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.
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 😉