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Martha Beck is the bestselling author of The Way of Integrity and host of the podcast Bewildered. This article first appeared as “Charting Your Course” in the June 2012 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Odysseus just wanted to go to Ithaca. No, not the one in upstate New York—the one in ancient Greece. He dreamed of it the whole seven years he spent trapped on the island of the nymph Calypso. Eventually the pitying gods ordered Calypso to free him, at which point he managed to build a boat and set out on what he hoped would be a brief and pleasant journey.
At every turn, Odysseus's travels were filled with surprises. He conquered monsters at sea only to find worse ones waiting on land. He encountered seductions that sent him half mad with longing. Finally, in the Land of the Dead, he got clear directions from a seer who, oxymoronically enough, was blind.
Does this ring any bells for you? Maybe you, too, feel stranded in your life, awash in a turbulent sea, or lured by the Siren song of a terrifying love. Or maybe you just hope to experience Winnipeg someday, if only for a long weekend. Fortunately, you have your own internal "blind seer". It can feel its way into the future and draw you a map. I mean literally. Our project today is to help you create a map of your own epic tomorrows—a magically morphing guide that will get more detailed and accurate as you travel.
The Sea of Life
I've created many life maps in my time, and they all assumed one thing: The journey was over land, with things pretty much staying where you put them. These days, however, almost every life requires a sea map. The pace of change in our world has become so rapid that everything—every job, every family, every possibility—is constantly shifting like water. Maps are even more necessary at sea than on land, so it's time you had one. To get started, you'll need a computer and printer (if you like computers), magazines that appeal to you, photos from your private collection, a roll of butcher paper or a clean stretch of wall to use as the backdrop for your map, and some kindergarten tools (paper, scissors, markers, tape). Got all that? Good.
Step 1: Make an Ideal Island
Your first job is to create your own Ithaca, your dreamed-of destination, your ideal future. Since your internal blind seer thinks in pictures, not words, you'll be making a vision board: a collage of images that appeal to you. You can cut pictures from magazines and glue them to a sheet of paper. The process is simple—find appealing images and put them together. Always choose pictures that are viscerally pleasing, images that make you respond with wordless sounds: "Oooh!" "Aaah!" "Mmm!"
The vision of your ideal life doesn't have to look possible, just delicious. When your collage feels delectable enough—aim for about a dozen images—put it on the far right side of your long stretch of butcher paper or wall (obviously, if you're using a computer, you'll have to print your vision board). Label your collage Ideal Island. This is where most vision board exercises end. But we're just getting started.
Step 2: Make an Island of Experience
The most useful maps have an accurate point that says YOU ARE HERE, so your next step is to make a collage of your life as it is now. Think through a typical day. What do you do from dawn to dusk? How does your body look and feel? What are your relationships like? Find images or words that illustrate each. And be honest. Include the chocolate addiction, the clutter, the heartbreak, everything. Then tack this collage to the far left side of your butcher paper or wall. Label it Island of Experience.
You've now created two collages: one depicting what you want to be and do and have, and one depicting what you're currently being and doing and having. Next up: mapping the islands you must visit while journeying from one to the other.
Step 3: Map Your Islands of Enhancement
Odysseus didn't just hit the water; he sailed from island to island, encountering different adventures. The trip was interrupted by storms, love affairs, and problems with his boat. Hey, ship happens. You, too, will island-hop from experience to experience, procuring supplies, asking for directions, falling into pit traps. If you proceed without a plan, the journey will feel out of your control. Luckily, it's possible to start mapping the trip before it begins.
For every image on your Ideal Island that isn't on your Island of Experience, you'll create an Island of Enhancement. For example, if your Ideal Island includes visiting Peru but you've never left Kentucky, label a blank sheet "Travel to Peru". Stick this page between the Island of Experience and Ideal Island. Then fill it with images of your adventure: people chewing coca leaves, exploring Machu Picchu, adopting a wild macaw.
Repeat this process for every item that appears in your ideal life but not in your actual experience. This is not something you'll do in one fell swoop. I have island chains that took me a year to make. During moments of inspiration (or uncertainty), this work can be immensely revelatory (or calming). You're creating an archipelago of experiences to get you to your dream. But before you can get there, you've got one more category of islands to create.
Step 4: Create Your Islands of Enlightenment
There are probably things on your Island of Experience that don't appear on your Ideal Island: anxiety, for instance, or cigarettes, or that extremely judgmental aunt whose hugs feel like strangles. For each item, create an Island of Enlightenment—a place where you'll unload encumbrances.
Just as you did for the things you want, label sheets of paper with each thing you don't want: anxiety, tobacco, Aunt Gladys. Now find images of people defeating such monsters—getting therapy, chomping on nicotine gum, setting boundaries with incoming aunts. This may involve research. Google your topic, paw through magazines, ask knowing friends. As you collect ideas and information, add images of freedom to each Island of Enlightenment. Continue this process until you have an island for everything in your current life you hope to leave behind. Now you can hoist anchor and set sail.
Step 5: Go Island-Hopping for Provisions and Information
To follow your map, seek activities that resemble any part of any island other than your Island of Experience. It's often best to start with the Islands of Enhancement. If your Travel to Peru collage includes the rainforest, Machu Picchu, and macaws, live those pictures, or something like them. Eat guava and mangoes. Train for hikes on a stair machine. Wear parrot feathers in your hair. Then begin living the experiences on your Islands of Enlightenment: Find a therapist, join a tobacco recovery group, get assertiveness or martial arts training to deal with Aunt Gladys.
What you're doing here is normalizing the feel of your Ideal Island. This is key to reaching your goal, because people have a way of almost ineluctably creating situations that feel normal. Traveling the archipelago also opens you to helpful information and relationships. The more you explore, the more accessible you make the experiences on Ideal Island.
Step 6: Incorporate New Information into the Island of Experience and Your Ideal Island
Remember, I said this was a magical morphing map. Each time you visit an island in your archipelago, go back to your Island of Experience and your Ideal Island and update them:
Add an image of whatever you just did to your Island of Experience.
If you found something unexpectedly unpleasant—for instance, it turns out you're allergic to macaws—remove the corresponding image(s) from your Ideal Island and replace them with something you've discovered you like more (you might drop Peru and add a trip to Kalamazoo).
As you discover the details of each experience, put additional images on your Ideal Island. For example, if you hear about a great hotel in Lima, you can add an image of the place to your Ideal collage.
Step 7: Repeat
Continue exploring as long as there are any differences between the Island of Experience and Ideal Island. Each time something delights you, add it to your experiences. Each time something disappoints or harms you, find the way to beat it, and put up images that represent your approach. Subtract from your Ideal Island anything that proves unworthy, and add images that feel more like you.
I can't promise that using your map this way will take you directly to your best life—but I can promise it'll take you there indirectly, and that's as good as it gets. One day you'll unroll your length of butcher paper or check out your map wall, and realize two things:
1. You have a clear, detailed, uncluttered picture of the life you want to live, and
2. You're living it. Your magical map is filled with portraits of your present, preceded by a long chain of amazing memories.
And Finally....Claiming Your Kingdom
I should mention that for Odysseus, Ithaca wasn't just any old island. It was his kingdom, the one place where, in all the world, he most belonged. That's right: Odysseus's epic adventure was all about going home. And so is yours—even if your Ideal Island is a place you've never been. Whenever you go somewhere that speaks to your soul, you are going home to yourself.
Of course, even after Odysseus's homecoming, he had to keep adventuring, to manage a kingdom filled with pretenders and thieves. But his journey had made him comfortable with uncertainty and improvisation. He mapped out yet another plan, routed his competitors, reclaimed his position, and rejoined his beloved wife. Then he ruled wisely and well, not in spite of his troublesome journey but because of it. Odysseus's destination was Ithaca, but his destiny was The Odyssey.
You, too, were born to become yourself by creating the experiences you live. Generations from now, your descendants will unroll the tattered map of your life, partly to celebrate your legendary homecoming, but mostly to remember the odyssey that was your real purpose all along.
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