Saturday, July 17, 2021

The Importance Of Being Bored

One of the assignments I very often suggest to students of naturalism is "be bored".

I'm exaggerating a little when I put it that way. I don't actually mean that painful experiences of weary directionlessness are the goal. The goal of the assignment is to ensure that there are blocks of time in your day-to-day life in which it would be possible for you to be bored.

Naturalism is a System 1 approach. Most of the work is done "in the background", while you're engaged with other things or not trying to do anything in particular at all. It asks your deliberate, solution-driven thought processes to wait in the hall for a while, so the rest of your mind has space to make contact with the world and to process it from all the available perspectives.

But what tends to happen when we stop using our minds to accomplish things on purpose for a little while? What usually happens when you go for a walk, ride in an Uber, or eat lunch?

In my experience, and in the experience of most of the people I've worked with, what happens is usually some form of passive entertainment. We watch Youtube, listen to a podcast, or casually socialize (either through social media or through in-person smalltalk).

I don't mean to demonize passive entertainment. I use it frequently, and I don't think I'm making a mistake most of the time.

I only mean to point out that many of us have our lives arranged such that when we stop making deliberate use of our minds, we tend to hand them over to someone else instead. We are almost constantly occupied with directed experiences, whether or not we're the ones directing.

I recommend that students of naturalism, or anyone trying to do creative and original work, wrest some of their time away from the external forces that sweep in to occupy their unoccupied moments.

Give yourself an opportunity every day to be bored.

If you go for a walk, you could leave your headphones behind. If you commute by train, you could leave your phone or ipad in your backpack. If you eat lunch while browsing Facebook, you could sit on a bench outside instead. And if you meditate anyway, you could try a version with no instructions at all besides "sit quietly".

You'll find that your mind wanders. It daydreams. It thinks about nonsense, and the past, and all sorts of things. That is the point. The more your mind wanders, the more psychological vantage points you will occupy. And the more vantage points you occupy, the more opportunities you have to see things from unaccustomed angles, and to probe them with diverse tools.

If you allow your mind the space to wander freely on a regular basis, more of your mind is available for processing whatever it is that interests you. So if you want to understand something deeply for yourself, do not let yourself be entertained all of the time. Be bored.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Announcing "Original Seeing With a Focus On Life"

In May and June of 2021, I ran an online nature study course with about two dozen participants. I had three goals:

  1. Help people create or deepen a personal connection with nature.
  2. Learn how to run month-long online courses with over a dozen participants.
  3. Test some hunches about the rationality material I’ve been working on.

One of my main hunches was that if you complete this course, you’ll find you’re able to study your own mind, or just about anything else, in the way a naturalist studies nature, with no further guidance. I obviously need more data, but the preliminary feedback looks promising.

A solo version of the course is now available for free through my website, thanks largely to support from the Long Term Future Fund.

If you want to get better at original seeing, I know of no better resource. I hope that some of you will try it out and tell me how it goes.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

How To Get Poetry (Part 2)

I think the reason I sat on that last post for two years is because I said what I think people are doing wrong, and I said what the right thing to do is, but I didn't actually say how to do the right thing. So now I'm hoping to correct myself, at least a little.

First, an object of study: “Early One Summer” by W. S. Merwin (from Migration)

Years from now
someone will come upon a layer of birds
and not know what he is listening for

these are the days
when the beetles hurry through dry grass
hiding pieces of light they have stolen

As I said before, the main problem is that we're all used to adopting a certain vantage point as we read: one that reveals to us semantic meaning, implication, and degrees of accuracy.

The thing about adopting a new vantage point, no matter what it is, is that you usually have to un-stick yourself from the old one first. So we'll start with that.

I once did a photo study of a slide in which I took many pictures while slowly circling the object. Once I'd photographed the slide from many angles, my object of study seemed less like a "slide", and more like an abundant source of diverse phenomenological affordances. A fountain of experience. Ways to conceive of the object seemed endless, and "slide" felt like such a brusque summary as to be slightly offensive.

I hope to lead you through a similar tour around this poem. I will demonstrate with the first stanza, taking it line by line, and you can try the second.

Exercise 1: Taking A Tour

1. If it were a boat, what sort of boat would it be?

Years from now: A very tall, thin boat that's out in search of the edge of the Earth.

someone will come upon a layer of birds: A dusty boat marooned in the middle of a desert, half-buried in sand.

and not know what he is listening for: A phantom ship with torn black sails emerging from the mist.

Your lines:

these are the days
when the beetles hurry through dry grass
hiding pieces of light they have stolen

2. If it compelled a certain body movement, what sort of body movement would it cause?

Years from now: A big sweeping motion of one arm, all the way down to the floor and back up again.

someone will come upon a layer of birds: Tapping fingers, like at a keyboard or drumming on a table.

and not know what he is listening for: Shoulders shimmying back and forth.

Your lines:

these are the days
when the beetles hurry through dry grass
hiding pieces of light they have stolen

3. If this were the title of a song, what would the song be like? (Or, what would be its instrumentation?)

Years from now: Slow and melodic, with a quiet tympany and a french horn.

someone will come upon a layer of birds: Staccato, fast, and light, with plucked violin strings and a piccolo.

and not know what he is listening for: Warbling midrange strings and woodwinds punctuated by harsh low cello chords.

Your lines:

these are the days
when the beetles hurry through dry grass
hiding pieces of light they have stolen

***

If you're feeling somewhat unmoored at this point, that's a good sign. It means you're not stuck. Time for the next exercise.

We're trying to move toward a certain vantage point. But there is no map. We only know that the destination is "north". I'll describe what I think "north" is for poetry in general, and then you'll build a compass whose needle is sensitive to the relevant electromagnetic field.

Exercise 2: Building A Compass

An appropriate mental posture for most poetry involves intimacy, vulnerability, and openness.

It's like a six year old offering half of her candy bar to the new kid. It's like a son calling his father for the first time since the fight two years ago. It's like telling a secret, hearing an echo, or finding a glow worm on the forest floor. Whateer all of those have in common, that's north. When you're in the right place for poetry, your mind is making an invitation, uncertain and hopeful, ready to find out what happens next.

1. When has your mind been in that kind of vulnerable and open place?

My answer: I was in a place like this while helping a caterpillar cross the sidewalk today. I didn't have a stick or other transportation device handy, and I was worried it might possibly bite or spit acid onto my skin or something. But that seemed unlikely, and I decided to pick it up anyway. The moment when it first began to crawl onto the back of my hand, that is the memory I have in mind.

2. How can you tell? When you play through that memory, which exact features of your experience make it clear to you that intimacy, vulnerability, and openness are happening?

My answer: As the caterpillar touched my finger and began to climb onto the back of my hand, I had a feeling like the second to last note of a symphony, or of giving myself over. I'd acknowledged and accepted a risk, and now I was letting myself fall into whatever world we found ourselves in, me and that insect. I can tell it was a poetic posture from the feeling of transition between hanging and willingly falling.

3. Make that same invitation as you read the poem. It might take multiple readings to find your way there.

(I'll describe what this is like for me with the first stanza, taken as a whole, and you can follow with the second.)

Years from now
someone will come upon a layer of birds
and not know what he is listening for

When I first started reading, the lines felt matter of fact, and I listened as though expecting to hear practical information I'd need to make sense of. But I felt a tiny little tug from my compass needle as my head tilted at the phrase "layer of birds".

I recognized a choice there. I felt confusion, and I felt branching opportunities. On one branch, I could try to resolve the confusion by looking for simple literal meaning. On other branches, I could let the confusion be. Just let it hang around, give up for the moment on understanding what a "layer of birds" is supposed to be about.

I asked myself which branch felt more like the transition between hanging and falling, and I chose not to try to resolve the confusion.

I circled back around to the beginning of the poem. I felt a little bit unsteady and afraid, having chosen not to demand sense of the words. I tried to invite them, instead. I imagined opening the door of my house and inviting them in off the patio.

And the second read was very different. It felt quiet and a little bit distant, full of subtle uncertainty, as though listening to almost-silence. I think I am seeing the poem as itself now, but I haven't quite connected with it yet.

My compass says I should not just invite it in, but embrace it. That feels more like giving myself over for the last note of the symphony. My arms open. I imagine hugging the poem and saying "welcome home". I also remember a few of my snapshots from the tour in the first exercise.

Now I see it.

In this read-through, it's hard to describe my experience of reading, because I can't possibly say it better than the poem. I just want to grab your shoulders and shake you while shouting, "Years from now. Someone. will come upon, A LAYER OF BIRDS. and NOT KNOW. What he is Listening for. (!!!)"

As I read, I'm wading in this undifferentiated river of imagery and emotion. The stanza is a wave made of impressions. There is a sweeping grand distant dusty future impression. It rises into an arriving stopped-short unsettling discovery impression. Then it falls into a scattered patient unsteady impression.

Your lines:

these are the days
when the beetles hurry through dry grass
hiding pieces of light they have stolen

***

I don't know if that worked for you. These are not exercises I have ever tested before now, at least not for this purpose.

Even if it did work, you may not be feeling anything like what I described as you read the poem. But you probably will be feeling something different than you usually do when you read a poem and think that you "don't get it".

I’d love for you to email me at loganbriennestrohl@gmail.com to tell me what happened.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

How To Get Poetry (Part 1)

[I wrote this in 2019, and just decided to post it here. Then I made a follow-up post.]

Someone observed to me the other day that poetry does not seem to “land” for them the way that it does for me. I want to try naming at least one thing I think poetry lovers (whom I know) are doing differently than people who don’t quite “get” poetry.

I’m not sure there is one central thing, but if there is, my guess is that it’s a matter of approach.

Anybody reading this is familiar with reading in general. At the very least, you read blog posts. You probably read Tweets or Reddit threads. And you read books.

In all of these, we tend to be focused on what happens, or maybe what it means. The words we write, read, and speak are useful for communicating about events and states of affairs. If we read “the candidate won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote”, we make an update, then move on to consider the implications. The phrase itself is immediately discarded, like the flesh of a juiced orange. That’s usually how language works.

But it’s not how poetry works. A very common way to prevent a poem from “landing” is to go in, gather info, and get out. You may not realize you’re doing this, even if you are, because it just feels like “reading”.

But it may feel like “reading, plus some other things”. I expect you can tell you’re approaching a poem this way if you recognize a background sense of searching, impatience, or frustration while reading, or if salient questions in your mind include things like, “What is this about?” and “What is the point?”.

I notice I’m delaying describing a better way to approach poetry. I’m delaying because I feel embarrassed. I feel as though I’m taking my clothes off to prepare for an arcane ritual I perform regularly, only today lots of people are watching, and they don’t necessarily know what’s happening. I’ll try it anyway. Here we go.

Poetry is intimate. It’s like a parent breastfeeding their newborn, or a husband comforting his wife with caresses after a loss, or the look of pride shared between a teacher and her favorite student during graduation. The way you would approach one of those situations is similar to how I think you should approach a poem, if you want to receive it as it was designed. Do not juice the words and throw away the rind.

The poetic experience is not one of updates or insights. Poems often ride on described events or on propositions, but they are not the stories they tell, and they're not the claims they make.

The sound of the words, the feel on your tongue, the dozens of associations an image might conjure for you, the felt shifts in your body, the rhythmic patterns, the emotions that dawn or ambush or flow, the way they superimpose, the moments when the pattern stumbles, the tiny pieces of sound or structure or concept that echo in later lines - these are what the purely poetic experience is made of.

And when you set out to read a poem… no, “read” is misleading here. Poetry is language transubstantiated in a chalice. When you set out to ingest a poem, to take it into your body and make it a part of yourself, you have to shift your mind out of its habitual relationship to language, and toward a state of extraordinary receptivity and participation.

Imagine that you are newly in love. When you wake up beside the one you love, you have the chance, for the first time, to watch them sleeping.

How does your mind move, in that moment? What allows you to rest your attention on the shape of their shoulder, the scent of their hair? What invites the full emotive force of your imagination, as you remember the time they kissed your palm?

If you can move your mind deliberately to that place, and let it rest there indefinitely, you are ready for poetry.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Staying Grounded

I struggle a lot with mornings. If I'm not very careful about what I do in the hour or two after I first wake up, I become extremely stressed and anxious. It's as though my mind has to take some time to put itself together into a solid structure, or else it gets obliterated by the first obstacle it encounters.

I've been thinking lately about how to design a morning routine that optimizes for building that solid structure efficiently. There are a lot of things that help. For example: being alone, moving to familiar music, watching a candle flame, lifting moderately heavy weights, and drinking chamomile tea.

Things that tend to slow or reverse the solidification process include interacting with humans, reading sentences, doing things in a different order than I'm used to, being near anything loud and fast (such as cars), and planning (the farther out, the worse it is).

What do the helpful activities have in common, and how are they different from the unhelpful ones? Mainly, I think the important thing they have in common is that they're grounding.

But why are they grounding, and what does that mean?

In early 2019, after a month of studying groundedness with Jacob and Nora, I wrote that "groundedness is what happens when your thought patterns are in feedback loops with things that aren't thought patterns."

And I mostly like that. But it doesn't really say what, exactly, is happening with groundedness. It only says when groundedness happens, or where you should look if you want to find it. It also doesn't account for a what I might call "abstract groundedness", of which "staying grounded in what you care about" is an example.

I've developed a feeling, while designing morning routines, that groundedness involves certainty and uncertainty, and especially movement between the two.

What is most difficult for me in the morning is uncertainty. Humans are harder to deal with than a cup of tea or a pair of dumbbells, because unlike tea and dumbbells, humans are intelligent agents. Their behaviors depend on complex and opaque algorithms. When the behavior of other humans is an input to my perceptions, it's very hard to predict what perceptions I will have. Will they walk across the room? How loudly will they speak? Will they ask something of me? Similarly, fast-moving cars produce huge waves of sound and visual experience at hard-to-predict times, from the perspective of someone on a sidewalk.

Tea does none of that. (Nor, notably, does the literal ground.) Tea just sits there being tea. I am extremely certain about the effect tea will have on my perceptions: the air in my nose will be more humid, my mouth and hands will be warm, I will taste a certain flavor.

But predictable things are not grounding in themselves. Blank white walls afford a lot of certainty, but rarely are they particularly grounding. Groundedness is an activity; it exists in the relationship between minds and their objects of attention. Blank walls are so predictable that it's a bit hard to maintain any relationship with them at all.

I think that perhaps groundedness is engagement with uncertainty by a mind that rests on something certain.

It is easy to drift into a state of ungroundedness while thinking about such topics as AI timelines, social dynamics, or possible career changes, because to get anywhere with those topics, you have to spend a lot of time thinking deeply amidst extreme uncertainty. The more attention you devote to something, the less attention you have left for other parts of your experience; so the more attention you devote to predicting uncertain outcomes of uncertain circumstances, the less grounded you become.

It is possible, and usually preferable, to engage with uncertainty in a grounded way.

The trick to doing so is to find something extremely certain and make it a central structural component of your experience. Not only should a fraction of your attention remain with your anchor at all times, but you should return the majority of your attention to the anchor at regular intervals.

Moving to rhythmic music is so effective for me because as I move, and thus engagedly experience novel sensory inputs that I cannot perfectly predict, the music encourages a regular returning of my attention to the anchor point of sonic rhythm. I move deliberately toward uncertainty, but a piece of my attention is always on the certainty of musical sound, and most of it returns often to the downbeat of a cycling musical phrase.

This model suggests that if you're concerned you'll become ungrounded during a conversation or activity, you should begin by identifying three things:

  1. a certainty you'd like to use as an anchor and a beacon
  2. a strategy for keeping some part your attention on it at all times
  3. a strategy for returning most of your attention to it at regular intervals

Since most of this is still armchair philosophizing, I don't expect my suggestions for how to identify those three things will be very good. But I do have some guesses, things I plan to try out myself in the near future.

  1. Anchors are most effective when they are emotionally powerful, but not emotionally fraught. They should be certain, but not entirely inert (since engagement with the anchor is crucial). The best ones probably involve properties of the non-social external world. In a conversation, I expect the two of you should choose something you're both certain about, something you agree on in the same way you agree that many birds have wings, or that Mount Everest is taller than your mailbox.

  2. Keeping a piece of your attention on something feels TAPs-shaped. You'll need to recognize when your attention has completely left the anchor; therefore, begin by imagining what it would feel like to leave the anchor behind. That's your trigger. The action will be cognitively cheapest if you have an external symbol to draw you back toward the anchor. So your TAP might go, "If I notice [that I've left the anchor behind], then I'll [look at the phrase I've written down]."

  3. Returning most of your attention to the anchor will require increased engagement. In more challenging activities, you'll probably need to start by disengaging from whatever uncertainty-focused pattern you've been spinning up, perhaps at the prompting of an alarm that goes off every n minutes. Space-making activities are likely appropriate: getting a snack, taking a walk, five minutes of yoga, that sort of thing. Once you've created a little space for other kinds of thoughts, you can then engage on purpose with your anchor. I would expect one to three pre-designed questions would work well, questions to which the anchor itself is an answer. For example, you might ask yourself, "What matters to me here?", and the act of answering that question anew will remind you of the answer in a way that draws a lot of your mind into the shape of it.

But like I said, these are just my intuitions. I haven't tried these things yet in a deliberate or systematic way, and I haven't walked anyone else through this process either. If you experiment with this yourself, I'd love to hear about whatever happens.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Study Nature With Me!

Starting May 16th, I'm running a nature study course called "Original Seeing With a Focus On Life". In one month of study, we'll become better naturalists.

EDIT: This round of the course is all full up! Thank you to everybody who applied. :)

Who should enroll?

I think you should take this course if you want to build a closer personal relationship with nature. The point of the course is to develop your ability to learn for yourself about the living things around you, without relying on someone else to tell you what's worth knowing or what to care about. It's about learning to actually see what you're looking at, and bothering to look at all.

Whether you're a city-dwelling couch potato or a professional park ranger, you should enroll if you want the natural world around you to come alive.

Who shouldn't enroll?

Almost all of the coursework will happen as part of your ordinary day, during walks taken on your lunch break, or in evening visits to the park or your back yard. The whole thing depends on using your attention a little differently, so if there's no slack at all in your current attentional allocation scheme―if you just can't find any time for yourself, or you're too overwhelmed with everything going on in your life to bring something new into it―then this is probably not a good time for you to take this course.

There will also be a one-hour discussion each Sunday for five weeks, starting on May 16th, at 11AM PST; I think you'll get a lot less out of the course if you can't attend most of the discussions.

How much does it cost?

Nothing! This is a free course. I see it as part of my R&D work toward helping people gain traction in pre-paradigmatic fields, a project supported by my grant from the Long Term Future Fund.

Watch this <10 minute video to learn more, and if you're interested, email me at loganbriennestrohl@gmail.com.



Saturday, January 30, 2021

Catching the Spark

Linkpost: I've got a new essay about curiosity and naturalism over at LessWrong!