Published in Guest Post

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Published in Guest Post

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Finding The Elegant Solution

The other day, my brother was telling me about his project to fix the engine on his Boston Whaler boat. He said he started with the most likely thing to fix and replaced that and when it didn’t work, the next week he worked on the next likely thing.  This went on for a year. Each week he’d work on ...

The other day, my brother was telling me about his project to fix the engine on his Boston Whaler boat. He said he started with the most likely thing to fix and replaced that and when it didn’t work, the next week he worked on the next likely thing. 

This went on for a year. Each week he’d work on the boat and repair or replace one thing until, at the end, he’d run out of ideas to fix. So, he went back to the very first thing he tried, the one that was most likely, and changed it out again. And – it worked! Finally, after a year, it sputtered to life and stayed running. His conclusion was that it must have been a combination of factors that caused the problem and made it difficult to tease out.

It reminded me of tinkering with our lives. When something doesn’t feel right, whether it's physically, spiritually or mentally, it’s hard to find the source or maybe even identify what system has a problem. And then we engage in a year long (or more) battle to fix one thing at a time.

Research professor Dr. Alison Gopnik, an expert on cognitive development, talks about the idea of the local optimum from artificial intelligence. As she describes, “It’s when you are trying to do something often you can be in a situation when any small change is going to make things worse, so you just end up being stuck. But if you made a big change, then you can actually make things better.

Exploring the idea further, she says that we, especially as adults, get very good at doing things one way whether be how we turn on our computer or drive to work, and we forget there are other ways. She suggests, “Just doing something that we’re not good at, doing something really different than the things we do every day, can be the sort of thing that will kick you out of that local optimum and give you a sense of other alternatives.” 

One of the things Dr. Gopnik suggests when we get stuck is to spend time with kids. Kids literally have different brains than we do. Their brains are wired to reward them for finding the things that can teach them the most.  Or, adult brains are wired to reward us for getting things done. As adults, we have a harder time getting a sense of novelty because of the habits and life we are locked into.

This is an idea that is of course in no way new. Meditation helps us to open that sense of awareness again. Even when the practice is to focus on just one thing like the breath, we find that open sense of well-being after we’ve completed the practice. As Buddha said, “Most problems, if you give them enough time and space, will eventually wear themselves out.”  

Psychiatrist and author Scott Peck echoed a similar sentiment in an interview. He said that he was able to get so much done in his life because he spent two hours every day doing nothing. When he called it his thinking time, people felt free to interrupt him, so he started calling it his praying time and found he was left alone. 

Which leads me to the conclusion that play, meditation and prayer in many ways help us to face life when things aren’t quite right. It is the practice of doing nothing in a mindful way that can open the doors to elegant solutions. They may be the same solution that changing one thing at a time like my brother did with the boat will eventually deliver. But maybe it’s possible to get to the same place without the aggravation or elapsed time. By doing something completely unrelated to the problem, or even nothing at all. Doesn’t that sound like smooth sailing?

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