Part One in a series by Michael Watson
settling down, the Vietnam War was drawing to a close. It was a new time. New styles, new ways, new ideas. And there was a particularly fertile mind-field half way up the California coast. Not far from Fritz Perls and Esalen, and Timothy Leary and Berkley; and influenced by Milton Erickson, Noam Chomsky, Virginia Satir, Gregory Bateson and countless others; John Grinder and Richard Bandler and a band of colleagues and students started thinking. One thought led to another. One idea connected to another and the result of that thinking is NLP.
NLP, like any school of thought begins with certain “givens”. These ideas are held constant and are the fundamental assumptions that define and shape NLP. I like to think of the presuppositions of NLP as essential attitudes, because not only do they guide the work of a practitioner, but they are a rich and helpful set of
perceptions that can inform and empower us in daily life as well.
The CARDINAL Presupposition of NLP …. The absolute starting point comes from Alfred Korzybski. He is best known as the developer of general semantics … and for his often quoted statement:
The Map is not the Territory.
He suggests that our experience of the world is limited by our nervous system and by the structure of our language. He tells us that people don’t have direct experience of the world, but that we experience perception filtered through our neurology and mitigated by beliefs and values and then we assign meaning to it all.
And then, I might add, we reap the benefits or suffer the consequences depending on what we’ve created. Yes, I said created. Experience is a creative act. Problem is, most of us do our creating unconsciously.
The map is not the territory … it is a description of the terrain And yet we get them confused all the time. As
soon as “reality” hits our nervous system, when we see, hear, feel, taste, smell, things .. We begin to create “maps”. We delete some things (because it’s all TOO much), we distort some things, we make and apply generalizations. We enhance the maps by assigning meaning to the things we let through. And we evaluate and interpret them based on our preferences, and our cultures and our beliefs. This is the reflexive nature of our experience. We describe the world to ourselves, and we experience the world based on our description.
The events that happen around us are not intrinsically meaningful. Meaning is supplied by the experiencer. This is why one person can see their 50th birthday as a glorious milestone … and another sees it as a dark day in
history. This is why one person might look upon a beggar with disgust, yet Mother Teresa saw the face of the
Divine in the same man. Neither is correct. These are just maps. Descriptions. Thoughts. Neither is real. This is about something much more important than the nature of reality.
In terms of whether you’re happy or miserable, whether you’re a success or a failure, whether you’re good enough (for what?), pretty enough, smart enough … just thoughts. Just maps. Much more important than reality. With regard to the quality of our lives, how things SEEM is a much bigger deal than how things ARE.
Judith DeLozier, a co-creator of NLP has said that at the very beginning, this one presupposition was all that they had, and that the other presuppositions and all of NLP emerged from it.
The Map is Not the Territory
This is the good news and this is the bad news. That depends on what you do with it. Korzybski’s notion was simply to develop an awareness that we are not experiencing the world directly and that we are creating descriptions. Now we have a choice. It is this automatic process of mapmaking that contributes to our misery or
dissatisfaction, or whatever unwanted experience we’re having. If we can create new and more useful maps, we can change the nature of our experiential world.
And not only can we use it to resolve difficulties … but we can use it more deliberately to create the experiences that we want more of for ourselves.
Now there is something really important to notice about this. Your neighbor, boss, spouse … they are all coming up with their own versions … their own ideas, descriptions, maps. And they’re not wrong. Ever noticed how it seem like some people come from a different planet than you? Well, they do! Essentially. This can be very helpful information when dealing with aliens. And maybe a chance to start respecting them enough to be just a little curious about what it’s like in their world.
When we work as practitioners we are like curious anthropologists ... uncovering the mystery of our client’s maps and helping them to reorganize their experience, adjust their maps, and find a new way to “put it all together”.
In fact, mapmaking is especially useful when it comes to learning something new. As we develop naturally in childhood and acquire basic skills (things like walking and talking and all the usual) we copy and imitate … and start to create maps of how those things work. All learning is the result of modeling. Modeling is the creation of maps and descriptions. If you can create a useful map, by getting a good description from someone who has a certain skill (like a confident public speaker), you can use it to develop that skill yourself or pass it on to others..
Which leads us quite naturally to the Second Presupposition of NLP:
Experience has structure
But what is that structure and what particular elements go into making a useful map? How do you get the
information you need? How do you use it to produce results? We’ll get to that one next time with a discussion about what experience is made of … how to model skills and abilities … and how you can change your experience (of ANYthing) by changing its structure. This is the real DOING of NLP.