Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘The Examined Life’ Category

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. 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.

Muster those habits, pilgrim.

In Creativity, Happiness, The Examined Life on October 6, 2019 at 9:44 pm

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~ Aristotle

I looked up the etymology of the word “inspiration” recently. It goes back to the 13 century, is shared with Old English and Old French, and means to breathe into, to inspire, excite, inflame. Inspire, from which inspiration is derived, is to draw in breath, to breathe deeply. The original context of inspiration is to note the “immediate influence of God, or gods.” The creative individual, for instance, in seeking her god-muse, is hoping for that rush of inspiration, that substantive nugget, from which all creative power is drawn. Lacking that, one is simply faced with the prospect of hard work, which if you recall Edison’s comment comprises 99 percent of genius, inspiration being the remaining 1 percent.

When I moved to Maine ten years or so ago, I was often asked, Why Maine? My response more often than not was that my muse lived there. Indeed, the first few years of life in Maine were intensely creative and productive. I wrote frequently and met with a bit of success placing my work here and there. My photography took off, and projects fell into place with an abundance. I met new and interesting people. I explored a rugged and beautiful state. I was full of life, full of deep-breath inspiration. Then it tapered off, then fizzled. The new was no longer new. My muse, like an absent god, pack up and hid herself away. Somehow I had failed to nurse her appropriately, perhaps I even offended her.

I’ve been thinking along these lines recently as I’ve been reflecting on the most productive and rewarding phases of my life. The Greeks used the word eudaimonia in this context; they pursued a eudaimonic life. It is a word that most often gets translated as happiness, but to the Greeks it was a word better describing a life that flourished. Happiness was a by-product.The word happiness trips me up, frankly. The pursuit of it, happiness, seems most often a cruel trick, a blind alley, a lost ideal. The pursuit of anything sets up a counter reaction of avoidance. The pursued animal will flee. Happiness it seems mostly, is a thing that happens when other things fall into place. It is not a thing to be chased after, cornered and secured. That is why the idea of to flourish is so appealing. To flourish triggers a process beginning with a series of questions: What needs to be done in order to flourish? What does it feel like to flourish? Consider this, does history record the human lives that flourished, or the human lives that were happy? Consider the creative arts, DaVinci,  Michelangelo, Picasso, or in the sciences, Einstein, Newton, and so on. We don’t remember happy people so much. My hunch is that we remember people who were happy, but not because they were happy. They did something else, something that generated personal happiness, but that’s not why we remember them.

I’ve been in a long fallow period. Motivation has been largely absent. Emerson said that enthusiasm was necessary for anything of significance to come together. Motivation without enthusiasm seems an empty vessel. Inspiration, from which motivation and enthusiasm spring, has been hard in coming. That seems too much the absence of flourishing. I can point to the things that in days past made me flourish, like writing here at …the house…. At the core of things, I think, is the loss of good habit. Slowly things slipped. I wasn’t keeping my journal regularly. My reading fell off. My meditation practice began to slip. And so on.

William James gave a lot of thought to such things. His work on the value of habit is ground-breaking. “…there is reason to suppose that if we often flinch from making an effort,” James wrote, “before we know it the effort-making capacity will be gone; and that, if we suffer the wandering of our attention, presently it will wander all the time. Attention and effort are … but two names for the same psychic fact.”

Attention and effort, the stuff of habit. I have mustered my dormant attention. I have scripted my effort. Let the habits begin–again. Perhaps my muse, if she is still around, will take pity on this poor needy pilgrim. But should that not be the case, should she leave me high and dry, there will always be the hard work.

 

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?

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.

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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.