The Problem with Dreaming

Is this a bunch of hogwash?In my last post, I wrote about growing up with a fear of having a mid-life crisis. This fear, and repeated viewings of Dead Poet’s Society (“Carpe Diem!”), instilled in me a stubborn insistence on leading an examined, purposeful life. I could die any day – any moment – and so what I did with my time mattered very much. I would take nothing for granted. I would infuse my life with meaning – align my work and life with my values, pursue my dreams, and (as Henry David Thoreau entreatied) “live the life I imagined.”


There’s just one problem: This approach to life, however zestful, is fundamentally based on fear… of emptiness. And life can’t run on fear, just like a car can’t run on fumes.

Writing my last post, and more importantly, reading your responses to that post, really opened my eyes to the flaws in my life philosophy. Maybe that’s why I’ve been quiet these past couple of weeks (well, that, and being insanely busy – but, excuses, excuses); at the risk of hyperbole, I’d say I’ve undergone a major shift in my entire approach to what it means to lead a meaningful life.

And I’ve started taking offense at the barrage of messages I receive every day, imploring me to BE MY BEST SELF. SEIZE THE DAY. LIVE YOUR DREAMS. (Maybe I need to follow some different people on Twitter.) These are great messages, but they require context. Life, I’ve been thinking, isn’t just about this hyper-excited state of pursuing and living dreams. Yes, it’s important to take stock of what you want, and who you want to be, and to hold these intentions inside you – the way you might set an intention for a yoga practice (life is yoga practice, after all). But to dwell on the intention, and the aspiration, without balancing these “mind states” with movement, is to trap yourself in a state of illusion, and cut yourself off from the experience of truly living.

I believe yoga Maybe this should really say, “Love what you live”? is a template for life. So, let’s say you’re in yoga class, and you try to get into headstand, even if you aren’t sure whether you’ll pull it off, or what it will feel like in your body. You notice your reaction. You try another pose – same thing. At the end of the hour, you’ve learned so much more than you would have if you simply sat there, imagining what a wonderful yoga practice might feel like. You’ve moved. You’ve engaged. And you’re different for it.

And if your intention at the start of the hour was to relax – hopefully, that intention guided you to move yourself in a manner that you found relaxing. If your intention was to energize, hopefully you moved through the same poses and felt them in a completely different way. Maybe along the way, you noticed, “Hmm, this kind of pose is very relaxing for me,” or “this pose is very energizing”… so now you have that knowledge, and you can alter your future actions accordingly.

What I’m saying here is more than just, “intention must be paired with action.” I’m also saying (realizing) that action can help you clarify your intentions. You don’t need 100% clarity before you take a step, in order for that step to be purposeful. Moving with uncertainty can lead to clarity. You must have the faith, no matter what, to move.

Stillness matters, too — but as is so often the case in life, balance is key.

At least, that’s what I’m thinking.

What do you think? Do you think your dogged pursuit of a meaningful life gets in the way of actually living a rewarding life? How do you balance intention and action, stillness and movement?


9 thoughts on “The Problem with Dreaming

  1. "action can help you clarify your intentions. You don't need 100% clarity before you take a step, in order for that step to be purposeful. Moving with uncertainty can lead to clarity. You must have the faith, no matter what, to move."This rings very true for me, particularly in improv. I had a teacher say just the other day (I'm paraphrasing) "you can't wait until you have a brilliant idea to edit a scene and start a new one. You have to have the courage to run out there first and then figure out why you're there. You don't get the courage first, you get it once you're moving – that's what courage is." Same with songwriting – sometimes you can't wait until you have a perfect melody in your head, you have to sit down and start banging on the keys until something emerges (and maybe it won't, but otherwise you'll never know).I agree that our culture right now is way too focused on telling people that their life should be nothing but one long blissful expression of their truest desires. That can lead not only to strong feelings of inadequacy ("I didn't fulfill my truest desires today, I'm a failure!") but also to an infinite cycle of thinking about what those desires are, instead of going out and living and seeing what works for you and what doesn't. I like the idea of "live what you love," because it starts with living. And living is the only way to really know what you love – you have to have the courage to live first, before you know why you're doing it. That's life.


  2. I've often thought that a generational/age effect might also come into play when people are discussing their dreams and desires. Due to the rampant amount of information available to anyone with the Internet, people can constantly compare themselves to the entire world. This leads to people comparing themselves to other "successful dreamers" without any context of how those people achieved those goals.When I recently moved to NY, I was ready to seize every dream I'd ever had for anything. Lately, I've realized that achievement take time, and often just being content from start to finish during the day is enough to keep the momentum of your desires.


  3. JW, I like how you put that – being content from start to finish during the day. I agree, grounding ourselves in the here and now and trying to find as much contentment there as possible can lead to much more happiness than simply dwelling on dreams about possible futures. That said, as I tried to say in my post, dreams can guide our actions in a positive direction — it's just a matter of not getting so caught up in the dreams that we lose our ability to be happy here, now. Jordan, I love that idea of movement creating courage. I think that's very true. Improv sheds light on life, once again 🙂


  4. I had kids after years of infertility. So when they were born I decided that I was going to appreciate every moment. Unfortunately, by not wanting to miss any of the joy I made myself miserable. (An extreme example of this is when I refused to sleep because I was "enjoying" my baby.)As you mentioned, balance is critical. I now make all of my decisions with my family as my primary objective. But sometimes it means that I take a nap so I can be a good parent over the long haul.


  5. Hello, hello! Interesting past two posts. I have not struggled with the desire to have a life filled with happiness (or meaning – which I would argue is happiness b/c most people want meaning in their lives so they feel good about themselves) for some time. When I had kids, I was a wee bit depressed for a while and I had to re-examine what made me happy and why I didn't feel happy despite having these amazing children around me. I eventually realized that desire for happiness was unrealistic for me, but this post helped me put into words why: the feeling of happiness or meaning is not something you can control. Happiness is a feeling and all feelings are fleeting, momentary. Now I try to focus on behaviors I can control: kindness, patience, hard work. And I try to say to myself (paraphrasing a post from Little Buddha), "What if there is nothing wrong with me?" Much love – K


  6. Kate, that's a wonderful quote/question, and I think you're right that control is ultimately at the heart of this. I do think you can cultivate happiness — or, sadness, or fear, or whatever emotion — to some extent, with the choices you make…who you surround yourself with, what you spend your time doing. But I think the false promise of so much so-called inspirational content these days (from Oprah to affirmational Twitter feeds) is that happiness is COMPLETELY within your control, and you're right… no feeling is. (Nothing is. Maybe how you respond to feelings? But even there, isn't the Zen way to simply observe your responses, non-judgmentally… versus trying to force yourself to be HAPPY!?) I like the idea of focusing on kindness (though your attempts to be kind can always be received as something else… ah, control again), patience (so hard!), etc. Focus on what you give, in other words, rather than on what you want to receive… and derive pleasure from the giving.


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