Point of View Podcast Episode 9: Piece of Mind
Stephanie Domet: Barry, the idea that the world is not, as you say in your column in Mindful this month, “what you see is what you get” feels like it’s at the root of a lot of mindfulness practices, that a desire to get beyond or above or maybe it’s beneath what we can see, drives saw a lot of us to the cushion. Would you agree with that?
Barry Boyce: Well I think it’s a stress or pain. That is the immediate thing that drives a lot of us, we feel like you know it should be better than that, it shouldn’t feel this way. And I think as we get there and start to uncover a little bit, a part of what is causing stress is a disconnect between what we think ought to be going on in our minds, and then what’s actually going on in our minds.
Stephanie Domet: I remember when my now-husband and I were first dating long-distance and exchanging emails, and he had a quote from a singer-songwriter that he loved as his e-mail signature. And it was: “The world ain’t what you think it is, it’s just what it is.” And for me as like an outcome-oriented, narrative-driven creature that blew my tiny mind. The idea that it might not be just my perception, you know.
Barry Boyce: Yeah, yeah well I mean it’s a cliche but it’s like all cliches, it’s one that’s got a lot of truth in it. And you know, I mean I’m continually amazed as I have that insight thrown up in my face again. The persistence of our attachment to our version of the world—and you know we do, we’re making up a version of the world all the time.
Stephanie Domet: I assume this is a lesson that you probably learned for the first time decades ago, but you did recently bump up against it again while doing of all things a jigsaw puzzle. Tell us a little about that.
Barry Boyce: Yeah well as the story goes, I have two granddaughters, as readers of my column will have learned already. I’m very fond of them, they’re twins, they’re eight years old, and they live in a city far, far away from where my wife and I live now.
So we spent a month there during December, and we had them over for sleepovers a lot and we we wanted to have something that would occupy their time. My wife thought of the jigsaw puzzle. Historically, I hate jigsaw puzzles. I just look at them and I say “Oh my God why would anybody want to spend time doing this?” You know if you’ve done it, I mean like you have one that has ocean or sky, or God forbid ocean and sky, and all these weird little shapes and then when you’re done, all you have is the picture that you could see on the box in the first place. It just looked like, why the hell would you do it?
But I happen to know and my wife Judy knew too that they liked puzzles, and she likes puzzles and her family likes puzzles, and my kids seem to like puzzles, so I was in the minority. Anyway, when we got a puzzle and we decided to really go full bore and get a thousand piece puzzle, and that’s just an inconceivable number of pieces. My job was to set up the area and I was very good at that. I went out to various stores to try to find the right kind of table and and we set it in a sunroom that had plenty of light because, lights really important I learned, because your eyes go cross-eyed when you’re looking at it. And so in any case, I did a good job of setting it up and they were very eager players, we’d wake up in the morning they’d already be at it, my my twin granddaughters Evelyn and Isabella, and I was very impressed. And I have to say a little bit chastened, maybe a little bit embarrassed. So secretly when they weren’t there, I would try to find a piece and I wasn’t very good at it. But I found a couple.
Somewhere in the middle they said “Hey, oh man Grandma, Grandpa we’d like to have this framed.” And we’d learned that this is something you can do. You can frame a jigsaw puzzle, which gives a little more purpose. If that matters. As we got to the end, they were frustrated at not being able to find certain pieces. And it turns out that the puzzle was missing 10 pieces.
Stephanie Domet: 10?
Barry Boyce: 10 entire pieces. I was kind of not happy about this.
Stephanie Domet: Where was quality control?
Barry Boyce: Exactly, exactly. I had recently seen a joke sign, one of those internet memes: “You had one job,” and this is what I thought. You had one job. You just needed to make sure there were a thousand pieces. Of course you know, I’m always compassionate about anybody who has to do any kind of a job. I’ve already spoken on my relationship with puzzles and I don’t think I’d want to work in a in a puzzle factory, which I believe is also a term for awful place to work.
In any case, I called the place up and they very matter of factly told me, “Oh there’s a form you fill out.” I thoughts oh my god, this happens often enough that there’s a form you fill out. I mean you must be driving people in nursing homes crazy, because they love to do puzzles. They’re thinking oh my god, I’ve lost my mind. Where’s the pieces. So they said they’d send us an entirely new puzzle—but if we’d hoped that we could keep their existing puzzle intact and put in the pieces, they said well the pieces wouldn’t necessarily fit ,there can be slight differences. And it was running out of our time and we were not going to be in in Toronto anymore, where my daughters and granddaughters live. Finally we gave up, dismantled the puzzle and had the new puzzle pieces sent to my home. Chapter two follows soon.
Stephanie Domet: No granddaughters at your house to do the puzzle.
Barry Boyce: No granddaughters, only me and my wife here. So I couldn’t leave Judy to tackle this whole thing herself, having worked with the girls already painstakingly to create the puzzle the first time around, so I dutifully was helping out and then I got sucked in. I got sucked into puzzle world, and I felt like I just needed to find these few pieces and so I was staying up late at night looking for pieces, and feeling an incredible sense of elation when I found something. Also kind of marveling at how difficult it was. It started to eat up weekends and frankly some mornings when I should’ve been working, I got into work later than I should have. It’s like well I’ll just do this one, and then I would look up and an hour had passed.
So as the puzzle started to fill up and there were fewer pieces, I became convinced that there must be pieces missing. And at one point there was one piece I was looking for, and there were about 200 pieces left, and it was the part of the animals. It had three different colors in it and it was a particular shape. It was about 11:30 at night and I decided I’m going to handle every single piece systematically till I find this piece.
Stephanie Domet: Wow, you really got it bad.
Barry Boyce: Oh yeah. It’s bad. It taught me something about about how obsessive one can be. I didn’t think I could be that obsessive. I handled every single piece. Didn’t find the piece and declared to Judy the next morning, “Look, I looked for that piece in that guy’s eye, and it’s not there. We’re gonna have to accept the fact that this company screwed up again and the piece is simply not there.” And I was also kind of mad and we started composing letters and vowing that we would never buy a puzzle from that company again. Then we kept finding more and more pieces, and you know finally we have about 15 pieces left or something. And damn if that piece doesn’t show up.
Stephanie Domet: You had handled every single thing.
Barry Boyce: I’d handled every single piece.
Stephanie Domet: You knew what you were looking for.
Barry Boyce: I thought I knew what I was looking for. And I had realized already before that piece that something was going on in that when I would look at a piece I’d formulate in my mind what it was supposed to look like and then I would go and look for it and the image in my mind was really faulty. It was really, really faulty and my patience and tension and willingness to suspend my judgment and —this sounds woo-woo but— let the pieces talk to me, or let me actually see the pieces, it wasn’t as good as I thought. I was relying on finding out in the world the picture that I formed in my head.
And that’s when the light bulb went off again. “Oh, my god. I do this all the time.” I have an image of how somebody should be. I have an image of how a situation should be. I classify somebody as good, bad, part of my tribe, not part of my tribe, and you know I’m fitting people into boxes and I’m not seeing the world.
And that’s when the light bulb went off again. “Oh, my god. I do this all the time.” I have an image of how somebody should be. I have an image of how a situation should be. I classify somebody as good, bad, part of my tribe, not part of my tribe, and you know I’m fitting people into boxes and I’m not seeing the world. Clearly not the first time I’ve had that insight, but when you have it about something silly and simple like how you’re putting together a puzzle piece, you know it enabled me to see how persistent it is at the level of perception. Not just ideas, but the ideas I might have about people or things or the world. You know, I think of myself as open-minded and very progressive in terms of my ideas. But what happens at the level of perception is so ingrained. That’s what the puzzle was teaching me.
Stephanie Domet: You really got lucky in some ways. I mean a jigsaw puzzle is like a perfect metaphor. Columnist’s dream perhaps.
Barry Boyce: Yeah, exactly. I mean as a writer, I don’t know if you could say you look for those moments, but when you stumble into them you just feel oh, this is something I want to expand upon, because you then you can explore it through writing and the conversation that comes out of it.
Stephanie Domet: Totally, and for you, you were able to sort of liken your ideas about what that so-called missing piece must look like, and to our own preconceived constructs around difference in race and gender expression, economics, social standing maybe. Why do you think those pre-conceived constructs are so powerful, act on us so powerfully?
Barry Boyce: I think that it has to do with something very fundamental in how our cognition works. I had read some time ago that about top-down processing versus bottom-up processing in terms of perception. So top-down processing has to do with signals coming from within our brain that tell us what to see so to speak. So you come up with a conception of what a chair is, the ideal form of a chair, so that when you see this thing out in the world you can call it a chair, right. And when you have an artist who does something to confound, that kind of messes with you. That’s an example of where the bottom-up processing is messing with the top-down processing. So we have a lot of ingrained categories that are much juicier than chair or table, right. Like mine and theirs.
Stephanie Domet: Yeah us and them, even.
Barry Boyce: And you may have learned from people you grew up with, or inherited family bias, even if that bias loosened up over the course of your lifetime. It could still be kicking around in there because it’s at such a fundamental level of perception. I notice that you know, when you look at somebody on the street, a homeless person, it’s very common bias for my area that somehow they’re utterly responsible for their own fate. That there’s some kind of laziness there. You know that they’re a nuisance. That’s some sort of very deep processing and the fact that they may be afflicted with schizophrenia or any number of hundreds of mental or physical conditions or life circumstances, that immediate biased processing from the top-down is not informed by those kind of subtleties.
Stephanie Domet: Right.
Barry Boyce: And it comes real quick.
Stephanie Domet: Right, before you can even notice it.
Barry Boyce: Yeah and you may not even be conscious that it’s there in how you hold your body, or the expression that might come over your face, and people in those situations are used to perceiving that, right? They can see that the bias against them that emerges there because they’re being met with them all the time.
Stephanie Domet: Right. You note that it’s the same mechanism as imagination. It allows us to look at clouds for instance and see animals. But you also ask when we look at other people are we taking the time to really see them. It’s a good question. But doing that also requires imagination, doesn’t it?
Barry Boyce: Well looking at a cloud and seeing an animal, that aspect of imagination I don’t think of that as quite the top-down processing part, but that has to do more with the puzzle-making part, where we try to piece together a reality. And so we take a few bits of information and we piece together a reality, right. I mean, let’s say somebody it’s a little short with you. So you have one datum that they they answered your question a little curtly and so using that one datum, you’ve labeled them completely.
Stephanie Domet: Right, yeah.
Barry Boyce: And you don’t know what’s going on behind that circumstance. You don’t know what difficulty they may just have gone through, or how much of what’s causing this mood to pass through them. But you very quickly seize on it and decide that person is such and such, you know, choose your nasty word. And if you think of let’s say, you go to a party and you’re navigating and try to figure out who to talk to, we’re using this kind of thing all the time where we use little teeny bits of data to establish something and go toward what we’re used to. So the same thing that allows us to look at the world and piece it together in unique and creative and interesting ways, like artist do or like we do when we’re artful, we can also piece it together in very narrow ways, and very constricting ways. In ways that have an excess of fear and self-preservation, rather than exploration and play.
So the same thing that allows us to look at the world and piece it together in unique and creative and interesting ways…we can also piece it together in very narrow ways, and very constricting ways.
Stephanie Domet: Right. Why is that so hard, Barry. Why are we so fear-based?
Barry Boyce: I mean when when you figured that out Steph, you let me know.
Stephanie Domet: Yeah, maybe episode 10 of the podcast.
Barry Boyce: I mean, I think that I’m having less as the years go by. I’m having less luck with the why part of that question And a bit more luck with the fact of the matter. That yeah, I do a lot of stuff out of fear and self-preservation. That’s not the most accurate or the most skillful. But it is persistent. I mean that was the lesson again from the puzzle, that the persistence at the simplest possible level of the first thought emerging from your mind is one that’s clinging to a solidity and a certainty that isn’t there. I was convinced that the piece that fit in that spot was not there.
Stephanie Domet: Right. Even though you physically had hands and your eyes on each piece.
Barry Boyce: And I looked at it. I scrutinized it, wasn’t there, scrutinized it, I didn’t see it. So I think huh. Who am I looking at and not seeing.
Stephanie Domet: So can I harness my imagination to not just see animals and clouds, but also to see the best in people instead of the worst? Ir is seeing the best and worst in people not even the goal?
Barry Boyce: Well, I think a good goal is to see the best in people. Then to look for that, which some might call a positive bias. You know, that’s infecting things with a positive bias. I’m going to counteract my negative tendencies by looking for the best in people. That is a strategy. But even before that—you used the word harnessing—I would say you could start with interrupting the momentum of the reaching of conclusions.
Stephanie Domet: Interrupting the reaching of conclusions.
Barry Boyce: Yeah, how fast we reach a conclusion. You know, kind of having you can actually watch it taking place.
Stephanie Domet: Yeah.
Barry Boyce: This is where the non-judgmental part of meditation comes in, because these things happen so quick.
Stephanie Domet: Yeah.
Barry Boyce: So let’s say I see this homeless person, I have a negative thought about them, I have the benefit of noticing that negative thought and the first thing I spend my time doing it’s beating up on myself for doing it.
Stephanie Domet: Right. Why am I such a jerk.
Barry Boyce: Yeah. That actually doesn’t do much for the next interaction. You know it just gets you in this little fight with yourself. If you can let it be there a bit, ride it and then start to see more, that becomes more habitual. Then I think over time it lessens. That’s I think the benefit of awareness, because it’s like—if you look at sports as an interesting analogy, that people were trying to improve could be sports, it could be could be music, any kind of skill, you notice when you’re practicing the violin or shooting a three point shot in basketball, the percentage of times you get it right could be quite low. And if you’re just beating yourself up every time that’s not going to work.
You have to be patiently letting yourself go through those not as effective ways of doing something until over time it gets better, and I think we can actually work with our perception like that, It’s not something we’re used to thinking about. But when in mindfulness and we sit and practice, we give ourselves the time. We have no job to do, just gonna be with our mind and pay attention to the breath. So we’re sitting there and thoughts come up, we notice them, we come back to the breath when we notice them. We’re noticing the whole thought, we’re seeing it for what it is. So we’re taking the time to really perceive how we’re actually seeing the world.
When in mindfulness and we sit and practice, we give ourselves the time. We have no job to do, just gonna be with our mind and pay attention to the breath…We’re noticing the whole thought, we’re seeing it for what it is.
Stephanie Domet: OK.
Barry Boyce: So over time that develops with what they call metta awareness. You’re actually aware of how a thought is forming. So when we go out in the world, that can become a byproduct. So we notice how we’re actually forming our picture of things while still being able to get things done. You know, it’s not like we have to stop dead in our tracks, but…
Stephanie Domet: To notice our thoughts.
Barry Boyce: Yeah. Then we notice them. But I do think it means I’m being a little slower in many cases. I mean, not when you need to be fast at something, but you know it’s like slow food. It’s like “slow being,” you know I like to take the slow food thing and make it about being all together.
Stephanie Domet: Slowly being. I was thinking when you were talking about violin practice—it’s like it’s human practice.
Barry Boyce: Yeah. You’re practicing with the human instrument. The main instrument you’ve got, the one that has an affect on the world.
Stephanie Domet: It’s awfully unwieldy sometimes.
Barry Boyce: It sure is.
Stephanie Domet: Hard to play.
Barry Boyce: It’s a lot harder to play than a violin, and violin must be pretty damn hard. I’ve never tried it.
Stephanie Domet: How much of this is about an awareness of our biases in particular, and how much of it is simply that increased awareness is generally a benefit?
Barry Boyce: Oh I think it’s both. I mean, increased awareness is generally a benefit, because it helps us see patterns of mind and behavior that can lead to more pain for ourselves and for other people. So generally awareness is good. I think awareness of bias in particular is interesting, because bias is—and we haven’t really talked about this today—but bias is a necessary function of the mind, you know, we use biases. I have a bias toward the fact that if I sit down I go into this chair, it’s going to hold me up. Biases are shortcuts.
Stephanie Domet: That kind of fills in the gaps for us, for better and for worse.
Barry Boyce: Yeah for better and for worse. And being more aware of that helps us to work on the for worst part.
Stephanie Domet: OK. Yeah. Yeah. As we do our human practice.
Barry Boyce: Yeah. And as I said later on, I carried the analogy of the puzzle beyond just the perception of the pieces. But the fact that we’re puzzling a world together.
Stephanie Domet: Yeah, right.
Barry Boyce: You end up having a worldview. It’s like right now, many people, they’ve been economically disadvantaged or for whatever reason, have formed the notion that foreigners are taking jobs away. So that’s a puzzling together of the world. This is, you take some pieces and you form them into a picture.
Stephanie Domet: Whether they actually actually fit or not.
Barry Boyce: And we all do that. And you listen to the news and read the news. You see the news on television. You form a picture.
Stephanie Domet : Right.
Barry Boyce: And that is a necessary part of living and navigating the world, but it’s really helpful to have an understanding, as one of my meditation teachers taught me, that that world is crumbly.
Stephanie Domet: Crumbling.
Barry Boyce: You know it’s not as solid as you think it is. And don’t beat yourself up for forming these kind of puzzles in your mind. You’re going to do that, it’s necessary. I have a picture in my mind right now of the city I live in, Halifax. You and I can both picture it, and where we are right now in relation to the Public Gardens, right?
Stephanie Domet: I mean that picture is what’s going to help me get home after.
Barry Boyce: Exactly. So you’re going to do that, you’re going to form pictures, but just like with the biases. Be careful. You know what are those. And you know that’s one of the reasons that I was really struck that when I was recently travelling, and I went to a show of the artist Joan Miro who I hadn’t spent much time looking at. But Miro has his pictures are bizarre collections of forms and you know, reorganizing the world in talking about his work. He talked a lot about the inner perception that that you form, your idea of the world inside like we’ve been talking about that. But one of the great things about art is that it can confound the picture that we’ve created. You know it can jumble it up and that’s so freeing, and so you know humour does that too.
Stephanie Domet: Right. It turns things on their on their side, on their end of it, so you can see something different.
Barry Boyce: Exactly. Yeah.
Stephanie Domet: Yeah, I do that when I’m stuck with writing. I try to literally change my physical perspective, so I stand on a chair, I lie on the floor. I try to immerse myself in some other offbeat way that lets me see what I wasn’t able to see before.
Barry Boyce: Yeah, well I mean writing, you talk about being blocked or stock and it’s it’s in a way just that that we’re stuck in one way of seeing things and it can persist.
Stephanie Domet: You buy yourself any more puzzles?
Barry Boyce: Funny you should ask. Now I’m I’m drowning in puzzles because my wife assumed that because of my obsession with this puzzle, that I was now into puzzles and she mentioned this to my daughter and my daughter said, “Oh well you should buy Dad a puzzle.” So now she bought me a puzzle, and then I was in the gift shop at the Museum of Modern Art looking for some postcards of Miro paintings that I liked and I saw a puzzle for sale there of a something that had been on the New Yorker cover. Called New Yorkistan.
Stephanie Domet: Yes.
Barry Boyce: And it was done by my friend Maira Kalman who was the longtime backpage artist for Mindful, and her boyfriend Rick Meyerowitz. And here was a puzzle of New Yorkistan, a thousand piece puzzle. And I just thought I have to buy this. So now I will be putting together New Yorkistan. Which is a completely hilarious representation, in fact of the mental map of New York. That comes back full circle to to something Maira is very good at as an artist is jumbling up your perception of the world, and in a very delightful way. And I’ve really appreciated that about artists I know. I have the good fortune to know a lot, and they’ve really taught me a lot about perception. I mean even working with art directors and understanding that how primitive my map of colors was.
Stephanie Domet: Right.
Barry Boyce: Maybe that’s why I had so much trouble with the puzzle. Maybe my color perception needs training. Maybe I was seeing like five different colors when I needed to be seen 40 or 50. So anyway, we digress.
Stephanie Domet: I was gonna say, that feels like a column for next month. Well, Barry thanks for this.
Barry Boyce: This has been fun, and I hope enjoyable. Goodbye to the squeaky chair. We’ll reconnect with the squeaky chair next time for sure.