Doug Bruns

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

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.

 

 

A Lesson in Three Wishes

In Travel, Wisdom on July 23, 2017 at 8:00 am

I learned a few things while living on the road these last fifteen months. They are simple things that I think I’d learned previously but had forgotten. That is one thing travel does well, it shifts the course of things if you let it, revealing both old and new.

The sun comes up in the morning and goes down in the evening. Likewise, the day will pass of its own accord. These things occur naturally regardless of one’s plans. While traveling, I found myself frequently summarizing, “Well, another day that took care of itself.” Travel without an agenda is liberating this way. It is less an experience of managing a day and more a realization of the day’s flow.  I wish to make my life more flow, less managing.

Do less. I borrow from Marcus Aurelius on this one:

“If you seek tranquility, do less. Do what’s essential. Do less, better.”

Travel days were best when we did something, but not everything. We did less, but we did it better. It falls into the realm of better understanding one’s nature. If you have some insight into your nature, exploit it. You don’t have to swing for the fences every time, but nurture what works for you. We fell into a natural rhythm on this trip, a gentle flow of following our curiosity. I wish to make my life less wide, but deeper in this way.

We spent a good bit of time in rural America, on back roads and in little towns. The people we met were for the most part kind and warm. But rural America is a hard place. Too often I found myself in judgement, in judgement of the powerful forces at work that make for such hardship; and, honestly, too often in judgement of the people subjected to such challenges. I was a blue traveler in a red country. And what to make of that? Smile. Say thank you. Be pleasant. Listen well. Look a person in the eye. The web of existence links us all. I wish to remember and better practice that.

 

 

How best to think.

In Happiness, Philosophy on January 26, 2017 at 7:13 pm

Cardiff, Ca

I was walking the beach this morning when I heard a woman talking behind me. Her voice grew increasingly loud and strained.  I turned and saw a runner. She was having a conversation on her phone. A few minutes later another runner passed me. I could hear music leaking from his ear buds. I used to run. I was a runner. I was not a runner on a phone. I was not a runner listening to music. I ran with all the focus and concentration I could muster. Running was the training of the body, concentration the training of the mind. Our minds are difficult things, flitting here and there.  A monkey swinging from branch to branch. Getting it under some fashion of control, bringing focus to our mind, is no small matter. If you are going to run. Run. If you are going to hold a conversation respect the other person and give them your full attention. It appears that everyone is interested in mindfulness these days. You don’t have to be sitting on a cushion to practice it. Concentrate. Focus. Please, we need our wits about us. The world is scrambled enough. Be a force of concentration.

* * *

Carole and I were having lunch at a nice restaurant yesterday. We sat at the bar. Behind us a man called for his waitress. He complained that there was a lemon in his water. He did not ask for a lemon in his water. He wanted it removed from the table immediately. It was a moment when an elder of a prior generation would have turned and said, “Shut up and drink it, you entitled bastard. There are children dying of thirst in Africa.” I listened, feeling as if I was in an alternate universe. “Oh my god,” the waitress said. She was dressed in black, head to toe. “I’m so sorry. And, like, I totally brag about our water too.” Alternate universe indeed.

* * *

“A man is as miserable as he thinks he is.” That is Seneca, the Stoic. He was an adviser to Nero. Eventually Nero went nuts on him, as despots do. Nero ordered Seneca to kill himself. He did, but not before botching the effort multiple times. The ancient philosophy of Stoicism is having a moment. There have been articles on Stoicism recently in the The New York Times (“How to be a Stoic“), the Guardian (“How Would the Stoics Cope Today?“), and The New Yorker (also titled, “How to be a Stoic“). Several new books about it are due. A sign of the times perhaps? Back to Seneca. If  one is as miserable as he or she thinks, does it not conversely follow that one is as happy as he or she thinks they are? If you’ve spent any time here at “…the house…” you know the theme: How best to live? The better turn of thought, however, is not how to live, but how to think. Figure that out and everything else follows. Ancient philosophers were judged not only on the philosophy they proclaimed, but also the life they lived. The life of the mind, measured as a function of existence. It is a refreshing thought in these troubling days, the evidence of disciplined intelligence as manifested in one’s life. Sadly, it seems a curiously unique notion.

Merry Christmas, Friends

In Dogs, Memoir, Travel on December 25, 2016 at 7:56 pm

There was a surprising number of people at the trailhead this Christmas morning. Some of them wished me a Merry Christmas, which I returned. A few simply nodded and smiled. It was a beautiful morning, crisp and clear. Yesterday’s rain in the valley dropped as snow in the Catalina’s in front of me. These are rugged mountains, not particularly tall, but jagged and naked. Over the ridge is a Bighorn sheep refuge and dogs are not allowed. So Lucy and I kept just shy of that. I had her tethered to me by a rope I’d stowed in the truck. I’ve kept her leashed in this manner since coyotes paraded through camp two days ago, heads down, eyes glancing here and there, totally insolent and bold. It’s a long rope and she gets to sprint every so often, as is her nature, while I have the comfort of keeping her safe. A month or two ago, it was in Colorado, I think, she was off leash and lost to my sight when I saw a big eight-point buck come storming out of a little copse of woods down by the water. Lucy was giving chase. She was easy to spot, a little black dog against the white field of snow. The buck wisely headed up hill and Lucy’s short legs soon gave out on her. She has the heart of a giant but the body of a simple dog.

I’ve had dogs all my life and I’ve written about them here plenty. Where it not for my dogs I would probably not have the morning walks. It’s as simple as that. And my morning walks are close to a fashion of prayer for me. I guess, if logic holds, my dogs have been personal prophets, pointing a way, sparking a thought, instilling wonder. Before Lucy was Maggie, and before her, Cleo, and Punkin before that–all assured of my morning attention, thankfully. Emerson said of Thoreau that his thought and writing was in direct proportion to the length of his daily walk. Thoreau himself claimed a need of at least four hours of sauntering. He called it sauntering which I particularly appreciate. He did not need a dog to make him get up and get going, but then he was a different type of human being altogether. Me, I prefer the companionship of my dog. I am never far from the thought that they, my beloved canines, are rushing through life by a factor of seven. Such future sadness is, for me, a motivation to remember each morning and moment.

Two mornings ago I hiked up to ruins left behind by the indigenous people of this valley fifteen hundred years ago. When the sun crested the ridge the plateau came alive. Birds sang around me. The sun suddenly warmed to the point I took off my down jacket. The morning light turned from steel grey to warm amber. I don’t go to church but if I did it would have to be like this, out of doors and without doctrine, pure and undefiled. These people, the ones who existed here, I’m told, had to make multiple trips down to the valley each day to get water and forage for food. I’m sure their existence was hard and my morning ritual would have been lost on them. Modern existence is not without challenges but the rudiments of existence, for most us, have been addressed and for that I am grateful. Merry Christmas, friends.

“You will think of old men.”

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Wisdom on August 7, 2016 at 8:18 pm

It is commonly accepted that one should strive to “live in the now,” to “be present.” I don’t dispute this wisdom. There is a great deal of distraction in life and given enough rein, distraction will eventually snuff out the vibrancy that is life itself. Memories, it seems to me, are often put into the category of distraction. “Oh, she’s living the in past.” Or, “All he has left are his memories.” I am probably universally wrong on this, but it seems to me that we have been trained to keep our memories at arm’s length, that in some fashion memories are guilty pleasures that we are wrong to enjoy. The Proustian in me says, that is bull shit.

I sit this evening in the mountains of Colorado. The air is chill, even though it is August. Indeed, it is growing cold. I am outside and remembering summers past. I look through old notes and read old blog posts to jog my memory. Sometimes I feed memory like sometimes I pour myself a second bourbon. I know I shouldn’t–there’s that guilty pleasure–but I do because I want to. Tonight I am thinking of Maine on a summer evening and I miss it, even though this afternoon I photographed an elk with a five foot antler span.

I dreamt of my father last night and that is a form of memory, I think. I suspect experts know better, but I’ll not be dissuaded. Regardless, I have dreamt of my parents more often than not these days, certainly more than when they were alive. I have no idea what that means. But again, if that is a fashion of memory, then I embrace it. Is part of growing old the breaking down of resistance to reflect on the past with nostalgia? Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos, for return home. That seems at the core of many things.

No doubt these thoughts are sparked by four months on the road with no prospect of returning home any time soon. My father used to say that a certain place felt like home. He never said, as best as I can recall, that such and such a place was home. He desired to return to his roots, though he did not have a complete understanding as to what such a place was. He was eternally restless in such matters and I am restless too. To use a word my mother used, He was discombobulated. I am somewhat discombobulated too.

I was reading Seneca today. “The fool with all his other faults is always getting ready to live.” A bit further on he continues: “…you will think of old men who are preparing themselves at that very hour for a political career, or for travel, or for business. And what is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old?” What is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old? I’ve read through this section repeatedly and cannot fully parse where he’s coming from. Yet, it seems to address this business of growing older and the attendant restlessness that I’ve noted. The wisdom of Seneca has withstood the ages so I’m going to give him the nod on this one. Yet it seems contrary, don’t you think? I suspect the old stoic would accept the fact in the mirror: You’re old. Face it. You’re not going to start getting ready to live.

It seems a curse of modern times that we are prompted to embrace eternal youth. Surgery, drugs, yoga, trophy spouses, fast cars, money, whatever–all seem to be evidence toward this notion. You’re not old, sixty is the new forty. I am sixty. I am not young, yet, with deference to Seneca,  I still occasionally throw out a scheme or plan to do something new. Today, in fact, Carole and I discussed living in a foreign country and learning its language. We went down to Boulder, a college town, and I talked about getting more education, or perhaps teaching something or other. What is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old? Tomorrow I am going to spend the morning fishing the Big Thompson, here in the high Rockies. That is not getting ready to live; that is living. Seneca would give me a wink, I think. Maybe I get it after all.

The View of Everest

In Adventure, Memoir, Nature, The Examined Life on January 31, 2016 at 9:30 am

I used to live in a house deep in the woods. Our bedroom had a vaulted ceiling and there were no blinds or curtains on the windows. We had no neighbors, there was no need. They were tall beautiful windows that spanned from almost floor to ceiling peak. Our bedroom was situated such that from my morning pillow I could, without twisting my head, look out the windows and see trees. I used to lie there and think that seeing my trees from my deathbed would be a perfect finish to a life well lived. I’ve since sold the house and moved on and my deathbed scene will have to be revised accordingly.

Last night, after taking Lucy on her last-of-day walk, I passed through our bedroom here in Maine and noticed the dappling of the night lights reflecting off the water and onto our bedroom ceiling. This too, like the trees, is something I can see from my morning pillow without effort. I notice it most every morning and it always makes me happy, like waking up on a boat in nice weather must make one.

I saw the movie The Revenant this week and in it there is a scene  where Leonardo DiCaprio‘s character is befriended by a native, an Indian who has lost his family to a renegade tribe. At one point the two of them sit under the night sky, leaning against a small tree, and stare into space. The scene goes on a long while, long enough for me to ask myself: When was the last time you pondered the night sky without distraction?

Last year, you may recall, I traveled to Nepal to trek to Everest Base Camp. Our adventure came to a halt, high in the mountains, ten miles from Everest, due to the earthquake. A week or so before that event we stopped for the night in Tengboche, deep in the Khumbu Valley. From there we had a view of Everest. That night I went to bed in a corner room of the hostel. There was a window over my head, through which I could see Everest with the light of the moon reflecting off of it. It was a terribly cold night and I burrowed deep into my sleeping bag. Then I heard voices and, propped on my elbow, looked out the window where I observed a couple of fellow trekkers. They were standing in the field below my window, wearing puffy coats, and moving back and forth like those who are really cold will do. They were staring at the illumined mountain. Immediately, I was ashamed, ashamed that I was in my bag and not outside in the high Himalayas appreciating the night sky and the great mountains. But try as I might, I could not muster the discipline to get my sorry backside out of my warm sleeping bag. Eventually I drifted off to sleep. To this day and for all days to come, I will regret that. I will regret that I rolled over and ignored the call of that night. We returned through Tengboche after the earthquake. The corner room was gone, collapsed in the quake.

So it is, that I pay special attention to what I see before I fall off to sleep, and what I notice when I first wake up.