Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘The Examined Life’ Category

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 The point here, however, is that Marcus Aurelius, as a Stoic practice, wrote his ideas and thoughts down, not for publication, but as a personal journal.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.

IMG_0755

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?

On Making Bread

In Life, The Examined Life on June 5, 2019 at 7:01 pm

A recent loaf.

I’ve been making bread, off and on, all my life. I distinctly remember making bread for my grandmother over five decades ago. I can even recall that it was a dark bread and it didn’t rise and she was kind in accepting it, this woman who really knew what baking bread was about. I made bread two days ago. It was a better bread than that I made for my grandmother.

The night before I make bread, I take my sourdough starter out of the refrigerator and feed it. I leave it on the counter overnight and I wake up excited that it is a baking day. Every baking day is a day that holds the opportunity for improvement. Will today’s bread rise better? Will it have a good chewy crust? I’m always experimenting. As with everything in my life, I’m always wondering if it can be better.

I took bread to a dinner recently. I was asked what kind of bread maker I had. I raised my hands, my bread makers. That is the way I like things. Simple.

Recently I’ve taken to folding the dough after kneading. You stretch out the dough and fold it, turn it, fold it again, give it a push or two, then let it rest.

I’m at a place in life recently where it seems I’m sort of folding and pushing, folding and resting. Seeing what happens. Always an experiment. In his great poem, September 1, 1939, Auden has the line: “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie,” I like to think that I am folding truth. I like to think that my life is rich and full–which it is–and that a simple fold, a little tug here and a little stretch there, then a rest, and the fabric of life, its true essence, will rise a bit, be a bit stronger, a bit richer, and a bit tastier. Always experimenting.

When I get up in the morning, I can sometimes taste the excitement of a new day. Will it rise better? Be tastier? Will life’s true essence be revealed today?

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.

 

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.

Consumption Rejected

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Wisdom on November 23, 2018 at 8:00 am

It is Black Friday, our new national holiday.  Today we are encouraged to attend the Church of Eternal Retail and asked to take communion at the altar of consumption. I was once a dues paying member of this church. I sat in the pew up front, where the big consumers sit, the ones with fancy black cars and multiple properties. We were the ones who just came back from Europe, or some such place, leaving our trail of particulates behind us at 30,000 feet.

Then, slowly, things began to shift. Here’s how that happened.

One day I was walking my property, a large rectangle of many acres. Our house sat at the back, tucked against a state set-aside of several thousand acres. A nature preserve boarded the other side of our estate. We had a pool. And a pool house. You get the picture. As I walked through the woods deer sprinted in front of me. There was a fox den over by the creek. It was idyllic by any measure. But all that was lost on me on this particular morning. Instead my focus was on a tree that had come down in the last storm. And over there, I noticed a patch of poison ivy spreading unabated. And back by the house, I was obsessed by the weeds that returned week after week, despite the garden crew that plucked them every Friday afternoon. Then it hit me: The stuff I owned had somehow come to own me.

It was a simple, yet powerful, awakening. I was not the owner, but the owned, not master but slave. How did this happen? Simply put, success happened, as is measured conventionally. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself. But success can be a seduction. Odysseus had his crew put wax in their ears and ordered them to tie him to the mast. They were sailing past the Sirens and he wanted to hear their song, but not at the cost of casting himself into the ocean, or wreck his ship on the rocks. He was wise. Success was my siren song and I was whistling the tune. I didn’t have the wisdom to tie myself to the mast . Yet walking through the woods that day, I heard the crashing waves and took heed. A little wisdom came to me that morning and things began to change.

That was about ten years ago. It took time to turn the ship, but turn it we did. We got rid of everything–everything!–and purchased a 28’ Airstream trailer. We lived on the road for a year and a half. It was a study in minimalism. Consumption stopped. There was no place to put that new fleece. No reason to look at those new flat screen HD TVs. Marcus Aurelius wrote, “If you seek tranquility, do less…do less, better.” For me, it became, if you seek true freedom, own less, purchase less, have less–and be better for it. Be free.

So, on this day of national consumption, I exercise my new wisdom. I note with gratitude the path I ended and the new path I embarked on. I turn with appreciation to the few things I own and better cherish them for the scarcity. I reject the consumption that marks this day and embrace the eternal and lasting, as I understand it, wisdom, simplicity, and gratitude.

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.