The life and death importance of banal platitudes

One of the more pernicious aspects of "culture" is its endless willingness to take life's most profound truths and turn them into dumb songs, TV shows, apps, T-shirts, or slogans to sell soft drinks.

Though advertising is the most visible offender and politicians the most cynical of exploiters, I'd offer that the self-help industry does the most damage to our collective wisdom - by turning "great and terrible truths" into Kumbaya platitudes that revolt many of us because they've been so smothered in cheese.

Which is not to say every life coach, "inspirational" speaker or management consultant is fountaining urine into your pocket when they exclaim: "The longest journey begins with a single step!"

It's just that the overuse of such wise dictums tends to cheapen their sentiments. It's like going out and seeing a really awful, loud person wearing your favourite pair of shoes. You think: "Are we really that close to each other?"

Mostly, I tend to ignore this misappropriation, but I still get the urge to crack my knuckles when one particularly enduring truth is sullied by a talk-show muppet or vapid celeb. That is "living in the moment" or, more specifically, "awareness".

In the past 10 years, the "power of now" has been diluted by cohorts of glittering-eyed gurus telling us to do everything from "take a bubble bath" to "set your mobile phone's alarm" so we can practise being present.

This strikes me about as useful as getting a foot massage wearing ski-boots because the discipline of awareness needs to be led by you, not by one of the billion distractions that blink around us, draining our mindfulness.

This is the great game, as I see it: to be able to stand back from the gossip and traffic jams and the deadening throb of breakfast radio and choose what you're aware of; to choose how you feel, instead of simply reacting to every soft porn magazine cover, insufferable TV host or the Spanish backpackers next door playing their shit music too loudly.

And if you practise, you may one day play the game so well you can also choose to ignore your own thoughts; your petulance, aggression, jealousy or self loathing.

"It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head," said the late American writer David Foster Wallace in his now-famous commencement speech, This is Water.

It's hard to do Wallace's words justice in this space - and if you've not read the speech, please Google it - but he talks of "the old cliché about the mind being 'an excellent servant but a terrible master'".

"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 how you construct meaning from experience," he said.

People who do this, he argued, "[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".

I guess being "well-adjusted" is what most of us aspire to - particularly those who buy self-help books.

Despite my earlier contempt for the genre, I'll admit I've read the books, I've done the courses - even run a bubble bath once in a while - all in the service of gaining some form of self-mastery.

So it's kind of funny I derive so much hope from Foster Wallace's words when you consider he killed himself back in 2008.

I guess, of all culture's truisms, "practise what you preach" may well be the hardest to follow.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.