Doug Bruns

Reaching for the Stars.

In Life, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on October 13, 2019 at 8:00 am

Photo by Denis Degioanni on Unsplash

The last few nights in Colorado I got into the habit of stepping outside and looking up at the night sky. Head tilted back I released my attention and simply stared. The Milky Way was a dash overhead, like a pale splash of paint against black felt. I did not try to understand the sky, did not try to identify anything about it. I simply released myself to the vastness and attempted to absorbed it.

The ancient Greeks had a practice of studying the night sky in a similar fashion. For them it was an exercise in humility. When one places oneself in the cosmos the notion of individual place and time slinks away. It is only our ego that positions us in comparison to such unknowable vastness. The ego has it’s own Milky Way and it’s own universe and it is hellbent on convincing us of our individual importance in the grand balance of things. But like much the ego attempts, it is in error, and will only lead us down a blind alley. Look at the night sky, breath it in, and tell me your ego does not run off embarrassed and humiliated.There is no defense against such a vast and empty truth.

You cannot expose yourself to a backdrop of significant beauty and grandeur without a converse arising of self-doubt and humility. Much of life’s larger experiences require that we drop the self-narrative and simply expose ourselves to what is. This is not easy, as we think we know what is. There is a school of thought which suggests the self is nothing more than a stitched together string of experiences, that no such thing as a self even exists. Modern psychology is bearing this out. All that is fine, but still we struggle. We struggle with humility. We struggle with ego. We struggle with a false personal perspective. It is likely hard-wiring. It is how we, as a species, survived. But that does not make it necessarily the reality of things. It is not necessarily what is.

Humans are a mass of contradictions. I know I am. As an atheist I stand under the night canopy and long for transcendence. I pray at the alter of science, yet yearn for the transformative mystic experience. I relinquish myself to a ruling rational perspective, yet sit in meditation attempting to release all cognitive ambition. I have, I think, finally arrived at a place where these opposing factions are no longer warring. We spend too much of life attempting to resolve the inner contradictions. The only resolution is to accept them and face the truth that we will never be rid of them. They are us, we them. Make room for contradiction. Accepting the fluidity of the human condition, moment to moment, requires a release that does not come altogether naturally. For some of us, that release is an ongoing effort, the work of a lifetime. That seems, at the core of things, the essence of being human. Yet we war against it as if attacked by an opposing army. But there is no army laying siege. There is only the vacuous loneliness of the frigid night sky. We can go to war, or we can release. Or better, perhaps, embrace.

Sitting by a stream Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), no shrinking violet, wrote “all was dark and cold, and still. Suddenly the sun shone out with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover.” At that moment “there passed into my thought a beam from its true sun…which has never since departed from me.” And what was the nature of that thought? She later wrote in her memoir, “I saw that there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered.” I think Fuller, like many others before her and since, tapped into a fundamental reality. Let’s not take anything for granted, especially that which we think we know for certain. Skepticism is a loose-jointed stance and resilient because it flexes when pressed. Certainty is uncertain. “What do I know?” said Montaigne. A self? Maybe, maybe not.

There is a natural resistance to release. It is the antithesis of control and we are so very fond of control. In death we all ultimately release. But until then I work to lesson my resistance, it too being a practice. Fundamental to our being is a sense of self. But I see in my grandchildren a construction of the self, a building of self, not an innate revealed being. The ego we construct and the resulting self—can it be released? I believe in, and subscribe to the idea of the purification of human character. Admittedly, there is a degree of the absurd about this. But what is life if not absurd, as Camus noted. There is sufficient evidence as to the worth of transcendence. We are, after all, the stuff of stars, as the poets remind us. Let us celebrate the awkward stance of fully human, a being fulfilled. Let us reach for the stars.

Muster those habits, pilgrim.

In Creativity, Happiness, The Examined Life on October 6, 2019 at 9:44 pm

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~ Aristotle

I looked up the etymology of the word “inspiration” recently. It goes back to the 13 century, is shared with Old English and Old French, and means to breathe into, to inspire, excite, inflame. Inspire, from which inspiration is derived, is to draw in breath, to breathe deeply. The original context of inspiration is to note the “immediate influence of God, or gods.” The creative individual, for instance, in seeking her god-muse, is hoping for that rush of inspiration, that substantive nugget, from which all creative power is drawn. Lacking that, one is simply faced with the prospect of hard work, which if you recall Edison’s comment comprises 99 percent of genius, inspiration being the remaining 1 percent.

When I moved to Maine ten years or so ago, I was often asked, Why Maine? My response more often than not was that my muse lived there. Indeed, the first few years of life in Maine were intensely creative and productive. I wrote frequently and met with a bit of success placing my work here and there. My photography took off, and projects fell into place with an abundance. I met new and interesting people. I explored a rugged and beautiful state. I was full of life, full of deep-breath inspiration. Then it tapered off, then fizzled. The new was no longer new. My muse, like an absent god, pack up and hid herself away. Somehow I had failed to nurse her appropriately, perhaps I even offended her.

I’ve been thinking along these lines recently as I’ve been reflecting on the most productive and rewarding phases of my life. The Greeks used the word eudaimonia in this context; they pursued a eudaimonic life. It is a word that most often gets translated as happiness, but to the Greeks it was a word better describing a life that flourished. Happiness was a by-product.The word happiness trips me up, frankly. The pursuit of it, happiness, seems most often a cruel trick, a blind alley, a lost ideal. The pursuit of anything sets up a counter reaction of avoidance. The pursued animal will flee. Happiness it seems mostly, is a thing that happens when other things fall into place. It is not a thing to be chased after, cornered and secured. That is why the idea of to flourish is so appealing. To flourish triggers a process beginning with a series of questions: What needs to be done in order to flourish? What does it feel like to flourish? Consider this, does history record the human lives that flourished, or the human lives that were happy? Consider the creative arts, DaVinci,  Michelangelo, Picasso, or in the sciences, Einstein, Newton, and so on. We don’t remember happy people so much. My hunch is that we remember people who were happy, but not because they were happy. They did something else, something that generated personal happiness, but that’s not why we remember them.

I’ve been in a long fallow period. Motivation has been largely absent. Emerson said that enthusiasm was necessary for anything of significance to come together. Motivation without enthusiasm seems an empty vessel. Inspiration, from which motivation and enthusiasm spring, has been hard in coming. That seems too much the absence of flourishing. I can point to the things that in days past made me flourish, like writing here at …the house…. At the core of things, I think, is the loss of good habit. Slowly things slipped. I wasn’t keeping my journal regularly. My reading fell off. My meditation practice began to slip. And so on.

William James gave a lot of thought to such things. His work on the value of habit is ground-breaking. “…there is reason to suppose that if we often flinch from making an effort,” James wrote, “before we know it the effort-making capacity will be gone; and that, if we suffer the wandering of our attention, presently it will wander all the time. Attention and effort are … but two names for the same psychic fact.”

Attention and effort, the stuff of habit. I have mustered my dormant attention. I have scripted my effort. Let the habits begin–again. Perhaps my muse, if she is still around, will take pity on this poor needy pilgrim. But should that not be the case, should she leave me high and dry, there will always be the hard work.

 

In The Mountains, Again.

In Camping, Memoir on August 11, 2019 at 8:00 am
Dillon

The view of Peak One Campground from uptop mountainside.

We’ve been in the mountains only two weeks. My lungs are trying to figure out what’s going on. The morning run-walk up the mountainside is a bit more run than walk recently, but the difference is hardly discernable.  Lucy too is lagging, but occasionally gets a surge and charges ahead during our morning outing. A couple of days ago she streamed past me and disappeared down the trail. That’s what we do, leap frog one another on our morning runs. But on this morning, with her out of sight, I heard barking off in the woods where the trail empties out into a clearing. The bark was not Lucy’s. I know her voice. Then I heard that distinct whine of a coyote. Then the barking again, raspy and hoarse, but from a different direction. My heart raced. Lucy had either been loured into or stumbled upon a coyote den. Last year I encountered coyotes in the same area but had forgotten about it until this moment. I picked up my pace, calling for her. She’s a good dog and always returns to my call, though sometimes it takes a while. I reached the clearing.  She wasn’t there. I called again and moved toward where I thought I heard commotion. Then she appeared. Her tongue was bloodied, but she was intact and seemed relieved to see me. I checked her, ran my hands over her little body–no wound, no puncture. The bloodied tongue was–and remains–a mystery.

The next day I put her on leash just before entering the clearing. I surveyed the area and we continued. Suddenly she stopped and sniffed the air. I looked to the edge of the woods. The coyote was watching us, perched behind some scrub brush. It was big, as coyotes go, and looked well fed. I was taken aback, frankly, at how healthy she appeared. Coyote life must be good in the mountains. We continued on, Lucy none the wiser.

The Morning Run_edited

The morning run starts and stops at the lake.

* * *

We are back in Colorado, hosting a campground in the White River National Forest. We will be here until the beginning of October, unless weather drives us out earlier. Last year three feet of snow dropped the day after we pulled out. Nights are already dropping into the low 40s. There is snow still holding on the peaks and ridges around us. (We’re a little over 9000 el.) People are already looking into the mountains to see if the aspens are changing. Unlike the drought of last year, we get rain almost every day. It is welcome, as it keeps the dust down and nourishes the wild flowers.

Our trailer is simple and comfortable. We don’t need much and this style of living underscores our commitment to simple living. Minimalism is the word of common currency and we are minimalists, though I tend to avoid labels that are suspiciously popular. My personal goal of simplicity has most recently included my online life as well as my analogue life. It is one thing to get rid of clothes that are too much in abundance; something else altogether when you attempt to exercise the same philosophy in your online life. I’ve been off Facebook for over two years. I have not missed it one day, even one hour, especially now knowing that it is a data mine for marketers and scammers and Russians. I quit Twitter a year ago. I found it of interest, but burdensome. It started to feel like a puppy, always crying for attention. My Instagram account is still up, but stagnant. It’s there simply as a visual record of the last several years. I work to resist surfing the net and keep a book or two at my elbow to counter the urge to open my laptop. You have to work at important things that are contrary.  We exist in a time that is noisy, foggy, and traffic-bound. Compliance is the motivation of the herd and if you lean in that direction eventually you’ll be grazing mindlessly on consumption, waste, and time squandered. Then you die. I can’t avoid dying but the rest of it is something I can work with.