This Christmas I did my first ever jigsaw puzzle. For some of you it may sound bizarre that I’ve never done a jigsaw puzzle before, but in the past the mere thought of a jigsaw puzzle filled me with boredom and frustration. Obviously, it’s not entirely true that I’ve never done a jigsaw before. A few weeks previously on the request of my friend’s 2 year old I had attempted a jigsaw puzzle for children aged 3 to 6. It had 9 pieces. I failed to complete it. After checking the picture on the box (which I had previously been told by a jigsaw puzzle enthusiast was ‘cheating’) ensuring that yes, it did only have 9 pieces, and yes they were all present, I had to enlist the help of the 2 year old’s mummy. All I can say is that she’d clearly had practice. So, the 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of a very beautiful garden scene both excited and terrified me! In particular the large expanse of blue sky, how was I ever going to piece that together?

What Changed?

I came to mindfulness about 5 years ago in the midst of a stressful period at work. Despite my inability to complete children’s jigsaw puzzles, I was actually quite successful in my career (fortunately jigsaw puzzles are not part of the assessment process). Pre-mindfulness I would describe myself as a Type A personality – someone who was very busy all the time, rarely slowing down, let alone stopping to breathe! I had a busy job in London, was a competitive rower training 6 days a week with a busy social life. There was barely enough time to sleep, let alone meditate, or do a jigsaw puzzle for that matter!

However, following a mindfulness taster session by a colleague at work, I developed a mild interest. Then, after a period of insomnia worrying about work I decided action was needed. I recognised that I might not be able to change the external environment that was causing me stress, but I could change my relationship to it and mindfulness might help with that.  

I participated in an online 4-week introduction to mindfulness course and quickly started to experience the benefits, not least a good night’s sleep! On the completion of the online course I knew I needed to keep practicing to ingrain the habit, so I read the excellent ‘Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, a self-taught 8-week course in mindfulness with a CD of meditations. I was hooked. I felt refreshed and happy with a better sense of perspective over what was worrying me.

Meditation became as important to me as sleep, healthy eating and exercise. Over time I started to prioritise better, slow down, become more self-reflective, and do what my mum had been telling me to do since I was a child – stop and take a moment before reacting. In tandem my previously high levels of irritability decreased and my patience and compassion (towards myself and others) increased. I really liked this new person I was becoming.

Relishing in Being Mode

Fast-forward 5 years and now I can sit still long enough to do a jigsaw puzzle without getting bored or frustrated. Instead, I was ready and up for the challenge, even the endless blue sky which looked pretty impossible. After the initial panic of where to start, I discovered what seems to be a well-known jigsaw strategy, do the edges first… And then as if by magic, I found two pieces that connected! I experienced a significant moment of delight, relief, achievement and satisfaction. It also very quickly became apparent, that the ‘blue’ sky in the jigsaw contained lighter and darker patches, just like the real sky.

It dawned on me, that the jigsaw was a very mindful activity, I was in the ‘being mode’. Exploring the colours and shape of each piece created a sense of care and curiosity in me; just like the quality of awareness we create in our mindful meditations. The jigsaw became a very satisfying, relaxing and enjoyable activity. I was able to observe my emotions come and go – frustration, satisfaction, achievement, joy.

It may sound crazy, but I learnt a lot from doing the jigsaw puzzle and it became a reflection of where I was in life. I was going through a major life transition and the jigsaw helped me to see that things almost ‘fall into place’ when other key pieces are present; a good reminder to be patient and have faith even when I can’t yet see the full picture. I also found it very helpful to turn the jigsaw puzzle around, and look at it from another angle. Literally changing the way I saw the puzzle enabled me to piece together bits that previously didn’t seem to fit; a helpful reminder of the benefits of changing my perspective to find solutions.  I also learnt that, even if it is ‘cheating’, it’s helpful to look at the box to see the ‘big’ picture every now and then to remind myself of where I’m going.

The Dangers of Doing Mode

However, no one warned me how highly addictive jigsaw puzzles were! It became very clear that I needed to finish it before the holidays were over, otherwise I would struggle to prioritise work! My self-imposed deadline pushed me from ‘being mode’ into ‘doing mode’. My addiction grew worse as I stayed up late drinking wine and eating chocolates desperate to finish the jigsaw.

Again there were lessons for me in life. Whilst I tried to push past my ‘hard edges’, I could also clearly see when it was time to stop. My mind would go fuzzy and I’d become frustrated that I couldn’t place a piece. A helpful reminder of the importance of taking a break to look after myself and be at my best.

Eventually I completed the puzzle and the satisfaction was immense, promptly followed by sadness and loss. What would I do with my life now?! I didn’t dare buy another puzzle having seen my addiction! I would have to wait until next Christmas before I took on another jigsaw…

Katy Owen