Meditation has become the prescription of choice for much of what ails us. Designed to put space between the thoughts and the tongue, or between thoughts and ill-advised actions, meditation invites a state of “mindfulness.” It calms our anxieties, and permits many stressed individuals to survive their days with less angst.
But what about the many who have tried meditation and failed? Is it because they can’t filter out all the noise — the flood of contradictory or stress-filled thoughts — or is it because meditation is hard?
Meditation requires diligent practice and time out from “productive activities.” Meditation’s benefits are often only seen after considerable time has passed and may be subtle.
Without diminishing the power and positivity of meditation, may I suggest another mental activity that might be useful for both meditation practitioners and the rest of us?
Fantasy is available to all. It is universal in all cultures and unique to individuals. Fantasy can be goal-oriented or simply pleasurable. Fantasy requires no practice — and the benefits can be enormous. Here are a few examples:
While bending my knee after my own knee surgery, the therapist asked if I knew how to meditate. Could I quiet my mind and ignore the pain? “No” was the answer.
How about fantasizing about being a surfer, kneeling on my board and paddling through perfect waves? “Ah, yes,” I replied. “The waves … the kneeling … the flexion of the knee.” With fantasy, you can take yourself anywhere — happy, blissful, sensual, athletic — as the therapist cranks the reluctant joint a little harder.
Fantasizing is not the same as visualization. Visualization is mentally practicing what you could do; fantasy is creating what you dream to do. Visualization alone can lead to stress: the fear of not performing. Uninhibited fantasy leads to exhilaration and frees the muscle memory to do its thing. There are many situations in which this strategy can be effective:
If you’re preparing to give a presentation, envision Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech; fantasize about letting your oratory soar and empower the audience.
Even in yoga, where meditation is supposed to reign supreme, fantasizing about having the flexibility of a circus contortionist may permit postures you never dreamed possible.
Before launching yourself down a mountain onto a ski course, don’t just visualize each turn; fantasize about arcing the perfect turn and executing the perfect run.
Back pain is another place where fantasy can be useful. The worst part is the fear that it won’t go away; that one’s life will be permanently compromised. While there is no all-encompassing solution to back pain, almost every therapy involves strengthening the trunk and core. Fantasizing about this muscle building can promote a new body image in which you stand tall, shoulders back, belly button sucked in, while radiating inner power and grace.
Fantasy is available to us all, a form of useful and simple magical thinking. By creating and living temporarily within the images we create in our brains, we can return to our earth-bound lives with a smile — and the knowledge that we can indeed create a space where we are gloriously successful and happy.
Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco.