The familiarity of Academy routine took on a crushing cumulative aspect. The total number of times I’d schlepped up the rough cement steps of the stairwell, seen my faint red reflection in the paint of the fire door, walked the 56 steps down the hall to our room, opened the door and eased it gently back flush in the jamb to keep from waking Mario. I re-experienced the year’s total number of steps, movements, the breaths and pulses involved. Then the number of times I would have to repeat the same processes, day after day, in all kinds of light, until I graduated and moved away and then began the same exhausting processes of exit and return in some dormitory at some tennis-power university somewhere. Maybe the worst part of the cognitions involved the incredible volume of food I was going to have to consume over the rest of my life. Meal after meal, plus snacks. Day after day after day. Experiencing this food in toto. Just the thought of the meat alone. One megagram? Two megagrams? I experienced, vividly, the image of a broad cool well-lit room piled floor to ceiling with nothing but the lightly breaded chicken fillets I was going to consume over the next sixty years. The number of fowl vivisected for a lifetime’s meat. The amount of hydrochloric acid and bilirubin and glucose and glycogen and gloconol produced and absorbed and produced in my body. And another, dimmer room, filled with the rising mass of the excrement I’d produce, the room’s double-locked steel door gradually bowing outward with the mounting pressure . . . . I had to put my hand out against the wall and stand there hunched until the worst of it passed.
—David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, p. 897
Glossing the Buddha’s first noble truth, let’s say that the aim of meditation is the production of an obvious but vital revelation: shit happens.
I mean this literally. Shit reveals life’s most basic shape: life happens in bodies and bodies are organs of passing.
I am a body, a mouth and an anus. I have a brain, but this brain sits on top of a mouth on top of a stomach on top of some eight meters of bowels. I have a heart for circulating food, lungs for burning it, a nervous system for detecting it, a brain for plotting about it, and limbs for chasing it down. I put the world in my mouth and the world passes through me.
What is the most obvious thing I can say about life? I’m hungry.
Bodies are organs for passing, not for clinging. You can keep part of what you eat, but only for a time. Digestion is the pulse of intra-thoracic time. The rumble in your gut is impermanence made manifest.
Life is this passing. Death is the shitless.
The second noble truth is that shit happens because we’re hungry and it is this hunger that keeps us alive. I’m not being metaphorical. This hunger is primal and saturating. Our very cells cry out for more.
Well fed, this hunger is easy to overlook. Food is like sex (and oxygen): as long as you’re having it, it doesn’t seem like a big deal.
But a body built for meeting this need doesn’t just stop when your stomach is full and the shit backs up. The body is too clever for satisfaction, too skeptical for satiety, too leery of famine.
Hunger persists out of time and adopts avatars without number.
The third noble truth is that you can realize the truth of hunger through boredom. Boredom is what happens when need temporarily ceases but hunger persists. Boredom is the restless persistence of hunger beyond satiety. It is the revelation of hunger’s character, the revelation that nothing will ever be enough. In boredom, the gears keep grinding though the drive train is no longer engaged.
Boredom is the failure of all plotting, of every project and plan and ideology. Boredom is sitting, full of shit, with the worm that still turns. Boredom is hunger revealed as such, stripped of its hope for cessation. Boredom is the cessation of hope.
The fourth noble truth is that you can practice boredom.
What is the most obvious thing I can say about meditating, about just sitting, observing my breath?
It is boring. It is waiting-for-paint-to-dry boring. It is stick-pins-in-my-eyes boring.
Sit for hours. Sit for days. Sit for weeks and months. Practice boring the shit out of yourself. Practice living with rather than running from the hunger that keeps you alive.
Ignorance (not without reason) dreads this boredom and shuns its revelation.
Sit down and make friends with this hopelessness, with this cessation. Let boredom introduce you to life, to your body, to your mouth and anus, your head and hands and feet, your eight meters of bowels.
Something humble, placid even, about inert feet under stall doors. The defecatory posture is an accepting posture, it occurs to him. Head down, elbows on knees, the fingers laced together between the knees. Some hunched timeless millennial type of waiting, almost religious. Luther’s shoes on the floor beneath the chamber pot, placid, possibly made of wood, Luther’s 16th-century shoes, awaiting epiphany. The mute quiescent suffering of generations of salesmen in the stalls of train-station johns, heads down, fingers laced, shined shoes inert, awaiting the acid gush. Women’s slippers, centurion’s dusty sandals, dock-workers’ hobnailed boots, Pope’s slippers. All waiting, pointing straight ahead, slightly tapping. Huge shaggy-browed men in skins hunched just past the firelight’s circle with wadded leaves in one hand, waiting.
—David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, p. 103
Adam S. Miller is a professor of philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Villanova University, as well as a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Brigham Young University. His areas of specialization include contemporary French philosophy and philosophy of religion. He is the author of Badiou, Marion, and St Paul: Immanent Grace (Continuum, 2008), Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Kofford, 2012), and Speculative Grace: An Experiment with Bruno Latour in Object-Oriented Theology(Fordham University Press, forthcoming), the editor of An Experiment on the Word (Salt Press, 2011), and he currently serves as the director of the Mormon Theology Seminar. He contributes to the blogs The Church and Postmodern Culture and Times and Seasons.
Painting by Louis Vuittonet, “Girl 3”