Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Wisdom’ 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.

6.24.2018

In Camping, Nature, Wisdom on June 24, 2018 at 9:26 am
The Morning Run_edited

Our morning run starts and ends at the lake. Lucy takes a water break.

I can run again, if you call it that, since the hips were changed out a few years ago. It is a wonderous thing, replacing a body part, as if the truck broke down then got a new gasket. It helps to stay off pavement so I don’t run in the city. But here in Colorado, it’s a different story. The trail to the ridge behind us is dusty earth, not pavement, and that helps, as it seems a tad softer. Earth can be like that, forgiving, if you let it. As a younger man I ran a lot, which is probably why the system–my body–broke down as it did. I had something to prove: faster, faster, farther farther! Now, as I awkwardly transition into old age (YIKES!), it is the simple promise of movement that gets me out the doors. I have nothing to prove. Mary Oliver has a lovely line: “As I grew older the things I cared / about grew fewer, but were more / important.” That sums up much that is true about this stage of life.

At nine thousand feet elevation it takes me a while to get up to the top. I take it slow, and try to maintain an easy pace. I’m not kidding anyone and have no compunction about stopping if I need to. When I stop to catch my breath I try to turn my focus to the landscape, the lake and the surrounding mountains. Peak One and a few other peaks are still holding snow, though a fishing guide told me the snow pack melted too early and too fast this year. The earth can be like that also, not soft, but a reflection of our heart, too often rapacious and unforgiving. Nature is not something out there. It is us and we are it. This seems especially obvious to me this summer.
We’re into month two of life in the mountains and have more than three to go. I’ve not spent so much time out of doors since my summer camp days. We’re living in an Airstream trailer and hosting a campground in the White River National Forest. My morning runs underscore the personal transition that is occurring: that nature is not a thing “out there” so much as it is a place within, as well as without. It is easy to forget that we are born of nature when our lives are spent so often removed from it. With repetition–from the house to the car to the cubicle to the mall to the store and back to the house, repeat–with repetition, we forget the ancient connection to the larger world; we accept the notion that we are separate–separate from the natural world, and separate from one another. There is great danger in that, the belief of “otherness.”  We are seeing a good bit of this currently: people who are “not us,” a natural world for served up for subjugation, the want of civility. It would be best if everyone moved out of doors, took a run to the top of a mountain, and stopping to catch their breath, looked out over a morning valley. Everything seems fitting and orderly when this happens.

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.

 

3.22.2018

In Happiness, Life, Wisdom on March 23, 2018 at 8:04 am

I don’t do New Year resolutions, but this year I did something similar. I selected a word I wanted to focus on for 2018. It’s a touchstone* of sorts, something one turns to for guidance and direction. My word is Harmony.

I can’t directly say how harmony presented itself. I suspect it was the result of current social conditions. I cannot recall a time of such discord previously. I was born in 1955 so I was a young person in the sixties and seventies. I remember the cultural upheavals of those times. Indeed, I vividly recall my frustration at not being old enough to truly participate in what was going on, the war protests, the “Summer of Love,” and such. Those were tumultuous times certainly. But they didn’t seem to carry the personal import these heavy days do. Regardless, I wanted to do something to counter discord as best I could, in my own little personal way. Consequently, Harmony.

We’re only a third of the way into the year. Is it proper to take an assessment of my personal contribution to harmony? That itself is a big assumption. Have I, in some fashion, contributed to world/personal/social harmony?

Well yes, I think so.

In my world an action can take three forms, or a combination of: body, speech, or mind.

Body. Speech. Mind.

Actions of the body, related to harmony, might be manifested by a hug, a handshake, a smile. Hold the door for someone, wave to a neighbor, let the car merge in front of you.

Actions of speech–that gets a little trickier. We all know words can hurt. Don’t use hurtful words. It sounds simple enough. Hello. You’re welcome. Good morning. These are words we like hearing. But how many times do we make a snide comment, use a rude description, say something disparaging under our breath? For me, in my attempt to train in harmony, I am daily growing more aware of such usage. Being aware of it, I can better modify my actions of speech. But that’s the trick–awareness, which takes me to actions of mind.

Actions of Mind–thoughts, essentially. If you truly want to make a positive contribution you want to get a handle on what’s going on between your ears. A teacher said to me once, “What’s your practice? We all practice something.” We might meditate, go for a run, read poetry, write, pray, clean the house, make the bed, change a diaper. What is your practice and do you understand that it first manifests as a thought? Your practice, do you pay attention to it? I wrote here once about seeing runners having a phone conversation while they ran. I wanted to stop them and say, Be a runner. Be just that one thing right now, be that one thing truly. Be that thing with all your heart and concentration. Pay attention.

My personal assessment, a quarter way into the year, is that my teeny-tiny contribution to harmony has taken root, albeit ever so modestly, close to home. I realized early into this project that there is little I can do about world politics, about discord between countries, about hatred in the world at large. Instead, I decided to be more thoughtful toward my neighbors. I decided to do the dishes when they stacked up. I will make the bed. I will pick up litter in the dog field. I said they were teeny-tiny things–but harmony spreads beyond family. Courtesy gets passed around. A smile is contagious. Civility counts. These are things I can think about, I can talk about, I can do. Mind, body, speech.

I hope I have not sounded too high-handed here. I don’t want to be preachy, nor do I have any reason to call myself out as being better than anyone else. I’m just a guy trying to be a better person, a better citizen of the world, a better father, husband, friend. Harmony, yep, a good focus word for me this year. I encourage you to find your own personal project at making the world a better place. We need it. Pass it on.

————————————-

*The origin of touchstone is interesting. The first known use of the word takes us back to 1530. A physical touchstone was a stone related to flint. By rubbing it on gold or silver one could determine the purity of the ore by the streaks left behind. Metaphorically speaking, a touchstone might be used to point us toward authenticity and genuineness.

 

11.24.2017

In Life, Memoir, Wisdom on November 24, 2017 at 7:56 am

Red Feather Lakes, CO., el 8800

Did you hear the one about Jesus Christ, Moses, and the Zen Master?

Jesus Christ, Moses, and a Zen Master were out on pilgrimage. They were trekking through a remote valley when they came to a river. The bridge they hoped to cross had been washed away in a storm. They stood looking. Jesus shrugged his shoulders and stepped onto the river and walked across. On the other side, he turned and waited. Moses then moved to the river’s edge. He raised and spread his arms wide. The water parted. He walked across and stood next to Jesus, the two of them looking across the river at the Zen Master. The Zen Master shrugged his shoulders, hiked up his robe, took a firm grasp on his staff and waded into the current. He struggled across and eventually joined his friends, Jesus and Moses. They continued on their way.

You have to do the work.

I was recently reminded of this little parable while noticing the warmth of a rising sun on my face. The meditation hall had expansive windows and as the sun crested the mountain ridge to the east, the morning rays poured in. My mind was not particularly stable on this morning, despite seven straight days of meditation. I guess I was too excited to return home. But I took a moment to be satisfied. Like the Zen Master I have no special powers. I simply have to do the work. On this occasion I did what I set out to do. I did the work, for now. There can be great joy in work well done. At least there should be. No work, no eat, they say.

I’d not been to an extended meditation retreat before. As you might expect, at times my joints hurt and many times my mind wandered. But just as often I was disappointed when the bell rang and we had to rise from our cushions. Doing work with great concentration can be extremely satisfying. We too often exist in a state of digression and discursive thinking. We are encouraged to do many things at the same time, applauded for our ability to multitask. But the mind can only do one thing at a time truly. Sure, it can flit about, go here and there, touch this and that, but such a rapid-fire process is many breaths short of concentration, of pure focus. Such a thing takes work. It takes practice. Watch a concert musician, a world-class athlete. It is writ large on their face. They’ve gone to that place. They’ve done the work.

I began meditating in 2004. I’ve gone through periods of consistency, day after day, week after week. I’ve also had many spans of not practicing.  I’m now enjoying in a long run of daily sittings, months strung together, such that the work is becoming the life and vice versa. At some point the musician stops being a student and becomes a pianist. It is then, in that turning, that you become the work you were previously practicing. That itself seems an awakening.