Sunday, April 8, 2012

Choosing the Road Not Taken

Is it just me, or do we spend too much of our lives daydreaming?

In my youth, I was always thinking … not really pondering big questions of the meaning of life… but thinking about the next major milestone I would be achieving. Life would be better after 10 years old, when I (finally) had my ears pierced. Life would be so much better after 16, when I could drive sans parents. Life would improve dramatically after 18, when I was “on my own,” and no longer had a curfew. Life would be better after marriage... career... kids... house... and so forth.

For the record, daydreaming can be a very positive pastime. It fosters imagination, and encourages excitement. Who doesn't enjoy imagining how different life will be after an interesting, life-changing event occurs? Who doesn't derive some happiness and positive anticipation from thoughts of a new ring, salary, bundle of joy, vacation destination, etc?

However, too much daydreaming can actually backfire, and prevent true happiness from being realized – for example, when you find yourself spending too much time in absent thought about an upcoming trip to Mexico that you fail to recognize the beauty and warmth of the same Mexican sun on a wonderful spring day in Minnesota.

Now, I'm not a brain expert, but I imagine that so much time thinking about the future builds strong neural tendencies to continue this behavior – long after “traditional” milestones are behind us. As a result, we either create new ways to look forward, or find ourselves enamored with the “good ole' days,” reliving memories to try and feel better about today.

These tendencies to dwell in the past or attempt to predict the future have evoked many emotions – from angst to yearning. Not happiness. And that bothered me. I was tired of being anxious about something that happened earlier. I was bored with reliving 'shining' moments. Anticipation was great in theory, but when the anticipated moment had past, I felt incredibly deflated. Being the bookworm that I am, I started mulling over happiness as a concept, finding many interesting reads along the way – poetry by Rumi, meditations by Thich Nhat Hanh, philosophical musings by Lao Tze, more contemporary analyses by Rubin and Carter. I found myself searching for the source of this discontent.

What did I find? That daydreaming, and my tendency to be preoccupied with past events or anticipating the future were not symptoms of a larger problem. They were the problem. Thus, to achieve a sense of equilibrium and contentment, I needed to abandon the well-trodden neural paths established in my mind, and opt for a newer route, one of mindfulness. 

As a result, I've been working on thought-stopping – not allowing myself to spiral to a new place in my mind when my family is otherwise enjoying time together. I make time to work on meditation, exercise that pushes me, active engagement with my kids, and other things that help to ground me and keep me present with the situations and loved ones around me. For the record, mindfulness still doesn't come easily to me – after all, I had many decades to live my inveterate life of daydreams. It may take a few more to embrace these goals, and solidify this new path. In the meantime, I'll try to make my peace just where I am.

inveterate - stubbornly established by habit


  1. This speaks to the deepest part of my soul, GR!

    One of my biggest trials this year is finding a way to enjoy the moment, live in the present, and take pleasure in the journey. I keep speaking in terms of "when I grow up" and fail to account for how far I have already come... I am a responsible adult and I have already begun my wonder years. It is time to revel in today.

    Great post. Hit it right on the nail.

    1. Also---I started a "Rubin"esque blog for my 2011 resolution, and I felt that helped with the small daily tribulations... just saying!

  2. We so often see the "other" as so much more inspired, more valued, more worthy of our time. We forget how wonderful and amazing the present can be. . . You need to watch Midnight in Paris. It resonates well with the thoughts you have expressed in this post.

  3. We actually attend a Mindful Meditation group every Friday and are practicing Is-ness. Now-ness. Makes a difference.

  4. Sara, this speaks to me. I've been noticing much of the same in my own behaviors this year, and have made some small attempts to keep my brain engaged in where I am and what I'm doing instead of the metaphorical shopping list of other things to think about.