The Esoteric Value of Planning
by John White, PhD, LPC
In several recent posts, Mark Stavish has underlined the importance of planning for the future, especially with reference to esoteric organizations such as the Institute for Hermetic Studies (IHS). Mark has noted that poor planning – or even a total lack of planning – has been a bane for many esoteric organizations, in some cases being the immediate cause of many, if not the majority, of modern organizations disappearing over time. At the same time, Mark has highlighted practical and esoteric reasons for giving thought and even giving a kind of priority to future planning, including Eliphas Levi’s statement that we are the “children of our own actions.” This means among other things that caring for the future will not only impact our children and grandchildren but may also affect us in future incarnations. The good work we do now in service to the future may have the two-fold result of (1) transforming ourselves through the exercise of an important virtue (as I will suggest below) and (2) bringing about effects in history that may in fact impact us positively down the line in our various returns.
As I considered Mark’s posts, I began to wonder about planning as an integral part of our esoteric practice – in part because I have often experienced an internal resistance to planning, due to feeling somewhat inept at it. This is not to say that I do not plan, but to say that my own psychology around planning is such that I often tend either to take too long to finalize a plan or second guess myself in the process of following through (or both), either of which can undermine the effectiveness of both the plan and the actions that plan is guiding. I also wondered how many others might experience something similar, since many of us esoteric practitioners have what Carl Jung would consider a predominantly “intuitive” psychological type, one which tends to envision the big picture better than work with the nuts and bolts of the smaller details, which might aid us to bring that big picture about.
With these thoughts in mind, it seemed to me that, for my own development, both personally and esoterically, it might be worthwhile to meditate on planning in order to understand what in my own psychology needed correction. I won’t burden the reader with outlining the precise application of the meditation to my own particular psychological characteristics, but I share here some of the fruits of that meditation, in case that is of interest and can aid others who have not yet recognized the esoteric nature and importance of planning.
What is planning?
I began my meditation with what may seem a mundane question: what is planning? Planning is something most of us do without really asking the question of its nature. Yet part of our esoteric inheritance from Plato and the Platonists is that it is best to begin our thought and meditation with wondering about the nature or essence of what we are considering. Happily, I didn’t need anything the length of a Platonic dialogue to answer the question, at least sufficiently for my purposes: planning consists in organizing and committing spiritual and material resources toward a definite end or purpose. Whether the “resources” in question are time, treasure, or talent, planning directs those resources to the end or purpose and also commits those resources in such a way that they go toward the stated purpose rather than somewhere else.
New Thought authors such as Napoleon Hill not only recognize the importance of planning but clearly experience something of the profound spiritual nature of planning. For Hill, an idea remains a merely mental reality until it is expressed in a plan. In fact, Hill often criticizes the old adage that “knowledge is power,” claiming that knowledge per se actually has no power, until it is organized into a plan (of action). “Power” in this case means the capacity to alter the physical world and, for Hill, anything in the mental order remains ethereal and powerless until one both reduces the idea to a plan of action and follows through with that plan, which in turn bring the effects of that idea into physical reality. As Hill puts it, it is “organized thought” – i.e., thought organized in the form of a practical, ordered, and logical system of actions conducive to an end or purpose – that has the power to change physical reality, not thought itself.
As I entered more deeply into Hill’s considerations of the topic, it occurred to me how planning correlates to a principle both basic to organic life and – since we are in principle philosophers of nature – therefore basic to esotericism, a principle which in 19th century philosophy of biology was sometimes referred to as the “conservation of energy.” When used in the philosophy of biological life at the time, the principle included two parts: (1) that healthy organisms tend to use as little energy as possible to achieve their ends and (2) that energy ceases to be distributed to vital functions which are no longer used or used only sparingly. The correlate to the first clause in magical practice would be consciously to avoid wasting magical power – like using too much power for too minor a purpose – and always to use power in the most effective and efficient way to attain the highest and most expansive ends it can. One way of consciously expressing this principle is to plan and plan well, i.e., organize one’s magical actions in such a way that they achieve the most with as little energy expenditure as possible. The second part of the principle implies that planning is not to be exercised haphazardly or indiscriminately. Rather, if we are to exercise our capacity to use our magical energy well, we equally must exercise our capacity to plan well and do so consistently. Either we use it or we lose it. Conceived of in these terms, planning should in fact be a cultivated habit or what the philosophers traditionally called a virtue.
Esoteric practitioners often recognize the importance of planning with respect to ritual work. Ritual is in essence a plan whereby potentially discrete actions and definite spiritual resources are directed and held together by a consistent magical will and organized in a way conducive to the realization of some end or goal. And though symbolic, a ritual, like any plan, can be evaluated according to the extent to which it successfully achieves its goal and analyzed as to what in the ritual plan may or may not have worked well. Yet the physical actions after the ritual, by which the practitioner attempts to bring about that same end, requires just as much consideration and planning as the ritual which engenders it. Indeed, not to engage in the actions after one’s ritual with the same intensity and focus sends a mixed message to the subconscious mind and thus inhibits the desired outcome.
Understood in this way, planning is in many respects central to esoteric work. This is so because magic is always in some measure the transformation of spiritual reality and energy into physical reality and energy. The continuation of such work beyond the explicitly symbolic/theatrical work we call ritual or “magical actions” can be and often is done in a relatively haphazard manner. Such an approach is already a bad practice but becomes even worse the more it becomes a habit, necessarily inhibiting the realization of desired ends. All other things being equal, just as ritualized or so-called magical actions should be determined by a definite and explicit intention toward a goal and the use of the most effective means at one’s disposal to attain that goal, so should the means and resources outside the explicitly ritual or meditative settings be organized in the most effective and goal-driven way. Planning is the extension and continuation of all spiritual work into the organization of non-symbolic, physical, emotional, and psychological resources available to us to achieve our specific goal, in a specific time, for specific reasons and results. If we are perfectly confident that our use of the wand or sword in a ritual will compel or move invisible forces to our aid, so we should continue this confidence in action, small as well as large, whether making a phone call to a stranger connected to our desired outcome, sending a resume to a new potential employer, even eating something different for lunch somewhere different (all using the doctrine of correspondences) to break the old habits and form new ones, in accordance with the new reality we are forming.
Writing a plan
Hill frequently states that a plan should be written, even going so far as to say that the very writing of a plan is a movement toward its completion. Put in more esoteric terms, writing a plan achieves (at least) three things: (1) Writing a plan is a step toward the goal by concretizing and determining the plan, rather than simply mentally considering various possibilities. (2) Writing a plan makes its evaluation easier, gives a baseline from which one can adjust or improve the plan, and encourages and engages action by the subconscious mind, e.g., by rereading the plan daily so that the subconscious mind remains focused on both the plan and the goal. (3) It is magically beneficial if as many of one’s psychic faculties are as involved as possible in any magical undertaking since the more the psyche experiences itself as consistently and comprehensively directed toward a goal, the more psychic power tends to be moving in that direction and with less conflict or ambivalence. Writing a plan, adjusting it, evaluating it, engaging the subconscious mind, etc. uses more psychic faculties than not doing so and so will tend to be magically more powerful.
In working through and writing a plan, there are a number of tools and techniques currently available. Nowadays, one often uses “mind mapping” as one such tool. Mind mapping amounts to writing, say, on a sheet of paper or a white board the various goals, objectives, steps, systems, resources, etc. that one associates with the goal. Once those are written down, one often gains greater clarity about what exactly one’s goal is and then can organize the other steps, objectives, etc. in such a way that one can form a more or less linear plan. Being clear about the final objective or goal is crucial here but, once that clarity is achieved, the organization of the other materials should come more easily. There are various mind mapping softwares available, some of which include diverse symbols to describe different sets of relationships, which may also be useful.
Often one will try to plan by trying to figure out “how to get from here to there,” i.e., by starting from where one is and moving forward. In practice, it is often more valuable to move in the opposite direction: to begin by getting clear about the goal and then trying move backward, organizing the objectives, steps, necessary resources, etc. back to where one is now. A parallel example might be a professional golfer trying to make a putt on a difficult green. The golfer will not begin at the location of the ball but will begin at the hole and then attempt to work backward, along the various bumps, ridges, and slopes to where the ball currently is, figuring out where the ball needs to be at each stage in order to get to the hole. Similarly, when planning, once the goal is understood, moving backwards to recognizing where one must be at each step of the way to get to the next step can be useful. Whether one uses mind mapping or not, the goal must be the focus and the organizing principle for all the other materials in the plan.
As I worked through my own challenges around planning, I naturally turned to the Tree of Life as one way, so to speak, to “diagnose” myself. Where do I have energetic imbalances that may inhibit an ability natural to human beings? I say planning is “natural” both because the soul is teleological, i.e., it is by nature goal directed, as both the ancient philosophers and, for example, Carl Jung have more than adequately demonstrated, and further, because, as pointed out above, the wise use of psychic energy is part and parcel of the way in which natural organisms work. I concluded therefore that it cannot be that I am just “not a planner,” but rather that I need to develop a latent ability that comes with being human.
As I first worked through the deficits in my planning skills, I recognized the need to activate an aspect of my Hod center or inner Mercury through meditation and other practices. I considered planning to be in the realm of Hod/Mercury, since it is associated with intellectual functioning – the aspect that the ancient philosophers aptly called “practical reasoning” – and is clearly connected to the practice of magic, as indicated above, which is goal-directed and practical. Buttressing this point is that the techniques mentioned above, such as mind mapping and planning from the endpoint backwards both have a strong intellectual component. However, as I considered my work around planning further, I realized that focusing exclusively on my Hod/Mercury center in some ways risked a one-sidedness on my part and that other of the Sephiroth are important – and potentially equally important – for developing one’s skills at organized planning, even if the working through of a plan itself is primarily the work of Hod/Mercury.
For example, aspects of my Binah/Saturn and Netzach/Venus centers seemed to me equally in need of development. There is, one might say, underlying all good planning a kind of dialogue or exchange going on between Binah and Netzach. Among the traits one might ascribe to Binah/Saturn is stability, playing the long game, remembering the value of past experiences and traditions, working along the lines of a careful, slow process. In Platonic cosmology, I associate Saturn with the World-Soul (anima mundi), and the eons long process of life aiming at its own expansion. In contrast, Netzach/Venus represents spontaneity, creative imagination, the capacity to imagine better things than what exists, a willingness to take risks, and the activation of strong desire to attain such new developments. Just as authentic love tends to “see” a higher and better self in the beloved Other, so the same Sephirah is the basis of all creative imagination, because it recognizes the higher possibilities and potentials of whatever it turns toward with love and affirmation.
Thus, the imbalances in the dialogue between these two psychic centers can also inhibit the development of one’s skill in planning and, in any given case, the prudent use of planning. For example, too much Binah/Saturn at the expense of Netzach/Venus will tend to paralyze substantive acting, lead one to fear the possible negative impact of one’s planning and goals more than desire their positive impact, and inhibit the kind of bold acting and creative imagination that is internal to a truly magical life. On the other hand, too much Netzach/Venus at the expense of Binah/Saturn may lead to an incapacity to make and sustain long-term planning, evoke a dangerous craving for novelty at the cost of producing lasting value, and tempt one to change one’s direction radically, not because experience has demanded such a change but simply because one lacks the fortitude to stay the course. In practice, though mind mapping mentioned above is, at the surface, a work associated with Mercury, it is also an invitation to the subconscious mind to engage both the Binah/Saturn and Netzach/Venus centers, so that they can find and express themselves in balance and equilibrium in whatever plan is formulated.
In practice, the same sort of meditation could be extended to other Sephiroth and Paths on the Tree of Life, as well as to their correlates in our own psyches. For example, Jupiter, being the King of the Olympians, is associated with seeing the “Big Picture” and also with fullness or abundance, in part represented in Path Kaph from Chesed to Netzach. Yet planning requires not only an overall vision and sense for the magnitude of power and energy at one’s disposal (Chesed/Jupiter) but also, for example, the clear sense of time limits (Binah/Saturn) – a “plan” without a time limit being but a dream or a wish – as well as a sense of energy expenditure, appropriate skills, and courage needed to achieve each step of the plan, something associated with Geburah/Mars. As the neophyte ritual of the Golden Dawn puts it: “Remember that Great Arcanum, the true equilibrium between Severity and Mercy, for their unbalance is not good.” Such considerations could be expanded in many directions on the Tree, demonstrating that good planning requires the participation and cultivation of substantial aspects of the psyche.
These considerations led me to the conclusion that planning is by nature a virtue – an excellence of the psyche – an example of what the ancients called phronesis or prudence, and thus an important aspect in the development of a magical personality. Not surprisingly, phronesis or prudence in ancient and medieval philosophy was the virtue of balance or equilibrium. Aristotle considered prudence the most important of the moral virtues because it directed all virtuous action according to the right time, the right place, and the right measure. Without such direction, even an action intended to be virtuous will not be, because a good action exercised at the wrong time or place, or in the wrong measure ceases to be virtuous. And what is more important for the development of a magical personality than its finding the right balance and equilibrium, the middle way, represented by the Middle Pillar of the Tree of Life? Planning is therefore an expression of the virtue of prudence with reference to the use of spiritual and material resources toward an appropriate end. Furthermore, as with the development of all virtuous habits, associated psychic abilities tend to accompany the ongoing cultivation of the virtue of planning, giving one potentially a leg up on recognizing future needs and staying ahead of potential problems.
While I have approached planning here from an individual standpoint, since the meditation was mostly focused on correcting what seemed to be an issue in me, I would add that most planning is around ends that have effects on other people. That being the case, one important piece of planning is to consider not only how one’s plans impact others but specifically how one’s plans benefit others. In general, the Golden Rule is the minimum ethical principle here: do unto others and you would have them do unto you. In that same spirit, it is best that, whatever one’s plans are, that they are conceived of not only to the extent that they are beneficial to oneself but also in some measure benefit others. It is certainly the case that the gods help those who help themselves, but it is also true that the gods tend to bless those who aim to benefit themselves primarily through their benefiting of others.
Thus, in all our planning, emphasizing and working through what and how we hope to benefit others is a crucial component. This brings me back to where this post began, with the various ways in which planning for our future is an essential esoteric work, especially supporting those people and organizations like IHS who keep our knowledge of the Great Work alive.
John R. White, Ph.D., LPC (Pittsburgh PA) is a Jungian psychoanalyst and mental health counselor and is also Coordinator of the C. G. Jung Institute Analyst Training Program of Pittsburgh. He was a philosophy professor for twenty years, prior to becoming a psychoanalyst. His research interests include many aspects of psychoanalytic practice, Christian mysticism, the history and practices of New Thought, alchemy, and various links among psychology, parapsychology, philosophy, and esotericism. He is an initiate into several esoteric traditions. White currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Hermetic Studies, and is the author of Adaptation and Psychotherapy: Langs and Analytical Psychology (Rowman & Littlefield 2023)
New Thoughts and Modern Esotericism Course at the Institute for Hermetic Studies
This was an excellent essay and full of many helpful and practical insights. Thank you so much. In both life and our esoteric pursuits, we must know where we are going and how we are expecting to get there. Finally, we must know when we have hit our goal and move to the next step.