Recently, I felt impelled to buy myself a jigsaw puzzle. I haven’t done one since I was a small child, but when I saw them in a shop one day, a curious desire stayed with me until I eventually had to satisfy it.
Since there was no agenda to this exercise, such as completing the puzzle as quickly as possible, I decided to do it without looking much at the photo of the completed picture. Hence, I was going, for the most part, without a map. Instead, I was assembling the jigsaw one piece at a time. The only strategy I allowed myself was to initially search for all the edge pieces and assemble those first.
Apart from being a very calming meditative process (and highly recommended for that reason alone), I began to notice how this jigsaw puzzle was a very interesting metaphor.
Life is like a jigsaw, consisting of a very large number of colored pieces, and coming in all shapes and sizes. In fact, it begins with the very choice of which puzzle you’re going to buy at the shop. Many people believe that they were already given their specific jigsaw at birth, i.e. that they have a preordained “life purpose”. This may be true in some cases (Mozart, for example), but for most of us, we can choose which puzzle we are going to do.
In other words, you can determine your own life plan/purpose and then go about constructing it, piece by piece. If you don’t like the way the picture is turning out, you can always get yourself another puzzle and start on that one. You are not tied to any one life jigsaw, and you do not need to be perpetually agonizing over which jigsaw you were “meant” to be doing.
Assembling a jigsaw puzzle, and constantly looking at the photo of the completed picture, is analogous to goal-setting, where you set yourself a life goal, assemble all the disparate pieces needed to achieve it, and then go about building them together, while repeatedly keeping your eyes on the final visualized picture, in order to ensure that you are on target and that you are assembling and placing the pieces of your plan in the right place and order. Hence, this jigsaw exercise is an excellent mental training in persistence and patience within the context of goal setting. It can actually help develop mental endurance that you can use towards the task of achieving your goals.
Doing a jigsaw without looking at the plan is rather more like real life as we usually experience it. There IS an overall design and purpose, but there are MANY pieces – hundreds or even thousands – and your task is to make sense of seeming chaos. It often looks like chaos, and yet it is not. You may put some pieces in the wrong places initially, until you later realize that the overall pattern does not fit. Some areas, analogous to your natural talents, come together easier than others. Other areas elude you for ages, or you never seem to be able to find the right pieces. You simply may not be looking to start on that piece of the puzzle at all. This may be in the area of your job, your relationships, your finances or whatever.
Yet, there ARE pieces that fit together in these areas too, and it’s for you to find and assemble them, each in its own place, to create the overall pattern. As you do so, with perseverance and patience, the overall picture of the life you are designing slowly comes into view.
It’s often best to assemble several small areas at the same time, placing similarly colored pieces together in several heaps and then assembling them, rather than trying to do one single area all at once, in exclusion of all the other parts of the picture. If you take the latter approach, you’ll be forever trying to look for the one piece here or there that will attach to the mass you have already created. Moreover, you have no idea what that piece will look like and how it will connect what you have done to the overall plan. The entire process will become dependent upon you attaching pieces, once by one to the periphery of the mass you have already created.
The analogy is creating a balanced life versus overemphasis on one specific area of it. For instance, what is the point of massively over-developing your career if your relationships, family and health suffer as a result? What’s the point of being an expert on everything that’s happening in the latest TV soap opera if your job and finances are going down the drain?
We need to be working on all the key areas of our life at the some time to the best of our ability. You may not get it all right all at once, just as you cannot assemble all the areas of a jigsaw simultaneously. However, by taking the big picture approach, you ensure that you are building consistently towards the final picture. By contrast, if you achieve great success in one area to the exclusion of all others, it can be very difficult to later develop those weak areas, because your mind is so polarized on your one area of success. You have no references of success in other equally important areas.
One time, while my puzzle was lying incomplete, my cat leaped onto it, displacing the whole thing and sending some of it flying. It took me some time to restore it. This is also symbolic. We may well have a legitimate balanced pattern for our lives that we are working towards. However, the universe will still test it to see if we are really serious! You need to know that “stuff happens”, even when you are on the right track. You have to accept that as part of the story. Life is about meeting obstacles and overcoming them, and then moving on to the next challenge. You cannot play ostrich and bury your head in the sand. If you do, your life puzzle will never complete. Instead, over time, it will face ever more disruptions and eventually come apart altogether.
As you may have inferred by now, I would highly recommend you buy yourself a jigsaw puzzle (at least a thousand pieces) and go through this exercise for yourself! You may learn a lot about yourself and life too. It’s an excellent meditative practice, as long as you have no time objective on it, and take it one piece at a time. Keeping focused and contemplative is the key to success here, as it is in the larger puzzle of life.