This Is Water

David Foster delivered a famous speech to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005, called “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life”.

He described how two young fish swimming along met an older fish who said, “Morning boys. How’s the water?” The fish swam on and eventually one asked the other, “What the hell is water?”

Foster was pointing out to the young cohort the gift of awareness. And that we can get lost in our conditioning, the matrix, the abstract and over-intellectualising instead of simply paying attention to what is going on in front of us and inside of us.

The mind is is “an excellent servant but a terrible master”, he said.

“The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.”

“This is water.”

He said it was unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out, and this type of education was the job of a lifetime.

The value of “noticing you’re in water” is how you regain awareness daily. There’s so much distraction from what is real and valuable more than ever. Our attention is constantly being diverted to life on a screen. And the mind is not a master, we are. We are. 

In his book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, Johann Hari, says we are living in a serious attention crisis in which people are losing the ability to focus and be present. Furthermore, studies showed “Almost all of us are losing 20% of our brainpower, almost all the time.”

“I learned that the factors harming our attention are not all immediately obvious. I had been focussed on tech at first, but in fact the causes range very widely – from the food we eat to the air we breathe, from the hours we work to the hours we no longer sleep…from how we deprive our children of play, to how our schools strip learning of meaning by basing everything on tests..”

These are all factors to consider as we remind ourselves ”this is water” and cultivate awareness of what is real and what is important.

Foster points out more of what keeps us from truth is worshipping money, physical beauty, things and power. Then you’ll never have enough, be enough. 

More reason to become conscious of our values and beliefs and to realise that true power comes from within. To focus our attention, to be the master of our minds. To realise “this is water” daily and enjoy wholesome, aligned lives.

“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. 

That is being taught how to think.

The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” — the constant, gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” 

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