Cynefin diagram - complexity

Image by Andyrob

It seems to me that life, the universe and everything is more than we can understand entirely.  I think all of us will have had the experience of needing to see how we view something or understand our lives.  This can be embarrassing and difficult, it can also be delightful and liberating.  Whichever it is, it means that we don’t know everything.

But then if we can’t know everything, if we can’t be sure: What are we to do?

1. Forget that we don’t know. And this largely works.  Most of our lives are quite predictable.  It may not be absolutely certain that the sun will rise tomorrow and the floor will support us when we get up in the morning; but it is usually so close to absolutely certain that it makes no difference. 

The more uncertain the situation the less use this becomes.  In human relationships it can be especially tricky.  Most of the time people observe the rituals and conventions, but then sometimes they don’t: people are less reliable than the sun and the floor.  One time we become aware of this is when we move between different social groups.  I was brought up in evangelical Christianity.  The words that were permissible in this group excluded some that were permitted in the secular high school I attended.  There were also different rituals and assumptions (for instance it was assumed that prayer and Bible Study were good things to do in one but not the other).

2. Use approximations. The other way we have of responding to our not knowing everything is to use approximations.  We use ‘maps’ in all sorts of ways.  We use a street directory to get from one place to the other we leaves out almost everything on the journey.  This is an incredibly rough approximation – just imagine your own street and then look at it in a street directory!  But it is a good enough approximation.  The map is enough for it to work.

We use approximations (maps) all the time.  For instance my map of a car pretty much amounts to: accelerator, brake, clutch, gear shift, seat, seat belt, door, mirror.  This is in some ways an outrageous simplification – but it is enough for my purposes.  Others will have a far richer map of this part of reality than I do.

We also have maps about ourselves and our past.  If we get to think about who we are then we are likely to come up with a list of attributes or typical behaviours.  It is very like me to get up in the morning, get dressed, put the jug on for a cup of coffee while the computer starts up.  It is also like me to be analytical and verbal.

Likewise I have maps of my past.  When I think back over my life I don’t remember everything I pick out what I think of as key events.  I can still remember my father, a fitter and turner, when I was deciding what subjects to do in high school: “You’ve got it in your head”.  I remember discovering the book Seasons of a Man’s Life and how it fitted my life course, even though I hadn’t anything remotely close to a typical ‘career’.

The trouble with these approximations (maps) is that we can forget that is what they are – just maps.  We often forget that they leave out lots of who we are and lots of what has happened to us.

When I got to know a friend I realised that I could pay attention to the music in songs not just the lyrics.  I still hear the lyrics first but my appreciation of songs has been enriched by learning that I can also listen to the music and (in good songs) how it relates to the lyrics.  If I’d stuck to my idea about me that I was a ‘word’ person this whole part of life would have remained closed to me.  The approximation would have got in the way of my appreciation of life.

The big problem is that it is very difficult to know when this is happening.  We don’t know everything and so we need to use approximations, but it is so easy to forget that this is what we are doing.  And in the process lose whole realms of life.

Here are some ideas to help you be aware of using approximations.

  • Learn something new related to an area you are interested in or familiar with.  If you have a craft or art then you may learn about its history.  You could investigate how an everyday object (sink, chair, wall) is put together.
  • You can ask somebody about a shared past experience.  You may be surprised how differently the same even can be remembered.  My sisters and I, though we grew up in the same place with the same parents, in a very real sense had different childhoods – they had an older brother for instance, which I didn’t.
  • Imagine how your life would have been if you had made a different choice.  This can range from getting hit by that car instead of the near miss it was, to having chosen different subjects in high school, to having accepted one job rather than another.  Imagine how you would have been a different person now.  This is just to give us the sense that who we are now could be very different – that our approximations about who we are (our map of ourselves) could be very different to what it is.
  • Particular kinds of meditation can help us get beyond ‘thought’ (which roughly speaking means our labels and approximations) and more in touch with ‘what is’.
  • Learning another language can give a sense of another way of looking at the world (though this can take a lot of time and work of course).
  • Playing with our rituals and so on.  Imagine, if you are a westerner, how your experience would be different if you greeted people by bowing.  Imagine, if you from Asia, how different it would be to not bow – ever.  This can be just fun – how would it be if to shake hands we turned back to back and had to find each others hands by touch?


These are all just ways to become aware that we are using approximations.  When we become aware of this, it is my experience that we gain a sense of aliveness.  We are able to hold our approximations more lightly – to know that they are just maps.  Curiously we then become better at using them, and we also have a greater appreciation of life.

Have their been times in your life when you have become aware that what you thought was real was only your approximation or map?  If so how did this feel to you – unimportant, a life changing insight, a liberation?  I’d love to hear your experience in the comments.

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>