A thousand pieces of a country village scene lie strewn on the table in front of me. When I was a child I loved putting together jigsaw puzzles for the sense of order and control they gave me in an otherwise emotionally chaotic life. But as the years went by I had neither the time nor the inclination. Now here I am, decades later, turning 60, feeling this inexplicable urge to rummage through tiny shapes of various colors and patterns looking for the next right piece, puzzle after puzzle. Is it just a diversion? A way to keep my aging mind sharp? A spiritual practice? What am I really searching for?
When I don't start my day with meditation, I feel adrift.
I learned to start a jigsaw puzzle by assembling the edges first. After completing a few puzzles, however, I decided to step out of the box and skip the frame, piecing together random same-color areas instead—the brick-red section of a country store, the shimmering blue of a lake. I found this approach strangely unsettling: the pieces were just floating in the middle without a way to connect to the larger whole, to ground. It reminded me of how I feel when I don’t start my day with meditation. Without a solid spiritual base, I feel adrift, with no end goal. So I went back to doing the frame first; it grounded the puzzle and it grounded me.
Once I’ve connected the edges, I gravitate toward the easy parts, to have a sense of accomplishment. Then I work on whatever catches my eye. Each day is different with its own special rhythm or its own set of challenges—a microcosm of everyday life. Sometimes I find the right piece easily, which feels deeply satisfying, as if a missing piece of myself has also slipped into place. Sometimes nothing fits, and I wonder whether I am wasting my time.
Either way, the process itself soothes me and focuses my scattered thoughts. It creates space for my inner turmoil to begin to resolve itself. Even working on a puzzle for 10 minutes concentrates my mind, centering me so that I can more easily address the aspects of my life that feel stuck at the moment: the clutter in my closets, the creative block with my book, the plateau in my meditation practice.
When life feels overwhelming, like the 1,000 pieces chaotically jumbled in front of me, I can follow the same bit-by-bit approach: sort one shelf, write one page, do the practice I can.
Puzzles teach me to focus on one patch at a time—a corner of the sky, the roof of a house, a waterfall—until gradually the entire puzzle takes shape. When life feels overwhelming, like the 1000 pieces chaotically jumbled in front of me, I can follow the same bit-by-bit approach: sort one shelf, write one page, do the practice I can.
Each puzzle has its challenging sections—clusters of pieces that are practically the same shape and pattern. These can exasperate me to the point of almost giving up, but I find these sections teach me to appreciate the subtle nuances of life. In the process of examining each piece closely—this one is just a touch wider, that one has a hint of a second color—I become more observant. Afterwards, on an evening stroll, I am more appreciative of the brilliant hues of fall, more conscious of the intricate forms in nature, more aware of the patterns of my mind.
Then there are those pieces that I am convinced should fit in a certain spot but they refuse to cooperate. After many stubborn but futile attempts to prod them in, I take a deep breath and shift to a different section, allowing the puzzle to unfold in its own way. Lo and behold, when I least expect it, the right piece presents itself and everything falls into place.
If the jigsaw puzzle, or a problem I'm dealing with, becomes too difficult, just setting it aside or going to sleep for the night seems to help.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “Be patient with all that is unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves…Live the questions now, and perhaps without knowing it, you will live along someday into the answers.” At work, in my relationships, and even in my practice, I’ve observed that trying to jam something into place before it’s time creates bigger problems. More and more I try to allow the questions to resolve themselves before taking the next step. I can’t force the process, but I can shift my focus to other practices that are supportive like prayer and contemplation.
If the jigsaw puzzle, or a problem I’m dealing with, becomes too difficult—nothing fits, no solution’s in sight—just setting it aside or going to sleep for the night seems to help. When I come back to it, my mind has a fresh understanding and perception of where the pieces go—as if my unconscious mind had been working on it in the meantime.
The most satisfying part of doing a puzzle is the moment when my one-pointed focus takes me to a level beyond the mind. Then suddenly it’s as if the puzzle is doing itself—as if the puzzle itself wants to be completed. The pieces seem to fly into place without any mental input from me. This is like the turning point in sitting practice when the effort of concentration melts into the effortless flow of meditation. Or like a sudden feeling of upliftment in the midst of everyday activities, as if the pieces of my inner being are rearranging themselves toward wholeness—a spontaneous gift of grace that arises with steady spiritual practice.
A few days after I finish a puzzle, I take it apart. Years ago, when I was living in New York City, the Dalai Lama came to the American Museum of Natural History to create a large and intricate sand mandala. I watched as four Buddhist monks sat in silent focused attention on the raised platform—one at each direction—painstakingly sifting different colored sands into elaborate geometric patterns. Later that week I returned to the museum to see their progress and learned that they would dismantle their exquisite creation when they finished, as a ceremonious ritual symbolizing the transitory cycle of the material world.
I adopt this attitude of non-attachment as I complete each puzzle and then let it go. The puzzles serve as a practice; eventually, I will have to let go of all the problems, sorrows, accomplishments, and joys I have created in this life. For now, I am content to work on the next puzzle—creating and dissolving anew, and trusting that some deeper part of myself may get resolved in the process.