Life is not a problem to be solved

This is the first of two posts that comprise “Life is not a problem to be solved.”

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.”

-Joseph Campbell

Here’s one powerful intention that has changed my life: reminding myself to experience life not as a problem to be solved, but as a mystery to be lived. I first encountered this quote when I moved to Thailand seven years ago.

At this time I was starting to read a lot of Buddhism as well as Eastern philosophers such as Jiddu Krishnamurti. Living in Thailand was also giving me insight into these fundamentally different ways of viewing the world, as well as some much needed perspective on my own (American) culture and how it had conditioned me.

In Thailand I started to open up to what life was like when I approached it not as a problem to be solved, but as a mystery to be lived. I want to be careful not to romanticize or exotify Thai people or Thai ways of thinking. They share the same common sources of stress from daily commutes to paying a mortgage to raising kids–particularly in big urban areas like Bangkok in which people are living a modern lifestyle.

However, Buddhism is a part of the curriculum in all Thai schools. From a young age Thai children practice meditation and learn Buddhist psychology teachings about destructive emotions and how to skillfully work with them.

As an expat and as a teacher living in Thailand I’ve been struck by how the cumulative impact of these teachings and practices have shaped Thai people and Thai culture in very positive ways. For one, Thai people are remarkably patient. I’ve never seen such terrible traffic in my life and I’ve also never seen people sit in such horrific gridlock with so little complaint. I notice this patience in a variety of settings.

Moreover, people in Thailand are notably kind. Kindness is clearly a priority for Thai people much in the way that “success” or “productivity” is a highly prized quality among Americans. Finally, people in Thailand tend to place a premium on the past (tradition) as well as living in the present, whereas for Americans, and for much of Western culture, we’re focused on the future (how do we make tomorrow better than today).

Each way of thinking contains its inherent virtues as well as its inherent pitfalls, especially when taken to extremes, as Americans are inclined to do.

I am grateful to Thailand and to the people there for helping me to learn to live life more fully in the present. When we’re truly living in the present we’ve let go of the ego’s need for security–the need to know, to control, to reshape one’s surroundings to conform to one’s own desires and neuroses–and we’re more open to experiencing each moment anew.

Below I’ll highlight a series of mindsets that are integral to living life as a mystery to be experienced, and not simply as a problem to be solved.

Awe and Wonder

Living life as a mystery to be experienced has a quality to it of awe and wonder. When we look up at the stars, view a beautiful sunset, or listen to a piece of enthralling music we can effortlessly tap into this sense of awe. But in our day to day lives it’s easy to lose our connection with this essential component of human happiness.

Positive psychology is increasingly recognizing the importance of awe and wonder for our mental health and well being. One study from Patty Van Cappellen from UNC-Chapel Hill found that more frequently connecting with feelings of awe and wonder can build a range of positive emotions. The power of awe has also been shown to help us cultivate loving kindness for others and ourselves. As we get older and accumulate more knowledge we have to make more of an effort to reconnect to our innate capacity for wonder. Just as we can employ gratitude exercises as a life hack to boost our happiness levels so too can we consciously choose to dial into our need for awe and wonder.

Spiritual adepts from diverse traditions seem to have a sense of playfulness and lightheartedness to them. Zen master Suzuki Roshi coined the term “beginner’s mind” to remind students of their need to open up to new possibilities.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

-Suzuki Roshi

There is a quality of openness that is a necessary foundation for opening up to awe and wonder. It’s about letting go of what we know, or more precisely: what we think we know. When we learn to still the mind we become more deeply connected to the world that’s unfolding all around us. We start to live life less through concepts, and instead meet each moment anew from a space of deep, abiding presence.

Gratitude

Awe is also intimately related to gratitude. It’s easy through time and repetition that we start taking things for granted. Our problem solving mentality, which is constantly scanning our experience for what’s missing, isn’t naturally a space in which gratitude flourishes.

When we remind ourselves of basic truths–that life is always changing and uncertain, that we won’t be here forever to experience these moments, that many others are less fortunate and don’t get to experience them at all–we set aside past memories, future worries and fanciful musings and come to feel more fully satisfied within our present circumstances.

Meeting a moment fully in the present, releasing into each experience as if it were your first time and as if it might be your last, feeling overwhelmed by the vastness and beauty and magic of this universe–this is how we live life as a mystery that’s unfolding before our very eyes.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” –Marcel Proust

Next week I’ll publish the second half of this post, “Life is not a problem to be solved.”