In 2009 RTE produced a documentary about Seamus Heaney called Out of the Marvellous, an intimate portrait of one of Ireland’s greatest artists and finest men. I make a point of watching it about once a year. In one interview Heaney makes the following statement, which deeply struck me when I first heard it. “You dwell in your dreamworld, in your fantasy, in your unconscious…and also you dwell in the wide-awake, up-and-at-it world of day to day. If you’re too deep into either one you aren’t living the right life.”
“You dwell in your dreamworld, in your fantasy, in your unconscious…and also you dwell in the wide-awake, up-and-at-it world of day to day. If you’re too deep into either one you aren’t living the right life.”We live in the age of The Power of Now, with Mindfulness classes on every corner and the incessant call to be ‘present’ by juice-guzzling yogis, dripping with their own virtue (full disclosure: I do yoga, love my Nutribullet and have completed a Mindfulness course). And I get it. Being mindful and present can be calming and allows us to savour things in a deeper way. There is however virtue in an alternative, in allowing our minds go freestyle and do whatever it is they gotta do. I want to make the case for allowing ourselves to not be present. In short, I want to make the case for daydreaming.
To daydream is not forbidden in Mindfulness but you are always gently encouraged to bring the mind back from wherever it has wandered off to. This is good mental exercise and excellent for learning self compassion, but what if your mind was leading you off to a thought that was going to crack a problem you’ve been grappling with? What if that mental tangent was leading you towards a particularly excellent pun? I believe that if we can find that sweet spot described by Heaney, somewhere between pure mindful attention and fantastical immersion, we will be more in touch with both our inner and outer lives. From personal experience I know this can contribute massively to the enjoyment of more robust mental health.
Call it what you like – fantasy, reverie, stream of consciousness – one thing is certain: Everybody daydreams. It helps us process ideas, it allows us take a break from complex work, cope with boring tasks and can aid our creativity. Daydreaming is a legal means to an altered consciousness. It gives us a high to escape our immediate reality and delve into alternative worlds that can excite and delight. Like other drugs however, it can get addictive and take over our lives if left unchecked. I’ve recently been taking a closer look at this phenomenon that most of us take for granted. It hasn’t been easy. At times, it has felt like I have been writing about breathing or eating, as daydreaming is such a natural part of our moment-to-moment existence. Helpfully, I do know what I’m talking about. Over the past fifteen years I have built up an intimate relationship with daydreaming and have experienced both the worst and the best that this psychological quirk has to offer. Having come out the far side, my current belief is that when enjoyed responsibly, daydreaming is a healthy and inescapable part of our mental landscape.
Inner Worlds and Unlived Lives
The first person to academically study daydreaming was a Yale psychologist working in the 1950s called Jerome L. Singer. His working definition for a daydream was “a shift [undirected or provoked by a stimulus] of attention from the external environment or task being performed toward an internal sequence of events, memories, or images of future events which have varying degrees of likelihood of occurring.” His findings were eventually published in 1975 as The Inner World of Daydreaming. The cover design for this sadly out-of-print book is so gorgeous that when I discovered it I got swept up in delicious thoughts about unwrapping the book, seeing it on my bookshelves, showing it off at parties…. Sorry, where were we?
There has been little research into daydreaming since Singer but Eric Klinger (daydreams of Limericks about Singer and Klinger abound), a University of Minnesota psychologist, spent years studying the mind’s wanderings. He reports that daydreaming accounts for about half of the average person’s thoughts (how he has calculated this I fail to understand, but sure listen).
Anyone who has studied Mindfulness meditation can tell you that our minds are in fact built to run amok. They are, as the wonderfully playful French philosopher Michel de Montaigne says, “always elsewhere”. Accepting this is an incredibly relieving exercise. Yet many of us swat away our daydreams as if they were annoying flies and criticise ourselves for drifting off, when all our brains are doing is exactly what they’re supposed to do.
Not only are daydreams a normal part of how a healthy brain functions, they carry invaluable information about our real, lived lives. Adam Philips, Britain’s foremost psychoanalytic writer, echoes this sentiment in his book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. He starts off by stating that much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. Phillips believes we learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like. This seems obvious enough but he goes further: “We live double lives….the daily reality of our lives and the lives we fantasise about. We share our lives with the people we have failed to be.”
He explains that we make our lives pleasurable, and therefore bearable, by picturing them as they might be, that “our fantasy lives are not necessarily alternatives to, or refuges from, those real lives but an essential part of them.”
So Philips, Singer and Klinger all tell us how central our daydream lives are to our human experience. What happens though when they get out of hand?
I was always a dreamy child. Around the age of 11, while on holiday in the wilds of Kerry, I started heading off by myself across the fields and down the beach where I would create elaborate alternative universes for myself inside my own head. This felt like the most natural thing in the world to me, having spent my early childhood making up games and characters with my friends, siblings and cousins. But as I grew older I began to realise that what I was doing so naturally and what was giving me immense pleasure was apparently not a “normal” thing to do. I was branded a “hippie” for wanting to sit in a field by myself and not join in the loud, boisterous games my friends favoured. Later in secondary school, I was seen as odd because I wanted to walk home by myself, where I could enjoy my dreamworlds alone, uninterrupted.
Sadly, this practise soon got out of hand. I suffered my first bout of depression at the age of 19, just after my Leaving Cert. Cue seven years of being continuously and heavily medicated, ending up more miserable and frightened than ever. My daydreaming tendencies became pathological to the point where, at the height of my depression, I was unable to have a conversation without imagining a more perfect one in my head simultaneously, unable to walk down a street without imagining myself elsewhere. Coupled with the drug-induced vivid dreams which left me bleary-eyed for hours after waking, I was barely in touch with reality at all. It was, to put it mildly, absolutely no craic.
When I was 25 I decided that enough was enough and I found a sympathetic psychiatrist who helped me get off the meds. Those 9 months of hellish withdrawal are a story for another day but I am a new woman as a result of it. Since recovering, I have developed the self awareness to recognise when I am using my daydreaming as a deliberate attempt to escape reality. Like anyone with a self destructive habit , I now have to keep it in check. I know it’s getting out of hand when I get weirdly buzzed from a daydream, and I know I need to get back on the mat and relax my mind.
I am not alone in my daydreaming vice. Many people’s daydreams and fantasy lives get out of hand. In the 1980s, psychologists Cheryl Wilson and Theodore Barber developed the expression “fantasy-prone” and in 2002 Eli Somer, a professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, coined the phrase “maladaptive daydreaming.” He defines it as “extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal, or vocational functioning.”
There are many people who suffer deeply with this compulsion who are calling for Somer’s research to be recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
While personally, I’m often wary of the DSM, believing it all too readily pathologise normal elements of human experience (how exactly is grief a medically treatable “disorder”?), it will be interesting nonetheless to follow the developments of Sonner’s research.
Given my history of problematic daydreaming, you would think that I wouldn’t want anything to do with it now. Yes, it started out as escapism, but why must that term always be used in a negative context? As T.S. Eliot writes in Four Quartets, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” This is not nihilism. Our culture’s insistence on being constantly present is denying us a full engagement with the inner workings of our minds and distancing us from our deeper desires and needs. Of course the world needs to slow down, needs less Netflix, needs less mindless phone scrolling. But being present for an hour a week in a yoga class and then immediately checking our twitter feeds after class is nonsensical. What I want to achieve is a deeper connection, not just to whatever task I’m engaged in, but in what’s going on in that mad snakes’ nest behind my eyes.
In Praise of Idleness
It would be remiss to discuss daydreaming without advocating for the state of idleness.
Our world is obsessed with productivity. We cram everything we can into every waking minute and are obsessed with efficiency and “optimizing our time”. But I agree with French philosopher and Renaissance Wunderkind Blaise Pascal, who wrote in 1654, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
I once met a friend for breakfast and arrived early. It was a sunny Sunday morning. I sat outside with my phone tucked away, enjoying the light on my face and almost certainly daydreaming. When he arrived, he looked at me as if I had grown an extra nose.
“What are you doing??”
“I’m just sitting here.”
“That is so bizarre.”
This interaction has stayed with me and illustrates a pervasive and worrying distrust of just simply doing nothing.
As a result of my ongoing explorations of what does and doesn’t work for my sensitive, introverted mind, it has become glaringly obvious to me that I need a lot of silence and inactivity in my day. This is not a luxury, but a necessity. In order to cope with what Bertrand Russell calls “the painful necessity of thought”, I have to let my mind sit and be, otherwise I end up an exhausted, overwhelmed, tearful mess. I now understand why my 11 year old self felt compelled to wander off down the beach – her mind was crying out for peace and quiet.
Michael Harding has a particularly interesting slant on idleness or inactivity.
[Say what you like about Harding, he writes about depression better than anyone bar none. And not to boast but I’ve read LOADS about depression]
In Hanging with the Elephant he explains:
“I’m a bit uneasy with people who say they meditate with a completely straight face. Because in a way meditation is not something to do. It’s not something you achieve. If you think you’re meditating, then maybe you’re not…..Personally I just doze. I think dozing might be described as the Irish tradition of meditation. It’s a space in your mind that opens out when you stay still. When you stop thinking. And your mind widens to take in everything and you’re half aware of everything.”
Harding has taught himself to “resist doing” so that his mind “becomes gentle.” How wonderful that would be, to have a gentle mind. Dozing should be on the school curriculum. Do less, dream more. That sounds like an awful beer ad, but it is at the centre of what I’m getting at here.
Daydreaming happens mostly without permission or awareness. We can however actively permit ourselves to daydream, and I firmly believe that we should. Making time in our busy lives to let our minds breathe and create can be seen as a luxury. As John Cleese once wisely said “it is easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking.” I see this, however, as a deficiency in our attitude to our mental health. Surely we all want to live “the right life” described by Heaney? Therefore, befriend your daydreams, pay attention to them and work towards making them a healthy part of your balanced mental diet. Take care, however. As Dumbledore once said to the littlest Potter:
“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live”
Daydreams can enrich our lives in ways we cannot always perceive, and should be cherished.
Illustration: Sarah Moloney