The Tao of Living Without a Plan

A good traveler has no fixed plans
And is not intent upon arriving.

Lao-tzu, Translated by Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching
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We’ve now experimented with ideas from many of the great thinkers in the West: from Socrates to Hegel to Emerson and Thoreau. It’s about time that we head East for inspiration.

And where better to turn than Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching. This is one of my favorite texts, and it’s full of some of the most challenging, counter-intuitive, and radical ideas on how to live.

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Take travel. Most of us travel through life with all sorts of “fixed plans,” aspirations, and goals. Without them, we feel lost. But Lao-tzu offers a radical challenge. Can you travel through each day without “fixed plans” and with no “intent upon arriving”?

As an inspirational saying, it’s easy to get excited about this idea. It’s one of those quotes you might read on a fancy greeting card or underneath the cap of an iced tea bottle.

But if we’re serious about actually living this idea, it changes from being a cool saying we read and then forget about 10 seconds later to a radical way of being in each moment.

No “fixed plans”! No “intent upon arriving”! That’s so different from the way I live most days. Right now, I have about four crumpled post-it note to-do lists hanging off the sides of my computer monitor. I have a calendar full of events and a mental grid of activities that’s even more extensive, covering almost every waking moment of every day.

Ironically, the only time I live without a “fixed plan” is when I plan it, when I block out a chunk of time in my calendar dedicated to having no plan.

Think about your life. Are your days filled with “fixed plans”? What would it be like to let go of “fixed plans” and any “intent upon arriving”?

I propose that we use this week to find out.

So for this week’s experiment, let’s see what it might be like to live with “no fixed plans” and no “intent upon arriving.”

Like the forgiveness experiment, it may be impossible to live with absolutely no “fixed plans” and no “intent to arrive.” But through the attempt, I believe that we can learn a great deal.

At the very least, this experiment will force us to explore two shifts in how we live:

1. Letting Go of Control – Most of us live with a clearly defined set of goals. One of my “fixed plans” is to build Life Beyond Logic into a “successful” blog (whatever that means). I’m sure you have similar projects and goals you are working toward. We cling to these fixed plans like a child to an ice cream cone. If someone or something stands in the way of our plan, we throw an internal temper tantrum. We feel anger, sadness, and failure. But if we take Lao-tzu seriously, if we no longer cling to “fixed plans,” then we start to loosen our grip on future plans and ambitions. We begin to open to events no longer turning out the way we planned. Instead of obsessing over our “fixed plans,” we direct our attention to new opportunities that present themselves each moment, opportunities we may miss if we’re focused only on our “fixed plan.”

2. A New Source of Motivation – The second part of Lao-tzu’s quote calls for a radically different type of motivation. Most of us live with a clear “intent upon arriving.” We’re motivated to work our way through college to arrive at graduation or a good job. We put in long hours at work to arrive at a promotion or approval. So if we let go of this “intent upon arriving,” where does our motivation come from? Why work? Why struggle? Lao-tzu seems to say we don’t need to work or struggle. “A good artist,” he says, “lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants.” The good artist, he thinks, finds motivation in the moment-to-moment process of creation, not in the ambition to create a masterpiece.

I’m excited about this experiment because, while radical, I sense that there is deep truth in Lao-tzu’s idea. In my experience, my best, most creative, work comes at unexpected times. It doesn’t happen because it’s on my to-do list or my calendar. It happens because, for a moment, I drop my internal planner and allow a deeper source of wisdom and creativity to flow through me.

Let me know what you think about Lao-tzu’s challenge. Is it possible to live without “fixed plans”? Is it possible to find motivation in something other than our “intent upon arriving”?

Update: Check out my new free eBook “Finding Reality”
posted April 27, 2011 by Nate

This week, I’m excited to announce the release of my new free ebook “Finding Reality.” It’s a book about Thoreau’s lessons for living deep, deliberately, and in the moment, even in the midst of the digital world created by iPhones, Facebook, and Twitter.   It’s short, it’s practical, and, best of all, it’s free.

Click on the Image
Below to Download

Update: Video from Two Days Traveling Without a Plan
posted April 27, 2011 by Nate

Two weeks ago I tested out Lao-tzu’s idea of traveling without a plan.  It kind of worked and, as you’ll see, it kind of didn’t.  Enjoy!

Responses

  1. lynda Aldorisio says:

    Hi Dear Nate,

    I just love this and feels so timely. As I feel into it, I am flooded with a sense of freedom.
    I plan to play & wonder with this.
    Thank you for this and all of your rich sharing.
    Love,
    Lynda

    • Nate Klemp says:

      Lynda,

      Thanks so much for your comment. Over the last week, I have had no choice but to let go of “fixed plans.” I think that is one of the great gifts of experiencing the unexpected. This week, my plan is to go even deeper into that sense of unplanned perfection.

  2. lisa keith says:

    As a person living with bipolar disorder….I work very hard to keep in control…to keep things “in order” so they don’t get into “disorder”. I too easily fall into extremes of mania or depression which are way out of order. However, having said all that, I think there are chunks of time it would be good to dedicate to having no particular end in sight; to do somethig just for the sake of doing it. So even though I havea task to complete at work, when I talk to my students (I’m a high school teacher) I can talk to them just for the sake of interacting and giving my time – no agenda, no lesson, no benchmark. That is the best part of “teaching”. To be aware of this makes my job more joyful. Thank you for the reminder….and the ebook. I wish you well.
    Lisa

    • Nate Klemp says:

      Lisa,

      As a teacher myself, I experience a similar challenge in the classroom. My tendency is to cling tightly to fixed lesson plans or to the fixed structure I’ve set out in my PowerPoint slides. But when I experiment with letting go of plans, I am always pleasantly surprised by what happens. We often end up talking about things I never could have anticipated discussing and often end up going deeper into the topic than if we had stuck to the plan.

      I’ll keep working on this in my classroom. Let me know how it works for you

  3. Istvan says:

    Dear Nate, Thank you! I do have Lao-tzu in my bookshelf and havebeen reading on and off. Like Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts. Just reading your essay I felt a wonderful freedom going through my body. I was teaching English for many years and I was always trying to make my students (they are usually too eager to get to the end. The usual questions were: how long does it take to pass the exam? And ironically, one of the characteristics of the good learner is that they enjoy the moment, enjoy knowing a little more each day. Like Feldenkrais: make little progress each time, after each lesson. No sudden leaps.) aware that ‘the road is better than the inns’ (Cervantes), was reading the Inner Games books, the Zen and the Motorcycle Maintenance etc. eventually finding Feldenkrais (I became a practitoner on my 59th birthday) and also Gurdjieff. All showing how to find the present moment. BUT, it IS the road and I believe there is no arrival, no enlightenment, no perfection, just glimpses of them. The arrival, the perfection would be the end of life, would not it? (I found you through Marty Weiner). And YES, while teaching, for me also those were the best moment when I did not follow the syllabus. Those were the ‘flow’ times. I read somewhere the Japanese painter when their work seemed too perfect, they put a dot on it, because there is nothing perfect in life.

    • Nate says:

      Istvan,

      Any friend of Marty’s is a friend of mine. I love that I can hear a bit of Marty in your words. He was always big on the idea that you’re not trying to get to some special state of enlightenment — that the experience of this moment (whatever it is) is perfection.

      I think you’re right about teaching — my guess is it applies to your work as a Feldenkrais practitioner as well — that letting go of “fixed plan” opens the door to new possibilities. There’s a magic that arises when we end up somewhere we never could have anticipated going.

      Thanks!

  4. Mia says:

    Would there be any other way to download your ebook for those of us who aren’t on Facebook?

  5. Mohit says:

    Nice blog dude.. i ll try to regular on your blog, hope it will take me beyond the rules ;)

  6. Istvan says:

    Nate,
    About testing out Lao-tzu’s idea of traveling without a plan. Interesting. However, the meaning of the saying ‘The trip is more important than the inns’ in my view does not mean that one should aimlessly wonder about. It just means that one should concentrate on the present moment and not the end. Nevertheless, you want to arrive, would not you? You want to have a roof over your head at the end of the day, don’t you?

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