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The Story Behind "Mapping the Field of Collective Wisdom"

Alan Briskin
May 2003

“...every map is the sum not only of the cartographer’s skills, but of the many explorers who win the territory in the first place. Thus the map is both aesthetic and informational, as individual as any work of art but also communal and consensual, the product of cultural values (especially the value of exploration itself) and accumulated wisdoms.” - Stephen S. Hall, Mapping the Next Millennium

Sitting together in a hotel room in Providence, Rhode Island, Carol Frenier, Sheryl Erickson, and I asked each other what had been learned to date about the field of collective wisdom. We were curious if we might set down markers of an extraordinary inquiry that we had engaged with over the past 2 years. All three of us shared a fascination with the mapping and exploration of unknown territories, the literal and imaginal realms to be explored. We had enthusiastically embraced James Cowan’s fictional account of the Venetian cartographer, Fra Mauro, as a metaphor and example illustrating how mapping might be a way to portray multiple findings and the breadth of discoveries. Stephen Ambrose's book, Undaunted Courage, on the Lewis and Clark expedition had fueled our collective imagination for direct experience and Peter Whitfield’s book, The Image of the World, documented 2,000 years of mapping initiatives, examples of which I brought with me to the meeting in Rhode Island. The underlying theme was that maps initiated discovery even before an in depth knowledge of the terrain was known.

I brought with me a map I helped create, a drawing rendered by Chrisann Brennan, an artist and graphic illustrator. She helped bring together, in visual form, conversations that Sheryl, Carol, and I had been having with each other, and by extension with dozens of people in the field - writers, artists, scholars, and practitioners. How might we map an initial synthesis of the field of collective wisdom?

I handed copies of the map to my colleagues, asking only that they locate themselves on the map before they critique it. By locate, I mean to find a place on the map of resonance – what intuitively registers as relevant, meaningful, and important. Let the map speak to you energetically as well as conceptually.

I pointed out only a few markers by which they might orient themselves. At the center is the “human stage of activity” where manifestations of living systems and group mind are possible. Above and below are the archetypal and divine forces acting on the human stage of activity. From below, chaos and the heat of raw survival inform archetypal forces as does the natural world and animal kingdoms. From above descend elements of a divine energy that shift consciousness at the place of paradox and through deep emotion. The joy of “ i am/ I AM” can be experienced through the realm of the ego or collectively through the realm of Self or spirit nature. This is what I offered.

My colleagues sat together in an extended silence. Slowly we began to discuss what felt right and what confusing, troubling, or just plain different from our own visual images. The map is primitive in the sense of archaic, already dated by what new language and learning that has occurred. Yet, it is still alive with meaning, a chance to glimpse visually ideas we seldom discuss concretely. It is a chance to find out what resonates for you and an invitation to create your own maps of the subtle realms.

So locate yourself on the map and then discover what feels right and what new visual images arise.


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