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The Integral Map


Once several years ago after laser surgery to treat a condition in my right eye, I returned to the eye clinic for a follow up exam.  I was waiting to see my doctor (a retinal specialist) when he came out with another doctor and gestured to an elderly woman, who had been patiently waiting, to stand up and come closer.  “I want you to see something”, he said to the other doctor.  He then motioned for the woman to tilt her face up so he could shine a light into one of her eyes.  He looked through some kind of lens and then had the other doctor take a look as well.  As the woman stood there the two men had a brief conversation with each other about what they had seen, and then they just walked off.  There had been no introduction, no “please”, no “thank you”, and no “take care now”.  The elderly woman remained for a moment, appearing slightly confused, and then returned to her seat to continue waiting.  I found the whole interaction deeply offensive; and the way the woman seemed to accept such treatment was almost as stunning to me as the horrible manners of the two men.

Aside from speculating about bad upbringing and assuming the tendency of some doctors to be arrogant, I could only understand such an interaction by considering that these two men saw themselves as “fixers of retinas”.  It just so happened that that particular retina was attached to an elderly woman who had a name, a face, a history, a future, feelings, and everything else that goes along with being human.  Apparently they were highly respected retinal specialists who knew practically everything there is to know about retinas.  Unfortunately, they didn’t appear to know much at all about common human decency.  Perhaps it wasn’t part of their medical training.  Their knowledge and skill was so constricted to retinas that the quality of their care suffered greatly.  I believe they needed a broader more comprehensive vision or map for what they were doing.

Just after I had had the surgery I returned to work and was describing the procedure to my boss.  I explained how it had left me with a permanent blind spot, because the laser had seared part of my retina.  She didn’t seem particularly sympathetic as she leaned toward me, looked into my eye, and said, “Well, it looks fine to me.”  It struck me as odd that she didn’t seem to understand that the problem wasn’t about what she could see, but rather about what I could no longer see.  In fact, as I thought about it, her apparent “blind spot” seemed more tragic than mine.  This emphasized to me the need to take and contemplate the perspective of those I care for.  What looks fine to me may not be fine for another.  What seems to be possible, and therefore warrant my expectations, may not be possible for another.  In order to remedy my many blind spots, I need a map that gives me as many perspectives as possible.

During the 8 years that I worked in psychiatric hospitals it was common to hear staff refer to patients as “the schizophrenic in room 7”, “the bipolar in room 12”, or “the borderline admitted yesterday”.  People became their diagnoses.  They were seen through that lens and then often treated as a conceptual category rather than as human beings.  This is not much different than treating people like damaged retinas.  I understand that it is also common on medical units for people to be referred to as “the gunshot wound” or ‘the head trauma” or ‘the fractured pelvis”.  Caregivers of any kind do tend to see those they care for through their own particular lens and focus on just the part that seems to need fixing.  With increasing specialization of knowledge and treatment techniques available to care providers, it becomes more and more tempting to isolate our attention and activity to smaller and smaller parts of people.  We shrink our maps to fit our limited views.  I believe this constriction happens in many if not most specialties of care, both physical and psychological, and while it may have some usefulness it also causes us to lose sight of the wholeness of human beings.  This can lead not only to bad manners, but ultimately to less effective care.

Before plunging into the details of providing care, in this chapter we will first take a giant step back and see if we can frame the “big picture”.  How can we possibly avoid focusing just on “small parts” and consider the whole person?  Encountering someone in distress, perhaps suffering with an extreme state of mind, dire circumstances, or a physical trauma, can fill us with fear, awe, or dizzy fascination.   We can feel disoriented, overwhelmed, and confused.  It might seem as though we are entering an uncharted wilderness full of danger and intrigue.  We could be tempted to reduce our attention down to just one narrow perspective, or else run for cover.  But if we have a really good “map”, there are other possibilities.  If we have a way to orient ourselves to the basic terrain, know where the river runs, where the mountains rise, where the forest grows, and where the meadows open out, then we don’t have to put on blinders or feel completely lost.  No map can tell us what birds and bushes we will find around every corner, but it can tell us generally where we are in relation to other aspects of the territory.  If we don’t want to get hopelessly lost or sidetracked, it will be helpful to have some reliable reference points. 

Even so, I think it is important to acknowledge that there is always room for mystery.  Caring for others will call us into all sorts of uncertainties and require our faith and fearlessness just to remain lovingly present with those in distress.  Yet we are more likely to be helpful if we also have a general orientation for what is involved in providing care.  The integral map is a weaving together of “orienting generalizations” and offers one kind of useful “big picture”.

Of course, human beings have been making maps of the cosmos and our place in it for thousands of years.  Indigenous cultures have provided maps for shamans to journey between “upper, middle, and lower worlds”.  Astrological systems the world over have given us ways to situate and understand ourselves in relation to mythical celestial figures.  Religious traditions have suggested hierarchies of beings from wretched souls tortured in hell, to angels floating in ethereal heavens.  Over the past few hundred years science has created maps of our entire planet and much of the observable universe.  It has also mapped out the human genome and much of the vast network of neural connections in our brains.  Our western psychological tradition and more recently cognitive sciences, have offered us a great range of maps for charting the human mind and its development.  We may not think about it, but we are the inheritors of a tremendous number of maps that orient our lives in all kinds of ways.  If we want to get to the local Walmart or to Life Eternal in God’s Kingdom, we may want to use some sort of map.  

In my personal and professional life I have long had a passionate curiosity about comprehensive, integrated maps that include all viewpoints and knowledge domains. This has come out of my confusion and frustration about the fragmented nature of my own education, and a deep longing to understand myself and the world with a sense of connected wholeness.  I have wondered intensely about what in the world to do with all of the different bits of information coming from all directions.  Biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, physics, mysticism, etc. - do these things have anything to do with each other?  Do they fit together at all?  Perhaps you have had the same frustration, longing, and wondering.  If so, then maps can be more than dry and abstract diagrams taking up space on a page and triggering migraines.  They can provide a window to the world and to territories where we can actually go and journey.  No one would look at a map of Paris and complain that it was no fun.  We understand that a map is only a tool for getting ourselves to the places where we actually can have fun.  The same is true for the integral map.

It has been a great satisfaction to me to find a whole and connected map in the work of contemporary American philosopher Ken Wilber.  Over the past three decades he has pioneered a new field sometimes called Integral Studies, and offers an integral map that I believe is unrivaled in its completeness and integrative power.  Wilber’s own dissatisfaction with the fragmented nature of knowledge and its application compelled him to discover how multiple, sometimes competing points of view could all offer something toward a greater inclusive understanding.  I have also found it of enormous value in my own aspiration to care for others.

The integral map is composed of five basic parts called: quadrants, levels, lines, states, and types.  We will take our time in this first chapter to understand what each of these words mean, as they will provide the fundamental reference points for the rest of this book.  While some may initially find these concepts complex or confusing, they actually refer to things that are just common sense and available to anyone’s immediate awareness.

Please visit Part 2 - Quadrants

Quote from Wilber re: orienting generalizations

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