“An Unsolved Mystery Is a Thorn in the Heart”

“An unsolved mystery is a thorn in the heart.”

The author Joyce Carol Oates used this sentence as a prompt for students in her creative class at Princeton University.  I used this exercise in my mindful writing workshops again and again. Often, at New York Insight Meditation Society or the Rubin Museum of Art, I would invite people to start by coming to their senses, writing down just what they could see, hear, smell, taste, and sense of the world around us on the page, letting their direct observations speak for themselves.  I invite you to try this now. Setting aside 10 minutes (understanding that this can be 5 minutes or 15 or 20), just list without editing what is present inside and out: snow gently falling, the warmth of the coffee mug in my hands, the heaviness of fatigue.

Take a break. Stand up and stretch or have a cup of tea or go for a walk. Allow yourself to be present without trying hard to pay attention. Later, give yourself 20 minutes or so (it can be less or more) to try this as a prompt for reflection: allow yourself to be present to an unsolved mystery in your own life. Just note the mystery–or mysteries–in the same simple and direct way you note sense perceptions. Start small, if you think you have no mysteries in your life: why did two socks go into the drier and only one came out–where did that sock go? More and deeper mysteries will follow.

Using this prompt in groups large and small, and listening to people to share, I have learned that we all hold unsolved mysteries. A person may start out with a seemingly mundane (if upsetting) question: “I wonder who dented my car and drove away?” Yet inevitably, if we keep questioning with an open attention, we begin wondering about the mystery of being alive.  “Why do people do such things?” Such a reflection can deepen into wonderment at how interconnected we are, or how one thing leads to another.

Ultimately, we ourselves are the mystery. Our lives are so much deeper and broader and wilder  than we think they are most of the time. Was that a ghost? Had it been a strange and particularly vivid kind of dream? Was it a ghost or something far more benevolent and light-filled, perhaps a guardian or a guide.

Giving yourself some time to wonder, even about long-ago losses, can make life surprisingly wonderful.  We see that the seeming “facts” of our lives can give way like the rungs of an old ladder under the weight of an open question. Why did that relationship end? Notice that gentle wondering, mindful investigation, terrifying or confining, like being grilled at a police station. Gently, like a river flowing towards the sea, it opens to the biggest and juiciest question of all: Who am I? Notice how this great question enlivens and awakens you to the mystery of life that is pouring in through every sense door.

As the Zen saying goes:  Great questioning, great awakening; little questioning, little awakening; no questioning, no awakening.

2 thoughts on ““An Unsolved Mystery Is a Thorn in the Heart”

  1. When I was a child, there was a door that never opened. No matter how hard the handle was turned, it could not be moved.

    Being a rather small and prone to imaginative conclusions kind of child, I naturally assumed something ghastly or fantastic resided on the other side of the door.

    That door was one of the many wondrous things that lingered in my paternal grandfather’s house in a rather bad neighborhood in the Bronx. It had been an old mansion a long time ago but had become affordable when the crime rates rose.

    Of course, had I looked more closely I would have realized that it wasn’t a door at all, that it was a remnant of a door from an old room that had been forsaken to make the neighboring bedroom larger.

    But I had no desire to really solve this mystery for I needed a mystery and the more unsolvable the better.

    So, yes, yes, an unsolved mystery can be a thorn in the heart but it can also be a rose in the heart. It can give life to a garden of its own.

    It can give a small child the kind of shivers that are good but not too frightening, that can stimulate the imagination without harming the spirit.

    It can be a touch of adrenaline, the spark that ignites the mind, an awakening to the wonders of creativity.

    Yes, yes, I miss that door or more appropriately, I miss that feeling that existed before automatically looking for the logical conclusion.

    Yes, yes, I have become like some Galileo searching for provable truths. But sometimes I yearn to be like the shaman who gives herself to the wonder of the unknown, who journeys into the portal and explodes into a different kind of consciousness.

  2. Thanks for this, Liz. What you write about the need for mystery reminds me of a description of koans I read recently. When you ask a koan like (the tradition Korean Zen question) “What is this?” You are not seeking an intellectual answer. “You are turning the light of inquiry back onto yourself and your whole experience in this moment,” writes Martine Batchelor, a former Korean nun, in a recent issue of Tricycle.

    Batchelor goes on to give instructions for using this koan in meditation, as an antedote to distracted thoughts. It struck me as I read her article–and as I read your post–that most of us (even, maybe especially kids) know how enlivening it feels to question for questioning’s own sake–it creates a sense of openness, of wonderment. An old house in the Bronx becomes a place with mysterious depths, unknown rooms…and you, too.

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