Why You Cannot Schedule a Daydream

Exploring TimePerSpectives

Huckleberry Finn complains about the clockworked Widow Douglas: “The widder eats by a bell; she goes to bed by a bell; she gits up by a bell – everything’s so awful reg’lar a body can’t stand it… I can’t stand it. It’s awful to be tied up so.”

The Algonquin saw something similar. When missionaries first arrived amongst them, the Algonquin called clock-time Captain Clock because it seemed to command every action for the missionaries.

We are all born with a sense of unclocked time, and one of the first and most ferocious lessons which very young children are taught is to obey the clock, to be punctual, to adhere to schedules, to recognize play time and school time (and think up reasons why there should be a difference between them).

As older kids know, a calendar where every hour of every day is full of pre-planned activities can be exhausting. But there is a further price: the moment may be scheduled, but at the expense of the momentous, for Captain Clock will not let you make an appointment with epiphany. The Widow Douglas’s punctual bell will allow you no reverie. You cannot schedule a daydream.

The ancient Greeks had different gods for different aspects of time (including the god of the moment when a party suddenly and inexplicably falls silent). One of the most important gods was Chronos, strict clock-time — Captain Clock, if you will — the god of linear, quantifiable, chronological time. But there is another ancient Greek god of time I much prefer: Kairos. Kairos represents not so much time as timing: Kairos is the god of opportunity, chance or mischance. Kairos gives his name to kairological time which is colored differently at different moments, because time is not just a matter of quantities of hours but qualities of time.

If you sleep because the clock tells you it’s way past bedtime, that is chronological time, whereas if you sleep because you’re tired, that is kairological time. Kairological time is a richer, trickier concept: time enlivened, various, elastic, and fertile. Kairological time is truer to the mind’s experience: that time may sometimes crawl as slow as a sloth sleeping off an over-energetic yawn, or it may race as speedy as a cub raccoon ricocheting off a tree-trunk which it lassoed with its own tail by mistake.

Many traditional cultures deliberately use this more subtle sense of time, so, for example, the San people of the Kalahari do not schedule when to hunt but rather “wait for the moment to be lucky,” reading and assessing animal behavior, sensitively judging the “right” time. I was once staying with the Karen people in Northern Thailand when I was told that a wedding would take place. “When will it happen?” I asked, thinking chronologically. Today? Tomorrow? Eleven o’clock? People smiled and wouldn’t answer in those terms. It would happen when the time is right, when the moment is ripe, using a sense of social grace which no clock possesses.

Many indigenous cultures resist the tight scheduling of time for young children and teens. When I spent time with Sámi people in Norway, I was shown how kids were always in charge of all their own time, sleeping, eating, playing when they wanted, and I was told how much it increased their sense of self-reliance and independence. Young people, I was told, would grow up less easily pressured by others, a captain of their own hours, not captive to Chronos or someone else’s clock.

There is a subtle politics at play here, which Basil Johnston, an Ojibwa man, noted. As a boy in the mid-twentieth century he was forced to attend a boarding school which ran like clockwork with bells, whistles, and gongs. To the boys, these symbolized “obedience, conformity, dependence, subservience, uniformity, docility, surrender” and the only defiance available to the kids was “passive resistance, which took the form of dawdling.”

Artists have long been in rebellion against Chronos, preferring to honor the moments of sudden artistic insight over which Kairos might preside. One of the perennial protests against Captain Clock has been the great art of doodling — the idler’s delight — and a word thought to be connected to dawdling. Emerson, Erasmus, Keats and Tagore were all famous for doodling, letting pictures and patterns spring up out of the mind’s fallow moments.

Earth, left fallow, experiences an inner-thriving, a self-fertilization. So, too, a fallow mind thrives in its own independence, its fertility from within. But a soil which is never fallow, which is force-fed with artificial chemical fertilizers and coerced into an unrelenting schedule of productivity will lead ultimately to crop failure and soil exhaustion. So, too, young people, subjected to endless “inputs” and the demands that their time must always be productive, can experience a sense of failure, depression, a sense of inner collapse and the withering of strength from within: the mind’s equivalents of crop failure and exhaustion.

Imaginative thought is — must be — unscheduled. Younger kids, engaged in make-believe play develop the ability to self-regulate because in imaginative play, they talk to themselves, planning and thinking in what psychologists call “private speech.” But in structured play, with no time for the mind’s dawdling and doodling, this private speech declines. The free play of the mind is just as necessary for older kids and adults, essential to art, when the mind playfully takes a line for a walk or plays on words or writes a play, when the photographer watches the play of light or the musician plays a violin.

The mind, playing seriously, moves into a realm of reverie, of daydreaming. “A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world,” wrote Oscar Wilde. Culture needs those invisible, inaudible and irresistible daydreams. But an unofficial war is waged against them. Watch the hard stare of the daydream police.

In the 1950s, some educational psychologists warned that daydreaming could cause neurosis and psychosis. Today, parents and teachers are exhorted to watch for “daydreaming indicators,” which include blank expressions or wandering eyes. Daydreamers are encouraged to use their time “constructively,” to join “structured” and “productive” clubs. Adults should “diminish the duration” of daydreams with interruptions, should ‘limit’ and “reduce the time spent per daydream” even using a “timer for planned fantasy periods.”

Parents are encouraged to send daydreaming kids to psychotherapists and counselors. In the classroom, daydreaming is regarded as undisciplined laziness, and one Internet post encourages teachers to “pick on” children who daydream, and suggests parents should get their children tested for Attention Deficit Disorder. There is even a newly-coined term “daydreaming disorder.”

I once watched a 13-year-old daydreamer. You might have thought he was doing nothing. But he wasn’t doing nothing, he was thinking on the inside, sailing lovely, fluent, and superfluous seas of thought, as the vague wave of daydream washed over his face which was vacant only on the outside. And, though he was far too lost in oceanic reverie to notice, an armada of scientists was kindly protecting him. In daydreams, which can occupy a third of our waking state, the brain becomes highly active in exactly those areas associated with complex problem-solving because in daydreaming the mind roams freely, broadly and profoundly across one’s life. Daydreaming nurtures creativity, and those given to mind-wandering score higher on tests of creativity than those whose minds are less nomadic. “For creativity, you need your mind to wander,” says daydream expert Dr. Schoolen of the University of British Columbia.

Scientists say there are three modes of thought: the first the instantaneous reflex, snatching a hand from a flame; the second, the diligent rational mind; but the third is the mind of insight, meditation, and reverie. The dreams of the day. A hush surrounds the daydreamer, a different kind of air, as if the nearby air of the ordinary had evaporated into the air which the soul breathes. The daydreamer is, on the sudden, journeying in an enormous and Other galaxy, an innate cosmos as far beyond as it is deep within. The human spirit itself needs those voyages of inner discovery.