Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘William James’

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?

Friday Moleskine notes

In Literature, Philosophy, Photography on June 11, 2010 at 8:54 am
Journals & Notebooks, but mostly Moleskines

Journals & Notebooks, but mostly Moleskines

“Philosophy [is] the explanation of how something is possible.” ~ Robert Nozick

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I am more interested in the possible than the true.

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Heard on Exchange Street yesterday:

Man #1: “You gonna stay with her when she’s in prison?”

Man #2: “No freak’n way.”

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“What James most admired most in Emerson was the incorruptible way in which he followed his own vocation; and he vowed to do the same himself.” Richardson writing on Wm. James.

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“Ideas rule the world, or throw it into chaos.” ~ Auguste Comte

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“It is the very difficulty of the effort which produces the satisfaction.” ~ Magnum photographer, David Hurn.

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Respect the subject matter!