Approaching life like a jigsaw puzzle

Published 9:00 am Saturday, September 16, 2017

By Erin Smith

love jigsaw puzzles. Because I spend so much time in verbal territory reading, writing and teaching, I crave the visual challenge afforded me by puzzling.

More often than not, my family has to eat at the island in the kitchen because the dining room table is covered with a jigsaw puzzle in various stages of completion. When I’m stressed about my business or feeling stuck in making some parenting decision, I find myself pulled toward the table to place just one piece only to find myself fully engaged an hour later, my mind clearer and calmer. For a mind that loves order, every piece that falls into place comes with a tiny drop of life-affirming dopamine.

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Life itself can be so puzzling, but I’ve learned much from my time at the table.

Lay the framework first.

Without boundaries, nothing else will make sense. Our self-respect is directly tied to our boundaries, what we say yes or no to in our lives. We always work the edge of a puzzle first to provide order and structure, to build strong scaffolding upon which to paint the picture. It’s crucial to know where you start and end. Without a strong boundary, we’re a jumble of meaningless pieces, sending our energy out hither and yon. But when we start to define our edges, it makes it easier to stand in our truth. When you lay one piece, it makes the next piece more obvious. When you have a strong frame, the inner choices are more apparent.

Focus on the next piece.

The Big Picture is worthy, but it can be overwhelming. You can’t do it all at once. If you try, you often become paralyzed, crushed under the sheer magnitude of things still to do. In puzzling, and in life, you can only do the next thing. Then the next. One single piece at a time, celebrating every small victory. Multitasking is a fallacy. To be really present in our lives, we should do one thing at a time, fully immersed in that activity. A fascinating study conducted by the University of Virginia found that our brain receives more than 10 million “bits” of information every second, but we can only process about 40 bits at a time. We need to invest our limited attention wisely. Keep the Big Picture in mind, but focus on one piece at a time.

If it isn’t working, don’t force it.

Life is not supposed to be easy; the challenges and obstacles help us grow into our truest selves. We have a very unique purpose in this world, yet we continue to try to fit into the expectations, opinions and roles of people we aren’t. It’s good to try new things to figure out what you really want, who you truly are. Try this piece and that piece. Explore the possibilities, but know there is only one right answer. Each piece has only one true home and can’t be forced to fit anywhere else. Neither should you.

Lay that stupid piece down already.

The Buddha believes we all suffer because we become overly attached to things and ideas. In every single puzzle, there will be OSP (one stupid piece). There will be one section with one missing piece. The missing piece should be obvious, but it isn’t. You’ll obsess over the missing piece, wasting precious time and energy looking for that OSP. That OSP in your life is that thing you believe you don’t have (money, beauty, youth, the job you desire). Stop wasting your energy on that one stupid piece; it isn’t a good return on your time and energy investment.

Assumptions do indeed make an ass out of (you and) me.

So I’m working this Van Gogh puzzle. And in one section, he’s wearing a green hat. I couldn’t find the missing piece to complete the green hat. I looked and looked, called in reinforcements from the other room. Finally I let it go, trusting that it would be revealed to me in time. And when it was, guess what? It wasn’t green. It was black, the one tiny shadow from his green hat. Let go of your preconceptions and see the world with open eyes, looking for what is truly there as opposed to what you expect or desire to see. We want to make sense of our lives, to find meaning and purpose. In life, we too often make snap decisions about people and experiences that don’t always turn out to be true.

Have patience and let things be revealed in their time, not yours.

You complete the puzzle.

Your piece is just as important as anyone else’s. In your own unique and amazing way, you complete the puzzle. As Deepak Chopra reminds us, “There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every missing piece must fit into the big jigsaw puzzle.”

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness for Women” and the online host of a yoga and mindfulness channel for Eppic Films. When she’s not standing on her head, she enjoys being a wife, mother, dancer, reader, flower sniffer, guitar player and wine drinker. Send her a shout out at or play along at