On the need to take even strokes—A meditation on some words by Henry Bugbee
|The picture of Henry Bugbee which hangs in my study|
It’s taken from a book called ‘The Inward Morning’ by the little known, late-twentieth century philosopher, Henry Bugbee (1915-1999), whose thinking has been described as being a kind of mix between Heidegger, Zen Buddhism and Henry David Thoreau. This is a near perfect combination in my book! Something of what this mixture looked like in person can be glimpsed in this very short story recounted in my friend Ed Mooney’s introduction to ‘The Inward Morning’.
During August 1955 Heidegger delivered a lecture in Cerisy-la-Salle [France] called ‘What Is Philosophy?’ (‘Was ist das—die Philosophie?’). Bugbee attended with a friend of his, the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) after which Marcel arranged an evening meeting. Perhaps curious to test a young Harvard professor’s footing, Heidegger inquired how one starts to think profoundly by asking ‘What occasion prompts philosophical reflection?’ He no doubt anticipated a flat American response. Yet he found his question returned in a Socratic reversal. Bugbee simply asked, echoing a Basho haiku, ‘Could the sound of a fish leaping to a fly at dawn suffice?’
Anyway, here now is an extract from Bugbee’s wonderful book, ‘The Inward Morning.’
From ‘The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form’  by Henry Bugbee (University of Georgia Press, 1999, pp. 121-123)
[W]e insist. But insistence, however learned or proficient, is not graceful. We must see to it! We worry. We hurry along. We translate necessity into anxiety and effort, trying to take charge. We are swimmers flailing the water to keep from going down. We try frantically to swim in a relaxed manner, or taking relaxation to be inaction, go down like lead. We take everything that may be said of our condition as instruction on how to go about dealing with it, alert for the cues to success. Yet there are times when waves overtake us from behind, lifting us up and along; from these we may take courage and be thankful. But it is not always so. For we may claim as our own the power of the wave in the exhilaration of swift swimming, and this is demonic swimming, in which we suffer the illusion that we are not fallen into flailing: We have become the masters of our element. Then there is the even stroke informed by the sea that carries us all alike; a sea of which trough or crest are but undulations. Now and then we swim a few even strokes and know where we are.
[. . .]
Steadiness and steadfastness are alive to the constancy of our being sustained. They guard against the illusions of elation and depression; such are the undulations of our sea while we ignore our being sustained. How much of current philosophy of value, and of evaluative criticism, is taking the undulations ‘at face value,’ also bespeaking a ‘faith’ in man that is faithless with respect to reality. First of all the suspicion occurs to me that much of current philosophy of value is voicing the persuasion that when we are up our position is good, and when we are down, our position is bad. Let joy and suffering serve as instances, or satisfaction and dissatisfaction; the terms may not matter too much here. Now it will be clear from the image I have been using that I am trying to say that our position is not necessarily good when we are up and not necessarily bad when we are down.
[. . .]
And when I try to understand [Meister] Eckhart’s emphasis on the importance of suffering, if it is to be interpreted as free from perversity, I find it plausible to surmise that he found in the trough a clearer corrective for evaluation than on the crest of the wave. He is guarded about our moments of joy, suggesting quite clearly at times the profound illusion we may suffer in elation. It is as if he wanted to say, as men have said in all religious traditions, that we learn to give ourselves up to the sea, and come finally to trust in it, only in the abyss of the deepest troughs. And here is a saying of his which has stuck with me since I first read it, and no doubt it has not a little to do with the way my own thoughts have taken shape: “All ways are even,” he says. And he adds, I believe, that we can only confirm this in realizing our own way. (Cf. Sir Thomas Browne: “Swim smoothly in the stream of thy nature, and live but one man.”)
[. . .]
I want to set down now one version of what it may mean to be in a true position: The sense of the sustaining sea is bound up with the sense of communion with all the creatures swimming or floundering in it, as may be. The joys and the sorrows deserving our affirmation are those in which we affirm our togetherness with fellow-creatures. These are true joys and sorrows, and as men have ever borne witness, they are true in their concrete understanding of reality and of our togetherness in reality.
On the need to take even strokes—A meditation on some words by Henry Bugbee
I often find myself sitting in my study with someone struggling existentially who has found themselves in a very low and despairing state. The question is always what to talk with them about that might genuinely prove to be of some help?
As most of you know, for me is no recourse to the kind of belief-based theistic responses available to some of my more orthodox colleagues but, fortunately, thanks to Bugbee, there is something that I can conversationally offer up without being in anyway dishonest. Bugbee suggest this ‘something’ is akin to ‘the sea that carries us all alike; a sea of which trough or crest are but undulations.’
To tease out a little more what this means let’s return to the reading from ‘The Inward Morning’ you heard earlier.
Bugbee feels we humans are great insisters; we are creatures who feel that properly to be getting on we must always be insisting that we ’see to it!’ Obviously, there are many things upon which we must insist and see to in this world, but our inherited way of being means that we also worry and hurry along and translate the necessity of seeing to this or that ‘into anxiety and effort, trying to take charge.’ As Bugbee says, this kind of ‘seeing to it’, though sometimes ‘learned’ and even ‘profitable’, is not graceful and this gracelessness, in turn, can serve to hide something very important from view. The image he chooses to explore this state of affairs is a swimmer ‘flailing the water to keep from going down’; as he says:
‘We try frantically to swim in a relaxed manner, or taking relaxation to be inaction, go down like lead. We take everything that may be said of our condition as instruction on how to go about dealing with it, alert for the cues to success.’
Here Bugbee is speaking of our blindness to how true relaxation may not be mere inaction and that engaging in it may not be the equivalent of ceasing to insist that certain things be done or of merely giving up and sinking like lead but, in fact, it may be the best, general, way to go on. Another way of putting this blindness is to point to our continued failure to see that the best way to clear a muddy pond is not frantically to insist that it is ‘seen to’, but simply to relax and leave it alone. But, alas, we continue to insist it is seen to and to flail the water.
However, sometimes, whilst we are flailing away, we experience ‘times when waves overtake us from behind, lifting us up and along’ and ‘from these we may take courage and be thankful.’
Naturally, we are grateful for these moments but our gratitude can all too easily morph into the delusional thought that, somehow, we can ‘claim as our own the power of the wave in the exhilaration of swift swimming.’ For Bugbee ‘this is demonic swimming, in which we suffer the illusion that we have ‘not fallen into flailing’ but, instead ‘become the masters of our element.’
Now I’m not, myself, a great swimmer but I remember experiencing just this phenomenon as a teenager on one of my first long(ish)-distance cycle-rides. I set off in the morning at a furious pace to travel as far as I could before turning round to return home. I fairly flew along and was amazed and proud of my supreme fitness and high speed. Many miles were covered and lunch was duly had in some pleasant, sheltered spot in the Essex countryside. It was only upon remounting my bicycle to head home that I suddenly became fully aware of the strength of the wind into which I was now cycling and which previously had been at my back. Many hours later I staggered into the house utterly exhausted but now significantly wiser. Although I didn’t then have the words to name it this way I had, of course, just engaged in what Bugbee could easily have called demonic cycling.
To return to the analogy of swimming once you have learnt to recognise ‘demonic swimming’ there comes to you the possibility of ‘the even stroke informed by the sea that carries us all alike; a sea of which trough or crest are but undulations. Now and then we swim a few even strokes and know where we are.’
‘Steadiness and steadfastness are alive to the constancy of our being sustained. They guard against the illusions of elation and depression; such are the undulations of our sea while we ignore our being sustained.’
For the experienced, non-demonic swimmer the steadiness and steadfastness that is expressed in their conscious employment of the even stroke helps them attune themselves to something that they do not create themselves, something that Bugbee calls ‘the constancy of our being sustained’. The steady stroke is a practice that helps this constant, sustaining background to show up to us which, in turn, can help us reevaluate our basic way of being in the world and help guard against the illusions experienced in both elation and depression.
Bugbee gives an example of what this reevaluation looks like by referring to our, alas, still current ‘philosophy of value, and of evaluative criticism’ — i.e. the ways we more often than not talk about what we feel is good and bad, up and down and so on in our lives.
My experience in talking to most people who come to seem me in my study strongly suggests that Bugbee is right in saying that, for the most part, we are all too often tempted to take ‘the undulations’ in our lives — i.e. the good and bad, the up and down — ‘at face value’ and that our attempts to do this bespeaks of a faith in ourselves that is actually ‘faithless with respect to reality.’
Bugbee points to the way we have become thoroughly persuaded by our culture to think ’that when we are up our position is good, and when we are down, our position is bad.’ He wants us to be clear that, in his examples, ‘joy and suffering’ or ‘satisfaction and dissatisfaction’ are serving simply as examples of the general phenomenon and that the actual terms we choose for the undulations may not matter too much. What he wants to draw our attention to, as do I, ‘is that our position is not necessarily good when we are up and not necessarily bad when we are down.’
What Bugbee is looking for here is something that can help us more properly (more realistically) evaluate our life that is beyond the measures provided by any ‘face value’ understandings of the passing undulations of what we call good or bad, up or down, etc..
He finds this more appropriate evaluation present in something spoken about by the medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–c. 1328). Bugbee notes that Eckhart ’is guarded about our moments of joy, suggesting quite clearly at times the profound illusion we may suffer in elation.’
Now what does this mean? Well, let’s return again to the demonic swimmer. There they are, being carried forward by the wave. On its crest they can see great vistas about them and they simultaneously experience the visceral joy of being carried swiftly forward. However, according to Eckhart and Bugbee, this elationary experience, when taken at face value, simply serves to create a profound illusion, namely, the feeling that the power of the wave is somehow the swimmer’s own and that they have themselves — through their own insistence — somehow been able ‘to see to it’ and arrive at this magnificent moment of peak experience, one that truly tells them about how things truly are — all good, and all ‘high and lifted up’.
But, as should be clear from what has so far been said, this is, in fact, to be faithless with respect to reality in that it has wholly lost sight of and forgotten this peak experience is only possible because of the sustaining sea.
Bugbee feels that Eckhart was fully conscious of this danger and that he wanted to say to us, as people have said in all religious traditions, ‘that we learn to give ourselves up to the sea, and come finally to trust in it, only in the abyss of the deepest troughs.’
Again what does this mean? Well, let’s return to the demonic swimmer. It is often only at the bottom of the wave’s trough that the demonic swimmer is finally forced to become acutely aware of their foundational conditions as a creature immersed in a sustaining sea of being together with all other things. In the darkness of the trough of the wave the demonic swimmer no longer has great vistas to distract them and they become aware instead of the limitations of existence, of being unable to see any distance or knowing which way is forward or back and they start to fear that they may ‘go down like lead.’ A person in the trough can be tempted into living by the nihilistic thought that their situation tells them how things truly are, all dark and without direction.
Some people in this situation decide they are going to insist that they ‘see to it’ by continuing to flail demonically beleiving that only their own power is going to get them out of this trough and back onto the crest. Some, alas, do decide to give up and go down like lead.
But others relax and take a few even strokes and, in that simple, modest human action, they gain a grounded, if always dynamic and moving, sense of knowing their ‘true position’.
Bugbee leaves this thought with us by setting down just one version of what he thinks this may mean for us:
‘The sense of the sustaining sea is bound up with the sense of communion with all the creatures swimming or floundering in it, as may be. The joys and the sorrows deserving our affirmation are those in which we affirm our togetherness with fellow-creatures. These are true joys and sorrows, and as men [and women] have ever borne witness, they are true in their concrete understanding of reality and of our togetherness in reality.’
It is this sense of the sustaining sea and the need for making even strokes that, conversationally, I try to pass on to those who come before me and who are clearly flailing in the trough of a deep wave. It is this sense and practice that I also try, always imperfectly of course, to embody in my own being whenever I find myself once again in the trough of a deep wave. Along with Bugbee (and Eckhart) all I feel I can honestly do is continue gently to affirm that ‘all ways are even’, and ‘that we can only confirm this in realizing our own way.’
So in the (ecological and political) trough of the wave in which we currently find ourselves, all I can say is, even stokes, my friends, just take even strokes.