May 11, 2014

Graduating Toward Compassion.

David Foster Wallace

Warning: naughty language ahead! 

The most important speech I can find regarding the potential value of a college education, or hell, a human incarnation, is from David Foster Wallace. It is here.

Wallace attacks the human problem just about one minute into his talk. The almost invisible human problem of habitual blindness. He tells a story of fish oblivious to the water they swim in.

The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

And for water here, read: “our inborn habitual focus on the self.” The very foundation of compassion is the ability to, just for a moment, release the mind from this preoccupation.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence.”

Picture that. Or picture those rarefied moments of freedom from that tiresome, pervasive mindset. The real interesting piece of this puzzle is, to me, the automaticity of the perception. Even though I’m intellectually apprised of my non-center position in the universe, nonetheless, this extreme, illogical, stunningly provincial mindset steals its way into my brain constantly.

I’m the undisputed king of my nonexistent hill.

There is a common version of the same truth, often heard in recovery circles: “I’m not much, but I’m all I think about.”  And by the way, that is one brilliant gem from recovery. The twin ideas of 1) You’re a sick twisted fucker and 2) Your telling yourself that you’re not sick is, well,  part of your sickness. Some insist that this “disease” paradigm is some form of belittlement. I promise it is not.

Seeing yourself as intensely sick is enriching. There’s gold in them thar ills. Replace the word “Human” for “Addict” or “Alcoholic” if you like. You’ll find a lot of wisdom in the recovery conversation. I think we’re all sick fucks, and pretending we are not doesn’t serve us. Defining my tendency to be entirely self-centered, 23:59/7, is of great benefit.

Not like there is something wrong, something to change or fix. Just noticing, lovers. Noticing that our habitual self-centered mindset lacks compassion.

Not so much with the recrimination. More with the liberation.


Claiming freedom from the ceaseless barrage of self-centeredness for one second. Then two. To be a leaf on a tree for a minute for God’s sake, not The leaf on The tree. To let go into nothingness is to thereby become everything. Do you think enlightenment is the same as assimilation? Sometimes they’re inextricable, bro.

Seeing through the futility of identifying as the self does not diminish us one iota.

And in this gem of a talk, Wallace takes that enormous work from way up in the mental sky to the checkout line at the grocers. That might be the best part of the speech. He’s providing tools that get under the hood of existence. We’re not checking into a monastery anytime soon. (Well, most of us aren’t, and if you are, don’t forget your toothbrush.) So Wallace can be a stand-in teacher, right now. Monk of the moment. He mercilessly invites us to mirror gaze:

“How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

I wish that was a title; I wish he had written that book. In a parallel universe, I would have his children. But he didn’t need to write that book. This talk has the whole ball of wax, and a laugh or two along with it.

2014-05-09 05.18.14 pm

It’s an invitation to the real party.

The one where your circs and your bank account and what will all the kids from high school think, and the rent, the fear and the boss, and her bosses boss, the goddamn dentist, Christ, the discomfort of that drill, then the über discomfort of paying for the drilling, and the rants of your psychotic right wing dad and the cucumber rotting in your fridge—Just. Don’t. Matter.

Where the rarity of this human incarnation is met with simple, expanding gratitude. Where reality is not dictated by thought. Where each fuckton truckload of ennui is a chance to engage. To awaken. To return to love and understanding. Read this like water:

“Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me.”

It keeps coming back to being responsible for our thinking. Alleviated from it through whatever practice we undergo. (And by alleviated from it, may I stress that the thinking does not let up even a little, and the alleviation is simply our invisible mental hand on the volume knob of said thoughts, turning that shit down. Well that hand is your universe, old man.) And then from that place of alleviation, consistently offering a slightly different perspective to ourselves.

Look the thing is, there is no thing.

We are a fluid, changing process. It’s all perspective, right? I’m going to lay some Alan Watts on you. Alan and David are probably laughing their asses off together now in the afterlife, whatever the hell that is, and just tickled to be in an elephant article together. So here: three minutes of insanely accurate perspective, and a wildly creepy, time-defying visual component:

What an amazing time to be alive.

What richness is at our fingertips. We can listen to this on waking. Imbibe it into our pores with that 35 dollar moisturizer. Put it on our iPhones for the beginning of every run, and sit in lotus in front of our screens, every day for seven years. We can listen to hours of teachers like Alan for free. But that presupposes the desire to learn. The desire to alleviate the suffering of self-based living.

We are the most compassionate, fluid, loving, yogic amazeballs ninja love-sources when we can get off our massive mountain of me.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer.”

There is grace available to us in immediate, effective, small doses. Single serving serenity is here. It is wrapped in awareness shifts exactly like that one he posits, above. They are possible. They are true. They are real.

They are as real as that wood plank in your eye, and that towel wrapped around your sister. They are the stars in our sky, love, they are the bagel that ate New York. Awareness shifts exactly like this one are the morning dew you forgot to vacuum, they are the dog’s paws in the shade. They’re elephants freed from hunters, flying, and fish swimming in the air. They are the improbable rarefied toast on a ceramic plate in the morning: and the very napkin itself, my love. These moments of freedom from self are the unautomated shot, fired into the death star.

Cultivate that compassion like a farmer. Give it everything you have, and more. It matters.


It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out…. and it commences: now.”

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Steve Rhodes/Flickr, Magnetismus/Flickr, Texas A&M University/Flickr, Wonderlane/Flickr

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