On the Merits of Maps

If maps intend to represent landscapes of inconceivable complexity in a conceivable fashion, and if we intend to make them, it seems worth first considering the uses of such representation and the worth of those uses. We are tasked, merely by nature of being conscious, with reducing the incomprehensible to the comprehensible. Growth, or the maturation of consciousness, is fundamentally a process of adjusting our maps to increasingly coincide with the reality. This is largely a subconscious process- viewed in the light of developmental psychology, map/territory discrepancies could be seen as the source of cognitive dissonance that drives movement through stages: when the predictive abilities of magic prove themselves insufficient, we look to mythic; when mythic’s fail we look to rational, and so on (or not). Interestingly, our culture’s stage of development affects, in turn, the degree to which map/territory discrepancies generate cognitive dissonance- that is, if we live in mythic bumfuck Kansas, the predictive failures of the bible won’t bother us much. It would be, as a side note, easy to confuse dissonance resulting in predictive failures with recognition of predictive failures- recognition might result from dissonance but not vice versa (except maybe after rational?) That is, one can point out m/t discrepancies in the Bible (a not-too-predictive map) but such pointing out would lead very few to abandon a mythic worldview.

Anyway, none of this is really the point. The question we’re concerned with here is about consciously constructed maps, the ones that overlay and are informed by these unconscious interpretive frameworks (which they may, in turn, inform??) To what end to we construct maps other than the schema granted to us by whatever stage we find ourselves in? To what end to we endeavor to adjust our assumptions to coincide with reality? One hopes this task is worthy in and of itself- but a cartographer cannot take such appearances too seriously.

The uses of geographical maps translate pretty well into the uses of cognitive maps: in developing navigable microcosms we enhance our ability to a) figure out where we want to go or, if we already know that, b) how to get there. As a topographical map reveals elevation despite being flat, so can cognitive maps reveal the vertical dimensions of consciousness- wherein lies what might be one of the most pertinent uses of maps today: to provide dimensionality to the postmodern flatland model. So given the question: what is good that is proportionally linked to the accuracy (or indeed the presence) of our maps? We now have a couple answers: the ability to see where we want to go and the ability to get there, or put differently to link or intentions with our actions (walking in the right direction). If, for example, we intend to do good, and we are given a map that tells us this involves slitting the throat of a virgin as a sacrifice to a god, or going on a mission to convert Nigerian peasants to Mormonism, our map has failed us. In short, reality is big and our minds are small and God invented maps to mediate the difference.

Maps are ultimately the interface between subjective and objective realms, the window through which we ‘in here’ look ‘out there;’ their inaccuracies are opacities that accentuate that distinction. Cartographers might do well to approach their work with some paper towels and a bottle of Windex and not stop scrubbing until it wouldn’t occur to anyone in their right mind that inside is somewhere other than outside. And at a certain point such scrubbing might involve a lot more sitting and a lot less blogging.

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So there was a big BANG and then there was energy and then there were loads of bits. These bits have since become noses and cars, acorns and banks; the Rolling Stones and minds; beating hearts and hamster cages. I remember my astronomy text book had a timeline outlining the coagulation of pure energy into structures of greater and greater complexity in the first couple seconds after the big bang and the first mark of time on the timeline was something to the effect of one trillionth of a second. So things were moving in a pretty definite direction the moment shit hit the fan. I was having a discussion with the parents and family friends and, as usual, they were bemoaning the degenerate direction the world is heading in. While from a certain perspective it his hard to disagree with them, the more this perspective zooms out, the more it seems ultimately ridiculous. Not ridiculous really, just… irrelevant. Perhaps THE fundamental quality of Everything is that it moves–is the movement–towards increasing degrees of embrace. We are pebbles in a cosmic avalanche towards God, and the ridiculousness of our concern over the future of the world is the ridiculousness of the pebble worrying it will reverse the direction of the avalanche. So if we zoom out far enough we can pretty much conclude that shit gets better. This made logical sense in the context of that conversation but didn’t quite sit right until a distinction was made later: shit gets better, but not as opposed to shit getting worse. Everything–the good, the bad, and the ugly– is always already love: maybe it is more accurate to describe the tendency towards increasing complexity as the universe becoming more transparent to, or conscious of, that fact. (which, tangentially, relates to the category error constantly committed by new agers: the association of good with Good/God, and the dissociation of everything else–the bad and the ugly–from God). The direction of the avalanche is not arbitrary. It does not go down as opposed to going up. If we were to stand on our heads its direction, in the sense of that dichotomy, would be flipped. These millions of tons of stones instead gravitate towards. And gravity (apparently) is just as fundamental is coagulation. The new age category error–mistaking good for God– is identical to the mistaking of the direction we ascribe to the avalanche’s movement (down)–which is arbitrary and constrained in definition to its opposite, up–for the movement itself. Gravitation contains our idea of ‘down’ and transcends it. And because of our particular perspectival orientation our concept of ‘down’ is more transparent to the truth of gravitation than is our concept of ‘up.’ In the same way, ‘shit gets better’ is is a observation more transparent to the truth of the universe than ‘shit gets worse.’ So as long as we don’t confuse ‘down’ and ‘better’ with gravity and God we’re more or less on the right track, until we think that we are.

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pretrans outline

1- Overview of Gebster’s model- archaic, magic, mythic, etc; but as an UL psychological model first

2- ‘and, some theorists such as Ken Wilber of suggested the addition of further transpersonal stages that follow his last stage, the integral structure’

3- the movement through stages is a process of transcendence and inclusion. Pathologies arise when we repress (fail to include/embrace) or fixate upon (fail to transcend) stages of our own growth. Psychotherapy is mostly about facing and embracing (usually) or facing and releasing these stages.

4- Overview of Gebster’s model in the context he uses it in: the LR and LL: ‘Jean Gebster has pointed out societies go through these very same stages (this is pretty cool)’

5- In the same way that as children we grow through magic, mythic etc stages and sometimes repress them, causing psychological pathologies, so has our culture gone through these same stages and repressed them (or aspects of them, namely connection with nature and our families etc) which has resulted in severe pathology, evidenced in the widespread destruction of the environment, sense of isolation, despair and disconnection that faces us as a society.

6-  A more general pattern of development can be described as the movement from (a) prepersonal to (b) personal to (c) transpersonal. Therapy facilitates the transition from (a) to (b). Spiritual practice facilitates the transition from (b) to (c). The vast majority at (b) tend to confuse (a) and (c) because they are both not personal.

7- The reenactment and adaptation of indigenous practices and systems of believe tend, as a result of the aforementioned confusion, to be lumped together with meditation and other transpersonally oriented (intended?) practices.

8- It seems important to make the distinction, then, between indigenous practices which help embrace repressed stages of our own culture’s evolution, thus shaping a healthier ‘collective ego’ or fuller sense of self (thereputic) and practices such as meditation that result in the realization of that self’s illusory nature (spiritual).

9?- A discussion of why this is even an important distinction to make and how the failure to make it causes suffering.

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on literacy

I don’t know when I learned to read and write. My guess is that the lessons came early: the membranes of two gametes touched first, embraced, fused, and that’s about when it must have started. Twenty-three unfathomably long strands of nucleotides found themselves in the company of twenty-three others, and they meant something. This happened in a bedroom, or a tent—I’ve never gotten around to asking—and when the shifting, seething plasma of those nuclei touched, there were two people in that bed; when they fused, there were three, and something was written. I don’t claim to know this, but if you ask me when and where I learned to read and write I will tell you it was then and there.

You will say the sequencing of nucleotides was not writing at all and the correlate recognition and generation of proteins not reading. But these chemical processes were driven by the same fundamental tendency of the universe that would later lead me be born, grow, recognize meaning in shapes and then sounds and finally become literate in the written word. All things must succeed their latent potential, else having never been potential they could, by definition, never have become. The universe is no exception to this rule. There once was, if we are to believe the scientists, nothing. But even this vacuum contained a potential, had a tendency towards becoming– there was a big bang. The cosmos that resulted seems to have grown according to the same inclination towards which I and all of us grew: in the direction of greater and greater degrees of complexity, towards the articulation of potential into being. So I was born, and learned; atoms formed and became molecules that eventually coalesced into life.

Life had qualities that the universe which preceded it lacked: it absorbs, ingests, inhales, assimilates, but it does so only to further the cause of which it is a product—creation. It is this impulse of life towards becoming that underlies the process by which an array of molecules spun the tale of my genome, condensing my potential into me; and I say it is this same impulse that underlies the process by which I, in turn, spin my own tales with an array of words that condense the potential of my ideas into sentences. And just as writing is a consequence of life’s drive to express, I say reading is a consequence of life’s drive to absorb; just as life ingests and inhales to facilitate its expression, I say I read, absorbing ideas in order to facilitate the expression of my own. By this The strangeness of reading and writing—and everything, really—is this: these words are only ink, I am only dust, but these splashes of meaninglessness, like particles at the dawn of the universe, aggregate and organize and animate, and literacy is simply the way that this process lives through us.

My own creation, then, was in a very real sense a literary process. I curled nascent and meticulously assembling, my potential slowly becoming me. Then, I inhaled. I blinked, there was light, and the world seeped bright, ragged, and blaring into my soft skull. I can’t help but think that the first thought through my head was wuuhga?! Soon those bulges of light and shadow came into sharp focus and I assumed, without ever thinking twice, that they meant something too. I took as given, for instance, that the particular shape of my mother meant the quenching of my thirst for milk. This is how the freak show of light and sound distilled into significance and, like when my DNA spliced into RNA and was sucked into a ribosome, I was absorbing data and processing meaning: I was reading.

Later still there were words, and with them came my next lesson in reading. Like the shapes that came into focus not long before, the assorted tonalities and frequencies that had droned, rung and beeped in my eardrums associated with particular placements of my tongue on my palette and teeth, the way the spewing of amino acids and the subsequent folding of proteins associates with particular sequences of nucleotides. Both are processes of absorption, expressions of the same instinct that drives us to eat or inhale. Instead of converting food into energy by means of ingestion, I was converting genetic and sensory data into meaning by means of interpretation. Then slowly something happened for which there is no metaphor in the rest of the natural world: as those sounds and lights differentiated, they related. Invisibly, sounds like mommy and car became bound to particular objects in space, permitting meaning to exist not only in long litanies of genetic molecules, not only in my perceptions of the world, but to reside in the world itself; and this, other than there being anything at all, is perhaps the greatest miracle there is.

Not all that long after I began to learn words I was given, on the first day of first grade, another new set of tools that initiated another leap in my literacy: a pen, a piece of paper, and the alphabet. I liked them. It is a stretch to say that they seemed familiar, but what they allowed undoubtedly did. I’d done that before, watched something that could be become. From the chaotic jumble of neurons firing in my little head I had been able to watch ideas differentiate like the shapes that materialize when you soften your focus just right into those tricky books in the dentist’s waiting room. Then with these new tools I could will those shapes into being. That was how I learned how to write with a pen, but it was not easy.

The difficulty was not only to translate the basic drive of the universe into the ungainly new medium of language. It was to translate it into the medium of intention, reassigning the task of conducting the current of the universe from the thick cable of my body to hair-thin wire of my still-forming mind. Whereas my body converted this current into cells, now my mind took to converting it into words. The moment we are handed a pencil and asked for the first time to write, we are tasked with doing intentionally with words what we have done by instinct with matter and meaning ever since we were conceived, since those two cells fused into one and our potential was realized: we are tasked with opening our minds—the way our bodies have been open since the beginning—to the force of creation and continue, in doing so, to further the realization of our potential.

Opening through language in such a way takes learning the A-B-Cs. It takes vocabulary lists and post-recess lectures on spelling and the rules of grammar. Most of all it takes what we learned in the first wet moments of our conception as the genes of our parents associated, condensed and became us. Time grants us these lessons and by time we are tenderized and left porous, like an egg drifting in an empty womb, so that when we read, words like sperm can penetrate us, and when we write we swell and birth what we could never have imagined.

Life, if nothing else, the perpetual oscillation between inhale and exhale, reading and writing. The impulse to absorb and express and become is the fundamental actuation and propulsion of life and by it we maintain a sort of existential isotonicity in the bizarre solution of reality. To be alive is to be porous, transparent enough for the world—in genes or thoughts or words—to move through us; we are all made, in this way, literary beings.

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