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The mattering map

By August 10, 2021No Comments

A 21st century concept to represent and contain the fullness of human experience

Your impression of how your own mind works needs to be updated. Stay with me to learn about this 21st century revision. I have developed this new perspective after many years of integrating my own research and ideas, graciously donated from several corners of the theoretical world. Also, in my years as a traveler in a blind world, my own ideas and perceptions changed and then changed some more because I have lived much of my adult life in a culture that was unknown to me when I first entered it decades ago (Costa Rica).

In Costa Rica, I was struck with the knowledge that I could not actually see much of the natural environment that I had never seen as a child. I don’t mean that my vision was blurry. I mean I literally could not see certain animals in a crowded jungle. I had to learn to do so, just as I had to learn the word for them in Spanish.

The plasticity of vision ends at just about the age that learning language without a foreign accent is possible. That is roughly the age of puberty, when the human brain loses much, but not all, of its plasticity. In fact, having not learned a verbal language or the language of sight before this cutoff time renders it impossible to learn these languages except in accented and fragmented bits. Fluency becomes impossible.

Of all our human senses, it is primarily vision that not only separates, but creates the illusion of empty space. No space is empty; it is filled in a way that our human senses do not perceive. Without sight, we do not perceive either separation or unity. The blind world is forever fragmented. But for sound, physical experience extends only an arm’s length.

The Western mind has had to divide to conquer. If conquest is no longer the goal, as feminism and other peaceful alternatives propose, then division need not be the method. Much like geographical boundaries then, epistemological ones can be seen as arbitrarily imposed by the human mind for the sake of certain goals and biases. Where are the Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia that I once visited and where are all the people who have touched my life glancingly or deeply? Do they touch it still? I am haunted by the question.

I will not invoke crossroads or intersections as metaphorical meeting places. I propose instead that forces and influences are differently intertwined, sometimes functioning in unison or partial unison, but rarely if ever just crossing at the corners. This new model opens the imagination to possibility, to fluidity and to process rather than static structure.

These probabilistic forces can emerge in many different combinations over time. We also make room for paradox and uncertainty, for the unique chemistry of the moment and the context/relationship. Identity itself is always contingent, as each contingency shapes the others.

The interaction of these influences is something like a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope. Perception is slippery. The Mattering Map can morph in a second, slowly and steadily or not at all, as the central becomes marginal and the marginal central. Different influences are salient at different moments.

Mattering contains many fluid or fractured influences, too many to list here or to reify. They function together more than separately, like a finely tuned orchestra with a sometime soloist. Not only the conductor, but the room, the atmosphere and the audience contribute to every performance.

I am trying to complicate matters and to release them from the rigid construct of construction. They are more like the flow of water than like any brick upon brick edifice. The entire world is in constant flux and relationship, as are our human minds. We can not see or experience this flux directly as we humans have not developed direct perception of this motion. The closest we can come is through mindfulness practice, which allows us to notice that no feeling or experience stays the same very long.

Invoking the human senses, one might picture each of us and all of us as enveloped in a force field, a cloud of energetic probability and potential. This field does not stop at the skin or at the nerve endings. It is unbounded. Should it encounter a different energetic system, which it inevitably must, the aspects of the that field can clash, compromise or even fall into synchrony. This process of entrainment has been noted in many natural cycles, including that of menstrual cycles beginning to coordinate when groups of women are living together.

This synchrony is also at the heart of a good therapeutic relationship. One can feel the rhythms coincide. When I train beginning therapists, I often ask them to sit by my side in a practice session and do nothing more than feel the rhythm. This process is more like learning to play in an orchestra than it is like studying a book, although even reading demands a certain rhythm to be satisfying to the reader.

The Mattering Map is not a map like the ones hanging on the walls of geography classrooms around the world. These flat, two-dimensional representations fall short in several aspects. The mattering map is a living, breathing multi-dimensional, morphing entity. It cannot hold still. It is alive with forces and vectors that change its shape and its valence slowly or rapidly, but constantly. The mattering map comes to rest only when observed and what is observed is not what was there a moment before the observation altered probability into pattern.

Can you imagine a map that can fully represent terrain, climate, airflow and other energetic forces impinging on the territory? On this map, volcanoes erupt; rivers change their course; storm clouds gather and dissipate; boundaries shift. Oceans ebb and flow; sun sometimes shines. I mean to invoke a complex combination of energetic forces encountering each other in probable and improbable ways.

Mattering is often said to depend significantly on context. Let us consider carefully what we name context because it is not unlike what many of us call “nature.” By this is meant the animals and plants that are “out in the wild,” outside ourselves and outside urban areas (Berman, 1981). Similarly the idea of “context” is often viewed as an external or secondary influence on each individual. These too are all artificial and human distinctions, born of the need of the human mind to detect/create pattern and boundary.

We humans are very much part of nature, but narcissistically consider ourselves the center of that universe. This belief is also related to the construct of the individual, competitive self. If no other message gets through, the planet is desperately trying to tell us that separation and centrality are not the case and to continue to act upon this belief will mean certain destruction. Context also knows no boundary. It is a pattern of influences that are always morphing and changing shape and influence on any individual or aggregate. As I have said elsewhere, “What begins as context ends as self” (1992, p. 7). Any “self” can also serve as context for others.

The Mattering Map recognizes and provides a concept complex enough to represent and contain the fullness of human experience. It is large and generous, a full-figured model, and it keeps the theories and the practices of psychology focused on the complexity and multiplicity of what really matters at any given moment.

This article was originally published in the Wall Street International Magazine.

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D. is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning psychologist, author and teacher. She is well-known as a speaker, workshop leader, human rights advocate and a public intellectual.