Naikan and David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water”

Late one night a couple of years ago, I searched youtube for “David Foster Wallace” after watching the film about his life titled The End of the Tour. I stumbled upon his speech “This is Water,” which he gave at Kenyon College in 2005, but was not depicted in the film. After listening to it, I sat in a state of awe at its simple brilliance. I then did a Google search of it and found that many consider it one of the best commencement speeches ever given.

About a year after I encountered the speech, a student in a class I was teaching came to talk with me. I noticed “This is Water” tattooed on her wrist. Surprised, I asked her if it had anything to do with David Foster Wallace’s speech. She confirmed that it did.

The speech is about how to think intentionally, and how to avoid falling victim to our default way of thinking about the world from our self-centered perspectives. With a vivid description of a trip to a grocery store, he illustrates how our self-centered perspectives lead to suffering.  He advocates for using our attention in new ways when he says, “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.”

You can find the complete text of the speech here

But rather than read it, I strongly recommend listening to David Foster Wallace give the speech. Listen here on youtube.  He delivers it in less than 23 minutes with humor and humility.

David Foster Wallace, as erudite as he was, may have never heard of Naikan. Yet, those familiar with Naikan will have no problem seeing how his speech resonates with it. For those unfamiliar with Naikan, the speech makes a persuasive case for the importance of Naikan in so far as it promotes using our minds to liberate ourselves from self-centered ruminations that lead to suffering.

Written by Clark Chilson