what is water

5 Takeaways on Consciousness From ‘This is Water’ by David Foster Wallace

Graduation speeches are often inspirational – but most are left behind in the halls and the auditoriums that they were first heard in. However, one such speech stands out from them all: a blunt conversation about the mundane world followed by a small but powerful revelation: you have the ability to choose how you think about this mundane – or not so mundane – world. 

David Foster Wallace told a story about two young fish, swimming along – on their way, they meet two older fish – one of them nods and says, “Morning boys – how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on and then eventually one of them asks: “What the hell is water?” 

He goes on to use this story as a means to unravel the reality of day to day life for humans. How, we too, can be unaware of our surroundings – our water. Wallace dives into the monotonous routines of the working class, how we experience agony in small inconveniences, and find ourselves running on a “default setting” – when we allow ourselves to function on autopilot or be unconscious through days that seem meaningless or banal. 

But – that’s not what life is about, unless, of course – you choose for it to be that way. Wallace goes on to describe that the state of your mind will determine how you live in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence. When you’re stuck in a shop line at the end of a long day with everyone else who had the same idea to run in to get a few things, you can choose how you experience that moment. How? We’ve summarised the important bits for your convenience.

Here are 5 notes from Wallace’s guide to switching off the unconscious “default” we all too often get lost in.

1. Turn Consciousness On, Switch Default Settings Off

Sometimes, we get stuck in an unconscious lull of annoyance, inconvenience, wanting to get home so we can do what we always do – but you have the power to change the way you think and process the world around you on a perfectly ordinary, boring day. 

Wallace continues with: ‘If you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.’

2. You’re Not the Center of the Universe

Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.”

When you choose to switch on conscious thinking – you start to question the reasons you’re upset – annoyed, or even bored with life. The most common problem with an unconscious mind is believing that you are the most important thing around. Of course, a sense of self-worth and care is important – but only to an extent. When you face the possibility that you are just another fish in a big pond, it doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Quite the opposite – it can help you start being conscious about the people and their individual experiences, thoughts, feelings, and lives around you. Often described as ‘sonder’ – the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own – populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries, and more. 

Instead of being annoyed at the person behind you in the shop speaking loudly on the phone, you could process the thought that they might not have spoken to a cherished loved one in a long time – or really needed a friend on the phone that day. Maybe even consider the last time you phoned a friend – or a friend phoned you.

3. You Get to Consciously Decide What Has Meaning and What Doesn’t

The greatest freedom of all is your mind’s choice to think and react in the way that you want. When you view life with this sense of mental control, it manifests into a tangible feeling in your life – a perspective that makes living more comfortable, positive, and understanding of all the intricate moving parts of life around you. It’s your choice to give meaning to the 30 minutes you spent in your local grocery store with people you’ve never seen – with lives you have little insight into. But at the end of the day, this choice ultimately determines how well-adjusted you personally feel about these ‘unmemorable’ parts of your world. 

4. Freedom Requires Some Sacrifice

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in a myriad of petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

It is no easy feat to switch off your natural inclination to feel like you deserve more, you should experience better things – and that the world owes you something great in your life. The freedom of conscious living and being well-adjusted to the sometimes anti-climatic reality of daily living doesn’t come without sacrifice. Mindfulness and consciousness should not be viewed as something you can perfect, but something you are always building and growing like a muscle for better mental health.

5. Be Conscious of the World Around You

“The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.” “This is water.”” 

At times when you find yourself cynical or disconnected from the world around you – remind yourself: “This is water”. Ground yourself back into a state of awareness and gratitude for the complicated, small moving parts of life that are all around you.

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