The Difficult Task of Seeing The Whole Picture

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce explains how practicing mindfulness helps us slow down and notice what’s really there—not just what our mind wants us to see.

Oksana/Adobe Stock

Over the year-end holidays last year, my wife and I rented an apartment near where our children live, and our twin granddaughters had several sleepovers there. We decided to get them something to absorb their attention, and time, for several weeks: a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. These have never been my thing. I’d look at one taking shape in a corner on a table, a profusion of tiny pieces lying higgledy-piggledy. Insanely tedious, I thought. Searching for yet another patch of sky-blue in an irregular jigsawed shape looked excruciating.

My granddaughters, though, took to it with vigor and rigor. Starting first thing in the morning, patiently and gleefully piecing it together. With the whole family joining in, after several weeks, the picture began to reveal itself. So proud were they of what they were accomplishing, they wanted it framed.

Me? Still not so much into it.

As we neared completion, it became clear that 10 pieces were missing! The maker informed me that there is a form online to fill out. It happens often enough that there’s a form to fill out? Really? I imagined whole retirement communities pulling their hair out, questioning their sanity.

We dismantled the puzzle and, once home, started assembling the new one the company sent, so we could frame it. Now I had to pitch in, and I became obsessed. Nights passed when I lost track of time, staying up searching for pieces. Weekend afternoons and early mornings before work were gobbled up. But the puzzle was puzzling me. I handled every one of 200 remaining pieces without finding the piece I sought. I convinced myself that this piece was missing. The damn company had done it again!

When only 20 pieces were left, it turned up. A dawning realization hit me: I’m not seeing what is there; I’m seeing what my mind is telling me to see! It was a stark reminder that the world is not what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Searching for a piece, I looked for what it should look like, what I wanted it to look like. I’d known about this phenomenon from observing perception through years of meditation and from reading about top-down mental processing, whereby preconceived constructs in our brain often govern what we perceive more than the data coming into us from our sense organs, from the “bottom up.” It’s why we look at clouds and easily imagine animals. We call that imagination. But when we look at someone and see them as inferior—because that’s what a construct deep in our brain told us to see—that’s not so imaginative.

When we look at other people, are we taking the time to really see them, whole, or are we eagerly trying to fit them into the puzzle we’re constructing?

When we look at other people, are we taking the time to really see them, whole, or are we eagerly trying to fit them into the puzzle we’re constructing? The world, and everybody in it, does not present itself to us in a fully formed picture. We piece it together like our own personal jigsaw puzzle.

It’s an imperfect picture, but we take it for concrete reality. That bears remembering. We could become humbler, appreciating what we do not know rather than rapidly filling in the blanks with what we are driven to see, what our brain is telling us to see.

The beauty of mindfulness and awareness practice is that it can, at the best of times, slow down the mind enough so we can actually see our attempts to quickly piece the world together based on our biases, preconceptions, and (often flimsy) received ideas. In a sudden glimpse, we may see the world afresh. And to stretch the metaphor, we may see that everyone is a piece of the puzzle. No one can be left out for the entire thing to be complete. If we leave people out of the picture, there is no form to fill out online to make it whole again.