Doug Bruns

Search for “happiness”

How to Think

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.

 

A Ballet of Photons

In Dogs, Life, The Examined Life on November 26, 2015 at 3:49 pm
Sunrise Pano

Sunrise, Casco Bay

The pummeling started at sunrise. I was in my chair, sipping my coffee. I didn’t see it coming, but who would? At 186,000 miles per second, it’s easy to miss. Then it began, rushing across the frozen vacuum of space, at the speed at light, across the Atlantic, caressing the turning curve of earth, dodging the coastal islands of Maine, zipping across Casco Bay, then–bam!–photons of light crashing against the resistance of my cheek, first a trickle, then a cascade. It does not take long, the earth turning to the warmth like a hungry animal chasing prey. Within minutes the room is filled with light, dancing and spinning, a photon ballet for an audience of one. And the day begins.

If language is the bridge between reality and thought, as Wittgenstein claimed, I was rendered mute on this particular morning. This state of attention without the intrusion of cognition is actually quite pleasant, and one I welcome into meditation practice. It is also a state of presence I experience on occasion while working hard, like hiking in the mountains. “What I wish for now,” wrote Camus, late in life, “is no longer happiness but simply awareness.” I’ve been known to study my dogs to try and discern if this is their natural state. It seems to be the case, dogs being pure beings of presence, at least to my mind.

Why is the firing squad mustered at dawn? Why does the raiding party prepare in darkness to raid the enemy at first light? Of the handful of mountains I’ve climbed, the summit was always saved for sunrise. There is magic in the sound of snow crunched below boot in the twilight before dawn. And of course, vampires must return to the coffin before the sun comes up, or they die. Or so goes the legend. There is something extraordinary about the dawn of a new day no matter how you look at it.

My daughter dated a young man for a while who often slept until noon. I found this an affront on nature and my attitude toward him reflected it. He was a decent guy otherwise, though too often he helped himself to too much of my whisky, a lesser offense.

I’ve written often here about my love of morning, so I apologize if I’ve spent too much time on this subject. But here’s the thing: This ballet of photons has been going on for billions of years. It will continue on in this fashion for, presumably, billions more. That I occasionally participate in this cosmic dance never ceases to amaze me. It is Thanksgiving, and this is one of the things I am grateful for.

Matters of Importance

In Life, The Examined Life on September 2, 2014 at 6:08 am

I live for this time of year, the beginning of fall, the end of summer, my least favorite season. Fall, and behind it, winter, give me permission to be my real self, the self that likes the dark, the cold, and the comfort of the hearth. A few years ago I swiped my inner cheek and sent the sample to a lab. They reported that my DNA concentration rested somewhere in Northern Europe, thirty degrees north longitude or so in Sweden or Norway or some such place. It is highly likely that nationalistic geography wasn’t a factor when my dark ancestors were mixing the blood and semen and sparking the gray matter that would eventually become the stuff of me. That might explain the draw to places dark and cool, if not cold–hence my happiness at the season’s homecoming.

A boat passed under my kitchen window while I prepared dinner last evening. I looked up from my cutting board. According to the stern, the boat’s name was Carpe Diem. Seize the Day–a common admonition among those given to easy motivation. I am by nature suspect of simple perspectives. Of course, seizing the day is better than letting it crash over you mindlessly. But it is more my nature to simply be ready, to be prepared for the day’s presentations as best I am able. That seems the better nature of things. One does not seize the fragile butterfly.

Aside from my comments above, it has been a good summer. There was time spent in wilderness, not enough perhaps, but sufficient to take the edge off. Too, significant advances were made toward matters of importance: reading, thinking, time spent with people I love, dogs on the run, and breathtaking sunrises. That’s the stuff of the last breath, the stuff I hope will rest with me when all the other stuff turns to ash.

Corners of My Mind

In Religion, Writers, Writing on February 26, 2013 at 6:00 am

It was supposed to snow last night. I was to wake to half a foot of powder. Instead it rained all night. Mud Season is officially upon us here in Maine. Eliot was close. April might be cruel, but February sucks.

* * *

“A line is a single dot set in motion.” I don’t know who said this, but given to metaphor as I am, I think it is weighted with meaning to be extracted. It doesn’t require a lot of effort to suggest that life, a single dot, can either remain as a period on the page, or can be drawn across it, stretched to the margins. Experience the line, set the dot in motion.

* * *

“I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” That’s John Stuart Mill. I recall reading somewhere that as a young man trained as a classicist, Mill developed the ability to write Greek with his right hand while simultaneously writing Latin with his left–or perhaps other way around. No matter. Fitzgerald said the superior mind is one in which two opposing thoughts can be held at the same time. Mill obviously slam-dunks that observation. I said in a previous post that Peter Matthiessen is on record as expressing his life-long goal to not necessarily simplify his life, but to simplify his self. Mill and Matthiessen, two provocative ways of saying the same thing.

* * *

It is said that all the great religions are born in the desert. Deserts are thirsty places. There is madness in the sands and perhaps madness is a stop on the highway to the divine. I’d add that the mountains too, have a potency. If I were a religious man I’d seek my guru above tree-line. But I am a woodsman and only pagans fill their spirits among the pines and oaks. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” said my guru.

* * *

I recently finished George Saunders’s The Tenth of December. Earlier in the year, the New York Time’s Magazine sported a front cover declaring, “George Saunders just wrote the best book you’ll read this year.”  There is no better PR a writer could wish for. I found Saunders on Facebook and “friended” him. I wrote, “I just finished The Tenth of December. It is like dancing through a field by moonlight only to realize at dawn that the field is mined.” He accepted my friend request and thanked me for the comment, calling it apt. I find it equally refreshing, remarkable, and revelatory that a writer of his stature has a Facebook presence. Have we turned a corner?

Here’s a short clip from Saunders’s recent visit with Charlie Rose:

* * *

Thanks for reading. I don’t say often enough how much I appreciate your support.

D

Valentine’s Day

In Writers on February 14, 2013 at 6:00 am
Antique Valentine's Day Card (1909)

,  Antique Valentine’s Day Card (1909)

I am by nature dismissive toward the artifacts of mass consumption, no matter the form. This means, among other things, that I have a low tolerance for holidays, national celebrations, observances, and mass ritual. It is not only the big stuff. I also shun birthdays, anniversaries, and those annoying “holidays” manufactured solely to extract money from one’s wallet. Valentine’s Day is no different, but falling as it does on a day when the micro-essay (read: blog post) is a hard time in coming, I think, with this little preamble (hoping I’ve not cast too dark a shadow on your day of cupidic celebration), I’ll move over and let the big guns do the talking. Have a nice day.

________________________

Compliments of The Writer’s Almanac here are three literary Valentine’s Day missives:

Nathaniel Hawthorn to his wife, Sophia, on the first anniversary of their marriage:

“We were never so happy as now — never such wide capacity for happiness, yet overflowing with all that the day and every moment brings to us. Methinks this birth-day of our married life is like a cape, which we have now doubled and find a more infinite ocean of love stretching out before us.”

And this, especially tender love letter from James Joyce to his beloved Nora:

“You are my only love. You have me completely in your power. I know and feel that if I am to write anything fine or noble in the future I shall do so only by listening to the doors of your heart. … I love you deeply and truly, Nora. … There is not a particle of my love that is not yours. … If you would only let me I would speak to you of everything in my mind but sometimes I fancy from your look that you would only be bored by me. Anyhow, Nora, I love you. I cannot live without you. I would like to give you everything that is mine, any knowledge I have (little as it is) any emotions I myself feel or have felt, any likes or dislikes I have, any hopes I have or remorse. I would like to go through life side by side with you, telling you more and more until we grew to be one being together until the hour should come for us to die. Even now the tears rush to my eyes and sobs choke my throat as I write this. Nora, we have only one short life in which to love. O my darling be only a little kinder to me, bear with me a little even if I am inconsiderate and unmanageable and believe me we will be happy together. Let me love you in my own way. Let me have your heart always close to mine to hear every throb of my life, every sorrow, every joy.”

Here is Zelda Fitzgerald, writing her husband:

“I look down the tracks and see you coming — and out of every haze & mist your darling rumpled trouser are hurrying to me — Without you, dearest dearest, I couldn’t see or hear or feel or think — or live — I love you so and I’m never in all our lives going to let us be apart another night. It’s like begging for mercy of a storm or killing Beauty or growing old, without you.

Lover, Lover, Darling — Your Wife”

Thanks for reading.

d

A Little Recompense.

In Death, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on February 4, 2013 at 6:00 am

The loss of my friend Michael is proving difficult. I observe that I cannot fully discern the undercurrents of emotion in the immediate. The deepest current is revealed slowly, a bit at a time. To paraphrase Tolstoy, we are joyous in the collective, but can only realize sorrow alone.

I am reminded of a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, who upon learning of the death of one of his monk disciples, broke down and wept. His students were shocked, expecting that the Lama would be above such stark emotionalism. He was, after all, living a life of purposeful un-attachment. “But I miss him,” replied the tearful Lama with beautiful simplicity. Perhaps a part of us thinks that others more enlightened, more wise, have learned a fashion of dealing with grief that will guide us. But I don’t think so. We can seek and find comfort, certainly, however ultimately we sit as the Lama sat and can only say, “I miss him.”

The Stoics devised mind games and mental tricks to jog our thoughts out of grief, but acknowledged that, in the main, we are impotent in our efforts to control our emotions. This lack, they held, as well as the human tendency to ignore the present moment, is what thwarts consistent human happiness. A Stoic behaves like the strong man who tenses his stomach muscles and invites a punch. But grief sneaks up and throws a fist before we have a chance of bracing for it. Despite that, I like Seneca‘s approach to dealing with matters out of his control. He was asthmatic, and attacks brought him close to death on several occasions. But he learned to treat each attack philosophically. While gasping for breath, he would release himself into the attack, saying yes to it. He would think himself dying from it, giving himself up to it, almost willing it. And when it receded he enjoyed the strength of winning the battle. He had defeated fear. This, I acknowledge, is little recompense in the face of grief. But it is something.

Likewise, Montaigne, upon losing his dear friend, La Boétie, creatively embraced his grief, declaring that when “a painful notion takes hold of me; I find it quicker to change it than to subdue it.” Thus he spun the dross of grief into threads of gold. It is not an overstatement to say that his great literary contribution, The Essays, resulted directly from the loss of La Boétie. In his great essay, Of Friendship, Montaigne famously writes

If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.

And though history is grateful at the monumental effort that is The Essays, such a creative response did not assuage fully Montaigne’s grief. Indeed, eighteen years later, while traveling abroad, he wrote in his diary, “This same morning, writing to Monsier d’Ossat, I was overcome by such painful thoughts about Monsieur de La Boétie, and I was in this mood so long, without recovering, that it did me much harm.”

The difficulty of my philosophy is that I shall not choose when to be present and when to run. How can one fully realize what human existence holds, if when it deals you a blow, you turn away? When I sat down at breakfast with Michael two weeks ago, the first words out of his mouth were, “I’m leading the examined life!” It was in this fashion he declared himself a member of our tribe. He would, I know, be the first to reprimand me if I turned away.