March 1, 2011

Was That Just a Dream?

The Mind’s Amazing Gift for “Make Believe.”

This week we had our first kid-related middle-of-the-night wake-up call in years. My daughter had a really bad dream and needed reassurance that, unlike the world she created in her dream, everything was actually OK in the real world.

I can fully relate to her feelings of uncertainty. I’ve woken from plenty of dreams confused and lost. I’ve woken from some dreams still furious and from others devastatingly sad. Sometimes, I’m lucky enough to wake up euphoric from a really good dream. And, like my daughter the other night, I’ve woken from some dreams horrified and frightened.

The convincing, powerful nature of dreams reveals the human mind’s amazing gift for make-believe. Our minds are always “going.” I read somewhere that we think an average of 60,000 thoughts per day. Interestingly, the vast majority of these thoughts are of things that have already happened or things to come. In other words, we invest vastly more mental energy in the past and the future than we do in the present.

Not only does our daydreaming distract us from our present moment, but it has an emotional impact on us. Just think about the effects that anticipation and disappointment have on us. The feelings we have as we drift off into the past or the future are as real and as powerful as the feelings we’re filled with when we wake in the middle of the night from a dream.

Have you ever had a frustrating conversation with a colleague, only to come up with the perfect “one-liner” hours after you have parted ways? When we allow events or conversations to loop continuously through our minds, we do at times come up with the perfect one-liner. However, those one-liners come with a hefty price tag – hours of being emotionally stirred up. Instead of moving on and focusing our energy on our present activities, by allowing our thoughts to linger on the frustrating conversation we remain seeped in the emotions of the negative exchange. And those emotions can color how we handle our current conversations and tasks.

The same is true when we create fictions about what might happen to us when we get home from work, or tomorrow, or even next week. For example, the worry and fear I often feel leading up to a routine visit to the dentist or dermatologist is almost always ten times worse than the actual event. The anxiety I create for myself by imagining cavities and cancerous spots is very real. My body reacts to these feelings of fear just as it would if the doctor actually did find a sticky spot on one of my teeth. I experience constricted breathing. I get jittery. I catch myself gritting my teeth. The emotions caused by my make-believe scenarios impact how I’m treating the people around me. Just ask my kids about Mommy’s patience levels in the days leading up to one of these appointments.

I suspect I’m not the only one out there who has ever fabricated elaborate explanations for the stuff other people do or don’t do. I remember one evening when my husband was especially late coming home from work and forgot to call. I took myself through an entire spectrum of emotions as I waited for him to arrive. I started out hurt that I clearly wasn’t on his list of priorities or else he would have called. I moved on to near-frantic worry about where he could be. I somehow decided the only explanation for his lateness was a fatal car accident and got carried away by a surge of grief as I imagined life without him. When he finally walked in the door, my grief was sucked away by a whirlpool of anger way out of proportion to his mistake. It was whiplash from the emotional rollercoaster I’d been on. The craziest thing is that while my emotions were real, the thoughts causing them were 100% make believe.

The time we spend practicing yoga helps us get better at “catching” ourselves in our little fantasies. Each time we drift off into a daydream on our mat, we drift out of alignment. The physical shift of our bodies is often enough that we “wake up” and re-focus on the stretch. Each time we enter a challenging posture, we have the chance to allow our emotions to rise without reacting to them. If we hate forward bends, we learn that our mental discomfort passes when we just stay in the stretch and breathe. The panic we may feel at going into a handstand will fade as we focus all of our energy on the act of kicking up into the posture. The fidgety, antsy feelings we have as we impatiently wait for our teacher to get to our favorite posture distract us from the gifts of whatever stretch we’re in right now. When we realize that we’re missing out, we return our focus to the present moment. As we pour our all into doing the yoga, our emotions fade away, replaced by the rich feelings of each stretch.

Yoga is not teaching us that our feelings aren’t real or valid. To the contrary, yoga is designed to help us manage our powerful feelings by managing our minds. On our mats, we practice reining in our wandering thoughts. We practice paying attention to what we’re doing. By doing so, we get a break from the emotional upheaval of our daydreams. With practice, our time on our yoga mats becomes a time of inner peace and quiet, a time of emotional stability. As we come to our mats day after day and return to this same quiet place inside, it dawns on us that this quiet place is always available. It occurs to us that we can deliberately step away from the rollercoaster of emotions caused by our daydreams by taking a breath and paying full attention to the present moment.

And this is, in essence, how my daughter finally was able to go back to sleep after her nightmare. The mental effort of re-telling the awful dream to my husband enabled her to take her first step away from her emotions. After she had calmed down a little, she returned to bed — with the lights on, of course. When she described how she got back to sleep, the yoga teacher in me had to smile. She read for a little while, focusing her mind on something other than the images from her dream. Then, she says she snuggled under the covers and focused on her room around her. Each time her mind tugged her back to the dream, she took a breath and reminded herself that she was in her cozy bed, in her green and pink room, with her family all nearby in their beds. It didn’t happen right away, and there was one final visit to our room, but she did eventually relax enough to drift off to sleep. And that’s right where she stayed until I kissed her awake in the morning. 

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