Advanced Planning - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan - Stoic Thinking Contradictions

Advanced Planning

Within much of Stoic thinking, which I generally embrace pretty strongly, there is a contradiction between being ready for the future and focusing on the present movement. Stoicism encourages a sense of presence, of living in the present moment, being aware of ones body and ones surroundings right now, and managing and controlling the things under ones control at this moment. We cannot control the future, and cannot predict exactly what will come to pass. Within Stoic thought, all we can control is how our mind reacts to the present moment, so we should focus on how we are using our time and attention in an effort to be our best selves right now.
 
 
What this mindset leaves out, or at best inadvertently omits, is the importance of long-term planning. To get to where we want to get, to achieve goals, and to utilize our resources and energy the most effectively, we have to be able to look ahead and plan for the future. Advanced planning means we have to tie the present moment and our actions to specific steps to help us achieve future desired endpoints and outcomes. We have to form theories of the world and build causal structures to form our own mental models that tell us, “if I do this now, then a certain effect will be produced in the future.”
 
 
There is a paradox in Stoic thinking when it comes to being present. The whole idea of presence is that it enables us to be less stressed, to focus on the tasks at hand, and to bring our best selves to each moment throughout the day. The ultimate end goal of all this, however, is to better achieve future goals. Presence on its own doesn’t matter to much, unless we are ok with living a life where we drift without a long-term plan. This paradox is not limited to Stoic thought, and in some ways ties back to our ancient foraging roots.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the shift in planning and thinking about the future that occurred with the Agricultural Revolution. Foragers, Harari explains, couldn’t save food for a long period of time. They could bring a handful of nuts or fruits with them, but carrying a large amount of nuts and fruits was cumbersome, and fruit would go bad quickly. Farmers, however, could produce a surplus of crops that could be harvested and saved for a longer period of time. Successful farming rewarded and required an ability to plan ahead, while foraging encouraged more thinking about the present moment. Harari writes, “in the subsistence economy of hunting and gathering, there was an obvious limit to such long-term planning. Paradoxically, it saved foragers a lot of anxieties. There was no sense in worrying about things that they could not influence. The Agricultural Revolution made the future far more important than it had ever been before.”
 
 
Our ancient foraging and farming ancestors seem to highlight the contradiction that we find in Stoic thinking of the present moment. Foragers lived in the present moment and didn’t have anxieties and concerns over the future. They moved where their food sources were and didn’t have to plan ahead too far. But they also didn’t become farmers and set human evolution on a path toward modernity. The farmers who kicked off the Agricultural Revolution were the ones who broke from living in the present moment to push humanity in the eventual direction evolution favored, building small farming communities, then towns, and eventually nations with massive metropolitan areas. Planning ahead was crucial for successful farming, even though it came with stress and anxiety, and broke against the ancient human evolved tradition of living in small foraging bands focused on the present moment. Planning ahead also helped ensure more people could survive and propelled the technological advances that enabled the Agricultural Revolution.

The Present Moment Is the Most Important Thing In Your Life

Throughout my life I have been very lucky to not suffer from severe anxiety or depression, but I have gone through bouts of despair and periods where I have felt unhappy and a bit anxious. One of things that has helped me during these times is focusing in on the present moment and trying to be fully aware of where I am at right now and what I am doing right now. Zeroing in on the present helps pull my mind out of the story it tells itself about who I am, what I am worth, how successful my past has been, and what I must do in the future to be a great person. In the present moment, the only thing that matters is what we are currently engaged in and what we are doing right now. Besides the immediate present moment, nothing else truly impacts our life.

 

In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, author Thich Nhat Hanh describes the importance of mindfulness and the value the present moment brings to us when we actually focus on it. Working on our focus and paying attention to the present moment, whatever we are doing, is a form of meditation. I have always thought of meditation as sitting still and quiet,  focusing on my breath or expanding my awareness of all things around me, but Hanh describes a way for us to meditate in any action by focusing on the present moment and being fully immersed with a singular focus on the task, job, or thing in front of us. He writes,

 

“When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you’re drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. … Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony.”

 

When we focus on the present moment and what is in front of us right now, everything else begins to recede because our mind only has space for one thing. This practice can help reduce our fears, worries, and the stories and pressures we put on our selves. I do not suggest that everyone who suffers from depression or anxiety can fix their problems  by meditation and mindfulness, but in my life, becoming absorbed in the present moment, recognizing that what I am doing right now is all that I truly have and all that truly matters has helped me overcome these challenges. I try my best to recognize that what has happened in the past is gone, and cannot be changed by what I am doing now, so I should focus on my current activity and be entirely present and immersed with what I am doing. Likewise, I cannot control what will happen in the future, but I can know that by doing my best with what I have now, I can prepare myself for what is to come. The present moment takes away the stories we tell about what our actions mean, because we can always fully experience the present and engage with the present, no matter what has happened to us or what will happen to us in the future. This may not solve all problems with anxiety or depression, but techniques of mindfulness have helped me recover from my own low points.