The other day I was sitting in a packed train carriage and I realised I was the only person not looking at a phone. It felt almost religious, the silence of everyone with heads bowed and eyes down, and yet it was I who was feeling holier-than-thou. I had made the radical decision to ignore social media and simply enjoy the view from the window. By journey’s end, I had dreamed of lives led in a variety of houses we’d passed, fantasied about what an eco-Australia would look like, and even had a quiet laugh at a remembered joke (Two hippos standing in a river, and one says, “I don’t know why but I keep thinking today’s Thursday”). It was a gentle way to pass the hour-long journey and I arrived feeling rather refreshed, cosseted by my dreamy mood. And I remembered when a famous architect told me that one of his biggest regrets was that he had spent too much time dreaming. Given that he had achieved so much in his career, I thought he was being a mite harsh on himself. Can you spend too much time dreaming?
I think guilt is often implicit in the notion of dreaming. It’s often seen as a waste of time. Remember being told off at school for gazing out of the window and dreaming your life away? Or was that just me…
In his later years, my father would sit happily for some time, apparently looking out at the garden, his mind filled with thoughts. It’s him I thank for the genetic predisposition that sees me doing the same. Is it any wonder that I’ve ended up living in a country whose traditional creation stories are called the Dreamtime? And yet I live with a man who is always on the go, little time for dreams. When we planned a new garden, so cherished after years spent in near-gardenless flats in London, it was filled with plants of every kind – brightly flowered, highly scented, magnificent of form. “And where will we sit?” I asked. “Sit?” he repeated, as though I’d asked where we might put the go-go dancers’ podium. No time to sit when you’re busy. No time to sit and dream, is what I heard.
Of course, being of the writerly persuasion, I’d like to say that all my sitting and dreaming has reaped magnificent rewards – the prize-winning novels, the successful Hollywood films, the BAFTA – but the truth is less epic. My dreaming may not have changed the world but it’s helped me live my life.
I’ve always been blessed with an ability to fall asleep quickly, mainly because I adore submitting to the dream-world. This is a busy and sociable place where I meet up with all kinds of people I haven’t seen for ages (sometimes because they’ve been dead for a while). Some of my dreams are of the tea-with-the-Queen variety (Dame Judi’s been making a few appearances recently). Some are of the didn’t-see-the-wood-for-the-trees variety, where I suddenly realise there’s a beautiful beach at the end of the garden or a quaint Old Town tucked behind the supermarket. Who knew? Jung would shake his head at the predictability of it but it doesn’t stop them from being deliciously enjoyable.
Dreaming with your eyes open is another matter, a conscious thing. As a young boy walking home alone from school, I would often imagine that I was in a film, that there was a camera focussed on me. And so I’d walk along giving ‘thoughtful’ expressions and doing dramatic double-takes. I’m sure passers-by wondered who the weird boy was but the long walk passed quickly. (And just between you, me and the padded walls, I still do it occasionally.)
Dreaming is often a safety valve, a way of escaping the toil and trouble of the present (and long walks home). We dream of a better life, a better way of doing things. But dreaming for the sheer pleasure of it, letting your mind work its way through different scenarios, dipping into little pleasures, prodding little fantasies, is like your first day on holiday when you yield to a world of possibilities. Dreaming is different from stillness and the connection to mindfulness. Both allow your thoughts to roam freely but the difference with dreaming is that you do attach thoughts, feelings and interpretations to all the mental roaming. Mindful dreaming is active. Through it can come a sense of empathy, of new experiences and feelings. And how can you find clarity in anything if you don’t allow yourself time to dream all the different ways it might otherwise be? Being able to let your imagination take flight is surely one of the glories of humankind. Isn’t that something we should build into each day?
In his 1958 book, “The Poetics of Space”, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote that everyone needs a space in which to dream. It’s gorgeous trying to imagine what such a space would look like. Would it be bright with sunshine or darkened by shadow? Would you sit up or lie down? Would the walls be bare, decorated with pictures or non-existent, open to the elements?
Many of us already have such spaces, even if we don’t think of them in this way. I often plonk myself on a particular rock that faces the ocean and being there I find my imagination takes me to far-off places and new ideas. My father liked a certain chair that faced out into the garden. I think resting the eyes – looking at distant horizons and soft landscapes rather than encroaching walls and computer screens – helps to trigger the process of dreaming and frees the imagination.
But really, anywhere will do. And as for too much dreaming? Never.
So where do you dream?