Preparation and the Illusion of Control
“It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!”
The idea for today’s article arose at breakfast. Our friends Debashis and Adrienne were over, and Darbella and Debashis were discussing getting ready to go back to school. I mentioned in passing that I was a few days late writing this article and asked for topics. Debashis came up with “Getting Ready,” and mentioned how easy it was to get quite “lost in preparation.”
This comes up a lot, for clients. It seems to me to be a bit ‘twisty-turny’ so let me toss out some usages.
The Doom and Gloom Scenario
One of the standard arguments against being present is, “But if I only focus on today, I might not have enough money when I retire,” or some variant thereof. It’s as if the person is saying that they must focus, endlessly, on some future point in time, and on all of the details to get there, or things will fall apart.
It doesn’t seem to register that such planning, in the past, has typically not worked out as they thought, here in the present. Most have much, in the present, to complain about–their relationship isn’t working out, work isn’t working, mom and dad are still behaving like mom and dad, and on and on. If we could peer into the past, we’d see that, say a year ago, they were planning and thinking and deciding, and none of it led to where they thought they were heading.
A client and I were having coffee. At a prior session, we’d talked money and budgets. She said, “After our last session, I realized that I’d created budgets, and thought that was it. I now realize that we’d break the budget regularly, by justifying purchases in the moment.” In other words, the budget was done as a thing in itself. “Look, we have a budget!” but the day-to-day application of the planning was chaotic.
The “You Go First” Model
Many clients have said, “Yes, I want a deep and meaningful relationship, and I want to use the communication model, but I’m not going to put the effort in until I know it’s going to work out, and that my partner is going to do it too.”
Master of Manipulation
Other clients have a plan for their lives that seems to work for them, and they try, subtly or not so, to impose it upon others. They do the same thing, which has never worked, over and over, and figure persistence will eventually lead to something new. As opposed to trying something new, and seeing what happens.
Mostly, I think, people are caught in behaviour loops. They plan and hope and wish, and then assume something has shifted. But here’s the joke: when you shift your understanding of a situation, nothing outside of you has shifted! There is no magic, as Zen insists on pointing out. You, always and endlessly, have to take the mental plan and turn it into concrete action.
So, all of the plotting and planning and rethinking, while noble and worthwhile so long as it is not obsessive, accomplishes nothing in the real world. To use my first illustration, worrying about having enough money at retirement, even budgeting to have enough, is all well and good. Putting cash into a retirement account, and leaving it there, is the only way to actually have money at retirement.
Similarly, there is no way to plan for the next school year, beyond listing when you are teaching what, where. You can buy materials, set up your room(s), discuss students with your teaching partner. You are, however, deluding yourself if you think that this has accomplished anything in terms of day-to-day teaching.
Because, day by day, students are going to show up, and each will be who s/he is that day. You cannot plan to cover all contingencies. And even if you could, the odds that you’d be able to recall what you planned as some obscure thing happens, are close to nil.
Wisdom is “no plan.” It’s innovation when disaster strikes
Back when I was training to be a therapist, I had to submit notes on my sessions. The notes consisted of the setting, details of the person’s week, and what happened during the session. Lastly, I had to write a treatment plan for the next session. I did it because that was the only way I could pass, but even then noticed that my plans seldom if ever got enacted, because the client refused to co-operate by having nothing happen during the intervening week. I had to deal with what was actually going on. Imagine how stupid this would sound: “I’m really sorry that your husband was hit by a truck, but I’d planned to discuss your relationship to your mother.”
Yet, many conduct their relationships exactly this way. They see things a certain way, walk into a situation with their partner, student, mother-in-law (Hi Cheryl!) and expect that the other person is going to co-operate in what they think should be going on. The next thing you know, you’re angry… furious… that the situation or other person is doing their thing, and aren’t changing to fit your plan.
Living the Zen Moment
My goal is to persuade you to minimize the preparation for living, while maximizing actually doing it. And the only place you can “do it” is in the here and now, in this situation, as this situation occurs. It doesn’t matter what your plan says, because reality is what it is, and is not subject to you or your plans.
So, go ahead and plan and prepare, but do so with a light heart and a gentle hold. As things change (and of course they will…) go with the flow of it all, letting the prep and plan fall to the side, as you simply engage with the moment,with the people you are actually with, in ways that are elegant and centered.