The Map is not the Territory
Vikram Karve

The map is not the territory

What does this mean ?

Liehtse’s famous parable of the Old Man at the Fort is perhaps apt to illustrate this concept :-

An Old Man was living with his Son at an abandoned fort on the top of a hill, and one day he lost a horse.

The neighbours came to express their sympathy for this misfortune, but the Old Man asked, “ How do you know this bad luck ? The fact is that one horse is missing and there is one horse less in the stables. That is the fact. Whether it is good luck or bad luck – that is a matter of judgment.”

A few days afterwards, his horse returned with a number of wild horses, and his neighbours came again to congratulate him on this stroke of fortune, and the Old Man replied, “ How do you know this is good luck ? The fact is that there are more horses in my stable than before. Whether it is good luck or bad luck – well that is a matter of opinion.”

With so many horses around, his son began to take to riding, and one day while riding a wild horse he was thrown off and broke his leg. Again the neighbours came around to express their sympathy, and the Old Man replied, “ How do you know this is bad luck ?”

A few days later a war broke out and all the able bodied men were forcibly conscripted into the army, sent to the warfront to fight and most of them were killed or wounded. Because the Old Man’s son had a broken leg he did not have to go to the front and his life was saved.

This parable drives home the lesson that there are no such things like good luck and bad luck. What disturbs you are not events but your attitude towards them. You must learn to distinguish between facts and your attitude or judgment towards those facts. It’s all in the mind. Facts are like territory – ground reality. But the way you interpret or judge those facts, your attitude towards them, depends on your mental map.

This mental map is formed due to your values, beliefs and experiences and you tend to view the actual facts or events (territory) through mental filters based on your values, beliefs, biases, prejudices and experiences which form your mental map.

Remember, just like the actual physical geographical territory exists on the ground and its map is drawn on paper, actual facts and events happen in reality and each one of us interprets them depending on the different maps in our minds.

Events, by themselves, don’t hurt you, it is your attitudes and responses ( mental maps) that disturb you and give you trouble. It then becomes your paramount duty to introspect and continuously redesign your mental maps to develop the correct attitude and responses towards external events.

When something happens the only thing in your power is your attitude towards it. We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them. The secret of inner calm lies inside you, in developing the proper mental “maps” and correct attitude in your mind, so that you are not disturbed by the vicissitudes of external events which are akin to the outside “territory”.

Remember, the map is not the territory.


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  1. 1
    Hiren Says:

    Nice article. What you have said is true for certaiin situations and mental maps are indeed more important than the actual situation in a majority of cases. However there is an element of luck in certain situations and everything should not be misinterpreted in terms of wrong attitude.


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