In 2005, three years before his death, American writer David Foster Wallace delivered a speech about mindfulness, conscious choice and perspective-taking to the graduating class of Kenyon College. Several years later, excerpts were used to create a nine-minute film called ‘This Is Water’.
Foster Wallace began with a story:
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
The point of the story is that the hardest things to recognise are often so important that they’re right in front of – or, in the fishes’ case, all around – us.
And it’s true. There are days when, despite having been productive or interacting with those I love, I struggle to find any significance or meaning in the course of events. During those days, when I am just going through the motions, I am most certainly the young fish; oblivious and detached.
This is where mindfulness practice is so important, because it affords us the opportunity to give meaning to what would otherwise be meaningless. Mindfulness may sound like a vague buzzword, but it is simply choosing to notice what is happening in the present moment; whether that’s your own internal thoughts and feelings or what is occurring externally.
By paying attention we are automatically changing our passive participation to an active one. We feel more connected, and we are more able to empathise with others who are also just getting through their day the best way they can.
Foster Wallace illustrated this using a trip to a busy supermarket after a day at work. We’ve all had to navigate encounters like this, where it feels like everyone is designed simply to get in our way. And not just as a once-off, but with soul-crushing regularity. However, if we look past the obvious and consider that other people lead important lives like ours and that they are also stuck in monotony, it can completely change how we experience these routine parts of life.
I first watched ‘This Is Water’ in 2013 and, in the years that followed, I have taken to paying attention during these times. It takes effort to do this, to switch my mind from its default setting of ‘grrr…what about me’, but I have been amazed at how much calmer I feel when I do. Because the truth is that life is happening all around us, all the time. It is in the queues and awkward elevator conversations. It is at the traffic lights, the airport carousel, work meetings and also at the kitchen sink. It is wherever we choose to find it.
This doesn’t mean we should be switched on 24/7. Nor does it mean that we will all find meaning in the same things. But it does mean that life is less likely to be something that only happens to us. And it raises our tolerance for rubbing along with others in the process.
So the next time you find yourself frustrated by slow drivers or having to wait for a taxi, make the choice to notice what is happening around you. It may not speed things up (okay, it probably won’t), but it may just shift your perceptions and your mood.
Foster Wallace concluded his speech like this: “It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: ‘This is water, this is water.’”
Photo credit: The Glossary