Doug Bruns

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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.

 

Gravity Probe B, the wisdom of dogs, and other notions.

In Dogs, Life, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on January 5, 2013 at 6:00 am
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Gravity Probe B

Einstein (1879-1955) was vindicated about seven years ago. That was when Gravity Probe B, one of Nasa’s satellites, confirmed “to a precision of better than 1 per cent the assertion Einstein made 90 years ago – that an object such as the Earth does indeed distort the fabric of space and time.” (NASA) Imagine a tarp stretched tight, suspended with bungee cords; then imagine dropping a basketball on the tarp. The tarp will sag under the ball and eventually it will come to rest in the middle of the tarp. Drop a marble on the tarp and it will speed to the basketball. This is called the Geodetic Effect and is what Einstein predicted happens with space and time. The basketball represents gravity, as a planet might manifest; the sagging tarp the fabric of space-time. Indeed, time and space bend.

___________________________

Despite the assertion fronted by certain family members (you know who you are), I do not believe (entirely) that the gravity of my existence bends my environmental reality. But…

As my parents warned, life (read: time) appears to be accelerating. Years come and go–flash, bang, and suddenly another day has passed, a year escaped, a decade expired before I can blink my eyes. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (535 – c. 475 BCE) famously said, “No man [or woman, presumably] ever steps in the same river twice.” His work, On Nature, does not survive, and everything we know about him we glean from fragments mentioned by other philosophers, principally Diogenes and Plato (who gives us the “river” metaphor). We must be thankful for that, at least.

The flow of existence feels (to me) to be bending time. The older I get the more the bend. The basketball seems to rest deeper into the tarp. Have you ever stood in a river when upstream water is released from a dam? I have. You don’t realize the water flow is increasing until the rush of it is hard upon you. That is aging–we are clueless until it’s mid-thigh and rising, our feet searching for traction. (I realize I’m mixing metaphors here, but hang with me a moment more.)

How does one broach this rushing tide? I turn to the lessons of my dogs. The best of them, those most seemingly, most excitedly alive, existed nose to the ground, curiosity aroused, a trot along the line, working the margins of the harvest. A dog lives a life without shadow; it is a being fully aware, running in the brilliant high-noon sun. Humans cast a shadow and we call it consciousness. Like biography it cannot be escaped. It is the ransom that cannot be paid.

The gist: It seems that the less I am aware of things, the faster the flow. Contrariwise, my dogs appear aware of most everything and completely and totally ignorant of  the bending basketball-gravity of existence.

Here are the things I’m not talking about: transcendence, enlightenment, spiritualism, mysticism, metaphysics, immortality, and all the other limp and ill-fitting clothes we’ve donned over the ages. And what I am talking about? I’ll let you know as soon as Lucy wakes from her nap. We’ll discuss it on our walk.

Dogs

In Dogs, Memoir, Writing on June 5, 2012 at 6:00 am

Lucy

Tim and I got the dogs up early yesterday. We had an 8:00 am bird walk scheduled, but dogs come first.

Tim’s dog, Tanks, is a big and burley pit mix. Lucy is a little terrier mix. Both dogs enjoy the outdoors and giving them a chance to stretch out across a field fills all, human and canine, with joy. There is much about watching a dog run for pleasure that is deeply satisfying.

Lucy is a rescue dog and last summer was our maiden outdoor season. The first adventure found us paddling Moosehead Lake. As we beached the canoe the first evening, Lucy jumped over the gunnel and sprinted into the woods. I didn’t know her well then and did not know what would be her response to unbounded territory. I could hear her running the perimeter of the camp. She returned to my call, but I was concerned that she might bolt if a scent or pursuit triggered her interest. The north woods is a good place to get a person lost. A dog lost is likely good and gone lost. In his beautiful little book, The Survival of the Bark Canoe, John McPhee writes of this area:

“Between Rockwood, Maine (about halfway up Moosehead Lake), and Allagash, Maine (at the confluence of the Allagash and St. John Rivers), there is an area of about five thousand square miles in which is neither a paved nor a public road. What few roads there are “north of the Moosehead” have dirt and gravel surfaces and are travelled by the public, at the public’s risk, courtesy of the paper companies that own the land….most of Maine is in the north woods, reaching embarrassingly far into Canada.”

After that trip I took to putting a harness on her with two small cat bells, the better to track her.

Maggie, the dog before Lucy, was a bird dog and she too loved to explore. She was driven by her nose, but when she got excited she would stop and grow to stone, usually lifting her front paw and leaning into it, the classic bird-dog pose. Lucy does not have the DNA for that and instead rushes lurching into the undergrowth in the apparent hope that whatever is in there will jump out so she can kill it. She is the first terrier of my life and I am studying the breed.

I used to meditate at the edge of the woods. I had a stump for a stool, placed under a hemlock, and sat facing a field. Maggie would join me, sitting on her haunches, also facing the field. We would sit like that, together, unflinching, for half an hour. One evening, as sun was setting, a deer emerged from the woods and proceeded in the open toward us. I sat unmoving. Maggie sat unmoving, though I could discern the twitch of sudden tension in her shoulders. The deer foraged, looked around, chewing, then advanced. In ten minutes–a test of Maggie’s discipline–it stood perhaps thirty yards before us. Maggie was a quivering, but stoney, sculpture. From the corner of my eye I saw her study the deer, yet she waited my direction. Finally, under my breath, I released her– “Go.” It was perhaps not the most meditative response to nature, but Maggie had earned a reward. The deer leapt vertical and bounded away, its white tail flashing as if an obscenity. Maggie did not get close, even though she was a sprinter.

I miss Maggie and still mourn her. But I love Lucy to the point where she sleeps on our bed at our feet. We’ve never allowed that of our dog and I think it portends a new chapter in our blended life, human and dog.

“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.

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.

Yesterday

In Camping, Dogs, Life on August 7, 2018 at 11:29 am

Peak One Campground, Frisco, Colorado

Yesterday while working in the campground I rounded a corner and came upon an elderly gentleman being pulled by three small leashed dogs. I’d met him the day before. His wife had eventually tugged at his elbow, saying, “Enough already, let the man go do his work.” He seemed lonely, though I only thought it because he liked to talk. This morning his wife was not present, only the man and his dogs. I said hello and we talked about dogs for a few minutes. One dog, a white terrier, feisty and keen, was the focus of his comments. As he talked the three leashes became intertwined but the man didn’t seem to notice. The terrier had been his daughter’s dog, he said. She got him when she learned she had breast cancer. She wanted the companionship. The man talked without emotion, in that way people from Kansas do. The flatness of his voice settled on me in emotional way. I began to tear up.  “She told me she wanted me to raise him if she didn’t make it.” We’d had a rain the night before and the tacky aroma of pine was suddenly apparent. I was wearing a jacket, it being cold. I took off my glasses and wiped my tears. The little white terrier was busy sniffing the edge of my boot, likely picking up Lucy’s scent–Lucy, waiting patiently for my return down the hill and across the campground.