Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #141 Solving the Puzzles of Our Lives
About this episode

In this episode of The Gathering Room: Solving the Puzzles of Our Lives, Martha talks about the way problems in our lives are like puzzles, and how it often can be more joyful to have a puzzle than not to have one. These puzzles are the life situations given to us by circumstance.

Solving the Puzzles of Our Lives

Martha Beck:

How you doing? It is another rough week in the world. Not so much for me, I’ve had a fine week. I went to Austin, I came back, it was wonderful. But whenever you’re watching this, I think we’re going to be able to say, “Yeah, it’s been a really rough week in the world.” If I look back when we started doing The Gathering Room and all the way through to now, it feels as if the weeks that are hard are getting harder and harder. It feels like there’s some kind of a push toward more intensity of wonderful things and terrible things. So that’s why I love coming here to be with you and I love you for joining me.

Now, let’s start out with our little beginning meditation this time. Thinking about events in the world, and again, I’m not supposed to fasten it to world events because this could be watched at any time, but thinking about whatever’s going on in the world right now in your time, I know what’s going on in mine, and the newspapers are full of stuff that absolutely staggers me every morning. I open the New York Times, go huh, and read enough of it to know what’s going on, and then immediately have to go into a meditation to bring myself back into regulation, as they call it. So we’re going to do that now. We’re going to do the meditation that we always do, starting from less families work at Princeton.

We’re going to get our hands and feet, our arms and legs level, uncross them, see how relaxed we can get. And then ask the question, can I imagine the distance between my eyes? Is it possible for me to imagine the distance between my forehead and the underside of my chin? Is it possible for me to imagine the distance between the top of my head and the bottom of my spine? Is it possible for me to imagine the atoms inside my spine and knowing that those atoms are almost entirely made of empty space? Is it possible for me to imagine the space inside the atoms of my spine, of my guts, and of my heart and my skin? Is it possible for me to imagine the space between my third eye, this point on my forehead, and the Andromeda Galaxy? Is it possible for me to imagine the space between my heart and the moon? It’s the same space in which all matters how. Is it possible for me to imagine the stillness in which all the movement of the planets and the creatures always occurs? And is it possible for me to imagine and hear the silence under all the sounds?

And then look at the space between you and the screen you’re watching this on. Focus on that. And let the space filter through you and relax you, and know that you are held in this matrix of pure space and stillness. It cannot be harmed and it cannot stop supporting you. You are utterly safe in space. You are space. And imagine all the people that are suffering everywhere in the world held by the space that is alive, that is conscious, and that is filled with compassion. Every sorrowing hurt creature is held there. Thank you for joining me in that.

Now I want to talk about the topic I picked for today, which is that your life is like a jigsaw puzzle. And I think one of the most chilling moments of the whole pandemic came, for me, when I went to buy a jigsaw puzzle to pass the time during the first lockdown. I Got some jigsaw puzzles, loved them, finished them, and then went to get more and they were all sold out, everywhere. Every online outlet that I tried was sold out of jigsaw puzzles, and it was this weird chilling moment when I realized this is like a science fiction movie, this is changing the market for everything. Different things are being sold out. Restaurants were going broke, right, left and center, but the puzzle makers couldn’t make enough puzzles.

So for us in our household, especially for our beloved Karen [inaudible 00:05:33], puzzeling has become a lifeline because they upped production of jigsaw puzzles. And we just kept a steady stream of them going through it where they go through our house, we put them together, we put them back in the box, we hand them over to somebody else who can use them. And it really made me think that we are a strange species indeed. We make pictures, we make the prettiest pictures we can and we print them out, and then we cut them into tiny pieces. Then we disassemble those pieces so that we can put them back together again, so that we can disassemble them again and give them to somebody else. How weird is that? And poor Karen, if she doesn’t have a puzzle, she’ll say, “I don’t need anymore, I’ve done too many.” But after three days, she starts pulling out her hair and feathers and saying things to herself in her sleep, “Puzzle, puzzle” and she needs another puzzle.

That was a joke about parrots. They have to have something to think about. They have to have a problem to solve because they’re so doggone smart and they live quite long, like 80 to 120 years, that they need a lot of things to do. They need puzzles. It’s much more joyful to have a puzzle than not to have a puzzle. And that’s good because life is a dang puzzle. There are so many problems in life now, they’re not quite as contained as your average jigsaw puzzle, so they can be scary. And if we see them from the perspective of this is all there is, and then I die, then the puzzle really isn’t worth solving, you’re too frightened.

For many decades, I was too frightened to care about solving little puzzles. I was just trying to figure out should I keep living or maybe not. So when we can get the perspective of being supported by a compassionate who knows what, consciousness of the universe, from that place we really need puzzles and puzzles can really make us happy, and the life situations that are given to us by circumstance are those puzzles. In zen, there’s a thing called Genjo koan, which means the koan, the riddle of what life has given you and trying to solve that your Genjo koan might be that your business went bust and you’re trying to figure out how to make a living. Or it could be that you’re having arguments in your relationship and need to resolve them. Or it could be that you got a diagnosis that’s not so wonderful and you need to know how to deal with that. There are all kinds of puzzles we get, Genjo koan’s.

And it’s helpful. I mean, if you think about what you’re trying to deal with right now, it’s always like, “Oh, why should I have to deal with this problem? Oh, I don’t want to have to do this. I don’t want to have to deal with this.” But if we don’t have puzzles to work, we get a little crazy. So if we can take the attitude of, “All right, I’m not going to get into left hemisphere catastrophic thinking. Instead, I’m going to go into my right hemisphere, which says, huh, what am I going to do with this?” So there’s an interesting cascade of things that happens in the nervous system. I’ve talked about this before. We can either be completely collapsed in fear or we can be extremely energized in fight or flight, but still very anxious. Or we can be in a state of calm regulation.

When we’re too anxious, we can’t see things as puzzles and we can’t see solutions. When we’re very anxious and we’re running around, we are likely to get the wrong answers to the puzzles that we try to solve. So if we can get into a state of relative relaxation and then look even at a very scary problem in our own lives, we can start to appreciate the kind of puzzle our brains like to solve. And I know I’m not the only one because puzzles sold out during the lockdown. So here’s the first thing about puzzles that we know for sure. We don’t want them to be too easy. You don’t get a three-piece puzzle, put it together and go, “That is a triumph. I’m just going to live on that for a week.” No, it’s got to be kind of hard. The 500 pieces aren’t hard enough for Karen. No, she’s going to lose feathers over that. We’ve got to get her the thousand piece in the end. And she’s always like, “This is really hard, I don’t think that’s what is going to work.” But she loves it and she always says, “There are pieces missing, this is wrong. This could not be right.”

There usually are a couple of pieces missing, but she says there are like 20 missing and there never are. It’s just that you get to these moments of frustration and you do that with every puzzle in your own life too. It cannot be this hard, this must not be the way it was meant to come down to me. But then you find out that the places where you think the pieces are missing, they are invitations for your mind to come find a new way to solve problems. Then you find also that you don’t expect it to go quickly. You don’t expect to sit down and just never make a mistake and put one piece in front of another. You might as well just get the picture and not disassemble the puzzle and put it together. So you expect it to take a long time, you expect there to be a lot of this. You expect there to be testing, trying, failing, because that’s when it clicks. When a piece clicks into place, that’s when the dopamine hits us, click, ah, and it feels so good. And if we don’t have some kind of struggle, that doesn’t occur, it’s too easy.

Then you sort of get into the rhythm of puzzle making. And most people, myself included, on most puzzles will put the edge together first, because you can find the straight edge pieces and you can differentiate them from all the other pieces, and they’re usually easier to put together, but there’s a big blank in the middle. And that’s sort of how life can be for us sometimes. We kind of know what we want to do with our lives. I kind of want to change the way people feel so that they’re happier, though that’s the very edges of my life puzzle that I could see long ago, decades ago, but the insides weren’t filled in at all. And then after you do the edges, you find little clumps that are easier to do than other pieces. Like there’ll be a whole blue sky and it’s hard to do it, but there’s a little clump of houses and they’re much easier that you can see more.

So what happens is you start to create these little clumps of perfection. And I’ve always said the way I think consciousness will transform so that humans have a chance at saving our lives on the planet, is that ideas and maybe even enlightenment and awakening spread like viruses. And during the pandemic, people would go on a plane, they’d carry disease over a wide distance. Then there would be a super-spreader event where it would spread really quickly. That’s what happens in our puzzle solving in our own lives. For a while it’s just like, “Okay, I’ve solved a little bit of my life here, I’ve solved a little bit there, but I don’t see how these other parts fit together. Oh, now I’ve got a clump.” And you start to get whole pieces.

For me, for example, I started graduate school in sociology, having never had a sociology class, I was just so happy because I’d majored in Chinese. I was just so happy to be speak again, reading English that I was like, “Chinese is related to sociology, maybe that’ll work.” So I did that. And then I had various jobs. I worked at a business school, I worked for a headhunter. I took a class on socioeconomic development because it was the only class on the day I had to go. And there were all these interesting pieces, and I knew that they worked because they fit together. I could see it, click, click, click, click, click. “Yeah, that works for me. That’s part of me.” And then it wouldn’t be connected to anything. I got a PhD in sociology and decided not to be a professor. It was just like the whole sociology piece just floating around.

And then other little pieces started fitting. I loved to work with people. I ended up becoming a coach. I had done public speaking training in high school just because my siblings had and everybody expected it of me. There were all these pieces that were not related to each other, but I knew that they were harmonious within the puzzle of my life. So right now, you know the outside edges of your life. It’s the stuff that, like if you said, “I have no idea what to do with my life.” And I said, “Okay, then I think you should be an electrician.” And if that felt right and you went to do it, great. But most people, if I said, “Okay, you don’t know what to do with your life, you have no idea? Go be an electrician.” They might say, “Wait a second.” You might say, “No, electrician is not right.” A-ha. You do have some idea of the outlines of your mission. You know it’s what you love, it’s where you thrive, it’s where you meet people who are of like mind.

Then you start to find the pieces of your life that work together but don’t seem to work with one another. You’ll find yourself connecting. This is what started happening to me now. I’ve started connecting with a lot of different parts of my life, a lot of my education, a lot of my experiences, and now I’ve started to see groups of people that are coherent and moving in. And I’ll read books like my new absolute rockstar favorite is Valarie Kaur, who wrote a book called See No Stranger. It’s amazing. And it’s a call to radical love that will include the evils of the world into something not so evil. Valarie Kaur is just this brilliant, brilliant writer, and I’m reading along thinking, “This is just like the stuff I just read in a study on brain patterning.” And then she knows that study and she writes about it in her book. And I’m like, “Ah, we’re all drifting into the same areas, the pieces of the puzzle are filling in.” And there’s this very exciting part where you’ve got a lot of big pieces and they start to fit together.

Final thing I want to say about puzzles, and then we’ll go for some questions. The final thing is if somebody’s been working on a puzzle for a long time and they’re almost done and they just get, “Oh”, you get tired of having to puzzle, right? Don’t do it all day long. Just, “Oh, okay, I’m going to rest.” And you go by that puzzle and they’ve almost finished it, and you see there are only 50 pieces left, and you could put them together really easily. If you have any social skills at all, you will walk away. You will leave that last delicious spurt of dopamine for the person who earned it. Because boy, putting those last things together feels delicious.

And I think those of us who are excited about awakening and about potentially being a force for a transformation, radical transformation in the world, I think we’re starting to get toward the end of the puzzle. And doing it ourselves as hard as it will be for each of us to solve the individual puzzles of our lives and then come together and start to mesh all our individual lives into a huge jigsaw puzzle that fits together all around the globe, let’s enjoy every second of that because that feels like miracles. Miracles right left and center, and that started to really, really rock my world. And it just gets bigger all the time. So I hope it’s happening to you too.

So let’s go to some questions. Nectar [inaudible 00:17:41], I will never be able to spell that name, but their question is, “How do you spell that Genjo koda thing?” It’s called a Genjo, you’ve spelled it correctly. G-E-N-J-O, and the second word is koan, K-O-A-N. Koan is sort of a mental puzzle that’s meant to sort of break through your left hemisphere logical thinking and pop open your don’t know mind. So the old famous koan, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Or if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound? Those are koans that are given in words to Zen students. And a Genjo koan is something puzzling and baffling that comes to you as an event in your life. And it’s good. It will pop you open. It is that which awakens you.

Clarissa says, “What if we become addicted to solving the problem so much that you don’t enjoy finishing the puzzle?” Oh, no problem. We have so many puzzles on this planet. As long as you’re on this planet as a human, we’ll have more puzzles, I promise you. Because just when you’ve solved all your middle age problems, you’ll be old. So there’s always something to work with, thank God. I would pull out my feathers all the time if I didn’t have so many.

All right. Oh, Eliza, Liza Lou from Melbourne. How you doing baby? Liza says, “How do we solve a puzzle that is so big, like 20,000 pieces, that is making one feel utterly overwhelmed?” There are methods that your brain will use on a jigsaw puzzle that you can apply to that as well. The first thing is you start breaking it down into categories. There must be differences. Like in most puzzles, there are differences of color. So you can make a pile of blue, a pile of pink, a pile of halfway in between lavender, and busy, highly articulated drawing versus blank spaces. I’ve done puzzles where it was virtually no variation in color. And in that case, I make little lines of puzzle pieces that are similar shapes so that I can check the pieces against each other. Very laborious. But that’s just kind of the kind of person I am when I should be writing a book.

So the whole idea is to find a subset of your puzzle. Like, “Okay, I don’t even know what I’m going to do about my love life.” Okay. Find a subset, which might be I’m lonely when I’m by myself, and start to work that color, start to work that puzzle. Because if you’re lonely when you’re by yourself, it’s because you miss yourself. It’s because when you find the self capital S, that’s the end of loneliness. And a lot of people look for it in another person, and the puzzle doesn’t always get solved that way, it’s usually solved when we find ourselves. That’s just an example. And then you could go on to feeling other things and dealing with other parts of the puzzle. So yeah, categorize and conquer is what I call it.

Okay. GK [inaudible 00:21:00] says, “Is it like the opposite of entropy?” Kind of, except entropy always wins. Yay. Yeah, entropy is the tendency of organized systems to become less organized until everything is just chaos. And eventually the whole world, the whole universe will spin to a halt according to the laws of thermodynamics. But, as they do that, they create this beautiful thing called pattern disorder, where they start to make gorgeous things like trees and clouds and broccoli. And there’s a reason why all those things have a similar shape. The mathematics of chaos, working with physics, is creating these pattern disorder things that are astonishingly beautiful. They’re not regular. That would be boring. They’re similar, but always slightly different. And so it’s not the opposite of entropy, but it’s what happens, it’s how you can create beauty in the context of entropy.

And remember, I started with the space meditation because if everything did go to pure silent space and stillness, that’s still the consciousness of love. I think that goes through black holes into other universes and stuff, but that’s a whole different thing. But yes, I love you for bringing in the concept of entropy because I love physics and it pertains. Expect things to fall apart in your life, but let them make patterned beautiful images all the way through.

Catherine says, “Hi. I listen to your podcast on repeat.” Oh, you’re so sweet. “Thank you for your wisdom.” Oh, shucks, thank you for being here. “Question, have you been happy at each piece of the puzzle?” No. “Or did you always feel like there was more?” I feel like I have nomad syndrome. That’s not no man syndrome, it’s nomad syndrome. Can I ever settle and be content? Oh, I thought when you meant, was I happy? No, most of my puzzles have made me very unhappy, that’s why I knew they were my puzzles. But then when I started to figure out how to solve them, they brought me joy in the same proportion that they had brought me distress. So everything I’ve seen as a puzzle in my own life has actually made me unhappy for a while. And then it led to a much greater capacity for happiness and a much greater sense of a mastery of my own destiny. As for nomad syndrome, travel on. Why should you ever stop? There is no end to time. Maybe there is, but we won’t be around to see it, not in these bodies. So I understand if you feel like you’re jumping from one thing to another, what I would say then is follow your passion and trust it. Because later, two chunks of that puzzle are going to come together.

So I took this course in socioeconomic development, and it was hard. It was taught by Orlando Patterson at Harvard, and he is one of the most brilliant minds ever born, I think. And it was thousands of pages of reading and many pages of papers every single week. And I was like, “Why am I doing this? It’s the only course taught on a Wednesday, and I can only do it on a Wednesday because I have kids.” So I just took it, passed the class, got my PhD, and then later hooked up with all my beloved people around the world who are doing ecosystem activism and restoration, and using NGOs to do it. And I know which ones are working and which ones aren’t, because I took that class, and it’s a very complex subject. I had to know all about it for what would come later, and I never dreamed that would come. That came from my love of animals and wanting to go and be out in Africa and see the lions, and whatnot. So those two pieces came together.

Pieces of your puzzle, people in your puzzle will start to drift toward each other, and the beauty is when they interlock so perfectly, it’s blowing my mind these days. Oh yeah, so don’t settle, but expect things to come together.

Laurie says, “I can’t seem to solve the puzzle of how to consistently make money in my business, and I spend inordinate amounts of time beating myself up for not being able to find the correct puzzle pieces and second guessing myself ratchets up.” Here’s what I know. If I’m too attached to something, it flops. If I don’t really care that much, if I am so full of the joy of my everyday life that I let go of it, it thrives. So what I would tell you to do is work on your business, but find something that absorbs your creative mind. Whatever you love to do, I mean, the whole right side of the brain is what loves a puzzle, so find a creative project to do. Garden, paint, learn to play the piano, learn another language. Do something that absorbs you. It’ll take your attention off the business, and weirdly, that feeds it.

You know how when you’re working a puzzle, sometimes you just can’t see it and you get up and walk away, and then you come back and suddenly you can see where pieces might fit, that is a typical way that the right side of the brain works. And if you’re working something and it’s not working, take a break and get absorbed in something else and come back later. Your whole brain will work differently.

Okay, three more questions here. Oh no, poor. Jessica says, “What wisdom would you offer someone who is just opening a brand new puzzle box?” Lots of wisdom and experience, but brand new territory. I’d just say expect it to be really hard, expect it to take a long time. Expect a lot of false moves and expect to have a blast. Yes.

Cindy Lotus says, “How can you stay focused on the small piece you’re working on without worrying about the larger puzzle you’re working on?” Sometimes you need to walk away from the puzzle. You need to go to a distant view instead of a closeup view. Like the book I’m writing is a puzzle, and yesterday I went to a new section and I’d been working very, very intensely for many hours a day. And then I got up and took a walk, and as I went away and literally physically looked at a bigger scene, things just started lining up, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, for the next chapter I needed to write. And that’s automatic, it’s really fun. That’s the puzzle solving brain working on automatic. Such a blast.

Okay, May Elizabeth says, “How do you know when to quit a puzzle that seems to be missing core foundational compatibility pieces like a relationship versus continuing to explore ways to make a mismatched pieces fit?” If you’re halfway through the puzzle and there are parts that are clearly from two different puzzles, either separate them and see if you can solve them differently, so separate those two people and see if you can work out your life differently, or move to another puzzle. Like if there are two things that are clearly by different manufacturers and will not work together, and you will feel it if you say to yourself, “this really will not work”, and you feel peace, it really will not work. If you say, “I’m going to stick in here and I’m going to make this work”, and you feel peace, stay there. It’ll work. It’s the inner recognition of peace that says which puzzle pieces you should … Yeah, if it’s peaceful, it’s part of your puzzle.

Finally, for a rousing finish, Jane Jack Morales says, “So is death the finished puzzle?” I don’t think so. I think death is the new puzzle box that we get to open up. I think as we go toward it, we can look at the picture we can start to see the edges of it, of the next puzzle before we get there. And walking toward that ultimate mystery is a puzzle we all get to do. And by the time we face it, I hope we’re so used to doing puzzles that even when it’s hard, hard, hard and scary, scary, scary, it still brings us joy and lights us up, and keeps us from pulling out our feathers.

Thank you so much for being here. Love you all so much. I will see you next time on The Gathering Room. Bye.

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