Directed Daydreaming: Evoking epiphany from a more-conscious mind
In 1986 while working for a group that did contract work for several U.S. government agencies, I was asked to deliver money to an underground religious group in Russia. This was not the kind of work we normally did, but I was told the people who normally handled this had disappeared. As a secondary objective, I was given something of a shopping list of things the underground group wanted that couldn't be purchased in Russia.
A specialist in smuggling prepared me for the trip. He wasn't at all what I expected. He did talk about methods of getting the items through the X-ray machines at Moscow airport but spent far more time talking about the psychology of operating alone in a hostile nation.
"Things go wrong and you have to be able to think," he told me. Working in an environment that causes sustained stress will slowly eat up your brainpower and cause your emotions to become a problem. "Classical music is available in almost every country. You know the music. You can for a moment let your guard down. You can trust it. Listen to the music and block everything else out. Give yourself to the music and let it carry you. In 30 minutes, no matter what you have been through, you can be mentally restored." I'd never been a fan of classical music and hoped I wouldn't have a day so bad that I'd need it.
Unfortunately, things did not go well at Moscow airport. The airport was scheduled to change from the side-scan X-ray machines to the common top-down X-ray machines in January of that year, but when I arrived in August, to my shock, the old machines were still in use. My bags were packed so that the supplies would not be visible from the top but could be seen from the side. My large bag was not a problem because it was sent through upright, but that was not the case with my carry-on bag. I was caught.
Four interrogators took turns with me. I knew the penalty for working with the black market was only two years in prison, which was preferable to the prison term for what I was actually doing. By denying it before they accused me, I was able to convince them that I was bringing the supplies in to sell on the black market. To a low-level interrogator that denial was the same as a confession. Eventually, they kept the supplies and released me as if they had made a mistake. These people reported to KGB and they didn't make mistakes. It seemed more likely they wanted to follow me to find my contacts in the black market and then rearrest me before I got out of the country.
After the interrogation I was drained, and by the time I finally reached to the Rossiya Hotel that night, I was a mental wreck. I'm not given to crying, but as soon as I reached my room and sat down, tears began to run down my cheeks. Emotions that I didn't understand overwhelmed me. Remembering the music, I turned on the television and found a symphony playing. I closed my eyes and gave myself to it. I don't know how long I listened before someone on TV began to speak and I turned it off.
It worked. I was back. I still had the envelope to fulfill my primary assignment and began to plan my next steps. My brain actually seemed to be working even better than normal. It was as if I was having a moment of great clarity. I remembered the 40 pounds of items that they'd taken from me and was able to compare it with an inventory in my head. Realizing that one small item, a Gospel of Mark, was missing, I searched my bag and found it in the leg of a pair of pants.
I didn't realize it at the time, but I had stumbled onto a method of thinking that had been used by Einstein, Newton, and Pascal. Although they started the process without the music, it seems that they had a way of thinking that helped them go beyond the natural working of even their extraordinary brains.
Einstein often told the story of working as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland. He'd rush through his day's work of writing digests of patent applications and then spend his afternoons staring out his office window doing a kind of directed daydream. One day, he imagined himself on a bus looking out the back window at the town clock. He then imagined the bus speeding up to the speed of light and seeing the time on the clock remaining the same because the light from the clock could not catch up with the bus. This was the key that began his thinking concerning his special theory of relativity.
Many scientists have shared similar stories of developing scientific theories that began with a time of undirected thinking or daydreaming. Einstein called these "thought experiments." It's as if the answer to the thinkers' query was in a different area of their brain than the area used for normal problem solving.
Our mind is both deductive and creative, giving us results that can seem to be divine revelation. There were things we didn't understand before, but, suddenly, it's simple and very easy to explain. Now, I believe in God, and I believe he speaks to us, but I also know that He gave us a mind that is capable of far more than we typically use.
The next day as I left the hotel to walk up to Red Square, I noticed two men who were drinking coffee at an outside table get up and fall in behind me. They stayed a little way behind me, sometimes walking together, and at other times separately until I returned to the hotel. Constantly followed when I left the hotel, I was unable to meet with my primary contact in Moscow. It'd be several days before I would reach Leningrad, now known as Saint Petersburg, where there was a secondary contact. Even there it took several days to slip away from those following me. I'd memorized the directions to my contact from a particular metro station (subway) because the street name did not appear on my city map. When I arrived at that stop, the station had been renovated and now had six exits. For more than five hours, I followed the directions from each of the six exits but was unable to find the address.
It was late when I returned to the hotel. I was scheduled to catch a plane for home in less than 57 hours and couldn't find my contact. Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, I remembered the instructions of the smuggling expert: "Things go wrong and you have to be able to think." I turned on a radio and listened to the music. It must have been about 20 minutes later when a thought went through my head: "Get a map."
Opening a map of Leningrad, I found the metro station. On one of the streets that were not named, there was a small dot of light about the size of a pinhead like someone was shining a tiny flashlight. I thought, "That's it. That's the drop." The dot faded until it disappeared. The next day, I went to the place where I saw the dot on the map, and there stood the apartment building for which I had been searching.
Drift into your own thought experiment with
the help of our curated Spotify playlist.
I've used the music and other techniques in the years since with results that often still surprise me. No longer requiring the music, I can simply go for a walk or sit quietly in my study, calm my conscious mind, and those moments of great clarity and elegant solutions just come. When I can relax and let my brain make the necessary connections, it can produce results that seem miraculous — I still have a problem explaining that dot of light on the map.
Just because our mind can make all the known facts fit together doesn't mean we've discovered the truth. We need our conscious, rational mind to prove it. It took Einstein one day to come up with many of his theories but years to prove them. It's possible to make everything fit together rather nicely and still be wrong.
When we become afraid, our body shuts down or limits nonessential body functions to prepare us for fight or flight. Our brain also limits how it thinks and becomes very reactive. Fear of things in our job, relationships, finances, or health can cause us to live perpetually with a limited thinking ability. We enter a defensive mode, becoming self-absorbed and thinking of life only from the very limited perspective of how things affect us. Selfish thinking reduces the intelligent mind to something more average. If we can calm our self-interest even for a short time, it opens us up to the truths of life.