“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” ~Joseph Campbell
Even as a child I was an excellent planner. I saved my allowance and babysitting money and planned trips and purchases, while my sisters impulsively squandered their capitol. As I grew, I perfected planning to a fine art, constantly gathering information, making lists, and then working it out in my head, long before any eventuality arose. I never considered the possibility that there might be another way. From my perspective the world was made up of good planners and bad planners and I knew what side of the spectrum I belonged. That was until I discovered that there is something beyond planning. Rather than a question of either/or—this other alternative transcends the need and replaces it with intentionality, heightened awareness and an interconnected whole.
As we all know, our world today is extremely complex. In answer to that, most of us have eagerly grasped a Newtonian model of the world characterized by materialism and reductionism. We have chosen to focus on things—rather than on relationships. We have built buildings—rather than communities. We have gone for the concrete—rather than the possibility. In order to better understand our universe, we have reduced it to a machine and then dissected that apparatus to understand the parts. The better the planner in each of us, the better the manager of those parts. From that perspective, we have lost sight of the whole.
This way of thinking is not just located within the scientific community. It is prevalent in everything from the family, to business, to local spiritual groups. Wherever there is an intense belief in cause and effect, or the idea that we can study the parts (no matter how many there are) and arrive at the knowledge of the whole; or that humans can be programmed as easily as computers; or that we can discover one formula that gives us the key to all life; we have fallen under the spell of classical science.
As members of a Western civilization, most of us have been encouraged to plan as a response to this mechanistic worldview. That view says that if we can control all the pieces of our lives, we can program the outcome of all of our experiences. It defines us as cogs within a huge machine, carefully plotting our life and circumstances with the least amount of friction, a new and better operating system, or a more rich or rewarding feedback loop as our highest goals. Ultimately, any of those ideas are dualistic and imply a separation between us and other people and, beyond that, between us and the universe itself.
How does that look in our daily lives? It pictures us as lone individuals on a planet attempting to control the events and circumstances in our moment-to-moment experiences. Behind that is an underlying feeling that we are losing the battle. Rather than trusting an interconnected consciousness, we seek security and satisfaction in our individual accomplishments and expressions. We replace spontaneous creativity with a to-do list. Our beliefs say that we can’t trust anyone else to satisfy our needs or desires. It says that if it’s going to be, it is up to us—alone, separate, and limited.
Although most of us, especially those in spiritual communities, would deny that we are operating with this classical scientific view, it is very obvious in our attachment to the idea of cause and effect. When it first appeared on the scene it was viewed as the final solution, a universal law of unequal proportion, the answer to all our quests. But although the idea of cause and effect is still predictable and obtainable, it rules in the material realm, not the quantum realm, and therefore probably not in the spiritual realm. Amit Goswarmi says in this book, The Self-Aware Universe that a person adheres to the Newtonian laws if they “believe that once you have all the information about the parts and have figured out the few remaining glitches about the laws, you will be able to predict the future of the universe (and your life?) for ever.”
Still, no matter how entrenched we are in the mechanistic worldview, the discovery of quantum physics gives us a stunning alternative. It is a scary one though, because it challenges most of what we have held dear for the last 200 years. Quantum physicist Niels Bohr says, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” It is our fear of change and our blindness to our present beliefs that cause us to resist the very idea of its potential. Quantum theory pushes our thinking to the farthest reaches and offers a new view of reality that is both fascinating and relevant. It also provides an alternative to planning.
According to Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organization from an Orderly Universe, the new worldview offered by quantum physics shows us a different way to live. It moves beyond the duality or polarity we have grown accustomed to, and offers an image of wholeness, complementarity, and unity in diversity. It speaks not in parts or pieces, but of relationships and processes. It is “not struggling to survive, but playing, tinkering, to find what’s possible.” It is a worldview that says that although we can “play a role in selecting the melody, setting the tempo, establishing the key and inviting the players,” that is all we can do. “The music comes from something we cannot direct, from the unified whole created among the players—a relational holism that transcends separateness.” It defines life as infinitely creative, ultimately subjective, wonderfully self-organizing, with limitless potential.
What does that mean to you and me in our everyday lives? It means looking beyond our lists and seeing the big picture. It means trusting. It means letting go of the idea that if we only became perfect planners nothing unexpected could or would ever happen. It means that, although we can still have our desires, we have to release the idea that we alone, and our desires, are the only important things on this planet. It is recognizing there is something here that not only wants to help us, but can co-create with us as unlimited potentiality when It is allowed to express. It is feeling comfortable with the idea that we can throw the party, invite the guests, play the music, but it is still always a combination of synergistic events as to whether anyone has a good time. And then it is intuitively knowing that the universe wants to dance in the first place, so what is there to lose? Just dance.
Then how do we make the transition? What’s an ex-planner to do? An alternative presented by Margaret Wheatley is to develop a strong intentionality. This idea is supported by Deepak Chopra in his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success in which he says, “Inherent in every intention and desire is the mechanics for its fulfillment.” Intention differs from planning because planning is linear, and usually very attached to the detail and the outcome. That attachment can contradict trust in the universal, thereby sabotaging or, at the very least, limiting the results. Intention expresses the desire, and then allows the universe to work out the details.
Another replacement to planning is a heightened intuition or awareness. According to Wheatley, this type of awareness is seldom practiced on our planet. It is a constant observation and awareness of who we are and how we fit into the whole, of what’s going on in the present moment, and of how and when to act in that moment. A lack of this awareness by planners and nonplanners alike created the perceived need for planning in the first place. If we don’t trust the Universe, or each other, to act appropriately in every instance, we feel forced to “plan” an alternative to protect ourselves.
Nature itself verifies the soundness of these ideas. Located on the Australian savannah are twenty-foot termite towers. The termite colonies are a magnificent demonstration of creation and self-organization. Termites have produced intricate towers from the random, unplanned movement of many individuals. These engineering masterpieces are the tallest structures on earth relative to the size of their builders.
Individually, termites don’t do much besides dig dirt piles. Yet they have a strong sense of self, instinctively attracting other termites into groups, and are constantly tuned into one another and their environment. They wander at will, bump up against one another, and then respond. When enough termites have gathered in a location, the behavior shifts into an emerging action. Their limited individual capacities merge into a collective and they begin to build their towers. A group on one side will begin to build an arch. Another group will notice this and begin building the other side of the arch. This is a spontaneous action that meets in the middle with no engineer, boss or planner present.
When entomologists first began to study these amazing structures, they looked for a planner, a leader. After years of study, they concluded that the termite towers were examples of “emergent properties,” which means that when a group is together it is capable of behaviors that simply are not knowable when you study the individuals. In other words, no matter how much we study the pieces of nature, or ourselves for that matter, we will never see the potential for the collective possibility in the individuals alone.
There are many more examples of these emergent organizations on both the macroscopic and the microscopic levels. All have several similar aspects. First of all, there is a very strong sense of purpose and self in each of the individuals making up the collective. They know who they are and what they want to be, collectively, and are very tuned into themselves and each other. They also recognize the value of relationship and the free flow of information within the system. Each individual may then wander at will, bump up against others with attractive energy, and respond. But this is contrary to the vast majority of traditional organizational interactions, mainly because it cannot be planned. As Wheatley says, “you only notice what’s happening and tinker with it.”
These examples in nature demonstrate that each of us is capable of much more than the sum of our parts—and much more than our expertise in planning. The depth of our creativity, the quantum potential at the core of us all, cannot be accessed by lists and manipulations. It is not about giving up my intentions. It is instead a willingness to let something better happen and to actually participate intuitively with that happening. It isn’t about waiting for the last minute to do things, or trying to get others to do them for me. It is acting as an aware adult with full responsibility for my constant activity within the universe. Also, it isn’t about losing anything. I always imagined if I didn’t plan, I’d miss out somehow. Things wouldn’t get done. I now know that there is something much better. It is replacing my plans with heightened awareness and a continued co-creativity with the universe.
I never considered not planning before. I’m not sure how smooth the transaction will be, but I now have an alternative. I’m going to start by staying clear about my intentions and purpose. Then I’m going to stay very aware and listen to both my own intuition and the universal consciousness where each of us is connected. From there, I’m going to trust the unlimited potentiality of the universe. And finally, maybe it’s time to put away the Day-Timer, put on the music, and just dance.
(*This article of mine originally appeared in Quest Magazine—Winter 1996 edition. It is as relevant now as it was then.)