Doug Bruns

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.


  1. Good to hear from you. This is good stuff, thank you for sharing the self reflection and analysis. I would say at the very least your muse is close by. Take care.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Doug. Appreciated the notion of “flourishing”–what a great word for life!–and the thoughts on habit, inspiration, and work. It makes me feel like going back to read William James again, as well.

    We are settling in to a little cabin on the shores of Puget Sound on Samish Island north of Seattle. Will be here for 6 months–1 month and 1 week of which has already whistled past like the scenery on a Utah freeway. I am focusing my time and energy as much as possible on writing, and have developed a habit of waking when the light is just starting up in the sky outside and writing until about 11:00. I have also been able to get my books out of storage for the first time in three years, and also have access to old journals and other papers. It is a good feeling, and it is also work. Your post helps me to continue to strengthen my resolve about this habit in the face of other tugs on my time and attention.

    Thank you for writing, and it is good to know that you are out there working as well. Good luck wooing the muse; and enjoy the labor if she takes her time. Warmly, Katie

    p.s. The closest town to us is the tiny village of Edison, named for Thomas Edison, so it was a little moment of synchronicity to see the Edison quote in your blog.

    On Sun, Oct 6, 2019 at 6:44 PM …the house I live in… wrote:

    > Doug Bruns posted: ” “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 in” >

    • Katie ~ What a treat to hear about your habits and current situation. It all sounds so idyllic. And getting back to those books, what a delight that must be. I’ve been away from home for about four months and very much looking forward to returning to my bookshelves. (And my grandchildren!) I want you to know how much I’ve enjoyed and appreciated your recent posts. So thoughtful and thought-filled. Your eye for nature and our place in it–and it in us–has given me much to contemplate. Thank you for that. Best to Tom and please stay in touch–and keep writing. D

  3. I for one look forward to your mustering. Onwards!

    • What a treat to hear from you, Ian! Thanks for the comment. I hope you’ve had a good summer. I left the mountains of Colorado three days ago after three months working (again) for the Nat’l Forest Service. Right now, I’m in Monreville, Indiana, sitting while my truck, which broken down as I was returning east. Always an adventure on the road. Some adventures of course we’d rather not experience, but then we must manage as best we are able that over which we have no control. Anyway, thanks for the note and best regards.

  4. The muse who deserted you in Portland? She may have moved over to 100 State Street. In fact, she may have taken a shine to the place, or at least one of its residents, while accompanying you during your family visits there. Mystery solved.

    This morning’s Portland Press Herald told the story of 92-year-old Jacqueline Moore who just had her first book of eco-poetry published. As a child Moore lived half-time in rural Maine, without electricity or running water; she’d live there still except for her age, she says. Her creative desire was fueled by her gin-drinking, vaudeville-dancing aunt, as well as a friendship with Seamus Heaney while they were both working in Boston. Are you recognizing your muse yet?

    Moore says it’s taken a lot of time and work to pull her poems into shape, to express the urgency stirring in her soul. “It’s not my nature to give up. It might be logical to give up, but that’s not my nature. Otherwise, I would not write poetry.” Attention and effort seem to have accompanied Poet Moore’s appropriation of your muse.

    Now that Jacqueline Moore is busy appearing at readings – Print Bookstore and the Peaks Island Library among them – your muse may be looking for a poor, needy pilgrim. Meanwhile, best wishes with the hard work, and thanks for the post.

    • Thanks so much for sharing this, Susan. When I read a story like this I moved to inspiration. And I think that, inspiring others, is part of the obligation of being what Emerson called a fulfilled being. (Oh, I’m such an Emerson kick right now!) Ninety-two and she’s doing her life’s work. Isn’t that something. I’ve come to realize this summer that my love of biography (and that would include something like the story of Jacqeline, as well as obits, and of course the formal genre) involves simple human curiosity about how someone spent their life, but also speaks to my search for clues about how to live. The great lives are full of them, clues, that is, both how to do it and also what to avoid. The first real book I read, grown up book, was Mark Twain’s autobiography. I was in 6th grade. I loved his books, had read them, but what about the life, what about the man who produced the books? That’s where the real gold mine lay for me. And still does.
      So how do we find that muse, I wonder? Certainly she must be looking for something to do. And it appears she moves among the older crowd…

  5. D, I struggled to write something profound, without success. However, I have a couple of thoughts: you are the most disciplined person I know; and maybe doing nothing, as an activity, is a viable option, especially as we all mature. Love, H

    • You have many times given me a simple insight, a simple question – – “What are you going to do with this opportunity? – – that sparked something in me. That is a degree of the profound, for sure. Doing nothing as an activity is a good and curious insight. Thank you, my leige. 🙏

  6. […] we might think today. Rather, it was a life framed around the pursuit of tranquility, a life that flourished, a way of moving in the world that was harmonious with others and with, most importantly, nature. […]

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