Defining Success

"I would like to pose the argument that success in academia and career is in no way at all...

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In light of growing awareness in the Self, regarding success and enjoyment of existence, and those two things perhaps being more mutually exclusive than most of us are led to believe, I would like to write about the failures of present time first world education. I would like to pose the argument that success in academia and career is in no way at all correlated with enjoyment of existence, and in fact the valuing of success over enjoyment of existence may be the fundamental distracting illusion preventing the majority of current humanity from experiencing fulfillment of life. I feel I am in the majority when I express that in times of success, I was still fully capable of, and subject to, a lack of enjoyment of existence and even depression. Perhaps being socially conditioned to fill voids when they come up in life rather than face and cross said voids is the ultimate down fall of the current Western education infrastructure.

In a modern Western world of education, chock full of timed exams, letter grades and SAT scores it is easy to forget the value of enjoyment of existence. Oftentimes we are so pressured to perform feats of information regurgitation that we are left with little time to experience the present moment. We are habitually overwhelmed with the notion that we should always be doing, rather than being. From an extraordinarily young age we are groomed, almost as circus monkeys, conditioned to dance on command. Only this imposed dance involves gripping a pencil until our hand aches, reading until our eyes exhaust and speaking until our throats dry. What is worse is that we are so conditioned to this performance lifestyle that we can hardly achieve any peace of mind, even when the music is not playing.

Successful is the ever-dancing monkey, but what about quality of life? What about enjoyment of existence? While addressing his idea of the real truth about life, David Foster Wallace once said, “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” (6). If simple awareness really is the most valuable potential aspect of our educations why then is there no required class addressing it? And why on earth is success, particularly in relation to memorization and regurgitation, apparently valued so highly above this idea of simple awareness? We know that success does not directly equate to enjoyment, but what I am proposing is that lack of simple awareness does equate to lack of enjoyment.

Of course, we all understand the need for certain components of traditional education. We can easily see the usefulness of arithmetic, reading, science, etc. This essay is not an attempt to discredit the practicality of traditional education. Rather, my intention is to focalize upon the towering need for a recalibration of how knowledge is disseminated in traditional schools and the need for a reharmonizing of hierarchy in relation to importance of subject. Also, perhaps overwhelming course work loads, implied sleep deprivation and the over prioritization of letter grades over basic human mental health needs should be addressed with a level of urgency on par with that of any mass human health issue. Not to mention the distinct truancy of requirement for any type of study of simple awareness practices. In regard to general education, to an extent, we are required to study physical health, we are encouraged to exercise our bodies and practice sexual safety and the information provided on school campuses advocating for these forms of physical well-being is abundant. Yet we would be hard pressed to find a practical resource for student mental/emotional well-being. We have all heard that the brain is like a muscle, and we have all heard that muscles require recovery, yet there is no value placed upon mental recovery. Mental exhaustion, emotional distress and deteriorated personal lives have become common place among many academically successful students. So, what is the true cost of a high GPA, why do we value it above well-being, and could incorporating the study of simple awareness practices be a much-needed antidote to the common place mental/emotional health concerns among students?

Perhaps an A in a required hypothetical class on simple awareness practices and its effect upon mental/emotional well-being should be held to the same degree of standard as an A in Algebra, or English or Physical Education. Furthermore, perhaps we should first be encouraged to think independently, before we are overwhelmingly pressured to swallow the thoughts of others. There is a radical difference between the acquisition of knowledge and the cultivation of simple awareness. The acquisition of knowledge involves memorization, the study of other great thinkers, and reflection upon what is already known. Which is valuable and can greatly enable an accelerated intellectual evolution, but probably not on its own. The cultivation of simple awareness is the paramount ingredient to activating relevance of said attained knowledge. A large base of knowledge is just a pile of books if not for simple awareness acting as a digestive enzyme of the mind. We have education plans that outline, in great detail, every single moment of our academic careers and if we look closely, we see extreme amounts of time devoted to the collection of known knowledge, yet hardly any time devoted to the generation of new knowledge via simple awareness practices.  If we look even closer, we may notice an absolute absence of time dedicated to mental recovery.

In 2005 David Foster Wallace delivered a uniquely raw and profoundly nonsugar-coated commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College. Over the course of the speech, a starkly nontraditional understanding of what an education is, was presented. For instance, at one-point Wallace states, “This, I submit, is the freedom of real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship” (5). He makes this statement after proposing the idea of a default setting of the mind and the benefit of truly paying attention, not to just the world inside of you, or the world outside of you, but to the interconnection and mutual influence of the two. He alludes to the capacity we have to ingest life in any multitude of manners. This capacity is simple awareness, and it is the philosophers’ stone of enjoyment of existence. In a mere three sentences, Wallace outlines the brilliant power of simple awareness in these words, “If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and who and what is really important, if you want to operate on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. 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 lit the stars: love, fellowship, and mystical oneness of all things deep down” (5). Wallace is not the only person to have made such exhortations.  In fact, humanity can be traced back through its own history on the words of great philosophers of the Eastern and Western world alike posing this same concept of attention, awareness, mindfulness.

If this concept is so universally known around the world and throughout time, and so fundamentally necessary to our enjoyment, and potentially our fulfillment of life, why then is it not required learning? Is it that we have so gravely associated success with letter grades and pay checks that we have completely and utterly displaced our value of enjoyment? Was there a point in human existence when we collectively decided that if we do not feel complete, if we are experiencing the sensation of a void in life, we must fill said void with good grades, important degrees and high paying jobs, in order to attaint enjoyment and fulfillment of life? And if so, have we inadvertently conditioned ourselves to always be filling illusionary voids?

Saying all this, asking all these questions, does not just make things all better by shining a light on it. Being challenged with the idea that perhaps the voids we experience in life are actually just illusions does not instantly resolve them. This concept of needing to always do more in order to be relevant is deep seated and continually reinforced by the world of success around us. I put forth now that maybe the implementation of mental/emotional well-being education, in the form of simple awareness practices could radically alter our experiences of enjoyment and fulfillment of life; revolutionizing our understanding and defining of success.

Once upon a time, modern science discovered the radical health benefits associated with regular exercise. So solid was the quantification of these benefits that physical education swiftly became a requirement in our traditional education systems. Should not the same be true for simple awareness practices? Just as physical exercise knows many forms, there are maybe forms of simple awareness practices. Some label it with terms such as meditation, prayer, visualization, or perhaps mostly commonly in the West, Mindfulness. Whatever name we assign, let’s talk about the science. In their book, Fully Present, Susan L. Smalley Ph.D. and Diana Winston apply the scientific lens to mindfulness meditation. One of the many scientific references analyzed in their book states, “The immune system gets stronger, as reflected by an increase in the number of cells fighting infection. Brain activity changes, moving towards patterns that coincide with calm yet focused states of attention. Brain structure itself seems to change: Among longtime meditators, Gray matter (the tissue containing neurons) is thicker in certain brain regions compared with nonmeditators. Lastly, even gene expression patterns seem to differ with the induction of a mindful state of mind. On a more subjective level, feelings of anxiety and depression lessen, well-being improves, and relationships toward self, others, and the planet are healthier” (6). Fully Present goes on to explain how just like learning math changes our brain, so too does cultivating simple awareness practices. As mentioned in the above quote, this change is so profound that it can be noted in the actual physical structure of the brain, not dissimilar to muscle growth due to physical exercise. The current scientific study of the effects of simple awareness, mindfulness, meditation, or however you identify it, are ongoing and extremely compelling.

Now I ask the reader, what do you value more, traditional academic success or a successful simple awareness practice? Which will bring you more joy in relation to your existence? Surely, they do not need to be mutually exclusive. But that is just the point, is it not? Successfully cultivating simple awareness practices should be regarded with the same esteem as acquiring a high SAT score. Possibly then we will reorganize our values as a society. Many people find success, but few find joy. Perhaps it is our targets that must be recalibrated, our songs retuned, and our dances reinvented; this time all with simple awareness.

Works Cited

Smalley, Susan L. Ph.D. and Winston, Dianna. Fully Present, The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness. First Da Capo Press edition 2010

Wallace, David Foster. “This Is Water.” 2005 Commencement Address. 21 May 2005. Kenyon College.

Written by Esther Taylor
I am a 30 year student and instructor at VC. I am an aspiring neuroscientist and long time yogi. IG @sivakami.esther Profile

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