Being present vs. planning for the future?

I saw an interesting tweet the other day that caught my attention. It was shared by Ram Dass, aka Richard Alpert, an American spiritual teacher, former academic and clinical psychologist, and the author of the book Be Here Now. He received the following question from a student: “How do you have plans and goals and still stay in the present?”

This question came up for me a few years ago when I first embarked on establishing a mindfulness meditation practice. I have also received this question from others when discussing mindfulness. I initially recall feeling like there was a contradiction – and as someone who thrives on planning and setting goals, I wasn’t sure how to reconcile the two. However, as time went by, I realized the two concepts can and do go hand in hand.

Ram Dass’ full response was somewhat abstract, but this quote seems to capture the main idea:

“So, I would say that I plan for the future, and then I live in the present, and when the future becomes the present, I live in it, and this is it and here we are.”

That left me wanting a little more, so I did some web surfing to see what others had to say about this topic. Somewhat surprisingly, I had difficulty finding evidence-based articles about this idea. There were a plethora of articles promoting the benefits of living in the moment, including increased happiness and decreased anxiety, but no mention of how to incorporate future planning and/or goal setting. I did, however, find a number of blogs and websites from individuals similar to me, i.e., coaches or other wellness/lifestyle advocates, who grappled with this idea as well.

In reviewing several of these sites, I thought Heidi Hill, Mindfulness Educator and Coach, and founder of Life in Full Bloom, summed it up nicely. She proposes three ways to be present while still planning for the future:

1) Set goals but let go of your expectations.

It is important to have goals and pursue them, but we must recognize and accept that we have limited control over the exact outcome of the goals we set.  To avoid stress, we must try not to obsess about the exact outcomes.

Lori Deschene, the founder of the website Tiny Buddha, also addressed the importance of balancing the present and the future in this quote:

“I want to accept and appreciate what is, while imagining and creating what could be. As beautiful and freeing as it is to immerse ourselves in the moment, we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t devote at least a little time to shaping the ones to come.”

As she points out, we don’t have to make a choice between being peaceful or being productive – we can be both.

2) Plan for the future, but don’t waste your time worrying about the future.

This was a common theme across several sites I visited – the distinction between planning for the future and worrying about the future. As Heidi states, worrying is not planning. The key difference: Planning is intentional. We decide to plan. Worrying is mindless and unintentional. Planning is done in the present, while worry takes us out of the present.

Marie Forleo, a self-described “Multi-Passionate Entrepreneur,” echoes this concept in a brief video about how to be present and still plan for the future, a question she received from a viewer of her weekly Internet show, MarieTV. When we are planning, we are present. When we are worrying, we are not present. However, it is possible to turn that anxiety about the future into meaningful planning for the future. The key is to be mindful when planning. As she states: “Planning consciously for the future is one of the best tools to stay grounded in the present.”

3) Balance planning with action.

More than one blogger put forth the notion that life satisfaction generally requires a balance of being and planning. The key is finding the right balance.  Heidi noted that “Action in the present is what enables our future.” She uses the example of someone wanting to write a book. You can’t just plan to write the book. You have to start writing the book little by little each day.

And finally, I thought Roberto Santamarina with Morphe Life Fitness did a nice job describing how our actions tie back to our goals:

“Mindfulness means that you focus and engage fully with any act that you are performing at the present moment while understanding the long-term intent that inspires that act. If your goal is to lose 30 pounds in six months, then everything you do in service of that goal is an act that you can enjoy, cherish, celebrate, and reward yourself for, so that you may continue to be inspired to perform that act again repeatedly until your goal has been met. …As you focus intensely on the Present, you are at once manifesting your goals for the Future.”

Simply put, being present in the moment and planning for the future are not mutually exclusive. The key is to be mindfully present when you engage in setting goals and planning for the future.

Pets and Your Health

This Saturday, August 11th, is the one-year anniversary of welcoming the feline goddesses, Athena and Artemis, into our home. Given the joy I experience having them in my life, I thought it would be fun to explore what impact pets can have on our health and wellbeing.

My pet history

Growing up, I did not have any indoor pets as almost everyone in my immediate family – including me – was allergic to cats or dogs or both. Several of my close friends had dogs and there was at least one semi-stray cat that hung around the block as the neighbors continued to feed it. I enjoyed playing with these animals and always thought it would be nice to own a pet someday.

Fast forward about 15 years to my desperate attempt to find housing in North Carolina as I prepared to move from New York to start graduate school. Through luck or fate, I was reconnected with an acquaintance from college who was already a student in the same graduate program. She and some friends were renting a house and needed a fourth roommate. The only catch – one of the women had two house cats. Given that my allergy to cats was not severe and my symptoms could typically be managed with over-the-counter medication, I decided to take a chance. I figured it would at least be a place to live temporarily until I could find something else if my allergies prevented me from staying.

I moved in that August and immediately fell in love with the cats. Danny was a big orange tabby who loved to lay on my bed as I studied. Mona was a mischievous little grey tabby who was most often found in the bathroom, waiting for someone to turn on the water so she could play with it. At first, I did experience some allergic symptoms – occasional sneezing fits, watery eyes and a little stuffiness here and there, but I was content to medicate with an anti-histamine. The joy of having these two critters in the house outweighed any discomfort or inconvenience I experienced. They were often a huge source of stress relief during my grueling two-year program.

I was sad to say goodbye to my feline friends when my housemates and I finished school and moved on to new adventures. However, my experience taught me that I could live with cats despite my allergy and I was eager to own a pet of my own. I moved in with my fiancé (now husband) after graduation and a few months later, as I was still struggling to find a full-time job, he suggested we adopt a cat. That was the start of our journey to pet ownership. We are definitely “cat people” although there are several dogs in our extended family whom we love dearly too.

The health benefits of pets

A quick online search revealed a plethora of information regarding the health benefits of owning pets, particularly dogs but cats as well. Here are just a few ways that owning a pet can improve both your physical and mental health:

Reduce your cardiovascular disease risk

  • According to experts at the Harvard Medical School and a 2013 study conducted by the American Heart Association, owning a dog can reduce heart disease risk factors and potentially help you live longer. Experts believe the connection is related to dog owners being more active, since walking your dog can help you meet the recommended daily exercise guidelines. The extra exercise may also be why dog owners tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Prevent or reduce allergies in children

  • Much like my experience growing up, the old thinking was that if you came from an allergy-prone family, pets should be avoided. According to WebMD, recent studies have suggested that children growing up in a home with “furred animals,” such as a cat or dog, will have less risk of allergies and asthma. University of Wisconsin-Madison pediatrician James E. Gern has conducted a number of studies that demonstrate having a pet in the home can actually lower a child’s likelihood of developing related allergies by as much as 33 percent. In fact, his published research shows that children exposed early on to animals tend to develop stronger immune systems overall.

Decrease stress

  • Simply being in the same room as your pet can have a calming effect. The neurochemical oxytocin is released when we look at our companion animal, which brings feelings of joy. It is also accompanied by a decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone. According to the CDC, studies have shown that cats provide emotional support, improve moods, and contribute to the overall morale of their owners. Dogs not only provide comfort and companionship, but several studies have found that dogs decrease stress and promote relaxation.

Boost your self-esteem

  • Pets are completely non-judgmental – they don’t care what you look like or how you behave. They love unconditionally and that boots our self-esteem. An article on Health.com notes that research studies have found that pet owners have higher self-esteem, as well as feelings of belonging and meaningful existence, than individuals who do not own pets.

As someone who has been a proud pet owner for almost 20 years, I have experienced many of these benefits firsthand. There is nothing better than coming home after a long day at work and having my kitties greet me at the door. Their playful antics often crack me up and as they say, laughter is the best medicine. And when I am feeling stressed, all I have to do is cuddle on the couch, stroke their soft fur and hear their contented purrs to feel calm again.

Owning pets is a big responsibility, but there are so many ways you will reap the benefits of their companionship. Consider adopting a shelter animal today!