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Posts from — March 2015

Life Maps

Life Maps

One of the tools we use in philosophical counseling—and this is one that anybody willing to undertake self-work can use to gain valuable insight into his or her life—is the mapping of charged experiences based on intuitively indicated themes. These “life maps” give us a picture of the issues, contradictions, unfinished business, and other holdouts in consciousness that are wanting or needing resolution, and provide directions, as maps do, for resolving them. Life maps are useful because these issues are by no means always obvious. On the contrary, they can be indirect, subtle, even camouflaged as the psyche struggles in the throes of the urge to resolve pitted against fear, shame, self-judgment, obsolete conclusions, and other inner tyrannies. In practical terms, we may be running away from some truth that needs to be acknowledged and released as vigorously as we’re reaching back toward it in order to confront it, resolve it, and finally be able to move on. Self-knowledge is self-work; it is not usually a matter of simply turning one’s cards face up on the table. By looking at this material indirectly, the way one might watch a solar eclipse in the safety of a reflected surface, we find we gain access to a different kind of vision—one that can see past the indirectness, subtlety, or camouflage and get to the underlying truth that is, as one writer put it, “begging for sympathy.”

We do this by looking away from content and toward something we call “thematic charge.” The approach recognizes that different issues in our life, certainly issues that at first look may seem entirely unrelated, may actually be stagings or expressions of the same underlying conflict. Because these stagings can appear unrelated, they may defy any direct mapping, so that the root issue remains hidden in the seeming non-relation. In those cases, however, they will share a common charge—not only an emotional charge—that is, they will feel similar—but also a charge of significance—that is, they will evoke closely related if not identical meanings when subjected to philosophical examination. This is to say that, despite what may be a wide-ranging dissimilarity, they will carry the same emotional current and will provoke the same existential response, so that under the light of dialectical scrutiny, it becomes clear that in talking about the “two” matters, one is talking about the same thing in two different ways.

The idea came to me when I was a young professor teaching writing at a local college. One of the most popular topics of the course was writer’s block. Writers seemed forever fascinated with understanding the nature of this pen-stopping affliction, always with the idea of getting beyond it, overcoming it, escaping its entropy and pressing on with the work of writing and the business of getting published. I suggested to my students that writer’s block has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with living. We write, after all, and whether we know it or not, autobiographically. Every word that a writer commits to the blank page confesses some aspect of his or her experience, how things look from his or her unique vantage, the conclusions that have presented themselves thus far. One simply cannot write from outside one’s skin. Remembering this humbles one, spares one the hubris of writing as an “authority,” and also puts the problem of writer’s block into perspective. So, I asked my students to pay close attention to the particular form of whatever block had taken their writing hostage, and to consider that writer’s block can show up in many forms. Some experience it as a sudden shortage of creative ideas; others as an excess of ideas that distract, with each one seeming better than the last, so that the writer is thrown in a new direction almost as soon as he or she begins writing. Still others experience an arresting fear as they venture close to a subject that matters to them. Or there may be a dearth of feeling that prevents the writer from moving deeply into the waters of the material, so that the project soon feels superficial and pointless. Once the student identified the particular feelings associated with the form of writer’s block that he or she was experiencing, I asked the next question: “Where else in your life are you feeling this way?” Invariably, there was a thematically related issue going on in the writer’s life that had been ignored, denied, marginalized, or lost in the endless demands and responsibilities of a busy schedule. Invariably. This, then, was the last bit of instruction: “See to that. Do what you have to do to resolve that. Then report back.” In every case, taking care of whatever non-writing problem had surfaced in the writing restored the writer’s access and voice. Life had found a way to get the attention of the student who had been blocked. In fact, the block was not a problem, but a call to a needed solution elsewhere.

This principle operates, of course, in the life of the non-writer, as well. Sometimes contradiction and the emotional, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual suffering that it brings have gone underground. Perhaps they tried to get our attention for a while, maybe years ago, and we weren’t available, weren’t paying attention. So they flowed into the underground caverns of the psyche where we could no longer engage them in saving conversations—where we could no longer even feel them, and often this is the point—to spare ourselves painful and distressing feelings. Nevertheless, the truth cannot be denied, only deferred. Sooner or later, the truth we push underground pushes back. The pressure of a truth postponed can become volcanic, erupting in unlikely places that we may not immediately recognize.

If we find ourselves “blocked” in any situation, we can help ourselves greatly by slowing down, taking a few breaths, and asking ourselves, “Where else in my life have I been feeling this way?” A life mapping may reveal itself. Sometimes the most conspicuous problem is not the one that needs our attention. By following out lines of charged feeling and meaning, we may find ourselves being directed to look beneath the surface, where a long buried treasure has been biding its time, waiting patiently to be unearthed.

March 31, 2015   Comments Off on Life Maps