According to me, this sequence has been pretty darn abstract.
That was kind of on purpose. It’s the opposite of what I like to do, of what I think I’m good at. I much prefer to engage with an actual specific thing, and to share the details of my experience as I go. This big picture stuff is really not my jam.
But I’ve been trying to paint a really big picture anyway, to describe an entire perspective on investigation, and rationality, and maybe life. I hope it’s been much easier to read than it was for me to write. And I hope that if, at some future point, I dive into the little details of particular exercises and techniques, you’ll be able to contextualize them as more than just trinkets, or rituals that are tedious to little purpose.
But I’m so tired of it. I’m exhausted by all this abstraction. I want to touch the ground. I want to show you what it actually looks like to live a life full of patient and direct observation.
I can tell you that there’s a magnifying glass in my pocket, which I use regularly. I can tell you that I turned the soles of my bare feet toward the sky last week, so that I could feel the snow falling on them. I can tell you that when I put “it seems to me” at the front of so many of my sentences, it’s not false humility, or insecurity, or a verbal tic. (It’s a deliberate reflection on the distance between what exists in reality, and the constellations I’ve sketched on my map.)
I can tell you dozens of facts like these, about my experience of myself and of the world. Hundreds. But none of those means much. Not on its own.
The problem is, this whole thing is founded on patience, which is difficult to demonstrate in an essay. It’s hard to show you all at once the myriad ways a thousand tiny moments add up to one big thing that matters.
Still, they do add up to something.
What they add up to is that I am a naturalist. I was raised to be a naturalist, and it worked. I was raised to be someone who yearns to know the territory through patient and direct observation. My childhood memories are full of mushroom hunting, finding newts under logs, following game trails, reading the geological histories in the rock layers whenever we traveled, and sketching the paths of Jupiter’s moons with a red flashlight beside my telescope.
My upbringing emphasized that the world is an infinity of wonders; unfathomably many in a single handful of dirt. It taught me that knowledge is power. It taught me that although school and books and the edifice of scientific inquiry can help you orient and make sense of your observations, there is exactly one key in the whole universe that can unlock the power of knowledge—and that key is your eagerness to go out into the world, day after day, and look with your own eyes at what is in front of you.
There isn’t space in a concluding essay to properly describe the habits comprising this way of life, or their result. But if I’ve communicated even half of what I hoped to in this sequence, you may now be in a good position to find out for yourself.
Think of some problem you have, something you want to get a better handle on or otherwise figure out. Maybe it’s something to do with your career path, a place where you’re stuck in your research, or the way you spend time with your kids. Anything where you’re yearning for deeper, more masterful knowledge than you have right now.
(There can be a lot of inertia in the flow from paragraph to paragraph. Here is a place to pause. Even if you’re not up for a thought experiment right now, I request that you count to twelve before reading on, just in case something comes to you by accident as soon as I’ve stopped shouting words into your head.)
Now imagine that there’s no internet, and not a single expert available to advise you. Your only books are the ones you write. Your only resources are your body, your mind, and the world itself.
If I wanted to know morel mushrooms, I would look for them beneath an old hardwood tree in a Midwestern forest in spring. I’d go there right about the time the mayapples are in bloom. I would look at the ground, in damp places where the autumn leaves have partially decomposed. That is the natural habitat of morels.
What is the natural habitat of the thing that interests you? Where could you go to observe it directly? How could you invite it to impinge on your experience? And what, if anything, is in the way of you being open to it when it does?
If you’re not sure of its natural habitat, then what’s your best guess, and how could you tell when you’re getting warmer? What might tip you off that some tendril of the thing’s reality has just brushed your mind? How might you recognize if now is the time to pay attention, and to make a new guess about where to look next?
And what could you do to observe it over time, to see beyond your very first impression? What little habits might you adopt, like an athlete who always takes the stairs, to ensure that you make frequent contact with this patch of territory in daily life? How might you record your observations, and notice patterns that aren’t apparent in any single moment?
If you wanted to increase your contact with the world, what is the very first thing you would change?
This is what I mean by “naturalism”.