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david foster wallace & the ending of obsessive thought

[quotes at first are from David Foster Wallace's Kenyon commencement speech. He starts out by telling the story of fish that don't know what water is...]

DFW: "everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centerdness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.

"Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor.

"…[DFW goes on to say that the work is] getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered [where everything is interpreted] through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

"…it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head. … learning 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.

"[dfw goes into a long and often hilarious description of the self-centeredness of adult life being made up of excruciating experiences:

"…the supermarket is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out…the checkout line is incredibly long, filled with people that are stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman… you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, rush-hour traffic…clogged by…the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas… the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. …My natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home."]

"If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider [other] possibilities... But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars…

"And the compelling reason for choosing some sort of spiritual-type thing to worship--be it JC or Allah, or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles--is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

"…the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default self-centered settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along on the fuel of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self.

"…The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

"That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

[end of David Foster Wallace quotes]


While what the buddha calls "our run of the mill mind" or DFW "default self-centered settings" is a profoundly distorted and stress inducing creation, it nevertheless stays intact because, after all, it is the way things "appear to be"

—DFW starts off his talk with the story about fish that don't know what water is

—the appearance that the sun revolves around the earth

—most of live our lives without questioning all of our thoughts, views, opinions, not realizing that, as they are filtered through the prism of self, they are likely to be delusional

ball of honey sutta

the buddha unpacks our hard-wired default setting:

its important to note the causal chain of suffering here is:

contact with the world> feeling > thinking > the perceptions & categories of papañca

Papanca, or obsessive thought, is born of the dualistic idea "I am" vs. "everything else"

—self-reflexive thinking, in which we conceive of having a self or identity, listed as an I, many "complications" arise:

—This is me/not me; This is mine/not-mine; this i own/don't own; I am/I'm not; I'm a victim/victimizer; I have/don't have; etc.

when we think "i am the seer" "i am the one hearing" "i am the one tasting" "i am the one thinking" we add a sense of self and what it means to me to everything we experience.

—Once we start thinking of ourselves in these terms we're stuck in a myriad of thoughts from these basic propositions.

—Once there's a conviction in a lasting self, whatever we experience or feel is greeted as either desirable or undesirable for that self.

When there's the sense of identification with something that experiences, then based on the feelings arising from sensory contact, some feelings will seem appealing — worth getting for the self — and others will seem unappealing — worth pushing away. From this there grows desire, which comes into conflict with the desires of others who are also engaging in papañca. This is how inner objectifications breed external contention.

undermining the tendency to experience everything in terms of self.

dfw locates the end of papanca in "keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness" through disciplined attention, awareness, "and being able truly to care about other people." "empathy" he says is "trying to imagine what it’s like to be the other guy"

—this undercuts the narcissistic view of the world, along with the 'terminal uniqueness' that mars so much of our thinking

—this compassionate view of the world is very much a part of the buddha's strategy for 'safe thinking'

generosity, giving of one's time and resources, and virtue, refraining from causing harm

—both generosity and virtue undercut the competitive nature of our world view

but what is this disciplined attention and awareness?

—there are tools that do not require us to jump outside an become aware of all the important issues of the day, to become entirely externally based, to 100% engage with the world

—nor is the goal to abandon awareness of the underlying monologue that's occurring, but to do so as part of a radically different process of awareness

—nor is it to give up dualistic thinking.

before there is self-centeredness there are underlying feelings of "liking what's going on" "not liking what's going on" "no opinion" about whats going on:

Sukha-vedana: good moods; a carefree sense of ease or well-being in the mind.

  1. Dukkha-vedana: bad moods; a feeling of depression, sorrow, annoyance or discouragement.
  2. Upekkha-vedana: neutral moods

feelings are running beneath and prior to everything we think

—from these feelings our thoughts arise

—before the "self vs other" world takes shape

the self vs other world view rests on underlying sukkha vedana and dukkha vedana, or underlying stress

—through a shift in perception, we attend to internal gut and mind state feelings, rather than thoughts first.

So first we watch the arising and passing of feelings in the present.

—We don't follow what they urge us to do through the thoughts that rest on top of them.

—We use our powers of awareness to burn into whatever spot a feeling may arise.

—Stay with the realization that feelings do nothing but arise and fall away

As the Buddha states, rather than viewing a feeling as an appealing or unappealing thing, one should look at it as part of a causal process: when a particular feeling is pursued, do skillful or unskillful qualities increase in the mind?
—There is simply the analysis of cause-effect processes. feeling -> result

" There are two kinds of Feelings: those to be pursued & not to be pursued.' When one knows of a feeling 'As I follow this, unskillful mental qualities increase, and skillful mental qualities decline,' that sort of feeling should not to be pursued. When one knows of a feeling 'As I follow this feeling, unskillful mental qualities decline, and skillful mental qualities increase,' that sort of feeling should be pursued. "

When comparing feelings that lead to skillful qualities, notice which are more refined:

—those accompanied with papanca or a plethora of self-centered thoughts

—those accompanied with thinking (directed thought) and evaluation,

—eventually those free of thinking and evaluation, as in the highest stages of mental absorption, or jhana.

—we always opt for the more refined feelings, and this cuts through thinking that provides the basis for papañca.

When we follow this process, self-reflexive thinking is avoided in general.

Note: One is still making use of dualities (unskillful and skillful results) but the distinction is between processes, not identities.

—Our analysis avoids the type of thinking that creates papañca


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