Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Wisdom’ Category

Encounter at Panera

In Death, Wisdom on February 16, 2020 at 9:00 am

The other day Carole and I walked into the local Panera and placed our order. I went to men’s room while our food was being prepared. There was a gentleman standing at the urinal. I put my hands in my pockets, leaned against the wall and waited quietly. He moved to the wash basin. Soon I was again leaning against the wall, waiting. He looked up into the mirror. He sleeves where rolled to his elbows.

“I’m still delaying you,” he said.

To which I replied, “Don’t worry, I’ve got nothing but time.” And he said,

“Time is money.”

“I want for nothing,” I responded.

“You’ll never be rich.”

“I’ve done okay.”

“The poor die, but have no money. The rich also die,” he said, “but they die with having money.”

He stepped aside and I began to wash my hands. “Rich or poor, everyone dies,” I said. “Time runs out for us all.”

He smiled. I smiled back. We walked out.

* * *

The phrase, Time is money, has forever rubbed me the wrong way. Time is all I have. I attempt to use it as properly as I can, knowing it will run out. It is the mist through which all experience passes and to reduce it a trite formula of economics demonstrates a lack of clarity and perhaps even gratitude. Yet, this surprising exchange in the men’s room of a Panera so filled my heart with song. Two strangers picking up a conversation of such interest and import is not a thing to pass off gently.

There is a tradition in ancient yogic practices whereby the breath is slowed and then slowed yet more. The underlying thought is that we are born with a finite number of breaths and by slowing them down one stretches out personal existence. So, as a counter to the western consumer notion of time as money, I posit the eastern counterpoint, time is breath. Breath is the first thing we do as human beings. It is the last thing we do as human beings. And everything in between is time. Use it wisely. Don’t waste your breath.

Have a good day.

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.

Greetings (of the Season)

In Death, Faith, Nature, The infinity of ideas, Wisdom on December 22, 2019 at 9:00 am
Stonehendge

Stonehenge, winter solstice

“We must be less than death, to be lessened by it, for nothing is irrevocable but ourselves.” ~ Emily Dickinson, in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson

      * * *

I want to ask you a question and you have to promise that you will not do any mental calculations before answering. Here goes, How many weeks do you think there are in an average lifespan? I recently stumbled across this little fact and was surprised at the answer. Before I tell you, I confess that I grossly over estimated. Here’s something to consider first: The approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia is about 270,000 weeks. And the answer to my question: The modern lifespan average is about four thousand weeks. Four thousand weeks! (I owe these factoids to Oliver Burkeman and his article, Life’s Too Short, in NewPhilosopher magazine, Fall 2019.)

100 years

24,698 days, 100 years.

I recall years ago as a young child looking at a hundred-year calendar contained on just two pages. Each year was represented by a box about three inches square, and within each box was a smaller box for each month, and like nested Russian dolls, within each smaller box, each numbered day. I was probably around ten or eleven years old and looking at those two pages I said out loud, “Somewhere in front of me is the day I will die.”

Death is not something we talk about much. I have my thoughts about it and you have yours. Regardless of our notions on the matter it is coming for us. Thinking about it, philosophizing about it, building temples and formulating doctrines around it makes no difference. It cannot be avoided.

This is the holiday season and you may think me growing dark with talk of death. The season, no matter what you make of it, is supposed to be about birth and new beginnings. Consider the ancient Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn, Saturnalia. This holiday spanned December 17 through the 23rd and was associated with the “freeing of souls into immortality.” Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday which falls this time of year, is about celebrating liberation and finding light in the darkest of times. solsticeI read recently of a new archeological discovery in Great Britain. It was a neolithic structure with but just one window. This single window, strategically placed, afforded light to the room only one day a year, the winter solstice. (As you may know, yesterday was the winter solstice.) Regardless of the event, be it a Walmart blow-out Christmas sale, or a Druid celebration of the coming of the light, this is a time of year that has for as long as we know, afforded humankind an opportunity for reflection—and if you’re inclined, worship.

So reflect on the weeks of your life and how you’ve been chipping away at the average. How many of the four thousand do you think you may have left? How do you think you ought to experience them? The same as all the others? Or do you wish to change it up?

I am moved to these reflections by something I read recently in the book Figuring by the indomitable Maria Popova. “Questions of meaning are a function of human life,” she writes,

“…but they are not native to the universe itself—meaning is not what we find, but what we create with the lives we live and the seeds we plant and the organizing principles according to which we sculpt our personhood.”

The ancients built meaning and ritual into the universal occurrences of nature. Sadly, we have moved away from nature, think ourselves removed from and something other than born of nature. In the gap we’ve created, the ancient rituals have become rote and corrupted by commerce, politics, and indifference. I obviously don’t know how many of my hoped for 4000 weeks remain to me, but I take seriously my responsibility to use them wisely. I take seriously my responsibility to make something meaningful of them.

The laws of nature, including death, cannot be avoided, despite our inclinations to ignore and dismiss them. We are subject to the same laws as that which prompts the trees to shed the leaves, the river to freeze, the beloved to die—and still the sun will rise. As I said previously, I’m not someone who traditionally has practiced ritual or acknowledged the import of spirituality, however that may be defined. Frankly, I am comfortable leaving all that aside. Instead, I wish to focus on what is in front of me, life. I wish to focus on infusing what remains to me with meaning and meaningfulness. That is, perhaps, the nature of my faith, my ritual, my spiritual practice. I wish to turn my thought from death to this moment while I am still breathing. The light is coming, the room will be illuminated as the blue planet turns in compliance to the laws of nature. I am no different, subject as I am to that from which I was born. I must obey…

I hope you have a meaningful holiday season.

Recent Contemplations

In Family, Wisdom on December 8, 2018 at 8:00 am

Questions I’ve been contemplating recently * : 

  • What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?
  • What do you want your life to “stand for” or “be about”?
  • What would you most like your life to be remembered for after you’ve died?
  • What sort of thing do you most want to spend your life doing?
  • What sort of person do you most want to be in your various relationships and roles in life, e.g., as a parent, a friend, at work, and in life generally?

And this one, which really got me thinking:

  • If you had one opportunity to give advice to your child about life, what would you tell them is most important?

 I was discussing this last question with my daughter. She is a nurse, mother of two, wife–in other words a person who is very busy. She got up early this particular morning, went to the gym, then home to write in her journal before the kids got up. She had a good start on the day and her mood reflected it. Then it occurred to me, the advice I would share with my children: Get up early. To get up early is to exercise self-discipline. With self-discipline a life, like a day, begins to take shape and everything follows accordingly from there.

*Thanks to Donald Robertson and the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training program for these questions and many other thought-provoking notions.

 

Consumption Rejected

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Wisdom on November 23, 2018 at 8:00 am

It is Black Friday, our new national holiday.  Today we are encouraged to attend the Church of Eternal Retail and asked to take communion at the altar of consumption. I was once a dues paying member of this church. I sat in the pew up front, where the big consumers sit, the ones with fancy black cars and multiple properties. We were the ones who just came back from Europe, or some such place, leaving our trail of particulates behind us at 30,000 feet.

Then, slowly, things began to shift. Here’s how that happened.

One day I was walking my property, a large rectangle of many acres. Our house sat at the back, tucked against a state set-aside of several thousand acres. A nature preserve boarded the other side of our estate. We had a pool. And a pool house. You get the picture. As I walked through the woods deer sprinted in front of me. There was a fox den over by the creek. It was idyllic by any measure. But all that was lost on me on this particular morning. Instead my focus was on a tree that had come down in the last storm. And over there, I noticed a patch of poison ivy spreading unabated. And back by the house, I was obsessed by the weeds that returned week after week, despite the garden crew that plucked them every Friday afternoon. Then it hit me: The stuff I owned had somehow come to own me.

It was a simple, yet powerful, awakening. I was not the owner, but the owned, not master but slave. How did this happen? Simply put, success happened, as is measured conventionally. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself. But success can be a seduction. Odysseus had his crew put wax in their ears and ordered them to tie him to the mast. They were sailing past the Sirens and he wanted to hear their song, but not at the cost of casting himself into the ocean, or wreck his ship on the rocks. He was wise. Success was my siren song and I was whistling the tune. I didn’t have the wisdom to tie myself to the mast . Yet walking through the woods that day, I heard the crashing waves and took heed. A little wisdom came to me that morning and things began to change.

That was about ten years ago. It took time to turn the ship, but turn it we did. We got rid of everything–everything!–and purchased a 28’ Airstream trailer. We lived on the road for a year and a half. It was a study in minimalism. Consumption stopped. There was no place to put that new fleece. No reason to look at those new flat screen HD TVs. Marcus Aurelius wrote, “If you seek tranquility, do less…do less, better.” For me, it became, if you seek true freedom, own less, purchase less, have less–and be better for it. Be free.

So, on this day of national consumption, I exercise my new wisdom. I note with gratitude the path I ended and the new path I embarked on. I turn with appreciation to the few things I own and better cherish them for the scarcity. I reject the consumption that marks this day and embrace the eternal and lasting, as I understand it, wisdom, simplicity, and gratitude.

Flowing the Boulder

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on November 16, 2018 at 8:00 am

“…just because you’ve abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or                      great scientist, don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving                     others…”                                               ~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.67

I’m at a stage in life where everything seems in flux. At 63 you’d think it would be otherwise, that I’ve got it all figured out and am set in my ways. Yet, it is just the opposite and I am completely energized and excited by it. The flux. The fluidity of life. As Marcus Aurelius implies in the above quote, the flux affords one an opportunity to regroup, to explore, to stretch. The abandonment of one thing opens the door to something else. There is no vacuum, only flow.

Epictetus, the ancient Greek philosopher, had a metaphor to explain the workings of the universe and our place in it. We are like a dog tied to a moving wagon. We can resist the pull of the wagon and be dragged and choked. Or we can go along with it. We have the choice, though obviously there are limits. (You’re going with the wagon one way or another!)  There is a similar notion in Taoism. Consider the stream flowing gently down the mountainside. Eventually it comes upon a boulder. Does the stream conspire to move the boulder, to resist the boulder? No, it simply flows around it and carries on. I find that thought generates great humility.

Don’t give up, counsels Marcus. Don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving others. You might have to abandon what you set out to do, but that does not mean resignation. Indeed, the more I align with the flow the less resistant I am, the more freedom I realize–and that is the antithesis of resignation. Humility comes naturally as one opens to the stream of existence, as does energy.

When you come up against the boulder, flow around it.