Daydreaming and Fantasizing cause us to suffer!
Any time our mind is left to wander unattended, without being engaged in an activity that is rooted in the present moment, (such as learning, problem solving, planning, creating, etc.), it will tend to revert to a default state of daydreams and fantasies, a place to keep itself occupied and amused. It seems almost as though the mind itself is afraid that if it ever stopped, it would never start up again. Instead, it drifts off into repetitive, endless mental projections of past and future. This state is comprised of nothing more than fantasies, daydreams, mind theatrics, inner dialogues, re-inventing the past, or imagining the future. It is not reality, it is our imagination running away unsupervised. Imagination is a very powerful tool when used skilfully for creativity, but can be very harmful to our psyche when allowed to run away unsupervised.
This default state of mind is often called 'monkey mind' because of the way it is constantly jumping from one fantasy to the next. These fantasies have little or nothing to do with reality as it occurs in the present moment. Daydreaming can actually hijack your consciousness and cause you to miss out on reality. When your consciousness is hijacked (fully submerged in a daydream, or 'lost in thought'), you actually become disengaged from the present moment. It is a common experience to be driving along in a car and suddenly realize that you don't know if you stopped at that last stop sign or not. Or to sit down to eat a meal, and suddenly find it's gone, and barely remember having taken a bite. Or having a conversation with someone, and your mind wanders off, until suddenly you realize with embarrassment, that you have no idea what the other person just said. You were not present for these events, you were lost in Fantasyland. Not only can this be embarrassing, it can endanger your life and the lives of others. Truth be told, the root cause of most car accidents is a wandering mind, not paying attention, not being rooted in the reality of the present moment.
The majority of our mental suffering, stress, worry, fear, anxiety, depression, anger, etc., etc., can be traced back to too much indulgence in daydreams, fantastical thinking and mind theatrics. In Fantasyland, we are the script writer, director, producer, and star performer of our own self choreographed version of the world as we would like it to be. Because we are writing the script, the outcome is always exactly as we wish. We can be the hero, the villain, the victim, or whatever else we may choose. We have absolute control over how things unfold and what the outcomes will be. In our fantasies, everything is completely within our control, even if we imagine it to be out of control. Its our choice as to how the fantasy unfolds. We have absolute power and dominion over everything, and it is precisely this level of control that causes our mental suffering and dissatisfaction with the real world, where power and control over the unfolding of events is much more elusive. We have created an internal conflict between the way things are and the way we want them to be.
We also have a rational mind that operates by making constant comparisons. We compare self with others, others with others, things with others, things with things, discriminating between safe and unsafe, right and wrong, good and bad, etc.. Everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, sense, or interpret is being compared to our memories, knowledge, and past experiences. Comparing is how we determine what is safe to eat, what is potentially harmful to us, and what brings us pleasure or respite. It is part of learning, and is basic to how we navigate our way in the world. Whether we realize it or not, we are also comparing reality, and life as it unfolds, to our fantasy versions of the way we think life should be. In reality, we do not have the same level of control as we do in our fantasy worlds. We find that in reality, we actually have very little control over anything beyond our choices and how we interact with the world. This lack of control causes us to seek further refuge in our fantasies and turn away from reality. When we don't get what we want or what we feel we deserve in life, when life doesn't play out as smoothly as it does in our fantasies, we suffer. We become depressed, anxious, nervous, fearful, stressed. We all have our own unique combination of mental pain we inflict upon ourselves. Even when we do get what we want, we only end up wanting more of the same, more money, a bigger house, a faster car. We get what we want and yet, we still suffer, because even getting what we want does not bring us any lasting happiness, peace or tranquillity.
Because our thoughts are linked to our emotions, mental suffering can lead to some very real physical problems as well. Emotions are physical and chemical responses to events that are experienced in the mind, either in reality or in Fantasyland. Our minds do not discriminate between fantasy and reality. We experience very real emotions in response to our mind theatrics. This can be easily proven to yourself. Remembering the loss of a loved one, even years later can still invoke grief, but remembering good times spent with that loved one can still invoke joy. Emotions are experienced physically in the body as a result of chemicals and hormones that are released by the brain into the body. Different emotions have their own chemical cocktails. If we experience fear, real or imagined, our bodies release adrenaline, if we are nervous, anxious, worried, or stressed, cortisol is released. These chemicals are supposed to help our body physically deal with critical and dangerous events. The fight or flight response is an adrenaline boost to give extra energy to muscle tissue to either fight, or escape as quickly as possible. When these chemicals are released into the body, and there is no corresponding physical response, (such as fighting off a threat or running away from danger), these chemicals are not burned off. Instead they accumulate in the body with negative health effects like weight gain, high blood pressure, increased risk of cardio-vascular problems, and many other health problems as well.
Daydreaming is nothing but a bad habit, and like any bad habit, the key to breaking it is to bring awareness to the problem. Not just awareness on an intellectual level, because this will not solve the problem any more than reading a book about flying a plane can make you a pilot without any practical experience. The bad habit of allowing the mind to wander off has to be broken at an experiential level, by paying direct attention to what is going on inside, seeing how our thoughts influence our actions, recognizing the consequences of our actions, then deliberately choosing to disengage from thought patterns that are not serving in our best interest. A good starting point is simply paying attention to the activity within your mind, by actually 'listening' and hearing the 'voice in your head'. With determination and resolve, practice catching yourself whenever the mind wanders, and redirecting your attention to a present moment task. Try focusing on the breathe, placing your full attention into one of the five senses, such as deep listening, or focusing intently on a body part or movement, or any mindfulness task that can hold the attention for a little while. If this is done with full attention, thoughts will subside momentarily in anticipation of what might happen next.
With consistent repetitious practice, catching the mind when it wanders, and constantly pulling it back to the present, the mind will gradually experience increased concentration and longer attention spans, and grow to become more peaceful, tranquil, and quiet. Eventually this new peaceful state of the mind being at rest will become the new default state that the mind falls back into when it is no longer actively engaged in skillful legitimate tasks.
Paying attention is the first and most important step in learning anything, which is why teachers always tell students 'Pay attention or you won't learn anything'. This simple act of self awareness with full attention allows the mind to 'do the math' and 'connect the dots', becoming directly aware of how our thoughts affect our emotions, which in turn affect our actions, reactions, and inter-actions with our external environment, and also to see the impact this has on the world around us. In other words, we are learning to see our own karma. We see first hand how our outer world is a direct reflection of our inner world. Direct observation leads to understanding and learning in a way intellectual knowledge can not provide us. With practice we learn how to uncover thought patterns that are harmful to ourselves and others, and to disengage from them by simply 'letting go', and refusing to allow our consciousness to be hijacked. We see repetitious patterns and recurring themes to our thought patterns, which operate like feedback loops. Those we indulge in grow stronger, and those we learn to let go of, wither and die. It is this direct observation of our karmic creation that allows space for choice to open up, choice to stop indulging in thought patterns that are harmful to ourself or others. The sanest thing a person can do is turn their attention inward and observe their own insanities with the intention of purifying and freeing their own mind.
"Mental excretion is represented by imagination, that is, a continuous production of waste images, the by-product of past perceptions, which flow through and out of the brain in a meaningless and unbroken stream. In fact, dreaming goes on night and day, without a break." -- Rodney Collin (20th c. Fourth Way spiritual teacher) The Theory of Celestial Harmony