Is Ignorance Really Bliss? (Or in Defense of Planning)

23 Feb

Tripod headstand splits. Copyright Jasper Johal 2011

I wanted a perfect ending.
Now I’ve learned, the hard way,
that some poems don’t rhyme,
and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Life is about not knowing, having to change,
…taking the moment and making the best of it,
without knowing what’s going to happen next.
Delicious Ambiguity.
—Gilda Radner

OK, so I know that in yoga we’re supposed to do like the above quote says. We’re supposed to be ok with ambiguity, with not having a plan and just living in the moment.

I don’t totally buy it.

I mean, I’m all for trying to stay present and appreciate the moment. Intellectually and philosophically, I comprehend how it is a lovely idea to not be attached to an outcome and to not need a plan. This would mean you’re never disappointed because you never had an expectation. You could live completely in the moment and no longer spend time obsessing over what your boss meant by that comment yesterday or how your upcoming date will go. You’d probably be calm and happy and worry-free and all that good stuff.

Again, I don’t totally buy it. I don’t think it’s human nature. Nor do I think it’s an ideal way to get through life in our modern world. Here’s my argument.

Evolutionarily speaking, being able to anticipate danger and plan accordingly is crucial to survival. If you were unable to think about your future hunting expedition enough to know how to avoid being someone else’s dinner, you wouldn’t live long enough to pass on your genes.

Bringing it to the present, for a large number of people who have jobs that involve lots of tasks and scheduling, you cannot succeed (or avoid being fired) if you are unable to plan things and anticipate. I will use myself as an example. I don’t think I could have completed my doctorate had I not been able to juggle a full-time student schedule, 3 part-time jobs (yoga teacher, teaching assistant, and therapy trainee), my dissertation research, exercise,and my social life. I really probably could never have finished all of those tasks without an insane ability to schedule, plan, anticipate deadlines and work, and prioritize. I definitely would not have been able to squeeze in time for self-care (yoga, alone time, etc.) or time with my friends if I hadn’t been able to maximize time in my schedule. In addition, I’d argue that having a goal (an outcome) and working towards it is a useful thing.

That being said, I was able to be flexible when things didn’t go according to plan (especially when I worked at a residential treatment center with adolescent boys where crises constantly erupted). I learned to not be completely attached to outcome (our motto in grad school was B = Ph.D., which is a hard motto for a group of overachievers). It’s true, I couldn’t always know what would happen in the future (would I be a teaching assistant or a research assistant in the fall), but trying to schedule and control what I could let me do the best I could do in school, taking the minimum amount of time to complete it that was possible for me, and maximizing the fun I could have in that time.

To temper my point at the beginning, I am the first to admit I can be overly anxious and waste unnecessary energy stressing about stuff I can’t change. I find that when you have to nurture certain qualities (e.g., organization, planning, being detail oriented) in your professional life, it can be a challenge to turn them off when you’re not at work.  THAT I think would be a great thing to work on (and stress about how I’m not doing it right lol). I also agree it is good to be flexible and not too rigid with planning and to be able to be spontaneous at times. I just don’t think that never planning, never committing, and never hoping for things should be a lifestyle that one necessarily strives for.

Some psychologists argue that a certain amount of tension is necessary to obtain goals. We can all think of an iconic character, like Sean Penn’s character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Sure, he’s not stressing about anything and he totally lives in the moment. However, he’s not achieving any goals either (aside from getting laughs from fellow students). A little stress is a good thing. It keeps you on your toes and moving towards the things you want. Goals don’t have to be materialistic. They’re not inherently bad to have. It’s good to know what you want and align your life accordingly.

In addition, I think anticipation and hoping is part of the fun! I love looking forward to something and thinking about how fun it could be. Sure, sometimes the reality isn’t as good as my fantasy, but sometimes it’s just as good or better. It’s kind of like the saying, “’tis a far better thing to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Sometimes you  risk disappointment, but it can be good to put the energy out there and think about what you would like to happen. When the event is done, it’s fun to reminisce about the good times (within reason).

Finally, as a psychologist, I have to say that it can be helpful to think about the past and how it impacts your experience of the present and possibly your future. No, ruminating and obsessing and living in the past does not help. But I think that being self-aware, accepting responsibility for what you did in the past and letting it inform your future actions is definitely helpful. It’s important to learn from your mistakes so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

In sum, I think that planning and having goals is often helpful and necessary to be able to survive in today’s world. I think the trick is to maintain flexibility and accept that even with planning and hoping, the outcome is not within our control. We don’t get to know what will happen. All we can do is try our best to prepare, know we’ve done our best, and hang on for the ride.

Good thing we have yoga ;)

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6 Responses to “Is Ignorance Really Bliss? (Or in Defense of Planning)”

  1. deepali February 24, 2011 at 8:56 am #

    I don’t buy it. :) I don’t think anyone argues that never planning or committing is the healthy way to live a “normal” life. I mean, monks on mountain tops commit to a rigorous life of austerity and study. And even in yoga, we commit to a practice. All things in moderation, no? Overcommitting and undercommitting have adverse consequences, and isn’t balance what everyone claims is ideal?

    I also think you can plan without attachment to outcome. Juggle the schedule and dream big, but understand that your plan could be totally unrealistic and never work out. The part we get warned against is assuming that when the plan is a failure, we are failures. We plan, but we are not our plans. :)

    In essence, I agree with everything you said except your premise. :) <3 the blog.

    • K.O. Yoga February 24, 2011 at 9:00 am #

      Deepali, I actually agree. I was trying to be extreme to make my point. I think most people aren’t saying that you should never plan, never commit, etc. However, I have heard some people try to take it to that extreme, so was responding to that (even though I don’t think that’s the majority opinion).

      I completely agree everything in moderation :)

  2. Big Om Daddy February 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

    Ignorance is hardly bliss at all. In fact, ignorance is the root of many bad things in our society. As a matter of fact, ignorance and not money is the root of all evil. With that said, I believe that “being in the moment” is actually one of the best survival strategies even in our society today. I do however take issue with how “being present” has been interpreted in the Yoga/Spiritual community.

    Somewhere down the line, “being present” has become an excuse to drop your concerns and fears about what is to come in the future. Just chill out. What will be will be. Let the Universe unfold.. Blah Blah Blah.

    What I do agree on is that the past is an illusion and the future is to a certain extent. Therefore, the only thing we are sure about is this very moment. However, that doesn’t mean that a future will soon come though. I am not a psychologist like you but I have observed that many people spend too much time thinking about the future or the past.

    As you pointed out, planning is essential to success in any endeavor. Planning does not conflict with “being present.” Planning is actually an activity of “the moment.” Problems occur when people anticipate though. Their minds keep thinking about the future “What if I get fired?” “What I don’t get that job?.” In doing so they lose the moment. Instead, I would say to those people that the only thing you CAN do is to use your moment wisely. Instead of pondering, they can use their moment to investigate alternatives or focus on things they could do now to prevent address those outcomes. They start trying to anticipate outcomes rather than being prepared for them. We all know people that all they do is think about their future and worry but don’t do anything today to improve it.

    One thing I learned in martial arts was that you do prepare for things. That is what training is all about. However, when we anticipate, we are putting emotional attachments to outcomes like fear or anger. If you are sparring with someone, you have to keep your mind open and not anticipate what your opponent will do. You may think a punch is coming and try to block and in the process expose yourself to attack. Ideally, you respond to your opponents movements or make some strikes when the opportunity is revealed. I think life works much in this manner actually except that we usually aren’t kicking and punching all the time. It is the Zen philosophy of Mushin http://http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mushin.

    From another perspective, consider the people that constantly say that they are missing something in their lives and that their lives are not full. I would say to them well you go the same 24 hours per day as every other person on this earth. What have you done with it? Time is a gift to us. Once it is used, we cannot create more of it. This is why I hate the term “time management.” You can’t manage time. You can’t make more time. You can only manage yourself now in this moment.

    BTW, I actually think that Spicolli is not living in the moment. He is stuck in a party mode which is a moment that might have ended a while ago. Charlie Sheen is an example of guy that people may think he is living the moment, but actually he is living a moment from the past. His lifestyle is like an adolescent teen’s fantasy. That moment passed him a long time ago.

    • K.O. Yoga February 24, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

      Thanks for the comment! I think you raise good points. It is about the balance and staying in the moment. I do think somehow this gets twisted in our society often to be this super chill, just let everything happen, etc., as you point out, and that point of view is not necessarily helpful.

      I totally agree about Spicolli and Charlie Sheen too :)

      Love the Namaste Bitches page, btw :)

  3. Gully Burns February 24, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

    I think when people talk about ignorance as an admirable ideal they really mean ‘innocence’ and the two are very different. When I think of the best aspects of this idea (the value of ‘unknowing’, ‘unthinking’) its really the lack of cynicism and an optimistic outlook. “Live as if you’ve never been hurt” is a sentiment that is certainly worth having. Children are wonderful largely because they’re innocent. They’re passionately engaged in trying to make sense of things (the polar opposite of someone pursuing a state of ignorance).

    As a very cerebral, thought-oriented person (I’m a professional scientist), this whole essay resonates with me. Ignorance is horrible. It is a great source of great suffering, and hideous behavior. I view the pursuit of knowledge as the highest activity that we can do and is the thing that makes the biggest difference in the world (IMHO). Compare the world now and the way it was 1000 years ago. Pretty much everything that has made our lives better in that time comes directly from the pursuit of knowledge. It isn’t the whole story and knowledge can take many forms (spiritual knowledge, economic knowledge, political knowledge, artistic knowledge), but it’s absence is always a tragedy and it’s deliberate destruction or avoidance to me is a great crime.

    • K.O. Yoga February 24, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

      Thanks for the post, Gully! :) Glad you liked. I always think it’s interesting to mesh scientific training with yoga philosophy and see where they fit well and where they diverge.

      Wow, I didn’t think anyone but me read these…

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