Planning and the Busy Mind

This is an edited transcription of a talk by Shaila Catherine.

As I sat in retreat, my mind was restless, thinking about what I was going to teach in Europe the following year. My mind had jumped way ahead of itself. By noticing the extreme future orientation of the mind’s content, I was able to recognize what was happening: in that moment, I wasn’t teaching—I was experiencing an agitated mind.

Planning is a common form of mental restlessness which can manifest as anxiety—we’re so uncertain about the future that we try to gain control by planning it. In Buddhist teaching, planning is part of papañca—a Pāli term that is usually translated as conceptual or discursive proliferation or the diversifying tendencies of mind.

Restlessness is not a new challenge for meditators. Hundreds of years ago in Tibet, Geshe Shawopa urged his students, “Do not rule over imaginary kingdoms of endlessly proliferating possibilities.” We cannot put all the blame on technological demands and the fast pace of contemporary lifestyles—restless planning has always been a distraction to meditation.

In the Buddha’s teaching on the path to enlightenment, restlessness is one of the last obstacles to be overcome—not at the first stage of enlightenment, not at the second stage, and not even at the third stage. It is one of the fetters that falls away only with final enlightenment, at the fourth stage of the arahant. So we need diligence and perseverance.

Although it can appear that planning is a useful activity, we might examine our actual planning activities to assess how effectively and efficiently we plan. How many of your daily plans don’t actually turn out as planned? Many of our plans are not preparation for action—they’re the expression of anxiety or restlessness. This mind simply hasn’t discovered how to rest and be present for things as they’re unfolding.

But some plans are useful; therefore, we must assess our planning on a case by case basis. And to do that, we first have to recognize when we’re planning and how we’re doing it. Are you aware that you’re planning when you are thinking about how something will be in the future? Are you mindful of the process of planning projects, activities, and events in your daily life? Are you enchanted by the content of your plans, imagining scenarios of future possibilities? Or can you shift your attention periodically to the sensations of the breath or the sensations of the body sitting? Do you notice the peacefulness that arises when you’re not planning anything— just sensing present moment experience with a calm and clear attention?

Planning is a Barrier to Awakening

The problem with planning isn’t just that it agitates the mind, but that it disguises the basic characteristics of existence to which we want to awaken: anicca, dukkha, and anattā. Anicca is the Pāli term for impermanence, dukkha for suffering or unsatisfactoriness, and anattā for not-self. When we are in a planning mode, imagining how things will be in the future, we can’t recognize these three characteristics; we can’t see things as they actually are right now.

Planning Disguises Impermanence

When we are planning we tend to cling to fantasies of the future, and divorce ourselves from the truth of moment-by-moment change. Because we’re planning a particular result in the future, we might not be aware of the process of change. We forget to observe how things arise and pass away. When we ignore impermanence, we can delude ourselves into believing that we can control the future if only we plan it well enough.

People might try to plan anything, even things that are completely beyond control. Sometimes meditators imagine, “I’m going to make this happen in the next sitting”—trying to plan their meditative development. Thinking we can control our meditative experience is delusion. While we’re expecting a future to be a certain way, we might miss the wonder of what’s actually happening as things are changing in this present moment.

Planning Disguises Unsatisfactoriness

Planning also masks dukkha or unsatisfactoriness. Every plan can be imagined with variations in outcome. If we like the imagined outcomes, we might be disappointed when our experiences don’t turn out as planned. If we have an idea of how things should turn out, we can suffer by comparing our experience with ideals, imaginings, or other peoples’ experiences.

What is the mind doing to distract us from deeply knowing the first noble truth—that conditioned things are unsatisfactory?

For example, we might find ourselves using pleasant fantasies to try to hide, avoid, or deny unpleasant feelings. Planning a pleasurable future is a common response to sadness, pain, and fear. It can be difficult to open our hearts and minds to the painful feelings in our lives, and so people try to stay busy and keep their attention occupied by pleasurable distractions. But when we sit down to meditate, there is nothing to do except to see our own minds.

As we bring attention to meet disagreeable experiences, we may discover that a deep peace arises by being present and unreactive in their midst—a peace more desirable than any plan or fantasy. As we open a little bit, our capacity to receive all feelings, pleasant or painful, increases. When the mind is at ease and equanimous, habits of compulsive planning fall away whether the experience is pleasant or painful. We find a deep rest with experience as it unfolds.

Planning Disguises Not-self

Planning also disguises the characteristic of not-self—anattā. This might be obvious when you look at the content of your plans. How many times have you planned what you will say, what somebody will think about you, or how you will succeed? We construct a sense of self by imagining how we will be in the future.

Sometimes we’ll sit in meditation or go on a retreat and decide “I’m going to change something about myself,” and then imagine ourselves emerging from that retreat as this new me. We have constructed a new concept of self. But what would we be if we just let experience unfold, without the need for the story of self and the attempts to control the outcome?

What’s Behind Planning?

The basic forces behind the planning mind are none other than greed, hate and delusion. When things are pleasant, and there is restlessness that we’re not mindful of, the tendency is to plan how to get more of the pleasant things. When things are unpleasant, we plan how to have less unpleasantness. Greed or desire can manifest as shopping fantasies, fantasies about cooking or food, sex or romance—basically anything that we want. Planning that’s rooted in hatred can manifest as revenge fantasies, musing over snide remarks, or nurturing grudges. Delusion fantasies might revolve around self image—how we’ll be seen, what we’ll say, what we’ll do. I label it all: planning dukkha. This label highlights the aspect of unsatisfactoriness in the restless mind and points to the opportunity to learn about suffering.

Once I heard a question posed to one of my teachers, Joseph Goldstein: “Is planning always suffering?” His answer was yes. And then he explained that the problem with planning is that we don’t recognize that a plan is just a thought. We create a story and we get lost in it. When we don’t recognize that it’s a thought, we suffer. It is possible to plan very useful things in life, but if we do that without recognizing that it’s a thought, we will be perpetuating ignorance and suffering.

Working with Planning

Mindfulness is very important in practicing with planning: we need to be mindful of hindrances or habits so that we can work skillfully with them.

One of my teachers told me, “If I think a thought five times, and I’m not learning anything new from it, I don’t think it anymore.” We can cultivate this powerful ability to refrain from repetitive thinking.

It can be helpful to count how many times you plan an event or imagine a scenario. How many things did you plan during your last meditation session? How many times did you plan the same event, conversation, or activity? In a retreat there is very little that needs to be planned. We sit, then walk, then sit, then walk. Yet, in the simplicity of the retreat environment, a restless mind might entertain itself with wild plans—planning our lives, our partner’s lives, planning what we will say to the teacher in our next interview, planning our next retreat, planning what we will experience in the next meditation session, planning what we will do when we return home enlightened.

In retreat, the planning habit is obviously absurd and a cause of suffering, so I remind myself to “make no plans.” Nevertheless, my mind might still engage in planning. So I count the plans. I count one the first time my mind plans something. The second time my mind reviews the plans, imagines alternate outcomes, or reconstructs plans for that activity, I count two. After the third time, I can’t make any excuses. It is obviously just the hindrance of restlessness, and I firmly resolve again, to “make no plans.” When supported by clarity and resolve, the mind will relinquish its fantasies for the future and settle into present wakefulness.

Simple reminders can help prevent the pursuit of planning from getting out of hand. We can remind ourselves to just pause for a moment. Take a breath. Interrupt the flow of that restless thinking. Recognize that “this is restlessness.” Comprehend that restlessness is suffering. We can investigate the forces that sustain restlessness; we can learn what fuels suffering.

Restless planning can erupt even after the mind has become concentrated and calm for a while. We don’t need to judge ourselves when these habits re-assert themselves. We simply return to present moment awareness and diligently reestablish mindfulness.

We can explore the feelings that lie underneath the planning—anxiety, insecurity, or the discomfort of not knowing how things will turn out. We might recognize a mental rigidity associated with planning. We might feel the burden of struggling to sustain consistent stories of an imagined future. Restless planning takes a great toll on our energies: it is an exhausting habit.

On the other hand, sometimes the absurdity of the planning mind gives us a good laugh. Humor helps to dissolve our enchantment with fantasy, enabling our resolve for present moment wakefulness to return.

When Planning is Necessary

Even though I’ve been speaking about planning as suffering, we must make plans. To drive anywhere we need to anticipate the need to have gas in the car. Planning helps us to live responsibly, train for a career, organize a business, save for retirement, and prepare for death. To have dinner on the table in the evening when we get hungry, we must first have earned money, shopped for groceries, and taken the time to cook the meal. Planning projects and goals in partnership allows people to live and work together respectfully and intelligently, rather than merely being manipulated by the forces of impulsive desire, fear, or power.

One helpful guideline is to plan in near time frames. Just plan what needs to be planned, and know that we are engaged in planning thoughts while we are doing the planning. Become conscious that you are planning when you are planning.

Resting In How Things Are

Plans are foiled again and again, and this can be a good thing. Equanimity is needed to accept the results of anything that we have planned. When our plans are thwarted, we might remember anicca, impermanence, dukkha, suffering, and anattā, not-self. Beyond our plans, projections, and thoughts, we learn to rest, and allow a peaceful awareness to meet life as it unfolds.