After years of working with patients on their medical and psychological issues, I’ve become increasingly aware of a widespread need for guidance in overall life balance. I meet so many people who feel overwhelmed, perpetually busy, uncertain about their path, or somehow misaligned with the qualities that are most appealing to them. I don’t have time to teach “life architecture” to people one-on-one, but it’s just as well since Briana and I have found that we can teach these skills through our articles, books, and online resources, which also allows us to help a broader community.
Today I’m going to talk about planning. We cover the nitty gritty of effective planning in our other articles and our Dreambook. Now I’m going to speak to the attitude conducive to healthy planning – from the little plans that get us through each day to the bigger plans that dominate weeks, months, or years, to the big plan for our life as a whole. Given my philosophical background (as a botanist and practitioner of Chinese Medicine) I’m going borrow from the language of the natural world.
In Chinese Five Element philosophy, each of the elements – water, wood, fire, earth, and metal (air) – presides over a certain arena of our lives, and wood is the element most associated with planning. Wood is represented by all plant life. Plants are rooted in the earth and grow upward toward the sun; their lives abide by this plan and never waver. Human lives aren’t much different – we have our roots in the earth, in our material needs and our tangible foundation, and we grow and aspire toward something less tangible. That’s our version of following the plan, and the health of the wood element within us determines our success.
Each element governs a particular sense organ, and wood is related to the eyes. As such, it is closely linked to both our everyday vision and the “vision” in our mind’s eye – our ability to envision a future or a goal. There’s a lot that can get in the way of having a clear sense of our plan – fear, distraction, stagnation, grief, and all sorts of limiting beliefs about our inadequacy. Good vision – being able to see where we want to go and to understand our place in the world – is the first step to effective planning and overcoming the limitations to our growth. A plan without clear vision guiding it will inevitably involve lots of meandering.
As a healthy plant follows its plan, it stays flexible. The wind may blow it and snow may weigh on its branches, but it bends without snapping, and in this way it preserves its ability to pursue its plan. The same is true for humans: if we are rigid around every detail, such as the timeline and the specifics of how everything needs to happen, this makes us brittle – and much more apt to snap under the demands of life’s challenges. Staking everything on a detail can sideline the whole dream. Flexibility around our plan allows us to be open to new ideas and broadens our vision so that we can see new ways of succeeding. Likewise, maintaining clear vision – i.e., perspective – promotes flexibility because we’re able to view the big picture.
If our internal organs were a community, the organ associated with wood – the liver – would be considered the general. A superior general has excellent vision, composure, and a precise, long-sighted plan. He or she is decisive and courageous, and responds organically, making adjustments as the plan plays out. An inferior general can be short-sighted, arrogant, rigid, aimless, or hot-headed. What kind of general is your internal planner? Do you have a clear sense of your plan in the short and long term? Do you know when to prune a branch that’s going off in a wayward direction (an expenditure of energy that isn’t serving the plan)?
When the plan is threatened or blocked, some form of anger – the emotion associated with the wood element – is likely to arise. When anger is persistent or suppressed, this diminishes our vision. We lose perspective. We get attached to being right, to insisting that it shouldn’t be this way, to proving the injustice of it all, to blaming and getting back at someone (maybe ourselves, or the world), and we lose sight of the plan. We can’t see where we were headed; we only see the obstacle in front of us.
Although anger can consume one’s mind and life, compared to many other negative emotions, such as fear or sadness, I believe anger is preferable. Anger tends to have more drive behind it, which can be transformed into determination and purposeful action. This can only happen through the restoration of our vision. We need to regain perspective. We need to see that we’ve been blocking our own way, and then we need to commit to something more important than our anger – such as a happy and fulfilling life.
Another way to get through anger is to be like bamboo. Bamboo, in Chinese philosophy, is the quintessential expression of wood. It grows so straight, so unwavering in its commitment to its plan. It is strong, yet flexible. It bends in the wind without snapping. And it’s hollow. Whereas anger makes us clench and tighten – in our jaw, chest, stomach, or fists, for instance – bamboo’s openness inside is symbolic of an unclenched attitude. At ease with respect to its plan. When you think about your plan, feel what arises in your body. Are you clenching or at ease? If there’s clenching, let yourself experience where and how this occurs. Then stop resisting the feeling. Feel it, let it move through you. Then imagine you’re opening this area, letting it go, and allowing yourself to get back on track.
Dr. Peter Borten