Puzzling one piece at a time.

My daughter gave me this 1,000 piece puzzle for Christmas, Faith Ringgold’s The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles. I love Faith’s work, she is a highly honored  Black writer, artist, quilter, speaker, and activist for  racial and gender equity. Her celebration of some of the women heroes of the Civil Rights movement includes Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Mary McLoud Bethune—women I love and admire. This painting is joyful, and a pleasure to see the bright colors and patterns of this art. I want to honor the gift and the art by completing the design, but I have never done a thousand piece puzzle, not sure I can.

I am not a puzzle person, but my hubbie and I completed several smaller puzzles in the last three years, because, Covid. I enjoyed the time we spent together, clicking pieces into place. I miss that, now he is busy, and I am on my own, puzzling. My daughter told me she is happy I worked on it, and I can put it away if I like. I want to keep the pieces out for a bit longer, I have grown to love the faces of these women and the warm sunflowers surrounding them. On one edge of the quilt they hold, printed words say— The sunflower is an international symbol of dedication to change the world. With these women looking out at me, and Van Gogh too, who persevered in his art to the end, how can I stop working on it? What if I see this as an opportunity to develop ‘puzzle person’ skills? Can I surprise myself with a new facet of my being? Changing my small world in a way? And then, if I choose to put the puzzle away unfinished, no guilt, just feel appreciation for the mindful time spent with these people. 

 Turns out, while the whole of a puzzle is entirely overwhelming to me—once I separate like colors, create the borders and edges, work on small sections, bit by bit, I find my way. I celebrate every single piece as it snaps into place, with a fist pumping “YES!”

I’ve had many people ask me how do we find calm, peace and ease in the midst of  the world as it is. While mindfulness in and of itself is not the goal, it is a everyday pathway to more ease, more resilience, making meaning from the losses and pains of life.  This is human flourishing, expanding in wisdom, dedication, and compassion. This is joy.

There are plenty of days I want to escape; when the whole messy puzzle of life is too much, and I just can’t see any pattern anywhere, it all feels impossible. I think ahhh—to go live in the mountains somewhere in a cave or monastery and have a lovely, peaceful life. Or maybe a quiet beach in Hawaii, just listening to the waves. But honestly, you have to come down from the mountain for food, water, clean clothes. Sometimes leave the beach when you run out of sunscreen, shaking the sand out of your suit.  As messy and uncomfortable as life is; it is our school, the experiment of everyday life, of learning to just keep going, and kindly help those around us to do the same.

Resilience building is daily, hourly, getting still enough to be aware of the possible shit storm going on between my ears. Blaming, self-judgement, fears, anxiety, neurosis. All of it. Then, rather than spinning off into more explaining, reasoning, ignoring,  all the things the ego wants to do, maybe I can resist, kindly. Hold onto an anchor and get my bearings, and breathe. 

 The simplest anchor is noticing the feeling of our feet being attached to the ground, the sensation of the breath, the rise and fall. And the pause between breaths. The sensation of what we hear, see, smell— fully focusing on our senses. This moment.

This is what I think is meant by the word mindful— it isn’t mind FULL. It is mind— open, present and aware, noticing the sense information that we are taking in, just in this moment, not letting our minds spin in judgment of the past, or worry and anxiety about possible futures, it is giving ourselves a gift of awareness, and then doing that over and over and over. 

We all live in the Western cultural marinade of; you just need to work harder, and everyone else has it together. The myth that if you just work hard enough, stay busy enough,  you will find success (attention, money, power). If you do it perfect, do it right, you will earn and absolutely deserve— peace, fortunes, and heavenly angel choruses. 

It doesn’t seem enough to value our every day lived experience. To believe that everything is holy; all a valuable part of our human flourishing, everything— the potholes and paranoia, the burnt toast, and the heartburn, the angry kids, the frustrated spouse,  all a pathway to our acceptance of self and others, deepening our kindness and expansion into more love, joy, peace, trust, hope, and awe.

 I could look at my life as I might look at my thousand piece puzzle. I could allow my stress reaction, my ancient primitive brain’s fight, flight, or freeze reaction to play out,  so I never get the puzzle  out of the box and it stays piled in a corner; that’s the freeze response at work.  Maybe I feel guilty every time I see the dusty box, but I ignore it.  Or, I spread the pieces out on the table and start whining.

I can’t do this by myself!  I say. Someone needs to come here, come here, come help me do this— I could whine and whine, long and loud enough so that finally just to get me to stop— someone in my house helps me place a few pieces. But since I forced it, I would just have to keep whining in order to keep them at the table. I could complain about the puzzle, the pieces don’t fit, I could blame it on the person who gave it to me— why would they do this to me? Why would they give me this really hard thing, don’t they know that I can’t do thousand piece puzzles, don’t they know me, love me— what’s wrong with them? That’s the primitive brain fight reaction. 

 I could feel guilty and embarrassment that I just can’t seem to do the puzzle as it lays half done on my table and distract myself by getting busy with thousands of other things.  I tell everyone I’m just too busy, I don’t have time to work on a puzzle. That’s the flight response of the primitive amygdala— we busy ourselves out of being mindful, of doing the task at hand, which is to build our awareness, deepen resilience of our nervous system, strengthen our hearts as we resist blame and shame, so that we can participate in the liberation of all beings.

Say instead, I choose to sit myself down in the chair with dedication,  love in my heart for the giver and the receiver, the artist, and the message of this puzzle, and then I look for patterns. I realize that there are only a handful of pieces this one particular shade of blue, and these straight lines  travel through one little curved bump of a puzzle piece, and I search just that one small group of blue pieces, carefully looking at each piece, focused with dedication and awareness— and, I find it. With a snap, the piece is in, and I celebrate with a little moment of joy, clapping my hands, WOOHOO! I say.

Mindfulness takes moment by moment practice; holding ourselves with some kindness, everything that’s in our heads, as we anchor ourselves to the breath, to the sensation of sitting or walking or drinking tea, or working on a puzzle. 

When we take the time to be fully alive, fully grounded in the sensation of what it means to be, the more we return over, and over, and over— the more resilient we become, more balanced, more truly, ourselves. Our soul’s path, our heart’s deepest desire, becomes more and more clear. And life gets easier. Not pain -free, but we move a little more spaciously, more grounded, more kind to ourselves and to others. 

I was thinking about the word— kind. The Dalai Lama said, “my religion is kindness”,  and I thought just what what does this mean this word— kind? If you buy something at a store and you want to return it, but you don’t have a receipt, you might be told that you could get an in-kind exchange— in other words, of equal value. 

Each piece of my puzzle has equal value, without even one piece, the picture is incomplete. Each piece of our lives has equal value as well, the dark, the light, the shadows, the joys. The more I pause, feel my feet, resist those ancient reactions, and take this moment to fully love all the bits and pieces of my life, the more the puzzle becomes meaningful art.

Published by TerraLea

I lead mindful movement, qi gong, yoga and breath work to bring flow, space and vitality to everybody. I love to write, hike and play with Emma, our labradoodle. I am passionate about growing peace and calm in the midst of chaos.

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