A Journal of Life Pursued

Archive for the ‘The Examined Life’ Category

Knowledge Gained

In The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on September 4, 2013 at 6:00 am

I was raised better than to simply walk away from such a friend as you. Yet, I did, I have. My apologies. Sincerely. My absence does not mean I’ve not been thinking of you. To the contrary, I have been plagued with guilt, that most burdensome of the self-induced emotions, over my thoughtless (non-)actions. Over abandonment.

A friend, a reader of the House, recently chastened me: You cannot just walk away. You should post an update, explain. She was right, of course (as women most often are). Except I have little to offer as explanation. This is my pattern: In-depth obsession followed abruptly by vacuous absence. The pattern has dogged me all my life, tinting everything–cresting elation swamped by indifference.

To my friend’s comment, I offer this description by way of explanation. I note too, that in my last post (many months ago) I also touched on my obsessive tendencies. But this time is different. Now I have some related knowledge. Here’s what I now understand: My life has been spent in pursuit of mastery, or if not mastery, at least the ability to do something really well. Just one thing, anything. It didn’t matter, physical, intellectual, spiritual (whatever that is), athletic, one pursuit after another, all the while, sniffing the air, checking the compass, asking: Is this the path to mastery? Obsession grows around such a thing, blanketing it, so that only the pursuit remains, the motive lost. Ultimately, I read the wind: No, you’re not going to master this thing, then I shut down. The lever is flipped and I move on.

This insight came one night, prompted by a deep conversation with a young friend; a conversation well lubricated with ample amounts of Maker’s Mark. It was a flash, a revelation that laid out my entire life. Imagine all the dollars I saved in therapy! The next morning, the whisky fog cleared, yet the insight remained, the insight being specifically of a life spent in pursuit of mastery, albeit Illusive mastery.

Which brings me back to “…the House…” My effort here has been nothing less than to try to figure out how to master life. And here’s the thing: I came to understand that one can’t. Indeed, there are truly things a person can master but life is not one of them. This is knowledge gained, wisdom even, and in the gain a bit of awakening happens. Yet, even at that, a truth revealed, the lever is again flipped and I move on.

 

My Left Hip

In Life, The Examined Life, Wisdom on June 8, 2013 at 7:00 am

It’s two and a half weeks since I had a defective hip prosthesis replaced. I have progressed from walker to cane to, again, bi-pedal motion. Pulling myself around behind a walker was revelatory and akin to stepping into a fast-forward time machine. At one point I was visiting my aged father, both of us shuffling behind our aluminium buggies. Yesterday when I saw him (sans walker) he poignantly commented that it must be rewarding to make progress. Sadly, he reflected, progress is behind him.

The bum hip resulted from years of hard-ship athletics: competitive weightlifting, long-distance running, mountain climbing, and so forth. I spent substantial time in my (youthful) life ignoring the ancient call for moderation, shunning what the Buddha called the middle way. It was obsession or nothing, one obsession daisy chained to the next.

Two weeks prone in bed gives one opportunity for reflection.

* * *

“The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less,” writes Anne Dillard. I was greedy. Guilty. Moderation, the middle way–that is the new horizon and I consider it with something less than obsession and more akin to meditation, like a snake shedding its skin.

As I’ve mentioned before, the question is not how to live, but how to think. One precedes the other naturally, but the logic of such a thing too often escapes us and we trudge forward living only.

* * *

Anticipating the surgery, a wise friend asked, “What are you going to do with this opportunity?” What a marvelous question! And I mean marvelous in the sense that I marveled over it: direct and simple and challenging. I could not outline how I might wrestle this question into order, but I embraced it openly and without constriction. It was, and remains, my wide-sky mantra.

The thing is, a question sometimes carries more portent in suspension. The answered question loses potential in resolution. Perhaps that is why the big questions remain, being so big as to constantly provoke and unsettle, never giving the pilgrim respite.

To wit: What are you going to do with this opportunity called life?

Things Loved

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Wisdom on May 14, 2013 at 6:00 am
medium_20102012155614335_Trees

My Maryland Woods

I spent some time over the weekend thinking about my best self as in, when have I realized my best self? I was in Maryland where I am selling some property, much of which consists of several acres of raw old woods, with trees bigger than I can get my arms around. I love these woods.

I do not use the word love lightly.

It was Mother’s Day evening and I was standing in a patch of woods where, four years ago, I scattered my mother’s ashes. The sun was setting. That’s when I started to reflect on those times when I experienced what I call my best self. My mother motivated me in a deep and profound way to seek such things of myself.

Also in these woods I roamed and meditated and worked with my beloved Maggie, a dog that meant more to me than I can talk about. Maggie died three years ago and walking the woods I could see her beautiful sleek athlete’s body fly like an arrow through the undergrowth. And over there, by the brook, is where I buried poor little Oscar, a rust-colored rescue cat that one night had a stroke. When I found him in the morning he did not resist my touch and his eyes no longer held life, though his heart was still beating.

These memories had the capacity to crush me as I walked my woods a last time. I was spared that, fortunately, though my heart was indeed heavy. Rather, I was grateful, a soaring and rare emotion. The animals of my life, my mother, the trees, the capacity for memory, these are things woven together by my aspiration for a better self, a best self. These are things loved and love will, by its very nature, guide a person to such heights.

“Pay attention…stay eager.”

In Life, The Examined Life on April 17, 2013 at 6:00 am

#1.) I bow before the zen master: “My name is Doug and non-distraction is my practice.” Or so my imagination plays. It seems to me that if one were the master of non-distraction one would be the master of everything. I do not believe in “multi-tasking” and maybe I have said as much previously. But it warrants saying again. Refine your focus, concentrate, do one thing well at a time. “Concentration is the secret of strength,” said Emerson. Be strong.

* * *

#2) My absence (here at the “…house…”) cannot be well explained. Something is afoot, a sea change. I’ve observed this phenomeon before and when it happens, this shift, everything gets exciting and boring simultaneously, if you can image such a thing. I had a (sort of) vision a few days ago–I know, a vision!–and in it a massive mud-caked bubble burst through the earth’s core and exploded. And when this happened I realized the limitless continuity of all things….

This is not my given way of explaining things and appears squishy and unseemly–but I said that something is afoot.

* * *

1 + 2 = Susan Sontag:

“Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

The Ultimate Destination

In The Examined Life on March 29, 2013 at 6:00 am

I’ve said this before, but (I think) it’s important so I will say it again. (The older I get, the more inclined to repeating myself I become.) We think from left to right. That is, we think in terms of a lineal progression, we think in terms of becoming. In reading, the eye moves across the page, as, to our way of thinking, the life progresses along the line. I think this has not served us well. Like a ship in sight of the harbor, the process of becoming delivers us from open water and secures us to the dock. It is safe and we can relax. But security is a lie….

Wait, let me start over. Let’s consider the shop-worn adage, Life is about the journey, not the destination. Since the ultimate destination is–duh–death, we should take this advice to heart. To say that life is about the journey is another way of recognizing that life is to be realized in the present tense. That’s good. However…

Returning to what I said at the outset, this business of “becoming.” Something about becoming suggests destination. I am suspect of destination thinking. Stay out of the harbor. Sail on.

Let’s leave it there for now.

* * *

I have no grudge with technology. However, I believe our nature is fundamentally simple and consequently I more appreciate artifacts of our simplicity than products of our science. I have an unattributed quote in my Moleskine that speaks to this: “The only possessions we feel good about are our books.” It is, of course, hyperbole, but hyperbole has its place.

* * *

I mentioned previously the book I’m reading, the John Cage biography, Where the Heart Beats. Two hundred pages in, the young composer finds himself misunderstood, his avant guard music scorned. He grows close to despair, questioning the very motive of writing music. Then Cage tells the following story:

“Two monks came to a stream. One was Hindu, the other Zen. The Indian began to cross the stream by walking on the surface of the water. The Japanese became excited and called to him to come back. ‘What’s the matter,’ said the Indian said. The Zen monk said, ‘That’s not the way to cross the stream. Follow me.’ He led him to a place where the water was shallow and they waded across.”

In other words, you have to do the work.

* * *

The Encyclopedia of Philosphy

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I noted in a past post that my landlord was putting a new roof on the building, that my five-floor walk-up studio-office was subject to pounding and dust, disturbing both Lucy and me. Last week, while finishing the roof–slate, lots of it–we had rain and a wee bit trickled through the roof-top work and leaked into my place. It fell directly onto a stack of topographical maps collected on a crossbeam. The Little Bigelow Mtn. 7.5′ Quadrangle map took the brunt of it. What I today discovered, however, is that volume 1 and 2 of my eight volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy, also got wet. This is a pity.

Opened to the page of most damage we find the entry for “Culture and Civilization.” Despite the now warped pages, the entry begins:

“The word ‘civilization’ was derived from an actual social condition, that of the citizen (Latin, civis). The word ‘culture’ in its social, intellectual, and artistic senses is a metaphorical term derived from the act of cultivating the soil (Latin, cultura)….The cultivation of the mind was seen as a process comparable to the cultivation of the soil; hence, the early meanings of ‘culture,’ in this metaphorical sense, centered on a process; the culture of the mind,’ rather than an achieved state.”

To circle back to the beginning: cultivation is the journey, no matter the quality of the soil. Just do the work.

* * *

Two quotes, coming to my attention within two days of each other:

“I do not believe in God. But I am not an atheist.” ~ Albert Camus

and

“All is God and there is no God.” ~ D.T. Suzuki

* * *

I leave you with that. Make of it what you can. Have a nice weekend and thanks for visiting “…the house…”

d

Loaded and Cocked.

In Books, Creativity, Photography, The Examined Life on March 26, 2013 at 6:00 am
Pride Parade, Portland, 2011, © Doug Bruns

Pride Parade, Portland, 2011, © Doug Bruns

I have loaded my camera–yes, “loaded my camera” means film, pilgrim–and am giving myself, again, to the streets. Beware, should you decide to stroll about in your bikini, I intend to find you.

* * *

It is always revision and editing–everything changing, always subject to more, to less. I wrote a week or so ago about art and discovery and Jackson Pollock. the piece was called The Practice of Discovery and I included this quote:

“Could Pollock’s late paintings result from his lifelong effort to excavate an image buried in all our brains?”

Picasso wrote an essay, Art as Individual Idea, published in 1923. He said, among other things, the following:

“I also often hear the word evolution. Repeatedly I am asked to explain how my painting evolved. To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was. Art does not evolve by itself, the ideas of people change and with them their mode of expression. When I hear people speak of the evolution of an artist, it seems to me that they are considering him standing between two mirrors that face each other and reproduce his image an infinite number of times, and that they contemplate the successive images of one mirror as his past, and the images of the other mirror as his future, while his real image is taken as his present. They do not consider that they all are the same images in different planes.”

I am arriving at the place of art’s ascension–the notion that art, like perhaps meditation, or nature, or drugs even, might render a revelatory state of consciousness. But what is art?

(BTW: The essay noted above is from The Modern Tradition by Richard Ellmann (the great biographer) and Charles Feidelson, Jr. If there is one book, albeit thick and with small print, that captures the thinking of the modern and the post-modern era, this is the book. I strongly recommend it if this period of great creativity interests you.)

* * *

Epiphany upon going to bed:

I’ve pursued the wrong question, it’s not How to Live? It’s How to Think?

How did I not realize this earlier?

* * *

ref=as_li_ss_tilA friend wrote to ask what I’m reading. I’m reading Where the Heart Beats, John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, by Kay Larson. The book came to my attention thanks to Brain Pickings and the omniscient Maria Popova.

I’m also about to start, The Inward Morning, A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form, by Henry Bugbee. Thanks to “…house…” member Geetha for this recommendation. I have not  yet cracked the cover. Here is a note from the back cover:

“The Inward Morning is a boldly original and lyrical philosophy of wilderness. Touching variously on poetry, fly fishing, Thoreau, and contemporary philosophers, this work is erudite and intimate. Henry Bugbee blends East and West, nature and culture, the personal and the universal. This reissue of an underground classic…will inform and inspire both contemporary philosophers and readers interested in an everyday philosophy of nature.”

–sounds like the book I was supposed to write…