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Congruence

© 2000 Steve Andreas

Congruence is a name for that state in which every fiber of your being is in agreement. Wherever your attention is, it is undivided. Whether you are watching a sunset or changing a flat tire, no part of you is attending to something else. No part is whispering, “But you really have to start cooking dinner,” or “I should have checked the air earlier.” No part is imagining how the sunset could be improved by a little stronger orange, or thinking about getting new tires. No part is wanting to move because the position of your back is a bit uncomfortable.

If you look back at that description, you will find that congruence is characterized by an absence of modal operators. There are no “have to’s,” “should’s,” “choices,” “desires,” or “possibilities” intruding into what you are doing at the moment. Another way of describing this is that all the modal operators collapse together, focused on the present moment, excluding everything else. If you are really watching a sunset or changing a tire in this way, you can, you want to, you have to, and you have chosen to, do this, and nothing else.

Congruence is a delightful state, because there is no conflict between alternate desires or opportunities, no decisions to be made, no alternatives to be considered, nothing else to be done. Many people describe congruent states in mystical terms of being “at one with the universe,” and a great deal of time and energy is put into achieving this charmed state of congruence, because it is so comfortable and enjoyable.

However, everyday living continually presents us with alternatives from which to choose. “Which one would I enjoy the most?” Our own manifold needs and desires provide another set of opportunities for incongruence. “Should I eat now, make that phone call, or continue reading this article?”

Congruence is particularly desired by people who are in fierce internal struggles with themselves, with disparate parts repeatedly warring over alternatives that are perceived to be important to their living. One part of a person wants to indulge in chocolates, drugs, purchases, or conversation, while another part recognizes that the future consequences are undesirable, or that other choices might be much more satisfying. People seek congruence when an incongruence is important, pervasive, and long-lasting. In situations like these, the value of achieving congruence is obvious, and NLP has a number of very effective ways of helping people reach satisfying resolutions to conflicts.

However, sometimes the search for congruence is carried too far and becomes something of a “holy grail,” not only unattainable, but entirely undesirable, and something that occupies much too much of one’s attention. What would the consequences be if a person were always completely congruent?

Whenever we shift attention from one activity to another, there is that inevitable moment when we are attending to both the present experience and the one we contemplate shifting to. With complete congruence, this would be impossible. In the example of the sunset above, the totally congruent person would be completely at the mercy of external environmental changes, and have to sit there until the sunset changed to darkness.

Choosing between alternatives — whether between internal desires, or external opportunities — also always involves comparing two experiences to determine which is likely to be more satisfying, and this requires that the person be incongruent for at least a moment or two. With total congruence, we would never be able to choose a new alternative, move on to learn something new, look into the future or refer back to the past, have a new thought, or be able to enter someone else’s world of experience. In a real world, total congruence would result in stasis, unhappiness, and total dependence on our surroundings.

And in fact the comfort and simplicity of congruence is often so important to us that we are quite willing to delete alternatives, avoid decisions, refuse to consider new ideas, ignore disparate internal needs etc. in order to achieve it. This can be only a temporary solution, because the changing world of experience eventually intrudes and disrupts it. We may view these intrusions as foreign and dangerous, and spend a good deal of our time and effort struggling to avoid or eliminate any experience that does not already fit our small and rigidly congruent world. What is really satisfying is to have a dynamic balance between congruence and incongruence, and a full appreciation for the importance and value of both.

Congruence allows us to concentrate fully on one experience temporarily, either to appreciate it fully and learn from it, or to get something done. Incongruence allows us to consider the infinite possibilities and consequences that living continually offers us. In In order to maintain this balance, we need to understand and appreciate both sides of the balance well, have ways of detecting different kinds of imbalance, and have ways of restoring our balance when imbalance is detected.


In response to this article I received the following letter:

Dear Steve Andreas,

I have just read your article on “Congruence” in the Changes Newsletter. I think you have completely misunderstood and misrepresented congruence. I think you have set up this misunderstood concept in order to knock it down and replace it with something you want to push. I’m not sure what it is, though you do mention NLP.

I don’t know why you think that congruence means stasis. Maybe you are confusing it with “Satori”/”Samadhi”, experiences of oneness with self and the other and life itself?

Congruence is a term from Person-Centered counseling. It means that what you show on the outside is what you are experiencing inside. The agreement is between your inner state and your outer expression. So it is perfectly possible to be in a process of change or to be in inner conflict and to be congruent. To be congruent you need to be in touch with, and to show and express the inner process or inner conflict and all the feelings that you are experiencing in that moment, rather than try to suppress or conceal all or parts of your inner state.

As for the state you describe in your article, even that is not static. It flows, and if you remain in that state of oneness, you respond choicelessly with your whole being to each new present moment. After all, sunsets end, and changing a tire is finished at some time.

I think that what you are describing is the moment when the mind tries to interrupt the experience of oneness with its concerns. At that moment, the person has a choice between watching their mind trying to interrupt, and carry on being at one, while watching, or to choose to identify with the mind and get involved in inner conflict. The former choice is the “enlightened” or “meditative” way, the latter is the way of the world. It is not a choice between stasis and movement, but a choice between choiceless response to each moment with whatever it brings, and getting involved in the mind’s games, which take us away from this state.

So I call you to account on two serious misunderstandings and misrepresentations, one of “Congruence” and one of “Satori”/“Samadhi.” If what you have to offer is only effective if based on misrepresentation of other disciplines, then it must be poor indeed.

I am writing this to you personally c/o of Changes. I have also sent them a copy of the letter to publish in the next newsletter if they wish to.

Yours sincerely,
Bridget Yendell


Steve’s Response:

There are many kinds of congruence. The kind that Yendell describes is a very important one, the congruence between a person’s inner state and outer expression. And I agree that one can be congruent in this way, even if one is incongruent internally, by honestly expressing the internal incongruence.

There is also the kind of congruence that I learned in high school geometry, in which two triangles are congruent if they have the same angles and sides, and can be superimposed exactly upon one another. The first definition in my dictionary defines congruence as “agreement, correspondence, harmony,” so there are many, many kinds of congruence.

I was writing about the agreement between all parts of our being at a moment in time, in which there is no conflict, no internal arguments, no alternatives to be considered, etc. Since conflict is unpleasant, and frequently results in either/or thinking, frustration, and dissatisfaction, many people quite reasonably seek a state of greater internal congruence, the agreement between different parts of ourselves that results in a feeling of wholeness that is so satisfying and comfortable.

I mainly wanted to point out that this search can be carried to extremes, and that a state of total congruence can only be attained at the cost of ignoring parts of our experience. For example, one of the facts of our modern media is that we are daily presented with quite vivid visual/auditory representations of human hunger, misery, and cruelty from around the world. Presupposing at least a little empathy, one could ask, “How can you be happy, when so many are so miserable?” The answer is by ignoring, at least for a time, the misery of others. That is how we concentrate on one task at a time, a very valuable skill if used temporarily.

Concentration also often means ignoring others of my own manifold desires. At the moment that I am writing this, I can see through the window that it is a particularly beautiful early summer morning outside. Partly I would much prefer to be out in it, or reading about what others have discovered about the world, rather than writing about my own understanding. There are at least a thousand other enjoyable things that I could be doing with this time, but I am setting them aside temporarily. Why?

I want to present a larger understanding of how the search for congruence can ultimately lead people to become like the Taliban — righteous, certain, intolerant, critical and rigid in their very small world, attacking or annihilating anything that is incongruent with their very limited understanding, rather than welcoming a different point of view as an interesting potential expansion of their world. I see this process hourly and daily, and in myself as well as in others.

There are fundamentally two ways of attaining “wholeness” or “oneness.” The first is to exclude anything that challenges my small and rigid world, the way of the cleric. The self-denial of the ascetic is a prime example of this. The other is to find a way to embrace and understand what is unfamiliar or incongruent with my world, and to work toward an ever larger understanding. That is the way of the mystic. No wonder that historically the clerics have persecuted the mystics!

It is the openness to new experience that allows us to have the experience of flow and “responding choicelessly with your whole being to each new present moment” that Yendell describes. But this happens only when the new experience fits easily into what is already familiar and acceptable to us. The openness to new experience does not always immediately yield this sense of flow! Sometimes the new experience that is incongruent with my understanding presents me with important choices, and often requires that I change my understanding in challenging ways. It may take some serious time and effort to learn to flow with it easily, and regain congruence. For example, Yendell was not able to flow easily in response to my article, which did not fit with her understanding of congruence.

Yendell’s description of “…when the mind tries to interrupt the experience of oneness with its concerns” is a perfect example of what I am talking about. Our mind are extremely useful and integral parts of our being; anyone who seriously believes that this is not so should immediately volunteer for a lobotomy! But in Yendell’s world, “the mind’s games” are judged to be an enemy to be excluded and ignored through meditation in order to reach “enlightenment.” The “mind,” like any other activity or skill, can always be improved, and certainly it can often get us into difficult and frustrating situations. This is also true of every other aspect of our being — emotions, desires, needs, perceptions, behaviors, understandings, etc.

But the way of NLP is not to exclude the “mind,” or any other experience, but to welcome it and learn more about its concerns, teach it new skills, etc., in order to reach a state of congruence that is broader and more comprehensive, including more experience in a larger world.

This has also been the way of all true mystics, those who have sought to embrace all of experience. Anyone interested in reading more about this from someone who has a great depth of personal experience of it will enjoy the book Returning to the Source, by Wilson Van Dusen, one of the finest human beings I know.

Steve Andreas.

Originally published in Changes Newsletter No 39, Summer 2000, and tweaked in 2016.


©2000-16 Steve Andreas