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Where is NLP Going?

© 1992 Steve Andreas

I – The Elements of NLP

Just over 200 years ago, when the first chemists began to understand matter, their simple model of the chemical world described only how different elements combined in consistent and predictable mathematical ratios. Their major search was simply an application of this model: to determine how many different kinds of elements there were, and how many different ways they could combine.

Somewhat later this model was expanded by the discovery of sub-atoms: electrons, protons and neutrons. The periodic table of the elements suddenly gained new levels of meaning and usefulness, as the expanded model pointed out new and wider applications. Later, physicists discovered even smaller particles. Yet still no one dreamed of the broad and deep multiplicity of developments in the chemical/physical model that are occurring today, and the ever-wider applications of this model in disclosing even the innermost secrets of life itself.

The early NLP model pointed out that subjective experience can be understood as being composed of representations in the five sensory modalities, the “atoms” of experience. This understanding allowed us to decompose an experience into its constituent sensory elements, alter these elements, and then rebuild it “nearer to the heart’s desire,” much as the early chemists did with matter.

Combining representational systems with the concept of sequence gave birth to strategies. Applications of this revised model have been made to the entire range of human skills:

  1. Simple rote tasks such as spelling, remembering names, pistol shooting, etc.
  2. More general abilities involved in making good use of critical feedback, decision-making, positive motivation, self-generated learning, etc.
  3. The yet more complex tasks such as artistic and scientific creativity and discovery: the meta-strategies that can recode and reformulate existing data and concepts into more effective models.

The study of the strategies of highly skilled individuals has made it possible to intervene in ways that reach a desired outcome in a much more direct and generative way, going beyond achieving remedial goals to providing skills and abilities that enrich lives far beyond what most people imagine possible.

When Richard Bandler explored the use of submodalities in greater depth, the NLP model gained a new level of detail, power, and precision. Knowledge of submodalities streamlined and refined earlier methods, and at the same time provided a basis for additional new applications. Submodality distinctions made it clear how presuppositions work to change internal experience, giving a new precision to the use of language patterns. We have applied these expanded models (and a few others) to a range of pervasive human problems, such as grief/loss, shame, guilt, and resentment/anger, and the structure of the self-concept, developing and refining methods that are usually effective in one session.

Although these patterns are labeled with their remedial uses, they actually derive from studying human excellence: people who were able to respond sensitively and resourcefully to life’s inevitable challenges. The outcome of these patterns is greater participation in life’s joys and satisfactions, as people “lighten up” by laying down burdens, becoming more active in living their own lives in the ongoing journey of discovering what it means to become human.

II – Having and Wanting

If you think about having and wanting, there are four possibilities.

1. Have and don’t want. This includes all the things that you have and you don’t want. People have problems or responses that they don’t enjoy, and this discrepancy motivates them to seek help. NLP has developed many ways of doing what is often called “remedial change.” Like filling in holes, or getting obstacles out of the way, getting rid of discomfort clears a path to a more satisfying life. Although remedial change is useful, too much focusing on problems itself can generate unpleasant states. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire” aptly describes the major problem with this orientation. This can also blind a person to what they want to go toward in life.

2. Wanting and not having. This area is more generative, because it involves going toward becoming more of what you can be, expanding your abilities, your awareness, your world of behavior and responses — going toward a desired future rather than just away from problems. However there are also some difficulties with this approach. It’s easy to get so focused on going toward something that you want, that you become oblivious to potential problems. In a “Far Side” cartoon a couple has just been marooned on a big rock in the ocean. The man says, “Well, Lois, we’ll never have to want for food. This rock is absolutely encrusted with mussels and clams, all the way to the top!” Uncritical optimism may feel better than pessimism, but it can also be a problem sometimes.

It’s also possible to not notice hat other things might be equally important or much more so. In an “Outland” cartoon, Opus the penguin is in a meadow with some friends saying, “I was just sitting here wondering if there could possibly be anything more important in life than owning an overhead cam 6-liter Porsche 969 SX. Then I thought of Michael Landon. Suddenly he only had 3 months left. I’ll bet he figured out quick what was really important and what wasn’t. So why don’t we figure it out when we have lots of time left?” And they all look very thoughtful for a while. And then Opus says, “Red.” And one of the others says, “Yeah, gotta be red.” So, even going toward the positive has ways of getting stuck and lost.

This points out the importance of specifying outcomes carefully: knowing where you’re going, knowing what’s worth wanting, and choosing very carefully. An old saying goes, “Be very careful what you set your heart upon, for someday it may be yours!” Since many kinds of psychotherapy are ineffective, it doesn’t matter too much what a client wants, because they aren’t going to get it anyway. But when you have a technology that’s as rapid and effective as NLP, then you have to start considering outcomes very carefully, and make sure that you choose wisely.

For instance, many people have poor strategies for both motivation and decisions. Since they aren’t very motivated, they won’t get into too much trouble with their bad decisions. But if they go to a motivational seminar without first getting a better decision strategy, they will become powerfully motivated to make bad decisions!

People tend to be most aware of these first two categories, because there is a discrepancy between having and wanting that motivates them to change. The next two categories are much less obvious, and less motivating, but no less important.

3. Not having and not wanting. This category is potentially even more generative. There are plenty of things that you don’t want and you don’t have, and it doesn’t bother you; it’s not a problem. You certainly don’t usually find clients complaining about what they don’t have and don’t want. There are some things you know you don’t want, because you have enough experience to know that you don’t want them. However, think for a little while of when you were 5 or 10 years old. How many things were there that you didn’t know enough about it to have the slightest idea of wanting them? How about all the things in the world that you still don’t know anything about, and which you might want if you knew something about them?

We all live in a kind of ghetto of the mind; each of us gets into a set routine-whether it’s bowling on Wednesdays, or seeing friends on Saturday night, or playing bridge or going to the seashore for vacation, or eating in certain restaurants. Whatever our routine is, there are always other things that we could be doing, and some of them might be marvelous! It's useful to explore periodically, by doing something totally different, just to find out more about what else is out there, even if it seems totally weird or stupid to other people in your life. We live in a society with immense opportunities to explore and experience alternatives, most of which goes underutilized.

4. Wanting and having. This category is perhaps the most important and satisfying of all. It includes all the things that you want and you already have. It’s so easy to take for granted all the things that you have, all the experiences and relationships that you have and want. Appreciating what you have and want doesn’t require any change; it only takes a few moments of reflection. Gratitude only requires the willingness to take the time to appreciate and connect with and experience what you already have and value.

For example, a couple of years ago, in springtime, I saw a bunch of daffodils half-buried in a dirty snow bank, next to the road where all the trash and dirty water had been splashed over by the passing cars. The daffodils were pushing up through the muddy slush, and I got a powerful sense of the gift of another spring. “I got one more. I didn't know I was going to get another one.” Tears came to me at the time, and many times since while remembering it, and again as I write this. This experience serves me as a touchstone, a reminder to me to pause and experience gratitude for what I have been given. Many people collect resentments, but the same skill can be used to collect experiences of gratitude, which can support you and nourish you through hard times.

III – NLP and Spirituality

Every culture has some way of honoring and seeking spiritual values. Different groups have developed a variety of teachings and paths leading toward spiritual experiences, and all have honored those individuals who were able to live out those values congruently in their lives.

Originally, NLP was developed by studying therapists who were able to consistently help people change quickly, particularly Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson. This focus soon expanded to the study of human excellence of all kinds. Although many of the kinds of changes NLP accomplishes don’t directly address spiritual concerns, even these can be useful in clearing the way for exploring spiritual paths. It’s a little hard to keep focused on spiritual matters when you“re experiencing a phobic response, or are continually caught up in thoughts, behaviors, or responses that are troubling and frustrating.

It is only natural that eventually NLP would turn its attention to areas of human experience that have concerned sages, prophets, and saints for thousands of years. Of course, the word “spirituality” is a nominalization that means very different things to different people, so the task is not a simple one.

Even though NLP wasn’t originally intended to be a spiritual discipline, it’s interesting to find that many of the more recent methods produce or support goals that many spiritual teachers have recommended. Several of the patterns that Connirae and I have developed in recent years have satisfied needs that many have called deeply spiritual.

For instance, many religious/philosophical traditions teach of the importance of coming to terms with the inevitable losses that we face in life (but without teaching how to do it). The grief resolution pattern provides a rapid way to transform the anguish of grief into a joyful reconnection with the richness of a lost relationship, in which the lost person is re-experienced as a living presence. The tears that people experience when they reconnect with their lost experience, signal a profound healing and coming together, a literal re-union. When that happens, people often have tears of connection, which are very different from the tears of loss. There are tears of loss when someone you love leaves you, and then there are the tears of reunion when they come back. The tears are a signal of what’s true and important to you, and when you experience this, you’re touched.

About a year ago when I helped a woman resolve her grief, her husband — who is a very wise man — said thoughtfully, “She had lost a part of herself, and you gave it back to her.” This being touched by gratitude (some people call it grace) is at the heart of many religions and spiritual traditions. A friend of mine who is a mystic, with a deep knowledge of nearly all the world’s mystic traditions, calls this “the gift of tears,” and tells me that gratitude has been known and followed as a spiritual path for centuries.

Many religious/spiritual traditions have also taught the importance of laying down the burdens of anger and resentment, and reaching forgiveness (again without teaching people how to do it). The forgiveness pattern we developed a couple of years ago allows people to quickly reach a congruent state that is far more satisfying than the grudging intellectual “acceptance” that too many settle for. Deep forgiveness is a congruent affirmation that each of us always does the best we can in an often confusing and uncertain world, and that harm or offense to others results from the limitation in our understandings and abilities. True forgiveness results in a compassionate and tender reconnection with the person who had harmed or offended. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

These methods already provide paths to deep human yearnings — the wish to expand and deepen the extent of self, while at the same time become more fully connected with others and the world. Who knows what the next developments in the field will accomplish. About 5 years ago a journalist asked Richard Bandler what he would be doing a year or two from now. Richard replied that it was a ridiculous question, because if he knew that already, he certainly wouldn’t wait a year to do it!

So “Where is NLP going?” is not really the question at all. A more interesting question is “Where are you going?” or “Where is humanity going?” To answer these questions each of us can only continue to do our best, each of us on our own path, knowing that future generation will look back on our great accomplishments in the same way that a modern chemist looks back on the first crude fumbling work of her predecessors 200 years ago. That’s only a consequence of how much humanity continues to learn about the world, and this mind of ours that even succeeds in learning something about itself.

Originally published in Anchor Point, November l992, tweaked in 2016.

©2000-16 Steve Andreas