I’ll eat a banana with porridge this morning. Yesterday it mushed into an off-yellow lump. Today, I’ll chop smaller slices, and spread evenly on top. Shall I add an apple? Mmmm… It’s 5:30am in the meditation hall, but I’m already an hour ahead, fantasising about breakfast.
Thinking! Thinking! I realise I’m distracted from the task at hand; attentive awareness of bodily sensations. I’m five days into my first Vipassana retreat, and it’s become apparent — I’m a constant planner. Now, there’s no place to hide. In this environment, with a strict schedule of meditation and rest, there’s nothing to plan. But this morning, I’m contemplating fruit-slicing like it’s the elixir of life.
With minimal external stimulation or distractions, certain thinking patterns become glaringly obvious as they fill the gaps of silence. Rule number one of mindfulness: notice when distracted by thought, then return attention to an area of focus, such as respiration. Thoughts come in all textures, shapes, sizes and forms. Some I spot easily, like vivid memories. Others, not so easily, like mentally planning.
Different thoughts offer different challenges. I’m frequently distracted by plans as they appear high value. Ignore other thoughts, but not me, they say. They’re easy to fuse with, to attach to, to become caught up in. Consequently, plans form a formidable barrier to mindfully connecting with the present moment. I can’t plan and be present at the same time.
During my retreat, I became increasingly aware that I am constantly led away from the present by this thinking pattern. Upon returning to the relative chaos of Berlin, this thinking pattern has burst into life, sabotaging my present moment, over and over. I call this the Phantom Planner.
Is the Phantom Planner sabotaging your present, too? Here’s how to spot it and beat it at its own game.
The Deception Of Plans
Planning is essential. But discerning between relevant, practical planning and incessant, futile planning of the monkey-mind is crucial. The latter is repetitive, redundant, intrusive. These thoughts enter the mind against our will, when focus is elsewhere. They come in many forms: mundane, pleasant, unpleasant, inspiring, worrying, urgent. Whatever the texture, they always appear important — on the surface, at least.
In the confines of a silent retreat, this illusion of importance disintegrated as its true nature was exposed… Humoured by my banana prophecy, I saw the deception for what it is — no more than another distraction, another thought. I’m now aware of how often I’m preoccupied with pre-chopping metaphorical bananas.
All too often, I’m at breakfast before it’s begun.
Looks Can Be Deceiving
Awareness is the first step to change. Understanding the appearance of the Phantom Planner — how it appears to uniquely to you — allows you to mindfully label and notice its arrival, without drifting off into the land of tasks, fantasies and what’s for dinner?
In my experience, the Phantom often arises as an inner commentary on how things will unfold or what activities I’ll perform. Sometimes, it arises as visualisation of the future plan, as I see myself performing activities in my mind’s eye, long before they’re my present reality. I’m mesmerised by this dream-like fortelling more than any other.
As the name suggests, the Phantom Planner’s mission is to plan. With no clear direction, the Phantom will scan possibilities for what’s next. I’ve noticed this is many contexts, from attending festivals to hosting friends or family to relaxing on Sunday evening, a time you’d assume the Phantom Planner would take time off. I’ve made my dinner, now shall I watch TV or read or meditate? Maybe I’ll read then have a snack? What will I eat?
I’ve experienced it under the guise of mindfulness, too. I’ll walk slowly, take everything in, be really mindful with each step. The Phantom Planner is a tricky customer, and will adapt. Losing oneself in these conceptual realities, no matter how self-serving they seem, severs connection with the present.
Plans And The Concept Of Time
The Phantom Planner is inextricably bound to the concept of time. Conceptual time bridges mental fantasy with physical reality under a veil of importance. By conceptual time, I refer to the psychological, linear projection of time we create in our minds. Clock time is a valuable tool, to be used accordingly. Psychological time engages us in illusions of perceived-futures and moments-gone-by.
The only moment ever lived is Now. Plans are always made from the Now. But it’s easy to become enchanted by the illusion of psychological time through planning, because in that moment, we are projected into an imaginary future. For example, when I was sitting in the meditation hall, yet my attention was on the imagined future breakfast.
As I ease into city-dwelling normality, I notice how frequently the Phantom Planner latches onto conceptual time, each hour, each minute, an oxygen-giving bookmark of relevance. I’ll go to the shop in 10 minutes, I’ll be back by 6pm, which gives me an hour before meeting friends.
In its stubbornness, the Phantom Planner wishes to manipulate time to suit its agenda, rushing from one plan to the next. It’s tentacles reach far and wide, from the near-future, the upcoming day, week, month, year… lifetime. However it appears, conceptual time will never match the subjective reality of any given moment.
How Does Relevant Planning Fit?
To function in society, to achieve goals and create the life we want, we must plan. But purposeful planning — via goal setting, communicating, organising, visualising future goals or dreams — is a conscious activity. Conscious planning is empowering, purposeful, useful and necessary. However, the Phantom Planner is a fear-based product of ego. It is disempowered, purposeless, useless and not necessary. It brews a host of negative emotions, such as agitation, stress, fear.
A lack of relevant planning will provide added fuel for fear-based thoughts to arise. This fear can be alleviated by setting aside time to plan effectively. Indeed, plans will sometimes appear in the conscious mind because they are important and require attention. When this happens, write them down. As there’s no need for them to be stored in the mind from this point, the Phantom Planner’s presence is reduced.
When a plan does enter the conscious mind, ask yourself: is this important? Is now an appropriate time to pay attention to this thought? Do I need to take action, or can it wait? Is this significant or mundane? Is this just my mind escaping the present moment? Run through these steps until they become habitual.
Eventually, they’ll provide a framework for split-second discernment, as you call out the Phantom Planner’s bullshit in a blink of an eye.
Control And Escapism
Why does the Phantom Planner permeate the conscious mind and provide distraction? It’s biggest weapon is an illusion of control — if I plan, plan, plan, I am in control. Anxiety sufferers will be familiar. Within this context, anxiety can be viewed as a malfunction, an excessive attachment to planning and the illusion of control. However, all of us, to varying degrees, create misery in this manner.
Plans morph into expectations. Unmet expectations cause suffering. Ironically, the more rigid, the more misery caused when events don’t go to plan.
Another facet of the Phantom Planner emerged when I was visualising my return to Berlin near the end of the retreat. I pictured myself talking to those I’d missed, being back home. I realised this was escapism; I wasn’t leaving physically, so my mind left the building instead. Mentally planning can be entertaining and indulgent — living for the weekend by Tuesday or craving the summer holiday in January.
Because future plans appear tangible, they offer a free pass to escape the present. It feels as if, by daydreaming of upcoming events, we’re doing something. It’s harmless and enjoyable. We all know the dreamers, those who spend their lives engaged in the fantasy of what they’ll do with life, but never take action.
Indulgence in this form is just as much of a barrier to engaging with the present as resistance.
Rejecting The Flow Of Life And Preserving Ego
Obsessive planning is resistance to the unpredictable flow of life. This demonstrates a lack of faith. With faith in the universe, surrendering to the flow and relinquishing attachment to plans is possible. That doesn’t mean holding up our hands in resignation and burning diaries in a ritualist rejection of thinking ahead. It means planning with freedom, from a place of faith, clarity and understanding, with no attachment or expectation on where the flow will lead.
On a cosmic scale, obsession is resistance to universal flow. On a personal level, the repetition of plans demonstrates a lack of faith in ourselves. Doubt creeps in. Perhaps we feel we won’t cope without the illusion of knowing how things will unfold, or we’ll forget something important unless constantly reminded, or we’ll only get what we want if we plan every detail of our lives.
All of these mindsets preserve the ego. The ego only survives within a framework of conceptual time. It cannot co-exist in any moment of mindful awareness of the present moment. It stays relevant by promising future salvation. This false belief promises there’s a time in the future, where you’ll be whole or happy or fulfilled… But first, let’s get this moment out of the way, let’s plan for the future, so that when the moment comes, it is exactly as it should be.
The present becomes a stepping stone. The Now is rejected in favour of an illusion of the mind.
The Risk Of The Phantom Planner
John Lennon said: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Give the Phantom Planner a free pass, and there’s a risk of living our entire lives distracted by plans of the future, without every fully engaging in our present moment. Life is unfolding now; those fantasies, those future daydreams, are a mirage, a false-promise of future salvation. But true salvation can only arise in a plan-free appreciation and engagement with the present.
Whether used as entertainment, escapism or simply a thinking pattern that catches our attention, future-planning is addictive. So much time and attention is spent daydreaming about the future, where the grass is greener and things are perfect, that we miss the miracle of each moment.
I am guilty of this. But I’m committed to change. And now I’ve called the Phantom Planner’s bluff, change is coming.
Will you join me?