Doug Bruns

Birds and The Art of Living

In Nature, Photography, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 5, 2020 at 9:00 am

Great Blue Heron ©Doug Bruns

I took a long pleasant walk along the water on New Years Day. Walking seems the most basic and perhaps profound thing to do as an upright animal and I like to begin the year doing something basic and important. A walk gets everything in order, both mentally and physically. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem too busy to get out and simply walk, or they think their time could somehow be better spent. It is not a surprise to me that a study of human creativity is a long history of walkers. (If you want to know more about my thoughts along on this line, read my essay, The Philosophy of Walking, at Medium.)

Long-billed Curlew ©Doug Bruns

I took binoculars with me on my walk. Wearing them, like wearing a camera around my neck, is a prompt to pay attention, to be on the look out, to be present in a moment, alert and ready. I identified twenty-two species of birds on my two-hour walk. There were probably another dozen or so that I could not identify. I am a long-time birder, but not a very good one, though I am always striving to improve.

Birding gives me an excuse and purpose to be out of doors. Fly fishing used to do the same thing, but the harm I was doing to the beautiful finned creatures of moving water became too much to bear. I most often go birding with my camera and a big telephoto lens. Photographing a bird I cannot identify in the field gives me an opportunity to study it on my computer screen when I get home.

Vermillion Flycatcher ©Doug Bruns

I want to be a better birder and am committed to sharpening my skills. I want to be a better human being and am likewise committed. I see the two notions as complimentary. Anything that draws you closer to nature, that heightens your attention to the world around you, I believe, simply makes you better. The more you appreciate the natural world, the more inclined you’ll be to cherish it, the creatures in it (human, as well as non-human beings) and do no damage.

Maria Popova in a recent Brain Pickings post made a comment about the creative process, which included the phrase, “…the way artists apprentice themselves to the work.” I very much like the use of the word apprentice as a verb, an active verb. The practice of learning a trade or a skill through an apprenticeship has sadly grown quaint. The idea of taking time to study under a master, to absorb carefully and with commitment, does not have much traction any longer. The Latin from which the word apprentice is drawn means “to learn, to take hold of, to grasp.” I attempt to learn, to take hold of, to grasp by birding with good birders and naturalists at every opportunity.

Brown Pelican ©Doug Bruns

If there is any art in my life I wish to apprentice myself to it and commit to the work involved in enhancing it. How best to live, in my scheme of things, is art of the highest order. How to be a better birder is largely the art of learning how to better pay attention, which is also one aspect of learning how best to live. As an apprentice to this art I am yoked to the idea that progress can be made, that there is knowledge to be grasped, wisdom to be exercised.

There is work to be done and I am committed to the long-haul of getting it done. Work is a wonderful thing. Without it we have no opportunity to practice our apprenticeship, no platform upon which to design and structure our path forward.

These are thoughts I considered during my New Years walk. They give me a heightened sense of purpose. There have been times in my life when true purpose seemed remote and now it appears less so. I am grateful for that. Gratitude too, I’ve learned, is part of the art of learning how best to live.

Happy New Year.

Greetings (of the Season)

In Death, Faith, Nature, The infinity of ideas, Wisdom on December 22, 2019 at 9:00 am
Stonehendge

Stonehenge, winter solstice

“We must be less than death, to be lessened by it, for nothing is irrevocable but ourselves.” ~ Emily Dickinson, in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson

      * * *

I want to ask you a question and you have to promise that you will not do any mental calculations before answering. Here goes, How many weeks do you think there are in an average lifespan? I recently stumbled across this little fact and was surprised at the answer. Before I tell you, I confess that I grossly over estimated. Here’s something to consider first: The approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia is about 270,000 weeks. And the answer to my question: The modern lifespan average is about four thousand weeks. Four thousand weeks! (I owe these factoids to Oliver Burkeman and his article, Life’s Too Short, in NewPhilosopher magazine, Fall 2019.)

100 years

24,698 days, 100 years.

I recall years ago as a young child looking at a hundred-year calendar contained on just two pages. Each year was represented by a box about three inches square, and within each box was a smaller box for each month, and like nested Russian dolls, within each smaller box, each numbered day. I was probably around ten or eleven years old and looking at those two pages I said out loud, “Somewhere in front of me is the day I will die.”

Death is not something we talk about much. I have my thoughts about it and you have yours. Regardless of our notions on the matter it is coming for us. Thinking about it, philosophizing about it, building temples and formulating doctrines around it makes no difference. It cannot be avoided.

This is the holiday season and you may think me growing dark with talk of death. The season, no matter what you make of it, is supposed to be about birth and new beginnings. Consider the ancient Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn, Saturnalia. This holiday spanned December 17 through the 23rd and was associated with the “freeing of souls into immortality.” Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday which falls this time of year, is about celebrating liberation and finding light in the darkest of times. solsticeI read recently of a new archeological discovery in Great Britain. It was a neolithic structure with but just one window. This single window, strategically placed, afforded light to the room only one day a year, the winter solstice. (As you may know, yesterday was the winter solstice.) Regardless of the event, be it a Walmart blow-out Christmas sale, or a Druid celebration of the coming of the light, this is a time of year that has for as long as we know, afforded humankind an opportunity for reflection—and if you’re inclined, worship.

So reflect on the weeks of your life and how you’ve been chipping away at the average. How many of the four thousand do you think you may have left? How do you think you ought to experience them? The same as all the others? Or do you wish to change it up?

I am moved to these reflections by something I read recently in the book Figuring by the indomitable Maria Popova. “Questions of meaning are a function of human life,” she writes,

“…but they are not native to the universe itself—meaning is not what we find, but what we create with the lives we live and the seeds we plant and the organizing principles according to which we sculpt our personhood.”

The ancients built meaning and ritual into the universal occurrences of nature. Sadly, we have moved away from nature, think ourselves removed from and something other than born of nature. In the gap we’ve created, the ancient rituals have become rote and corrupted by commerce, politics, and indifference. I obviously don’t know how many of my hoped for 4000 weeks remain to me, but I take seriously my responsibility to use them wisely. I take seriously my responsibility to make something meaningful of them.

The laws of nature, including death, cannot be avoided, despite our inclinations to ignore and dismiss them. We are subject to the same laws as that which prompts the trees to shed the leaves, the river to freeze, the beloved to die—and still the sun will rise. As I said previously, I’m not someone who traditionally has practiced ritual or acknowledged the import of spirituality, however that may be defined. Frankly, I am comfortable leaving all that aside. Instead, I wish to focus on what is in front of me, life. I wish to focus on infusing what remains to me with meaning and meaningfulness. That is, perhaps, the nature of my faith, my ritual, my spiritual practice. I wish to turn my thought from death to this moment while I am still breathing. The light is coming, the room will be illuminated as the blue planet turns in compliance to the laws of nature. I am no different, subject as I am to that from which I was born. I must obey…

I hope you have a meaningful holiday season.

The Dogs of My Life

In Curiosity, Death, Dogs, Life, The Examined Life on December 8, 2019 at 9:00 am

 Lucy, the sage                                              

When Lucy died I mourned. The end snuck up on me and although, as I mentioned previously, I had been preparing for our separation, I was nonetheless grief-stricken. At night, when I was most challenged, there was only one method I found to bring relief: direct and immediate attention turned to something besides my loss. In some cases, I could only focus on my breathing. This, after years of a meditation practice, came naturally. Sometimes I would turn my attention to the weight of my head on my pillow, or the breathing of Carole beside me, calm and assuring. There is no escaping the piercing emotion of loss, but there are ways to manage such that it might not get the best of you. For me, it boiled down to attention—where to turn it and how best to exercise it?

As a practice in mindfulness, I would like to think that my ability to focus my attention is well tuned. But honestly, that’s not the case. It’s easy to talk about paying attention, but our minds are not particularly well suited to practicing it. I suspect mine is even less so than most. There is an evolutionary factor at play here, I think. If a big hungry beast is stalking us on the savannah plains and we’re unaware, we’re going to be a meal. But if the mind is always on the move, always looking out, flitting here and there, our chances of survival are increased. We might be focused, our spear over a fish in the shallows, but the mind is elsewhere, always checking out something else. That was good for our ancestors, but does not serve us well as moderns. Attention is, consequently, a fragile creature and survives only on a diet of discipline and time. Discipline such that we will turn into it, attention, over and over again. And time, the time necessary to build strength of practice. Leisure time, in particular, is necessary. Again, the mind will create objects of attention unless we specifically set aside time to be quiet, time to be at leisure, time to train our mind. Leisure originally meant doing something without haste and with deliberation. There is no honor in doing something hastily. A recent study found that only about two percent of us can truly do more than one task at at time. There should no pride in being a good multitasker, that is only an illusion of production. To truly produce something of worth takes time and discipline. To do more than one thing at a time is, for ninety-eight percent of us, by definition a distraction. The ability to focus attention is the casualty.

Lucy, the Adventurer

A dog is a being that lives in a present moment with such consistency and intent as to warrant our devotion. It is easy to forget that they are dying seven times faster than we are. When Lucy died, not only was I losing a dear and true friend, I was losing a teacher. To study the life of a dog is to study how to live. Live with a dog long enough and you begin to wonder who is the more evolved being. Their life seems so richly endowed that the least we can do, indeed, it is our duty, to give them our full attention. “Pay attention,” wrote Mary Oliver, “that is our endless, and proper work.” Lucy was my teacher for a dozen years. I miss her. But in paying attention to my loss I am honoring her and our entwined lives. That is what a good teacher does. They put a stamp on you and you are forever the better for it.

Lucy, the Co-pilot

William James said that we experience what we pay attention to. Consequently, I wish to tailor my experience such that I am a better person, a person more attentive, more attuned to life, more at ease in the world, more courageous, kind and generous, an agent of harmony. More like a dog, in other words. These are attributes to which I need to pay attention. We are closing a year, turning the calendar page, and although I am not fond of gestures, grand or otherwise, I like the symbol of a year’s end and a new year’s beginning. It is a form of ritual and though I once disdained ritual out of hand, I have come to realize that ritual is a way to turn attention into intention, thus strengthening both.

The dogs of my life have been my best teachers. They taught me to embrace the morning, to walk out of doors every day, to engage each day with brio, to be loyal and trustworthy, to be curious, to live close to nature, to watch carefully, pay attention, and to love. Lucy, Maggie, Cleo, Punkin, Mitzy–the dogs of my life, my teachers, companions, and friends. For them and their lessons I am grateful.