For more than 20 years, I have pursued with passion a relentless desire to live in the present as a sure path to inner peace. This week, I discovered the most reliable way yet in which to help myself and others experience what it feels like to be fully in the present. Surprisingly, it came to me by doing a jigsaw puzzle.

In this post, I connect the dots for you on how a jigsaw puzzle can help you piece together the puzzle that is your topsy-turvy life. The rewards are priceless – peace, confidence, purpose, sound mental and physical health – to name just a few. You can give yourself this experience – right now….and these key life principles. I would write them down if I were you!

Importantly, the puzzle has to be difficult for you – whatever level that might be. In my case, I chose a 1000 piece puzzle of a famous renaissance painting called The School of  Athens by Italian master painter Raphael. In it, Raphael depicts many famous figures of ancient Greece like Socrates and Aristotle. He did it using some of the faces of his contemporaries including Leonardo Di Vinci, Michaelangelo and himself.  Having seen this painting last summer in Rome, I am inspired and in awe of Raphael’s vision and extraordinary talent. This is principle #1. You have to be inspired to accomplish something meaningful to you.

I set myself up to do the work. I needed a proper table, chair and lighting so I could leave my work undisturbed.  You have to prepare yourself for success.  Halfway through the project, I realized my set up was ineffective. I scrapped all three and found more suitable alternatives. This is principle #2. You have to be willing to dump what you have now in order to build something better.

Next, I laid out a blue felt cloth that I purchased to be able to move the puzzle while in-progress or upon completion. This is principle #3 – a vital one that trips up many people. You must do what’s important now in anticipation of future needs. In my coaching practice, I call this Time Frame. It is what separates senior leaders from juniors.

To begin the work, I separated the edge pieces and began constructing the outside border. This is principle #4. Begin with a bite-size chunk where you can be confident of early success. If you fail to do this well, you will give up quickly in frustration. Most people crash and burn at the very beginning of seeking to be more present. They discover that it is far more difficult than they thought – kind of like deciding to go on a diet and then caving in to the chocolate bar begging to be eaten. So it is with being present. Distractions constantly draw your mind away to thoughts that are unrelated to what you are doing right now.

With the edge complete, I began the harder work of filling in the interior.  I aimed directly at the distinctly coloured figures which I anticipated would be easier to assemble.  I separated the entire 900 remaining pieces into like piles of colours vs monochromatic.  This is principle #5. Life happens in buckets – work, social life, love life, family and personal passions. You need to organize these buckets in order to master them. If any one of them dominates your life, others will suffer. This will inevitably harm the other buckets. The risk is a wrecked marriage, failed career or a health breakdown.

As I filled in the pieces, the challenge of the task came ever more clearly into my focus. Firstly, I noticed that each piece was similar in cut. Therefore, I could not rely on shape to help me. Secondly, I had two constant choices – take a piece and find where it fits OR take a space and find its proper piece.  This brought forth principle #6: Life comes at you in pieces, one day at a time, one moment at a time. You have to decide whether to let the piece fit into your life OR whether to find the piece that fits into the life that you want to have. Each time you choose, you will alter the course of your entire life.

Along the way, I became intensely aware of my inner state. The initial excitement wore off. At times, I needed as much as four minutes to find one precious piece. At that rate, it would take me 66 hours to completed the puzzle. While I did not do the math at the time (I just did it now), I felt an awareness in myself at the possible futility of this whole activity. I might spend weeks working on this only to fail. This reminded me of another core principle for living in the present – the 7th one – which is that you have to be neutral about outcomes. If you are overly-attached to your goal, your mind will flit into the future – wondering, questioning, doubting. These are present moment killer thoughts. Your only thought can be on now – finding the next piece and its rightful place in the puzzle. To be present requires the paradoxical ability to want a future goal AND be indifferent about whether you achieve it.

With this renewed clarity, I noticed myself taking particularly difficult pieces and giving up on them. I set them aside for another time in modest frustration. As I did, these were my thoughts: “I can’t believe I cannot find this piece! It has a hand on it. There are only so many hands in this painting. I have examined every hand on every figure painted by Signor Raphael.  How stupid can I be?” At that moment, I recognized an old nemesis whom I call my “inner critic.”

While I parted ways with this cruel slave driver many years ago, for forty years he was the greatest obstacle to my ability to be present. His or her judgmental voice undermines our ability to discern ‘what’s important now’: Do I bail on this piece or do I persevere? Instead, inner critic redirects our mind towards a much deeper question. Is our failure a sign of our unworthiness? Our unlovableness? This is every human being’s deepest fear. In our moments of failure, fear sets in and our mind, heart and soul lose touch with the present moment – which is merely this: what should I do next? Principle #8 is this: Don’t take failures personally – ever. We should only seek to learn lessons from failures, not draw existential conclusions about ourselves.

Setting aside my inner criticisms (with relative ease now, after 20 years), I refocused on the present. I began to notice a pattern that helped explain my success versus failure. I noticed that my instinct was to keep expanding a section of the puzzle by finding pieces that fit the next unfilled, connected space. This kept failing. Changing course, I chose to pick up a single piece and find the space it belonged to. This is principle #9 – take what life gives you and figure out how it fits into your life.  Do this rather than try to force life to give you what you want. This, of course, contradicts the mainstream thinking in our modern culture. We are taught that we can achieve anything we want if we simply set our mind to it. Interestingly, sometimes this meant finding the approximate place for a single, floating piece and letting it dangle there. With time, it grew and eventually connected with the big picture. Can you let some things just dangle, trusting in God’s timing that the reason it is in your life will reveal itself to you?

As principle #9 settled into my modus operandi, a new deeper principle emerged. Having recognized that my setup needed improvement, I bought a movable light with a built-in magnifying glass. With this tool, I picked up the box cover with the finished painting, lifted up the piece in my hand and scoured the painting with it to find its exact location. This worked like a charm! At that moment, memories of my twenty year journey flooded my mind.

In each memory was the awareness that I drilled microscopically into the moments of my life in order to see them clearly and make sense of them.  It was deep, intense, time-consuming work. I journaled over 3000 handwritten pages. I spent 3 years in therapy, privately and in a men’s group. I read at least 50 books. I paid relentless attention to what was happening inside me as life was happening around me.  Principle #10 is that you must examine key moments in your life with a magnifying glass if you want to understand what’s really going on within. Otherwise, you will be blind, taking the pieces life gives you, randomly keeping some, tossing some and building a tangled mess of a puzzle that is your life.

At one point, I ate my lunch while working on my puzzle. I was unable. Indeed, I was unable to multi-task at anything. Puzzling a piece into its place required my undivided attention. Principle #11 for being present is that you must focus entirely on what you are doing now, without distraction. For most people today, this is nearly impossible thanks to the internet, social media and our smart phones. We simply cannot focus for extended periods of time. The consequence is plain and blunt – unhappiness.

Allowing yourself to be distracted by shiny objects reveals a truth that your mind thinks there is something better out there than what you are doing right now. Hence, you constantly leap to the future.  Yet peace and joy only exist in the present – the only time that is real. All thoughts about the past and future are constructs that exist only in your mind.

As I settled into the present moment, I had the radio playing in the background. Despite my intense focus on the puzzle, I was keenly aware of every song, every commercial and every move my wife was making. Your senses come to life when you are fully present. Yet, none of these were distractions to my eye or my concentration.

I suddenly spotted a drop of liquid on one piece. Yikes! In eating my lunch while puzzling, a tiny spill occurred. I carefully wiped it off. The colour came off with it! Rats! I made a mistake that could not be undone. Now my puzzle will never be perfect. I groaned, mourning the loss momentarily. That one piece would always have a flaw – a small round dot of white in the midst of dark colour. Principle #12 came to mind – that I am imperfect and must grieve that reality each day. I accept this because of faith – that Jesus loves me as I am, flawed and all. Though I accepted my flawed nature a long time ago, each error I make humbly reminds me of my imperfection and God’s bottomless grace and love for me anyway. Each loss moves me closer to fully surrendering myself to the present moment – and my inability to control it, try as I might. The puzzle dramatizes this one more time with my awareness that I might complete the whole puzzle only to find that I am missing one piece. After all, I am the second user of the puzzle.

When I completed the vividly coloured part of the Raphael’s great figures of history, my awareness shifted to the future. Ahead of my lay the most difficult part of the puzzle, entirely painted in shades of white. My mind once again entertained thoughts of doubt. “How on earth will I ever piece together so many pieces that look alike?” Once again, I began a section that had some colour – the blue sky in the upper windows. These were easy. As I did them, I saw that the white pieces had distinct fine lines that I could pick up with my magnifying glass. I realized that I had all the tools I needed to succeed right to the end. Principle #13 is to trust yourself.  You have what it takes to meet whatever challenge any one piece or any section might throw at you. Furthermore, if you fail, you will have succeeded by the lessons you learned along the way. You have done your best with the mind, body, heart and soul that God has given you. That is the most any of us can do.

The key to achieving the indescribably centered confidence and inner peace that comes with being present is to know that you did your best. For most people who cross my path, this is their stumbling block – the awareness that they could have done more. Sometimes it is true. More often, life gave them pieces they did not know how to handle. Discouragement and depression resulted. They took outcomes personally. They took their eye off the ball – the present moment – and lost sight of focusing on what’s truly important – to discern what to do next.

This is where faith and spirit come into play. We cannot rely solely on mind and heart to lead us. We also need to rely on soul. This final and faith-building principle revealed itself to me while puzzling. I intensely scrutinized a piece for 3 to 4 minutes, failing to find its space. As I set it down, another piece that had earlier troubled me instantly leaped from my eye to my hand to its proper space. Something bigger than my mind led me to see clearly what to do, without thought or worry. These are the miracles of the present moment that happen to me nearly every day. Principle #14 is to trust the Spirit within you to say and do what you need to do right in the very moment you most need it. When this is true for you, you will truly know how to live in the present. We can never be fully present until we believe at the deepest core of our being that something bigger than us is in control of our destiny. Otherwise, we will inevitably seek to control our future and dwell on our past victories and sorrows.

Building jigsaw puzzles is new to me. However, I can see that this pastime has all the ingredients for helping anyone experience the healing power and surrendered grace that comes with surrendering the moment to God.  Jigsaw puzzling will inspire you to keep going until you have achieved a satisfying level of mastery of your inner life. For me, the overall journey in the puzzle of my life took fourteen years. Yet each day was filled with victories that sustained me. After all, none of us can know when the puzzle will be complete, nor does it matter. This is principle #15 – you have to not care whether you finish the puzzle.