Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘The Examined Life’ Category

10.7.2018

In Happiness, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on October 7, 2018 at 9:30 am

I’m coming to the end of Stoic Week 2018 and there is much I want to share You’ll likely find me rattling on for weeks about it. It has been a significant life-enhancing experience, which is different from a life-changing experience, as I note below. But first, a few words about a core Stoic notion regarding happiness.

The Stoics, both ancient and modern, hold that the question, how best to live, is answered in the context of how one embraces and internally develops four essential virtues, the Four Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism. They are:

  • Wisdom
  • Courage
  • Justice
  • Moderation

To elaborate briefly. Wisdom is valued in a practical sense–that is, it is an acquired knowledge which helps us navigate the world. The ancient philosophers where respected not only for their teachings, but for the life they led. The philosophy and the life could not be separated.  Courage, also called resilience, is not necessarily battlefield stuff, but also the simple courage to define a proper life possibly contrary to popular notions. As Seneca said, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” The virtue of Justice includes one’s capacity for fairness, kindness, and compassion. And lastly, Moderation, which includes self-discipline, and a conservative approach to consumption. In ancient thought, these qualities were not only of benefit to ourselves, but also of benefit to others. Indeed, to the Stoics, all actions were related in a universal web of existence, a net of cause and effect, what in Eastern philosophy would be called karma.

I find there to be a number of overlaps between these four cardinal virtues and the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, but that is something I’ll save for another post. (Stoicism also includes a meditative practice, by the way.) In a nutshell, Stoicism teaches that the cultivation of these virtues directly increases one’s core happiness. This happiness is not influenced by outside experiences; no one, nor anything can take it from you. I should add that many modern Stoics prefer the word flourishing over happiness. That is a subtle distinction you should think about. Properly established, your core virtues will properly guide you through life. In other words, you flourish regardless of the confronting challenges.

I could go on, but will stop for now as there is a related topic I want to toss out.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about change and enhancement, about changing one’s life verses enhancing one’s life. A little over a year ago I participated in an eight-day meditation retreat not far from here in the mountains of Colorado. It was a silent retreat but the silence was lifted on the last evening and I introduced myself to a young man who had been sitting, as I was, Zen style throughout the week. He told me that he had lived and worked in Manhattan but had recently left the city and entered a Zen monastery to train and practice full-time. As much as I cherish my quiet time and my contemplative life, I would never consider making such a life-changing decision. It settled on me that, at this stage of my life, it was not change I was after, but enhancement. The difference is subtle but significant. I like my life as it is, I like it very much. I don’t want to change it, though I wish to enhance it. So I put this to you, change or enhancement, what are you looking for? Do you have a plan as to how to go about it? I suspect, since you’re reading this blog, that you’re in pursuit of one or the other, no?  

Thanks for reading.

9.28.2018

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on September 28, 2018 at 9:00 am
Stoic Week photo

Notes from Stoic Week 2015

As mentioned in my last post, next week is the annual International Stoic Week. I signed up, will be participating, and encourage you to do the same. (It’s free.) I participated in 2015 and pulled my notes to review (above). I thought I’d share a highlight for you.

Drawn from Stoic writers like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, Stoic Week 2015 presented ten Stoic principles. I find them helpful and inspiring. Here they are:

  1. Stay active
  2. Do not fear
  3. Live modestly
  4. Be grateful
  5. Keep above the herd
  6. Follow nature
  7. Value time
  8. Behold virtue
  9. Block vices
  10. Examine yourself

It is obvious why, after more than two millennium, these principles have survived. They are ageless. They point to the/a course of a proper life. Lists, however, are easy and can easily be forgotten. I suggest taking one of these points and living with it for a day, or a week. Take it and meditate on it, carry it around with you. What does it really mean to “Follow nature,” for instance. One can follow one’s own nature, follow the natural world, reject the not-natural. However you choose to consider it, such advice takes one deep and leads to insight. Insight can never be taken from you. Living with such advice for a focused extended period is a means by which to take it off the page and put it in the heart.

Thanks for reading.

9.24.2018

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!

5.8.2018

In Life, Memoir, Nature, The Examined Life, Wisdom on May 9, 2018 at 8:00 am

Moleskine notes

Three weeks ago I left southern Virginia, west-bound. Today I entered Mountain Time. And I saw a Western Kingbird. I must be heading in the right direction.

* * *

I’ve spent a lot of time, years even, contemplating how to best live. But the real question is not How to Live, but How to Think. Everything follows our thinking, including our happiness.

“A man is as miserable as he things he is.” ~ Seneca.

Conversely, is a person as happy as he or she thinks they are?

* * *

“At the break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind: ‘I am getting up for a human being’s work…I am going out to do what I was born for…plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world…do you not want to do the work of a human being…to follow the demands of your own nature?” ~ Marcus Aureluis

* * *

Man in restaurant behind me just returned his water because it had a lemon in it. “Oh my god,” said the waitress. “I’m so sorry. And I totally brag about our water too,” she said.

I must be in California.

* * *

It is late in the afternoon and the sun is low. Lucy is asleep beside the river. I am thinking about something Seneca said: plunging oneself into the totality of the world. What does that mean, I wonder? I don’t know precisely, but it must have something to do with the flight of the terns over the lake this evening. It must have something to do with the way the bark of the willow over there is gnarled. And yes, it must have something to do with that fish who just pierced the surface and the rings that are radiating toward me. Yes, that must be it. The totality of the world.

 

2.11.2017

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Travel, Uncategorized, Wisdom on February 11, 2017 at 1:20 pm

We’d been camping in the Laguna Mountains for a few days and had the place to ourselves. We had no internet and no cell coverage. Our days were lazy and we filled them with books, walks, and the occasional nap. Breaking the habit of connectivity is difficult and a thing probably best experienced only when forced on you. Like many habits, it takes time to break the back of it but is worth it if you can manage. I spent a good bit of time photographing the Acorn Woodpecker. Sibley says to “Note clownish face pattern, red crown…” and so on. Clownish indeed, with a bold yellow cheek, a bright eye ring, and a white forehead patch. They were in abundance in the field in front of us, a field of less than a dozen trees, half of which were dead.

I took a biology class in college, the final project of which was to write a report of long-term observation on a patch of ground we’d chosen, a spit of earth three feet square. We had to log so many hours–I don’t recall exactly how many–and share what we observed. The project taught me many things, all of them unexpected, the greatest of which was the power of simply being still. Being still is not a thing we often experience, nor does it warrant much currency in modern society. Yet the simple action of no action can be quite something, boarding on profound even.

There was perhaps an hour before the sun would set behind the ridge. (A fist held to the horizon represents about an hour, two fists between horizon and the sun and you’re looking at about two hours before sunset.) Once the sun disappeared the temperatures dropped and darkness spread across the valley faster than you could out walk it–at lease it seemed that way. I had been standing for perhaps an hour, not moving. I focused on the birds and attempted to better hear the sounds surrounding me. I concentrated on simply being still and observing. Once years ago while meditating in a woods, seated on a stump, a white-tail deer approached, sniffing the air curiously, nostrils flaring. Closer and closer she drew, then, with a shift of wind, she leaped as if suddenly released by gravity and bolted off across a meadow. When you sit in a forest things happen. On this afternoon, camera resting on my tripod in front of me, my hearing turned ever so effortlessly into listening. It is a subtile difference, hearing and listening, and I cannot say when it directly turned. You can’t really pinpoint such a thing. There was a chirping in the tree in front of me. It had been there but I’d not listened to it. I lifted my eyes and from a bore-hole the head of a fledgling appeared. It looked around, up and down, then hopped from the hole to a branch. Suddenly mom and dad woodpecker dropped from the sky screaming. They reprimanded the youngster and ushered him back into the nest. I could only imagine the discussion over dinner that night.

Despite my well documented appreciation of Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists, I have never been able to truly nurture an appreciation for things metaphysical, spiritual, or transcendental. Yet, as I grow older and as my stubbornness yields to experience, I find peace in considering such things. There is no conclusion to draw from that, other than the lesson of stillness and the woodpecker.

 

8.7.2016

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Wisdom on August 7, 2016 at 8:18 pm

It is commonly accepted that one should strive to “live in the now,” to “be present.” I don’t dispute this wisdom. There is a great deal of distraction in life and given enough rein, distraction will eventually snuff out the vibrancy that is life itself. Memories, it seems to me, are often put into the category of distraction. “Oh, she’s living the in past.” Or, “All he has left are his memories.” I am probably universally wrong on this, but it seems to me that we have been trained to keep our memories at arm’s length, that in some fashion memories are guilty pleasures that we are wrong to enjoy. The Proustian in me says, that is bull shit.

I sit this evening in the mountains of Colorado. The air is chill, even though it is August. Indeed, it is growing cold. I am outside and remembering summers past. I look through old notes and read old blog posts to jog my memory. Sometimes I feed memory like sometimes I pour myself a second bourbon. I know I shouldn’t–there’s that guilty pleasure–but I do because I want to. Tonight I am thinking of Maine on a summer evening and I miss it, even though this afternoon I photographed an elk with a five foot antler span.

I dreamt of my father last night and that is a form of memory, I think. I suspect experts know better, but I’ll not be dissuaded. Regardless, I have dreamt of my parents more often than not these days, certainly more than when they were alive. I have no idea what that means. But again, if that is a fashion of memory, then I embrace it. Is part of growing old the breaking down of resistance to reflect on the past with nostalgia? Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos, for return home. That seems at the core of many things.

No doubt these thoughts are sparked by four months on the road with no prospect of returning home any time soon. My father used to say that a certain place felt like home. He never said, as best as I can recall, that such and such a place was home. He desired to return to his roots, though he did not have a complete understanding as to what such a place was. He was eternally restless in such matters and I am restless too. To use a word my mother used, He was discombobulated. I am somewhat discombobulated too.

I was reading Seneca today. “The fool with all his other faults is always getting ready to live.” A bit further on he continues: “…you will think of old men who are preparing themselves at that very hour for a political career, or for travel, or for business. And what is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old?” What is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old? I’ve read through this section repeatedly and cannot fully parse where he’s coming from. Yet, it seems to address this business of growing older and the attendant restlessness that I’ve noted. The wisdom of Seneca has withstood the ages so I’m going to give him the nod on this one. Yet it seems contrary, don’t you think? I suspect the old stoic would accept the fact in the mirror: You’re old. Face it. You’re not going to start getting ready to live.

It seems a curse of modern times that we are prompted to embrace eternal youth. Surgery, drugs, yoga, trophy spouses, fast cars, money, whatever–all seem to be evidence toward this notion. You’re not old, sixty is the new forty. I am sixty. I am not young, yet, with deference to Seneca,  I still occasionally throw out a scheme or plan to do something new. Today, in fact, Carole and I discussed living in a foreign country and learning its language. We went down to Boulder, a college town, and I talked about getting more education, or perhaps teaching something or other. What is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old? Tomorrow I am going to spend the morning fishing the Big Thompson, here in the high Rockies. That is not getting ready to live; that is living. Seneca would give me a wink, I think. Maybe I get it after all.