Doug Bruns

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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.

 

Life Enhancements

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.

“…not of the world of me.”

In Adventure, Philosophy, Religion on November 10, 2015 at 6:11 pm

I had coffee with a friend last week, a novelist. I’d just read a draft of a new book he is working on. It’s a historical novel, set in the middle east in the fourth century. It deals with, among other things, the rise of the early Christian church. Although my friend was not aware of it, I know a thing or two about that place and time. I liked the book and was expressing my enthusiasm.

“You know,” I said, “the major world religions, those that were founded, came out of either the hot desert or the frozen mountains.” He looked at me intently. “And we know,” I opined, “that the desert breeds madness, and the mountains, isolation.” He said he’d never thought of it that way. But I had. “Nobody,” said Mohammed, “becomes a prophet who was not a shepherd first.”

There is that old adage that one is either a beach person or a mountain person. (I guess it’s like being either a dog or cat person.) In this context, perhaps one is either a desert believer or a mountain believer. I know my generalization is not entirely correct. The Buddha came out of the Gangetic plain, but his philosophy got the most lasting purchase at altitude. There’s no such thing as beach believers as far as I can tell, other than golden surfers, but that is a different strain of worship.

If pushed, I’d have to declare myself a mountain believer. That will come as no surprise. That is not to say, however, that I discount desert madness as a practice in insight. Not that one would want a steady diet of it–it didn’t turn out so well for John, the Baptist. It is no surprise that William James’s great work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is subtitled, A Study in Human Nature. Give me the mountains and what comes out of them, that is my nature. This is not to say that the desert doesn’t hold appeal. My first trip abroad as a young man found me eating with a family of Bedouins in the Sinai. If the desert was in the offing, I wanted to be on the move like those people.

Three years ago while hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal I came across a holy man living in a cave, attended to by his sister. I paid homage and received a blessing after making a small donation. His cave was filled with iconography and statues. Outside the wind roared; prayer flags flapped. I showed a picture to a friend. “That’s not what I expected,” he said. I think he was expecting something more like a cartoon in the New Yorker.

The isolation of the mountain believer can be dangerous. The Dalai Lama claims that his nation fell to the Chinese because the remoteness of the Tibetan Plateau had made them a backward country, to use his words. Perhaps. It is more likely the Chinese would have invaded regardless of the degree of modernity Tibet had achieved. But dangers persist, regardless, national and human.

Belief without empirical evidence is fundamentally an effort in delusion. I suspect the mystic would not argue with this, the madman wandering the desert with the wild beasts, the recluse scraping by in the mountain enclave. I am envious of such commitment. Go up Cold Mountain and find the great Taoist sage, Li Po: “You asked me what is my reason for lodging in the grey hills: I smiled but made no reply for my thoughts are idling on their own; like the flowers of the peach tree, they had sauntered off to other climes, to other lands that are not of the world of me.” Flowers of the peach tree, indeed.

The Ultimate Destination

In The Examined Life on March 29, 2013 at 6:00 am

I’ve said this before, but (I think) it’s important so I will say it again. (The older I get, the more inclined to repeating myself I become.) We think from left to right. That is, we think in terms of a lineal progression, we think in terms of becoming. In reading, the eye moves across the page, as, to our way of thinking, the life progresses along the line. I think this has not served us well. Like a ship in sight of the harbor, the process of becoming delivers us from open water and secures us to the dock. It is safe and we can relax. But security is a lie….

Wait, let me start over. Let’s consider the shop-worn adage, Life is about the journey, not the destination. Since the ultimate destination is–duh–death, we should take this advice to heart. To say that life is about the journey is another way of recognizing that life is to be realized in the present tense. That’s good. However…

Returning to what I said at the outset, this business of “becoming.” Something about becoming suggests destination. I am suspect of destination thinking. Stay out of the harbor. Sail on.

Let’s leave it there for now.

* * *

I have no grudge with technology. However, I believe our nature is fundamentally simple and consequently I more appreciate artifacts of our simplicity than products of our science. I have an unattributed quote in my Moleskine that speaks to this: “The only possessions we feel good about are our books.” It is, of course, hyperbole, but hyperbole has its place.

* * *

I mentioned previously the book I’m reading, the John Cage biography, Where the Heart Beats. Two hundred pages in, the young composer finds himself misunderstood, his avant guard music scorned. He grows close to despair, questioning the very motive of writing music. Then Cage tells the following story:

“Two monks came to a stream. One was Hindu, the other Zen. The Indian began to cross the stream by walking on the surface of the water. The Japanese became excited and called to him to come back. ‘What’s the matter,’ said the Indian said. The Zen monk said, ‘That’s not the way to cross the stream. Follow me.’ He led him to a place where the water was shallow and they waded across.”

In other words, you have to do the work.

* * *

The Encyclopedia of Philosphy

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I noted in a past post that my landlord was putting a new roof on the building, that my five-floor walk-up studio-office was subject to pounding and dust, disturbing both Lucy and me. Last week, while finishing the roof–slate, lots of it–we had rain and a wee bit trickled through the roof-top work and leaked into my place. It fell directly onto a stack of topographical maps collected on a crossbeam. The Little Bigelow Mtn. 7.5′ Quadrangle map took the brunt of it. What I today discovered, however, is that volume 1 and 2 of my eight volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy, also got wet. This is a pity.

Opened to the page of most damage we find the entry for “Culture and Civilization.” Despite the now warped pages, the entry begins:

“The word ‘civilization’ was derived from an actual social condition, that of the citizen (Latin, civis). The word ‘culture’ in its social, intellectual, and artistic senses is a metaphorical term derived from the act of cultivating the soil (Latin, cultura)….The cultivation of the mind was seen as a process comparable to the cultivation of the soil; hence, the early meanings of ‘culture,’ in this metaphorical sense, centered on a process; the culture of the mind,’ rather than an achieved state.”

To circle back to the beginning: cultivation is the journey, no matter the quality of the soil. Just do the work.

* * *

Two quotes, coming to my attention within two days of each other:

“I do not believe in God. But I am not an atheist.” ~ Albert Camus

and

“All is God and there is no God.” ~ D.T. Suzuki

* * *

I leave you with that. Make of it what you can. Have a nice weekend and thanks for visiting “…the house…”

d

Snow Under Boot

In Nature, Philosophy, Writers on March 18, 2013 at 6:00 am

The Maine Woods

The Maine Woods

We still have snow here in places, especially in the north, and certainly in the woods where the pine-tree canopy  shades the forest floor. I took a little hike yesterday and there is nothing like a crunching late-season snow, blue-bird sky, and scent of pine to fine-tune a person.

Not a lot came of this fine-tuning and maybe that is the best result of all. Maybe a walk in the woods should remain largely and exactly that: a walk in the woods. As Thoreau relates in his essay, Walking, “When a traveller asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, ‘Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.'”

In anther essay–to me, his most important, Life Without Principal–Thoreau writes:

“If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”

Two paragraphs above this passage, the sage of Walden, invites us to “consider the way in which we spend our lives.”

_____________

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Library of America, Thoreau

I brought my copy of Thoreau to my desk this afternoon because I wanted to say something about activism to perhaps refute my comment of last week, “We have mostly rolled over.” I wanted to suggest that perhaps we have not, indeed, rolled over, now that I think more on it. I brought Henry David with me because he usually has guidance when I most need it. I was certain he would point the way in his essay Civil Disobedience. But I never made it there, lost instead in my reverie of a walk in the woods.

And as you can see, I found his guidance, just not the guidance I expected. He would approve, nonetheless, I think.

Sunday Repost: …the american dog tick…

In Books, Dogs, Nature, Reading, Travel on March 10, 2013 at 5:00 am

Yuck. The American Deer Tick

Yuck. The Tick

According to the University of Maine web site, there are three types of ticks found in Maine: the deer tick, the american dog tick and the brown dog tick. I looked it up. I was curious, having just pulled five ticks off of my body. Those are the ones I found before the shower, discovered under my clothes. I found at least as many on my clothes before leaving the trail. I pulled I don’t know how many off Maggie. It was a lot.

Neighbors Mike and Wendy invited me on a hike this morning. Carole is out of town and I think they felt sorry for me. I’ll take a little pity for company every so often, so I opted in. They brought their dogs and off we went. It wasn’t a difficult hike, flat along a tributary of the Fore River, through the woods. We passed a small white pine grove and I stopped to inhale deeply. I told Mike and Wendy that one of my favorite things in all the world is the smell of pine in Maine. That is not an exaggeration.

There are about 50 miles of trails in Portland, developed and maintained by the non-profit Portland Trails organization. That is an admirable endeavor. I use the trails frequently and as I write this I realize that I have not supported the organization. I will rectify that immediately. I won’t even hold them responsible for the tick infestation of this morning.

* * *

I got Lyme Disease a few years ago. Tick bite. Carole and I were in Spain, had rented a car and planned on a few weeks of

Gilbraulter

Gibraltar

exploring the country. We’d made our way down to Gibraltar–yes, I know, not properly part of Spain–and I wasn’t feeling particularly well. But I wasn’t so sick as to miss my morning run, however, and headed off toward the southern point of the peninsula. Looking across the Strait of Gibraltar, I could not but think of the history that had passed through that narrow stretch of water. I thought of Nelson getting shot at the Battle of Trafalgar, his body stuffed into a brandy cask, and returned to Britain. “Hardy,” Nelson said, kneeling, then falling onto the deck, “I do believe they have done it at last… my backbone is shot through.” I thought of the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, the Greeks and the Minoans, all sailing this straight, toying with the unknown vastness on the other side. The sun was coming up across the water, orange light rising on the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. I had to walk back to our hotel. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d come abroad incubating a case of Lyme Disease.

We canceled our adventure and drove to Benalmádena, on the coast. We found a cheap room on the beach, a place with a cabana. The only book I had with me was the Library of America edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, including Last of the Mohicans. I don’t remember how long we stayed. I recall sleeping a great deal under the thatched cabana roof, the warm breeze, and the breaking waves. I recall, waking and reading Cooper, then nodding off again–repeat. I read all the Leatherstocking Tales on that beach in Spain. I also experienced my only migraine, though I don’t think there is any correlation.

Lyme disease can best be detected by a tick bite that manifests a rash, usually as a ring around the bite, though I don’t remember any such rash. They say a tick can go a year without a blood meal. I think that is especially interesting, though the words blood meal make me uneasy.