Planning ahead in this moment

I remember when I first started learning about Buddhism, I was really puzzled by the idea of ‘staying in the present moment’ because if I am only experiencing what is happening to me right now and trying to remain mindfully present in this very moment… how can I look ahead, point my mind towards beyond-now to make plans for dinner, or for anything that is ‘in the future’? That seems like such a contradiction. A paradox.

I still think about this conundrum a good deal, and it continues to be the basis of one of my meditations… as I chop the carrots and prepare for dinner!

When I quietly sit in Wabi’an, watching my thoughts come and go; when I quietly sip my tea, inhaling it’s steamy fragrance; when I watch the birds in the birdbath, coming and going; when I mindfully chop my carrots… all these things I understand as being “present in the moment.” And these moments are calm and reassuring because I feel comfortable that I’m ‘doing’ it… staying in the moment.

But that’s the easy part!

However, as we get all caught up in day-to-day mundanities of planning the week ahead with our calendars full of appointments for work or leisure, the doctor or other health matters, and visits to and by friends and family; remembering birthdays and buying presents; making shopping lists which involves thinking ahead to meals; making sure we get the bookings we want for future holidays (remember those in pre-covid?!); and even planning well ahead for weddings, births, and so on to retirement and even death.

So how do we stay in the moment and plan at the same time? Isn’t that a contradiction?

As time has gone by, I have become more aware that ‘planning’ is simply an activity of my mind, in just the same way as being aware of those quiet, calming moments are activities of my mind. It is simply one thought, followed by another thought, and being mindful of those thought processes. The key is in the awareness of the transient nature of these thoughts and being mindful of what is happening to your body in those moment-by-moment thoughts that relate to “I am now planning.”

But what happens instead is that too often our thought processes get commandeered and away we go galloping off in all directions at once, to anywhere but this centre that is this present moment. We launch into full overdrive of second-guessing our unknown future and filling our minds with scenarios one after another of WHAT-IFs? Our bodies get caught up in the maelstrom of our imagination until we’re in full fight-flight mode of catastrophising. This wild thought process has nothing to do with the simply one-step-at-a-time thought process of “I am now planning”.

So planning whilst staying in the present moment means to bring your awareness to your thoughts… as you plan. Yes, it involves projection into an unknown future in your imagination: planning dinner involves mentally observing the process involved in that preparation and then moving to the fridge to see if that ingredient is there and making a note on a shopping list to add that ingredient, and so forth. All the time, the practice is bringing your awareness to that single thought and then moving on to the next thought, observing that process of your mind.

Catastrophising is also just a mental state, a thought process that has not been observed and has simply run away in its present moment of unawareness. But that is okay too, there is no need to berate yourself and be harshly judgemental. It is simply what is happening in that moment, and bringing your attention to that process.

And if you do find your catastrophising, then your practice is to bring your attention to what is happening and then stop a moment: take just a moment to simply observe how your body is feeling in this very moment of intense anxiety or worry. Take a deep breath and let out a sigh, take another breath and let out a sigh, bring your awareness into your feet and work your way up through your body to the tips of your fingers, to the top of your head. Take another deep breath and let out a sigh. Accept yourself wholly in that moment and be kind. Hold yourself with compassion.

Bringing awareness to whatever you are engaged in in that moment, without judgement, without trying to ‘change’ anything, that is the practice. ‘Planning’ is a mental process of one thought after another… in this present moment. Practice observing the process of how ‘planning’ thoughts follow one another, just resting in the present. And always remember to breathe 🙂

Year of the Ox

2021 is the Year of the Yin Metal Ox, which suggests a combination of the Feminine with Strength and Resilience. A reflection on this suggests to me that it is a year to focus on our innate, intuitive wisdom that can be harnessed to help us remain strong and to see through any of the difficulties that 2021 may present. The flexibility implied in the Feminine can also help to prevent that Strength from turning into a rigid Metal form: think of Gold, which can be beaten and beaten, but it will just get more brilliantly burnished and spread out into fine and malleable forms without losing any of its beauty.

On my kitchen wall I have a lovely old scroll that I obtained in Japan many years ago: I was immediately taken by its whimsical image, without any understanding of its symbolic meaning. I love the laziness of the image: a peasant quietly and happily playing her flute, sitting comfortably astride an ox, that is glancing up to the clear, bright full moon as it walks through a darkened field, lit up by the moonlight. I always feel instantly relaxed when I look at it.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that the image is a part of a series of Zen images called The Ten Oxherding Pictures that relate to the ten stages of Zen practice. You can read more about the meaning of each picture here and here.

The picture that I have is Stage Six: Riding the Ox Home. It refers to having tamed your mind, represented by the ox, to the degree where you are on your way home together, in harmony, in peace, no longer having to struggle to tame the stubborn ox-mind. In practice terms, it is the stage where you’re able to tame your thoughts and sit in meditation in peace, without being carried away by your incessant thoughts.

The feeling is one of peace, of being freed from fears and worries and anxieties and now you can become truly creative, finding expression from a free and open mind, tapping into the wellspring of creativity. It is really inspiring, isn’t it!

Yet what I notice about my scroll, as opposed to others that I’ve seen, is that the ox here has turned its head towards the full moon, which represents enlightenment, or our innate wisdom-heart. Why? Perhaps it is a gentle reminder that when you feel happy and content and playful and creative – and all the good things that come from an engaged spiritual practice – it is easy to get absorbed in those good vibes and actually forget that more practice is still needed to be free from suffering and to be a compassionate agent of change in the world. So it reminds me to always fully enjoy the good vibes, but remember to keep up my daily practice and don’t become too complacent 🙂