Where the Streets Have No Name: Mapmaking, Mindfulness, and Presence

Love has
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash

And freed

Of every concept and image
My mind has ever known


Psychotherapy as Mapmaking

A simple way to describe the job of the psychotherapist is to say that we work with maps.  Clients come to us with maps of the world that make their lives difficult.  These maps are narrow, out of date, and inaccurate, and they cause suffering.  The most common map that brings people to therapy wrongly defines the client as flawed, deficient, and inadequate.  Other problematic maps include those that see the world as a fundamentally unsafe or uncaring place, and those that see others as untrustworthy and uncaring.  More rarely clients come to therapy with narcissistic maps that represent the self as superior and others as inferior.  These clients come to therapy less often and usually only when their lives have become severely dysfunctional, because, due to their faulty maps, they perceive their problems as the fault of others.  These are only a few examples of the representations of the world that cause suffering and unhappiness; there are many other types of maps that cause people to seek out a therapist. 

Most, if not all, types of therapy work with maps (a more technical psychological term for these maps is “schema”).  Cognitive-behavioral therapy works with maps in a direct, rational, and scientific manner: maladaptive beliefs and thoughts are challenged, and the client is helped to create a more useful map.  Psychoanalytic therapy addresses the client’s maps less directly and perhaps more elegantly by exploring transference to the therapist and problematic beliefs as they arise naturally in the process of therapy.  Object relations theory is one particularly profound psychoanalytic approach which understands our maps to be made up of internalized representations of self and other from early in life.  Object relations theory gives us a clear understanding of how some of our most fundamental maps came into existence. 

Narrative therapy works with maps in the form of stories, and it teaches the client how to construct more useful and vital narrative maps.  Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a holistic, integrative approach to treating trauma that includes a focus on our cognitive maps and beliefs as one part of its method.  Experiential therapy, while focusing on feelings and immediate experience, also helps clients rewrite their internal maps.  Experiential therapists attempt to avoid the intellectualization that sometimes occurs in talk therapy, but much of what they do ultimately impacts the client’s maps of reality.    

These approaches to therapeutic mapmaking are invaluable.  I have worked with them, particularly in psychodynamic therapy, narrative therapy, and EMDR, throughout my career.  They have much to offer clients who are suffering, and I still work every day with clients’ maps. 

There is another, complimentary approach to therapy, however, that I also find useful.  In the course of my work, I eventually came to the conclusion that working with maps has limitations.  My experience with transpersonal psychology and mindfulness has shown me another, radically different avenue to change, which I would describe as presence without maps.  Before describing this second approach to life and therapy, I would like to make it clear that I am not suggesting that people throw away their maps or that therapists should stop working with client’s representations of reality.  Maps are invaluable.  We need them to navigate the world, and they are useful when they are fairly accurate.  We need the guidance of our maps when we drive to work, cook a meal, use a computer, interact with others, and try to understand ourselves.  Maps become problematic when they are too out of date or inaccurate and when people live in their maps rather than in their immediate experience, but ultimately human beings cannot function in this world without maps.  It is essential for therapists to work with their clients’ maps.  We must listen deeply and come to understand our clients’ inner worlds if we are to connect with our clients and help them.  Deep, empathic listening is an act of profound respect, connection, and part of the painstaking, precise work that we do coming to know our clients’ maps.  Therapy interventions work best when they take into account the client’s inner world; if our suggestions are too far from our clients’ maps, our clients will find them unempathic and unhelpful.  To effectively help clients, therapists must know their maps well.    

Presence–Without Maps

Yet there is another important way of being in the world that is less appreciated, which can be called presence without maps, or simply being.  This can take the radical form of being in the moment with no map at all in the foreground of your awareness.   Less dramatically, it can mean being deeply aware that all your maps are provisional, that they are representations of reality that are only useful until a better representation comes along.  In other words, you come to recognize that your maps are not the Truth with a capital “T.”   This way of being involves presence with less conceptual mediation, and it can be a remarkable gift to yourself and others.  For example, you might look at your spouse without seeing him or her through the lens of yesterday’s argument and all the other struggles that are inevitable in intimate human relationships.  You might look at your children and your friends without seeing them through the filters of your past experience and your future expectations.  This allows for a seeing of the other as he or she is in the moment, rather than a perception that is colored by the past.  It allows for much greater and more direct intimacy, and it can profoundly transform relationships.  Krishnamurti called this “freedom from the known.”  When we have at least some degree of direct perception in the moment, it is as if a veil drops away—the world becomes more vivid, clearer, closer, and astoundingly rich and full of possibility.   Suddenly the streets have no name, and you can wander them freely without the expectations that usually limit you and without all the heavy baggage of your past.  There is a surprising kindness in travelling these streets—resentments and judgmental thoughts fall away, compassion arises naturally, and your footsteps are lighter.  

Mindfulness meditation can be helpful in developing the capacity for greater presence without maps (link Guided Mindfulness of Breath Meditation).  Beginning mindfulness practice involves “mindfulness of the body” and “mindfulness of breath”, which helps us connect more fully with our embodied presence in the moment.  More advanced mindfulness practice includes “mindfulness of the mind”; we turn our awareness to the workings of the mind and have the opportunity to see more clearly how the mind functions, which begins to give us some freedom from the mind.  This practice has shown me clearly that my thoughts are just representations of reality.  They are all constructions that I have created in an attempt to understand and control the world, and not one of them is objectively true.  At best, they are approximations of the world, in some ways useful and in some ways not.  At best, they are “useful fictions” and at worst they are just fiction, as the nondual teacher Adyashanti likes to say.  The Work of Byron Katie, which involves deconstructing beliefs with “four questions and a turnaround” is another method informed by this understanding. 

The extent to which we confuse the map with the territory is rarely fully understood.  To give an example: The Grand Canyon is a wonderful and lovely place to visit, with its immensity and vast natural beauty.  It is useful to bring a map of the Grand Canyon with you on a visit; it will help you find your way around.  But the map is obviously not the territory.  You aren’t going to go camping, pitch your tent next to a map of the Grand Canyon, and say that you are visiting the Grand Canyon. Yet, this is exactly what we do with our psychological maps of the world.  We tend to live in our conceptual sense of the world rather than in the vital reality.  We end up spending more time on our ideas about the Grand Canyon than on visiting the breathtaking Grand Canyon itself. 

To use our sense of identity as a particularly important example, we have ideas of who and what we are, such as “I’m an introvert”, “I’m an extrovert,” “I’m assertive,” “I’m passive,” “I’m successful,” “I’m a failure,” etc.  These ideas are maps, and they can be useful, but they are not what we actually are.  They may seem true one moment, and then not in the next.  More important, they are concepts, and we are not concepts.  We are something more immediate, more alive, more intimate, and more present.   The same is true of our friends, family, and the world we live in; it is all more immediate and alive and unpredictable than our maps would suggest.  To the extent that we walk around living primarily in our maps and in our conceptual identities, we walk around as shadows in a world of shadows.  On his deathbed, the Chinese sage Layman P’ang said:

I beg you to just see all existent phenomena as empty and to beware taking as real all that is nonexistent.  Take care of yourself in this world of shadows and echoes. 

He was not saying that the physical world is unreal; he was talking about our maps and mental representations.   Sadly, most of us spend most of our lives as shadows and echoes.   

Therapists can confuse the map with the territory, too, and this limits the effectiveness and vitality of therapy.  Therapists sometimes work with their clients’ maps as if the maps were the clients.  Therapists can focus on understanding and helping to change maps, on modifying internalized object relations or changing maladaptive beliefs, without recognizing that it is also helpful—sometimes more helpful—to help the client get in touch with what is here without the maps.  Instead of trying to change our client’s conceptual representations, we might instead help them deconstruct the representations—see through the conceptual maps—and get in touch with what is actually here in the moment. 

Mindfulness, which derives from Buddhist psychology, is an ancient system that recognizes the limits of the constructed self and teaches liberation from it—the conceptual self is considered to be ultimately unreal, an aspect of samsara or the world of illusion, and not our True Nature.  Two transpersonal approaches that also make use of this understanding are A. H. Almaas’ Diamond Approach and Judith Blackstone’s Realization Process.  Following is an example of the use of Realization Process and the Diamond Approach in my own personal work of growth and change.  While this is an example of my personal work, I have found this process equally effective with many clients. 

Personal Example

One of the Realization Process exercises, called “Attunement to Fundamental Consciousness” (link Guided Attunement to Fundamental Consciousness Meditation) is similar to a body scan as done in the mindfulness tradition, but much more precise and focused.  The emphasis in this exercise is on inhabiting the internal space of the body, starting with the feet and moving up to the head, and also connecting with the inherent qualities of gender, power, love, self-expression, and understanding that reside in the body/mind of all of us.  This exercise, done repeatedly over a period of time, helps one to become deeply connected with these essential qualities. 

In doing this exercise, I noticed that I easily connected with most of my essential qualities—I connected easily with gender, self-expression, understanding, and especially love, but I had real difficulty connecting with power and strength.  We tend to experience this quality in the midsection of the body, particularly in the solar plexus area, and this part of my body did not feel open and available to me.  In fact, it felt contracted and also empty, as if there was a “hole” in my body, to use the language of the Diamond Approach.   Working with two very helpful teachers, I found that by simply being present and bringing awareness to the “hole” without trying to change it, I became increasingly able to inhabit this part of my body.  We also worked with exaggerating the contraction and releasing it, while bringing subtle awareness to it.  One of the teachers was particularly helpful in pointing out my conceptual resistances to owning my power—my tendency to equate it with the abuse of power and to “power over” others.  He pointed out the value of owning my power to speak the truth as I see it and owning the power to bring my particular gifts to the world, and this helped me see the value of cultivating personal power.  As I was able to fully inhabit my solar plexus and midsection without contraction, I found an unexpected reservoir of strength and power.  What was most surprising was that I did not have to do anything to create or develop or earn it; it was simply there when I was able to be fully present in my body/mind.  This work led me to find something—a sense of power and strength—that was not on my map.  In fact, by working with presence, I found something in my immediate experience that was actually far from my map.  And, in the process of knowing and naming my power and strength, the map itself began to grow and change organically.  I found that work with presence can sometimes change one’s map—although that is not the main point of the work.  The main point is to live vividly in your experience, in the moment, without the limiting filter of yesterday’s experience. 

I have used personal power as an example, but the same process is useful in helping people get in touch with a sense of vitality, a sense of personal worth and value, the capacity to love, self-expression, a sense of groundedness, and a long list of the qualities we all need to live fully and meaningfully.   In my work as a therapist, I have found this exercise and others like it to be invaluable. 

I would like to finish with a reminder that these two ways of being in the world, non-conceptual presence and mapmaking, are complementary, not contradictory; we need both.  Exploring the city where the streets have no name is an under-recognized and underappreciated way of living.  It is an immediate, vivid, and remarkably intimate way of being.  It shows us a world that is vaster and more mysterious than the rational mapmaking mind can understand.  But we also need our maps.  Sometimes it’s good to know what street you are on, where you have been, and where you are going.  Both are necessary, in life, and in psychotherapy. 

My apologies to U2 for borrowing the title of their song, “Where the Streets Have No Name” from their groundbreaking 1987 album, “The Joshua Tree”. 


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