Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

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.

Reaching for the Stars.

In Life, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on October 13, 2019 at 8:00 am

Photo by Denis Degioanni on Unsplash

The last few nights in Colorado I got into the habit of stepping outside and looking up at the night sky. Head tilted back I released my attention and simply stared. The Milky Way was a dash overhead, like a pale splash of paint against black felt. I did not try to understand the sky, did not try to identify anything about it. I simply released myself to the vastness and attempted to absorbed it.

The ancient Greeks had a practice of studying the night sky in a similar fashion. For them it was an exercise in humility. When one places oneself in the cosmos the notion of individual place and time slinks away. It is only our ego that positions us in comparison to such unknowable vastness. The ego has it’s own Milky Way and it’s own universe and it is hellbent on convincing us of our individual importance in the grand balance of things. But like much the ego attempts, it is in error, and will only lead us down a blind alley. “But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars,” said Emerson. Look at the night sky, breath it in, and tell me your ego does not run off embarrassed and humiliated.There is no defense against such a vast and empty truth.

You cannot expose yourself to a backdrop of significant beauty and grandeur without a converse arising of self-doubt and humility. Much of life’s larger experiences require that we drop the self-narrative and simply expose ourselves to what is. This is not easy, as we think we know what is. There is a school of thought which suggests the self is nothing more than a stitched together string of experiences, that no such thing as a self even exists. Modern psychology is bearing this out. All that is fine, but still we struggle. We struggle with humility. We struggle with ego. We struggle with a false personal perspective. It is likely hard-wiring. It is how we, as a species, survived. But that does not make it necessarily the reality of things. It is not necessarily what is.

Humans are a mass of contradictions. I know I am. As an atheist I stand under the night canopy and long for transcendence. I pray at the alter of science, yet yearn for the transformative mystic experience. I relinquish myself to a ruling rational perspective, yet sit in meditation attempting to release all cognitive ambition. I have, I think, finally arrived at a place where these opposing factions are no longer warring. We spend too much of life attempting to resolve the inner contradictions. The only resolution is to accept them and face the truth that we will never be rid of them. They are us, we them. Make room for contradiction. Accepting the fluidity of the human condition, moment to moment, requires a release that does not come altogether naturally. For some of us, that release is an ongoing effort, the work of a lifetime. That seems, at the core of things, the essence of being human. Yet we war against it as if attacked by an opposing army. But there is no army laying siege. There is only the vacuous loneliness of the frigid night sky. We can go to war, or we can release. Or better, perhaps, embrace.

Sitting by a stream Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), no shrinking violet, wrote “all was dark and cold, and still. Suddenly the sun shone out with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover.” At that moment “there passed into my thought a beam from its true sun…which has never since departed from me.” And what was the nature of that thought? She later wrote in her memoir, “I saw that there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered.” I think Fuller, like many others before her and since, tapped into a fundamental reality. Let’s not take anything for granted, especially that which we think we know for certain. Skepticism is a loose-jointed stance and resilient because it flexes when pressed. Certainty is uncertain. “What do I know?” said Montaigne. A self? Maybe, maybe not.

There is a natural resistance to release. It is the antithesis of control and we are so very fond of control. In death we all ultimately release. But until then I work to lesson my resistance, it too being a practice. Fundamental to our being is a sense of self. But I see in my grandchildren a construction of the self, a building of self, not an innate revealed being. The ego we construct and the resulting self—can it be released? I believe in, and subscribe to the idea of the purification of human character. Admittedly, there is a degree of the absurd about this. But what is life if not absurd, as Camus noted. There is sufficient evidence as to the worth of transcendence. We are, after all, the stuff of stars, as the poets remind us. Let us celebrate the awkward stance of fully human, a being fulfilled. Let us reach for the stars.

My Philosophy Journal

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writing on July 28, 2019 at 8:00 am
My "Philosophy Journal"

My “Philosophy Journal”

A little over a year ago I started keeping what I call a philosophy journal. It’s an idea that I encountered in my study of the Stoics. The ancient Stoic teachers suggested that their students keep a journal as a way to enhance the philosophical teachings. The best surviving example of this is what has come to be known as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  The Meditations remains in print and I suggest you read the new translation by Gregory Hays, if you’re interested. I will touch on these writings in a future post. The point here, however, is that Marcus Aurelius, as a Stoic practice, wrote his ideas and thoughts down, not for publication, but as a personal journal. Fortunately, for us, his notebook survived the ages. Seneca and his Letters to Lucilius is another example of the practice.  These writings lasted because they have been valued as sources of wisdom and insight for quite literally thousands of years.

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Old Journals, Diaries, Notebooks

I have, for as long as I can recall, kept a journal. This iteration, my philosophy journal, is a little different from what I’ve done previously. In the past, my journals were places where I put down quick thoughts, quotes, a brief sketch, a record or a musing. Paging through them now is rewarding and still provides me with insight and pleasure. My philosophy journal is different in the following way: It is less random and more purposeful. I begin with a quote drawn from my readings of philosophy. I keep it brief, as it is more a vehicle by which to explore my own thoughts than a specific philosophical teaching. I follow the quote with a paragraph or two fleshing it out in my own words, making it my own, as it were. Lastly, I attempt to distill the quote and my thoughts about it into a short pithy notation I call my Daily Focus. The Daily Focus is no more than a sentence or two and is something I can keep present in mind throughout the day. It is a practice, an attempt to distill wisdom and put it to work. Here is an example from my current journal–a quote, my thoughts about it, and my daily focus.

June 10, 2019

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” ~ Marcus Aurelius. 

I try not to speak ill of others. For the most part I am successful. I’ve weaned myself away from the vice of speaking badly of others pretty well. I recall years ago observing my friend Greg in a conversation simply grow quiet when the talk turned to gossip. That made a lasting impression and compelled me toward the same habit of civility. Yet, I still occasionally fall into the trap, which brings me to the second point of Aurelius’s quote above: the reflection of one’s own short-comings. To consider one’s deficits honestly, not as a way of self-flagellation, but as a habit of improvement, is a worthy practice. One’s shortcomings are never so noticeable as when we observe them in others.

Daily Focus: Be attentive to opportunities for improvement. 

You needn’t be of a philosophical bent to put these ideas to work for you. Perhaps you are religious and would turn to a sacred text for your quote and ideas. Or, maybe you read poetry and find it inspiring and motivational. I trust you get the idea. Similarly, I don’t just draw on ancient thinkers for inspiration. My journal includes quotes from William James, and Susan Sontag, Nietzsche and Sartre, and many others. The point is to find a text that is meaningful for you, to work with it and distill it, then employ it as a method to greater insight, improvement, and self knowledge. It is a practice, and what is life but a repeating effort of how to be?

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

Flowing the Boulder

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on November 16, 2018 at 8:00 am

“…just because you’ve abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or                      great scientist, don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving                     others…”                                               ~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.67

I’m at a stage in life where everything seems in flux. At 63 you’d think it would be otherwise, that I’ve got it all figured out and am set in my ways. Yet, it is just the opposite and I am completely energized and excited by it. The flux. The fluidity of life. As Marcus Aurelius implies in the above quote, the flux affords one an opportunity to regroup, to explore, to stretch. The abandonment of one thing opens the door to something else. There is no vacuum, only flow.

Epictetus, the ancient Greek philosopher, had a metaphor to explain the workings of the universe and our place in it. We are like a dog tied to a moving wagon. We can resist the pull of the wagon and be dragged and choked. Or we can go along with it. We have the choice, though obviously there are limits. (You’re going with the wagon one way or another!)  There is a similar notion in Taoism. Consider the stream flowing gently down the mountainside. Eventually it comes upon a boulder. Does the stream conspire to move the boulder, to resist the boulder? No, it simply flows around it and carries on. I find that thought generates great humility.

Don’t give up, counsels Marcus. Don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving others. You might have to abandon what you set out to do, but that does not mean resignation. Indeed, the more I align with the flow the less resistant I am, the more freedom I realize–and that is the antithesis of resignation. Humility comes naturally as one opens to the stream of existence, as does energy.

When you come up against the boulder, flow around it.