Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘The infinity of ideas’ 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. “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.

Repost: “Elliott, God is my Lord.”

In Photography, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on November 21, 2015 at 10:43 am

I’ve been combing through old postings, looking for a few themes, maybe something worthy of expansion. I came across this post from April, 2010. It grabbed me and I thought I’d share it.

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I gave a talk this evening, a talk about photography, to a group of about seventy-five. The talk went well enough, with slides, travel, ideas and stories. The audience was attentive and the presentation seemed well received. Afterward, a man approached me. “Elliott,” he said, extending his hand. “It means, God is my Lord in Hebrew.” I shook his hand. “Doug, dweller by the dark river. Gaelic.” His eyes bugged out. “Man, that’s why you’re a photographer.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by that.

Elliott and I talked for quite a while. He was, what I would call, a natural seer. That is, as he said, he can walk around Back Bay where he lives, “five hundred times and always see something different.” He continued: “I needed a shim, a piece of wood for something I was working on in the house. I went down to the water and picked up a piece of wood, nicely worn down. I held it to the sun a certain way and I could see the ridges in it, all worn smooth.” He was animated. “I took it and scraped it across my face.” He got excited. “It was just a shim, just a piece of wood, but it wasn’t.” I told him that Picasso said that he spent his whole life trying to draw like a child. I continued: “You, Elliott, God is my Lord, have a child’s gift. You see the world as we all want to see it. Fresh.”

Elliott said that my talk made him think about how he viewed the world and that he was excited to put into practice some of the principles and ideas I had talked about. “No, Elliott,” I said to him. “Forget everything I said. Forget it. Don’t think about how you see. It will ruin everything.” He said he was afraid of that, but that he could do it without it being “artificial.” I admonished him. “You walk around the Back Bay five hundred times and every time is new. That is a gift. That is the universe in a grain of sand.” With this he got very excited. “The universe!” he said. “Yes. It’s all about bringing everything together and seeing it whole, as a universe.” I felt as if I was in the presence of a prophet, a seer, a Zen Master. In fact, he had been a teacher. Fifth grade. Retired. “I was a great teacher,” Elliott told me. “Yes,” I said. “I am certain you were.”

Knowledge Gained

In The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on September 4, 2013 at 6:00 am

I was raised better than to simply walk away from such a friend as you. Yet, I did, I have. My apologies. Sincerely. My absence does not mean I’ve not been thinking of you. To the contrary, I have been plagued with guilt, that most burdensome of the self-induced emotions, over my thoughtless (non-)actions. Over abandonment.

A friend, a reader of the House, recently chastened me: You cannot just walk away. You should post an update, explain. She was right, of course (as women most often are). Except I have little to offer as explanation. This is my pattern: In-depth obsession followed abruptly by vacuous absence. The pattern has dogged me all my life, tinting everything–cresting elation swamped by indifference.

To my friend’s comment, I offer this description by way of explanation. I note too, that in my last post (many months ago) I also touched on my obsessive tendencies. But this time is different. Now I have some related knowledge. Here’s what I now understand: My life has been spent in pursuit of mastery, or if not mastery, at least the ability to do something really well. Just one thing, anything. It didn’t matter, physical, intellectual, spiritual (whatever that is), athletic, one pursuit after another, all the while, sniffing the air, checking the compass, asking: Is this the path to mastery? Obsession grows around such a thing, blanketing it, so that only the pursuit remains, the motive lost. Ultimately, I read the wind: No, you’re not going to master this thing, then I shut down. The lever is flipped and I move on.

This insight came one night, prompted by a deep conversation with a young friend; a conversation well lubricated with ample amounts of Maker’s Mark. It was a flash, a revelation that laid out my entire life. Imagine all the dollars I saved in therapy! The next morning, the whisky fog cleared, yet the insight remained, the insight being specifically of a life spent in pursuit of mastery, albeit Illusive mastery.

Which brings me back to “…the House…” My effort here has been nothing less than to try to figure out how to master life. And here’s the thing: I came to understand that one can’t. Indeed, there are truly things a person can master but life is not one of them. This is knowledge gained, wisdom even, and in the gain a bit of awakening happens. Yet, even at that, a truth revealed, the lever is again flipped and I move on.

 

Da Capo

In Books, Creativity, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Writers on March 20, 2013 at 6:00 am

The  neuro-chemical thing has worn off and all is again right with the world. That said, it’s a good time to take a little break, a few days away from the desk. The reading is falling behind, the reservoir is low, and the battery needs a trickle charge. So, today I’m putting up a previous post (from 2010) and am taking a breather for a few days. You must be getting tired of me, anyway, knowing as I do, how tedious I can (so easily) become. See you soon.

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“There is properly no history; only biography” ~ Emerson

My first choice of reading material is often biography. The biography holds everything: entertainment, knowledge, history, story-telling, insight, and possibly even wisdom. As best I can recall, the first biography I ever read was Mark Twain, though now that I think about it, I believe it was his autobiography, the genre-cousin of biography. I was in elementary school and I recall that it took a very long time to complete–I’m a slow reader. It was a big book written for grown-ups. And I wasn’t–grown-up, that is. I remember I had to write a book report and my teacher checked everyday on my progress, the book being thick and me being slow, and the report not coming when due, and the pressure, oh the pressure…

Young's Biography, Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography

Young’s Biography, Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography

As an adult I am still a slow reader and still a reader who loves biography. So it was that I saved up my pennies and sprang for the first new book (“new”: not a used book, or a library sale book, or a freebie review book) in quite some time: Friedrich Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography by Julian Young. Young is Professor of Philosophy, University of Auckland, and the book is published by Cambridge University Press. I was turned onto it by a glowing review by Francis Fukuyam in the New York Times Book Review.  Fukuyam includes this line:

“Whether we acknowledge it or not, we continue to live within the intellectual shadow cast by Nietzsche. Postmodernism, deconstructionism, cultural relativism, the “free spirit” scorning bourgeois morality, even New Age festivals like Burning Man can all ultimately be traced to him.”

I have always been fascinated by this enigmatic thinker. Here’s how the biography opens:

“Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s feet, shout ‘Da capo!–Once more! Once More! Back to the beginning!–to ‘the whole play and performance’. In perfect health one would ‘crave nothing more fervently’ than the ‘eternal return’ of one’s life throughout infinite time–not the expurgated version with the bad bits left out, but exactly the same life, down to the very last detail, however painful or shameful.”

This idea stops me cold.

Sunday Repost: Out of Ambivalence

In Nature, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on March 17, 2013 at 6:00 am
Morning, Moosehead

Morning, Moosehead

Two weeks ago [original post, June 2010], Carole, Lucy, and I went north to Moosehead Lake for a few days of North Woods camping and canoeing. At one point, as the sun set and the stars emerged, I stood on the shore and looked across the lake. I was peering perhaps two miles across the water. I studied the silhouetted landscape up the lake another couple of miles, then down the lake, to the south, maybe three miles. There was not a light to be seen on any shore, in any direction. It was complete and utter remoteness.

The filling aspect of this experience is found, for me, in supplementing experience with an element of the wild–that is to say, nature, and the compliment to a singular experience it affords. (I am encouraged by remembering the Zen philosopher Dōgen‘s comment, “Practice is the path.”) I don’t subscribe necessarily to the idea of the transcendent. Indeed, I don’t wish to transcend. Rather, I strive to enhance, to experience a world that spans wide(r) and forces me out of ambivalence.

The Practice of Discovery

In Creativity, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on March 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

For a while, as a young man, I wanted to be an archeologist. I moved on, as young men do. I still, however, harbor a need of excavation, which is another way of saying for discovery.

Pollock at work

Pollock at work

I recently read an essay by architect, thinker, and designer, Lance Hosey. The piece was called Why We Love Beautiful Things, and the comment that caught my eye was:

“Could Pollock’s late paintings result from his lifelong effort to excavate an image buried in all our brains?”

I am drawn to this notion, the idea that the “image is buried in all our brains.” I made a note of this sentence because it rings true. I know less about Jackson Pollock’s art than I do about archeology, yet I believe in discovery and, on occasion, understand the motive behind it.

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We live within the embrace of linear progression. That is, life on a line, moving

Art of Jackson Pollock

Art of Jackson Pollock

right. This fashion of cognition is a result, I think, of learning to read, left to right across the page. It does not surprise me that in Eastern cultures, where reading flows in other directions or is contained within an visual character, that life is,  traditionally depicted, not on a progressive time-line, but as mandala, a wheel, a circle.

If Pollock’s pursuit was to plumb the human psyche, it was devoid of the linear. It takes an artist to show us the myth that is progression; that the study should not be forward to become, but deep to be.

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You will have to excuse me please today. I know I have grown ponderous, and perhaps silly. Sorry–it’s just that sometimes you’ve got to give an idea some breathing room, no matter what. (It is a type of excavation.)

Have a nice weekend,

d