Reflection and the Art of Solving Jigsaw Puzzles

Our family has had a long-standing tradition of solving a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle whenever we go away on holidays for more than a week.

The collaborative endeavour of solving the jigsaw puzzle has a relaxing effect, builds relationships and facilitates conversation.

Recently, my wife and I went on a holiday and in line with our family tradition purchased a 1,000 word WASJIG? jigsaw puzzle. These puzzles are particularly difficult because the image on the box depicts the present scenario – the jigsaw puzzle itself reflects the same scenario at some future time.  So the image you are provided with is just a guide – and sometimes intentionally misleading.

When solving the jigsaw puzzle, it was particularly important to challenge your own assumptions – to change your assumptions about shape, colour or location of a puzzle piece (or sometimes, all three aspects).  Often when you got stuck, the way forward was to challenge one or more of your assumptions.  This challenge to assumptions was particularly aided by the reflections of the other person, e.g.”Could that piece go at the top, rather than the bottom”; “This looks like becoming a car, not a shop”; “There seems to be a crowd outside the train, have you thought of that to explain the missing pieces?; “Could those two connected pieces be placed vertically rather than horizontally?; “I think that we should sort the last 100 pieces by shape rather than by colour as we have them now.”

The reality is that we have limited perception – we often see what we want to see and often fail to see what is in front of us.  We also experience perceptual bias based on our own life experiences.  So it is important to reflect with others, to be open to perceptions and perspectives of other people, if we are going to move forward in whatever endeavour we are undertaking.

How often have you worked on a jigsaw puzzle and been unable to find a particular piece and someone walks past and says “this piece looks like it should fill the gap” (and they may have had no prior involvement in the puzzle solving process).  They are able to see the puzzle with fresh eyes and have no preconceived ideas or assumptions.

I was reflecting on our processes for solving this jigsaw puzzle and was reminded of the words of Reg Revans, the father of action learning, who suggested that really effective reflection requires challenging our own assumptions.  He also maintained that this challenge to our assumptions was achieved more often by reflecting with one or more others.  He suggests that when we reflect alone we can often reinforce our existing assumptions – when we reflect with others our assumptions can be open to the challenge of others.

The process of reflection has a strong relationship to mindfulness.  As we build our ability to reflect, we become more aware of the need to be mindful in the situation as an aid to reflection (e.g. “If only I had really noticed her reaction at the time, I could have done something about it!”).  It is difficult to reflect on what you have said or done, if you lack awareness at the time.  In a similar way, when we become more mindful through mindfulness practices, we are better able to reflect-in-action, to reflect on our own words and actions while we are in the process of saying and doing.  So, in the final analysis, reflection and mindfulness are mutually reinforcing.

Image Source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com

Making a Difference Through Mindfulness

One of the things that we often fail to realise is what impact our own consciousness has on people around us – how we can make a real difference through being mindful.

Paulo Coelho captures this principle in his book, The Alchemist:

That’s what alchemists do. They show that, where we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too. (The Alchemist, p.150)

Recent research reinforces the fact that our moods are contagious – so if we are happy and calm, then we can positively impact those around us. We can make a difference in other people’s lives by living mindfully – by developing our emotional intelligence and building our sense of gratitude and contentment.

Joseph Folkman, who has made a personal study of the contagiousness of mood and engagement, reminds us:

Since doing this research, I have begun thinking about the fact that every interaction I have with other people can be inspiring and building, or discouraging and frustrating. We can build others up or tear them down.

The impact of our mindfulness can spread to our social network just as a person’s grief can impact those connected to them to “three degrees of separation” (friends of friends of friends) – like the concentric ripples that result when a stone drops into a pool of water.  Nicholas Christakis has studied this ripple effect over 15 years and demonstrated the pervasive influence of social networks.  His study can explain the growth of obesity, drug use and depression within a social network over time.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, our mindfulness can impact others in a positive way and make a real difference in their lives.  This was recently reinforced for me with the death of a friend, Pam Kruse.  People from all walks of life and different phases in her life, expressed their appreciation and gratitude for her sense of fun and humour, her zest for life, her thoughtfulness, her energy and readiness to serve others in a generous and unassuming manner.  In a lot of ways, Pam epitomized the “servant-leader“.

So let the warmth of your smile and your sense of contentment shine on those around you, just as the setting sun brightens the darkness of the night sky.

Image Source: Copyright R. Passfield

 

What Am I Doing This For?

Richardo Semler, entrepreneur and author, became well known for his ground-breaking book on the democratization of organisations.  In Maverick, he describes his approach to managing his business, Semco, which involves allowing employees unprecedented autonomy in many aspects of organization life.

What is not so well known is his personal philosophy of life.  His comments give some insight into his own approach to mindfulness and his perspective on idleness:

The opposite of work is idleness. But very few of us know what to do with idleness. When you look at the way that we distribute our lives in general, you realize that in the periods in which we have a lot of money, we have very little time. And then when we finally have time, we have neither the money nor the health.

Semler suggests that we put off so much in life because we are so busy about the future that we cannot enjoy the present.  In the process, we miss the opportunity to develop wisdom and to pursue the fundamental question of “What am I doing this for?”

And so, what we’ve done all of these years is very simple, is use the little tool, which is ask three whys in a row. Because the first why you always have a good answer for. The second why, it starts getting difficult. By the third why, you don’t really know why you’re doing what you’re doing. What I want to leave you with is the seed and the thought that maybe if you do this, you will come to the question, what for? What am I doing this for? And hopefully, as a result of that, and over time, I hope that with this, and that’s what I’m wishing you, you’ll have a much wiser future.

These comments by Richard Semler are extracts from a TED Talk that he gave in 2014, “How to run a company with (almost) no rules.”  The video of this talk is embed below and the transcript is available online for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

Semler asks some fundamental questions about life and work and how we spend out time.  Busyness is the greatest impediment to mindfulness – the pathway to wisdom, calm, clarity and happiness.

Postcript: I often take a short detour in the morning via the Manly Esplanade so that I can see the bay, the islands and the emergent sunrise. On the morning I watched Richardo’s video, I asked myself, “Why don’t I stop and capture the image that I see, instead of rushing back home?” And so the image in this blog post captures calmness in the spotlight of the sunrise.

Image Source: Copyright R. Passfield

Dying for Tomorrow or Living Today?

In February 2016, news.com.au reported on the story of Jake Bailey who got out of his hospital bed to deliver his Captain’s address at the 2015 Christchurch Boys’ High School Prize Giving ceremony.  Jake, in his final year, had been diagnosed with cancer and was on his fourth chemotherapy treatment when he left his hospital bed to give the speech.

Despite his illness, Jake passed the year 12 exams and expressed gratitude for the support he received from near and far.  His speech is very moving and, at times, confronting.  He makes the point that when you are confronted with death you are forced to reflect on who you are and what you are doing with your life.  In his own words, Jake reminds us that we so often overlook the present because we are so focused on tomorrow:

I was dying for the weekends, I was dying for the school holidays.  Before I knew it, I was dying.

Jake reminds us to be grateful for what we have and to live the present fully:

Here’s the thing – none of us get out of life alive. So be gallant, be great, be gracious, and be grateful for the opportunities that you have.

The full speech is available on YouTube and the video of his speech has been viewed by more than 1.7 million people at the time of writing this post.

Jake’s speech causes you to ask the question:

Are you dying for tomorrow or living today?

Image Source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com

Mindful Breathing – Being, not Thinking

Western society is strong on thinking and we have developed so many words to describe the act of thinking.  Here’s just a few:

  • analyze
  • summarize
  • categorize
  • synthesize
  • realize

Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that we have become so engrossed in thinking all the time that we have lost the art of just being.  We have lost touch with the present moment with all its potential for creativity, calm and clarity. He strongly recommends developing the art of mindful breathing and offers a 3 minute meditation exercise based on conscious breathing:

One of the challenges of mindful breathing is to stop the distraction of thinking and to remain focused in a non-judgmental way – clearing our thoughts as they occur without judging ourselves for their occurrence.

Isabel Allende in her book, Maya’s Notebook, describes Maya talking to her host Manuel and, in the process, identifies the difficulty of staying focused on breathing – on being, not thinking:

I found him watching the sunset from the big front window, and I asked him what he was doing.

“Breathing.”

“I’m breathing too.  That is not what I was referring to.”

“Until you interrupted me, Maya, I was breathing, nothing more.  You should see how difficult it is to breathe without thinking.”   [Maya’s Notebook, p.69]

And therein lies the challenge of mindful breathing – not only do you have to fend off distractions caused by your own thoughts, but also the interruptions unwittingly caused by others who need to share their thoughts or want you to do so.  Thinking has become our substitute mode of being – we live in our minds not in the reality of everyday life and the present moment.

Psychologists point out that this disconnection from the present has resulted in much of the mental illness that is prevalent today – we suffer depression because we are living in the past or suffer anxiety because we are living in the future. Mental health and well-being reside in mindfulness and mindful breathing that are accessible to us at any moment.

Image Source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

Being Still

I suppose like everyone else you find it hard in your busy life to be still and yet being still is a gateway to happiness, creativity and calm.

Isabel Allende once wrote that “life is nothing but noise between two unfathomable silences”. In explaining these words, she went on to say:

We have very busy lives – or we make them very busy.  There is noise and activity everywhere.  Few people know how to be still and find a quiet place inside themselves.  From that place of silence and stillness the creative forces emerge; there we find faith, hope, strength, and wisdom.  However, since childhood we are taught to do things.  Our heads are full of noise.  Silence and solitude scare us most. (About the author, “The Sum of Our Days”, p. 4.)

As Allende explains, being still is about “being” rather than compulsive “doing”.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in discussing his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, describes how participants stand and do nothing, sit and do nothing, lie and do nothing – they clear their thoughts and just focus on being.  The MBSR Program has proven over more than 30 years to be very successful in helping people deal with chronic stress, panic and many forms of mental illness that are often precipitated by busyness. Kabat-Zinn discusses the program and its origins in his book, Full Catastrophe Living.

Andy Puddicombe suggests that “all it takes is 10 mindful minutes” per day to achieve an increased sense of calm, clarity ad focus.  He reminds us that we spend more time looking after our clothes, our hair and how we look, than in caring for our brain – the centre of creativity, energy and happiness.  Puddicombe demonstrates how our lives have become an endless juggling act, not only juggling things-to-do but also our self-defeating thoughts:

There are many resources available to motivate you to be still or to show you how to achieve this.  RMIT, for example, provides an audio resource on “sitting still” to help students cope with study and life stress. This is part of an online resource that covers “mindfulness and being present“.

Being still and doing nothing is a real challenge, but if you take the time out from your busy life to actually do nothing, for however long each day, you will experience real benefits for your health, well-being and happiness.

Image Source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com

Mindful Eating

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book, “Coming to Our Senses”, suggests that his call to awareness has to be interpreted both literally (being conscious of the senses of the body) and metaphorically (behaving sensibly).

He describes each of the senses as a terrain and discusses mindful eating in a section of his book called “tastescape” (“touch”, for example, constitutes the “touchscape”).

Kabat-Zinn argues that we often eat mindlessly, unaware of what we are eating, with limited consciousness of taste and texture (we are too busy talking or thinking about other things).  He suggests that we have lost the fundamental purpose of eating:

Thus eating has has become increasingly separated from survival and maintenance of life in our consciousness.  For the most part, we eat with great automaticity and little insight into its critical importance for us in sustaining life, and also in sustaining health (p.231).

In his Stress Reduction Clinic, he starts his training with getting people to eat a raisin slowly and sensuously because it brings participants into the moment, the present, and dispels all misunderstanding re the nature of meditation.  He suggests that such an exercise increases “wakefulness”:

Eating one raisin very very slowly invites you to drop right into knowing in ways that are effortless, totally natural, and entirely beyond words and thinking.   It is an invitation that is unusual only in that we tend to eat so automatically and unconsciously (p.230).

Not long after first reading about mindful eating in Kabat-Zinn’s book, I was travelling interstate and purchased a packet of “goodies” to eat, comprising almonds, pistachio nuts and cranberries.  I decided to experiment with mindful eating as he describes the process.

I started with an almond and felt the ridged exterior and firm texture with my tongue and gradually bit into its firm surface.  Slowly, I tasted the distinctive flavour of the almond and appreciated this sensation which tended to be short in duration.  I followed this up with putting a pistachio nut in my mouth and felt the smoothness and wave shape of its surfaces. As I bit into the pistachio, I had a stronger sense of flavour than with the almond and this tended to last a bit longer.  Lastly, I placed a cranberry in my mouth and felt its wrinkled and rough surface with my tongue.  Biting into the cranberry was a very different sensation again – an explosion of flavour that tended to linger.

Normally, I would have thrown a handful of these nuts and cranberries into my mouth and, in the process, lost the distinctive sensations of differences in taste and texture. Kabat-Zinn suggests that we often eat with “stunningly little awareness of what or how we are eating, how fast we are eating, what our food actually tastes like, and when our body is telling us it is time to stop” (p.232).

He suggests that if we take time for mindful eating we can experience the rewards both physically and psychically:

If we slow down a bit, we can intentionally bring awareness to tasting anything we are eating, to be with this mouthful of food, and to really taste it, chew it and know it before we swallow it. (p.233)

Elsewhere in “Coming to Our Senses”, Kabat-Zinn explores the connection between our brain and our senses, as well as with our memories and awareness.  To appreciate this, you just have remember the last time a bit of food evoked a distant memory.

Image source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com

Building Mindfulness through Open Awareness

Open awareness is something that you can practice anywhere.  It is basically being fully present through your senses.

From my lounge room and deck I can see Moreton Bay with Stradbroke Island in the background.  I used to wake up of a morning and note the sunrise across the bay on my way to making a cup of tea in the kitchen.  I would walk past what is an ever-changing  view.

Now I am developing the habit of standing still and taking in the view for the few minutes while the water in the jug is boiling.

In this way I can practice open awareness – listening to the sounds of birds waking, watching the changing hues as the sun comes up, observing the breeze in the trees and sensing the weather.

I find that my body immediately relaxes and I am able to quickly drop into mindful breathing as a matter of course.  So one mindfulness practice leads onto the next.

What you can do to develop open awareness is to link it to something that you do on a daily basis – a morning walk, the morning cuppa or coffee, the early morning bike ride.  If you structure open awareness into your day, you will be more likely to persist with the habit and progressively build mindfulness.  You will also find that you will more frequently stop what you are doing and become openly aware of your surroundings.

Image source:  Copyright R. Passfield

Tai Chi – A Pathway to Mindfulness

Tai Chi is described as “poetry in motion” and is a popular pathway to the development of mindfulness. It builds the connection between body, mind and spirit.

I first encountered Tai Chi practice when, as a manager in the public service in the 1980s, I engaged a Tai Chi instructor to conduct training for myself and my staff on a weekly basis.  At the time I felt extraordinarily uncoordinated but persisted with the practice in the weekly lessons, only to drop away as pressure of work took over.

In 2014 my wife and I undertook the beginners class in Taoist Tai Chi before going overseas to Europe.  I think it certainly helped our fitness and presence of mind.  More recently, I returned to the weekly beginners classes but was unable to maintain attendance and learn the full 108 movements owing to work commitments.

The Tai Chi classes provide social support and motivation to master the art of Tai Chi. However, I became discouraged with the classes because I could not keep up owing to my work-induced absences.  However, I had really appreciated the benefits of practising Taoist Tai Chi, so I located a training video that takes you through the first 17 moves and now I attempt to use this video to practise Taoist Tai Chi on a daily basis.  This video takes you through the steps very slowly with a clear explanation:

The advantage of this video is that the 17 moves take only about 4 minutes and they can be completed in sets of three or more repetitions. The creators of the video also provide a practice video for the highly recommended warm-up exercises.

As with mastery of anything, Taoist Tai Chi requires regular practice, ideally on a daily basis. The more frequently you practise, the greater are the benefits you can experience in terms of physical and mental health and the growth of mindfulness.

Tai Chi is an antidote to the business of life and work. As the Fung Loy Kok Institute of Taoism (FLK) observes:

Taoist Tai Chi® arts offer a powerful opportunity to unplug from our phones, tablets and computers, and reconnect with the world.

There are many health benefits attributed to Tai Chi.  The Taoist Tai Chi Society of Australia explains the basis for these benefits as follows:

The significant degree of turning and stretching in each of the movements, combined with the adaptability of the form to suit individual needs, are just some of the factors that contribute to its focus on restoring, improving and maintaining health. 

The specific health benefits they identify include:

  • improved circulation
  • improved balance and posture
  • increased strength and flexibility
  • reduced stress
  • alleviation of the symptoms of illness such as arthritis, high blood pressure and migraine.

Tai Chi, like mindfulness, develops calmness, focus, concentration and clarity.

Grow Mindfulness through Nature

 

Nature is a wonderful source of mindfulness.  We so often look at something in nature but don’t see the beauty that is there.  One way to really appreciate nature and all it has to offer is to adopt “open awareness” – to take in the sounds, sights, colours, smells, contours and touch sensations.

So often we walk past the opportunity to be mindful in the presence of nature – we overlook the connectedness that is in front of us.  As Louie Schwartzberg reminds us – every living creature is dependent on some other living entity for its survival.

We so often fail to appreciate what is before us – the changing nature of the sky with each passing moment.  We miss the varying hues, the different cloud formations, the sun drenched waters that emerge with sunrise or the deepening shadows occurring with sunsets. We pass off the weather as “good” or “bad”, ascribing some personal value to it based on our own convenience or inconvenience at the time.

Louie Schwartzberg, the famous time-lapse photographer, reminds us to be grateful when we encounter the beauty of nature:

Louie argues that nature is a pathway to mindfulness if we are open to, and appreciative of, its beauty.