Doug Bruns

“What does your spiritual life look like?”

In Philosophy, Religion on September 9, 2021 at 12:58 pm
Turquoise Lake, Colorado, elevation 10,400’ Photo by the author.

“Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?”

~ Henry David Thoreau

A couple weeks ago while sitting quietly in contemplation overlooking an alpine lake a woman approached and asked, “What does your spiritual life look like?” There were a few utterances between us leading up to this most personal—and frankly, interesting—question. We had exchanged comments on the mountain landscape, the weather, and she had noticed and asked about my journal. Perhaps that prompted the question. Later in the conversation I discovered that she was Evangelical. Perhaps that is the leading question one asks when in the business of saving souls. I attempted to answer her sincerely. “My spiritual practice,” I said, “is an effort to be more dog like and less human like.” She raised her hand to her mouth and smiled. I continued. “Dogs,” I said, “are curious, brave, faithful, and most importantly, without ego.” She listened politely. “They live in the present moment, fully alive. These are all attributes I seek to embody.” She saw that I was serious. My response to her question did not deter her from her mission. “Do you know Jesus?” she asked. From there the conversation progressed down that tired and well-worn path of how to be saved, how to not go to hell, and all the rest of that business.

I am a rational human being. Though my intellectual life has drawn me to the philosophical, my outlook is scientific, hard-edged and pragmatic. Ask me a question and my mind will likely turn first toward an evolutionary response. For example, ask about friendship and I’ll tell you about Richard Dawkins’s theory of the selfish gene. When a young family member asks me about rocks and minerals I tell her about the Big Bang and the life of planet earth. So, given all this, why do I have, or rather, why do I seek to have, a spiritual life? Though they are not necessarily opposing forces, a scientific outlook and a spiritual outlook are often at odds. History bears this out, as does biography.

The woman continued, asking me what I thought happens when one dies. I asked her what happens to the light from a candle when it is snuffed out? “So that’s it,” she said, “it just all ends?” She was incredulous. I told her that it’s not a question a dog would ask and smiled. Likewise, the Buddha advised against such questions, citing that the absence of answers makes for a fruitless effort. Why bother with such endless questions when life is in front of you waiting for you to live it? Interestingly, in the absence of answers to such questions, why even pursue a spiritual life?

Because of the itch.

I do not subscribe to the notion that there is something more than what is apparent to us. Nor do I dismiss it. Rather, I side-step the question and focus on what is in front of me. This seems the core of my spiritual practice. If current advances in cognitive science help me better in this practice, then so be it. I will study accordingly. If ancient wisdom provides a path to such a goal, then that works too. I am an opportunist. Philosophically I’m a pragmatist. If it works, it’s true. If there is something more, fine, if not, so be it, that’s fine also.

At the center of all this is the itch, an incessant little tension deep inside pushing for more. No matter one’s life outlook if there is the itch, a process is engaged by which one attempts to scratch it. In my experience, not everyone is plagued by the itch, the unsettling whisper,  inarticulate yet familiar, to mix a metaphor. I see it as the itch to be fully alive, to taste experience deeply and directly; to be true to a sense of self, yet aware that even the notion of self is fraught and mysterious. To be authentic, to put it in Sartrean  terms. These are the artifacts of the itch.

The conversation flowed. The woman talked about faith. In her scheme of things faith holds center court, the place from which all things flow. “But here’s the problem,” I countered, “faith is the death of curiosity. Faith is the acceptance of something which cannot be accepted otherwise, cannot be explained nor understood rationally. Consequently curiosity meets its demise at the onset of faith.” I will not assume certitude based on an unchallenged wish, which seems the mechanics of faith. My friend didn’t like that, but she accepted it. I’ve thought about this quite a good bit over the years, the tension between curiosity and faith. Frankly, I am somewhat envious of those who feel faith deeply. That must seem a place of rest. However, I’ve also noticed that the faithful seem staid and complacent in the face of what I feel to be the one and only big question worth considering, “What does a true life, well-lived, look like?” To that question, my curiosity will never be sated. Ultimately, that is the itch that cannot be scratched.

To the woman my spiritual life appeared misguided and empty. There was no God in my scheme of things, no faith, no savior, no heaven or hell. She respected the fact that as a younger man, a curious aspiring scholar, I’d read the Gospels in the original Greek, that as a student of history I’d traveled to the Middle East to see first hand the land that gave birth to the Abrahamic traditions. She acknowledged that I was sincere and appreciated my respect towards those who saw the world differently. I had done my homework and she recognized it. Ultimately, however, she could not grasp a world-view so different from her own. I get that. It’s not everyday you encounter a human being practicing to be a dog.

Toward Wisdom #3

In Covid on May 23, 2020 at 6:28 am

Photo by Mattia Faloretti on Unsplash

Toward Wisdom is a series of thoughts in the age of Covid-19

* * *

The last words of the Buddha were recorded to be:

“Things fall apart; tread the path with care.”

Siddhartha Gautama was born around 480 BCE. He wasn’t called the Buddha until a couple centuries later. It means The Awakened One. He lived in ancient India and taught for about 45 years, dying around age 80.

Of course right now these words seem especially potent. General life, schedules, commitments, normalcy, all seem to be falling apart. We are indeed treading with care, washing our hands, keeping a social distance, and exercising other measures to stay safe. Much of what we are doing might be interpreted as a means of self preservation. Of course this is true also. But I also like to think about treading the path with care as an act of compassion, a way of protecting the community at large. Marcus Aurelius said, “That which is not good for the bee hive, cannot be good for the bee.” Treading the path with care is one way of taking care of ourselves. But I like to remind myself that it is also an act of compassion in that it likewise protects my neighbors, my community, and the world. My mother used to ask, What is your motivation? It’s a great question and a challenge that is always foremost in my mind. If your motivation is to stay healthy, perhaps expand that a bit. For instance, we naturally also want to keep our family healthy. How about including your neighbors in that thought? Then expand it to include wider circles of people you know, even expand it to include nationwide populations and so on. (If you really want to challenge yourself, include people you dislike or disdain!)

Stay well. Be safe. Protect the hive.

Toward Wisdom #2

In Faith, Religion, Wisdom on April 26, 2020 at 11:56 am

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

Toward Wisdom is a series of thoughts in the age of Covid-19

* * *

I’ve been reading a lot of Merton lately, which is kind of weird frankly. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk (Catholic), a wonderful writer and thinker, a robust contemplative. I say my interest is weird, because there is a lot of talk of God in Merton—talk which used to put be off right out of the box. That aside, the Trappists are known for their vow of silence, their vow of poverty, and deep contemplative lives. These are commitments to a contrarian way of things, a way of things which sometimes reveals doors of insight otherwise difficult to pry open. And right now we are all living a contrarian life, aren’t we? So I guess it’s not all that weird is it?

My great friend Susan, knowing that I’m currently in a Merton phase, recently sent me this Merton quote:

You do not need to know
precisely what is
happening, or exactly
where it is all going. What
you need is to recognize
the possibilities and
challenges offered by the
present moment, and to
embrace them with
courage, faith and hope.

There is much being said here in these few words. There is talk of release (“You do not need to know precisely what is happening…”), talk of being present (”What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment…”), and instruction (“embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”). These are deeply wise words.

I use these daily quotes and passages like a mantra throughout my day. I usually try to boil down the passage’s idea to a few words that I can carry with me throughout the day. For instance, in this case, I simply remember, courage, faith, hope. From there the rest of the idea falls into place. These three words are pretty heady. Courage is an ancient virtue, one of the Stoic’s four cardinal virtues, for example. Faith is a word loaded with religious connotation. That’s fine if that’s the way you lean. But one can also have faith that Spring will come, that there is order to the cosmos, and so on. It is easy to think of hope as something you wish in the future, of desire projected forward. That is one notion of hope, but not a very helpful one. For me, hope is the sense that I can face the unknown, experience the thing out of my control, but will not be mastered by it. It is my sense of comfort with the changing nature of reality, the ability to absorb paradox.

I’m sorry to belabor all this. But I wanted to share how I work with, and find meaning in these phrases and quotes. I talk a lot about a practice. Working in this way with an idea is a fashion of practice. I hope you find it helpful.

Be safe.