Two interrelated problems immediately surface. First, how can one reconcile the teaching of being in the present with the life function of planning? And since these matters all involve an expression of personal desire, how can one have desires and not be caught in a web of cravings?
Although one cannot make any kind of plans for the future without thinking about the future, making that decision should be done with as much equanimity as you can muster and as free of your ego as your awareness will allow. To do this, you must bring your mindfulness to bear on the process. This is a critical point … to the extent that your decision is made from a lack of equanimity and with your ego fully involved, it will be that much harder if not impossible to not attach to it and stay present.
Once you have made your decision, hopefully mindfully, and obtain knowledge regarding the steps that you will need to take to attain your goal, you must let go all thoughts of the future and live your life in the present, knowing that whether you achieve your goal or not, your life will go on just fine. That is the simple answer to this conundrum.
As you live each day well in conformity with the Five Precepts, some days will contain activities that pertain to your plans, but think of them only in the present. Do the work you know you have to do in a disciplined and mindful way; the only thing you should be concerned about is making the best effort you are capable of today. What you cannot do is think about let alone obsess about the future, about whether your efforts will be successful in meeting your goals.
Our lives need direction. But it is important to remember while saying that that we know that we have no control over the future, so although we may plan as carefully as we can, and do everything by the book, what will be will be. Being aware of that and accepting that basic fact is one of the keys to staying present while planning. Why obsess about something over which we have no control and thereby rob us of peace in the present? That’s hard for our ego to accept, but that’s just the way it is.
And so, the key to planning without the frustration that comes from not living in the present is to not attach to your plans and to be mindful, to catch yourself whenever your mind starts to fantasize or obsess about the future or to worry about whether your current efforts will be successful in bringing you to the point you have planned. When you see your ego arising, stop and say to it, “no, I’m not going to go there,” and allow it to subside. Use your frustration as a red flag … your canary in the mine … to help you stop and catch yourself.
Without question this is easier said than done. Our ego tends to arise whenever we put our effort into something, regardless of its nature ... even if you have surrendered your ego to your true Buddha nature, it is still part of you, waiting for a moment of weakness to arise ... and we easily fall into the trap of obsessing about the future.
But even if you are at a stage in your practice where you have not yet the mindfulness to catch yourself or the true acceptance to be free of attachment to your plans, keeping this lesson in mind, being aware of these things, while maintaining your focus on the things that bring you joy right now, in the present, and loving yourself unconditionally, will make the process of planning more free of frustration.
As with all aspects of the Buddhist path, finding this freedom is incremental. Better to have some awareness and freedom from frustration, than no awareness and constant turmoil. Have faith that if you live each day well, which is to say in accord with the Five Precepts, the future will take care of itself.
See the next post for the answer to how can one have desires and not be caught in a web of cravings.