Nine years ago this month I was riding across Rajasthan, watching the sunset streak purple over dry, dusty hills and recovering from dysentery. I throw that last bit in so you won’t feel jealous — unless you’re into housing a swarming hive of rusty nails in your abdomen — but also because nothing “helps” us surrender quite like being really, scary sick.
Lying there in the back seat, head rolling like a loose boom between headrest and window, I listened to the other riders in a half-dream state.
We need to figure out where…
What is this, figure out? asked our host. You keep saying figure out, figure out. What does it mean?
Until that moment, I’d always pictured figuring out as a kind of puzzle-solving. As in, let me look at all these pieces and assemble them so they match the picture on the box. The answer must be here somewhere, if I fiddle with them long enough. The mind loves to figure out. But does it? Or does figuring happen somewhere else?
Do you know the word figure? I chimed in.
Yes, of course.
Well, if we think of a figure as a form, like a drawing or a sculpture, then to figure something out is to help something find its shape. To let it come into being.
Now, the dictionary and/or you might disagree with this definition, but in that moment my host and I understood something that’d previously evaded us both. I’d been approaching my figuring all wrong. I was puzzling with my mind instead of witnessing space and encouraging the emergence of form. I was asking the wrong questions instead of finding the appropriate perspective. I was assuming that all the pieces were presently available and overlooking negative space, potentiality, and other forces at play.
So much (all?) of what I love in this world requires figuring out. Writing, music, yoga, relationships… living. It’s easy for me to forget everything’s evolving. In the oft-used metaphor, the acorn, as far as we know, doesn’t stress about becoming the oak.
The past couple years have been a humbling masterclass in figuring out things we never imagined we’d have to. But life reminds us we’re not here just to figure out; we’re being figured, too. We may be complete, but our journeys aren’t. There remains much to figure, and that’s the blessing or the curse, depending on how we choose to see it.
When I just wrote curse I accidentally typed cures. In light of my experience in India, as well as recent illness (two months of intense bronchitis and broken ribs due to mold exposure)I think what we consider a curse in one moment can also bring healing to an unexpected aspect of our beings.
I’m sharing because I find this idea of figuring out helpful in the first weeks of a new year. There can be so much pressure to tie up, lock down, and plan. But we can’t figure it all out, and we don't need to. All that’s required is that we continue to show up — to the suffering as well as the ease. To be present with ourselves and each other. To engage in this moment, and have faith we’re capable of meeting life as it is.
Wishing you a peaceful 2022,