Sunday, September 13, 2009

This Is Water

I just bought a copy of This Is Water by David Foster Wallace for a friend's daughter who is off to college. It's a commencement address he gave which has been published in book form. He opens with a little parable about two fish who are greeted by an older fish one day.
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and say, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"
The point is that the most obvious, common things about ourselves and our lives can go completely unnoticed. This is just "a banal platitude," says Foster Wallace. "But the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance."1

His essay is about thinking, and how we have a choice about what we think. Here's an example, an audio clip from the original speech. He's talking about awareness, awareness of our habitual ways of thinking, ways that are so habitual that we don't even recognize their existence.

Feldenkrais lessons begin with movement but lead through movement to this same kind of awareness. Movement is just the opening, the most obvious and visible aspect of our interaction with the world. As we go about our daily lives, we hold an image of who we are, which is like water to fish--so common to every moment of our existence that we are not aware of it. Working with this image, it is possible to achieve profound, fundamental changes. Ignoring it can be a matter of life or death. Death in a metaphorical sense--moving through the world without intention, as a sleepwalker, an automaton--or in a literal sense--failing to react effectively to the snake in the grass, the car coming out of nowhere.

Parts of the self-image develop from our individual experience, our vocations and histories. Other elements are common to us all. We all move around a central axis. We all grow upward, and our arms and legs grow outward from the center.

Experiencing something so fundamental to our species helps to clear out all the stories we've told about ourselves: my spine hurts torso is too long...I can't play tennis. The primary image is devoid of these individual details. It's very refreshing to access something so basic.

Take some time to experience this for yourself! I taught and recorded this Primary Image lesson this morning. You'll need about an hour, and you begin lying on your back on a firm but comfortable surface like a thick rug or a mat. Enjoy.

[1 This Is Water, David Foster Wallace, Little, Brown and Company 2009]

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