Like scattered pieces of a jig-saw puzzle life often seems a jumble, its meaning unclear and divided into separate bits. Examining it, a few pieces here and there may fit together easily, forming portions of an overall picture, but often the complete whole eludes us, pieces missing, lost or not quite fitting together. A life examined is to plumb mystery.
It’s quite possible to live avoiding mystery, moving through each day just putting one foot in front of the other, distracted or numb, not reflecting on events nor caring to look back. Other rare individuals live lives of natural grace and equanimity, confident, serene and seemingly devoid of any need for introspection. Our forgiving world generously makes room for all sorts of people.
Individual lives fit together collectively in a natural way, which we call society; our edges line up and our curves fit together — some lives swing right as others swing left. Shared experiences color a common background, spreading across different pieces and making it easier to see how separate lives combine. There are family pieces, which is why genealogy has always been popular and there are social pieces, the network of relationships, which explains why Facebook is so successful. Even the puzzle pieces of DNA are revealing new information now that the mysterious human genome has been decoded,
People like to solve mysteries and puzzles of all kinds: crossword, jig-saw, sudoku, word riddles, treasure hunts and so forth. These mundane pursuits may be viewed as externalized symbolic representations of the internal subconscious puzzling taking place in each person, small games of mystery which temporarily satisfy an urge towards resolution and wholeness. This is by no means a modern phenomena. Ancient cultures constructed elaborate riddles, multiple alphabets and secret codes to hide the sacred names of their gods and goddesses and prevent the uninitiated from gaining access to such knowledge. Books such as Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess” reveal a vast encrypted mythology which veils deep mysteries and histories of paleolithic and neolithic lives, a treasury of knowledge protected by puzzles created by priests, priestesses and poets. Our puzzling, it seems, goes back to our very beginnings.
Conventionally, we experience life as a cascade of separate bits and pieces but this perception is due to confusion, false distinctions and delusions; what appears chaotic is actually unfathomable complexity. We try hard to bring order to chaos, restless in our efforts to resolve confusion, find answers to life’s puzzle and realize wholeness. Ultimately, however, there are no separations, no pieces out of place; though unfathomable, complexity is complete in every moment. Our prodigious powers of thought, today strongly buttressed by scientific rationalism, mix with our confusion and fear of chaos, paradoxically resulting in both no end to what we can learn and no end to mystery.
Neither the extreme of a disengaged life nor a life of compulsive self-obsession provides a viable path towards working the puzzle; both reflective understanding and openness to the complexity of experience are equally necessary, an integrated middle way that avoids debilitating extremes. Life, after all, is something lived not thought, while a thoughtless life is barely worth living.
When it comes to mystery, the great accomplishment of sages is to see – not with the eyes – but with the heart. When this magic happens, we call it wisdom.