Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Authenticity’

“What does your spiritual life look like?”

In Philosophy, Religion on September 9, 2021 at 12:58 pm
Turquoise Lake, Colorado, elevation 10,400’ Photo by the author.

“Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?”

~ Henry David Thoreau

A couple weeks ago while sitting quietly in contemplation overlooking an alpine lake a woman approached and asked, “What does your spiritual life look like?” There were a few utterances between us leading up to this most personal—and frankly, interesting—question. We had exchanged comments on the mountain landscape, the weather, and she had noticed and asked about my journal. Perhaps that prompted the question. Later in the conversation I discovered that she was Evangelical. Perhaps that is the leading question one asks when in the business of saving souls. I attempted to answer her sincerely. “My spiritual practice,” I said, “is an effort to be more dog like and less human like.” She raised her hand to her mouth and smiled. I continued. “Dogs,” I said, “are curious, brave, faithful, and most importantly, without ego.” She listened politely. “They live in the present moment, fully alive. These are all attributes I seek to embody.” She saw that I was serious. My response to her question did not deter her from her mission. “Do you know Jesus?” she asked. From there the conversation progressed down that tired and well-worn path of how to be saved, how to not go to hell, and all the rest of that business.

I am a rational human being. Though my intellectual life has drawn me to the philosophical, my outlook is scientific, hard-edged and pragmatic. Ask me a question and my mind will likely turn first toward an evolutionary response. For example, ask about friendship and I’ll tell you about Richard Dawkins’s theory of the selfish gene. When a young family member asks me about rocks and minerals I tell her about the Big Bang and the life of planet earth. So, given all this, why do I have, or rather, why do I seek to have, a spiritual life? Though they are not necessarily opposing forces, a scientific outlook and a spiritual outlook are often at odds. History bears this out, as does biography.

The woman continued, asking me what I thought happens when one dies. I asked her what happens to the light from a candle when it is snuffed out? “So that’s it,” she said, “it just all ends?” She was incredulous. I told her that it’s not a question a dog would ask and smiled. Likewise, the Buddha advised against such questions, citing that the absence of answers makes for a fruitless effort. Why bother with such endless questions when life is in front of you waiting for you to live it? Interestingly, in the absence of answers to such questions, why even pursue a spiritual life?

Because of the itch.

I do not subscribe to the notion that there is something more than what is apparent to us. Nor do I dismiss it. Rather, I side-step the question and focus on what is in front of me. This seems the core of my spiritual practice. If current advances in cognitive science help me better in this practice, then so be it. I will study accordingly. If ancient wisdom provides a path to such a goal, then that works too. I am an opportunist. Philosophically I’m a pragmatist. If it works, it’s true. If there is something more, fine, if not, so be it, that’s fine also.

At the center of all this is the itch, an incessant little tension deep inside pushing for more. No matter one’s life outlook if there is the itch, a process is engaged by which one attempts to scratch it. In my experience, not everyone is plagued by the itch, the unsettling whisper,  inarticulate yet familiar, to mix a metaphor. I see it as the itch to be fully alive, to taste experience deeply and directly; to be true to a sense of self, yet aware that even the notion of self is fraught and mysterious. To be authentic, to put it in Sartrean  terms. These are the artifacts of the itch.

The conversation flowed. The woman talked about faith. In her scheme of things faith holds center court, the place from which all things flow. “But here’s the problem,” I countered, “faith is the death of curiosity. Faith is the acceptance of something which cannot be accepted otherwise, cannot be explained nor understood rationally. Consequently curiosity meets its demise at the onset of faith.” I will not assume certitude based on an unchallenged wish, which seems the mechanics of faith. My friend didn’t like that, but she accepted it. I’ve thought about this quite a good bit over the years, the tension between curiosity and faith. Frankly, I am somewhat envious of those who feel faith deeply. That must seem a place of rest. However, I’ve also noticed that the faithful seem staid and complacent in the face of what I feel to be the one and only big question worth considering, “What does a true life, well-lived, look like?” To that question, my curiosity will never be sated. Ultimately, that is the itch that cannot be scratched.

To the woman my spiritual life appeared misguided and empty. There was no God in my scheme of things, no faith, no savior, no heaven or hell. She respected the fact that as a younger man, a curious aspiring scholar, I’d read the Gospels in the original Greek, that as a student of history I’d traveled to the Middle East to see first hand the land that gave birth to the Abrahamic traditions. She acknowledged that I was sincere and appreciated my respect towards those who saw the world differently. I had done my homework and she recognized it. Ultimately, however, she could not grasp a world-view so different from her own. I get that. It’s not everyday you encounter a human being practicing to be a dog.

Authenticity, and other over-used words.

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on November 24, 2019 at 9:00 am

I heard recently, during the current impeachment hearings, someone accuse so-and-so of “lacking authenticity.” It caught my ear. Several years ago I was deeply hung-up in the pursuit of authenticity, or at least a workable explanation of what truly it is. Eventually I walked away, vowing never to use the word again. It seemed too much a rabbit hole. The accusation I’d heard on the news suggested that authenticity was a default setting, that human beings were naturally authentic in our dealings and projections and designs, that the individual in question lacked this natural human state. That is not how I see it, particularly in this age of Instagramed lives and curated online personalities. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I’ve spent a good bit of the last couple of years reading and studying the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Among the many things I find appealing about these thinkers is their practicality. Their’s was a workable philosophy. They were, above all, interested in how to live, how to enjoy what they called the Good Life. The good life was not a life of materialistic pursuit, as we might think today. Rather, it was a life framed around the pursuit of tranquility, a life that flourished, a way of moving in the world that was harmonious with others and with, most importantly, nature. That is the good life and they were dogged in the pursuit of it. To that end they reasoned that a human being, if he or she is to enjoy the good life, must develop a handful of attributes, exercise them, and never let them go. What they were talking about was leading a life of virtue.  Not long later the Christians incorporated this notion into their new religion. The Christian Scholastics of the middle ages later developed a dogmatism around the virtues that lingers to this day. It can be hard to get around that for some people when considering virtue.

Depending on which school of ancient philosophy you subscribed to the number of virtues, four, six, ten, and so on, varied. The Stoics, for example, had four. Aristotle had eleven. I want to focus on a shared virtue among the schools: Courage.

For the ancients, courage was a given. Hand to hand combat, invasions, sacking and plundering, common violence—demands upon the individual such that courage was required to simply survive. That is a definition of courage upon which we can all agree. But there is a notion more subtle also at work here, the courage to live. And with that aspect of courage, we circle back to authenticity. To live fully, to live the good life is to live with courage and in doing so, a life of authenticity begins to develop.

Courage from the Latin “cor”, heart

Not surprisingly, the word courage derives from the Latin for heart, cor. “That player has heart,” is not an unusual comment to hear in the arena of sports. It connotes a depth of character that speaks to drive, fearlessness, and commitment of pursuit. Consider Thoreau, for instance. Writing about his Walden project, he said, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” To summarize Thoreau, courage is the first and most important thing he learned by living close to nature. That is what I mean by the phrase, courage to live, advancing confidently. I encourage you to read the last chapter of Walden, Conclusion. There is no better writing about courage than you’ll find there.

The barriers to courage, and subsequently to a life of authenticity, are not difficult to find. “How deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!” wrote Thoreau in that last chapter. I touched on this in my last essay, that is, the cultural pressures to be something other than individually realistic. It takes courage to resist the modern trappings which often lead to herd life, herd life being the antithesis of the good life. That is not to say modern life cannot afford us opportunity for a courageous life of authenticity. Indeed, the more ubiquitous is herd life, the more opportunity there is for one to stand tall courageously and authentically.

* * *

I would be remiss if I failed to consider a mistaken notion of modern authenticity. There is a current stream of thinking which suggests that authenticity is an excuse for incivility, for rudeness, and crass comments. “He can’t help himself, he has no filter, he’s totally authentic.” Really? I don’t think so. True authenticity is a manifestation of courageous self-knowledge. As such, by definition, a natural harmony is set into play–that is, if you’re following the path the ancients laid out. Authenticity demands of us a purity of character such that we are agents of harmony. That is not to say one is necessarily passive. With virtue as the motivator, the natural course, passive or aggressive, will be apparent.

Here’s the core of it. The ancients held that the closer we align ourselves with nature–green nature, the nature of the cosmos, human nature–the greater the degree of harmony we manifest. They saw an order to the world that was both teacher and student, a guiding self-referencing energy. You don’t have to subscribe to ancient metaphysics to observe that the world works better when harmony is pursued over discord, when kindness is a motivating factor. Here we might want to consider Kant’s moral categorical imperative:

“Act so that you can will that all persons should act under the same maxim you do.”

 

Take a moment and read that again. Genuine authenticity reduces religion and philosophy to kindness, to paraphrase the Dali Lama.

In summary, I take issue with the interlocutor at the impeachment hearings. Authenticity does not come naturally. There are too many other forces at work. It requires courage and work. So what is to be done? How does one live with courage and consequently, authentically? I turn again to that most American Zen Master, Henry David Thoreau for a clue. To wit:

“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Listen to your music and dance gently. To quote Nietzsche, “Become who you are.”

Sunday Repost: Decide to Live

In Books, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Writers on January 20, 2013 at 6:00 am

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The Razor’s Edge

A friend recently loaned me his well-read copy of Somerset Maugham‘s 1944 classic The Razor’s Edge. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to get back to since first reading it in college. (It needs a re-reading if for no other reason than to get the Bill Murray movie out of my head.) Last night I finished Ruth Franklin’s review of Selina Hastings new Maugham biography, “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham,” found in the May 31st issue of The New Yorker. If I were to subscribe to the popular notion that everything happens for a reason, I would think the universe was sending me a message. But I don’t subscribe to that notion, nor do I think the universe is singling me out for inspiration. Rather, I chalk it up to a happy coincidence and the fact that my antenna are tuned to a certain frequency right now.

The book, as I recall, is the tale of one man’s quest for authenticity, and authenticity is a subject I’m spending a good bit of time researching lately. I am trying to trace the idea back to Socrate’s observation that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s a big subject and I will save the conversation for a different forum.  But back to Maugham. Wikipedia summarizes the plot of the book this way: “The Razor’s Edge tells the story of an American fighter pilot (Larry Darrell) traumatized by his experiences in World War I, who sets off in search of some transcendent meaning in his life…” That pretty well fills the bill. It’s what the antenna are testing for.

This theme was again played out this morning by that sage of common wisdom, Ben Stein, on CBS Sunday

Ben Stein

Ben Stein

Morning. If you missed it, here’s a link: “How to Live: Follow Your Heart…” Ben was addressing the graduates in the audience and he ends his essay with this advice: Decide to Live. As with most of Ben’s advice it is spot on. It again brings me around to my subject of authenticity, the examined life, and the Razor’s Edge. Two sentences from Ben’s short essay stand out. He is talking about people who are happy, and this is what he says:  “They decided to do what their hearts told them to do, to do what was in them to do. They took risks and they took chances, and they tried a lot of different things until they got to where they wanted to be.”

I’m not sure how happiness, the examined life, “transcendent meaning” and all that square precisely, if they indeed do. I think they do, and I’m looking into it.

Lastly, a bit of advice, parallel to the theme, from William James. From a letter to his son, James said simply: “Live hard.”

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A NOTE ON HOUSEKEEPING

I’ve added a resource that I hope you’ll find helpful. Check out the “Bookshelf” link just below the header. A click will launch a shelf of books we’ve discussed here at “…the house…” An additional click will launch additional information about the book, author, and so forth.

I’m hoping to add categories–biography, memoir, fiction, etc. But that requires a degree of expertise still under development by your humble host.

Thanks for reading,

d

Two things I’m no longer interested in.

In Life, Philosophy on June 12, 2012 at 6:00 am

The philosopher’s robe.

The heavy baggage goes first.

I’m tired and worn out and now grown weary of (at least) two long-standing philosophical quests: pursuit of “the self”–as in, Know Thyself–as well as the notion of authenticity. As a friend recently stated, they are tired and overworked ideas, seeds that are apparently sterile.

I don’t have the intellectual wherewithal, even interest, to continue burrowing down those rabbit holes.

Nietzsche said that one should strive to Become who you are. He was riffing on Pindar, who concluded the phrase saying, Once you know who that is. (There’s an insider’s joke!) It is this business of knowing what that is, the pure and presumably authentic self (my apologizes to Sartre), that is held out to be the core of things. But these “things” no longer interest me. I wish to sail on. Why go to the core when the horizon holds such promise?

I’m an orderly guy. I like everything buttoned down and tidy; so I thought I would set things right and put an end to the conversation here, once and with certainty. (A quick check of this blog with reference to “authenticity” cites at least a dozen postings.)

I return the philosopher’s cloak to the chifferobe, smelling slightly of camphor.

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In this spirit, a new tag-line for “…the house…” has been composed. Gone is the bluster of: Words, My words, Coming at you. Whether you need them or not. Instead, a factually more accurate, less aggressive, description: The House I Live In, A journal of life pursued.

Thanks for reading. I appreciate it.

No, You’ll Never Do “That.”

In Photography, The infinity of ideas on October 8, 2010 at 1:55 pm

At one time I owned and curated a gallery of fine art photography. (Never mind that I have a problem with the words “fine-art”

An Alison Wright Portrait

An Alison Wright Portrait

as an adjective to anything. It was pure marketing.) Among the photographers I represented in my gallery was National Geographic photographer, Alison Wright, a photographer who had spent her career photographing indigenous people of endangered cultures.

One afternoon a large woman wearing a hat came into the gallery. She had her young son in tow. He was maybe fifteen. They looked at the photographs, brilliant portraits of people living on the Tibetan plateau, of people in the jungles of Burma, remote China and elsewhere in Asia. “Look at these, Jimmy,” said the large woman in the hat. “You could do that. You could do that with the camera you got for Christmas.” Jimmy looked at the images, peered into the eyes of the subjects and said nothing. I do not know if Jimmy believed he could “do that” or if Jimmy even knew what “that” was. I wanted to slap my palm on the surface of my desk. I wanted to shout, “No. No way in hell will you do that, Jimmy. You know how I know, Jimmy? I know you will not invest twenty years of your life getting to know a place, getting to know a people. You will not sleep on the stained floor of a clinic, or sweat your balls off in a steamy jungle, or leave the comfort of your family, or house, your country for God knows how long. And you know what, Jimmy. Even if you were to do all those things, you would not do “this.” You would do something altogether different. “This” can only be done once. Whatever you do, it will not be this.” I wanted the large woman in the hat to stop filling poor Jimmy with delusion. What he was peering at was not common. It was not as simple as “doing that.”

I fear we have lost the capacity to recognize the authentic. That seems the ominous leveling nature of modern society. Hence, I rail!

A Pandemonium of Myths…

In Mythology, Philosophy, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Wisdom on August 19, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Nietzsche held that a problem of modernity is that the modern man (and woman) is a “mythless man.” As a result, we take the mundane and lift it to the glorious, making it “shine.” As Julian Young says, “the problem, in fact, is that too many things shine in modernity, and that their shine rubs off too soon.” He continues to cite cultural examples of what so cheaply shines. (You can fill in the blanks; it’s not hard.) As a result there is a “pandemonium of myths…thrown into a disorderly heap,” [Nietzsche]. We live, as Zarathustra puts it, in a “motley” town.

This resonates with me. It feels true and is at the center of a personal quest for authenticity. One effort, along these lines, is the rejection of the shiny.  Or at least a severe analysis thereof. Regardless of what shines, glamor, consumerism, materialism, personality, this, that and the other thing, so often–always?–the shine wears off. We live in a neo-Guilded Age. There is no sustainable myth. (David Foster Wallace wrestled with this theme in Infinite Jest, the idea that our energies are spent on the mundane, seeking addiction in something, so as to fill some nascent unrealized need.) A mindful challenge of the assumptions of modernity correlates with a minimalist approach to living–which brings me to the most emailed New York Time’s article of last week, But Will It Make You Happy? The piece takes a look at the growing American phenomenon at personal down-sizing. (Can you live with just 100 things?) I will not attempt to encapsulate the article. Read it. (I expressed similar thoughts on happiness and the gross domestic product in previous blog entries.) There is also a wonderful blog linked in the article which warrants consideration, a collection of musings  advocating “social change through simple living,” by Tammy Strobel, called RowdyKittens.

As the slow cooking movement began as an Italian reaction to a new Rome-based McDonalds, so might a minimalist, non-consumptive living movement gain purchase against the drive to the abyss which our species seems hell-bent on completing. To paraphrase a personal hero, Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, We have marched to the brink of existence, now we have to turn 180 degrees and take a step forward. Backward is no longer backward. It is forward. Can we escape this motley town?