Doug Bruns

Archive for 2013|Yearly archive page

Sunday Repost: Happiness

In Family, Happiness, Memoir, The Examined Life on February 24, 2013 at 6:00 am
Your host in the land of Gross National Happiness--Bhutan.

Your host in the land of Gross National Happiness–Bhutan.

A repost from May, 2010.

_______________________________

There are lots of things I didn’t teach my kids. I didn’t teach them how to manage money or change the oil in their car or even how to cook an egg. I am hesitatingly interested in someday sitting down with them and finding out what I did, indeed, teach them.  I think their mother and I did a good job of instilling in them a thirst for life, that is, a way of looking at the world so as to render it exciting and if not exciting, at least interesting. That is, it seems to me, important. I know I failed in teaching them how to think about their life in some meaningful context, which is, I intuitively feel, part of being happy. It would have been good to teach them how to be happy. I’m not sure it’s correct to call that a “meaningful context,” as I refer to it above. But it doesn’t feel wrong either.

We live in a country that embraces the pursuit of this effervescent, ineffable thing called happiness. It is important–I guess–to have an unalienable right to chase it.* But it seems there are a lot of people who aren’t, happy that is, or even pursing it directly, there being too many other pressing issues. That is nothing more than my generalization, but I am, as I have said before, comfortable with generalizations (in general). I see a lot of people on the streets here who are struggling, a good many of them living hand to mouth. I don’t think they are happy, at least not the ones I talk to. At the other end of the spectrum, I see people on nice boats who seem happy, especially on pleasant summer days. But when I talk to boat owners they almost all express a degree of frustration about owning a boat. I am surprised how consistently the phrase, “A boat is a hole in the water you throw money into,” is used. If there is a creed for boat owners this seems to be it. People with money are worried, particularly as the markets are roiling, that they will lose it. People without money are worried that they will never get it, and the relief it grants. Don’t get me wrong, having money is better than not having it. Studies have shown that people with it, are likely happier as a result. But it’s not a sure-fire recipe for a hearty belly-filling meal of happiness.

There is a great deal of interest in happiness in physiology at present. At Harvard, in 2009, the class “Positive Psychology” by professor Tal D. Ben-Shahar was the most popular class on campus. In a phone interview with the Boston Globe, Professor Ben-Shahar said,

“When nations are wealthy and not in civil turmoil and not at war, then I think, like Florence of the 15th century, they start asking what makes life worth living, and that’s what positive psychology is about.”

It is time someone got to the bottom of this quest for happiness. One thing that troubles me, is how to go about understanding it. This is one reason I could never teach my kids anything much about it. I don’t really understand it, can’t put my finger just on it. I think we–their mother and I–showed it to them. They were raised in a household by loving parents, two adults succeeding at making a marriage work. That is a level of, a degree of happiness: a home, solid and unshifting. Such an environment is a garden in which happiness can grow. It is rich soil. Happiness doesn’t necessarily flourish as a result, but the odds are better. Perhaps it’s so simple as attending to your garden properly.

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* It is no less than ironic, that in this time of Tea Parties and faith-based political initiatives, that “the pursuit of happiness” is an idea born of eighteenth century notions of European enlightenment. “I believe that humanism, at least on the levels of politics, might be defined as every attitude that considers the aim of politics to be the production of happiness.” (M. Foucault, 1967)

Tibet

In Photography, Travel on February 23, 2013 at 6:00 am

Last week we walked the streets of Prague. Let’s put on our hiking boots this Saturday and head up the Tibetan Plateau.

Two young monks at Barcor in Lhasa

Two young monks at Barcor in Lhasa

Yarlung Valley, Tibet

Yarlung Valley, Tibet

Sacred Mountain Lake

Sacred Mountain Lake

Yak Herder

Yak Herder

The Potala, home and palace of the Dalhi Lama.

The Potala, home and palace of the Dalhi Lama.

Monastery Tower

Monastery Tower

Monk with Cane

Monk with Cane

Goat Herder

Goat Herder

I was in Tibet in 2004 and returned in 2005. Though beautiful and with a degree of magic one would expect, I found the hardship of the people too much to bare. If you want to better understand what occurred to the native American Indian–the land-grabs, the disenfranchisement, the poverty, the world-loss of a beautiful people and their culture–then Tibet, now sixty-plus years since the Chinese invasion, is the place to study. Frankly, I found it too depressing to ever return.

Tools of Paying Attention

In Creativity, Life, The Examined Life, Wisdom on February 22, 2013 at 6:00 am
Journals, Diaries, Notebooks

Journals, Diaries, Notebooks

The action of paying attention is best practiced with a tool. The musician and his keyboard, the photographer and her camera, the meditator and her cushion, the writer and his notebook. There is an acuity of experience when traveling a city with a camera in hand that, without, is otherwise absent. All the tools of paying attention function this way: they enhance and, when loved properly, force experience in bold directions. Love is not too strong a word. There is not a devoted musician alive who does not love her instrument.

I once observed a master naturalist in the field make sketches and take notes which later in the day, around the fire, were  transcribed into elegant observations and artful renderings of the day’s work. Paying attention is a two-step process. Most people do not understand this. First comes the observation, then the transcription; first comes the practice, followed by the performance; first comes realization, then implementation. First you wash the dishes, then you stack them and put them away.

Susan Sontag, in an essay reviewing the career of Roland Barthes, wrote “[Barthes work] even begins and falls silent on the same subject–that exemplary instrument in the career of consciousness, the writer’s journal.” Let me repeat: “that exemplary instrument in the career of consciousness.” The journal as exemplary instrument. For the writer, the journal is the tool best loved. The landscape photographer loves her wide-angle lens, while the pianist loves the action of the Steinway. The tools of paying attention are as numerous as the ways in which we choose to practice the craft of paying attention–for that is what it is, a craft. If you become really good at it, great perhaps, you become the artist. Be mindful, however, there is no art where there are no tools.

One might aspire to great things–but one must, to be a realized being, aspire to something beyond the adequate. (Note: might is optional, must obligatory.) To aspire does not make it so. There is no course of human accomplishment that does not require a fashion of tool. This was lost on me for many years, as I was not, until recently, fully educated in the career of consciousness. I pass along this knowledge in the hope it will save you time. Good luck.

And have a nice weekend.

d

“Take this,” he said. I refused.

In Travel, Writing on February 21, 2013 at 6:00 am
Mystery Doll of Cusco

Mystery Doll of Cusco

The roof over my office where I write is being replaced. I’ve noted this word “office” before. Office suggests a place where serious business is conducted. There is little I conduct, serious or otherwise, in this space, and such a laden and infused word feels at odds with the spirit of the place.

The building is old, like much of the Old Port, and even five flights up my space has a fireplace and a bold heavy mantle. The fireplace is no longer functional and I doubt it ever was. Who would carry wood up all those stairs? Atop the mantle I keep trinkets from travels. I have a Buddha from Thailand, another one from Tibet, still another one from India, and a beautiful silver Bodhisattva from Bhutan. A room cannot have too many Buddhas. I also have a cast-bronze dragon, long and lean, that I picked up in a market in China. It’s mouth is open and the tongue appears as fire. I just now realize that a fist-size piece of amber I bought in a village in Ecuador is missing. It had a wasp suspended in it, Jurassic Park kind of stuff. I must have lost it in a move. Most unusual is a lead doll. It stands about two inches tall and rests surprisingly heavy in the hand. I was having a restless night in Cusco, Peru, and decided to walk into town. It was dark and the square at the Cathedral of Santo Domingo was empty and I was sitting alone and enjoying the coolness when a man approached me. He was holding a small pouch which he handed to me. “Take this,” he said. I refused. “Please,” he asked. I told him I was just getting some air, that I didn’t have any money. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I came to give you this.” His English was good and he was nicely dressed. He opened the pouch and removed the doll. She is silver and naked and quite beautiful. The man disappeared into the mist. The doll rests in a place of honor on the mantel. Someday I hope to understand what happened that night.

On an opposing wall I have a little shrine, for lack of a better word, to my once-companion, Maggie. I have a couple of pictures of her and her collar. She was often a subject of these pages. Next to her, I’ve pinned a photo of my friend Michael, also now gone. There are other things in the space that I cherish, many of which I’ve attached to the walls with thumbtacks. There are my stamped entry papers to the Annapurna National Sanctuary in Nepal, as well as a thick strand of yak hair my guide, Ram, gave me. He knew I was concerned about a mountain flight scheduled for the next day. The previous day’s plane had slammed into a cliff, killing all but three. The yak hair was to protect me. It did. I have several photographs hung as well, most of them remaining inventory from the gallery I once owned.

I said they are working on the roof over the space, and today upon entering Lucy and I determined that it was not a good day to hang out there. She could not nap on the futon as normal, not with the pounding directly overhead, and I couldn’t hear myself think, not that thinking is always exercised, but it helps. We repaired to home where I write this, noticing, the effect, or lack thereof, an office will have on one. (I note the previous sentence and blame the folks at Downton Abbey.)

OS v1.0

In Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on February 20, 2013 at 6:00 am
Jim Harrison's new book.

Jim Harrison’s new book.

In his new book, The River Swimmer, Jim Harrison says the most succinct and astonishing thing:

“How wonderful it was to love something without the compromise of language.”

This is an observation in direct opposition to something I wrote many years ago (1992) and (re)published here recently in a post called In The Beginning Was the Word:

“It is said that we do not readily store memories until we have language; consequently, we cannot remember a pre-lingual existence with accuracy. If we were a computer we would be functioning without an operating system. The switch is on, but the screen is blank. Words are the difference; the well-written word is altogether different again.”

Harrison is, by his own reckoning, a poet first, and this comparison of quotes supports Osip Mandelstam‘s observation that “What may be meaningful to the prose writer or essayist, the poet finds absolutely meaningless.” Where Harrison calls language a compromise, I deem it functionally necessary, like an computer operating system–call it OS Version of Being 1.1. Harrison is an example of what Susan Sontag calls the “poet as elevated being.” He runs OS 1.0, the original and unadorned Version of Being.

* * *

OS Version 1.0, the Version of Being the poets run, functions on what Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892 – 1941) called the “insatiability for the genuine.” Perhaps it is captured in an algorithm. Most of us run the “upgraded” version, OS 1.1, which fixed this perceived bug. Who wants to be “insatiable,” regardless of how provocative it sounds? Consequently, we non-poet mortals find ourselves sated 24/7. There is a profundity to a Russian poet that I cannot fathom, but I once watched Harrison drink in a bar in Michigan and he didn’t seem so elevated, though I was assuredly mistaken. He did, now that I reflect on it, prove to exhibit a high degree of the genuine, however. They say the Buddha taught for forty years after enlightenment. Elevated insatiable beings walk–and drink–among us.

* * *

I experienced a phase

Of writing poetry a year or so ago.

It felt good and right, but I stopped.

If someone were to tell you: Do this thing,

You will become an “elevated being,”

You would likely do it,

Wouldn’t you?

One would think.

Most of the time I don’t know

What’s the matter with me.

* * *

Here is a video of Harrison reading. He is asked “What language do you speak when you talk to animals?” “You just squawk,” he says.

The Benefits of Opium

In Adventure, Travel, Writing on February 19, 2013 at 6:00 am

Perhaps we should consider travel as metaphor? Another travel vignette:

A Sadhu, Holy Man of India

A Sadhu, Holy Man of India

Dhdhundaly, Rajasthan, India:

By mid-morning the village elders in Dhdhundaly were comfortably quite high—and anxious to get at it again.

No sacrament, no wine, nor bread–but opium, consumed in liquid form, concentrated and filtered, like a stoner version of Mr. Coffee-the-Divine. As this is India, there must be a spiritual reasoning at work—consequently, with a flick of moist finger, an offering to Shiva is made. The priest-elder pours the dark liquid into his cupped palm. It sits high and brimmed, like mercury might sit. He offers his hand to the squatting man on his left. The squatting man sips, then slurps it gone. Smiles follow. With the palm refilled, another offering to Shiva, and the next man is offered the mix and so on until it was the priest-elder’s turn. A deputy takes over and offers the elder a righteous palm-full. He sucks it down in one shot, like a thirsty sponge. He exhales and shakes his head. He makes noises like a horse in early morning stable. Again, he motions, as if to say, “Hit me.” I notice how red-rimmed and stoned his eyes are. There is an electricity in the air. We are sitting behind a wall in an open garden, the morning grows damp with humidity. The elder smiles at me and twists the ends of his moustache. He instructs his assistant that his guest not be overlooked.

Alas, in liquid form opium takes a month or more to work its magic–so I am told. One must be a faithful practitioner to really enjoy its benefits. Benefits? Why just look at him, says my guide. The elder is over 70 years old. See how young he stays? He seemed to be looking through me by this time, deep into his practitioner-addiction nirvana. I sip. The liquid is bitter–then, being the good pilrim, I brace and finish it off. Stoned smiles all around. A tin jar is passed containing golden nuggets of raw molasses. I am advised that it absorbs the bitterness and is sweet on the tongue.

If you should ever ponder the difference between tourist and traveler, know this: the tourist doesn’t drink the opium.