things I noticed first when I took a moment to check (filtered a bit for what’s easy to articulate in text). But it is at least a partial phenomenological snapshot.
How do you actually take a snapshot, though? If a snapshot is just paying attention to… whatever you’re paying attention to, how is that different from ordinary awareness?
Here’s a mini exercise to demonstrate.
Are you thirsty right now? (Really, are you?)
Ok pause. That. If you really tried to answer the question, then whether or not you were successful, you did something with your mind to check whether you were thirsty.
You paid attention to your experience reflectively, as though holding a mirror up to some part of yourself, or pointing a camera at it. You observed your state in a way that allows you to record information about it. Even if that information turned out to be, “I can’t tell whether or not I’m thirsty,” you’re now reflectively aware that you don’t know. Before, you didn’t know, and you were also unaware of not knowing.
Just as being asked “Are you thirsty?” makes me reflectively aware of my state of thirst, there are several prompts that help me bring whole swaths of experience into reflective awareness. They include
What do I notice?
What do I notice around me?
What is happening?
What do I notice in my body?
What do I notice in my legs, abdomen, torso, arms, head?
What emotions do I feel?
What am I wanting?
What am I trying to do?
What am I thinking?
What do my thoughts feel like?
What is happening in my imagination?
When you’re first starting out, it might make sense to pick just your favorite of these (or to pick one you’ve made up yourself), and take partial snapshots that focus on, for example, “What do my thoughts feel like?”
The goal of phenomenological photography is to become reflectively aware of as much of your immediate experience as possible, in the particular moments when that information might be especially useful.
When I take a phenomenological snapshot, I come closer than at almost any other time to seeing in high-resolution whatever is right in front of me, whatever is actually there–never mind what I expected to see, or thought I ought to see, or believed to be important. So if the concepts that usually filter my experiences tend to distort my beliefs, it doesn’t matter so much. In photography, I get the data anyway, and that is the heart of getting your eyes on.
I find that getting my eyes on about rationality-related fulcrum experiences usually takes longer than getting my eyes on about mushrooms. I start by trying to notice just once, but my larger goal is to take three phenomenological snapshots in a single week. I might notice the experience several more times than that, but I try to choose three of those times to really slow down and take a proper photograph of my whole experience.
I almost always benefit from writing down what I’ve observed—a caption for the photograph—either in the moment or later that day.
When hoping to closely study a fulcrum experience, it’s important to have chosen a well-formed experience. You must have in mind something that it’s possible to notice in a single moment, or at least something that plays out in a time span of less than five seconds.
For example, [when my mother is frustrated with me] is an event that actually happens, but it’s not an experience that I, personally, can have. I can’t tap my leg “when my mother is frustrated”, because there’s nothing specific for me to notice. The whole thing exists in her. My mother’s frustration is technically an experience, but it is not strictly my experience, so it’s not well-formed in the relevant sense.
If I’m hoping to learn about what happens when my mother is frustrated with me, I’ll need to watch for a small piece of my own experience that might indicate her frustration: [when I see that her brow is furrowed while she’s talking to me], for example, is a better bet. Even [when I suspect she’s frustrated] may do.
You can’t get your eyes on about something that would be invisible even if it were right in front of you, so make sure you’re watching for an experience that could happen in you.
When I was studying fabricated options, I was interested in the word “just”. Not “just” as in “justice”, but “just” as in “Why can’t we all just get along?” I’d identified “just” as something that might show up in my experience when I was thinking in terms of options that were not actually on the table.
On my way to a doctor’s appointment in San Francisco, I noticed something that seemed related to “just”, and I took a snapshot. Later that day, I wrote down what I could remember of the experience (this version slightly edited):
There were a lot of sounds. The parking garage elevator said “EEERRRR! EEERRRR! EEERRRR!” in a very grating voice. The cars whooshed and honked. The crowds of strangers talked and shouted to each other. I could feel myself closing off internally, contracting as though preparing to huddle down into a ball on the floor in some corner.
Then there was a moment of gathering forces. A moment of forcefully moving the outer shell of my mind into a strong protective shape. And with the gathering, I started to say to myself, as though declaring or proclaiming, “I’ll just be fine”.
But it wasn’t really the word “just” that stood out. It was the discontinuity. There was a feeling like tripping over uneven flagstones, and it came from the way the outer shell of my mind had shifted, without more central parts having followed. It was a feeling that reminded me of “pulling one over on myself”.
I ended up having a lot of thoughts about that experience over the course of the next few days, thoughts I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t bothered getting my eyes on.
I found myself wondering about the price of “just being fine” (which is in fact substantial), and about neglected prices in general. I wondered about self deception, and what sorts of things motivate me to attempt it. I wondered what I’m trying to accomplish, when I pretend to myself that an expensive action has no cost, and how else I might go about accomplishing those goals.
With these sorts of thoughts going through my head, in the context of a specific concrete experience, it became much easier for me to recognize similar experiences, and to become aware of them as they were happening. For instance, I took a snapshot when I was upset with the weather for being too warm, when obviously it could instead have been comfortably cool out. I took a snapshot when I was struggling with a decision about whether to get top surgery, and I imagined it would be much easier to simply have been born without breasts. I took a snapshot when I found myself planning to stay up late and also to be well rested the next day.
Those initial moments of focused attention on the way to my appointment brought these subsequent experiences into the “foreground” of my daily life. Just like mushrooms, fabricated options were easier to find once I was able to see them at all.
Problem 1: What if I can’t slow way down? What if I’m in the middle of a presentation at work, for example?
For cases like that, I suggest choosing among three strategies.
First, see if you can create some space that wasn’t there by default. If you’re in a conversation, for example, you might be able to ask for a few moments to think, or you might excuse yourself to the restroom. Just asking yourself, “Is there some way to make space right now?” can do a lot; often, I find that there is really nothing in the way of pausing but the momentum of habit or expectation.
Second, wait until the very first moment when you do have a little time, even if that’s an hour later, and do your best to relive the experience in memory at that point.
Third, if your fulcrum experience is by nature something that happens when there’s no chance to reflect, set a time each evening to review relevant memories from the day. A memory isn’t as good as an immediate experience, but it’s better than nothing. Just do what you can manage.
Problem 2: What if I never notice my fulcrum experience even once during the week? What can I do?
I have a few strategies to suggest in this case as well.
The first strategy showed up earlier in this sequence (toward the end of “Getting Started”), and it addresses the problem of learning to notice things in the first place. The skill of “noticing”, in general, can take some time to train; and even once you’re very familiar with it, you’ll still have to learn how to notice your fulcrum experience in particular.
Exercise 1: To get familiar with “noticing” in general, pick something very concrete to try to notice, just for practice, such as “stop signs” or “birdsong”. Go for a walk in a place where you expect to encounter your chosen stimulus, and tap your leg (or use some other marking gesture) whenever you notice it.
Exercise 2: Then, spend one to three days tapping your leg when you notice your practice experience as you go about your day. By the end of this, you may have a better feel for how to use your attention for noticing.
Second strategy: To learn to notice your fulcrum experience in particular, it can help to recognize that you’ll probably notice it in memory before you notice it in real time. (More on this in the next essay.) To kick-start the process that will eventually lead to noticing in real time, I recommend using check-ins where you ask, “What’s the closest thing to my fulcrum experience that’s happened since my last check-in?” You can do this each evening if you want, but my favorite tactic is to use the Android app “RandomlyRemindMe”. I set it to ping me at three random points between the hours of 9AM and 10PM, and when it pings me, I briefly check in. (There’s a “snooze” function, so you can check in slightly later if you’re in the middle of something.)
My third suggestion is to try casting your net more broadly. If you were looking for “a tight sensation in your chest”, try looking instead for “any sensation in your chest” or “a tight sensation anywhere in your torso”.
Fourth, try exactly the opposite: Be more specific. If you were looking for “a feeling of curiosity”, try looking instead for “saying a question word” or “squinting and leaning forward”.
Finally, try looking through some of the techniques from the upcoming “Collection” phase, and see if any of them make sense for you to try now instead of later.
I happen to be in the middle of this exact problem today, so I’ll take the opportunity to demonstrate how I work through it.
I’ve lately been studying some things about sensory processing, and I’m interested in what exactly goes into preparing for anticipated sensations. Having identified a possible fulcrum experience, I made this plan a few days ago: “Watch for experiences that are something like ‘a thing I did with my mind in order to be able to tolerate or enjoy an imminent sensation’, and tap your leg when you notice it.” It has been three days, and so far I have not tapped my leg at all.
Could it be that no such experience has occurred in the past three days? It’s certainly possible, and if I thought this were likely, I would try casting my net more broadly.
However, I strongly suspect that relevant experiences have happened many times over the past three days, and I’ve simply failed to notice them. Rather than looking for a broader class of experiences, this seems like a time when I need to get more specific.
To get more specific with this plan, I’ll zoom in on “a thing I did with my mind in order to be able to tolerate or enjoy an imminent sensation”. As stated, that’s an awfully vague, hand-wavy excuse for an imagined experience. It lacks phenomenological precision. It is not detailed, and worse than that, it is not concrete.
What kind of thing might I do with my mind under those circumstances? What do I actually expect it to feel like?
I think it might have something in common with games like Dance Dance Revolution. (Note that I’ve just picked out a reference experience.) In DDR, symbols representing upcoming dance steps scroll vertically across the screen. The player’s job is to make the right step when the corresponding symbol reaches the top of the screen, which happens in time with the music. My usual experience while playing DDR involves attentiveness and preparation. I listen to the music, see the symbols coming, and shift my weight appropriately so that I’ll be able to step on the correct foot at the correct time. There is continuous preparatory motion in response to anticipation, and I think what it feels like is “tensing up to get ready”.
My garbage disposal makes a terrible sound that I frequently tolerate, but only through some kind of effort. There is a policy in my house of announcing “Loud sound!” before turning on the garbage disposal (or the vacuum cleaner, or the hair dryer…), so that I and my cat have the opportunity to… do something. I’m not sure what, and that’s what I’m trying to figure out. Whatever it is we do in response, the announcement makes the loud sound more tolerable.
When I imagine the moment before I turn on the garbage disposal, I have more trouble filling in the details than I have when I imagine DDR; but the motion of “tensing up and getting ready” does seem like a very plausible fit. It’s probably not a perfect match, but it seems close enough that it’s worth watching for.
So here is my new plan: I will watch for experiences of “tensing up and getting ready”, and I will tap my leg when I notice them.
To recap: If you’re failing to notice your fulcrum experience, you can either 1) train noticing in general, 2) watch for a broader class of experiences, 3) get more specific, or 4) skip ahead to the next essay for additional strategies.
Problem 3: Mushrooms are concrete objects, though. How do you get your eyes on about abstract things? Isn’t that harder?
Yes, it is!
When I present this curriculum in person, the analogy with mushrooms is frequently sufficient for the people I’m working with. Often, they begin studying an abstract object like “confusion” or “planning” right away, usually without even noticing that they’ve made a creative leap.
But it is a leap, and it’s one that some people trip over, whether due to technical difficulties or just to sheer curiosity. “How do you observe abstract objects?” is in fact a pretty deep question, and it’s one to which I unfortunately lack a short answer.
What I do have is an extremely long answer. In the past I’ve devoted an hour-long workshop just to this one question. I rarely present the entire thing to someone who’s studying naturalism with me, but I frequently pull out bits and pieces of it for them to work through when I think it’s appropriate. I’ve published the whole workshop in text form as “How To Observe Abstract Objects”.
If you haven’t already read “How To Observe Abstract Objects”, it’s probably not a good idea to pause here to do so. It’s quite long, and it’s sort of “supplemental” in the context of a full naturalist investigation. I just want to point out that the tools exist, and that in practice, they tend to be woven throughout this second phase of naturalism. If you actually find yourself attempting a naturalist investigation and you do trip over this problem in practice, it might then be worth checking out the workshop.
(Though of course if your curiosity compels you, by all means go for it. There’s nothing in there that might set you back; it’s just long is all.)
What is it like to get your eyes on?
In practice, getting your eyes on usually isn’t as clear-cut as perhaps I’ve made it sound. Many things about human psychology are messier than mushrooms, and they tend to move around as you look at them.
(Even in my examples, I’ve simplified things a bit for ease of reading. In real life there were many more zig-zags in the process.)
It’s very common, in this stage, to feel a lot of doubt and confusion about what you’re trying to study. A hallmark of “getting your eyes on” is the question, “Is [x] even a thing?” Variants include, “Is failure even real?”, “Is it possible to plan?”, and “What even is a mushroom anyway???”
People sometimes respond to this kind of deep confusion with despair. They don’t like feeling more lost than when they started.
But in fact, it is usually an excellent sign to feel deeply confused at this point, and here is why.
Naturalism is especially likely to be the right approach when you’re not exactly wrong about the truth value of some proposition, so much as not even wrong. It’s especially useful when you are thinking about things from the wrong direction, asking the wrong questions, using concepts that do not or cannot match the territory.
When you’re beginning from a place of not even wrong, you will likely find, in your first moments of direct observation, that you cannot make sense of what you are seeing. Why? Because the sense you are accustomed to making is not the sense that the actual world makes. When you look directly for the first time and do not understand what you see, it means that you may well be actually looking instead of just making things up.
In this phase, things that seemed obvious and straightforward before often become perplexing. The most useful responses to this are curiosity and patience. If you stick it out, if you just keep observing through the doubt and confusion, you will begin to form new concepts, and this time they’ll develop through intimate contact with the territory. Clarity may come later in the procedure, but things may have to get very muddy first.
What comes next?
After “Getting Your Eyes On” comes “Collection”. “Collection” involves trying to notice many instances of your fulcrum experience, and practicing until you can catch every single one that happens.
You’re ready to begin collection when your fulcrum experience is part of the foreground: when it’s often on your mind, when you’re noticing things related to it now and then, and especially when you feel things have begun to shift in the way you relate to your topic.
Note that it’s extremely common to return to earlier phases before moving on. I, personally, almost never move straight through; I loop back to “locating fulcrum experiences” at least once every single time. If you feel like you’ve chosen the wrong thing to study, it’s ok to take another shot at identifying a fulcrum experience, then to get your eyes on about something else instead.
It’s also ok to move forward, even if you’re not sure you’re ready, since you can always go back.
Appendix 1: Process Summary
Set out to notice your fulcrum experience in ordinary life.
When you notice your fulcrum experience,
enter reflective awareness,
and take a phenomenological snapshot.
Try to take at least three phenomenological snapshots.
Appendix 2: Glossary
Phenomenological photography: An attempt to take note of every detail of experience that enters attention at a chosen moment.
Reflective awareness: Observing your subjective state in such a way that you could record information about it if you wanted to; awareness of awareness.
Well-formed experience: A subjective experience, characterized by the presence rather than the absence of specific phenomena, that it’s possible to notice in a single moment.