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The Anatomy of Dreams

The Anatomy of Dreams, Traveling, the Benefits, Weaknesses of Dreaming The human mind seems incapable of sitting still, we need to keep moving, our hands feel like awkward appendages if not kept moving, our wheels must keep spinning. When our minds come too close to perilous stand still, humans seem to come with a built [...]

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The Anatomy of Dreams, Traveling, the Benefits, Weaknesses of Dreaming

The human mind seems incapable of sitting still, we need to keep moving, our hands feel like awkward appendages if not kept moving, our wheels must keep spinning. When our minds come too close to perilous stand still, humans seem to come with a built in contingency plan: we dream.

In the idle moments between engagements, when working an under stimulating job, when there is nothing to do with the television but compulsively flip the channels, our minds are at work spinning dreams. There is nothing else for it to do.

We dream of traveling the world, of greatness on a sporting pitch, of hot chicks who giggle as we say all the right things, of the promotion we are soon to receive, of the power that we will soon have to tell others what to do, of outwitting an opponent in argument, of the redemption of being recognized for our true abilities, of telling that political commentator how it really is. The human mind will not stop working on its own volition, Buddhism teaches us this — it takes years of constant practice to quit dreaming. There is nothing defunct about dreaming of other ways of life, just so we know that we would honestly continue living how we are.

But who would want to?

Dreaming feels good, it is fun, it provides an alternate reality that we are free to do what we want in. Dreaming makes us feel good about ourselves, we can be our own heroes, we prove our merits to ourselves again and again. If we could actually believe our dreams, we would be all the better for it; living a dream is often unnecessary, they are often not meant to change lives, they are meant to enrich them.

There is nothing defunct about dreaming of other ways of life, just so we know that we would honestly continue living how we are.

But when we realize that we are not happy, when our dreams are lugies hacked into the wind which only come back to hit our reality in the face, when our dreams come right back as us like an perfectly thrown boomerang, when they leave our reality feeling stale, that is an iron clad suggestion that maybe we should give life to the beast, maybe we should allow or dream to grow into a reality — if for no other reason that to extinguish it, and to free our minds of another burden.

It is no wonder to me that Asian societies came up with a mental practice like Zen Buddhism, as dreaming often has little place in a social structure that historically rarely allowed for upward mobility, for freewill, for action beyond the preset structure in almost all aspects of life: study, career, family, love. Within such living schemes dreams can only be a burden, something that not only bites at you but tries to eat you alive, a naked woman dancing just out of reach of a man in chains. It is no wonder why these societies invented mental practices which sought to erase the mind of good and bad dichotomies, of desire, of dreams, mental practices which teach its members to see the world for what it is without feeling the need to change it.

I once mistook these mental tricks as being a beautiful path towards something more beautiful. Then I went to Japan, and realized clearly that walking through the mountains was, in fact, far more beautiful than staring at a black, wooden wall. I realized that I wanted my desires, that I enjoyed my dreams, that I did not want to give them up, and I especially did not want to drive them away.

It takes practice to come to not want what you truly want. In Asia, they call this a religion, a better word is, perhaps, a taming.

I did not want to tame my dreams. They held too much value to me.

If your dreams impede your reality, if they are a mocking, freckled faced 15 year old who laughs at you from the other side of the mirror, poking fun at how you will never obtain your desires, how you are really a small, insignificant, chubster who nobody notices when compared to the big man you imagine yourself to be, then perhaps your dreams either need to be extinguished or lived in full. Perhaps you need to buy that one way ticket to Japan, sit in Daitoku-ji looking at black walls for hours, or you need to be the man in the dream scape (or at least try it out — it might work, it might not).

Asian society, historical and modern, generally speaking is overtly structured. The kids there who set out on their dreams often do so at the direct expense of their future reputation, their future lives. I have known many East Asian travelers who say that they are just going to keep traveling forever because they cannot go home, that they have essential stepped of the upward escalator of life, and they know that they can never get back on. In this social structure, living dreams is a dangerous business, perhaps killing them is a better option.

But Western society is not like this, there are less social hooks, less family, career, and reputation consequences. There is a reason why philosophies such as Buddhism have made little serious ground in the West beyond fluffy meditation retreats: it is because we don’t need them. Convincing ourselves that we don’t want what we really want is a stupid thing for Americans to do, because we can get what we want. Or at least try to do so. We don’t need to train our minds, we need to give them full breadth — we can live our dreams, and if they don’t work out we have the option of just returning to where we stand right now.

The great thing about leaving is that you can often return to where you stand.

This is something special about the societies of the Americas, and maybe Europe: we can f’ck off on a wild dreamy tangent for a couple of years and face little consequences if we want to return. We can run out our dreams to their bitter ends if we want to. We can go to university up until mid adulthood with little discrimination, we can walk off a job and then get another, our histories are seldom chained to us, our family names mean nothing. It is my impression that you can disappear and reappear at will in America, running off on a wild dream is often seen as an admirable endeavor, something to talk about around the dinner table.

So, Charles, tell us about that time when you walked into the Mongolian backcountry because you thought you knew where Genghis Khan’s lost treasure was buried but you really just got diarrhea and went home?

Even stupid dreams have value if given life. They make stupid Charles a little more interesting, they give him something to talk about, perhaps in the end they make him more employable — who wouldn’t want to hire someone who has the balls to live out a wild dream?

I have a quick rundown of my travels printed on the bottom of my CV, I never have difficulty finding a job.


It is perhaps easy to think that we are the only ones who think this way, that we are the only ones who dream of greatness, of grandeur, of tramping through the baron Sahara with a turban on our head and an ugly camel at our side when we are really clicking a keyboard in a button up shirt in some office cubicle. But look around you — are you at work? — look at the person to your left, the person to your right, do you think that they are fully engaged in the now, tending to their tasks like obedient little worker bees?

No, they are daydreaming just like you are. Maybe they browse through the internet for the raw ingredients to build a cerebral life upon, the mechanism to get them through another grind in the office, on the assembly line, behind the barista bar. Maybe the woman whose bottom looks comfortable to sit on dreams of the magic moment when the dating system draws up a perfect match; maybe the guy a couple of cubicles down is dreaming about being your boss and firing your ass, maybe your boss is dreaming about walking off the job and is laughing to himself as your company cerebrally crumbles without his great management abilities, maybe your buddy is dreaming about how he is going to invest 20.9% of his hourly wage into a 5.7% interest bank account for the next 35 years and has it calculated down to the minute how much money he will someday make from working in the next cubicle right down from you.

With such dreams going on all around you, it is no wonder you dream of traveling.

Get me out of here!

Dreaming frees the mind from the restraints of the labor system: an employer may take your time or your body, but your mind is truly free. Dreaming is a dance of this liberty, nobody can control your thoughts, they are generally not for sale, cannot be rented, cannot be paid for at a per hour rate. The economy, any economy, is based on these dreams, they keep the wheels of the system turning. Who would go to work if they saw what they did all day for what it was?

F’ck Buddhism, it would destroy the economy.


Some dreams are never meant to be done, they exist for the entertainment of the dreamer. I don’t really want to be a pirate. Some dreams are just for fun, and if looked at this way, they are a fun form of self entertainment. But some dreams are for doing, some dreams could better be called “planning.” These dreams are functional, practical, they can help you on the road ahead, they are a way of ingesting what you can observe and learn now and cerebrally practicing it for later. It is good to dream about how you will put up your tent on a stormy night on the side of some Karakoram peak, it is good to mentally tie sailor knots all day and dream of wind patterns, it is good to dream up scenarios when the cops find you camping on the sly in a bush in some foreign city. Some dreams are for entertainment, some are for preparation.

The fault, in my impression, comes in confusing the two. I once traveled a couple of days in Vietnam with a kid who dreamed of becoming some super rich business executive. He may as well have been dreaming about being a pirate. His dreams were so big that he could not build a ladder high enough to reach them. I mentioned a few ideas about how he could start small with a little import/ export enterprise out of China, but he would hear none of it — his dreams were not for small wiener endeavors building up to the top, they were the dreams of short cuts, of being discovered, and being given everything. He only dreamed of having it all rather, without regard to how he was going to build up to it. Like I said, he dreamed of short cuts. He was stalemated. I am 100% positive that he is working in a pizza shop somewhere in the USA right now, still talking about how he is going to make it big without a clue of how to do it.

It will happen, he says, but his dreams are only for entertainment, there is nothing practical about them, his dreams get him through to the next day, and that is all. Sometimes dreams can stalemate a person. They can become a faith of sorts: many people just believe that their dreams will come true on their own, they seem to miss the cue that they need to work hard to make them a reality

Dreams provide the raw impetus for action, they lead the horse to water, but you need to make it drink.

Dreaming is an occupation that, if coupled with action, can truly form the obsessive drive necessary to do something great. Dreams are hard work if you wish to take them out of your head. Dreaming is a leisurely activity, but the action that must transpire to bring them to life is a 10 hour a day, 7 day a week occupation. A dream without action serves the role of a movie — it is an inconsequential daydream that satisfies some superficial lust at grandeur — but a dream coupled with the real life effort to make it happen, is fuel for the jet plane, it is the water for the horse.

Nobody has ever done anything great without dreaming. The human mind is perhaps already prepared for greatness, there is an obsessive loophole in it that allows people to accomplish great things. Obsession is often necessary to do great things, accomplish big tasks, to do what is said to be impossible. A working definition of obsession could perhaps be “the intersection where dreaming meets action.”

Obsessions are good, start bringing a dream to life and watch it bloom into obsession. It will take you over. The tradeoff is a run at success, a ladder towards the clouds.


Fear is the quality that keep fantasies fantastic. If fear were to be removed then there would be nothing standing between us and our wildest dreams, then our fantasies would lose one of their most precious qualities: they would not be fantastic anymore, they would be life. -From my Dominican Republic notebook

Dreams, by nature, must remain far away. If you grasped your dream, it would sit in front of you, it would be tangible, workable — it would be reality. Reality is what is in front of you, it is difficult for someone to say that they are living their dreams, because if they did as such, it would only be reality that they were living.

Nobody says, “I am living reality.”

But by becoming reality, dreams lose their far away quality, they no longer serve as the counter balance to reality, they are reality itself.

Then you need to get back in the market and find some new dreams.
When people comment to me that I am living my dreams, I look at them like they are nuts. I am living reality, my dreams are of being a pirate.

A sailor just shrugs about sailing around the world, it is regular living to him; when asked about Buddhism the masters just say that it is “nothing special.”

All to often, a lived dream is a dead dream. It is like landing a mate after a long courtship just to wonder what the whole chase was about anyway.

Things often seem better in direct proportion to how far away they stand. Scrublands often look like lush pastures when on the horizon. You must fear the horizon to keep it green, if you walk way out there you will just realize that you are standing in the same scrubland you find yourself in right now.


Dreams are like archaeology sites, once they are excavated they are all too often destroyed.


Be careful with your dreams, if you open the box they may get out, and you may see them for what they are: reality, plain, simple, reality.


It is my impression that dreams can be used to make a person, they can also be used to break a person. It is often in dreams that you see the world of far away as better than the one that is right in front of you, but dreams are often the impetus to get you up and out there to find out. Dreams keep you searching, but they are also that which keeps you from finding. Here will never be of essence if you are perpetually looking There.

There is a balance for dreams, they can be used to give life to an obsession — and an obsession is often the modus operandi for success — but they also give life to waywardness, of never knowing when you have arrived, even when you have found success.

So where is the balance?

I have no idea, but I suppose when you wake up in the morning without a feeling of desperation you have found it: when you are working diligently to get “there” but are still happy being “here” you have uncovered the anatomy of dreams.

Dreams are perhaps perfect tricksters: they can deceive, they can keep you seeing green fields where there are only shrubs, they can leave you standing at a pool with a horse that refuses to drink, but they are an essential ingredient to living. And like most other aspects of life: love, sex, work, family, fun, they can be kept in balance or they can grow wild and out of control.

I believe that this is a difficult balance to find, I suppose it is much easier to keep your dreams for entertainment purposes only, to keep them at arm’s length. This is safer.

But there is often no better way to tame a dream than by living it full time, all the time. If a dream is constantly hamstrung into reality then it never has the opportunity to grow unchecked, out of control, cankerous. If you ignore a dream, it will grow on you like a weed, it will become something greater than what it could ever be in reality, it will only serve to disappoint. If you harness the f’cker, stay on the horse, and ride the dream out all the time, keep it reality, use it as transportation to get from here to there then, perhaps, there is a balance — you can use the dream for what it is, take out the motivation it can provide, enjoy the entertainment, but not let it belittle your daily existence. This, perhaps, is the anatomy of dreaming.


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Filed under: Travel Inspiration, Travel Philosophy, Travel Preparation

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

3 comments… add one

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  • dad July 21, 2010, 9:22 pm

    This is truly one of your best .You walk slow

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com July 22, 2010, 1:05 pm

      Thanks, Dad.

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  • headventure July 22, 2010, 9:57 am

    great food for thought.

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