Empiricism, or Leaning into the World

To be empirical, we imagine, is to be rigorously materialist: we know only what we can sense — with our five senses. Any shenanigans about ghosts or spirits or mysterious cosmic forces is the stuff of superstition, of mysticism.

But my empirical experience certainly exceeds my five senses. All kinds of things happen to me that I don't see, smell, touch, hear, or taste but which I sense — and know. Take this common experience: when you know — yes, know — that someone is looking at the back of your head.

Or when you walk in a restaurant — or classroom, movie theater, anywhere — and just feel funny sitting in a certain seat. Or when there's suddenly a very strange mood over the city coupled with even stranger behavior. Or when you're thinking of a friend you haven't spoken to in ages, who lives clear across the country, and she suddenly calls you. 

One of my favorite Castaneda moments is when Don Juan and Carlos walk into the chaparral for their appointment with knowledge. Don Juan asks Carlos to choose the place to sit; Carlos looks about, befuddled as usual.  He chooses a spot — then Don Juan corrects him before identifying the place of power.  Don Juan, despite how he's been read and positioned, is not a mystic: he's am empiricist. He doesn't tell Carlos the secrets of the universe: he teaches Carlos how to operate within the wonder of the universe.

Some of these experiences are extraordinary, standing out from the quotidian wash. But experiences such as these happen all the time, every day, all day — from dreams to the flux of moods to synchronous moments to the odd sensations that seem to fill a space, a street, a room to the seemingly simple task of choosing a seat.

My point is this: the experience of everyday life is literally wonderful. Now, I believe this is the first time I've written this word — wonderful — and I don't think I've ever uttered it outloud but it is the right word: full of wonder, full of wondering, full of considering how things happen and not demanding a final answer but enjoying the ambiguities.

How do I know someone is looking at the back of my head? Well, we could wonder about that all day and come up with dozens of theories. And all of them would be beautiful, some of them silly, some of them persuasive, some of them dogmatic. But there would still be wonder.

This is what the empiricist does: he wonders about things. But not in a vacuum. No, he wonders about experience, following it wherever it takes him. He doesn't stop where his five senses stop: he keeps going into uncharted territory, into qualitative territory, into terrains that can't be readily measured and weighed but are no less real, no less empirical, for it.

Because these experiences are most certainly sensed. They occur here and now. They reverberate throughout our bodies and beings, even if we can't see them. You see your girlfriend with another guy or, more optimistically, you converse with an exquisite young lady you've never met but who makes your heart go pitter, then patter, and everything about you changes — and in ways that can't be thoroughly reduced to physiology.

Why would you even want to perform such a reduction? What a strange instinct! No, the empiricist is generous, seeking to give the sensual world its want, letting it frolic and meander in invisible cities, rather than binding it with known categories and numbers. 

Now, those who profess belief in mysticism repeat the ideology of the material empiricist: they assume there is one kind of experience that is material and then another kind that is of another plane — the spirit plane, the alien plane, the magical plane.

But there is no fundamental division. Experience is always strange, always alien, precisely because we are of time. We are always changing, always morphing, and so the new is always happening — even if, at times, it's very, very subtle.  The world is not a stable object to be studied. It's an event that's lived through.

And these events are at once visible and invisible, terrestrial and cosmic, material and eidetic, human and alien, organic and inorganic, articulate and inchoate.  To live through this world is move through its visible as well as its invisible terrains. This is all empirically constituted by multiple planes of experience, even if many of these planes can't be quantified. 

The true empiricist does not — cannot — divide material and immaterial experience. The true empiricist dives into the fray because he is always and already of the fray. When he has a strange sensation of some friend living somewhere else, he he does not dismiss or reduce it. On the contrary, he leans into it. That is his way of empirical knowing. 

The world, empirically, is bizarre. There is no known world on one side and a secret, magical world on the other. What we consider known is, in fact, much more wonderful than we suppose. And what we delegate a mystical secret is actually right here, right now. Just look — with all your senses.  Then lean into it.

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