By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
Most people walk around lost in thought. It can be very enticing to spend the majority of our time thinking about the past or the future and as a result miss out on the present moment (otherwise known as reality!). Many years ago when I began to read books on the topic of mindfulness, it was like someone took a bag off my head. I hadn’t realized how much time I lost to being lost in thought. I have authors like Eckhart Tolle and Leonard Jacobson to thank for the “bag lifting,” and I now spend a good deal of my life living in the present. I also have the honor of teaching my clients the simple tools that I have been taught.
Walking around lost in our minds is like mistaking a movie for reality. And whether our “mind movie” is an exciting fantasy or a dreaded horror story, it is not actually real. When you are actually watching a movie in the theatre, it’s pretty safe to say that you know the movie you are watching is not real and that the chair you are sitting on, the sticky floor beneath your feet and the tub of popcorn on your lap arereal. Unfortunately, when it comes to our mind movies (aka our thoughts), we tend to lose our logic and truly believe that our imagination and our perceptions are real.
Upon learning this, many of my clients tell me that they enjoy their fantasies, that fantasizing gives them hope. And that’s fine, but I think it’s important to know that most fantasies are laced with pain due to the fact that reality sets in. And in reality everything is temporary and has its ups and downs. Fantasies lead us to think that reality is not enough. And even if a fantasy does come true for a time, it will never go the way the mind movie promises or end the way the Hollywood movie ends.
Take romantic relationships, for example. One of the bestselling movie topics of the mind. Someone might fantasize about a new relationship and think they will be so happy when they get one. They may spend much of their time feeling dissatisfied with their life as a single person. Then, when they finally do get into a relationship, they do not generally say, “Ahhhhhhh this is it. This is what I always dreamed of.” (At least not for very long!) This is because reality sets in and there are challenges in the relationship or the relationship ends. However, if one is able to remember that their mind movies or expectations were just fantasies and ideas, they are in a better position to work with reality and make it as healthy as it can possibly be.
Or say someone dreams about getting a new home and spends enormous amounts of time thinking about it and believing how perfect life will be when its finally theirs. Then they get the house of their dreams and while they might love it, they still have to deal with all the challenges of taking care of a home.
All this is not to say that there is anything wrong with having a goal or obtaining new things, new relationships and new experiences. This is to say that when we spend vast amounts of time fantasizing about some future person or event making us happy, we usually do not end up staying happy for very long. Mind movies prevent us from living in the present moment and set us up for constant disappointment. This is because no one is happy all the time and everything has its ups and downs and everything by nature is temporary.
The good news is that if we can live more in the present, enjoying the sweet moments and enduring the challenging ones, we can learn to live our lives in reality rather than being lost in the fantasy on the screen. More good news is that once we really know and remember that everything is temporary and has pros and cons, we can get that there is no where to get and we can learn to simply be which makes life a lot calmer, easier and more peaceful. Sounds simple enough, right? But those movies of the mind can be habitual, enticing and even addictive.
In order to live more in reality, we need to keep our eyes open for the movies that are playing in the theatre of our minds.
There are basically four “movies” our busy little minds tend to play (and replay). Some people hang out mostly in one or two; some bounce around all four. Here are the marquees of the mind:
Showing in theatre #1 we have, “Future Happiness.” This movie theme sounds like: “I will be so happy when…” “It will be so great if…” or “I hope… happens.”
Then playing on screen #2 is, “Future Fear.” This script is more like: “I hope … doesn’t happen,” “What if… happens?” or “It will be so horrible if…”
Moving back to the past, we have on screen #3, “Past Longings.” Included soundtracks are: “It was so great when…” “I wish I could go back to….” or “I was so happy when…”
And finally, playing in theatre #4 is, “Past Regrets.” Here, the common tracks are: “I can’t believe I…” “If only I had done…” “I wish I had… instead.”
While there is nothing wrong with enjoying a fond memory or looking forward to a future event, when we spend our time primarily lost in these movies of our mind, we live in pain or anxiety and we miss out on our actual lives. Sometimes we even make important life decisions based on these fantastical mind movies.
And just like the weather, actual reality is an ever-changing variety of experiences. Reality can be wonderful, but it can also be painful and sometimes just plain ordinary. But it is reality. And, once we truly know this, we get to choose if we are going to live in an unreal movie with its false promises and horrifying predictions or if we are going to live in actual, factual reality. We get to decide if we are going to enjoy a spring day when it’s lovely outside or dread the winter days ahead. We get to decide if we are going to curse the current storms or accept them, knowing that hating the weather will not change it, it will only change our levels of acceptance and peace.
So see if you can begin to catch yourself when you realize you are lost in a mind movie. Praise yourself for being aware enough to catch it and then bring yourself back to something that is actually, factually here and now. It might be as ordinary as the chair you are sitting in. It might be as lovely as the sun setting in front of you. It might be experiencing a painful emotion about something that just happened.
Remember that all feelings and experiences will pass, both the sweet and the sour. But mind movies are set for continuous re-runs. So ask yourself from time to time: “Am I in a made-up mind movie right now or living life as it actually is?”