Can you be in the future and the present at the same time?
On our anniversary each year, Kay and I drive to some awesome getaway location and stay for three nights. On our latest trip, we woke up one morning and starting talking about future anniversary vacations. We decided that next year, on our fifth anniversary, we would revisit the scene of our marriage: Hawaii. This set an implied precedent that every five years we would go somewhere we couldn’t drive to. “How about Florence?” We’d been thinking of going there. “We’ll do that on our 10th anniversary,” we decided. “We’ll stay for a month.”
When we looked forward, we saw a rosary of April vacations, with a fat bead every fifth bead. “What an excellent plan of plans!” we thought.
The next morning during my meditation it occurred to me that none of the plans we had made meant diddly squat to me. In fact, no plan I ever make holds control over my happiness. What a wonderful realization and condition. For example, let’s say I plan on finishing a project – large or small – by this afternoon or next year or whatever. I will do my best to satisfy obligations I have made to others, but as to the obligation I made to myself, well, there simply isn’t one. If the project gets done “early,” I don’t rejoice, and if the project takes longer than projected, I don’t suffer. Even if it peters out and doesn’t happen at all, no problem.
It didn’t used to be that way. Just the opposite. I used to be totally at the mercy of my hopes and expectations of the future. If I planned a cookout, I’d worry about rain. If it rained, I suffered. If it didn’t rain, I wouldn’t slow down; I was on to some other idea of what would make me happy or unhappy down the road. I literally never stopped. And I believe I never would have stopped if I had not taken up the practice of frequent stopping, as in, meditating.
That’s not to say I do any less planning than before. I still make many, many plans. I make plans for the next second, minute, hour, day, week, month, year, and years. The difference is that now my plans come with a handful of assumptions that make the whole process free and easy.
The main assumption I make is that a day will come when I make a plan that goes unfulfilled because I died before the, uh, deadline. And I never know when my death will cause a plan to not go as planned. So when I say to you, “I’ll meet you for lunch tomorrow,” I actually do think to myself, “Unless I die first,” but I don’t bother to say that. It’s just assumed.
Another assumption I make is that sometimes I will not be physically able to fulfill a plan, which is really just a subset of the whole dying thing. I consciously accept that injury or illness will inevitably interfere with my plans. And that way, when I do have to change my plans because of injury or illness, it will be as expected and as welcomed as, say, going bald. Which is not to say I will be overjoyed about it. But the stress will be slight and brief, it having been pre-wrapped in a bundle of swaddling non-resistance.
I assume that priorities will sometimes shift between the time the plan is made and when it comes due. For example, I might plan to start writing an article tomorrow called, “How to Plan Stuff Without All the Agony,” and then something might come up that’s more important or appealing or whatever, and I do that instead.
I assume that my net worth will never stop changing, and that sometimes I will make a plan based on reasonable financial projections that then don’t pan out. I remain ever-ready to change plans accordingly. For example, in 2015, because of our finances at that time, Kay and I might not take a month-long vacation to Florence as we recently planned. Maybe we’ll go for a week. Maybe we’ll go for a year. Maybe we won’t go at all. However it goes, if I’m alive in April of 2015, my plan is to be grateful in April of 2015. That’s the only plan I really hope I can keep.
I assume that sometimes things out of my control will happen that cause a change in plans. For example, you might invite me to lunch tomorrow, and then die tonight. Or maybe you just forgot the appointment. Does it really matter? Either way, I eat alone, when that was not the plan. It doesn’t matter to me why you aren’t there because as I place food in my mouth, the most important thing to me will be the food in my mouth. Later, I will find out if you are dead or delinquent. Until then, it is irrelevant. And in either case, I won’t hold you accountable for having foiled my plan.
I assume that your suffering is never my fault. Let’s revisit our lunch date, but this time, it’s you who are sitting alone in the restaurant waiting for me. And waiting. And waiting. Various feelings arise inside you: frustration, confusion, worry, anger. The next time we communicate, I will not say “I’m sorry” because that would be a lie. If it becomes clear to me that you believe that my tardiness caused you to suffer, there will now be a slightly greater than zero chance that the words “I’m sorry” will come out of me. But if they do, it won’t mean what you think it means. The translation goes like this, “As spokesperson for the universe, I’m sorry that you are unable to just sit, just drink, just eat.” In other words, I am no more responsible for your happiness or your unhappiness than a distant planet. It’s never my fault when a failed plan makes you unhappy.
Only three things can cause one of my plans to not go as planned: 1) I might die 2) Circumstances might change 3) I might change my mind. What makes this simple awareness extremely refreshing and a source of shockingly rich freedom and joy is that when I am making a plan, I am actually just making the plan. I’m not entangled in or reliant on the plan itself. I am not at the mercy of its fruition. I just make the plan, now. If the plan comes to be, then I will experience it, now, as in, then, which will at that time be now. And if the plan doesn’t happen, there is no loss, because at the moment that the plan is not happening, I’m still just me, now, and whichever now is happening then will always be just as now as if it was planned or not. So I’m free. Free to plan. Free to change plans. Free to not have plans. Free to not have plans go as planned. It’s all just part of the same bowl of soup. And it’s tasty.