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.

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