Monday Morning Thoughts on (Urban) Planning & Meditation

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Here in San Francisco most of the houses are built so close together they are either touching or are only separated by a few inches. This makes sense given that there is such limited space (49 sq miles with height restrictions). You’d think if this was the case there would be some uniformity in the height of the houses on a single block, to give it some coherence. Occasionally this is the case, more often on blocks in the outer neighborhoods where a small handful of architects designed a good deal of the properties. You’ll still find sets of painted ladies (groups of three or more identical victorian style houses) where uniformity was clearly considered key, but you’ll also find blocks where a few of the painted ladies have been ripped down so these formerly neat rows are punctuated by boxy, modern-ish, rectangular houses. More often than not, most blocks are built with the heights and shapes of the houses jutting out at all kinds of angles and heights, like a miniature city skyline contained on a single block.

I was observing this phenomenon on my own block, while waiting for MUNI the other morning, and it reminded me of the way my mind works sometimes. As a natural born planner I’ve realized that one of my methods of attempting to feel secure and stable about the future is try to plan it all out- or at the very least, fantasize about what all the potential scenarios could look like in order to feel prepared. In this method, all of the houses on the block are built with intention, they all aligned evenly with thought out, corresponding color schemes and heights. A leads to B. Cause and effect relate with a clear sense of intentionality.

Ah, if only that was how life really worked.

But, of course, it doesn’t. We have no way to anticipate what the next phase of life, or even what the next day will bring. We can only be fairly confident, given all previous events, that it will all manage to fit on the same block- in spite of the unexpected shadows that will be cast. The most ironic part about trying to feel secure about the future by figuring out what it will look like is, of course, that it makes me really fucking anxious. So much for feeling secure and stable 😛

Luckily, through my meditation practice, I’m beginning to gain awareness in the moment that I’m trying to plan through fears or anxiety- whether it’s just forming to-do lists for the rest of the day, or those more long term projections that play out like telenovelas in my brain. Once I realize what my mind is doing, I can zoom out and ask myself what is triggering this defense mechanism. Because of the way my heart and brain work in tandem, it seems to often be a feeling that I need to really sit with and experience (while giving myself active self-love and self-support) before it will release me. The more regularly I’ve meditated, and then put into practice what I’ve learned through meditation throughout the day, the more of these types of windows I encounter, and the more opportunities I have to return to a balanced emotional equilibrium. As feelings of security and stability have begun to emerge from knowing I can support myself through what each day brings, the habit of descending into the frenzied feeling of, “if I can just get x, y, and z done, then I’ll feel okay” has slowly begun to subside.

I’ve been experiencing a new sensation lately. It’s one of being able to relax into my unstructured time with enjoyment- something that I didn’t even realize I’d lost until it started to return.

I’ll probably always be a planner, but as I’m learning to let go of the need for control, I’m beginning to learn the joy of spontaneity. Who ever would have thought that could happen?

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The Joys of Planning

By this point it’s a pretty well known fact among my friends that I love to plan. And when I say I love to plan, I mean I fucking love to plan. It really doesn’t matter how hard I try to fight it, how frequently I tell myself “I’m not going to make any post-work plans this week”, I will inevitably end up making dinner with friends three out of the four nights of the week. There is just no feeling like the feeling of carrying out a well-orchestrated plan. It’s something akin to basking in the glory of accomplishing a military victory, (I imagine).

My love of planning definitely started at an early age. During days of complete freedom in the summertime (when I wasn’t at day camp) I would regularly schedule out my free time. Starting at age 7. My days looked something like this:

9:00-10:30 Breakfast
10:30-12 Barbies
12:00-1:00 Lunch
1:00-2:00 Digimon
2:00-3:00 American Girl Dolls
3:00 Snack

…and so it went.

I continued throwing myself birthday parties long after it was necessary, or socially acceptable. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to plan. I remember this book really adding fuel to the fire from a young age. And hey, if you think I’m strange for having a bouncey-bounce at my 16th birthday party, then we probably shouldn’t be friends anyway.

I’ve tried to fight my natural urge to plan, misled, nay- seduced, by the romance of being spontaneous. It never really works out though, because as soon as a little bit of a plan gets formed I hold onto it for dear life and struggle with it being changed- a bit like trying to wrangle a life preserver from someone floating in the middle of an ocean of indecision.

As I become slightly more of a young adult I’ve begun finding that the best way to structure my time is somewhere in the middle of very structured and entirely unstructured. On weekends I try to pick a gym class and plan just a few hours of the day for an adventure or coffee with friends. This leaves me with enough free hours to relax, and make it to my happy place. For certain, the best plans can only be enjoyed with contrast to time spent doing nothing- or whatever it is you feel like doing.

Unfortunately for this blog, I find writing to be something I can never plan to do- only something I can do when inspiration strikes. It’s all very spontaneous.