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 many more moments of my life in the presence. I also have the honor of teaching my clients and students 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 a theatre, it’s pretty safe to say you know the movie you’re watching is not real and the chair you’re sitting on, the sticky floor beneath your feet, and the tub of popcorn on your lap are real. 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 people tell me they enjoy their fantasies, and that fantasizing gives them hope. That’s fine, but I think it’s important to know that most fantasies end 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 sufficient. And even if a fantasy does come true, it will not likely go the way the mind movie promises or end the way the Hollywood movie ends.
Take romantic relationships for example, one of the bestselling mind movie topics. Someone might fantasize about a new relationship and think they will be so happy when they get one. They might spend countless hours 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 in reality there are challenges. However, if we are able to remember that our mind movies and expectations were just fantasies and ideas, we can be in a better position to work with reality and make it as healthy as it can possibly be.
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 fantasy. More good news is that once we really know and remember that everything is temporary and has pros and cons, we know that there is no where to arrive and we can learn to simply be which makes life a lot calmer, easier, and more peaceful. This sounds simple but those movies of the mind can be extremely habitual and enticing.
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. See which one sound most familiar to you.
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’s nothing wrong with enjoying a fond memory or looking forward to a future event, when we spend our time primarily lost in mind movies, we live in pain, anxiety, depression, or regret and we miss out on our actual lives.
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. 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.
See if you can begin to catch yourself when you realize you’re lost in a mind movie. Praise yourself for being aware enough to catch it and then bring yourself back to something in the present moment. 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. It might be your body breathing.
Remember that all feelings and experiences pass, both the sweet and the sour. But mind movies are set for continuous re-runs. So, try asking yourself from time to time: Am I in a made-up mind movie right now am I here with what is actually here?