Life’s Mazes and How to Master Them

The analogy of a maze with life was popularized by Lewis Carroll. ‘Alice in wonderland’ had to be the creation of an eccentric and brilliant mathematician and logician. The choices that Alice makes are governed by her perception and her influencers — the great generator of conundrums and paradoxes. The film, Labyrinth, again uses the maze as a metaphor for life, painting a metaphorical collage from the work of some of the greatest logicians, mathematicians and artists. Almost as an ode to Carroll, this article puts a modern frame on the maze metaphor. In particular, we shall place popular contemporary lifestyle movements, belief systems and life philosophies in the context of this maze.

We are born into a world with many constraints. These constraints are physical laws, but many are laws and societal rules governing race, gender, class, nationality, religion, and even profession. So we start our journey through a maze in which the beautifully tapered hedge walls surround us and are firmly rooted. Despite this, we feel as if we are embarking on an exciting boundless adventure, full of brightly colored objects along the paths of the maze, birds tweeting from the hedgerows and parents are usually there to protect us from any wrong turns.

As we get older, we don’t get to ignore some of the wooden posts at junctions in the maze, which we had previously tried to chew or use as a weapon against a sibling. Our parents and teachers make us read the words on these signs and, for a while, the recital of these words keeps us moving forward in the maze.

Through adolescence, we learn that the ability to reason, and not just recite these signs may have implications on our path. We gradually become socialized into understanding which of these signs carry the most importance and gradually become aware that not everyone agrees on this selection, nor even the interpretation. This socialization guides us to develop a plan, however whimsical or canned, on how we are going to get to the center of the maze. This plan depends on what we expect to find at the center and that center may be defined by our parents with the rigid expectation that shall follow in their footsteps. We may think that there is nothing at the center, or that whatever it is isn’t worth sweating it for, if indeed it exists or will exist by the time we get there. Perhaps like me, you choose the polar opposite of what is expected of you and decide that you are going to have to test drive the maze in angst before you’re ready to have conviction towards a belief.

There are many canned versions of a maze blueprint for sale, corporate careers, religious systems of beliefs, or perhaps your parents might just hand you theirs? You may be fortunate enough to even get handed one or more blueprints and quickly claim your prize. As you examine the blueprint carefully, it becomes apparent that certain sections of the mazes and details have been left off, or sections of the maze that you are in don’t reconcile with the blueprint. Worse still, you may have conflicting blueprints and have to stitch together your life experiences and various incomplete blueprints — ‘faking it through’. To a backdrop of pioneering hubris, you are told that it’s ‘what you make it’ anyway and how to get to the center is yours to be crafted.

So you decide to walk past the signs, especially the ones that never made sense anyway, you were suspicious of right from the start or resemble those that took you down the wrong path before. Perhaps in the full glory of your saintly adulthood you consider many too lowly to bother stooping down to read? In many cases the signs are written in different languages and appear to be graffitied with indecipherable messages from others. The signs may be a visual assault on your sensibilities, like entering a disused London telephone box. In other cases, the signs seem well unaccented and start to summon your attention by the consistency of their repetition.

We find that it’s helpful to surround ourselves with those that appear to be able to read the signs better than we can, or appear to have a more complete blue print than we do. We look for tell tale signs that they have a nose for the center by their appearance, lifestyle and, perhaps even, champagne fueled chit-chat about how good the center is, as they presumably temporarily loiter just outside the center’s periphery. Others decide that the hedgerows, especially where the sections are tantalizing thin, will simply cut through, convince that it’s a dead set for the center. But as the hedge wall is cut, you notice that it angrily growls and quickly thickens -perhaps even changing configuration, and the cutters are escorted out of the maze.

As a result of this response to cutting, the act of the seasons and the tireless work of the gardeners repairing and building out new sections of the hedgerow, we may grow disorientated. These seasons can change as often as once every four years, in some countries even sooner. The maze is not fixed as we thought and we have to update our blueprint in response this disorientation and need for further clarification. You may stick to the sections of the maze which seem the most immutable or you may fancy your chances at gravitating around the sections of the maze that are changing the most, especially if none of your companions or parents have gotten far on the safer path.

Now considerably caught up in the maze, with years or even decades of blood and sweat invested in the maze, you begin to toll on the question of whether there is a center at all and your motivations for taking your path in life. Not entirely discontent with the outcome that the center may not be attainable, you may find temporary relief from helping others by serving instead as an informative and nurturing sign post. You may author sign posts, in fact you may even belief that altruism will open up the hedgerows for you. So you stop actively searching for that center and get caught up the signage and trying to straighten out a few kinks, especially if you attribute these to your own stagnation.

This dead-end section of the maze becomes your turf. But it isn’t the center that you had set out to achieve and no matter how much you convince yourself otherwise, signs show up that point to the center that you were originally looking for. But after a pause, it becomes stigmatized for you to still be finding the center and many around you are convinced that if you are still searching then there is something wrong with you. This isolation added to the already strong accrual of psychological weight of a tired nomad in a desert makes it difficult to accurately interpret or even see the signs.

But against all the mountain of reasons to stop searching, there is still a glimmer of hope, no matter how jaded. What if you were to hit reset and go back to day 1 with a spring in your step? What if, with the modest wealth you may have acquired along the way, you could buy the ultimate blueprint, even if it meant directing you to a different but perhaps equally alluring center? You sign up for private clubs and get proactive in your alumni networks. What if you could take a magic pill or have a one-to-one with a coach or licensed professional who can set your path straight?

One morning you wake up from this nightmare that has become your life and pull the plug on the snowflake jar — out you sink. The maze you thought isn’t the maze that really is. Your perceptions of the societal rules and your experiences have been deceiving you. You are not who you thought you were, the center can not be as you fantasized and you feel like you have, somehow, being thrust through the portal on floor 7.5 in Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Being John Malkowich’. The once intimating walls of the maze have receded and it all becomes clear. This is no maze, just some white picket fencing.

You see others angrily ordering their subordinates around the maze as if it were verbatim. You see the cutters but then you see circumstances that are leading them to cut in the first place. Everywhere you see confusion hidden through acting as if the center was only a monetary, power and vanity reward. You also start to figure out, rather amusingly, what each person thinks is the maze by their actions, conversations and sign posting. It’s like watching puppets having conversations with themselves in open air — or observing the garden outing of the schizophrenic ward. You see that you could profit greatly from this vantage point, telling others how to align with the more seasoned maze masters who arrogantly boost of being within a hedgerow of the center. Come one, as if it really existed? There are, of course, more rewarding sections of the maze where wealth can be amassed, but the universal center just isn’t there. Life is not the one giant maze you had it down for. It turns out there are multiple interconnected galaxies beyond the one you are living in. You are an enlightened one.

Hallelujah! Wind chimes are abound. Now it’s time to drink cups of herbal tea, hang out at yoga classes, taking retreats and listen to some of Tim Ferris’s podcasts for about 240/7 minutes each day, in between recordings of the Dalai Lama. You surround yourself with the enlightened ones and merrily sit back rubbing your belly and enjoying second breakfast after a round of golf accompanied by your spiritual guru. Choice, happiness, mindfulness, more herbal tea, more yoga, more pilates, more restorative yoga, more trips to whole foods and time spent in the herbal medicine section.

But after some time, you decide that this is rather a hollow existence and giving back seems like your best chance of feeling grounded in this bizarre parallel reality. But as you try to innocently explain this to the gym instructors at the check-in desk, the guy working a night shift in the gas station and your mechanic as you are getting your car fixed, you realize that no one is listening. Not even Tim Ferris or the Dalai Lama.

Your sign ‘this is not a maze’ does not make sense to anyone among the incoherent mess of graffiti and loose hedge trimmings called the internet, with its http 404 errors and crowd sourced content. Without a display of wealth which would clearly provide proof that you had made it to the ‘center’, how can you claim such a hypothesis? If you have been to the center, then why are you here telling me this, suspicious minds ask? Perhaps of them think that you don’t want them to find the center out of jealously and dampened hopes? You are labeled as a heretic, an outcast, a victim of the maze. Your rhetoric, if heard, is demotivating — orthogonal to the very essence of an economically productive life. And so you can not reveal that there is no maze, much like upsetting the little boy (and the parents) when you explain on Christmas Eve, and with your new iPhone already in hand, that there is no Santa Claus. But you can’t live with the abundance of misguided youth being exploited by those you benefit from a society that believes there is a monetary or happiness center.

So you find out who the most influential people are and play to their version of the maze, only secretly planting your tell-tale signs where they will most likely be recognized. You take a board seat on a nonprofit. Through this front, you decide to help by meeting people at their level, rather like a prize winning particle physicist teaching elementary children the 10,000ft version of particle physics. You write self-help books, give TedX talks and guest lecture at prestigious universities. But after all of those charity gala dinners, you wake up with a reality check — your dog has contracted a whooping cough and conveniently forgets toilet training and bedroom etiquette. Or you ran out of money, or your partner left you.

So you re-enter the sections of that ‘maze’ where you remember there being low hanging fruit, you stop whistling and start drinking coffee. Before long, even though the coffee gives you the perception of clarity, you lose clarity and the walls start to thicken and grow more entraining. Who are you kidding? How could I have been so delusional to have doubted the very essence of what I was raised knowing. This seemingly higher cognition that you possessed, eroded as you focused on making ends meet.

But, this jarring experience of going in full circle, reminded you of being in the maze and you once again step back in a muddled daze.

This time you see that there are many real mazes (each with their own real center) and you could, to some degree, choose to be in one or more at the same time, depending on your goals. One goal could be to become enlightened and fully self-aware, in which case your success depends on not entering any maze, or being able to always get out at a heart beat, and remain ‘centered’. You could decide to do nothing with your life. Then you are immediately at the center of that maze — which many tormented workaholics, and bored to their wit’s end retirees, desperately seek and fail.

So the wisdom comes through distinguishing between the real mazes and the imaginary ones, being aware of the multiple real mazes and having the confidence to step into those as and when needed. A center is always there if you need a center ‘fix’, but some center fixes create problems which lead you to be more permanently unable to separate real and imaginary mazes.

You will often never fully know the difference between the real and the imaginary walls, nor the extent of your limited awareness of other mazes. The true art to mastering any of these real mazes is being able to separate the picket fence from the hedgerow, knowing which signs have been written by those who can and those you can’t separate fact from fiction, and not being afraid to step out of one maze and possibly enter into another. With this reasoning, maze experience is fully transferable, especially when the centers are imaginary.