“This Is Water”.
That is the popular title of the commencement address given by the late writer David Foster Wallace to Kenyan College in 2005. The wisdom of this address has pull of a junkyard magnet on my mind (if it were metal, to complete the metaphor). I can not stop coming back to it. Until I devote time to studying it and cutting it down into bite size pieces for my mind to digest, my subconscious won’t let go of it. I’m not bemoaning the situation — I’m simply explaining its influence over me.
Systematically tackling the speech is an assignment for another day. Today I want to discuss just two instances where just one lesson from the speech had a tangible effect on my life.
The introductory fable is worth repeating.
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 lesson I glean from this fable is to remind myself, day by day, moment by moment, that this is happening. This is life. Another word for this is “mindfulness”.
“Mindfulness” is a popular term, at least in the corners of the internet in which I find myself. What is mindfulness, though? How can I achieve it?
I would like to offer a simple sentence to get into the frame of mind taught in this fable.
Mindfulness: the state of being mindful.
Mindful: having your mind full (my definition, not Merriam-Webster’s).
If you want to keep your mind full so that you are mindful, what do you fill it with?
Periodically throughout the day, I like to fill it with this sentence:
This is _________.
This is taking a bite of yogurt.
This is taking a deep breath of air.
This is walking on the sidewalk.
This is relaxing from chores.
This is washing the dishes.
The first time I thought of using this sentence, I was in the middle of doing 30 crunches.
“10, 11, 12, 13.”
During that whole time, I was imagining 30 crunches. That is, I was imagining Crunch #30. Having the weight of 30 crunches on your mind the entire duration of the exercise makes the mental effort a lot more difficult for Crunch #1-29. In the middle, my mental count switched to “This is 15. This is 16. This is 17″. I spent time experiencing each crunch, no matter how fleeting the moment was. The last half of the crunches didn’t seem as difficult as usual.
Later that day, I was wandering around my neighborhood in Varna, Bulgaria. I decided to go in one direction I’ve never walked before. I didn’t really know why, except to go for a walk. To be honest, I wasn’t even in the mood to explore. I just thought I should walk and get some fresh air. I wasn’t really thinking of anything in particular. I was bored on this walk, and beginning to feel the frustration of boredom.
Then this thought crossed my mind, “This is me walking in Bulgaria.”
Suddenly everything started leaping into my awareness. The elderly lady wearing an apron with frills, holding the leash to her dog, standing in the unkempt grass of the boulevard, conversing with her mouth and hands to a neighbor, who was connected to her own dog by a leash. The compact car whizzing down the street. The cold, gray cement apartment complex. The shop with a colorful pile of 10s or 100s of used car fenders on its roof. The sun fighting its way through the tall buildings in its last attempt to make its mark on the day. Bench after bench, in front of every apartment complex.
My walk came alive. For that moment, I was truly living.
This is living.
This was written by Mitch on Wednesday, May 22, 2013 in Varna, Bulgaria.