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.

  1. Praise dog, including Cooper.

  2. Great post! I shall study my dog more closely he may be a valuable mentor.

  3. Good to hear from you. I have missed your posts and was concerned that something happened. Do you have another dog? It took over two years for me to be ready after my Holly passed. I now have a new 9 month puppy. He has all the cardinal virtues except courage but he is working on it.

    • Thank you for your note and kind words Walter. I’m sorry you lost your Holly. Lucy girl died about a year ago after suffering some sort of mental breakdown. It was terribly difficult. Congratulations on your new puppy. As I write this my companion Cooper sits on my lap, a four year old Carin terrier rescue who came into my life a few months after Lucy died. It seems each dog makes a unique path to one’s heart, don’t they? They never replace the previous dog, just complement the place they occupied in our life. Best regards, Doug.

  4. Good to hear from you Doug.
    I suspect very very few people have the itch these days…TikTok or Instagram or whatever serves as salve.
    BTW- Our son lives in Leadville and is building MTB trails around Turquoise Lake. Special place!
    Hannah left us 5 years ago. Cancer. Navigator joined us 4 years ago. Golden Retriever number 6.
    Best regards,

    • Great to hear from you Craig. I suspect you’re right about the itch. Society creates (mindless) distractions to keep us turned away from such things. I’m re-reading Walden these days and find it amusing that Thoreau had similar complaints. Even Plato, if I recall correctly, wanted to ban flute players from his Republic because of the negotiate influence such entertainment had on the youth. I’m trying hard not to be a total curmudgeon as I grow old, but am not being very successful. I’m sorry to hear about Hannah. I lost Lucy a little over a year ago. Oh, the dogs of our lives. I can’t imagine life without them, even with all the heartache. Yeah, Leadville is a pretty cool and special place. It seems to have come into its own over the last couple of years. Our son has lived in Frisco for 13 years and we’ve been in and out of Leadville off and on. It was just this visit we discovered Turquoise Lake. It quickly became one of our favorite places. We’ve been on the road for the last three months, mostly in Colorado escaping the heat. Next week we’re heading to Utah. I have a friend who is on his 13th Subaru. You’re on your 6th Golden. It’s good to stick with what you know and love. Thanks so much for the note. Great hearing from you. Doug

  5. Always good to hear the latest from the house… Thanks for the thoughtful post.

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