Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘The Examined Life’ Category

“It is a question of understanding my destiny.”

In Philosophy, The Examined Life on December 5, 2021 at 11:38 am
In the fog. (Photo by author)

The quote above is lifted from an entry in Kierkegaard’s journal. Here’s the fragment I jotted down in my notebook:

“What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know….It is a question of understanding my destiny.” (Journals & Notebooks, vol. 1, p22.)

It was the first sentence that caught my attention, “What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know…” Let me put this out there, front and center: I have spent most of my life in the pursuit of knowledge. (I hope that does not sound too pretentious.) If I am plagued by anything it is, What do I need to know? What book do I read next? What is the next course of inquiry to pursue? These are the questions of my hungry ghost. I credit / blame my parents for this.

I was raised in a household that believed, in the religious sense, that salvation was to be found in books. Not all books, but specifically those leading to spiritual growth and enlightenment. We were a household of Christian Scientists. We did not claim a personal relationship with a supernatural being, did not claim to have special other-worldly insight, did not practice the laying on of hands, nor speak in tongues. We were not contemplative. We did not have preachers, or ministers, or rabbis; there were no clerics to turn to for guidance, instead we had books.

And we were close readers—specifically, readers of the Bible and the textbook of Christian Science, Science and Health, by Mary Baker Eddy. I left the church, to my mother’s dismay, in my early 20s, but, as the saying goes, you cannot escape your biography. It is impossible to leave behind everything from your childhood. Indeed, perhaps it is impossible to leave anything behind, those artifacts linger and hang on long after their specificity has expired. So it is that my reading habit, the soul-saving discipline of my upbringing, and the notion that books held the promise of salvation, did not fade away—but the focus tectonically shifted from the religious to the profoundly secular.

So when my Danish friend makes a distinction between what he must know and what he must do, I take notice. Kierkegaard gave me pause.

In the spirit of the ancient Greeks—Know Thy Self—I have spent the better part of the last year examining the artifacts of my existence. There is really no other way of putting it. If one considers all the stuff one has absorbed, the stuff taken as fact, the stuff believed, the stuff practiced, aspired to, hoped for, longed toward, desired, rejected, abhorred—if you take all that stuff, what I’m calling artifacts, and throw it all out, what remains? That is the question I’ve been investigating most recently. It’s been a practice in deep epistemological skepticism.

This path has taken a round-the-barn route to a place I visited about thirty years ago, the habitat of the Existentialists. The backstory: Rene Descartes, in a fit of skepticism, came to the conclusion that there was but one thing he could count on: He had the capacity for thought, and from there he concluded that he must exist. “I think, therefore I am,” he declared, setting the course of modern philosophy. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the idea was seriously challenged. Hold on, said the Existentialists, you’ve got it backwards. You exist, therefore you think. That is, you can’t do anything without existence, it’s primal. As I said, this is turf I’ve hiked before, but the hike of the young man is different from the 66 year-old. The trek carries real import now, the horizon being in sight.

This is the place I now find myself, and the reason Kierkegaard’s journal entry spoke to me so deeply. What to do? When all is tossed aside, only the clean slate of existence remains. There is no refuge to be found, no safe harbor, no doctrine or system to fall back on for comfort. Have you ever wiped clean the hard drive of a computer? If so, you know what I’m taking about. A factory reset erases everything and you begin again.

It is not the question of what you need to know, but what you must now do! So, “What I really need is to be clear as to what I am to do….”

Nietzsche had a clever response to this challenge. Imagine that life repeats, he suggested, over and over again, eternally. It is an uncompromising thought: If you don’t welcome the thought of living your life over again, you are not living it right. Welcome to Groundhog Day, The Movie. I share the passage in it’s entirety:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become towards yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate confirmation and seal.” The Gay Science, 341, pp 273-274.

In other words, aspire to live in such a way that you wish each and every moment of your life to recur eternally. You are a sculptor and life is a block of marble. What will you do with this wild and precious life such that you welcome repeating it?

My desire for knowledge isn’t going away, nor should it. It is part of my DNA. But as I re-write the hard-drive of my existence I will practice the art of doing, in balance with the art of knowing. Perhaps there, at the intersection of the doing and the knowing, the art of living is to be found.

Birds and The Art of Living

In Nature, Photography, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 5, 2020 at 9:00 am

Great Blue Heron ©Doug Bruns

I took a long pleasant walk along the water on New Years Day. Walking seems the most basic and perhaps profound thing to do as an upright animal and I like to begin the year doing something basic and important. A walk gets everything in order, both mentally and physically. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem too busy to get out and simply walk, or they think their time could somehow be better spent. It is not a surprise to me that a study of human creativity is a long history of walkers. (If you want to know more about my thoughts along on this line, read my essay, The Philosophy of Walking, at Medium.)

Long-billed Curlew ©Doug Bruns

I took binoculars with me on my walk. Wearing them, like wearing a camera around my neck, is a prompt to pay attention, to be on the look out, to be present in a moment, alert and ready. I identified twenty-two species of birds on my two-hour walk. There were probably another dozen or so that I could not identify. I am a long-time birder, but not a very good one, though I am always striving to improve.

Birding gives me an excuse and purpose to be out of doors. Fly fishing used to do the same thing, but the harm I was doing to the beautiful finned creatures of moving water became too much to bear. I most often go birding with my camera and a big telephoto lens. Photographing a bird I cannot identify in the field gives me an opportunity to study it on my computer screen when I get home.

Vermillion Flycatcher ©Doug Bruns

I want to be a better birder and am committed to sharpening my skills. I want to be a better human being and am likewise committed. I see the two notions as complimentary. Anything that draws you closer to nature, that heightens your attention to the world around you, I believe, simply makes you better. The more you appreciate the natural world, the more inclined you’ll be to cherish it, the creatures in it (human, as well as non-human beings) and do no damage.

Maria Popova in a recent Brain Pickings post made a comment about the creative process, which included the phrase, “…the way artists apprentice themselves to the work.” I very much like the use of the word apprentice as a verb, an active verb. The practice of learning a trade or a skill through an apprenticeship has sadly grown quaint. The idea of taking time to study under a master, to absorb carefully and with commitment, does not have much traction any longer. The Latin from which the word apprentice is drawn means “to learn, to take hold of, to grasp.” I attempt to learn, to take hold of, to grasp by birding with good birders and naturalists at every opportunity.

Brown Pelican ©Doug Bruns

If there is any art in my life I wish to apprentice myself to it and commit to the work involved in enhancing it. How best to live, in my scheme of things, is art of the highest order. How to be a better birder is largely the art of learning how to better pay attention, which is also one aspect of learning how best to live. As an apprentice to this art I am yoked to the idea that progress can be made, that there is knowledge to be grasped, wisdom to be exercised.

There is work to be done and I am committed to the long-haul of getting it done. Work is a wonderful thing. Without it we have no opportunity to practice our apprenticeship, no platform upon which to design and structure our path forward.

These are thoughts I considered during my New Years walk. They give me a heightened sense of purpose. There have been times in my life when true purpose seemed remote and now it appears less so. I am grateful for that. Gratitude too, I’ve learned, is part of the art of learning how best to live.

Happy New Year.

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.


Authenticity, and other over-used words.

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on November 24, 2019 at 9:00 am

I heard recently, during the current impeachment hearings, someone accuse so-and-so of “lacking authenticity.” It caught my ear. Several years ago I was deeply hung-up in the pursuit of authenticity, or at least a workable explanation of what truly it is. Eventually I walked away, vowing never to use the word again. It seemed too much a rabbit hole. The accusation I’d heard on the news suggested that authenticity was a default setting, that human beings were naturally authentic in our dealings and projections and designs, that the individual in question lacked this natural human state. That is not how I see it, particularly in this age of Instagramed lives and curated online personalities. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I’ve spent a good bit of the last couple of years reading and studying the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Among the many things I find appealing about these thinkers is their practicality. Their’s was a workable philosophy. They were, above all, interested in how to live, how to enjoy what they called the Good Life. The good life was not a life of materialistic pursuit, as we might think today. Rather, it was a life framed around the pursuit of tranquility, a life that flourished, a way of moving in the world that was harmonious with others and with, most importantly, nature. That is the good life and they were dogged in the pursuit of it. To that end they reasoned that a human being, if he or she is to enjoy the good life, must develop a handful of attributes, exercise them, and never let them go. What they were talking about was leading a life of virtue.  Not long later the Christians incorporated this notion into their new religion. The Christian Scholastics of the middle ages later developed a dogmatism around the virtues that lingers to this day. It can be hard to get around that for some people when considering virtue.

Depending on which school of ancient philosophy you subscribed to the number of virtues, four, six, ten, and so on, varied. The Stoics, for example, had four. Aristotle had eleven. I want to focus on a shared virtue among the schools: Courage.

For the ancients, courage was a given. Hand to hand combat, invasions, sacking and plundering, common violence—demands upon the individual such that courage was required to simply survive. That is a definition of courage upon which we can all agree. But there is a notion more subtle also at work here, the courage to live. And with that aspect of courage, we circle back to authenticity. To live fully, to live the good life is to live with courage and in doing so, a life of authenticity begins to develop.

Courage from the Latin “cor”, heart

Not surprisingly, the word courage derives from the Latin for heart, cor. “That player has heart,” is not an unusual comment to hear in the arena of sports. It connotes a depth of character that speaks to drive, fearlessness, and commitment of pursuit. Consider Thoreau, for instance. Writing about his Walden project, he said, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” To summarize Thoreau, courage is the first and most important thing he learned by living close to nature. That is what I mean by the phrase, courage to live, advancing confidently. I encourage you to read the last chapter of Walden, Conclusion. There is no better writing about courage than you’ll find there.

The barriers to courage, and subsequently to a life of authenticity, are not difficult to find. “How deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!” wrote Thoreau in that last chapter. I touched on this in my last essay, that is, the cultural pressures to be something other than individually realistic. It takes courage to resist the modern trappings which often lead to herd life, herd life being the antithesis of the good life. That is not to say modern life cannot afford us opportunity for a courageous life of authenticity. Indeed, the more ubiquitous is herd life, the more opportunity there is for one to stand tall courageously and authentically.

* * *

I would be remiss if I failed to consider a mistaken notion of modern authenticity. There is a current stream of thinking which suggests that authenticity is an excuse for incivility, for rudeness, and crass comments. “He can’t help himself, he has no filter, he’s totally authentic.” Really? I don’t think so. True authenticity is a manifestation of courageous self-knowledge. As such, by definition, a natural harmony is set into play–that is, if you’re following the path the ancients laid out. Authenticity demands of us a purity of character such that we are agents of harmony. That is not to say one is necessarily passive. With virtue as the motivator, the natural course, passive or aggressive, will be apparent.

Here’s the core of it. The ancients held that the closer we align ourselves with nature–green nature, the nature of the cosmos, human nature–the greater the degree of harmony we manifest. They saw an order to the world that was both teacher and student, a guiding self-referencing energy. You don’t have to subscribe to ancient metaphysics to observe that the world works better when harmony is pursued over discord, when kindness is a motivating factor. Here we might want to consider Kant’s moral categorical imperative:

“Act so that you can will that all persons should act under the same maxim you do.”


Take a moment and read that again. Genuine authenticity reduces religion and philosophy to kindness, to paraphrase the Dali Lama.

In summary, I take issue with the interlocutor at the impeachment hearings. Authenticity does not come naturally. There are too many other forces at work. It requires courage and work. So what is to be done? How does one live with courage and consequently, authentically? I turn again to that most American Zen Master, Henry David Thoreau for a clue. To wit:

“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Listen to your music and dance gently. To quote Nietzsche, “Become who you are.”

Happiness, Joy

In Family, Happiness, Life, The Examined Life on November 10, 2019 at 9:50 am

Photo by Joe Yates on Unsplash

A year or so ago while celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary one of our adult children asked if we could articulate the keys to a successful marriage. Carole went first. She spoke with intelligence and experience about the vital role communication must play when two human beings are committed to living together in support of one another. It was workable advice. Carole is nothing if not practical. When my turn came I quipped, “Lower your expectations.” I recall elaborating a little, saying something about resisting the urge for more, that success is more easily realized when we lower the bar. I’ve thought a great deal about my response and have been meaning to give my kids a better developed answer. So here goes.


The notion of lowering the bar goes back to something Melville said. I can only paraphrase it, having lost the quotation. If we expect less—less from life, less from others, less from ourselves–the chances of being happy will rise. Let’s label this attitude as pessimistic. The pessimist doesn’t expect much and therefore doesn’t require much to be pleased. There is, consequently, more opportunity for joy. Recent studies bare this out, citing that if not taken too far, pessimism will lead to a longer and happier life. Similarly, the life of the minimalist, the individual who eschews the cultural mantra of more more more, is likewise a happier individual. Like the pessimist, the minimalist too is lowering the bar. They don’t need much to be satisfied. It is said that Socrates walked through the market and marveled at all the stuff he did not want. He took joy in his lack of need. The other way of considering this is to think about saying yes to what matters. That in turn forces the question, What really matters, What are the essentials? These are good questions to ponder–or in the case of a relationship, to discuss.
* *
But isn’t marriage a contract between individuals promising to support the best efforts and designs of the other? Doesn’t lowering the bar take the punch out of this vow, leading to an attitude of accepting the simply adequate? My response: What is wrong with adequacy? By definition it meets the implied need, does it not? Why do we think we should get more than that? Of course we would like more than that. We will call that a preference. We would prefer more than the simply adequate. But we have little to no control over the successful outcome of our preferences. Yes, we will make our best effort, ideally with the understanding that our preference might not come to fruition. This is insurance against disappointment. If our preference is realized, we will be pleased, happiness being a side-effect. But if things don’t work out we are prepared and consequently we’re less disappointed. Indeed, we can experience a real degree of joy and satisfaction at our ambivalence. C.S. Lewis called joy “An unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”
* * *
That I have successfully lived over forty years with someone is testimony to a realistic attitude. Overt optimism is a dangerous and twisty road to travel. There are lots of ups and downs which can take a toll on a relationship. There is little point in magnifying them with unrealistic expectations and desires. More often than not things are not going to go the way you’d prefer. You can be upset about that, or you can accept it as a fact of life. The wonderful thing is that the more realistic your view, the more joy you experience. At some level the overt optimist knows the fallacy of the position. He or she knows that hope dashed is a painful and disappointing thing, yet they hope against hope. Realism, on the other hand, is a comfort. There is an internal peace that is in harmony with accepting the world as it is.
* * * *
As I’ve said before, happiness does not respond to being pursued. That idea is a cruel trick. It leads to mindless consumption, to uninformed expectation, to unrealistic desire. “Happiness cannot be pursued, it can only ensue,” said Viktor Frankl. Buddhists and the ancient Greeks both warned against desire (the desire for, and pursuit of happiness, for instance) and aversion (wishing to avoid unhappiness). They held to the middle way, the Golden Mean, as Aristotle described it. This position I call realistic pessimism. The night before our marriage Carole and I, jittery with pre-wedding nerves, asked out loud, “What if it doesn’t work out?” Our honest answer: “We can always get divorced.” We still joke all these years later about it. We can always get divorced if things don’t work out. That is realistic pessimism at work, complimented by a dash of humor. Ours is a joy-filled and largely happy marriage. We don’t take it for granted. We recognize that our hard work and efforts have paid us well in return. But we are also realistic people. We support and encourage one another, yet we don’t press too hard and are supportive when things don’t go the way we’d prefer. We don’t expect too much and are fine with things in a state of adequacy. Anything beyond that we welcome, but we don’t hold our breath. We’ve had more than our share of fulfilled preferences and are grateful for that. Going forward we are realistic. We are growing old. Things will likely get harder, life will grow more challenging in all sorts of ways hard to imagine. But realism is a comfort. There is hard-earned joy in that.

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.