Doug Bruns

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Pay Attention

In Happiness, Philosophy, The Examined Life on December 16, 2018 at 8:00 am

My experience is what I agree to attend to.” ~ William James

I’ve been spending more time that usual paying attention. Specifically paying attention to what I pay attention to. You see, like everyone, I’m feeling the acceleration of time. It comes this way to us all, that speeding train called life. It chugs along, toiling uphill, then, clearing the pass, it starts the decent. Faster and faster. But I’ve found the brakes. I’ve discovered that if you get focused and pay deep attention, time slows down. You can’t stop the train, but you can slow the descent. Time–the more attention you give it, the more of itself it reveals.

James Wilson Williams is a technology scholar. In the current issue of New Philosopher magazine he is quoted as saying that when you “pay attention,” you pay “with all the things you could have attended to but didn’t; all the possibilities you didn’t pursue…all the possible yous you could have been, had you attended to those other things. Attention is paid in possible futures foregone.” By paying attention to one thing, you have made a conscious decision to ignore something else, principally the past and the future. And that has great rewards. As Goethe said, “Happiness looks neither forward nor backward.” Indeed, the present is the only reality that belongs to us.

That is the good news, that we’re paying attention to something. The bad news is that if we aren’t careful, if we don’t pay attention, and then, zip, with a blink of an eye, it’s gone. An opportunity for happiness lost, a moment–an eternity–squandered. The train picks up speed.

When we were little the world was fresh, new, interesting. We were captivated by it, struck by simply being alive. It was a raw, cosmic happiness. But as we age, the days connect, they go rolling by, one after the other. Tedium builds. We’re on the train, just staring out the window. We’ve seen it all before. Maybe we day-dream, more likely we turn to social media. Either way, we’ve lost the discipline of attention. It is the present foregone. We’re on the train to oblivion.

I’ve discovered a way of slowing things down again, somewhat like it all was when I was a little child.

I credit my meditation practice with much of the slow freshness I feel when I move about the world. It is curious how sitting quietly and paying attention to your mind will instill in you a calm when going about the hustle and bustle of life. But there are other things I practice too to slow things down and pay attention. I am right-handed, for instance, but I frequently use my left hand for common tasks like eating or brushing my teeth. In doing this, I am turning a mundane task into something requiring my attention. Time slows down accordingly. Or, sometimes when I’m traveling a common route, a road I might drive several times a week, I pretend to have a passenger, someone from another country, often a distant relative. I point out this or that to my passenger. I try to see the route through their eyes. It makes it fresh again and new, delivering a degree of child-like happiness along with it. Try it.

In his book, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, Pierre Hadot writes, “Because the sage lives within his consciousness of the world, the world is constantly present to him [or her]…the present moment takes on an infinite value: it contains with it the entire cosmos, and all the value and wealth of being.”

Pay attention. Be a sage. Therein lies happiness.

The Examined Life

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers on February 13, 2013 at 6:00 am
The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Okay, fine. It took only two weeks to fall off the theme-day thing. As two tribe members noted, Thursday Theme Day flew in the face of the spontaneity that defines “…the house…” Regardless, in short order it became a chore, self-imposed at that, and there is little reason to accept such discipline.

With that bit of housekeeping completed, let’s talk about the death of Socrates and the examined life. The examined life is a frequent theme  here: “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. It occurs to me that perhaps you are not aware of the tradition behind this ancient saying. Please allow me to tell you the story (a bit editorialized, thank you very much.) (And in that spirit, this is a long post. I understand if you aren’t interested in spending the time on it. Frankly, if I were you, I doubt I would spend that much time with me. If that’s the case, I invite you to scroll to the bottom for a brief summary, as well as some reading recommendations.)

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Ruins of the Agora

Ruins of the Agora

Socrates held truth a thing to be pursued, not discovered, an idea that takes it off the mount and puts it in the streets. (Oliver Wendall Holmes, a pragmatist, echoed the notion when he remarked to a friend, “All I mean by truth is the path I have to travel.”) And that is where he spent his time, in the streets, talking to anyone who would listen. Xenophon wrote that he “was always on public view.” He continues, “Socrates used to go to the walkways and gymnasia, to appear in the agora as it filled up, and to be present wherever he would meet with the most people.” * His student, Plato, recorded him referring to himself, fittingly, as a gadfly. (It is important to know that Socrates left no written record. Most of what we know of him was recorded by his student and younger friend, Plato. Plato, by the way, was the teacher of Aristotle, who, in case you are not aware, was the teacher of Alexander the Great, Alex making a cameo here at “…the house…” just a couple of weeks ago.)

He was well known in Athens for years prior to his trial. Aristophanes mentions him in his comedy The Clouds, produced in 423 BC, portraying Socrates as a sophist. There is no historical evidence that Socrates was associated with the sophists, His recorded sayings do not support this account. The sophists had a dicey reputation in Athens at the time. The historian G.B. Kerferd described the sophists of this period as : “…a set of charlatans that appeared in Greece in the fifth century, and earned ample livelihood by imposing on public credulity: professing to teach virtue, they really taught the art of fallacious discourse, and meanwhile propagated immoral practical doctrines.”

The climate at the time was tense. The year was 399 B.C. The city (Athens) guardians were being pressed for reform and the youth were restless. So it came to be that Socrates, a pain in the backside to those holding to the status quo, was arrested on charges of “corruption of youth” and “impiety.” Specifically, the impious acts were: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities.”  (“Could Socrates have been the corrupter of youth after all?” asks Nietzsche. “And did he deserve his hemlock?”)

He was brought to trial. The law in Athens dictated that such cases not exceed a day’s length and the old philosopher knew that he could not make his case in just a day. Instead he began to challenge the jurors.

“Some will say: Yes, Socrates, but you cannot you hold your tongue….Now, I have great difficulty in making you understand my

Socrates on trial.

Socrates on trial.

answer to this. For if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. Yet I say what is true….”

In essence, he claimed that the jurors (citizens of Athens selected by lottery) could hardly be expected to be sympathetic, as they had little appreciation for philosophy. His tone, as recorded in Plato’s Apologia, was reprimanding and unapologetic. If Plato and Xenophon are to be believed, Socrates sought not to persuade, but to lecture and provoke.

“And now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophesy to you; for I am about to die, and in the hour of death men are gifted with prophetic power. And I prophesy to you who are my murderers, that immediately after my departure punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you. Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give account of your lives But that will not be as you suppose: far otherwise. For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more inconsiderate with you, and you will be more offended at them. If you think that by killing men you can prevent some one from censuring lives your evil lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honourable; the easiest and the noblest way is not to be disabling others, but to be improving yourselves.”

The law held that the guilty party had to kill himself, hence the hemlock. It was expected, and suggested by his followers, that he would flee.

Socrates takes the hemlock.

Socrates takes the hemlock.

Most hold that he did not flee on moral grounds, that seeing the sentence through to completion was his moral obligation. And so it was, indeed.

* Fittingly, my first trip abroad, over thirty years ago, found me in Athens. Surprisingly, my travel journal from that trip has survived the years. The young man (me) wrote: “The Agora left little impression upon me; it once housed such great thoughts as those proclaimed by Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, yet one feels no inclination to think more profoundly because of common ground crossed.”  (I was painfully ponderous even then.)

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Editorial Manifesto:

Socrates stated that the unexamined life is not worth living. I disagree with the fundamental premiss, the notion of a life not worth living; but that’s not the point. Inverted to the positive, Socrates’s admonition might be understood to read: The examined life is (more) worth(y of) living. He did not say, What is the meaning of life?; rather he made a value statement on existence. He did not suggest developing a flow chart, or creating a matrix. There are no three-ring binders with tabs in this project. No Powerpoint. No life coach. He exhorted, in my shorthand, simply: Examine. Accept nothing less than an adequate accounting. It is an open and expansive thought. Conversely, drilled into us from childhood: seek and find, question and answer, open and close. Those are closed equations, for lack of a better phrase. For me, the power of Socrates is the open equation: examine.

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Although I’ve not read it, I understand that I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates, is an excellent read if you’re interested in the history.

9781250002327If you are curious to read the thoughts of a working philosopher on the matter of living fully the examined life, I suggest the late Robert Nozick‘s (1938-2002),  The Examined Life, Philosophical Meditations. Along similar lines, but more historical, you might enjoy James Miller’s Examined Lives, From Socrates to Nietzsche. It was a 2011 New York Times Notable Book and is imminently readable.  Lastly, if you wish to urlwade deep into these waters, consider Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations, specifically the last chapter, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life.”

Thanks for reading. I hope you found it interesting.

d

My breakfast with Michael.

In Creativity, Mythology, Philosophy, The Examined Life on January 21, 2013 at 6:00 am

I’m away from home, back in Maryland, where I used to live, and have just finished breakfast with one of my oldest and best of friends, Michael. I’ve written before about Michael, specifically our climbing life together, as well as the question he once put to me, “Is that all there is?” He is, to state it candidly, a constant source of interest. He has a keen mind that is curious to exhaustive degrees. Too, he exhibits a natural and uncanny ability to make unique and surprising observations. This from a man without  a lot book reading or higher education. He is one of those rare raw individuals that addresses life without the pretense most of us, for one reason or another, construct around our existence.

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Socrates, instigator of “the examined life.”

Upon sitting he declared that he was keenly pursuing “the examined life.” I was not aware that he was a member of “…the house…” and he smiled broadly at the declaration. An hour into our conversation he had a revelation. Our conversation had roamed widely: tribalism, religion, Stoicism, biology, creativity, evolution, Zen. We were off and running when he had a unique and creative thought.

I saw the idea unfold in front of me. “Like you,” he said, “I don’t subscribe to the notion that everything happens for a reason.” He said he found this notion, though comforting to so many, to be nothing more that a self-imposed fashion of mind-control. “I don’t believe in the mystical either,” he declared. “Yet,” he continued, “there is a place not mystical but beyond irony. I don’t have a name for it.” I put up my finger. “Wait,” I said. I thought out loud: “Beyond irony?” I was captivated by that idea, though I had no inkling of what it meant. “…but short of mysticism.” He smiled. I smiled. I asked if he could give me an example. There was a long silence, accompanied by head holding.

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Sisyphus

We had been talking about Camus’s take on the story of Sisyphus. Was it beyond irony, I asked, that Camus, the saint of the absurd was killed in a car crash after declaring that he was afraid of cars? We didn’t think so. That was just coincidence too close to simple irony. Perhaps it was like a Zen koan, I suggested: a thing that cannot be explained with the rational mind, but yet can be known intuitively? We agreed that that was closer. And so the conversation continued without resolution. We parted ways with Michael promising to come up with an example.

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In search of the land north of irony, south of mysticism.

An example–what is beyond irony but short of mystical?– would be nice and I will be thinking toward one as well. But more I like the notion that the thing is ineffable–which is not to be mistaken with the mystical. Although I want to explore this territory beyond the land of irony that stops at the foothills of mysticism, I was more energized by the process of our discussion than the construction of a new idea.

We began our conversation bemoaning the atrophy of creativity in our lives, then launched into one of the most creative of dialogues, resulting in a thing or two worth pondering. The point is, at least as it settled on me, that the things we value–in this instance creativity–do not exist without our effort to sustain them. To sit and moan over a loss that can be, indeed was, reversed–is that not perhaps a thing “beyond irony?”

“Oh, the vision thing.”

In Creativity, Curiosity, Life, The Examined Life on January 3, 2013 at 6:00 am
Report on the annual slate cleaning.

Report on the annual slate cleaning.

I used to joke that my only New Year’s resolution was to not make New Year’s resolutions. It’s a tired little ditty now and I don’t bother with it. (I’m sure my old logic professor would smile then discourse on the inherent irony in all things tautological.) No resolutions for this hard-bitten curmudgeon. But that does not stop me from exercising my annual habit of purging my space of annoying and distracting artifacts of the previous twelve month’s existence. I like the slate clean. Indeed, I should clean it every day but repeatedly fail to muster the necessary discipline for that. There is probably a correlation to the amount of Maker’s consumed at day’s end and the lack of late post meridiem discipline, alas the occasional surrender of the cerebral cortex to dissipation–but that is altogether another conversation.

Yesterday I wiped the white board clean. Almost.

I installed it a couple of years ago after a young friend, a documentary film maker, convinced me of the benefits of “brain-storming.” I confess that I never fully grasped this brain-storming business. My natural inclination is to seek cover during a storm and my experience with the board proved no different. Who wants a storm, really? Give me a nice sunrise. In other words, the board didn’t get much use after the initial enthusiasm wore off.

So, as I said, I wiped it clean yesterday.

–But for one scribbling. Here is what I kept:

  • Stay true to your vision.
  • Nurture your talent.
  • Do what you love.
  • Wake Up!

I don’t know where I stumbled across these four–for lack of a better word–rules. But they are important enough to keep them on the board. (For perhaps another year?)

I think I like them because they, upon reflection, are surprisingly oblique, and I am naturally drawn to things that are difficult, a weird and annoying personal quirk I figured out in my youth. Though pithy and resounding of feel-good truth, these are not easy admonitions. Here’s the thing:

“Always look to the language,” said Christopher Hitchens (appropriately penned in his wonderful little book, a rif on Rilke, Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001)). The language that jumps out at me: vision, talent, love–and of course Wake up!–these are words that challenge. (“The limits of my language means the limits of my world,” observed Ludwig Wittgenstein.)

Consider: What is my vision? How do I best exercise my talent, assuming I’ve figured out what that is? What do I love? And for god’s sake, how does one wake up? To honestly wrestle with these notions is no small matter. Sure, there are easy and pat answers, but the easy path most frequently lacks insight. (Case in point: a former US president quipping, “Oh, the vision thing.”) I’d rather be dismissive then settle–but I can’t dismiss this stuff. I can’t because even at 57 years of experience I can’t answer the questions with the depth of understanding I believe warranted.

So, as you are likely used to if you’re a long-time reader here at …the house… I leave you without answers, only more questions. (“I know that I know nothing,” said Socrates.) I hope they are new questions: what is your vision/what is your talent/what do you love/how do we wake up? It’s a new year and if nothing else, a set of new questions gives us something to work on.

Best,

D

Reading list: 2012

In Books, Creativity, Memoir, Reading, The Examined Life, Writing on December 31, 2012 at 6:46 am
Not my book shelf.

Not my book shelf.

Okay, there is tradition. Who I am to swim against the current? Three years of reading lists. Let the tradition continue.

In the year 2012 I read the following: …but before I go there…my reading has slowed. Here are the stats: In 2009 I read 33 books. I was doing a lot of reviewing at the time and books were free. What would you expect? In 2010 I read 27 books. In 2011, 26. And last/this year, 2012, 20. Obviously a trend is at work here. I don’t like the look of diminishing returns and hope to rectify things going forward.

I expressed dismay over this trend to a friend recently, fewer books read every year and so on. Her respond was, “Perhaps you’re doing other things.” This is certainly true. This year has been consumed with a lot of “other things.” Perhaps that warrants further comment. Perhaps not.

Anyway, here are the twenty books I read in 2012. (Perhaps you, like me, walk into a friend’s house and move first to the bookshelf, if there is one. If there is no bookshelf it’s probably gonna be an early evening–drink deep. But a bookshelf is like peeling back the skull to the frontal lobes and seeing what a person is made of.)

So, again, here is what I was made of in 2012, first to last:

Something Urgent I Have to Say to You, , by Leibowitz, Herbert–biography of William Carlos Williams, the great American poet. Lots of potatoes, little meat.

Lines on the Water: A Fly Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi, by David Richards Adams –beautiful account of life standing in moving water.

The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker–A heartbreaking perfect book.

Examined Lives, from Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller–The examined life? What can I say? A life mission.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes–Barnes is a favorite. To my ear, so British, so proper. So much talent.

Incidents, by Roland Barthes–Observations by a master thinker.

End of the Earth, Voyaging to Antartica, by Peter Mettheissen–Perhaps my favorite living American author–after Jim Harrison, of course. Life rendered in adventure by a writer of the first order.

Why Read Moby Dick, by Nathaniel Philbrick–A good primer to a classic.

Thinking the Twentieth Century: Intellectuals and Politics in the Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt–A tough way to go, a slog, but we own the great late Judt the effort.

At Home in the World, a Memoir, by Joyce Maynard–The voice of an angel. It’s hard to blame Salinger, though one must. (See my post from May here.)

Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, by Tim Bissell–An essayist to warrant jealousy.

Reading for My Life: Writings 1958-2008, by John Leonard–I grew pubic hair reading and listening to Leonard. So sad to see him gone. So grateful for his direction. It made a difference.

Canada, Richard Ford–Over-rated. I wanted to like it more, wanted to love it. But, alas, like so much we wish to love, it was effort ill spent.

Battleborn, by Watkins, Claire Vaye–Best reading of the year. A new, exciting, heavy, and worthy voice. Frankly amazing to me.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon, Young–wonderful introduction to being one with nature.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard–I read this first a few years ago while traveling in India. It was lost on me–too much distraction for such a quiet book. Now it seems the perfect study in observation rendered by an artist.

Canoe Indians of Down East Maine, by William A. Haviland–A homebound study. (They came to the coast from the woods in winter and lived off clams, in case you’ve wondered.)

Buddhism Is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs, by Steve Hagan–“Not What You Think” is the key to this study. That is, if you can think of it, you’ve missed the point. Perfect zen, of course.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, by Timothy Egan–Egan has won the National Book Award and Curtis is the wished for life, without the pain, of course.

Stoner, by John Edward, Williams–A perfect novel. No kidding. Perfection in search of a grand(er) scheme.

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Only one book was read electronically, Canada. That is not the reason it fell short; however, it did not help.

I want to apologize for that weird end-of-year summary post of yesterday. That was odd and unexpected. I don’t particularly like the look of that big ugly thing here at the …house…. It is too foreign and boisterious for our little gathering. Regardless, such are the things over which we have no control. There is a lesson in that.

Make it a good year, folks, as best you’re able. But remember a year is nothing but a collection of weeks and days and hours. I don’t want to be a minimalist (or perhaps I can’t help myself), but I think it better to make it a good hour, good minute, a good second even. When you do that the days and years follow naturally.

Best regards, friends.

Doug

Leaning in to wisdom.

In Creativity, Literature, Music, Nature, Philosophy, Photography, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Wisdom, Writing on February 25, 2012 at 11:12 am

I’m writing an interview with the photographer Thatcher Cook . He just published his first book, Black Apple.  We’re wrapping it up and in a couple of weeks the interview will be published at Obscura Press.  I’ll let you know when it goes up. Thatcher is a thoughtful and reflective individual. Those interested in the creative life will, I think, appreciate the interview.

I mention this because one of the questions I asked him–Who are your influences?–got me thinking. An artistic or intellectual influence is a profound thing. There is that quote by Newton, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” An influence is a connection to a tradition, like the old-world apprenticeship but perhaps without the hands-on mentoring. I think about the artistic and intellectual influences in my life this way. It seems a fashion of constructing meaning in an otherwise (potentially) vacuous arena. The writing life, the wanderings of the documentary photographer, the hours of studio work the artist puts in, or the musician alone in her room practicing. These are painfully lonely pursuits. If for nothing else, reaching back affords a sense of community.

If you’ve been following these dispatches you know there are a handful writers and thinkers who have left their mark on me, inspired me, who have taught and guided me–and continue to do so.  I think it is good to reflect deeply toward those who have traveled the path before us. I say “reflect deeply toward” and not “reflect deeply upon” for a purpose. It’s only a turn of phrase, but when I think about, say, Henry David Thoreau, or E.B. White, I picture myself leaning into them, listening to them. It is an image that links us, like Plato leaning into the circle as he listens to Socrates at the Agora. This is my teacher. What is he saying? Last summer I spent some time in the north woods of Maine. I was on the trail of Thoreau. I camped at Lilly Bay, a spot he mentions in The Maine Woods. He was my guide and inspiration and it seemed his voice clearer while in his footsteps, as I leaned in.

And there are others. There is Montaigne and Nietzsche for their thoughts, Schubert and Beethoven for their guts, Wallace Stevens for the art of the word and Audubon (and Thoreau) for a life of meaning in nature. E.B. White teaches me the art of the essay (so much to learn) and, more contemporarily, Jim Harrison shows me what a life lived large should look like. My point is, it is important to draw upon wisdom and example deeply if you wish to experience and perhaps build upon what has come before you.

I am getting preachy, and I don’t care for that. I must climb down off this box of soap. To cite one of my mentor influences: But what do I know? (Montaigne)