In search of maps for the territory ahead


“For Plato, the allegory of the cave implied a journey beyond the realm of the body and the senses to the realm of immaterial ideas. But its meaning has been hijacked. For materialists, objective reality is not the realm of ideas but mathematicized matter. In the modern version of this allegory, scientists alone can step out of the cave, observe reality as it is, and come back into the cave imparting some of this knowledge to the rest of humanity, confused by rival subjectivities. Only scientists can see reality and truth. The philosopher, and later the scientist, have to free themselves from the tyranny of the social dimension—public life, politics, subjective feelings, popular agitation, in short, from the dark cave—if they want to accede to truth. Back within the cave, the rest of humanity is locked into the realm of multiculturalism, conflict, and politics.” ~ Rupert Sheldrake, Science Set Free

Years ago, I had a fascinating conversation with my nuclear physicist uncle, who spent his career on fusion (the way the sun works), rather than fission (which is how commercial nuclear power is produced). I asked him how he could consider nuclear power to be “clean” energy, when it produces radioactive waste that we hardly know what to do with—other than bury it in sacred mountains and saddle future generations with the problem. He stated that President Carter had ruined the purity of the science by agreeing via treaty never to reprocess spent fuel. The way it was designed originally, spent fuel could be recycled virtually ad infinitum and fed back into reactors, thereby creating a closed loop. (This is my own layman’s interpretation.) He was well and truly offended that politicians would meddle in things they don’t understand.

I remember thinking (but didn’t say)—well, duh! This is reality. People can make nuclear weapons from spent fuel (including us, by the way). All your perfect theories and calculations can’t change that. I was struck by how this genius could have such a partial view of reality. It may be messy, but politics and nuclear weapons and treaties are a part of the mix, and all the perfect theories in the world won’t change that. Reading Sheldrake’s 2014 book, Science Set Free, reminds me that our culture is in the thrall of this bias. We think the best way to negotiate the complex problems of modern life is through the objective disciplines of science. That’s been the promise since the Enlightenment: science will perfect us, and by extension, our world. Well, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Certainly, science has given us a tremendous body of knowledge about the ways of nature, our bodies and minds, disease, other animals and plants, as well as our solar system and distant galaxies. But science alone cannot show us the way. Even some climate scientists observe that climate change is not a purely scientific problem. It is, for one thing, a moral issue, and must be addressed on that level as well.

Objectivity is but one of our gifts as humans. We also have exquisitely tuned emotions, which enliven our intuition and imagination. It seems logical that any problem we tackle is best approached with our full spectrum of engagement. Our problems seem intractable to us and will remain so, as long as we hamper our responses by tethering them only to objectivity. In his book, Sheldrake shows that the scientific disciplines are just as subject to human foibles as any other, and that modern science is hampered by a dogmatic ideology with an artificially narrow view of reality.

On this threshold between cultural stories, one image that I hear invoked frequently is of journeying through a territory for which there is no map. Certainly, the maps we’ve been using—objectivity, domination of the natural world, human superiority—aren’t working as well as they used to. In addition to being partial and/or entirely inaccurate, they seem to create three new problems for every one they solve.

This is not to say that no maps exist. Incredibly detailed, sophisticated maps have come down to us from much older civilizations than ours. And this could be just the time to take a serious look at them.

Ancient Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Shamanic worldview, and the Chakras are a few systems that could be consulted as maps. Modern frameworks, such as Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; Beck, Graves and Cowen’s Spiral Dynamics; and the granddaddy of them all—Ken Wilbur’s Integral Theory, combine ancient and modern psychological insights. The latter are nuanced and sophisticated, but tend to be less poetic and more intellectual.

What I appreciate about a system like the Chakras is that the more I learn about it and meditate on it, the more deeply I feel it calling me to connection with the living, breathing earth, indeed the cosmos. It is a map showing where specific areas of my body are tuned to vibrate with aspects of the physical world, in a rainbow of interdependence and communion. The Chakras help me to test how and where my body and senses resonate with the animate world around me. A fundamental aspect of living into new stories is experiencing that connection and belonging.

I am drawn to the ancient maps for several reasons, some of which echo in the modern ones as well. First, they have been useful to generations of humans. Anything that’s been around that long is worth exploring. Second, they are methodical and rigorous, presumably having been honed through repeated use over hundreds, even thousands, of years. Third, each one is comprehensive, a complete system that accounts fully for reality, starting with our very bodies and including paradox and contradiction. Fourth, they are poetic, leaving space for interpretation and intuition, rather than relying only on one-size-fits-all rationality. And lastly (for now), there is no one way to use them. While the system is orderly and complete and has a timeless, unchanging quality, it is also endlessly adaptable and relevant.

Contrary to what the Story of Progress would have us believe, these ancient systems have not been superseded or made irrelevant by our modern, materialistic maps. The passage above from Sheldrake’s book mentions the choice to leave the realm of the body and senses in favor of the realm of immaterial ideas. It’s an uncannily accurate description of the world we live in today. We have been separated from emotion and intuition by a narrow insistence on objectivity. It’s high time we return to the body. It’s the only reliable map we have for the territory ahead.

In upcoming posts, I will explore this further. Meantime, please share your experiences with “other” maps that could help us live into new stories.


10 thoughts on “In search of maps for the territory ahead

  1. I think that a “map” is a western construct born of science. Religion and philosophy have been used for millennia to guide human worldviews and inform our relationship with each other and the larger universe. The ones that ring true to me are the ones that relate to how the world works. Often these are informed by generations of object observation and passed down in writing or most often in oral stories. If viewed in this way the Judaeo/Christian/Islamicworldview, without all the literalism applied to the written texts, can speak to this way of thinking. Certainly Buddhism, Daoism and the worldview of many indigenous cultures follow this path. Personally I am infinitely fascinated by the interactions and similarities between this ancient thought and modern physics. Overlapping and intersecting worldviews are needed in my opinion to truly change the story.

  2. Well said. I’m definitely with you on the “what works though practical application” front. Karen Armstrong manages to boil it down to the Golden Rule, which does thread through most every wisdom tradition. “All the rest is commentary,” as Rabbi Hillel said. I also appreciate your calling into question the whole notion of a map. Being a framework junkie, I can lose track of a limitation of mapping, which is that, to pin things down and know them, objectively, you have to filter out the magic, mystery and madness.

  3. Yes, the deal with maps to pin things down to know them is that “mappers” can and have flat out lied using maps for political agenda. How long were we given world maps depicting Greenland as nearly the same size as the African continent? The only thing those maps pinned down is that racist structures must be kept in our collective consciousness forever. We struggle to correct this madness. Simply one example. Now the maps you mention, Julie, chakras, ancient Chinese medicine, etc., these are another story. My experience with Kundalini? Nothing I’ve read about what the experience should/could be seems to be shared by anyone else. Perhaps those are our new mapping. Each of our bodies separately mapping the world at large. I admit, I don’t know. But certainly your question(s) and comments are as thought provoking as usual. Thank you.

    • It definitely feels very personal. Perhaps it’s personal on behalf of the greater whole. Why else are each of us so unique?

  4. Challenging and interesting, Julie. Yes, I’m all for head and heart (power/love) – dealing with the complexities and seeming contradictions versus staying in the boxed in comfort zone of one’s ‘field.’ Brings to mind Fitzgerald’s definition of intelligence: the ability to hold two opposing truths simultaneously. We’re going to have to get to this place as a human race.

  5. As I journey in the alternate reality I create a “map” so as to know where to go to find the spirits with whom I need to connect to get the teachings or healings I need at the time.

    • I am not surprised to hear that. I’m thinking of the painting you did not long ago. When we were in Australia, we saw some Aboriginal art, a lot of which is a form of mapping sacred trails and “song lines” of the earth. A fascinating thing we noticed when flying over the Red Center is that the patterns, textures and colors look from the air exactly like those paintings.

  6. Pingback: What happens when we return to trusting our senses? | Thriving on the Threshold

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