When we feel stuck, daydreaming might sound like the exact opposite of what one should do.

It’s often considered unproductive: a waste of time. Why sit conjuring up images of fantastical scenarios which may be so impossible that they belong solely in fairytales – especially when there’s an urgency to arrive at an actionable answer? Surely it’s better to remain in the ‘real’ world, and do something, act, move.

But as all children know, conjuring up fantasies is critical for our joy and happiness. That’s why they spend a lot of time, energy and emotion playing; they take it seriously.

Freud called daydreaming the adult equivalent of children’s play: a mental rearrangement of the aspects of our world in a way which pleases us. He said we all have deep wishes and desires that we can’t express freely because of societal restrictions or expectations; we might feel our innermost desires are childish or impermissible. So these desires get stuck in our subconscious mind, but can be revealed through focused attention on fantasising. In other words, when we’re feeling stuck, Freud advocates for intentional adult play: becoming ‘a dreamer in broad daylight’.

Daydreaming is a fascinating place for discovery

A soft centre between sleeping and wakefulness, it’s where ideas often come to us, our artistic muse visits, seeds of our innermost desires sprout and become apparent to us. It is its own unique form of thinking.

The trick is allowing our minds to wander freely and fantasise, without our cognition stepping in to impose limitations and boundaries on our imagination. Some familiar voices might be: “that’s ridiculous” or “that’s impossible” or “you don’t have the resources to…” The list goes on.

Fantasy, over.

So how do we daydream mindfully? And allow ourselves full freedom and focus to do so without limits?

In terms of timing, moments of transition are ideal for open daydreaming: for example, right after we wake up, or just before we go to sleep. Instead of jumping into sleep or wakefulness, try to approach the transition period with awareness. Meditation or body scan exercises might help us relax our bodies so that we’re more able to slip into our inner thoughts.

Guiding questions might help us launch into a state of play. For example, if the next three years were the best ones yet, what would be happening? If we could have been born in any other circumstance, including those which are fantastical, what might we be doing and how might we be living? What are five alternative lives we could be living right now? Or if there’s a specific scenario in mind: if it turned out in the ideal way, what would happen?

Alternatively, we can trigger our imagination by thinking about a specific topic, like an activity we love, a value that we hold, or an emotion that we want to feel, and then let our thoughts wander from there. Continue the daydream beyond the “synopsis” – the summarised version of what we want to happen. Allow our minds to explore in rich detail what would happen next. Take note of emotion, symbolisation and metaphor. Surrender to the underlying feeling of the daydream.

Note: there might be a tendency to want to constrict the scope of the daydream. Try to resist, and instead let go and allow our minds to flow freely. Notice what comes to mind, including symbols and metaphors. If we have extraneous thoughts, include them as prompts for later daydreams rather than discard them.

You don’t need to have a destination in mind to look out onto the sea

When facing indecision, follow your various currents of thought or emotion, or just look out at the vast ocean, hold onto that vision, and see what comes up.

Permit the fantastical, encourage the unrealistic, and play!

Baillie Aaron