In his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace starts his well-known speech with this short story:
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 says, “Morning boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “what the hell is water?”
We instantly connect with this story. Humans are often oblivious to the obvious, unable to see what’s staring us straight in the eye.
This simple story challenges us to ask, at the very least, what are we really swimming in? And how can we even become aware of it?
Once in a while something breaks through the fog, the static, the water of our lives to pierce our hearts and help us see differently.
Simone Weil says,
There are only two things that pierce the human heart. One is beauty. The other is affliction.
These two ends of the human experience: great pain and great pleasure often assist us in seeing the reality of our lives. They offer a window, a portal into reflection.
But what if we could increase the frequency of the reflective moments of our lives, cultivating practices and habits that help remind us about what’s obvious in this world, including what’s obvious about ourselves. To reveal the things that stay hidden in plain sight, unless we know how to look.
Cultivating reflective practices
We have access to two types of reflection: passive and active.
Passive reflection is what we feel compelled to do on New Year’s Eve and when faced with a big life decision. We do this in response to things happening to us.
Active reflection is a conscious choice to hit the pause button, making a concerted effort towards intentional living. We practice this kind of reflection in journals, note taking, recordings, writing, talking with others, creating music or art.
Whatever form our active reflection takes, the function is the same, to bear witness to our life.
In his book The Bullet Journal Method, Ryder Carroll describes reflection not as a means to flog yourself for all past mistakes, but as
an opportunity to harvest the rich information embedded in your lived experience and use it to fertilize your future.
That type of powerful reflection deserves to happen more frequently than just a few fleeting moments leading up to midnight on Dec 31st.
There’s a great image in “The Bullet Journal Method” of two circles. The circles are stimulus and reaction. When these circles overlap, when there is no space for reflection in between, our responses are emotionally charged, driven by fear and anxiety. No space, no intentionality.
When there is a gap between those circles, a space for reflection like the nose bridge of a pair of glasses providing the correct distance between the lenses, we experience choice and agency in our lives. We don’t live in frantic reaction to situations, we respond with awareness and purpose.
Every once in a while I am struck with this simple, but profound insight, “you know Brad, it doesn’t have to be like this. You do have options.”
This space of reflection, this gap between stimulus and response is where we discover these options.
There are many things in our life beyond our control, things we don’t choose. But we do choose our responses. We have options.
How do we become aware of the options? How does what’s cleverly hidden out of plain sight make its appearance?
How does the obvious show itself?
I love how Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul, describes the challenge of cultivating awareness between stimulus and response. As Michael says, there are two options available to us, and we choose which path to take:
- Be tense and lean into the event, reacting automatically, without pause or reflection.
- Be relaxed and lean away from the event, creating space between the event and our reaction to it.
That second option is an active reflection, a conscious choice, creating space for an intentional response to the event.
It’s simple in theory, less easy in action. But it’s still our choice to respond reactively or reflectively to the circumstances of our lives.
You don’t need to be an expert yogi, an energy healer, or regularly escape to spiritual retreats in order to do this. In minutes or perhaps even seconds, by giving yourself space between stimulus and response, shifts can occur allowing you to look at reality with more clarity.
Our minds create and repeat stories. We get caught in a loop of exaggerated experiences that push us away from awareness, simplicity, and solutions to our problems. Things that could be obvious but aren’t because we’re so caught up in the drama of our lives. We cannot see truth. We don’t even know what water is.
Join me in this episode as we ask, along with David Foster Wallace’s fish, “what the hell is water?” and are challenged to create a space, a pause button, a practice of reflection to help us be more aware of what is hidden in plain sight all around us.
Media & Resources mentioned in this post:
- David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech to Kenyon College
- The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll
- The Untethered Soul & The Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer
Music by Cody Martin.