When Spiritual Maps Go Wrong


I recently re-read a book by Grinder and Bandler called, “The Structure of Magic” in which they created a meta model based on how successful therapists use language to understand what’s happening in the minds of their clients.  It’s a fascinating book demonstrating how the language a person uses to explain what they’re thinking and feeling isn’t always the most accurate or complete expression of the experience.  A good therapist is able to pick up on the manner in which the client’s description is incomplete or poorly formed and clarify it.  When someone experiences something they create a type of “map” of that experience and when they retell someone about the experience they aren’t explaining what actually occurred, they’re describing a representation of the experience through language.  Therefore, a therapist can only understand the client’s experience as well as the map the client provides describes it.  If the therapist wants a better understanding of the client’s inner world he or she has to recognize when the map is insufficient and help the client create a better map.  Once the client and therapist have a better understanding of the client’s world there’s an opportunity for the client to choose something previously missed because of the ill formed map.

Grinder and Bandler propose clients do three things when mapping their experiences which keeps them from seeing things clearly.  These three “map deformers” are deletion, distortion, and generalization.  These processes are neither good nor bad, they’re simply things we do when encoding experiences in our minds.  While often helpful they can also impact our ability to see beneficial options which provide better choices for overcoming problems.  For example, deletions are important because we have a great deal of information entering our conscious at once that can be confusing if processed all at the same time.  Deletions allow us to filter out what’s unimportant so we can concentrate on what’s most important at the moment.  We may need to focus on a conversation we’re having with someone in a crowded room so we completely blank out what other people are saying around us.  At a therapeutic level this can work against us.  An employee might believe he or she is unappreciated because the supervisor never compliments his or her work.  Yet, the supervisor might give this employee extra time off, a bonus, etc.  These acts of appreciation are “deleted” because the employee believes appreciation is only demonstrated through words not actions (i.e. This is an example of how a limited map about how appreciation is demonstrated can impact someone).  

Distortions, another process we use when creating maps, can also be helpful or harmful depending on how they’re executed.  A  positive aspect of distortions is they facilitate creativity.  When we use our imagination, we take everyday normal experiences and think of them in different and new ways.  However, this creative ability can work against us as well.  Take the employee mentioned above.  If we share with that employee it seems he or she really is appreciated because of the many extra benefits the supervisor provides, the employee may distort that nonverbal message and remark, “He just does that so I’ll keep working hard, not because I’m appreciated.”  There’s some element of truth to the the fact the supervisor wants to keep the employee motivated, but it’s also an act of kindness and gratitude the employee continues to distort to maintain the opinion he or she already has of the supervisor.  

The last way we encounter these “map deformers” is through generalizations.  For example, we may have had the experience of being bit by an angry dog as a child.  As we grew up however, we generalized that all dogs are mean and bite.  This is helpful for protecting ourselves, but can be a problem in other cases.  For example, a man is rejected by a woman he asks out on a date.  This experience causes him to believe he’s unlovable and therefore destined to be lonely.  We generalize the experience and create a limited map about dating and our own like-ability.

At this point you’re asking yourself what any of this has to do with the spiritual life.  I think these three map deformers are also things we do when experiencing God.  So often the spiritual life doesn’t reflect an accurate understanding of God and therefore cannot be a transformative agent in our lives.  Remember, our minds and souls are interconnected therefore how we think often impacts our spiritual experiences just as our experiences of the mystical and divine impacts how we think about things.  The two are not detached from one another.  We need to spend time with a trusted friend or spiritual director to reflect on how we may have deleted, distorted, or generalized our spiritual experiences in such a way they no longer reflect what’s true, beautiful, and good.  For example, we may have experienced the death of someone we love even after praying feverishly for them.  Because it seems this prayer wasn’t answered we generalize the experience believing God doesn’t hear the prayers of his faithful servants.  Maybe we delete something from our spiritual experience at this difficult moment.  Maybe we delete the fact when praying for our loved one God provided a sense of peace and comfort to both you and the one suffering.  We delete this positive element of the experience because of the overwhelming sense of grief and loss we feel.  Perhaps we distort our experience of God to the point he’s no longer the God revealed in scripture but rather a god we create from our own imagination.  I’ve seen my clients do this again and again.  When they’re angry with someone they want the vengeful just God of the Old Testament; the God who will vindicate them.  When they’ve done something they know is wrong they focus on the God of forgiveness and mercy and delete his just nature.  In each case the client deletes, distorts, or generalizes who God is and how the spiritual life works to create their own spiritual map.  Then, they use this map to accommodate their experiences.  However, just like in the natural world, when a map is inaccurate it limits your options and you can’t make important choices that allow you to flourish.

Let me close with this example from my own spiritual life.  I felt the call to ordained ministry for many years.  When I reentered the spiritual life I did so through a church denomination that didn’t allow married men to be ordained.  The spiritual map I created said this was the only church I could ever be a part of and therefore I had to accept the fact I will never be ordained.  That vocation burned in my heart and I tried to push it away for many years.  Then, my spiritual director read the parable of the talents when we were discussing vocations  and he asked me to reflect on it until our next meeting.  In that parable, the servant who took what the master gave him and hid it (actually buries it like I was doing with my vocation) is the one who is chastised the most.  I soon figured out the spiritual map I created had deleted some options and distorted my understanding of other churches to the point I wasn’t doing what God wanted me to do.

If you’re in spiritual direction work with your director to identify where you distort, delete, and generalize spiritual truths to the point it limits you from fulfilling the life God desires for you.  If you’re a spiritual director, look for these in your directees as well.  It’s only when we embrace life as it truly is we find the many options we have to live it well.  Become masters of your spiritual lives by developing a well formed spiritual map and allow God to give you the grace of a thriving, peaceful, fulfilling life.


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