“It Does Not Do to Dwell on Dreams and Forget to Live” - Meaning of the Quote

Updated March 22, 2023

Whether you read the Harry Potter books as a child, you’ve still got them on your shelves, or you’ve never so much as paged through one at a bookstore, the quote “it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live” is one worth contemplating.

Spoken by Albus Dumbledore, in the first book of the series the headmaster of Hogwarts is warning Harry about getting lost in his most desperate desires at the expense of truly living his life. In this quote, we find the perfect jumping-off point for discussing important Stoic concepts– what to do about desire, where you can most productively direct your attention, and how to take action and live in the present moment.

“It Does Not Do to Dwell on Dreams and Forget to Live” – What Does It Mean?

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live” means that we shouldn’t get caught up fantasizing about how we wish things were at the expense of what our lives actually consist of.

This quote comes from chapter 12 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry is staring into a mirror which shows the onlooker the most desperate desire of their heart. (We’ll go into greater detail about the original context of the quote in the next section.)

When Harry is trying to guess what the mirror does, Dumbledore gives him a hint by telling him that the happiest man in the world would only see himself exactly as he is when he looks in the mirror.

This notion is very reminiscent of the Stoic idea (and an idea that is present in a number of wisdom traditions) that happiness and contentment aren’t a product of having everything but of being grateful for the things that you do have.

This sentiment appears in the following Epictetus quote:

epictetus image and quote about It Does Not Do to Dwell on Dreams and Forget to Live

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

– Epictetus

Many other wise minds have put forward similar ideas throughout human history. Here are just a few quotes that posit a similar notion:

“Contentment makes a poor person rich and discontent makes a rich person poor.”

– Benjamin Franklin

“Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship.”

– Gautama Buddha

“Contentment is natural wealth.”

– Socrates

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

– Epicurus

“True contentment is not having everything, but in being satisfied with everything you have.”

– Oscar Wilde

“Remember that very little is needed to make a happy life.”

– Marcus Aurelius

When we are caught up thinking about all of the things we want– whether they’re possible or not– we are getting further and further from the time in life that we can actually manipulate to make the way we want: the present moment.

marcus aurelius image and quote about It Does Not Do to Dwell on Dreams and Forget to Live

“The present moment is equal for all; so what is passing is equal also; the loss therefore turns out to be the merest fragment of time. No one can lose either the past or the future -- how could anyone be deprived of what he does not possess?”

– Marcus Aurelius

Maybe you have deep regrets about the way that something happened in the past, and you find yourself dreaming of how things would be if events had unfolded differently.

Or, perhaps, you yearn for a different life to be granted to you down the road– one with wealth, happiness, health, and all of the other desirable things one might dream about.

Either way, spending too much time escaping the present means that you concern yourself with things that are out of your control. This is an endlessly frustrating process, as there’s nothing you can do to change the past, and the future isn’t here yet for you to create. What you can do is experience the present moment and use it to make your life what you want it to be.

Where Does This Quote Come From?

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first of the outrageously popular Harry Potter series, the headmaster of the wizarding school– Albus Dumbledore– comes upon Harry staring longingly into a mirror.

Dumbledore informs him that it’s called the mirror of Erised– a mirror that hundreds of others had discovered before him. He asks Harry if he knows what the mirror does, and he responds:

"It -- well -- it shows me my family --"

Dumbledore then goes on to say that he knows that it showed his friend Ron “himself as head boy.” and asks, “Now, can you think what the Mirror of Erised shows us all?"

When Harry shakes his head to say that he doesn’t know the answer, Dumbledore says the following:

"Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help?”

Harry starts to work out what exactly it is that the mirror does, conjecturing that:

"It shows us what we want… whatever we want…”

Dumbledore responds by saying “yes and no” and then goes on to explain that the mirror “shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.”

He tells Harry that he sees his family standing beside him because he has never known them, and being with his family is the deepest, most desperate desire of his heart. He warns Harry about the dangers of the mirror by saying:

“...this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.”

He then goes on to tell Harry that the mirror will be moved to a new home the next day and that he doesn’t want Harry to go looking for it again. He says, “If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared” before saying:

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.”

Before Harry goes off to bed, he asks Dumbledore what he sees when he looks in the mirror. Dumbledore replies that he sees himself “holding a pair of thick, woolen socks.” Once Harry was back in bed, he realized that Dumbledore might not have been telling the truth and that, in reality, he had asked him “quite a personal question.”

Dealing With Desire as a Stoic

There were four passions that the Stoics believed contributed to our misery and stifled personal progress. These four passions are separated into two separate camps:

  1. Desire and fear: Things that are anticipated in the future or not in present possession
  2. Pleasure and distress: Things that are presently engaging a person

Perhaps the most straightforward discussion of the passion of desire in the ancient Stoic texts appears in Epictetus’ Discourses. Here, he tells us that:

epictetus image and quote about It Does Not Do to Dwell on Dreams and Forget to Live

“Freedom isn’t secured by filling up on your heart’s desire but by removing your desire.”

– Epictetus

Noticing and Separating Yourself From Your Desire

Before you sell all of your possessions and convince yourself that you don’t want anything ever again through the power of suppression, stick with us.

In Enchiridion, Epictetus says the following:

“The faculty of desire purports to aim at securing what you want…If you fail in your desire, you are unfortunate, if you experience what you would rather avoid you are unhappy…For desire, suspend it completely for now.”

– Epictetus

Here, he isn’t saying, “you should never desire anything.” What he is saying is that you should suspend your desire completely “for now.”

The recommendation is that you place some distance between yourself and the desire when you notice it crop up. He is asking that we give ourselves the space we need to put our desires to the test and determine whether they will aid us in our pursuit of a good life or whether they will detract from it.

Being a Stoic doesn’t mean that you try to turn yourself into some kind of robot and walk around pretending that you never experience desire. The point is that we shouldn’t immediately trust every desire that is aroused within us.

Most of the time, we need to place critical distance between ourselves and our desires to make sure that they are worth pursuing. Our perceptions can get clouded and distorted by our passions. With time and a deliberate effort at objectivity and rationality, we can separate the wheat from the chaff and determine what will contribute to our efforts at a virtuous life and what will detract from them.

Taking Action

When you desire something, you are taking yourself into a world that isn’t real. You are living in the past or a potential future. You are picturing yourself as other than you are or in a different circumstance that you’re in.

Marcus Aurelius says this about what it means to be rational in the face of one’s desires and passions:

“Progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over.”

– Marcus Aurelius

When you desire something, you are making thinking your primary action. Your thoughts aren’t ultimately what creates progress in your quest for being virtuous, though– it’s your actions.

At the same time, taking action can seem to magically reduce the amount of time we spend lost in fleeting, vicious desires. All of a sudden, we have what we need to make sense of our desires and understand which ones are pushing us in the right direction.

Living in the Present

Point back to the quote in question– “it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live”– we have to realize that getting stuck fixated on desiring things or circumstances we don’t have means that we are missing out on the one thing we actually have– the present.

marcus aurelius image and quote about It Does Not Do to Dwell on Dreams and Forget to Live

“Every man's life lies within the present; for the past is spent and done with, and the future is uncertain.”

– Marcus Aurelius

The present is where you can act. The present is where you can think. The present is the only place you ever really are.

If you want your life to be other than it is, the present moment is the only time you can take action to change it. If you want to change who you are and become the person you know you can be, there’s just a series of “right nows” standing between you and a meaningful future.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t reflect on the past or plan for the future. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There are a number of practices associated with Stoicism that are quite relevant here:

  • Premeditatio malorum
  • Memento mori
  • Keeping a journal

The first is premeditatio malorum– the premeditation of evils. Known today as negative visualization (a much less compelling name, if you ask me,) this is the practice of imagining what could go wrong in the future and preparing oneself for the obstacles one could face down the road.

You might think this sounds like a recipe for anxiety, but you’ll find over time that you are much better prepared for the inevitable occurrences when things don’t go how you planned.

The second is memento mori– meditating on death. Just like premeditatio malorum can help gradually get rid of those anxious feelings, embracing the concept of memento mori (Latin for “remember you have to die”) memento mori actually helps you appreciate life and the present moment rather than feeling morbid or anxiety-inducing.

Another practice that the Stoics engaged in was keeping a journal. Meditations was actually a diary of sorts of Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca would reflect upon his day in the evening after his wife had gone to bed.

"Let us prepare our minds as if we'd come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life's books each day... The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time."

– Seneca the Younger

Stoic Perspectives on Past, Present, and Future

This Harry Potter quote helps us remember that fixating on our deepest desires can keep us from truly living in the present moment and creating the lives we want to live. It can mean that we are blind to the good things we currently have in our lives because we are so focused on what we don’t have.

Marcus Aurelius Quotes

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius frequently discuss the need to stay focused in the present moment. Remarkable in his ability to zoom out and look at the bigger picture, Aurelius saw how brief an individual life– and even the life of an empire– is within the context of human history.

If you find yourself constantly lost in daydreams about what you wish your life could be like and you’re looking for some motivation to make the most of the days you have left in this life, the great emperor Marcus Aurelius is a great place to turn to for advice.

“Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Past and future have no power over you. Just the present - and even that can be minimized.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Remember that even if you were to live for three thousand years, or thirty thousand, you could not lose any other life than the one you have, and there will be no other life after it. So the longest and the shortest lives are the same. The present moment is shared by all living creatures, but the time that is past is gone forever. No one can lose the past or the future, for if they don't belong to you, how can they be taken from you?”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Deem not life a thing of consequence. For look at the yawning void of the future, and at that other limitless space, the past.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Reflect often upon the rapidity with which all existing things, or things coming into existence, sweep past us and are carried away.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Consider in what condition both in body and soul a man should be when he is overtaken by death; and consider the shortness of life, the boundless abyss of time past and future, the feebleness of all matter.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can – if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow “or the day after.” Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was–what difference could it make? Now recognize that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Seneca the Younger Quotes

Leave it to Seneca the Younger to poetically, and compelling explain to us why we shouldn’t dwell in our fantastical desires and make the most of the life we’re living right now.

“Don't stumble over something behind you.”

– Seneca the Younger

“The swiftness of time is infinite, as is still more evident when we look back on the past.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Life is divided into three periods: that which has been, that which is, that which will be. Of these the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Some there are that torment themselves afresh with the memory of what is past; others, again, afflict themselves with the apprehension of evils to come; and very ridiculously both - for the one does not now concern us, and the other not yet ... One should count each day as a separate life.”

– Seneca the Younger

Seneca Quotes on the Future

In the section of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone where Dumbledore teaches Harry about the danger of fixating on his deepest desires, the desire in question is Harry’s desperate wish to be with his deceased family members. We don’t get distracted just by impossible fantasies or fixations on the past. However– many of us are equally guilty of being so focused on potential future outcomes that we forget to appreciate and make use of the present truly.

“The greatest loss of time is delay and expectation, which depend upon the future. We let go the present, which we have in our power, and look forward to that which depends upon chance, and so relinquish a certainty for an uncertainty.”

– Seneca the Younger

“The mind that is anxious about future events is miserable.”

– Seneca the Younger

“The true felicity of life is to be free from anxieties and pertubations; to understand and do our duties to God and man, and to enjoy the present without any serious dependence on the future.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Enjoy present pleasures in such a way as not to injure future ones.”

– Seneca the Younger

“You will hear many people saying: ‘When I am fifty I shall retire into leisure; when I am sixty I shall give up public duties.’ And what guarantee do you have of a longer life? Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it? Aren’t you ashamed to keep for yourself just the remnants of your life, and to devote to wisdom only that time which cannot be spent on any business? How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end!”

– Seneca the Younger

Seneca Quotes On Time

Finally, let’s look at some wise words from Seneca that remind us how quickly life goes by and how important it is that we make use of the time we are given. Considering the dominant narrative of our culture, one could be forgiven for thinking that the point of life is to live as long as possible. Seneca, along with many other great minds throughout history, usefully reminds us that it isn’t the length of our lives that really matter but the depth.

seneca the younger quote about It Does Not Do to Dwell on Dreams and Forget to Live

“There is nothing more despicable than an old man who has no other proof than his age to offer of his having lived long in the world.”

– Seneca the Younger

“While we are postponing, life speeds by.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Time discovers truth. Time heals what reason cannot.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Nobody has ever found the gods so much his friends that he can promise himself another day.”

– Seneca the Younger

Quotes From Other Thinkers

The idea that we should be careful not to ‘dwell on dreams and forget to live’ is not the unique invention of J.K. Rowling. Still, the same underlying ideas have appeared in wisdom traditions throughout human history. Let’s look at some related quotes from great minds spanning from the 6th century BC to the 21st century.

“The secret of health for both mind and body is...live the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

– Gautama Buddha

“The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”

Abraham Maslow

“With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.”

– Eckhart Tolle

“One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today.”

– Dale Carnegie

“Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”

– Laozi

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

– Gautama Buddha

“I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.”

– Alan Watts

“Today is life-the only life you are sure of. Make the most of today. Get interested in something. Shake yourself awake. Develop a hobby. Let the winds of enthusiasm sweep through you. Live today with gusto.”

– Dale Carnegie

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

– Henry David Thoreau

“Learn from yesterday, live for today.”

– Albert Einstein

“Rejoice in the things that are present; all else is beyond thee.”

Michel de Montaigne

“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life.”

– Eckhart Tolle

“We are always getting ready to live but never living.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

– Oscar Wilde

If any of the quotes in this article strike a chord with you, write them down or print them out and post them somewhere prominent in your home or office. It’s all too easy to fall back into old patterns and habits, and having a physical, visual reminder in your environment can help you remember that your life occurs in the present, and this is, therefore, where you can take action to become the person you want to be and live a meaningful life.

Don’t Dwell in Your Imagination– Live in the Present

The ancient Stoics teach us that the present moment is where we can exact control over the things we can control. While it is useful to plan for the future and make sense of the past, we shouldn’t spend our lives hiding in times other than the current fleeting moment.

Desiring things that we don’t have is easy, but it seldom results in feelings of well-being. The truly difficult task is to appreciate what we have and learn to utilize the present moment. You could spend your whole life fantasizing about what would have happened if you had done one tiny thing differently in the past or wishing that things were other than they are. Sadly, many people do exactly this.

Remember what Marcus Aurelius says:

“You have power over your mind– not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Take the time to understand your past, but don’t live in it. Prepare for the future, but don’t do so at the expense of the present. Allow your desires to drive you, but only once you have set them at a critical distance and rationally decided that pursuing them will contribute toward a virtuous life.

Don’t try to escape the present moment– it’s all we really have. If your current situation isn’t working for you, determine what is in your control to change and get at it. It’s not easy, but you’ll find it’s well worth the trouble.

Are you focused on improving yourself and living a Stoic life? Make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog for more practical advice, ancient wisdom, and thought-provoking quotes.

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Written by: Sophia Merton
Sophia received her BA from Vassar College and has always maintained a deep interest in the question of how best to live one’s life. She hopes to help others understand how they can apply Stoicism in their day-to-day lives in order to become the person they want to be, embrace the present moment, pursue their purposes, and rid themselves of unnecessary anxiety.

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