This is not a question about your secret longings or an attempt to ferret your impure dreams. It is simply an invitation to take a look at what your mind is often working on.
What do you ponder when you are walk alone, travel solo on a bus or train, or sit on a terrace, as I do daily, sipping a cup of tea? What are the thoughts that linger or float through your mind, when you are not seduced by a newspaper, your favorite television channel or the ever-present smart phone?
Of course, there is a great variety of things that pass through your mind and they change every day. What troubled or excited you last week may not be uppermost in your mind this week. Yet, while individual things that concern us change over time, are there categories of concern that do not change so much?
We know, for instance, that if something has happened to exasperate you – a colleague’s irritating remark in the office – it may rankle you. You may be thinking of strong ripostes you wish you had thought of at the time. Or, if you have recently lost a good friend, the pain of loss may return intermittently to your mind. You wish you had kept in closer touch with her before she went out of your life.
The common element in these instances is that they are in the past. If we take an inventory of our free-floating ideas, we will no doubt see examples of a review of past events. They may be joyful events, such as successes at work, painful experiences like a bereavement, or simply striking things that left an impression on our mind. We go over events that have occurred, see it from different angles and perhaps come up with new conclusions.
I have written myself of my experience of hiking in a picturesque trail for a half-hour and then realizing that I had seen nothing of the beauty around me. I was so preoccupied with persistent thoughts that I had let the world pass me by. In effect, I had walked blindfolded, a captive of my own speculation. Surely it is a loss if I can’t enjoy what is in front of me, so barred I am in the prison of my private ideas.
In his charming book, Present Moment Wonderful Moment, the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “We often become so busy that we forget what we are doing or even who we are.” We then walk, zombie-like, through life, without savoring life’s moveable feast: when we work, we long to get out; when we get out, we long to rest and relax; when we return home, we turn on the television without really caring what is unfolding on the screen. The people in our life march through, without contact, without receiving or leaving an imprint. The solution, Buddha would say, is to wake up from this torpor, focus on the present, in fact the very moment, and see what life has to offer. You may then find that there are indeed splendor in the grass and fireworks in the sky.
Now science is offering another interesting take. Despite the vast literature that trace our present discontents to past miseries, find the roots of our neuroses and psychoses in what has occurred before, recent studies suggest that what we think about most is the future. It seems we are forever prospecting what is to come, for we know instinctively that is how we can make our life better.
Psychology, for instance, has put a huge accent on uncovering our past as the way to understand our present quirks. We thought we can best counter depression by finding out and analyzing the sad things that have happened in one’s life. Some now think that depression is better seen as a gloomy world view, a dismal estimate of the future and its scenarios. So the therapy has to start by helping one to develop better future expectations rather than delve in past agonies.
Even learning has been seen as the repetition of past behavior, as modified by the present effort to avoid pain or receive a reward. This explains poorly the large bets people seem to make on their future plans, the enormous investment of sweat and money on the missionary zeal to achieve some result. Their focus is on future hopes and dreams, visions and accomplishments. Nothing shows our obsession with the future as much as the dedication of millions to the afterlife, for which not a shred of evidence has surfaced so far.
Day dreaming then turns out to be, instead of a self-indulgent pastime, a very practical exercise. If your boss has put you on the carpet and acted rude, or your fiancée has taken a trifle and created a scene, you go over the incident more than once, in masochistic detail, only because you are rehearsing for an encore where you can come out with flying colors. You are doing exactly what companies are doing these days: gathering and analyzing ‘big’ data to come up with better strategies. When we seem to grovel in the past, we are really trying to stand up to the future.
I have never quite forgotten what my mother said about a girlfriend. Nor what the girlfriend said about a moustache I temporarily flaunted. Heaven knows I should have been more discriminating about girlfriends, and the moustache was admittedly an affectation I could have done without. My mind keeps recalling these unsavory episodes and will perhaps induce wiser counsel in future.
Tell me: What are you thinking about?