Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

“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.

Toward Wisdom #2

In Faith, Religion, Wisdom on April 26, 2020 at 11:56 am

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

Toward Wisdom is a series of thoughts in the age of Covid-19

* * *

I’ve been reading a lot of Merton lately, which is kind of weird frankly. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk (Catholic), a wonderful writer and thinker, a robust contemplative. I say my interest is weird, because there is a lot of talk of God in Merton—talk which used to put be off right out of the box. That aside, the Trappists are known for their vow of silence, their vow of poverty, and deep contemplative lives. These are commitments to a contrarian way of things, a way of things which sometimes reveals doors of insight otherwise difficult to pry open. And right now we are all living a contrarian life, aren’t we? So I guess it’s not all that weird is it?

My great friend Susan, knowing that I’m currently in a Merton phase, recently sent me this Merton quote:

You do not need to know
precisely what is
happening, or exactly
where it is all going. What
you need is to recognize
the possibilities and
challenges offered by the
present moment, and to
embrace them with
courage, faith and hope.

There is much being said here in these few words. There is talk of release (“You do not need to know precisely what is happening…”), talk of being present (”What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment…”), and instruction (“embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”). These are deeply wise words.

I use these daily quotes and passages like a mantra throughout my day. I usually try to boil down the passage’s idea to a few words that I can carry with me throughout the day. For instance, in this case, I simply remember, courage, faith, hope. From there the rest of the idea falls into place. These three words are pretty heady. Courage is an ancient virtue, one of the Stoic’s four cardinal virtues, for example. Faith is a word loaded with religious connotation. That’s fine if that’s the way you lean. But one can also have faith that Spring will come, that there is order to the cosmos, and so on. It is easy to think of hope as something you wish in the future, of desire projected forward. That is one notion of hope, but not a very helpful one. For me, hope is the sense that I can face the unknown, experience the thing out of my control, but will not be mastered by it. It is my sense of comfort with the changing nature of reality, the ability to absorb paradox.

I’m sorry to belabor all this. But I wanted to share how I work with, and find meaning in these phrases and quotes. I talk a lot about a practice. Working in this way with an idea is a fashion of practice. I hope you find it helpful.

Be safe.

“…not of the world of me.”

In Adventure, Philosophy, Religion on November 10, 2015 at 6:11 pm

I had coffee with a friend last week, a novelist. I’d just read a draft of a new book he is working on. It’s a historical novel, set in the middle east in the fourth century. It deals with, among other things, the rise of the early Christian church. Although my friend was not aware of it, I know a thing or two about that place and time. I liked the book and was expressing my enthusiasm.

“You know,” I said, “the major world religions, those that were founded, came out of either the hot desert or the frozen mountains.” He looked at me intently. “And we know,” I opined, “that the desert breeds madness, and the mountains, isolation.” He said he’d never thought of it that way. But I had. “Nobody,” said Mohammed, “becomes a prophet who was not a shepherd first.”

There is that old adage that one is either a beach person or a mountain person. (I guess it’s like being either a dog or cat person.) In this context, perhaps one is either a desert believer or a mountain believer. I know my generalization is not entirely correct. The Buddha came out of the Gangetic plain, but his philosophy got the most lasting purchase at altitude. There’s no such thing as beach believers as far as I can tell, other than golden surfers, but that is a different strain of worship.

If pushed, I’d have to declare myself a mountain believer. That will come as no surprise. That is not to say, however, that I discount desert madness as a practice in insight. Not that one would want a steady diet of it–it didn’t turn out so well for John, the Baptist. It is no surprise that William James’s great work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is subtitled, A Study in Human Nature. Give me the mountains and what comes out of them, that is my nature. This is not to say that the desert doesn’t hold appeal. My first trip abroad as a young man found me eating with a family of Bedouins in the Sinai. If the desert was in the offing, I wanted to be on the move like those people.

Three years ago while hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal I came across a holy man living in a cave, attended to by his sister. I paid homage and received a blessing after making a small donation. His cave was filled with iconography and statues. Outside the wind roared; prayer flags flapped. I showed a picture to a friend. “That’s not what I expected,” he said. I think he was expecting something more like a cartoon in the New Yorker.

The isolation of the mountain believer can be dangerous. The Dalai Lama claims that his nation fell to the Chinese because the remoteness of the Tibetan Plateau had made them a backward country, to use his words. Perhaps. It is more likely the Chinese would have invaded regardless of the degree of modernity Tibet had achieved. But dangers persist, regardless, national and human.

Belief without empirical evidence is fundamentally an effort in delusion. I suspect the mystic would not argue with this, the madman wandering the desert with the wild beasts, the recluse scraping by in the mountain enclave. I am envious of such commitment. Go up Cold Mountain and find the great Taoist sage, Li Po: “You asked me what is my reason for lodging in the grey hills: I smiled but made no reply for my thoughts are idling on their own; like the flowers of the peach tree, they had sauntered off to other climes, to other lands that are not of the world of me.” Flowers of the peach tree, indeed.

Corners of My Mind

In Religion, Writers, Writing on February 26, 2013 at 6:00 am

It was supposed to snow last night. I was to wake to half a foot of powder. Instead it rained all night. Mud Season is officially upon us here in Maine. Eliot was close. April might be cruel, but February sucks.

* * *

“A line is a single dot set in motion.” I don’t know who said this, but given to metaphor as I am, I think it is weighted with meaning to be extracted. It doesn’t require a lot of effort to suggest that life, a single dot, can either remain as a period on the page, or can be drawn across it, stretched to the margins. Experience the line, set the dot in motion.

* * *

“I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” That’s John Stuart Mill. I recall reading somewhere that as a young man trained as a classicist, Mill developed the ability to write Greek with his right hand while simultaneously writing Latin with his left–or perhaps other way around. No matter. Fitzgerald said the superior mind is one in which two opposing thoughts can be held at the same time. Mill obviously slam-dunks that observation. I said in a previous post that Peter Matthiessen is on record as expressing his life-long goal to not necessarily simplify his life, but to simplify his self. Mill and Matthiessen, two provocative ways of saying the same thing.

* * *

It is said that all the great religions are born in the desert. Deserts are thirsty places. There is madness in the sands and perhaps madness is a stop on the highway to the divine. I’d add that the mountains too, have a potency. If I were a religious man I’d seek my guru above tree-line. But I am a woodsman and only pagans fill their spirits among the pines and oaks. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” said my guru.

* * *

I recently finished George Saunders’s The Tenth of December. Earlier in the year, the New York Time’s Magazine sported a front cover declaring, “George Saunders just wrote the best book you’ll read this year.”  There is no better PR a writer could wish for. I found Saunders on Facebook and “friended” him. I wrote, “I just finished The Tenth of December. It is like dancing through a field by moonlight only to realize at dawn that the field is mined.” He accepted my friend request and thanked me for the comment, calling it apt. I find it equally refreshing, remarkable, and revelatory that a writer of his stature has a Facebook presence. Have we turned a corner?

Here’s a short clip from Saunders’s recent visit with Charlie Rose:

* * *

Thanks for reading. I don’t say often enough how much I appreciate your support.

D

Om mani padme hum

In Life, Religion, Travel, Wisdom on June 11, 2012 at 6:00 am

om mani padme hum (in Tibetan)

A friend from many years ago recently saw a current photograph of me and noticed my tattoo. It’s easy to notice, would be impossible to not notice, being large and wrapping my left forearm. She asked what it meant.

A few years ago I got a hankering for a tattoo. It was likely one of those mid-life things, a harmless urge, as mid-life urges go. I’d been traveling a good bit and thought a tattoo might make for a nice souvenir. I remember walking down an alley in Gibraltar to a tattoo parlor. As the alley grew darker and dirtier my courage faltered then faded. Another time, in South America, the mood again struck. Again, I grew hesitent. Carole asked, “Why would you get a tattoo in a place where you can’t drink the water?” A wisely framed question, indeed.

I got the tattoo at home, in Portland.

It was Tibet, in 2004, where I first heard the mantra, om mani padme hum. Subsequent trips to the region, including Bhutan, a return to Tibet, trips to China, India and Nepal, underscored that initial experience. The best travel should afford the traveler an element of the transformational. You finish a different person than the person who set out. (Therein lies the difference between traveler and tourist.) Such was my response to Tibet that I wanted to honor it, and in doing so, found my tattoo.

Om mani padme hum is held to be the summary of the forty thousand teachings of the Buddha. It defies a straight interpretation but most scholars agree that the “heart jewel of the lotus” is a strict interpretation of the middle syllables. It is, as noted, open to interpretation and most practitioners of the mantra are simply repeating the sounds.

Personally, when asked, I prefer a layman’s interpretation. Specifically, the correspondence of the six syllables to what Buddhists call the six perfections. They are, in corresponding order to the mantra syllables:

  • om ~ generousity
  • man ~ self-discipline
  • i ~ patience
  • pad ~ virtue
  • me ~ mindfulness
  • hum ~ wisdom

I’m not keen on soft ideas and squishy notions. I’m a man who needs a philosophy that works. I lean toward the pragmatic. Of these attributes, all I can say is that they are the heart jewels of our humanity. They are tools by which a better self is molded from hard clay. Not a day passes that life does not present me an opportunity to study the ink on my arm.

___________________

Post script: A reader asked if I could put up a photo of the tattoo. Here’s the image that sparked my friend’s question:

Tattoo

Woof, woof. Bark.

In Dogs, Philosophy, Religion, Thinkers on April 10, 2012 at 7:35 pm

I was at a book reading a few evenings ago. Two rows in front of me sat a woman and next to her, on its own seat, perched an ivory-colored terrier. The dog was well-behaved and I was enjoying her (his?) presence when it turned and looked at me through the slats of the ladder-back chair. Her eyes were like brilliant black marbles tucked in a fluff of silk. I stared into them, lost, and was suddenly and unexpectedlly overwhelmed with the thought of those eyes locked on her master, then closing forever on the stainless steel veterinarian’s table. I chased the thought away it was so immediately and consumingly dark and troubling. Why such a thought would occur to me is a mystery. I’m not dark that way; but animals have always held an incomprehensible sway over me.

It is possibly apocryphal but reported that upon finding a horse being abused on the streets of Turin, Nietzsche threw himself, sobbing, around the neck of the beast. The event so overwhelmed the fragile philosopher that he never recovered, never spoke another word, and plummeted into a psychosis from which he did not recover. One can profess a will to power but protecting an animal might be the greatest philosophy.

I’ve had dogs all my life. One dog lost to illness years ago prompted a friend’s comment, “That must be like losing a family member.” No, it was not like losing, it was losing a family member. The most violent mourning I’ve ever experienced was at the loss of my Maggie a year and a half ago. As I write this my little Lucy, a terrier mix, is asleep at the office door, putting herself between me and any intruder who might make the mistake of crossing her without my permission.

Any philosophy I might have must include the beasts.

Hubristic medieval philosophers held that animals had no soul because they had no self-consciousness. Perhaps in that fact alone we hold the  evidence of a superior soul-filled being. This seems provable in that animals will not burn witches at the stake nor slaughter whales.

It is maybe that I want to be more like a dog and less like a human being. I find in them evidence of how to live in a moment so completely as to exist in full vibrancy. Too, I recognize love in a dog more readily and without apprehension than I do in people. Surely, that is a teaching. A dog does not make professions of faith, does not pray, does not sin nor seek redemption. Those are human designs extraneous to an animal intent on spirited life. There is joy at a dog park that is not found in a church. That is where I go to pray.