Monday, April 10, 2017

When Our Maps Fail

Last week my life was interesting in a less-than-fun way. I became ill. Now most of you know I have a chronic illness (CFS/ME/FM) so dips in functional health happen. But this was different in that it did not conform to pattern- I had not done any of the things that sometimes trigger a relapse, and none of my trusted strategies made it better. In fact, some seemed to make it worse.

And this got me thinking about maps- theories, beliefs and stories- the things we use, often only semi-consciously, to navigate what is happening now. Maps are useful. They save time and help us make sense of our own experience so we can get where we want to go.

Until they don't. Then, we just feel lost, bewildered and a little stunned. That’s where I was last week.

Years ago I took a physics course. At one point the prof was talking about sub-atomic particles, and how they left a trail in a cloud chamber set up for experiments.

I said, “Wait a minute- are you telling me that all this is just theory, that we can’t know what is leaving that trail in the cloud chamber, that. . . . for all we know it’s little green men?”

The class laughed, and the prof said, “She’s right. It could be little green men. . . . there’s no way to know right now.

Ideally we use a theory, or a map, or a story so long as it’s useful. The problem arises when we forget that our beliefs and stories about life are “just” maps that may help us navigate, and not the territory itself. Holding and being unconsciously attached to our maps means we may ignore or not even see aspects of life that do not fit with our inner maps about life and health and money and virtue, about punishment and reward, politics and physics, about the sacred and the mundane. . . . .You name it- if we’ve lived long enough, we have a map we are using to navigate just about everything.

Last week’s health challenges were not consistent with the map I usually use to navigate illness. All the data/stories/theories my map contained about my neurological and immune systems (based on a plethora of previous experience and lots of research) were not helping me get out of bed. And that’s when something interesting happened: I started to see glimmers of earlier and largely unconscious maps: sneaky beliefs about ill health as punishment; the need and ability to “earn” health; the exclusive attribution of physical symptoms to psychological or spiritual dis-ease.

And I started to bring a deeper level of curiosity to the stories or beliefs- the maps- I and others are using, particularly when we disagree about what is happening in the world and have very different strategies about how to move forward. I got curious about and tried to imagine what possible inner map/story/belief someone might be using that gives them a perspective and position I find baffling or dangerous. I started to wonder if we might be more able to communicate if we held our maps a little more lightly and were genuinely curious about the experiences that could shape an entirely different map for someone else.

Because wherever we are going, my map indicates that we go together. That’s a theory, a story, a belief that shapes the map I draw. For the moment, I’m okay with that, although I am also aware that it may not be the only way to perceive the journey or draw the map.

Old maps tend to stop at the edge of our known world, and may include warnings against going further, things like: Here be dragons! If we are afraid of the dragon of not-knowing it can feel dangerous to remember that maps are just maps. But if we can let compassion fuel our curiosity about ourselves and others, we might just discover new territory and fresh hope for the shared journey.

~Oriah "Mountain Dreamer" House (c) 2017

Love this image of the night sky from Karen Davis at Open Door Dreaming- reminds me of those who navigate by the stars.


  1. "To boldy go where no man (or I) have gone before."

    Daunting... challenging... but maybe the way to go now I feel my back's stuck to the wall.
    Thank you.