What to Feed the Hungry Mind

Just as food fuels the brain, daydreams feed the mind.

According to the psychiatry and psychology professionals at Psychology Dictionary (www.psychologydictionary.org), daydreaming is “a waking fallacy wherein aware or unaware desires, and at times fears and worries, are played out in the mind. A portion of the flow of thoughts and pictures that take up most of an individual’s time awake.”

 Allowing one’s mind to wander, especially if entirely for pleasure, has been viewed with disdain and aversion throughout history. Busy hands may make for a productive mind. However, research confirms that an idle mind is often immersed in wave after wave of electromagnetic impulses fired off by the brain. These explosive jolts of nerve activity shape the structure of our daydreams. Without this idle activity, our inner lives suffer.

Jerome Singer, the groundbreaking Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University, and John Antrobus developed an elaborate questionnaire for studying individual differences in daydreaming. They named it The Imaginal Processes Inventory (IPI). The IPI consists of twenty-nine scales of twelve items each, covering topics such as daydreaming frequency, failure in daydreams, sexual daydreams, heroic daydreams, guilty daydreams, visualization in daydreams, problem solving in daydreams, and just plain mind wandering. From all of this, the researchers distilled three different daydreaming styles: a positive-vivid daydreaming style, a guilty-dysphoric style, and an anxious-distractible style.

People with an anxious-distractible style simply lack the ability to sustain the deep thinking necessary for productive daydreaming. Those with a guilty-dysphoric style are generally obsessed with irrational fears and aggressive fantasies. In contrast, the majority of those studied had a positive-vivid daydreaming style which is indicative of emotional stability, confidence in the future, and being open to new ideas and experiences. In fact, positive-vivid daydreamers expressed high levels of happiness and demonstrated high levels of creativity. They used daydreaming to find fresh ways to solve problems and envision their aspirations.

So how does daydreaming feed the mind? Positive daydreaming replenishes our mental stamina. It strengthens our ability to cope with a reality in conflict with our core values. It allows us to construct a future that fulfills hidden desires. It can deepen the bond we have with loved ones. Research confirms that daydreaming allows our so-called left/right brain functions to merge, balancing our thought processes with empathetic analysis. It allows us to penetrate the superficial tasks that make up our daily lives, providing us with insight into our motivations.

Anyone who has taken up the challenge of meditation knows how difficult it is to quell the inner babble. Maybe the goal shouldn’t be to arrest the daydream and silence the mind. Maybe we should just enjoy the chit-chat.

Just Follow Instructions

Some consider it sensible to follow instructions and never give up. For me, instructions can be problematic. And I don’t mind walking away from a problem. It’s easy to rationalize rebellion. My current problem has to do with recipes; as in how-to-read-them. Actually the question is, “why read them?”

After several weeks of chicken-to-chicken and fish-to-fish competition, my wife settled on the winner of our subscription dinner contest. Gone are the days of frozen fried chicken in a bag and bottles of curry sauce that no respectable Hindu would eat. It’s now taboo to even contemplate sloppy joe in a can. And there’s no thought of tilapia now that we’ve tasted barramundi. I’d be worried about becoming so bourgeois if it wasn’t for the fact that we were saving money.

Plus we’re eating well. We’re no longer stockpiling spoiled vegetables. Leftovers no longer serve as hosts for flowering molds. Best of all, I’m no longer worried about the expiration dates that I tended to ignore. My wife tics off her choices online once a week. All of my impromptu planning that used to take place at the end of each grocery aisle has gladly ended. I was pretty good at it but there were never any surprises. Now there are variations of cod stew, seared chicken atop glistening pasta, and cheesy enchiladas to look forward to as old favorites.

There’s only one problem: I’m stymied by the meticulous organization of peeled garlic cloves neatly tucked into dimensionally precise bags and the miniature plastic specimen jars that hold exactly enough of whatever is inside. The engineering that went into constructing the measured mix of flavors is impressive. The ingredients have been perfectly rationed. The pressure to follow the recipe is immense. Success depends entirely on how one chops and when one blends. The guesswork is gone and so is the chance of combining extraneous herbs and spices. Since I’m neither a chef nor a gourmet, the closest I can come to being either is when I cook freestyle.

I’m basically a practitioner of food jazz. I scan the recipe to get a feel for where it’s headed, review the ingredients to make certain I have most of what I need, and quickly note the suggested temperatures. After that, it’s just a matter of listening for the splash and sizzle to get me on a roll. Every move stems from muscle memory. Every flavor is a familiar recollection.

However, thanks to Home Chef, I’ve been rendered powerless. I just try to follow the fine print and shut up. Inevitably, my wife rescues me. She swoops in with, “Okay, okay, let me do it.” I hide my relief by offering to help, but by this time she’s had enough of me hovering over the minced shallots while muttering about the needless work. Is there really any reason why a guy who never needs to ask for directions would ever need to follow a recipe? Yep, I thought you’d see my point. The conscientious quietly go about their cooking while recipes handcuff food slingers like me.

Labyrinths: One Path, Many Patterns

What do you suppose was going through the mind of the first human to doodle a spiral? If imagining what our ancient ancestor was thinking while doodling is difficult for you, then try to put yourself in the boots or sandals of the first humans who decided to construct a labyrinth. It’s quite likely that they were descendants of the doodler; or at least distant relatives.

Just to be clear, a labyrinth is not a maze. A labyrinth is comprised of a single pathway in and out. It’s this simplicity that adds to the labyrinth’s mystique. A maze is a puzzle.   They are each physical metaphors of our life’s journey. The maze very well could represent the playful side of one’s journey. It’s a mysterious game that baffles every entrant, leaving them longing for relief and exhilarated when it comes.

One of the most notorious labyrinths was home to a Minotaur; a man with the head of a bull and a deposition to match. Every nine years, fourteen Athenian youths, seven boys and seven maidens, were delivered to King Minos who reigned over Crete. These young men and women were to be sacrificed to avenge the death of Minos’ son, Androgeos.   One by one they were forced to wander into the labyrinth with only the agonizing hope that there was another way out. Of course, there wasn’t. Each became the Minotaur’s meal.

Theseus, an Athenian youth who was of both divine and royal lineage, took up the challenge of freeing Athens from this Minoan curse. He volunteered to be one of the fourteen unfortunate ones. With the aid of Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, who he had managed to seduce, Theseus found his way into the dreaded labyrinth, plunged his sword through the Minotaur’s heart, and followed the string that he had laid down to mark the pathway back to the labyrinth’s inevitable entry.

You may be asking yourself, “So what does this heroic adventure have to do with me?” The answer is, “Everything.” Which pathway are you following, the labyrinth or the maze? The Greeks had their heroes, divine and otherwise. The Theseus adventure is emblematic of hundreds of other tales of heroes who meet their primal self, the animal within, and have the courage to conquer or at least tame it. The legacy of the bull as the embodiment of virile fertility, relentless strength, and unbridled passion lives on. For example, the literal representation of Theseus’ feat can be seen today in bullrings.

We all face our own challenges. We follow our own interior pathways to see where they might go. Given the growing number of labyrinths around the world, folks apparently still need to visualize what resides within. Some people are repeatedly drawn to the labyrinth’s quiet potential, while others see it as just another primitive pattern. The lucky ones see beyond the labyrinth’s pattern and gain personal insight.

Such was the case for Sally Quinn, a columnist for The Washington Post and Editor-in-Chief of On Faith, an online conversation on religion. She first encountered a labyrinth at a spa in California. Despite her skepticism, traveling its path lead Sally to see her son, herself, and her life as never before. I think Sally would agree that we each have one path. Those most fortunate know what it is before reaching the end.

Sally is one of the fortunate ones. I hope you enjoy her story.

A New View

“For those who study the great art of lying in bed there is one emphatic caution to be added. Even for those who can do their work in bed (like journalists), still more for those whose work cannot be done in bed (as, for example, the professional harpooners of whales), it is obvious that the indulgence must be very occasional. But that is not the caution I mean. The caution is this: if you do lie in bed, be sure you do it without any reason or justification at all.”  On Lying in Bed – G.K. Chesterson

Chesterson’s appreciation for the horizontal view of a ceiling had me thinking about light fixtures and retirement. I guess that’s because I’m a homeowner and 65 years old.  I get a little anxious when I think of waking up entirely on my own without the help of a twinkling-moonbeam iPhone alarm or the alternate razzle-dazzle jailbreak blasting from the other side of the bed. My only insight into what that would be like is when I imagine every day being Saturday. Although, Saturday is typically the day I try to press every bit of pleasure into 24 hours, whether it’s food, drink, sex, or anything else, just to compensate for the burden of answering to someone else for five consecutive days. But Chesterson’s source of pleasure requires far more composure.

So I’ve taken up the challenge of lying in bed, or anywhere for that matter, without any reason or justification. I’ve heard it said that relaxation makes one a better person. However, the terror of not having an immediate purpose scares many folks into hyperactivity and spreads the fear that retirement is much like evaporation. Welcome to oblivion.

Like many other boomers, I’m discovering that the day-to-day can actually be unscripted. Listening to your own voice can become a pleasure again. Daydreams can come true if balanced with incidental planning. I’ve decided not to let repetition dilute my desire for change. I’m plotting my future.  Why not join me?  Step away from your computer or put down your tablet or turn-off your phone and find the nearest place to lie down. Forget that either I or Chesterson may have had anything to do with it. Lie down and look up. Take in the scenery whatever it may be. Do this without a conscious purpose and, most importantly, don’t you dare feel guilty. Relax. If there’s any goal whatsoever, it’s to give your Self time to come into full view.