December 18, 2013

Can Planning Be A Spiritual Practice?


A reader writes:

I often wonder how planning ahead relates to being in the moment. Thich Nhat Hanh must have to make a plane reservation occasionally. Right?

Great question. Particularly relevant at this time of year when planning is rampant.

Your inbox will soon be filled with information, stories, and examples to help you review the past year and plan for the next; to set goals and to launch a more productive new year.

I often wonder how planning ahead relates to being in the moment. Thich Nhat Hanh must have to make a plane reservation occasionally. Right?

If you’re not familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh, he’s a beautiful meditation teacher, a Zen master who, as the question suggests, epitomizes mindfulness and being in the present moment.

Then, there’s Tony Robbins. 

The emperor of goal setting who wakes sleeping giants and exhorts you to take massive action. Rather than sitting still and delivering his message in the soft, mindful tones of a Zen master, Robbins sweats and shouts as he paces the stage and waves his arms.

What’s the connection between these two?

Can you focus on your breath and still achieve your goals?

Can you rest in the Now and still reserve the aisle seat on your next flight?

What’s the connection between planning and being in the present moment?

The connection between planning and being present depends on your level of consciousness.

When your awareness is on the surface of the mind, being in the Now and planning are incompatible. By surface mind, I mean the level of consciousness that organizes your world into fixed, dualistic, either/or categories.

The surface mind is dualistic.

To this polarized, surface consciousness life appears as a battlefield of light/dark, good/bad; a tension-filled experience defined by either-or struggle. From the perspective of surface consciousness:

Either you’re planning or you’re in the Now.
Either you’re up or you’re down.
Either you’re winning or you’re losing.

The list goes on.

At this level of consciousness, the unpredictability of life is threatening.

It’s not exciting. It’s scary. It’s either-or. From this consciousness planning becomes:

• A strategy of self-protection
• A way of trying to control life events
• A shield to protect yourself and those you love from danger
• A way to try and stay on the up and avoid the down

From the surface mind, planning is an attempt to manipulate and control life.

It’s a constant struggle of striving and seeking.
Which is not to say that nothing gets done. The dualistic, surface mind can set goals and achieve them. It can get things done . . . sometimes.

But, here’s the rub: even in achieving goals the feeling of satisfaction is rarely felt at this level of mind. It’s the nature of the surface mind to experience life as incomplete and unsatisfactory. Does this mean that you should give up planning?

Not at all.

Planning doesn’t have to be defined by dualistic, self-protective patterns of consciousness.

Planning can arise from a deeper level of consciousness.

That’s why it’s so valuable to pause . . . before you begin planning. Pause and shift your level of consciousness. Instead of planning from the anxious, either-or, surface mind, shift into a deeper level of consciousness.


Because the deeper levels of consciousness aren’t caught in either-or dilemma.

As consciousness deepens it also integrates. As you shift from the surface mind towards the deeper levels of mindfulness, presence and wisdom, the either-or tension dissolves.

At each deeper level of consciousness, the dualistic struggle to preserve yourself in the face of life’s uncertainty relaxes. The experience of polarization shifts to one of paradoxical appreciation.

As awareness shifts from the surface to the depths, your experience of polarization transforms.

Rather than being trapped in either-or polarities, your vision of life becomes paradoxical:

• Up and down are no longer opposed—they’re related.
• Light and dark are no longer in conflict—they’re dance partners.
• Every win includes a loss and vice versa.

As consciousness deepens and integrates, the sense of struggling against life evaporates.

The need for self-protection evaporates as well. And as it does, you discover something wonderful: that you’re in the Now . . . um . . . now.

You don’t have to get there. Trying to get there is an attribute of surface consciousness which no longer snares you.
In this state of consciousness, goal setting takes on a whole new meaning.

Here’s why . . .

You’re complete.

There’s nothing to gain or protect by struggling.

As this becomes obvious, the barriers between your opening heart and the heart of life dissolve. It’s a huge relief.

“But” the either-or mind may ask, “Won’t nothing happen if I’m in the Now. How will I do anything if I’m resting in completeness?”

Ahhhhh . . . this is where the paradox arises.

As you discover the inescapable nature of the Now—planning takes a new form.

The Now isn’t a place to hide out. It’s not a fortress of self-protection. Residing in the present moment disarms you and opens you fully to Life.

The Now isn’t static. It’s alive.

The completeness of the Now is expressed through the movement of time.

You discover your inherent wholeness in the Now and also discover that this very wholeness is embodied and expressed through time.

Or more accurately, it’s partially embodied and partially expressed.

As you express inherent wholeness in time—you encounter the limits of your capacity.

Capacity for what?

For embodying wholeness; for living in time with Wisdom Heart consciousness, free of self-protection and fear.

All the sacred traditions describe this lack-of-capacity.

Some call it “the dream”, some call it “sin”, others call it “forgetting”. It’s a universal experience. So, how can you increase your capacity to bring the peace, presence, and fulfillment of Now into time?

Make planning into a spiritual practice.
Rather than using planning as a way to protect or control, planning transforms into a practice of stepping more and more fully into life’s unqualified support. Planning becomes a practice that opens you to Life.

Instead of designing plans from the stance of self-protection and defensiveness – make plans that open you more fully; that move you more whole-heartedly into life.

Plan from the perspective of the Wisdom Heart within you. Let the inner Teacher reveal your next steps.

This is not an exercise in magical thinking.

Life’s unqualified friendliness includes allowing you to hold on to your defensiveness as long as you choose. The inner Teacher will never force you to open up to Life at a faster pace than you can accept.

It’s up to you to build your capacity to embody and express awakened consciousness your life conditions.

That’s what planning is for. Planning is the practice of actively embodying the truth of who you are and allowing life to guide you.

When you plan in this way, you’ll feel alive and vulnerable.

It’s that paradox thing again. Goal setting that arises from awakened consciousness has a vibrant, alive quality. It’s awake!!

But, doesn’t mean that you’ll walk at the slow measured pace of Thich Nhat Hahn. Nor does it mean that you’ll leap like Tony Robbins.

The practice of awakened goal setting allows you to find your own rhythm and follow your unique path.

It infuses your life with deep sense of peace and presence. But it doesn’t protect you.

Awakened goal setting—sacred planning—exposes the places within you that are tender, hesitant, and vulnerable. It calls you out of hiding and into your true life.

It will make you tremble.

You can be in the Now and plan.

In truth, you don’t have any choice. You’re already in the Now and your human neurology is wired for goal setting and creating.

The secret is to make that inner shift from surface consciousness towards the depths of your being so that planning becomes a spiritual practice.

Consciousness is in the driver’s seat.

Whether your planning process is driven by either-or struggles or awakened wisdom is a choice.

Awakened goal setting—sacred planning—builds your capacity to embody your inherent wholeness so that the conditions of your life are infused with that wholeness. You start to live your purpose, to embody your calling.

Then whether you’re in the aisle seat on your next flight won’t be that important. Because you’ll be on the right flight; heading in the direction that is calling you into your true life.



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Editor: Bryonie Wise

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