the map is not the territory

I was talking the other day with a coaching client about her plan to create an amazing company, including the roadmap she designed during our initial work together. The roadmap and the concept are thoughtful and altruistic and built with a focus on collaboration and equity -- they are things of beauty.

And that’s dangerous. Because sometimes when we design things of beauty, we fall in love with their thing-ness rather than their essence. We yearn for a goal we can see, so we create one and instead of holding it in our minds as a possibility, a horizon, a useful sketch of the self or organization or relationship or life we are questing toward, we lock it in hard. We get attached to it in its imagined form.

The phrase that always comes to mind for me in this is by Ken Wilber: “the map is not the territory.” He’s using it to describe the ways in which we get so attached to our concept of reality and time -- useful illusions to be sure -- that we neglect to look up from the map and see that the landscape, the territory, true reality, may be far different. Is often shockingly more beautiful and terrifying.

The company Belinda is building will be awesome. It will also not be what she imagines. If she strikes the right balance between moving boldly forward into and through the plan and embracing the brilliant possibilities that emerge along the way, it will be better. No matter what, it will be different. That’s how this works.

I used to struggle a lot, A LOT, with changed plans. It seems silly now to say, but even if plans changed for the better, I had a really hard time enjoying myself. Reschedule a date with me? Expect one furious human at the other end of that phone call. I can still feel in my body the visceral discomfort when plans for a few friends hanging out turned into a full-fledged party, or vice versa.

I was afraid, for a range of reasons unpacked in therapy and poetry over the decades between then and now, but the fact of the matter is that I wanted to control everything around me so that I could know what was going to happen next. Which is, of course, impossible.

I was holding the map so hard the edges tore. Which is good, because eventually that meant it fell out of my hands and a wind carried it off leaving me guideless in a wild territory. But that’s another story.

We need plans, goals, a horizon to beckon us onward across the seas we encounter or invent. But the thing about the horizon is that it’s always retreating. Because it’s an illusion. There is no there there. There’s only here, and where we’re headed, and the beautiful and risky possibilities populating the way.

There are destinations to be sure, but when we look up from the map and its reassuring red X saying you are here, we realize there are always further destinations, brighter stars to follow, further inward or onward to go. And when we realize this, when we really know it, the wild pressure releases. The clock’s ceaseless ticking becomes less time bomb and more a walking tune. We can relax into the journey, eyes on the horizon and the glory around our feet in turn, knowing as long as we are moving we are blooming and something just meant for us awaits.