Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘William James’

Muster those habits, pilgrim.

In Creativity, Happiness, The Examined Life on October 6, 2019 at 9:44 pm

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~ Aristotle

I looked up the etymology of the word “inspiration” recently. It goes back to the 13 century, is shared with Old English and Old French, and means to breathe into, to inspire, excite, inflame. Inspire, from which inspiration is derived, is to draw in breath, to breathe deeply. The original context of inspiration is to note the “immediate influence of God, or gods.” The creative individual, for instance, in seeking her god-muse, is hoping for that rush of inspiration, that substantive nugget, from which all creative power is drawn. Lacking that, one is simply faced with the prospect of hard work, which if you recall Edison’s comment comprises 99 percent of genius, inspiration being the remaining 1 percent.

When I moved to Maine ten years or so ago, I was often asked, Why Maine? My response more often than not was that my muse lived there. Indeed, the first few years of life in Maine were intensely creative and productive. I wrote frequently and met with a bit of success placing my work here and there. My photography took off, and projects fell into place with an abundance. I met new and interesting people. I explored a rugged and beautiful state. I was full of life, full of deep-breath inspiration. Then it tapered off, then fizzled. The new was no longer new. My muse, like an absent god, pack up and hid herself away. Somehow I had failed to nurse her appropriately, perhaps I even offended her.

I’ve been thinking along these lines recently as I’ve been reflecting on the most productive and rewarding phases of my life. The Greeks used the word eudaimonia in this context; they pursued a eudaimonic life. It is a word that most often gets translated as happiness, but to the Greeks it was a word better describing a life that flourished. Happiness was a by-product.The word happiness trips me up, frankly. The pursuit of it, happiness, seems most often a cruel trick, a blind alley, a lost ideal. The pursuit of anything sets up a counter reaction of avoidance. The pursued animal will flee. Happiness it seems mostly, is a thing that happens when other things fall into place. It is not a thing to be chased after, cornered and secured. That is why the idea of to flourish is so appealing. To flourish triggers a process beginning with a series of questions: What needs to be done in order to flourish? What does it feel like to flourish? Consider this, does history record the human lives that flourished, or the human lives that were happy? Consider the creative arts, DaVinci,  Michelangelo, Picasso, or in the sciences, Einstein, Newton, and so on. We don’t remember happy people so much. My hunch is that we remember people who were happy, but not because they were happy. They did something else, something that generated personal happiness, but that’s not why we remember them.

I’ve been in a long fallow period. Motivation has been largely absent. Emerson said that enthusiasm was necessary for anything of significance to come together. Motivation without enthusiasm seems an empty vessel. Inspiration, from which motivation and enthusiasm spring, has been hard in coming. That seems too much the absence of flourishing. I can point to the things that in days past made me flourish, like writing here at …the house…. At the core of things, I think, is the loss of good habit. Slowly things slipped. I wasn’t keeping my journal regularly. My reading fell off. My meditation practice began to slip. And so on.

William James gave a lot of thought to such things. His work on the value of habit is ground-breaking. “…there is reason to suppose that if we often flinch from making an effort,” James wrote, “before we know it the effort-making capacity will be gone; and that, if we suffer the wandering of our attention, presently it will wander all the time. Attention and effort are … but two names for the same psychic fact.”

Attention and effort, the stuff of habit. I have mustered my dormant attention. I have scripted my effort. Let the habits begin–again. Perhaps my muse, if she is still around, will take pity on this poor needy pilgrim. But should that not be the case, should she leave me high and dry, there will always be the hard work.

 

Pay Attention

In Happiness, Philosophy, The Examined Life on December 16, 2018 at 8:00 am

My experience is what I agree to attend to.” ~ William James

I’ve been spending more time that usual paying attention. Specifically paying attention to what I pay attention to. You see, like everyone, I’m feeling the acceleration of time. It comes this way to us all, that speeding train called life. It chugs along, toiling uphill, then, clearing the pass, it starts the decent. Faster and faster. But I’ve found the brakes. I’ve discovered that if you get focused and pay deep attention, time slows down. You can’t stop the train, but you can slow the descent. Time–the more attention you give it, the more of itself it reveals.

James Wilson Williams is a technology scholar. In the current issue of New Philosopher magazine he is quoted as saying that when you “pay attention,” you pay “with all the things you could have attended to but didn’t; all the possibilities you didn’t pursue…all the possible yous you could have been, had you attended to those other things. Attention is paid in possible futures foregone.” By paying attention to one thing, you have made a conscious decision to ignore something else, principally the past and the future. And that has great rewards. As Goethe said, “Happiness looks neither forward nor backward.” Indeed, the present is the only reality that belongs to us.

That is the good news, that we’re paying attention to something. The bad news is that if we aren’t careful, if we don’t pay attention, and then, zip, with a blink of an eye, it’s gone. An opportunity for happiness lost, a moment–an eternity–squandered. The train picks up speed.

When we were little the world was fresh, new, interesting. We were captivated by it, struck by simply being alive. It was a raw, cosmic happiness. But as we age, the days connect, they go rolling by, one after the other. Tedium builds. We’re on the train, just staring out the window. We’ve seen it all before. Maybe we day-dream, more likely we turn to social media. Either way, we’ve lost the discipline of attention. It is the present foregone. We’re on the train to oblivion.

I’ve discovered a way of slowing things down again, somewhat like it all was when I was a little child.

I credit my meditation practice with much of the slow freshness I feel when I move about the world. It is curious how sitting quietly and paying attention to your mind will instill in you a calm when going about the hustle and bustle of life. But there are other things I practice too to slow things down and pay attention. I am right-handed, for instance, but I frequently use my left hand for common tasks like eating or brushing my teeth. In doing this, I am turning a mundane task into something requiring my attention. Time slows down accordingly. Or, sometimes when I’m traveling a common route, a road I might drive several times a week, I pretend to have a passenger, someone from another country, often a distant relative. I point out this or that to my passenger. I try to see the route through their eyes. It makes it fresh again and new, delivering a degree of child-like happiness along with it. Try it.

In his book, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, Pierre Hadot writes, “Because the sage lives within his consciousness of the world, the world is constantly present to him [or her]…the present moment takes on an infinite value: it contains with it the entire cosmos, and all the value and wealth of being.”

Pay attention. Be a sage. Therein lies happiness.

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

Let us acknowledge that which awaits.

In Death, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on July 12, 2012 at 6:00 am

Burn on your terms.

My father is ninety years old. My mother-in-law is ninety-two. I see close-up what old age looks like. I can imagine what likely awaits me.

“Live hard,” William James advised his son. It is a certain degree of freedom to acknowledge that which is awaiting us. It’s opposite is the thing that sneaks up on you. There is no good reason for that. Take measure of the inevitable. Let there be no surprise. Attempt to breach the unbreachable in the only way possible: live hard.

Burn the candle at both ends. It will go out eventually anyway. Let it be on your terms.

Coffee or Tea?

In Books, Happiness, Life, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life on April 23, 2012 at 6:00 am

I need to shake things up. I am contemplating a switch from morning coffee to tea. Don’t laugh. This might not seem significant, but trust me, it has subtle philosophical implications.

I have a deeply nurtured routine. Until now it was not subject to alteration. Upon getting up I light a fire under the tea-pot to boil water. I take the espresso beans I ground the previous evening and pour them into the french press. When the water boils it goes into the press. I set the timer for four minutes, and so forth. Making coffee to my taste is a skill I have developed and I believe that to have a skill, no matter how small or seemingly irrelevant, is to know what counts as meaning in a certain domain.

William James observed that the individual “who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention…will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him.” It’s in that concentrated attention I find the occasional burst of meaning. Mindfully making coffee is the way I begin that daily practice. The rutted path leads to the comfort of the barn. I shy from the word spiritual. Making coffee is as close as I get.

There is a tradition that tea plants grew from the eye lashes of the Buddha. Siddhartha, in an effort to stay awake while meditating, plucked his eye lashes. As they fell to the ground, plants blossomed and from the leaves of those plants tea was discovered. It is no coincidence that the tea ceremony is at the heart of the zen tradition, where focus is centered upon the paying of attention.

I was raised with the idea that life has intrinsic meaning; however, I abandoned that notion as a young man. I drifted in the direction of Camus, where meaning is a thing to be developed, not discovered–an idea I still embrace. To that end, I experience glimpses of meaningfulness in simple life activities. Last summer I read a book that shed light on my coffee routine specifically.

The book is All Things Shining, Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. (I mentioned this book in a post earlier this year, My Window.) It’s written by two philosophers, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. (The subtitle to their blog is: Luring back the gods.) There is one idea Kelly and Dreyfus explore that pertains to my meanderings here: making coffee. Imagine my surprise to discover this sentence, “…the coffee-drinking routine that recognizes no distinctions of worth is a routine in which the coffee drinker becomes exchangeable: assimilable to all of the millions of others who are sleepwalking through the same generic routine.”

My daily challenge is to resist the condition of becoming exchangeable, to avoid slipping into the sleepwalking state. I do not wish to live generically and have built habits and cultivated stimulus to mitigate this. Making morning coffee is one such example. But now my instincts are to step it up and challenge even that routine.

And that is why switching from coffee to tea is such a big deal.

Thanks for reading.

The well gone dry!

In Creativity, Philosophy, Thinkers, Writing on February 7, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Since “retiring” my little blog-workshop two months ago, it appears that my creative life has gone down the drink, has indeed retired too. I’m not sure what is going on, but in an effort to focus my energies–stopping the blog, stopping the essays, curtailing the reviews, concentrating on my “book project”–I’ve lost them–my energies–altogether. To quote William James:

Sow an action and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.

I can’t speak to destiny, but by uprooting my habit(s) I’ve killed off what precious little fruit they bore. I have sown nothing. Garnered nothing in return.

I believe that the pattern of our life, the very structure of day to day living, affords us a(nother) way of infusing existence with meaning and purpose. Meaning is that which works, said the pragmatists.*  I disrupted the pattern, killed off the habit. Nothing working–meaning, kaput. I upset the applecart and am hereby announcing my effort to right it. “God keep me from ever completing anything,” wrote Melville in Moby Dick. Goodness, but I know how he feels.

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* Was Sisyphus happy, Camus wondered, because he knew the secret to happiness to be meaningful work?