If you’ve ever heard of David Foster Wallace, you will probably find familiarity in “this is water”. Wallace gave a commencement speech to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005. When two fish were swimming in the ocean, meandering the corals and floating algaes, one asked the other, “what do you think about the water?”. The other thought, and replied, “what is water?”
Wallace describes this as the blatantly obvious reality that is in front of us. Yet, what is right in front of us is sometimes the hardest thing to see. When we let our default, unconscious mind makes the decisions for us, we forget that we have the autonomy to think for ourselves. We forget to practice choosing what we think about, how we think about it, and why we put energy towards those things. Our realities don’t lie directly in front of us, in our abilities to utilize the expansive neurological messaging that happens every moment we are alive.
Andy Puddicombe presented in a 2013 TedTalk, about a Harvard study that said our minds are lost in thought 47 percent of the time. Meaning, we spend nearly half our lives confused or with our minds adrift. 47 percent of the time, we are not living in the present moment and focusing on the reality in front of us. This consistent mind wandering is also a direct result of unhappiness. Why?
Let’s do a thought experiment.
Think to yourself…
- Do I get distracted easily when I try to do work?
- Am I often stressed out for a deadline, even if I know I have time to complete it?
- Do I feel anxious about being anxious?
- Do I overthink past conversations or past doings?
- Do I often forget what I was planning on doing?
- Do I simply just forget what the next word was going to be out of my mouth?
If you answered yes to most of these, it is a sign that you probably struggle keeping your mind in the present. It is also a sign that you may be unhappy for these reasons: lack of productivity, forgetfulness, rework, etc.
But we get it, life is hard. One of the most common talked about issues in health is depression and mental illness among young people. Mintel Insights reported that millennials are one of the most stressed generations of our time. Job market competition is ever-increasing, couples are getting married later, women are prioritizing careers over motherhood, and stresses of taking care of parents reside on their shoulders. Gen Y and Gen Z are the most technologically advanced generations. They’re growing up with daily exposure to media influencers, videographers, and other socialites. The Social Dilemma documentary relays the harm social media can do to adolescent minds, with many teenagers facing issues of self-doubt, false identity, and depression. But none of this is new information. So, what is there to do?
Let’s begin with science.
Research has shown the positive correlations between stress reduction and mindfulness exercises. This is no kale eating, smoothie drinking, yoga instructor with an over enthusiastic “hi!” type nonsense. Mindfulness trains the mind to decompress in high-stress situations. It enacts the parasympathetic nervous system for not only solution-based benefits but also conducted for preventative measures. It requires guidance and training just like any other new learned skill or hobby.
Many people hold a misconception about what meditation actually is. It’s not trying to envision a blank slate – to see or feel nothing. Our brain is a running machine that receives messages even when we’re not aware. But, meditation helps train the awareness of the present. It helps train your ability to focus. When thoughts or feelings enter the sphere of stillness, they do not corrupt that stillness, but rather exist and then go away. The practice is not in combatting thoughts and feelings that pop up in our heads, because it’s bound to happen no matter what. The practice is in acknowledging them but not putting energy towards them, so that they can move on. Meanwhile, your breathing remains calm and your body and mind remain relaxed.
Here’s what you can do.
In practicing meditation, you can unlearn old habits and relearn how to live more attentively, calmly, and in the present. Ten minutes a day serves not just that day but a lifetime ahead. We can’t keep things from happening in our lives, and we can’t change the past. However, we can use meditation as a tool to help us change the way we experience what happens in our lives. And with that, hopefully we can begin to see our lives in the reality in front of us with a mind that knows that this is water.
Health and wellness connoisseur, tea drinker, rugby player, feminist, environmentalist, devoted FC Bayern Munich fan, and learner of languages