Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘The Examined Life’

“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.

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.

The Examined Life

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers on February 13, 2013 at 6:00 am

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Okay, fine. It took only two weeks to fall off the theme-day thing. As two tribe members noted, Thursday Theme Day flew in the face of the spontaneity that defines “…the house…” Regardless, in short order it became a chore, self-imposed at that, and there is little reason to accept such discipline.

With that bit of housekeeping completed, let’s talk about the death of Socrates and the examined life. The examined life is a frequent theme  here: “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. It occurs to me that perhaps you are not aware of the tradition behind this ancient saying. Please allow me to tell you the story (a bit editorialized, thank you very much.) (And in that spirit, this is a long post. I understand if you aren’t interested in spending the time on it. Frankly, if I were you, I doubt I would spend that much time with me. If that’s the case, I invite you to scroll to the bottom for a brief summary, as well as some reading recommendations.)

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Ruins of the Agora

Ruins of the Agora

Socrates held truth a thing to be pursued, not discovered, an idea that takes it off the mount and puts it in the streets. (Oliver Wendall Holmes, a pragmatist, echoed the notion when he remarked to a friend, “All I mean by truth is the path I have to travel.”) And that is where he spent his time, in the streets, talking to anyone who would listen. Xenophon wrote that he “was always on public view.” He continues, “Socrates used to go to the walkways and gymnasia, to appear in the agora as it filled up, and to be present wherever he would meet with the most people.” * His student, Plato, recorded him referring to himself, fittingly, as a gadfly. (It is important to know that Socrates left no written record. Most of what we know of him was recorded by his student and younger friend, Plato. Plato, by the way, was the teacher of Aristotle, who, in case you are not aware, was the teacher of Alexander the Great, Alex making a cameo here at “…the house…” just a couple of weeks ago.)

He was well known in Athens for years prior to his trial. Aristophanes mentions him in his comedy The Clouds, produced in 423 BC, portraying Socrates as a sophist. There is no historical evidence that Socrates was associated with the sophists, His recorded sayings do not support this account. The sophists had a dicey reputation in Athens at the time. The historian G.B. Kerferd described the sophists of this period as : “…a set of charlatans that appeared in Greece in the fifth century, and earned ample livelihood by imposing on public credulity: professing to teach virtue, they really taught the art of fallacious discourse, and meanwhile propagated immoral practical doctrines.”

The climate at the time was tense. The year was 399 B.C. The city (Athens) guardians were being pressed for reform and the youth were restless. So it came to be that Socrates, a pain in the backside to those holding to the status quo, was arrested on charges of “corruption of youth” and “impiety.” Specifically, the impious acts were: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities.”  (“Could Socrates have been the corrupter of youth after all?” asks Nietzsche. “And did he deserve his hemlock?”)

He was brought to trial. The law in Athens dictated that such cases not exceed a day’s length and the old philosopher knew that he could not make his case in just a day. Instead he began to challenge the jurors.

“Some will say: Yes, Socrates, but you cannot you hold your tongue….Now, I have great difficulty in making you understand my

Socrates on trial.

Socrates on trial.

answer to this. For if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. Yet I say what is true….”

In essence, he claimed that the jurors (citizens of Athens selected by lottery) could hardly be expected to be sympathetic, as they had little appreciation for philosophy. His tone, as recorded in Plato’s Apologia, was reprimanding and unapologetic. If Plato and Xenophon are to be believed, Socrates sought not to persuade, but to lecture and provoke.

“And now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophesy to you; for I am about to die, and in the hour of death men are gifted with prophetic power. And I prophesy to you who are my murderers, that immediately after my departure punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you. Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give account of your lives But that will not be as you suppose: far otherwise. For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more inconsiderate with you, and you will be more offended at them. If you think that by killing men you can prevent some one from censuring lives your evil lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honourable; the easiest and the noblest way is not to be disabling others, but to be improving yourselves.”

The law held that the guilty party had to kill himself, hence the hemlock. It was expected, and suggested by his followers, that he would flee.

Socrates takes the hemlock.

Socrates takes the hemlock.

Most hold that he did not flee on moral grounds, that seeing the sentence through to completion was his moral obligation. And so it was, indeed.

* Fittingly, my first trip abroad, over thirty years ago, found me in Athens. Surprisingly, my travel journal from that trip has survived the years. The young man (me) wrote: “The Agora left little impression upon me; it once housed such great thoughts as those proclaimed by Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, yet one feels no inclination to think more profoundly because of common ground crossed.”  (I was painfully ponderous even then.)

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Editorial Manifesto:

Socrates stated that the unexamined life is not worth living. I disagree with the fundamental premiss, the notion of a life not worth living; but that’s not the point. Inverted to the positive, Socrates’s admonition might be understood to read: The examined life is (more) worth(y of) living. He did not say, What is the meaning of life?; rather he made a value statement on existence. He did not suggest developing a flow chart, or creating a matrix. There are no three-ring binders with tabs in this project. No Powerpoint. No life coach. He exhorted, in my shorthand, simply: Examine. Accept nothing less than an adequate accounting. It is an open and expansive thought. Conversely, drilled into us from childhood: seek and find, question and answer, open and close. Those are closed equations, for lack of a better phrase. For me, the power of Socrates is the open equation: examine.

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Although I’ve not read it, I understand that I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates, is an excellent read if you’re interested in the history.

9781250002327If you are curious to read the thoughts of a working philosopher on the matter of living fully the examined life, I suggest the late Robert Nozick‘s (1938-2002),  The Examined Life, Philosophical Meditations. Along similar lines, but more historical, you might enjoy James Miller’s Examined Lives, From Socrates to Nietzsche. It was a 2011 New York Times Notable Book and is imminently readable.  Lastly, if you wish to urlwade deep into these waters, consider Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations, specifically the last chapter, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life.”

Thanks for reading. I hope you found it interesting.

d

Yvon Chouinard

In Adventure, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on July 7, 2012 at 6:00 am

20120705-074009.jpg
If you’re a regular reader of “…the house…” you know of my obsession with the examined life. How to live is the question, and the study of “lives” is one fashion by which I attempt to find answers. That is, how have others answered the question and what does the examined life look like?

Typically this pursuit turns to history, literature, philosophy, and biography. But there are contemporaneous lives I study as well, vibrant lives not yet covered with the dust of history. First among them is Yvon Chouinard.

Chouinard is best known as the founder and CEO of the Patagonia company. He is widely recognized for his unique corporate style and philosophy, and his visionary environmental leadership. As a younger man, he was a world-class rock climber and adventurer. For a quick primer on the man and his philosophy, I recommend the current documentary, 180 Degrees South. (Available as streaming video on Netflix.) When pressed, I cannot think of a life that better wrestles with the question of how to live than Yvon Chouinard.

I leave you a Saturday quote from Chouinard.

“I had always tried to live my life fairly simply and by 1991, knowing what I knew about the state of the environment, I had begun to eat lower on the food chain and reduce my consumption of material goods. Doing risk sports had taught me another important lesson: never exceed your limits. You push the envelope and you live for those moments when you’re right on the edge, but you don’t go over. You have to be true to yourself; you have to know your strengths and limitations and live within your means. The same is true for a business. The sooner a company tries to be what it is not, the sooner it tries to ‘have it all,’ the sooner it will die.”

Thanks for reading and have a good weekend.

My Urge.

In Creativity, The Examined Life, Writers, Writing on March 24, 2012 at 8:00 am

I’m noticing an increased tendency here in the usage of the first person singular. I blame E.B. White for this. He planted the seed years ago with this sentence: “The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.”

Originally, my blogging intention was to make this my “workshop.” That was the word I used when I set out. It was to be a place where I would share a thought or two, write about a book I was reading, or explore an idea I’d encountered. It is all that, but increasingly, it’s becoming a journal of self-reflection.

Writers are supposed to write about what they know. However, the only thing I really know is myself–and that is indeed a tenuous thread. (“I am my subject,” to quote Montaigne (probably lifted from Aristotle).) Accepting the fact that I am at best a one-theme guy, I am resigned to sculpting with the dark lump of clay I’ve been given. I turn again to Mr. White: “I am a man in search of the first person singular.”

A person can be subjected to only so much introspection–what’s sometimes called navel gazing. I forgive you, reader, if on too many occasions I am exhausting your patience with my personal tribulations and confessions. I joke among friends that I am just a simple pilgrim, a man holding a lantern against the darkness of the self. It is a line guaranteed to get an eye roll. But joking aside, I am quite serious.

This came to a clarifying insight last weekend upon reading an essay by the wonderful, Jhumpa Larhiri. It was in the Sunday Times (March 18, 2012), and was called My Life’s Sentences. The essay includes this line, the sentence that put it all right with me: “The urge to convert experience into a group of words that are in a grammatical relation to one another is the most basic, ongoing impulse of my life.”

The “urge to convert experience” runs deep in me, and its expression seems most satisfying when realized in the simplicity of the first person singular. That is my “urge” and how I express it. I share this because I think that, as a species, we universally desire a clarified understanding of the human experience. That is what, I suspect, is behind Larhiri’s urge.

The manner in which this desire is manifested is as different as we each are different from the other. I have a friend who is a brilliant photographer. That is her way. Another friend is a deep and thoughtful reader. Religion is a direction for some, philosophy for others, physiology, poetry, music, dance, entrepreneurship, cooking, travel and so forth.  Too, there is community, family and love. If pressed I’d say that all manner of human activity can be viewed this way, as an effort to better realize the human experience. Some of these activities are beautiful and shared and widely recognized for their truth-giving vision. Others are quiet, contemplative and personal.

I am hopeful, that by way of explanation, my increasingly self-indulgent forays into the world of “I” will be forgiven.

Thanks for reading.

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My previously mentioned interview with photographer Thatcher Cook has been published at Obscura. You can read it here. It is, in light of what I say above, an apt commentary on the creative life. While you’re there, you might want to read my thoughts against art. The article is called “The Existence of Art.”  I do my best to put “art” in its place.

Existential Origins

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Wisdom on August 7, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Socrates famously declared, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Twenty-five hundred years later Albert Camus begins The Myth of Sisyphus with the assertion that, “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Cynically, one might ask if Socrates, by drinking the hemlock–the death sentence imposed by the state, rather than arguing for clemency–presaged Camus’s existential challenge? Might he have failed in the examined life he sought? We know the factors leading up to his sentence. And we recognize the virtue–as he defined it, arete, an informed moral knowledge that sees with clarity–motivating the course he took. Yet, they are curious bookend observations.

I am again reminded of Camus’s notebook fragment: “…That wild longing for clarity.”