Until recently, I haven’t been someone who does jigsaws. This changed when visiting friends last year – they were about 70% into a particular kind of puzzle, a wasgij. In a wasgij, you don’t recreate the picture on the box – instead you construct what one of the pictured characters can see or a scene that’s changed in some way. Somewhat idly, I looked at my friends’ puzzle… and then scrabbled about amongst the pieces… and became hooked! I found it completely absorbing and loved that it really was a puzzle because we didn’t know what we were making.
So, I bought one… and over the year-end, I spent time each day putting pieces in place. This was fascinating in an unexpected way – not only was my every-day, problem-solving mind engrossed, but I was also entertained by my thought processes as I played. It transpires that a wasgij is an aid to meditation!
My approach to meditation is shaped by Tibetan Buddhism and it’s my understanding that the root of the word is ‘to study’, the object of study being our mind. To observe the mind, we need to find ways to ‘step away’ from it and to cultivate a gentle curiosity about its antics. Meditation becomes a dance between these two activities: using a variety of methods to ‘settle’ the mind sufficiently to view it with some neutrality; and then bearing witness to our thoughts and thought patterns with clarity and acceptance.
These two aspects of meditation practice are sometimes called ‘concentration’ and ‘awareness’ and we move between them. A concentration is any approach that supports us to focus our attention and steady ourselves. The aim is to become disentangled from our habitual mind activity and so gain perspective on the ideas, concerns, stories and anxieties that fill our heads from moment to moment. Noticing what’s happening in our mind with some detachment is the ‘awareness’ aspect of meditation.
It seems that the process of selecting bits of coloured cardboard from a box and fitting them together to build a picture supports the movement between concentration and awareness. This was a revelation!
In Buddhist teachings, traditional methods of concentration are visualisation, chanting a mantra or following the breath. More generally, we can use activities such as sudoku or an absorbing craft as a concentration, as these give our mind a break from its usual chatter and nonsense. Jigsaws seem to work!
The awareness aspect of meditation arises when, deliberately or not, our focus on a concentration lessens. At this point, we often experience a sense of calm space for a moment. In this ‘pause’ it’s possible to observe what we’re thinking (and/or feeling) with some dispassion. The aim is to let thoughts be, to observe them without engaging with their content.
If we do this as a regular practice, we might see patterns in our thoughts, such as tendencies to judge, want, plan or fear. We might notice an inclination to whine, blame, flit about, berate ourselves, worry or be smug. The principle is that becoming aware of the prevalence of unhelpful (and repeating) lines of thought will sow the seeds of change. And, for a moment, in getting some distance from our habitual thoughts, we’re not perpetuating them.
We encounter two common difficulties in this process. One is that the familiarity of routine preoccupations is seductive. We’re easily drawn back into a favourite narrative. We can also ‘space out’, losing focus and drifting. When either of these happens in meditation practice, we try to return to our chosen concentration to regain perspective and neutrality.
For me, the natural meditation that occurred when doing the wasgij revealed a strong (and misplaced) confidence in my own rightness! My go-to thought when I couldn’t find a piece was that it must be missing! Further, I defended this explanation with creative storylines about the (brand new) puzzle being faulty. It was more alluring to denounce the puzzle than to accept my failure to spot a piece. At this point I’d smile ruefully: Ah, there I am again!
Then I’d return to making the picture. In accepting my arrogance, I could set it aside and move beyond it. Until it (inevitably) happened again!
- What activities support you to settle your mind and physiology and be present only to what you are doing?
- When thoughts return, what form do they tend to take?