One way to define love is "sustained, compassionate attention". These words came from John Muir Laws, a naturalist, educator, and artist who inspires stewardship of the land by sharing his practice of nature sketching. When I read these words, I began to see the importance of my own art practice in developing sustained, compassionate attention for myself.Read More
A few days ago I solved the puzzle of the universe. It came in a box. There were 500 pieces and a neat image of the final product - what the solution was supposed to look like.
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I had a partner while I was doing it. We didn't discuss how we were going to tackle the problem, we just started working on it, each in our own way. There were no words. Things just began when they began, and ended when they ended.
I noticed that I wanted to follow some instructions that were somewhere in the back of my head about "how to" solve a puzzle like this.
"Start with the edges and corners," was one set of instructions.
"Find the colored pieces first," was another.
I tried both of those, but the puzzle was just so big, so complicated, with so many parts, that I quickly got frustrated with each of those approaches. I made a tiny bit of progress, but immediately got stuck following those two paths.
So I just looked at the pile of pieces, sifted them around a little so I could feel them. I began to notice certain things stood out to me - a pattern of white squares. Letters and words. Colored lines and arrows.
Then I turned to look at the final image. I started to notice that the pattern of white squares was specific. The numbers in the squares corresponded to exact positions on the circle that defined the boundary of the universe. Above those squares were the months of the year, spelled out in large, colored letters.
I would start by finding each of the twelve months of the year. As I proceeded this way, I experienced the excitement of completing one word at a time.
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“Aha!” I would exclaim as I saw the letters of "OCTOBER" come together from three different puzzle pieces. I wasn't paying attention to the shapes of the pieces, only the emergence of the word itself.
I attacked the puzzle in this way, building one identifiable word at a time, choosing not to worry about how these twelve words would form a complete circle, or how the center of the circle - which was a detailed map of the constellations - would come together.
I just focused on those words, one "Aha!" at a time.
After about six of these, I looked up to notice my partner working on the puzzle silently, without disturbing me at all, in his own way. I noticed that he wasn't looking up nearly as much as I was. I noticed that he had lined up the pieces in front of him, and was looking more at the pieces themselves than referring to the picture of the final product we were supposed to be building.
I didn't want to take my mind off my own puzzle solving, and what he was doing was not interfering with what I was doing, so I just kept going.
I built the ring first - the pattern of white squares and numbers, representing the calendar days, and the twelve months of the year distributed evenly around the circle.
The rest of the pattern of constellations and their names were still too overwhelming for me to tackle, so I just kept working on the ring, matching what I was creating with what was printed on the box, noticing one tiny detail at a time adjacent to the ring I had put together.
By the time I had about three quarters of the ring assembled, I looked up, to find that my partner had constructed all four corners of the puzzle, which were mostly solid black, with no words at all. He had done this by looking at the shapes of the pieces, and fitting them together based on matching their edges. This was a completely different approach than mine, as I didn't even notice the actual shape of each puzzle piece - I only saw the images formed after they fit together.
A New Model of Team Work
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Miraculously, these two completely different approaches were resulting in a beautiful "team effort" that was getting the puzzle solved! My mind would not wrap around this subject because I was so engrossed in my particular approach, but I remember feeling such relief that we were not arguing or debating about what the best way to solve the puzzle - "as a team" - would be.
We were not weighing the pros and cons of each approach, trying to get each to adopt the best practices of the other. That was always my biggest nightmare about working "on a team" - that I would have to work in some way that was not optimal for me, in order to accommodate someone who was slower, weaker, or less competent than me.
I never considered the possibility that we could each retain our own styles of working, and accomplish things in our own way, while also contributing to a larger group effort. How liberating!
This was easy, peaceful, fun teamwork, that required no negotiation whatsoever. There was just a huge puzzle to be solved, and each of us was sincerely interested in approaching the solution in our own way, at the same time, together. It wasn't a competition. There couldn't be one. There were two many pieces, it was too complex, and no one could have predicted how the solution would finally come together.
It was an example showing that setting each person free to work in their own best way could also be in the best interest of the group effort. Imagine that!
Trying to understand, explain, justify, control, or influence another person's way of working would not have been productive for either us as people or for reaching a faster solution to the puzzle.
Asking the other for help was also futile, since we were arriving at our own answers in such distinctly different ways - it was as if we were decoding the puzzle into our own particular language, which could not be translated in the moment.
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Ultimately the puzzle of the universe took about five hours of work to solve. Not bad for a day's work (with a dinner break!). We kept it out for our own mutual admiration for the next four days.
Taking the Pieces Apart
Today I decided it was time to take a picture, tell the story, and take the puzzle apart again.
I noticed that there was a tinge of that feeling of regret when we adults have to take things apart. Children - ones who are younger than school age - don't seem to see the sadness of knocking over towers of blocks, messing up a stack of cards, or taking apart a train set. They love the destruction as much as the creation, if not more. They laugh and smile as things fall apart, just as when they get built.
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Children are great teachers in the nature of impermanence and non-attachment. When is it, in the course of our "maturation" and "growing up" that we become so attached to the building, and so afraid, so avoidant, of the taking apart? Or the letting things fall apart? When does the story become a tragedy in our minds?
I tried to take the point of view of a child when I took the puzzle apart today. I tried to enjoy the process of crumbling the sheets of cardboard back into their factory-cut pieces, rubbing them between my fingers to encourage them to separate and fall. I took on the task with as much zeal as a child might swing their arm against a tall stack of legos, and watch with glee as they tumble down to the floor.
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The pile of pieces fit neatly back in the box. The pieces - all 500 of them - awaited their next chance at being put into place, reconstructed into the same picture of the universe.
I took a moment to appreciate their alternate form - as just a pile of pieces in a box.
I took a moment to notice that there is as much beauty in chaos, as much opportunity to experience joy in the "falling to pieces" as there is in the building.
We just have to be willing to see it.