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The Mattering Map: Integrating the Complexities of Knowledge, Experience and Meaning

By June 19, 2019No Comments

Many contributions to this work from several of the people in this room, from diverse scholars in the areas of constructivism and quantum theory, neuroscience and genetics, phenomenology and noetics, feminist and multi-cultural psychologies. Like many of them, I am part of the search for a theory of everything that ties these fields together, that takes down the fences and is neither reductionist nor mechanistic. This would be the psychological Higgs particle (theorized but just discovered to provide the glue of the universe and the very existence of matter instead of just forces). I name it mattering and the field of forces, influences and matter that it comprises the Mattering Map.

I do not want to frighten or overwhelm with this ambitious introduction, so I will tell you a short story. I follow the work on Steven Hawkings on the theory of everything. When I turned to his work for support of my own, I found that, when asked if there is anything he still did not understand, he answered “Women.” So we are ahead of him in that area and, I suspect, a few others.

In the beginning, gender was invisible and inevitable. Each person was born into a caste system then known as sex or sex differences and grew, as much as was humanly possible, only in the direction that was prescribed and not proscribed. Yet as soon as we saw it and almost as fast as the speed of light, we watched gender complicate and contextualize itself and eventually dissolve into the kaleidoscopic complexity of multiple experiences and perspectives. It is this very multiplicity that I want to address today. As the word itself-multiplicity- is no longer being used by the pathologizers, I suggest that we take it back-and use it to describe the complex nature of life and the larger context in which intersections are embedded.

I recently had the cataracts that were making me legally blind removed and had my sight “restored” to the precision and clarity of childhood. It took a mere 15 minutes until I could sit up and see with precision a clock across the room that I had not even known was there. More importantly perhaps, I have not been able to see a clock across the room since I was about 5 years old and learning to tell time, as the expression goes in English. In a few seconds, this simple operation changed my perspective as much as years of study have.

At the same hospital, the attending nurse asked me what my profession was. I tried to give a vague, but polite enough, answer so that she would not pursue it, but she was intrepid. I was facing surgery and not really wanting to have a complicated discussion with her-or even a simple one, truth be told. “I’m a psychology professor.” “Oh, I took a psychology course in college. It was so interesting. What is your specialty,” she continued. “Well, I study gender issues,” I answered reluctantly and in my best minimalist manner. She did not miss a beat. “Oh, we do that surgery here.”

My perspective is not what it was before the operation, but it is also no longer that of the child I was, learning to tell time or the feminist I was when our epistemological revolution began to take root. Nothing will ever be that simple again.

Gender and Context

Many of us here have seen the study of gender evolve (or devolve) from being criticized as too radical to being dismissed as too obvious. Both are or should be true. I’m at the age now where the possibilities and probabilities of life take on the a posteriori shape of a path and the complexity of choices made along the way begin to seem inevitable. Yet there are no paths without fields, fields without other landscapes and without urban areas alongside them. The map is much more complex than any of them. It reflects the entire terrain. The concepts of a life path and of simple gender have morphed into an entire mattering map that is everywhere at the same time. I will try to explain how I got here, to offer context, before I tell you where “here” is.

I begin with the first publication of this aspect of my work in 1976, Sociotherapy: An Ecological Alternative for Psychotherapy with Women. At that point, many of us had been practicing radical change for several years. I wanted to write some of that down. Sociotherapy was a call to context and to complexify our perspectives on gender. I was fortunate enough to be in ethnically mixed and cross-cultural groups from the start. I admit that I sought diversity immediately after being sprung from the White sameness of the 1950’s suburbs. I vowed never to be that bored again. With two Costa Rican and a Puerto Rican colleague (Dolores Jimenez, Jacobo Schifter and Sara Sharratt, I had developed the LASRI, fully normed and standardized in Costa Rica and in Spanish, a language I was just learning. We were looking for the similar and different meanings of masculinity and femininity in the two cultural contexts and we found these differences.

This is the value of diversity and multiplicity. They add complexity and dimension to experience. Diversity is not only a moral and ethical issue, but it is impossible to do non-trivial work without it. Our own human eyes cannot see more than one perspective at a time. I was not there yet, but I was getting an early glimpse of the mattering map.

In Engendered Lives, I extended and named this perspective Self in Context and now call it contextual psychology. Soon after, I began to work on the development of a schema for clinicians and researchers. It is difficult to do this part without becoming reductionist and confined by two dimensions, but since I first began this work, computer software has made that possible. On paper, it can only produce a snapshot, a slice of life.


This assessment guide is designed to be used in conjunction with CONTEXTUAL Feminist Psychotherapy. It provides the schema for a contextual analysis and understanding of presenting and ongoing problems of clients. It is also used for ongoing treatment planning and review. This schema can also be used in conjunction with the mattering map.

Please describe each contributing aspect of the context:

1. Gender
2. Race
3. Ethnicity
4. Culture, Language
5. Class
6. Ecology-Environment
7. Physical Health, Biology, Neurology
8. Family
9. Interpersonal other than family
e.g. peers, friends, teachers
10. Religious-Spiritual
11. Written and Electronic Media
12. Other Institutions, e.g., school, work
13. Age, Life cycle
14. Political Beliefs
15. Group Memberships
16. Education
17. Sexual Orientation
18. Substance Use and Abuse
19. Violence
20. Finances
21. Other

And we insisted upon asking the question, “What matters?” rather than “What is the matter?”

This schema developed over time and with use by many participants. It is not just a list and is never static. In fact, you must notice immediately that there are multiple overlapping and intersecting maps in the simplest interpersonal or therapy circumstances-just in the room are therapist, client, clients parents, therapists parents, gender, ethnicity, culture, theoretical orientation. How do we work these into research and treatment without just listing categories of influence? How can we move beyond the snapshots we often see in assessment?

I can’t tell you just yet. Instead I need to tell you first that in the middle of this work, I fell ill and could not continue for some years. Others carried it forward while I carried it inside myself. My map was something only I saw and my vision expanded exponentially as I learned biological, chemical, mechanical, psychological, spiritual ways to influence the human organism simultaneously. I survived and grew stronger. At the same time, I felt out of sync with my colleagues, friends and family. I was looking at a completely different and lonely view.

The Epistemology of Vision

Yet this was entirely different from looking at no view at all. My work on the centrality of the primary human sense, vision, in defining gender, ethnicity and in racializing human bodies was also interrupted. This study was based on long-term qualitative research, a sort of ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, Goffman), getting to know and trying to understand the perspectives of individuals blind since birth and never having seen the myriad of visual cues from which the sighted invent and enforce categories such as gender, race and sexual orientation. What would gender or race even mean and would they matter from the various perspectives of individuals blind since birth? One of these blind confidants, for example, told me that a friend of hers had had transgender surgery, but to her he still seemed male because his voice had not changed. Many more examples that will be discussed another time and place.

What we see as “reality” is as much created as discovered by our human eyes and minds. What if I had refused the cataract surgery and my own human dependence on sight? Yet those of us who have sight see and don’t see at the same time. We see what we see.

Monet Refuses the Operation

Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one- another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

Lisel Mueller, “Second Languange”, Louisiana State University Press, 1986


Earlier this year, my mother died at 91. I got to return to the house where I grew up. What did I see there? I can describe with words only the first second or two. I saw: A young girl longing to return home to Brooklyn, eager to pick up a game of stickball in the schoolyard. An avid reader. A bold and frightened child. The vegetable garden I learned to grow and how delicious a Roma tomato freshly picked is. A frightened but adventurous adolescent. My best friend coming by time after time after time. My once and future husband picking me up for a date and how happy and distressed I was to marry him. My mother as a young and hopeful wife and my father reading the financial pages, trying to find a way to make his fortune. All the time, I was trying to find my way out. I see all this in an instant and all at once and this just skims the surface. These are just some headlines and not the story. Already my vision and my memory are not unitary. What else have I left out? A lot. This is merely a moment of perception and memory. It can change even while I am describing it.

Did it matter that much was not permitted to girls of that time? That there was a word for girls who liked sports and a time on the developmental clock when they were supposed to outgrow it? That everyone was White and working class? That Jews had just officially been declared to be white for the purpose of moving to these suburbs? That brown and black skin people were permitted only to pass through without stopping by an earlier conspiracy of the federal government and the banking system known as redlining or only allowing certain mortgages to be funded? That my grandparents had survived the pogroms of Eastern Europe to make it to a very complex and diverse Brooklyn from which my parents sought escape and assimilation? I see all that and more now. I did not then. I saw only my small life and the clock ticking until I could grow it bigger.

As we pay attention to the map, it gets more complex. As each of us sees more and more, our concepts and our mapping have the opportunity to cohere and to become another more educated kind of simple.

From one of my favorite artists and a kindred spirit, the American ex-patriot Susan Miller.

I particularly like the way the mundane becomes special as soon as you pay attention to it; I particularly like the way we hide the depths of things from ourselves; I particularly like the way the shapes of things shift when you look hard at them.

Our first question as feminists perhaps was the question of a child’s puzzle, “What is missing from this picture? The elephant has no trunk, the leaves have no branches and the people have no gender, no ethnicity, no blend of internal and external forces.”

Another question presented itself. Is gender or ethnicity more important? “Either or” are not good questions? The still common questions of the binary-Which are more important-thoughts or feelings, emoting or changing behavior, meditating or acting, pounding on pillows or meditating?  Who are more aggressive, better at math, more nurturant? Bigger brain? Is psychology art or science? Entire disciplines build themselves on the shaky foundation of one or the other of these narrow choices. This or that… That or this…If you use only one oar in a rowboat, your boat will only go in circles. I maintain that this is equally so in the “ors” of dichotomous thought.


Now let me elaborate on the idea of mapping what is in each person’s contextual field and so what matters to them. Maps originally included the footprints of the traveler and depictions of events along the way. They were as much works of art as of science and designed to guide the traveler through dangers, away from monsters and to present pictorially everything else that the intrepid adventurer might encounter along the way. The footsteps of the traveler were on these maps. They were as much psychological as they were geographical. These were not yet separated into different disciplines. Our ancestors were more undisciplined.

Context moves with the traveler in this way or, perhaps better said, the traveler is always in multiple and shifting contexts of safety, danger, discovery, adventure. Context is an important aspect of this kind of mapping and is not separate from us any more than what we name nature is. People are part of nature and context is part of the self.

Let me offer an example of a place where this kind of mapping still exists.

In Costa Rica, where I have lived off and on for 40 years, no one can read maps, although they are oriented in their own version of space and time. This makes it extremely difficult for first world tourists who have learned to depend on a two dimensional, flattened and decontextualized representation known as a map. If you were to show such a piece of paper to a Costa Rican, they would probably shake their head and not understand, not know which way to hold it. I have seen this more often than not-turn paper. Is Nicaragua up, down or sideways? There are street signs in the capital to help orient you. They say left for Panama, right for Nicaragua. There are no street addresses and thus no mail delivery in the usual sense. To some of you, this may sound primitive, but it is really just different.

Here is how directions might be given. Continue on until you come to a sleeping dog. Turn left there and then right at the tree that was in front of the pharmacy that burnt down in 1948. You need history, geography, geology, good interpersonal skills and a lot of patience to get anywhere. You need context and mattering. You will ask again every few minutes as the directions can change and so will you (schema). You will have made a lot of friends along the way. You will be angry at some of them for giving you incorrect directions, but correct is not what matters most, a friendly response and participation in your journey is. And here is the mattering inextricably intertwined with the matter or material. You can not separate them even for a moment and you will not get anywhere if you do not pay attention to both.

Let me continue to complexify the map for you. Continue to explain how I learned to see and how each of us sees what matters.


I prefer the term “mattering” to meaning for its ability to encompass and enfold matter, to embrace meaning and caring, mind and heart, feelings and ideas, for they are not separate nor are they related in a linear “cause and effect” sequence. Instead they are inextricably intertwined, each implicate in the others and deeply enfolded in the matrix of human experience.

The Mattering Map is many things at the same time, too many, in fact, for the human mind to grasp all at once and so demanding revisiting and multiplicity of perspectives. It is, in one sense, a model of meaning making, of what matters in psychological life at several different times. Places. Contexts. Humans are nothing if not social creatures, and all social relationships are also organized by mattering. Our human minds cannot do otherwise than search for mattering; our human hearts cannot do otherwise than have people matter to us and ourselves to them. We are built this way as exquisitely social animals. Our neurology is designed this way as research on mirror neurons, the amygdala and other work at the cutting edge of neuroscience demonstrates.

Mattering subsumes and contains what are dichotomously named the cognitive and the affective, the psychological and the sociological, the individual and the cultural. Additionally mattering is inextricably intertwined with matter, each of which shapes the other through the processes alternately named genetics, biology, psychology, culture or human experience. It is, at the same time, a meta-concept and the glue of all human experience. Mattering is what unites diverse aspects of the context into patterns that repeat themselves sufficiently to be designated in our human minds as significant and it is what connects us to each other so irrevocably. As much as matter is a sine qua non of our material existence, so is mattering of our psychological, spiritual and cultural aspects. It is the glue.

And there is more to be said about the inextricable relationship between matter and mattering. There is an ongoing conversation between human genes and the environmental context, in which the environment appears to have the louder voice (Lipton, 2002) More accurately, they act in concert. There are no soloists. Genetic mapping is also showing the intertwined and multiple connections between experience and genetics. Not only are genes altered by experience, but that new pattern can be inherited by future generations. This has profound implications for much of psychology, including the understanding of survivors of trauma and the future generations in these groups. Not limited to problematic experience.

The metaphor of a brain map is one frequently invoked by contemporary neurologists (Edelman, 1978; Edelman and Tononi, 2000) and a genetic map by contemporary geneticists. I seek to maintain this compatibility. We currently have developed more prosthetic devices to extend human sight inside the body than between or outside. Science progresses only after technology is developed. Neuroscientists today are as excited as children with a new toy. Yet every solution buys you a ticket to the next problem. The map is multi-dimensional and morphs just as we catch a glimpse with our tools modeled on the human senses.

The energetic cloud in which we all are enveloped can and has been observed by still primitive forms of technology. It can be seen to overlap more with another’s when they are well in tune with each other and actually to merge when two people are reportedly in love (Lipton, 2002). This is also at the heart of a good therapeutic relationship or any good relationship. Mattering is not simply reducible to matter nor matter to mattering.

Human thought, feeling and responses used to be conceptualized as occurring in specific, isolated areas of the brain. As neurology has been increasingly able to look at that brain while it is responding, it has become apparent that the brain itself is connected in complex and interacting networks and does not function autonomously in isolated locations. It may well be said that there are no isolated and unchanging locations within the brain or on the Mattering Map.

In the human brain, enormously complex circuitry connects disparate locations and thus permits (not causes) complex biochemical, energetic, psychological, socio-cultural experiences including, but not limited to, memory, suffering, pleasure, love, desire and despair. Complex neural circuits fire in harmony to produce these experiences and the more they are associated with each other, the more they become associated and begin to fire together, as originally noted by behaviorists many years ago (Hebb, 1949). The architecture of the brain is continuously modified by each of these events and is characterized by varying degrees of plasticity throughout any lifetime.

Change is not only always possible, but inevitable. The enormous number of actual and possible interactions defies comprehension by that very same human brain. Can the human brain ever comprehend its own complexity? Paradoxically the human senses cannot perceive it.

Energy Fields.

Finally, mattering can be conceptualized as a force field, an interpersonal gravity. There are multiple energetic forces impinging upon any individual and any social interaction. Much as various areas of the brain may be linked in a particular response, so does mattering always have multiple sources, vectors and manifestations.

For those who can, you might picture each of us and all of us as enveloped in a force field, a cloud of energetic probabilities and potentials. 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, they can interact, clash or they can fall into synchrony with many variations in between. This process of entrainment has been noted in many natural cycles, including the most cited one of menstrual cycles beginning to coordinate when groups of women are living together. Quantum theory also posits the connection known as entanglement. This refers to a small field effect. We do not know yet if it affects anything at the macro level. Does the entanglement of quantum theory exist at the human level? Twins. Scientists developing the same illness they are combating? Is cancer contagious or is mattering more extensive than we know?

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 presentation. For the sake of clarity, use your human neurological system here to 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.
The map morphs with every interaction, every thought and feeling. What was a moment ago central can become peripheral and what was a moment ago irrelevant can become central. In this rendering then there is no separate self nor is there anything but a more or less temporary context. There is human memory and perspective, which conspire to “capture” experience in their irregular and faulty web.

Mattering is said by many of us 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. 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 are a part of nature, but narcissistically consider ourselves the center of that universe. If no other message gets through, the planet is desperately trying to tell us that is not the case and to continue to act upon this belief will mean certain destruction. Context 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.

Human psychology is a combination of potential and possibility that form themselves into patterns perceived by the human mind just as material reality depends upon the human sensorium.
Training as a psychologist or psychotherapist certainly depends heavily on training the eyes and other senses to recognize certain repeated patterns and to see them rather than other possibilities wherever we can. We are all pattern makers. Human psychology, but also that it exists only as potential and probability until it is observed (Cahill., Castelli & Casper, 2001). It is the act of observation itself and the eyes of the particular observer that freeze probability into pattern and pattern into pathology. Mattering has formed and reformed matter.

Once there is a pattern or the solid stuff of the human senses, then there appear to be boundaries that define this solidity. Human senses do not perceive the flow of energy and information across these so-called boundaries nor does the Western mind understand that the space between them is far from empty. Art and music do. Space between the notes.


Finally, I would like to offer an example of the cultural Mattering Map in the United States, which subsumes as racial differences what many other cultures see differently. The eyes of the White men who founded this country saw color on their maps of colonization and conquest. I have had many Costa Rican friends and colleagues say to me “In my own country, I am white.” Seemingly the North American eye cannot see White in conjunction with a Spanish accent. It does not compute. An African-American friend of mine told me this story about an incident in which she was involved in Paris. She was seated alone in a café or bistro and was receiving abysmal service, the result of racism she was sure after enduring these insults for a lifetime. It turned out that she was being discriminated against, but for being an American.

We do not see what we have not learned to see. Here is an example I often use. Back to Costa Rica

When I first visited the jungles of Costa Rica decades ago, my colleague excitedly pointed out to me the monkeys in the trees. They were all around us, everywhere, hundreds of them, but I could not see a single one. A native of New York City, I could spot a mugger or a taxi blocks away, but a monkey in the trees, never. My eyes were not trained to this sight. It took practice, learning first to distinguish the patterns of greenery from each other, until I began to see little faces embedded in them everywhere. And once I saw them, I could never go back, could not unsee them. It is a sight that my brain, and not just my eyes, recognizes. In a similar way, the eyes of the psychologist or the biologist, the astronomer or the archeologist are trained to see what each discipline defines as its monkeys. Even more importantly, each of us constructs a life, a worldview out of what is possible for us to see and names it reality when it is instead only perception and possibility.

We see what has come to matter to each of us and to all of us.
The task of consciousness work in political groups and in psychotherapy becomes, in a sense, the “unseeing” of accepted patterns of “reality,” the dissolution of constructed boundaries.

Finally, let me note that metaphor can serve as a practiced and helpful guide on the Mattering Map precisely because it leads to new and multiple connections and does not pave over fertile ground with concrete. Instead metaphor honors multiplicity and imagination, complexity and context and so the Mattering Map itself. It connects often in surprising and imaginative ways, moving and morphing as it guides the traveler and the sedentary alike. Yet it can mislead if not questioned carefully and repeatedly, if not permitted its wandering ways. These are the questions of epistemology.

The Mattering Map is capacious, containing many smaller metaphors such as the waves of feminism, the journey of the traveler seeking change or renewal, the archeology of psychodynamic depth and the vistas of breadth and growth of the humanistic vision.

As the seasons of a life or an entire movement change, so does the map. Each telling changes the story. The shapes shift. 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, if you will, and it keeps the theories and the practices of psychology focused on the complexity and multiplicity of what really matters at any moment in time.

I want to complicate matters; only in that way can a new simplicity emerge. Once the schema is internalized, it need not be practiced. I want us to see the monkeys. I want us to ask better and better questions. Here are some good ones:

What is the speed of a thought?

The frequency of love?

How does gravity turn to levity?

And what is time all about? It passes so rapidly and not at all.

What is all this work about for me? You know my answer by now I hope. So many things all at once. I wanted to find a psychology that was relevant to my life, so I had to invent it. To participate in founding it rather than finding it.

Like one of my heroes, Rosa Parks said long ago, “I was just trying to get home.”

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.