If you were lucky enough to be stuck in a traffic jam with me this summer, I have probably already made you listen to my favorite speech, “This is Water.”
In 2005, David Foster Wallace delivered the speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College, and it was later immortalized on YouTube. I’ve listened to “This is Water” dozens and dozens of times, but every time I hear it I come away with new insights and appreciations about what is important in life.
Over the summer, one of my best friends Rachel and I got in the habit of playing “This is Water” on the way to work, on road trips and on the subway. The basic gist of the speech is that as educated people, we have the ability to make choices about how we think. Too often, people forget about this choice and go through life on a “default setting.” Though not inherently bad, our often self-centered default modes of thought can leave us lonely, annoyed and seeking meaning from things that will never truly fulfill us.
For me, Wallace’s points are most salient when shared with a frustrated driver in the middle of a traffic jam — it’s easy to be irritated at and impatient with everybody in our way. It takes more effort, but is possible to see the traffic jam as a miraculous gift, a community of cooperating people all traveling down the same road together.
The sacred moments with Rachel and “This is Water” that sprinkled my summer made me realize more and more about the nature of my thoughts. Around the same time our Wallace habit began, I went to a center to learn transcendental meditation. Part of learning transcendental meditation is learning to accept the inevitability of thoughts. Thoughts arise naturally in our brains in a near constant stream, without any intention or effort on our part. Wallace’s speech is a good reminder that when these unconscious thoughts arise to consciousness, we can choose to change them.
Changing our thoughts is not always easy. Listening to “This is Water” reminded me to think differently in situations where I found myself thinking in a self-centered way or situations where I realized I was failing to appreciate all the beautiful background moments of life. In meditation I practiced not following streams of thoughts, instead letting them arise and pass away like clouds. Having woken up to the inevitability of thoughts, however, I realized how many of my experiences were colored by thoughts that were, frankly, unproductive.
Of course, not all thinking is unproductive. Over the summer, in between listening to Wallace and meditating, I also read the book A Path With Heart by former monk Jack Kornfield.
Kornfield’s book made me realize there was a distinction between productive and unproductive thought. At times we all think productively, logically progressing from one idea to another to glean new insights. We all also think unproductively, like Wallace’s default setting. Kornfield described these default-setting thoughts with an intriguing metaphor.
Kornfield likened our habitual, automatic streams of thought to radio tracks. Without moderation, our minds oftentimes just alternate between 10 or 12 different tracks of thought, each of which leads us to feel and act a certain way, often without good reason. You might find that your mind alternates between its “stressing about the future” track, its “regretting past relationship mistakes” track and its “whatever YOLO” track. Each one comes complete with its own set of self-perpetuating justifications and selective reasoning. Following along with these tracks can be both unproductive and distressing, a distraction from being mindful in the present moment.
So, how can you avoid being enslavement to the radio tracks in your head? Kornfield suggests labeling each track, whether giving each a name like “worrying” or “it’ll all be over soon” or just numbering them from one to ten. The next time your mind starts playing a certain track, instead of following along, just think the label, over and over again.
For example, let’s say one of your common tracks is “annoyed,” and you’ve labeled it number four. It begins to play: “That person over there is talking so loudly. I am totally going to fail my test tomorrow because I can’t concentrate. I can’t believe they’re being so disrespectful.” Instead of continuing to following along with these thoughts, probably the bigger distraction anyway, just think your label, “track four, track four, track four,” or “annoyed, annoyed, annoyed,” as long as the annoyed thoughts arise.
You might find, as I have, that when you stop identifying with these default modes of thinking and label them instead, the tracks fade easily within 30 seconds or so. Then, you might find that even when you are trapped in the middle of a traffic jam, you are also gloriously free.
Karen Konkoly, ’17, is a columnist for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected]