Monday, November 3, 2008

David Foster Wallace on Life and Work

A friend just passed along a link to this article by David Foster Wallace. A compelling argument for cultivating awareness, expressed in plain English. Some excerpts to tantalize:
Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about "teaching you how to think" is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.
And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: 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.
My liberal-arts education didn't teach me much about controlling my mind. If anything, all the books and papers only strengthened the existing mental habits: overachiever, intellectual, analyzing everything. It was the Zen sitting group, the yoga classes, the psychedelics, new love, swimming in the Atlantic ocean, that really showed me new ways of relating to my mind. Wallace is getting at the basic premise of Buddhism here: depending on what you pay attention to and how you construct meaning, you can either create suffering or end suffering. It's a matter of how we train our minds. Meditation and yoga are time-tested systems for this vital training.
The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" -- the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
David Foster Wallace was recently found dead - probably suicide. How tragic that a man with such insight into the mind was ultimately devoured by it.

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