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Maps of Reality

  • 15 min read

Have you ever seen one of those weird maps from earlier times that just seem very funny and… Well… totally wrong?

I’m talking about maps like these:

It’s crazy to imagine that somehow people in those times were still able to use them to navigate themselves through the world.  (Okay, sometimes they ended up in America instead of India… but don’t we all make small mistakes from time to time?)

Did you know that in some aspects our current standardized map is actually very inaccurate as well when it comes to visually displaying the relative size of every country/continent?

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad map of course.  It’s technically pretty accurate when you take into account the curved lines on which it’s drawn, but it’s far from perfect to give you a good idea of what the world really looks like.

That’s just something to keep in mind.  That even the best map still doesn’t show you the planet as it actually is.  And that there might be less accurate maps which show some specific details better than this one.

When you think about it, it’s kind of funny how little time you actually spend using this map of the world we all know by heart.  You just rarely find yourself in Pakistan looking for directions to Bujumbura.

Most of the time you are not navigating through life on a “global level”. But on the level of your “direct reality”.  Where’s the nearest pizza joint?  How will I get the job?  How do I discuss this important personal issue without hurting any of the people involved?

And to navigate yourself in that part of the world (your direct reality), you use a map of… (…drumroll…) reality.

So where is this map of reality? Shouldn’t you have seen it before if you use it so much?

It’s stored in your subconscious mind to allow you to automatically follow it without thinking.

Evolution blessed us with the incredible capacity to index reality in our heads.  It’s part of our survival mechanism.

In the past when we wandered through a new land we stored every important piece of information we could find in our subconscious mind.  Where the best fruits were located.  Which ones were poisonous. The best way to catch the local animals.  Where to find water, where to find shelter.  How to find the way back home. Which people to trust. What situations were dangerous and to be avoided, etc.  Everything about our reality was stored in there for future reference.

This capacity to create predictable(-ish) patterns / associations (e.g. “smoke means fire”) and subsequently create a map of reality in our heads that we can instinctively use to navigate ourselves through it has been one of our biggest assets in life.

We still do it in modern times, except that we’re now trying to make sense of a world with social structures and abstract risks or rewards that are infinitely more complicated than the reality our ancestors lived in.

The system still works.  It detects patterns and associations and stores them so we can react adequately to those situations.  The downside is that it only detects patterns. It leaves out the subtle nuances of our complex world.

Now that you know you are constantly using and referring to this map of reality in your head, it’s very important to remember that -just like with the maps at the start of the article- this map is not the same as the territory it represents.

Your map of reality is per definition a limited perspective.   Because if it included everything, it would be identical to reality itself.  It would be huge and complex.  It couldn’t fit into your pocket (or head) anymore, and it would be totally useless because you already had reality itself to look at in the first place.

But, reality itself is so complex that it would be impossible to make sense of it if you saw everything at the same time. Just imagine trying to do that while you saw everything around you vibrating and all those tiny particles dancing around in microscopic detail.

So it’s actually very handy to have a limited perspective. Even if this makes the perspective lacking.  Otherwise trying to find which way to go would be a total pain in the ass (and not the good kind).

The main problem with this otherwise effective strategy is that most people don’t even know they’re looking at this severely limited map when they move through life.  Let alone the fact that they have one in the first place. They confuse the map with the territory and think that the very inaccurate and limited map of reality they created in their head , is reality itself.

Please read the above paragraph again for a couple of times until you really feel it sibnk in,  because the implications are a lot than you may think.

Before I tell you what to actually do with this information, let’s have a very quick look at the tools you are using to create that map and how they work.

You basically make use of only 2 tools to generate this map:  Your senses and your mind.

Your senses, help you perceive things.  When random vibrating waves floating through this chaotic universe hit your eyes for example, your eyes will perceive some of those and send them to your brain for processing.

For this first step in the process, you are already limited by the things your senses can perceive.  Even when assuming that all your senses are in perfect condition this will still be a perspective limited by the capacities of the human body.

For example: check out this awesome short comic about the mantis shrimp and you’ll know exactly what I mean.  Any part of reality that your body cannot perceive will not be on your map.  Even though it’s real and it is definitely there, it seems to you like these things are not there because your senses didn’t put them on your map.

So what happens after that?

The raw information will be sent to your brain, which will conceive it.  For example:

  1. Light waves hit your eye.
  2. Brain says “Oh, this looks like the abstract concept called a ‘chair’ that I have stored somewhere years ago as a little kid.  It has color X, texture Y and is about this big”. 
  3. Brain makes you see a chair instead of unorganized light waves.

Read that one again as well because it’s important to remember:

Anything you see was first conceived by your brain before you see it.  This means reality is not completely objective.  It’s far from. It is a subjective co-creation of what’s really there and what you make it out to be.  Every time you observe something, you’re actually creating that experience at the same time.

This is not a “start-to-finish-process” either, it’s a feedback loop that never stops.  You see what you see, then you create an interpretation of it based on your beliefs / opinion / knowledge / earlier experiences whether those were correct or not, which in turn influences the next thing you feel/see/hear and leaves out any information that doesn’t fit into the map you’ve made so far.

Knowing this, it should be obvious that, because we’ve all had completely different experiences in life, your map of reality will be totally different from everyone else’s. In  a way you could say it’s like we’re all looking into the same room through a different window, thinking what we see is the room itself.

It’s important to know that what your brain cannot conceive will also be excluded from your map.  You cannot see any part of the room that is not viewable from the window you’re currently looking through, even if those are the most beautiful parts.

If you confuse the map with reality itself (like the majority of people), you will never encounter any evidence that your map is not correct unless you use a different map for that (or switch to another window to look through).  Just like in the past it seemed completely unthinkable that the world wasn’t flat.  (And to some people it still seems that way ?  Funny for a guy who clearly spent time in an airplane before.  Clearly not a window-seat guy ? )

Quick Summary:

You have unique thoughts and beliefs about the world in your head, based on things you experienced in your life.  Some of them correct (“fire = hot”) but because the system works automatically, some of them can be completely irrational when two things accidentally occurred more than once in the same context and your brain stored them as an association or pattern (for example: “I have to puke from being in France.” When you actually got sick from the car rides that just happened to go to France).  These influence the way your map of reality is drawn, and since you have always looked at reality using this map, they also have a direct impact on what you believe is “true” and the way you experience reality.

Here’s three quick examples of how much of an impact the map you are currently using has on the experience of your life itself:

*When person 1 was little his parents always emphasized the importance of doing things the right way.  One day a light bulb was broken so he rushed off to replace it, but his dad stopped him, took him by the hand and told him “Son, before you do this:  Watch me carefully so that you know exactly how it’s done.  Otherwise it’s very dangerous.”  Another time they took him to the toy store for his birthday and he couldn’t choose between 2 awesome toys that he liked equally.  Every time he took one he realized he wouldn’t have the other awesome toy.  So his parents stood there with him for 30-45 minutes to talk with him and figure what he liked most about both toys to help him and make sure that he went home with the right one.

Flash forward 10 years later person 1 has a hard time making crucial decisions in a limited time frame.  What if he doesn’t have all the required information to base his decision on?  What if he makes the wrong just choice because he wasn’t aware of an important consequence of it?

Every time he makes a good decision he thinks “Good that I prepared myself, it paid off.”  Every time he makes bad decision, his mind says “You need more information next time.” So unless he’s willing to see that that’s the limited perspective of his map, every decision he makes will continue to create the same experience of reality over and over and over.

This is not necessarily good or bad, it’s just the influence his map of reality has on his life.  Sometimes he makes better decisions than other people because of this map, other times he fails to make them quickly enough.

*Person 2 keeps having “bad luck” in relationships.  Every time another woman leaves him or cheats on him, his map points him to the evidence that she was another “evil bitch with no heart” and how bad it is that a good guy like him falls victim to these women who seem like good people at first but then turn around to hurt them in the end, just like everyone else.  Somehow long time ago his senses and his mind created that map of reality for him so now those things seem like the absolute truth.  The problem is that the map keeps leading him to more of the same.  It’s another feedback loop.

On the other hand, if he was willing to start using a map that said “you are just as much responsible for this”, he might ask himself some questions like  “What part of my behavior / mindset is driving these women away?  What do I do wrong that leaves them so unsatisfied in the end and how can I change it?” and it would make sure he would not go through the same hurtful process again.

*Person 3 has an extremely hard time connecting with other people because he feels like he is boring, uninteresting and generally has nothing to bring to the table socially.  On his map he somehow labeled himself that way.  This belief causes him to feel uncomfortable in social situation, which in turn causes him to act weird and get dismissing responses that confirm the fact for him that he is a boring, weird guy to interact with.  Another feedback loop that keeps re-creating the same reality for him.

When I look at this situation using my personal map, I would tell the guy: “Look.  It is simply impossible that you have nothing to bring to the table.  You have lived 2 decades of unique life experiences that no one else has lived but you.  How’s that for a start?”

The problem is that most people would answer to that advice as if it’s the most ridiculously oversimplified answer one could ever give, because it doesn’t fit into their map.  That’s a phenomenon called “cognitive dissonance”. Unless of course they are willing to throw their map a way for a second, look at mine (or yours, or someone else’s) and see for a second what that perspective looks like.

Do these 3 people have bad maps?  Of course not.  The map isn’t wrong (especially since it becomes more and more right by “using it”).  The map is just a perspective.

So yours is right as well, no matter what it looks like. But what’s important here is to ask yourself:  Where do I want this map to lead me?

Person 3’s map for example, will help him navigate himself through the world just as effectively as anyone else’s.  But it will only navigate him to a place with no friends.  And person 2’s map will lead him to more doomed relationships.  Unless they somehow both make the decision to switch maps.

I myself used to have a map of the world that said all people were evil, selfish and untrustworthy and the world was a shitty place full of shitty shit that I hated.  I knew there were other people with a very optimistic map of the world but from my perspective those people were just plain WRONG, stupid and blind. (Remember the cognitive dissonance?)

“Why would I even consider looking at the world through their eyes” , I thought, “when all available evidence points to the fact that I am right and they are wrong and delusional, right?”

But think about it for a second… Where did you and I find that evidence to support our own opinions?  You found it by using your current map.  The same map that filtered out only those things and did not register all the other aspects of reality.

Later, especially after meditating a lot.  I found out there was a lot of stuff that I forgot to include on my “shitty map” of “this shitty life”:

I realized the world is not a bad place.  It’s also not a good place.

The world is just a very “placy” place.  It includes literally everything.  And we get to choose which parts of that everything we experience in our day-to-day reality.

So it doesn’t matter which map of reality you have, the map is definitely right.  But what does matter is:  Will this map bring you to the ideal destination you want to go with your life?  Because if it hasn’t been effective to get you to that place in the past 20 years or something, it might be time to ditch it and create a new one.

And when you do those, please be aware of the fact that your ego will try with all its might to keep telling you that you’re deluding yourself because another viewpoint than the one you currently have would simply not be based on truth.    But when that thought comes up, remind yourself to ignore it.

Why wouldn’t you?  If what you’re thinking now doesn’t make you as happy as you want to be, you can at least try to take on a different perspective for a while just to see if it works.  I promise you that once you’re settled in with that new map, that one will seem like the absolute truth as well and the one you have right now will be “proven” totally wrong.

You don’t even have to switch maps completely (unless you’re really unhappy with your life), but it always pays to update your maps regularly.  Otherwise, like any outdated GPS system, you’ll run into roadblocks and start driving in circles eventually.

Go read some books, try out some new things, and approach some strangers with an attitude of curiosity for what their inner world is like.  Especially the ones you think are weird or just plain wrong.  You never know… Maybe their map of reality could just be the one that brings you where you want to go ?

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