Principle #4: The Map is Not the Territory

Principle #4: The Map is Not the Territory

If you took in all the stimulus input available to you, it would be overwhelming. There’s just too much of it, so you have to filter it. Similarly, if you took into account all the connections that make up who you are, it would be too much, since ultimately you are connected to everything.

So, to get yourself through life, you create an internal map of reality you can refer to as you navigate through life. Just as with a road map, this map is a scaled-down version of reality. But just as with a road map, it doesn’t show everything (how could it?), and in some ways it isn’t a very good representation of reality. There are no Safeway stores on Rand McNally maps. You can’t go camping on the little triangles that represent mountains. And you can’t get wet or go water skiing in the blue splotches that represent lakes.

The map is not the territory. It’s not meant to be. It’s just a representation of reality.

Now, if the territory changes, you are going to need a new map. If you’re driving along and the road ends because of a new shopping center but the map says the road goes through, it might be time to get a new map.

Or, if the old map was created based on crude technology that could not create a really accurate map, and new technology, such as aerial photography, becomes available, you might want to get a new map.

Otherwise, your ability to navigate correctly might be affected.

Similarly, we all create a map of reality as we are growing up. Without it, we would have to figure out what a door is and how to open it each time we came to one, or re-learn how to relate to people every time we met a new person. And beyond these simple examples, this map contains countless beliefs, values, generalizations, decisions, and many other internal mental aspects of how we see ourselves and our relationship to the rest of the universe.

This map is often referred to as the Ego. It is our internal representation of Reality, and it is very useful, in the same way a road map is useful.

The closer to Reality our map can be without being unwieldy, the better it functions. However, if we grow up with trauma or abuse, or if the picture of reality we received in our family situation only works in our family but isn’t that useful or accurate when we go out into the world on our own, we may have trouble. If sharing vulnerable feelings is not part of our map, for instance, we may have trouble being intimate with others and may feel lonely and isolated. If our map emphasizes resisting what we don’t like about the world, we may end up mired in constant struggle and suffering. If our map tells us we better watch out or other people will hurt us (not realizing that some will and others may not), we may miss out on many beautiful parts of life.

Your map of reality, in addition to being an aid to navigation, is also a blueprint your mind uses to create your life. If there are riches in your life, or poverty, or happiness, or adventure, or suffering – or anything – it comes from your mind creating your experience based on your map.

Your mind doesn’t say “Whoa. Wait a minute. This map is not very accurate and it’s creating a lot of suffering.” It just says “Okay. I see. Create this…and this…and this…and this.” It doesn’t care what the map is, or whether it’s a happy or unhappy map. It’s just a faithful creator, creating your life based on what the map says.

As people grow up and find various ways their map does not serve them, those who are more conscious seek to change or improve the map. The unconscious just blame the world for not being like their map without realizing that the map is just something made up as an aid to navigating through the real world.

Approaches to personal change that are effective, then, bring about changes in this map of reality. And here is where the trouble starts for those of us seeking personal growth.

In order for a new and better map to replace the one that isn’t serving you very well, there has to be an interim period where the old map goes into temporary chaos, breaks down, and then is replaced by a new one that more accurately reflects reality and more resourcefully allows you to be happy, creative, and spiritually connected to other people. If you choose to make the journey to happiness, inner peace, enlightenment, oneness with God, or whatever you want to call it, you will go through many maps, each one better and more accurate – and more useful in creating a happy life.

As this process happens, there is an ironic tendency to try to protect the old map (your concept of who you are and how you relate to the rest of the universe) when you go into this initial chaos stage of growth, where you begin to notice the old map isn’t working so well. This attempt to hold the old map together comes from the mistaken idea that this map is who you are – that “the map is the territory” – rather than a convenient tool used to navigate through life.

In other words, we create this map (or rather it is created for us by our parents, our teachers, the media, and society in general), and then we FORGET that it’s just a map and instead think it’s who we are.

This map is your CONCEPT of who you are and what your relationship is to the rest of the universe. It is the limitations of this map (its inability to adequately “map the territory” or otherwise deal with the situation one is in – whether psychological, emotional, relational, mental, or spiritual) that creates the “over-threshold” experience and the resulting dysfunctional feelings and behaviors (i.e., suffering) I’ve discussed in previous articles.

Therefore, letting the map go through the evolutionary process of going into chaos temporarily and reorganizing at a higher level results in relief from the problems and limitations of the old map, and gives you a new ability to deal with what was previously stressful or overwhelming.

In other words, getting a new map is the secret of growth – yet we fight it because we think we are the old map!

So the main impediment to positive change comes from the mistaken belief that this map is who we are rather than a handy representation of who we are. Believing this, it’s no wonder that, when the map begins to fall apart in preparation for the creation of a new and better one, we think “Oh my God! I’m falling apart!” Since we think we are what is falling apart, we do everything we can to hold the old map together, to resist the chaos/reorganization process. This is where all the dysfunctional feelings and behaviors and all the sufferings we put ourselves through come from. Fear, depression, anger, anxiety, substance abuse, psychosis, bi-polar disorder, multiple personalities, ADD, many physical diseases, traumatic stress disorder, and a whole lot more, are all ways we humans have come up with to try to fight off the death of the old map and the birth of the new.

But what if we said: “Great! My old map of reality, which isn’t working that well anyway, and has a number of deficiencies that cause me all kinds of suffering, is falling apart. That means I’ll soon have a new map that works much better and allows me to be happier and more peaceful inside.” In that case, we would just stand aside and let the process complete itself – and save ourselves a lot of trouble and suffering.

It is very helpful, then, to learn and recognize when this process is happening, to learn and recognize your favorite methods of trying to save the old map at these times, and to learn how to let what is happening be okay – instead of trying to save something that isn’t helpful to you anyway.

Some people call this having Faith, and I recommend it.

So know that you are not your Ego, your concept of yourself, your map of reality. It’s just a map, and if it goes into chaos it is part of the process of positive change and the prelude to a better and more functional map. The map is not the territory, and you are not your map, so when the old map falls apart, you will still be there, ready to receive a new map and to be much better off and much happier.

Have Faith. And don’t try to go camping on those little triangles.

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