Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Death’ Category

Encounter at Panera

In Death, Wisdom on February 16, 2020 at 9:00 am

The other day Carole and I walked into the local Panera and placed our order. I went to men’s room while our food was being prepared. There was a gentleman standing at the urinal. I put my hands in my pockets, leaned against the wall and waited quietly. He moved to the wash basin. Soon I was again leaning against the wall, waiting. He looked up into the mirror. He sleeves where rolled to his elbows.

“I’m still delaying you,” he said.

To which I replied, “Don’t worry, I’ve got nothing but time.” And he said,

“Time is money.”

“I want for nothing,” I responded.

“You’ll never be rich.”

“I’ve done okay.”

“The poor die, but have no money. The rich also die,” he said, “but they die with having money.”

He stepped aside and I began to wash my hands. “Rich or poor, everyone dies,” I said. “Time runs out for us all.”

He smiled. I smiled back. We walked out.

* * *

The phrase, Time is money, has forever rubbed me the wrong way. Time is all I have. I attempt to use it as properly as I can, knowing it will run out. It is the mist through which all experience passes and to reduce it a trite formula of economics demonstrates a lack of clarity and perhaps even gratitude. Yet, this surprising exchange in the men’s room of a Panera so filled my heart with song. Two strangers picking up a conversation of such interest and import is not a thing to pass off gently.

There is a tradition in ancient yogic practices whereby the breath is slowed and then slowed yet more. The underlying thought is that we are born with a finite number of breaths and by slowing them down one stretches out personal existence. So, as a counter to the western consumer notion of time as money, I posit the eastern counterpoint, time is breath. Breath is the first thing we do as human beings. It is the last thing we do as human beings. And everything in between is time. Use it wisely. Don’t waste your breath.

Have a good day.

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.

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.

 

Life Studies

In Death, Dogs, Literature, Philosophy on October 27, 2019 at 9:00 am

I study lives. My text book is the biography. The first grown-up book I read was a biography of Mark Twain. I was, I think, in 6th grade. The most recent book read, finished a couple days ago, is Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s biography of Emerson, subtitled The Mind on Fire. Before that, earlier this summer, I re-read Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, How to Live. I read Bakewell as a set up to my summer reading of Montaigne’s long essay, An Apology of Raymond Sebond. That essay consumed much of my summer Colorado reading. Though I’ve been reading Montaigne for thirty years I’d not tackled Sebond and wanted to devote my time and energy to it uninterrupted, pencil and notepad in hand. But let’s return to studying lives.

Richardson’s Emerson is wonderfully written and ranks in my reading life as a high point. Half-way through I said to Carole, book in lap, “This book is changing my life.” Last year’s reading of Sue Prideaux’s I am Dynamite!, A Life of Nietzsche, had a similar effect. Richardson’s Emerson, however, reached deeper for a reason I’ve yet to comprehend. Interestingly, Nietzsche described Emerson as “a glorious, great nature, rich in soul and spirit…the author who has been the richest in ideas in this century.” Uncharacteristically, Nietzsche never turned against Emerson. I was so enthused by Richardson’s Emerson I found a used copy of his Thoreau, A Life of the Mind. I am excited to start that book.

Plutarch’s Lives

I study lives. An enduring life, rich and deep, is a wonderful thing and the shape and nature of such a thing has forever been of serious interest to me. Early on I recognized that some lives are, frankly, better lived and better expressed than others. Plutarch’s Lives, a study of lives in parallel, one virtuous, one lacking in virtue is the best ancient example of this notion. The rare exemplary life is unique–unique in its creativity, or perhaps in its impact on humanity. Or maybe, in the best case, in its goodness. Such a life is defined by character and intention; it is purposeful and directed; instructive and inspiring. How better to devote my reading life? I do not seek distraction. I do not seek entertainment. I seek to understand how this most important and precious thing, life itself, is to be best exercised, best experienced, best designed. How to live is the essence of creativity.

* * *

There is something I’ve noticed shared by many of these lives, something important.

Toward the end of Richardson’s biography he summarizes some of the lessons Emerson learned in later life. He writes: “At the core of Emerson’s life and work is a core of these impressions, bound together. They are not arguments or hypotheses….these are the perceptions that Emerson retains.” He continues with a list, starting…:

“The days are gods. That is, everything is divine. Creation is continuous. There is no other world; this is all there is. Everyday is the day of judgement.” [My italics.]

The list continues however I want to focus on these particular lessons as they are often shared by other lives I’ve studied. Nietzsche, for instance, had his “Theory of Eternal Return.” “Da Capo!—Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning.” In perfect health, one should “crave nothing more fervently” than the “eternal return of one’s life,” the same life down to the very last detail. With this Groundhog Day idea at the forefront of thought one will live moment by moment with the expectation that should the moment be repeated it would be agreeable by design. In this fashion, to be Emersonian about it, everyday is the day of judgement. I cannot imagine a way of being more present in the world.

H.D. Thoreau

Or consider the last days of Thoreau. Friend and neighbor Parker Phillsbury visited Henry David a few days before his death. “You seem so near the brink of the dark river,” Pillsbury said, “that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” Thoreau summed up his life and philosophy in response: “One world at a time.”

One world at a time, indeed. No concern about future reward or punishment. No effort wasted on what cannot be known. Just a focus on this world, here and now. A major theme of the important and creative lives I’ve studied is the theme of a cultivated and nurtured life devoted to living in the present. These are nerve-end lives, sparking and full of energy, thirsty for experience and immediacy.

I come to these ruminations from a place of sorry and darkness. I lost my beloved Lucy girl recently. This is not a thing I am prepared to talk about here, except for the following. My days with Lucy over the last few years were marked by a deep and conscious appreciation of our lives together. Many a morning walk I watched her and acknowledged that this was not lasting, that someday our lives, like all lives, would end in separation. I was, with painful awareness, searing moments into my consciousness, thereby stamping them with all the more value and potency. In her death I turn with gratitude for these moments of present awareness. Gratitude cannot assuage fresh grief but it is a degree of balm.

The days are gods and we are best obliged to honor them with an awareness and a presence. Do not take them for granted. Embrace each moment, turning from nothing. Such is divinity in the making.

My cousin Neal.

In Death, Family, Memoir, Philosophy, The Examined Life on December 23, 2018 at 8:00 am

I am an only child. Growing up, my cousins, Neal and Diane, were the closest I had to siblings. Like a lot of families who are spread out, our lives intersected only occasionally after we grew up and had families of our own. Then a few years ago, as Carole and I were traversing the country, we had the opportunity to see more of them and their spouses. For instance, this past October Carole and I stopped and visited while heading east from Colorado. It was a wonderful visit, with much laughter and love. A couple of weeks after we left, Neal was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died last week. I spoke with him shortly after the diagnosis. He was in good spirits and told me that he was accepting the hand he’d been dealt. I wrote him a note shortly after. In his memory, I share it with you below.

__________________________________________

Dear Neal ~ I want to tell you a story. I might have told you this before, so please excuse me if I’m repeating myself.

The story goes back many many years to my 8th birthday. As you know I was born in early October and I remember the day being crisp with a clear-blue sky. You probably remember my best friends, Rick and Jeff Erickson. It was my birthday and I was walking across my backyard to their house when out of nowhere the following question presented itself: If I die tomorrow, would my life have been well spent? Over the years I’ve shared this incident with many people. They often look at me askance and say something like, My what an odd little boy you must have been! Of course you may laugh and nod your head in agreement. Regardless, that moment changed the course of my life. Consequently, I have spent much of my life thinking about what a well-lived life should look like. I want you to know the part you’ve played in helping me answer that question.

When I reflect upon the proper well-lived life I think of a life of principal, a life of patience, and kindness, and steadfastness. It is a modest life, devoted to enduring values. A life built on virtue. When I reflect upon the proper well-lived life, I think of you. You stand tall, in my opinion, as a model of the proper life. You are devoted to family, and have a wide circle of friends. You seem to have herculean patience and tolerance. I’ve never known you to utter a cross or mean-spirited word. You laugh easily. You pursue excellence and have demonstrated the courage of going your own way, following your own vision and scheme of things. Most of us aspire to be a better person. It is a project for us, a work in process. You on the other hand simply are a better person. It seems to come naturally for you. Like all masters, you make something difficult appear easy. You have a grace in that way and I greatly admire it.

One of my hero philosophers said that the length or brevity of a life is of little importance in the grand scheme of things. What is important, however, is how the life is lived. Is it a life devoted to the good, to, “a life of virtues you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness?” You have walked the walk, as they say. That is, you’ve shown me, and those around you, what these attributes look like in real-life practice, and I am forever indebted to you for that.

Thank you and with love,

Your cousin.

_________________________________________

A closing comment. Neal responded to my note as I expected, with quiet modesty, writing, “I’ve always tried to do what mom and dad instilled in us and I guess over time it just became my nature.” I encourage you to write to someone you love and tell them what they mean to you.

 

“Indian…Moose.”

In Death, Dogs, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life on September 24, 2018 at 1:04 pm

On his deathbed in Concord, Mass., Henry David Thoreau, drifting in and out of consciousness, muttered two works, “Indian…Moose” and died. His mind had gone to Maine and his adventures in the Great North Woods. I thought of Thoreau on this morning’s run. Lucy and I have made this run up the ridge all but two mornings since arriving in Colorado over four months ago. It has taken that long for me to build the endurance to make the run up the mountainside without stopping. I am soon to turn 63 and have the lungs of a 63 year old. Too, there is the matter of being at 9075 feet elevation.

I thought of Thoreau because, if I am lucky, perhaps on my deathbed my mind will turn to these mornings with my dog, these mountains, the chill of the valley shadow and the wild brilliance of sunrise as we crest the ridge. “Come ‘on, Lucy girl,” I call as we get up top. She will have stopped to sniff a tree or chase a chipmunk. One morning last week I spotted a red fox sitting in a beam of morning light. The fox saw me but didn’t move. They are frequently bold if nothing else. I called Lucy and gave a little sprint to distract her. She caught up and did not notice the fox, fortunately. There is a sign at the trailhead stating that the area is populated by moose. Not a morning run has gone by where I don’t wonder what I’ll do if we encounter one. Lucy once spotted a moose from the truck when we were in Maine. She went nuts. This morning two bald eagles soared above us, chirping one to the other.

I have talked here at “…the house…” about my affinity for the morning and won’t belabor it again. I think it is to society’s considerable detriment that our morning is consumed with rushing off to work, with rushing kids off to school, with missing the sunrise. This is a curse we have placed on ourselves, the damage of which is only comprehended when we are released from it to realize the deliberate potential of another day of existence. From the outset our days are numbered and there is no double ledger accounting of where the balance lies.

* * *

As a reader of “…the house…” you are aware of my life quest to live a proper life. In that pursuit I have considered any number of responses to the question, How to Live? Consider my Zen studies and my meditation practice, for instance. In that spirit I have again signed up for International Stoic Week. This year’s theme is living happily.

What is a happy life? It is peacefulness and lasting tranquillity, the sources of which are a great spirit and a steady determination to hold fast to good decisions. How does one arrive at these things? By recognizing the truth in all its completeness, by maintaining order, moderation and appropriateness in one’s actions, by having a will which is always well-intentioned and generous, focused on reason and never deviating from it, as lovable as it is admirable.                                                                                                                                                                                                            Seneca, Letters, 92.3

                            

I invite you to follow the above link and spend seven days living like a Stoic. I hope to share some of my insights and experiences here and invite you to do so as well.

Thanks for reading!