“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.