I’m about to write something that may ruffle some feathers in the meditation world.
In many mindfulness and meditation circles, a lot of time and effort are spent paying attention to the present moment. But, contrary to what you may think, daydreaming about the future and reflecting on events in the past can actually be very healthy, helpful, and even necessary mental endeavors.
It’s easy to demonize this mental time travel when tremendous value is placed on remaining in the present moment when meditating and practicing mindfulness.
But I don’t think that’s actually what’s at the heart of these practices.
See, I think these practices are simply correcting for our tendency to live in extremes and they help us return to a state of balance.
The extreme I’m talking about in this case is – as I’ve heard Tara Brach refer to it – the “trance of thinking”.
It’s true that if we spend all of our time imagining the future or remembering the past, we miss our actual life. Because life only ever happens in the present moment.
And what a tragic thing to have so much wonder and beauty and connection and joy all right in front of us at any moment – and completely miss these experiences because we are lost in our thoughts.
So I am a BIG fan of meditation and mindfulness for this reason.
But, I can easily find myself sliding into a right/wrong perspective if I’m not careful.
Because so much focus is placed on returning to the present moment, when I notice that my mind has wandered, it’s tempting to feel like I’m failing or doing something wrong.
In these instances, my inner critic jumps at the chance to use this as evidence that I’m not that evolved or just not good enough with this basic yet very important skill.”
To my inner critic – and to yours, if you can relate – I present this article.
According to Dr. Sarah McKay, “the capacity to daydream may hold an evolutionary adaptive value that sets us apart from other animals and enables us to function successfully.”
She goes on to write, “It has been suggested that daydreaming facilitates creative problem solving, such as that “eureka” moment in the shower. Research on creativity has pointed to the importance of distractions during demanding tasks, to facilitate a creative period of incubation.
During these periods, we loosen our thought processes to find solutions to problems using previously unexplored options.
These findings suggest that we may have evolved to consider alternative perspectives, which confers a great deal of flexibility in our everyday lives.
Rather than actively engaging in certain behaviours, we can test our actions in advance by mentally envisaging their outcome and avoiding costly mistakes.
The default network is also active when we imagine what someone else may be thinking or feeling. This ability to appreciate the perspectives of others allows us to function successfully in the social world and to demonstrate empathy and understanding toward others.”
The context of her piece is around research showing that those with dementia lose the ability to not only remember the past but imagine the future and how that loss of function in the diseased brain is so problematic.
I have seen this firsthand over the past few years as my mother suffered and declined so profoundly due to Alzheimer’s Disease.
I have seen what this inability cost her and how limited she has become, how small her world has gotten. And this loss of brain function has destroyed the rich and vibrant life she once knew.
So when I read this article, and consider all I’ve witnessed alongside my mom, I’m reminded that the ability to mentally time travel and let our thoughts wander is a marvelous skill.
But it’s only marvelous if it’s kept in balance by the ability to also pay attention to the present moment.
It’s the balance of these two that we’re after.
And since our modern life easily takes us out of the present and into “the trance of thinking”, we benefit greatly from correcting for this extreme by practicing the skill of present moment attention.
So, the next time I catch myself lost in thought when meditating, rather than feeling like I’m somehow failing, I’ll remember that my brain is actually doing something remarkable and valuable. And that all I’m doing as I meditate is practicing a different and equally valuable skill so that I am strong in both realms and able to live life to the fullest.
Take that, inner critic.
I invite you to give your critic a similar one-two punch, if needed.
To feeding the good wolf in this way,
P.S. If you are wondering “who the heck is Ginny?!” just click here for a quick bit of context. 🙂