The following piece was written by Brianna Goodman, copy and features editor for MindBodyBrew. Brianna teaches Yoga with The Perri Institute for Mind and Body in New York City. She currently attends Fordham University, where she is pursuing a degree in English and Creative Writing, with a minor in Communications.
“[L]earning 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.” -David Foster Wallace
Today’s mantra comes from one of my favorite literary icons, David Foster Wallace. This quote is an excerpt from the wise yet humble commencement speech he delivered in 2005 at Kenyon College, in which he warns students of the “dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines” that they will endure as post-graduate adults. He confesses to students that there are times when being an adult sucks—when finishing a long day of work means heading out into rush hour traffic to enter a crowded grocery store to wait in a long line at the register to head back out into traffic to start a long and frustrating journey home. Sounds like an inspiring commencement speech, right? But indeed, it is.
Wallace reminds the graduating class that we have a choice in how we decide to evaluate a situation. We can look at the events of a long and frustrating day as personal assaults on our general happiness and well-being—or, we can look at these events as opportunities to be compassionate towards those around us. “[T]hat Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him,” says Wallace, “and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am.” We don’t always have to consider scenarios so extreme, but Wallace makes an important point; it is up to us to decide if the world is out to get us, or if instead, the world has a lot more pressing things to be worrying about. We can choose to view fellow drivers as enemies, or we can view them as fellow humans who deserve compassion and understanding.
John Milton, in his famous epic Paradise Lost, wrote that the mind “is its own place, and can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Our work as yogis, and as humans, is to consciously choose how we’re going to evaluate a situation. What will we decide to emphasize, and what will we decide to conclude? How will we let this experience affect us? Is this moment entirely negative, or is there knowledge to be gained? As Wallace says, this sort of work requires us to be awake. To pay attention not just to the inner monologues buzzing inside of our heads, but also to the sensory experiences that are happening around us. This is what it means to live mindfully—to pay attention to what is around us, to who is around us, and to then decide how we will allow this information to shape our focus.
Back in a meditation workshop during my yoga teacher training, Ethan Nichtern directed myself and my classmates to focus on the breath, but to be aware of the sounds around us. In this way, we were making a conscious decision to pay attention to one specific facet of the moment, but without shutting out or falling asleep to the rest of the world. This, I believe, ties into what Wallace was saying. To live a mindful and compassionate life, we must be awake to both our inner and outer worlds. We must be aware of the circumstances around us, but we must also be aware of the ways that we are internally digesting our experiences. More than being aware of our thoughts, we must also be able to direct our thoughts—it is up to us alone to decide whether the world is our friend or our foe.
What will we decide?