This is Water: Default Modes and Meditation

This is Water

If you haven’t listened to David Foster Wallace’s speech, This is Water, do yourself a favor. The speech was delivered to Kenyon College’s class of 2005. As college commencement speeches go, This is Water touches heavily on the value of education, but I’d encourage you not to get too distracted by the fanfare for the graduating class, or even the parts that speak to the “value of the liberal arts education”. The subject of the speech—choice in how we choose to think about things and the stories we choose to tell—remains immensely valuable, especially if you have come to know addiction as a problem of perception.

After listening to just a few minutes of D.F.W’s speech, it should come as no surprise that he had some experience in recovery. Through much of his life he struggled with addiction and depression. In the 1990’s he went through treatment, lived in a halfway house in Boston, and attended 12-step groups. During this time, he also began writing his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, which clocks in at over 1,000 pages and is the most stunning exploration of addiction and12-step recovery I’ve encountered in the world of fiction.

In 2008, D.F.W. ended his own life. I mention this only because it is a part of his story, not to romanticize or pass judgment on the issue. Though the speech clearly illuminates his intelligence, his wit, and his deep morality and compassion, it helps me to put aside the man behind the words, and focus on the content of the speech. When I listen to the message, I can’t help but hear the wisdom of the recovery community in D.F.W.’s words. The concepts may not be totally new to you, but I think the way he presents them may be of value.

Default Modes

If you’ve read other blog posts I’ve written, you probably know I am interested in the relationship between addiction and our ways of confronting the world. I am entirely convinced that sustained, fulfilling, and productive recovery depends on gaining new perspectives—of self, of others, of the world—and D.F.W’s speech explores this issue with brevity, beauty, and humor. Although it explores several other issues, what is most important for me in his speech is the idea of “Default Modes”.

The default mode idea is a little bit tricky. To simplify it in my own mind, I like to think of default modes in terms of eyeglasses. Our default modes are the lenses through which we see the world. Everybody has a pair of glasses (a default mode/a way of seeing/a subjectivity), and the pair of glasses we wear allow us to construct meaning out of our experience. Like D.F.W., I’m not here to suggest that one pair of glasses is better than the other, or that one pair of glasses offers a truer vision of the world, but agree wholeheartedly with D.F.W. when he suggest that all of us wear a pair, whether we recognize it or not.

The difficulty I have found with my own pair of glasses is that I end up slipping them on before I realize I’ve done so, meaning I revert to certain ways of seeing and experiencing the world without realizing it. I am the first one to admit that I am often the fish asking his friend, “What the hell is water?”

I identify with D.F.W’s description of his own default mode. When I’m not paying attention, I can slip into the belief that, “everything in my own immediate experience supports the deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence.” For those of us who participate in a 12-step model of recovery, this description should sound familiar. He is talking about basic self-centeredness, which in 12-step models stands as the “root of our trouble”. For those non-12-step folks, you may have different ways of understanding this, but my suspicion is that if you really consider your life in active addiction, you just might find this true for you too.

For me it looks like this: the world isn’t giving me what I deserve, people are out to frustrate me and get in my way, I’m better/worse than this person or that, what he or she said or did is about me…Everything has to do with ME. What they aren’t giving ME, what he or she thinks or said about ME, what they are trying to take from ME.

All of this seems to leave me thinking, “Why aren’t I happy?” Well…The bottom line about this self-centered perspective is that it is deeply painful, and when I am in deep pain, a drink or a drug starts to seem like a good source of relief. Dangerous territory for this hope fiend.

Personal, Intentional Choice

When I first entered recovery, I had no idea I had a choice in how I wanted to see the world. Hell, I didn’t even realize I saw the world in a specific way. I was totally unaware of the glasses I wore. Like D.F.W. suggests, I was under the impression that “a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hardwired, like height or shoe size…”

The hope I gain from his speech, and more importantly, from my own experience and the experiences of recovering people around me is that I do have choice in how I see things. The trouble with choice, however, is that it places the responsibility on me. It’s easier to be a victim of my circumstances, to believe “it is what it is”, than to accept responsibility for my ways of seeing. This belief relieves me of the work, but it also leaves me stuck in my shitty default mode—suffering and seeking relief.

I choose to do this work because the weight of the world is a lot to bear. When I believe I am at the center of it all, I suffer. When I believe I am at the center of it all, and I don’t realize I am in the belief that I am the center of it all, I suffer even more. This second kind of self-centeredness, the total-lack-of-awareness mode is the place where my addiction thrives, so I take the work of staying awake seriously.

Staying awake and aware is no small task. It takes practice. For me it has taken years, and I am still just a beginner. The key for getting started, however, is quite simple.


The most important tool I have found for increasing the awareness of my default modes is sitting meditation. My practice is simple and rather flexible, though I am dedicated to practicing daily. Each morning, I sit for 10-30 minutes. Sometimes I listen to a guided meditation (I really like Tara Brach, if you are looking for a good place to start), at other times, I sit quietly and focus on my breathing, or do a body scan where I focus on the sensations in different parts of my body.

My biggest misconceptions when I started meditating was the belief that to successfully meditate I had to stop my mind from thinking. Right off the cuff, I want to assure you that asking the mind to stop thinking is like asking the wind to stop blowing. The mind’s job is to think like the wind’s job is to blow. Instead of trying to stop my mind from thinking—which is, as far as I can tell, impossible—I try to watch my mind think. When I notice a thought, I name it as a thought, and bring my mind back to my breath. It’s beautifully simple.

At this point in my still novice meditation practice, meditation is just about confronting the fact that I have a default mode. It is just a matter of getting acquainted with the pair of glasses I wear. It isn’t even about changing the glasses, but simply becoming aware of them. When I catch myself thinking, when I pay attention to the places my mind goes, and examine the stories my mind creates, it is easy for me to accept that my perception plays a fundamental role in the way I find meaning in my experience. My mind has the power to create complicated narratives that feel very real, and I don’t even need to leave my couch to do it.

By noticing my mind doing this work, by catching my mind in the act and stepping away from the thought, it becomes clear that I am not my thoughts. If there is a part of my mind with the ability to watch thought happening, then how could I possibly be those thoughts I am watching?* I believe this is the place where personal, intentional choice comes into the matter. If I am not my thoughts, then the part of my that has the ability to watch thoughts also has the ability to choose what thoughts to entertain.

Learning to watch these narratives arise during meditation has allowed me to get good at catching myself doing the same thing in my daily affairs. The meditative practice has spilled over into my daily life, and I have become more mindful. So when I am, for example, in line at the grocery store and start telling a story about this or that, my meditative practice of coming out of thought and back to the moment gives me a second to observe the pair of glasses I am seeing through. Am I under the impression that everything going on around me is about me? Am I once again in the belief that I am the center of the universe? How does this make me feel? Awareness is the first step in adjusting my default mode. If I don’t know I’m in it, there is no choice in whether or not I engage with the thoughts and feelings I am having.

I’ll end by noting that this stuff is difficult to write and think about. The reason for this, I think, is that meditation and mindfulness are meant to be experienced first hand. There are plenty of meditation teachers out there who do a much better job of explaining it than I can, but I’d suggest just giving it a shot. Sit down every day for 10 minutes. Do it for 2 weeks, and return to the ideas in this post. I think through personal experience, you will see what I am talking about. You may even begin to see the way in which your default modes are getting in the way of your serenity. I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comment section below!