Basics, Mind Management

The Ethics of NLP

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a discipline developed by Richard Bandler and Eric Grinder. If you think of computer programming as “cyber-linguistic programming,” you’ll get the gist of NLP. Assuming that the mind is an information processing device, NLP proposes a model of how the mind receives and filters information, and then provides methods of communication that allow us to hack the program.

NLP was popularized in the 1990s by Tony Robbins, whose Unleash the Power Within seminars use a form of group hypnosis to encourage people to cast off their self-limiting beliefs. During business networking, I have encountered life coaches, mediators, sales people and hypnotists who testify to have mastered these practices in seminars typically lasting a week or so.

A characteristic moment from Robbins’ seminar illustrates the technique. Tony may start “you like me – want to get the most out of this weekend.” Through emphasis, that innocuous sentence embeds the suggestion that “I like him.” The suggestion is obscured by the pause between “you” and “like,” and so may be discarded by the conscious mind when the sentence is completed. But the emotional effect lingers on in the subconscious, and subsequently affects our behaviors.

I could elaborate the NLP model, but I hesitate for ethical reasons. That caution was codified by Milton Erickson when founding the America Society for Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH). All members must be licensed clinicians with a degree in mental health. (That’s right: I don’t qualify for membership.)

This is significant because Erickson was one of the clinical luminaries that Bandler and Grinder studied to develop the communication patterns that give NLP its power. Erickson’s caution is illustrated in a published paper that applies those patterns to his own work: “Transcript of Trance Induction with Commentary.”

The value of the paper is not just in its elucidation of the techniques that would be adopted in NLP, but also for what it reveals about the context in which those methods were developed. Erickson was an academic researcher, and coaxed many of his patients to serve as experimental subjects before beginning therapy. This was because Erickson felt that successful therapy required the application of “hypnotic work” that was accessible only after twenty or more hours of conditioning. But the experimental subjects were not limited to patients. Erickson and his wife also hosted weekend gatherings in which friends and colleagues were encouraged to explore hypnotic experience.

“Transcript…” is interesting on its face because it shows how skillfully and gently Erickson went about bringing his subjects into hypnotic experience. But for the concerns of this post, the important point is made near the end of the session. Erickson takes the subject into an age regression. The commentary reads:

Her hand didn’t point, so then I started narrowing down. Have her point with her left hand. When she failed to do that, I knew how deep in the water I was. I was out of contact with her.

The problem is in having convinced the subject that she was about eighteen years old, severe trauma would occur if she awoke in that mental state in a room with people who related to her as a thirty-year-old – not least her husband.

NLP techniques are powerful in part because they bypass the conscious mind – but that in itself is why they are so dangerous. The subject changes their behavior and doesn’t understand why. They begin to fear that they are losing their grip on themselves, and so that they might begin to express their worst tendencies. The mind turns against itself and may break.

As I summarized in a prior post, Erickson was extremely sensitive to this vulnerability, and eventually began to try to dissuade practitioners from application of his methods of speaking. Paraphrasing, his observation was

Do not believe that you can adopt my manner of speaking and thereby achieve the same therapeutic results.

I believe that he left silent the stronger caution: that in fact, the subject can be harmed when linguistic methods are applied with neither psychological understanding nor compassionate intuition. (This is not a hypothetical: I have interviewed a client who was so affected.)

Some confirmation of this caution is found in Hammond’s “Handbook of Hypnotic Suggestions and Metaphors.” Hammond summarized the collected wisdom of the ASCH, and in surveying research on the effectiveness of techniques for formulating suggestions, reported studies that showed NLP was of marginal therapeutic value.

For those of us without clinical degrees, Cheryl O’Neil’s Therapeutic Imagery program, the culmination of the lay hypnotherapy program formulated by Dr. John Kappas at HMI, is a safe practice. The therapeutic method facilitates self-improvement through gradual reconciliation of conscious and subconscious perspectives. The pacing of the process is under the full control of the subconscious mind, whose over-riding concern is to preserve the subject’s well-being.

Book Reviews, Mind Management

Psychiatry in Disorder

Any accredited professional college must educate students on the legal requirements for their practice. In the case of hypnotherapy, in most states the law makes psychology a dominant field. I have been forced to turn away clients because their concerns might be due in part to an actual illness of the mind – something that I was unqualified to diagnose or treat. Sometimes that’s made easier because the client is actually under the care of a psychologist – I’ve learned to expect that I just need to turn them away, because I’ve never found a psychologist that was willing to work in tandem with me. They don’t even answer my e-mails.

In the gray zone are clients that have read the pop psychology press and tell me, for example, that they have “PTSD.” Given what I know about the diagnostic definition, I ask a few questions and determine that they probably have post-traumatic stress, or PTS. Now I can work with PTS, but not PTSD. Here’s the rub: I can’t tell them that they have PTS, because that would be a diagnosis that I am not qualified to offer. You can imagine how difficult this becomes with more common psychiatric designations: depression and general anxiety disorder, for example.

Against the backdrop of this frustration I now report on Anne Harrington’s “Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness.” Obviously I would like to be assured that there’s a valid scientific basis for the designations offered by psychologists – and something in their treatments beyond the power of suggestion. Because if that basis is weak, then the legal pressure I am under is hurting not just me, but my potential clients.

I regret, then, that Harrington mounts a devastating critique of psychology. It is not just that psychology has no sound scientific basis – the dynamics of its development have systematically brought suffering to those it characterizes as patients.

In considering the history surveyed by Harrington, I think that it would be generous to say that, desperate for some therapeutic method, psychiatrists have systematically seized upon symptoms as causes. Each generation of psychiatrists took up tools that addressed the purported cause of the era, only to discover that the treatment tended to increase the aggregate suffering of their patients.

This generalization applies to both of the broad classes of therapeutic approaches. The first assumes that mental illness reflects a biologic imbalance in the brain that can be treated with surgery or drugs. The second sees the imbalance as a learned response to a toxic environment that can only be corrected with therapy that builds new behaviors in a supportive environment. These two approaches are known popularly as “nature or nurture.”

Harrington’s history develops as a pendulum swinging between these two approaches, driven by shifting political winds. Reflecting the stark contrasts, psychiatry’s torch-bearers tend to be absolutists.

On the medical or nature side, anatomists first treated asylum patients as laboratory specimens, extended in their second era with legislative policies of sterilization and euthanization. This was followed by the practices of electroconvulsive therapy and prefrontal lobotomy. As biochemistry advanced, drugs were sought to target the specific pathways. Manipulation of metabolism (for depression and mania) was pursued using addictive drugs, followed in the modern era with drugs that target neurotransmitter balance. Unfortunately, Harrington reveals that early drug trials did not assess serious long-term side effects of metabolic drugs, and that more rigorous tests of neurotransmitter drugs show that they are only marginally better than sugar pills. Having hidden those results while marketing directly to consumers, Big Pharma is abandoning mental health under pressure from European advertising regulations that require that any new drug must be demonstrably better than existing remedies.

On the nurture front, Freud first blamed sexual repression for all mental illness. Mental institutes abandoned treatment to function largely as warehouses of sufferers deemed to be incurable. In the aftermath of World War II those concerned with valor blamed mothers for mental illness. Seeking early intervention, psychologists formulated categories of “deviance” that were seized upon by parents and schools as justifications for anesthetizing unruly youth. Finally legal decisions forced the disbanding of mental institutions, eventually leaving the prison system to step in as de facto provider of care for those that that cannot align their behavior with our civil codes. Of course prison society is not an incubator for civil behavior, and certain practices (solitary confinement foremost among them) are known to trigger psychotic breaks. While Harrington does not reference a statement of policy that blames the mentally ill for their condition, today American society does choose to punish them.

In grappling with these outcomes, psychiatry has recognized that therapies cannot be evaluated effectively until mental illness can be diagnosed accurately. Thus was born the institution of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. At this time it recognizes over two hundred conditions. Perhaps because of this complexity, Harrington reports that two clinical evaluations are likely to disagree roughly 70% of the time – and thus that treatment will follow different paths. Harrington does not report any studies that elucidate the discrepancies, but I am familiar with reports that suggest that overlap of criteria means that the diagnosis is often biased by clinical predisposition. If a psychiatrist has had success treating schizophrenia, they may look for schizoid symptoms and thus bias towards that diagnosis.

Harrington concludes her survey with the admission that the scientific foundations of psychiatry are vague, and calls for clinicians to return to basics. Should they fail, she foresees that they will surrender therapeutic initiative to those that lack prescribing authority: counselors, therapists and social workers.

I have deeper concerns. Hypnotherapists understand that the brain is not the mind – and this is a view shared by followers of Jung, who split with Freud over the matter. Through personal experience, I believe that the human brain is best understood as a multi-channel radio receiver, and that most of our thinking is done in the soul. This undermines biological investigation for the causes of mental illness. There may be correlations between diseases of the soul and brain biology, but attempts to change only the biology will be ineffective in treating the disease.

As a hypnotherapist, my response to Harrington’s indictment of her discipline was angry. Given that “science” was the justification for preferential licensing, it now appears that in fact the regulators were snookered by a chest-thumpers seeking to engage in restraint of trade. I plan on promoting Harrington’s revelations, and will be far more aggressive in seeking to help clients that have been disempowered by the industry.

For that is where the real answers are to be found: empowering self-care. After more than a century, the evidence is in, and the human mind is beyond biological understanding. Psychology should recognize that it is largely a philosophical discipline – which in the best sense serves to provide citizens with understanding to manage their minds and relationships. The obfuscating complexity of psychiatric terminology must be removed from public dialog, and replaced with something with greater utility. Perhaps the Kappasinian Theory of Mind?

Book Reviews, Mind Management

Myelin and Mind

To play a musical instrument, it’s not enough to put your fingers in the right place. They have to arrive there at the right time. Getting to the right place is controlled by the wiring of the neurons. Right timing is controlled by myelin.

Myelin is a fatty sheathe around the axon – the part of the neuron that carries signals out from the cell body. Just as neurons form new connections as we learn, so the brain adds myelin to axons. Special cells called oligodendrocytes wrap myelin around the axons that carry the heaviest traffic. Each wrap causes the signal to move faster.

This improved speed helps us to think faster. This applies to all forms of thinking – logical deduction as well as muscle movement. That isn’t always a good thing – we’ve all heard the term “motor mouth,” somebody who talks faster than we can follow. To correct for such problems, myelin gradually decays, slowing the speed along the affected pathways. To maintain optimum performance, then, myelin must be constantly restored.

Building optimum performance is the subject of The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. The book sings the praises of myelin and the processes that refine its placement. The most heartening insight is that talent – broadly understood to be the capacity to respond rapidly and precisely – can be cultivated through proper training.

Both internal attitudes and external feedback (coaching) figure in the development, refinement, and maintenance of myelin networks. Attitudes include commitment, caring, challenge and consequences. Commitment is recognized as the belief that a life will be built around execution of our skill. Caring manifests as an emotional response to competence: irritation at failure and joy in achievement. Challenge is the restless seeking beyond current skill – to always be in pursuit of greater aptitudes. Lastly a demonstrable connection between skill and social recognition is the honey of consequence that draws others into challenge with us, giving us the stimulus to continue to improve.

Coyle sees these factors at play in many settings: sports, music and academics are highlighted. While explicitly considered only in the afterward, every example highlights the value of tension between creativity and discipline. Creativity is the goal, but can be cultivated only when the student believes that what she does makes a difference. In the proper setting, then, negative feedback becomes a positive when self-awareness (shame or guilt) is followed immediately with repetition that is rewarded with approval when competence is achieved.

From this, it is clear that mentors are critical to the development of mastery. It’s not a one-size-fits all proposition. In the early stages of talent development (what Coyle calls “ignition”), the mentor must build an emotional connection between the student and their skill. As mastery is approached, the mentor creates conditions of constant challenge. Performance is driven by practice with others of high skill, and the mentor intervenes mostly to help the competitors leap-frog past each other.

In this pursuit, myelination alone is insufficient. In a competitive setting, mastery is not repeatable, because competitors will adapt to its demonstration. This requires endless variation that can be achieved only by composing smaller elements as sequences. Part of coaching is to break skills down into chunks that can be creatively sequenced. Coyle illustrates this with a detailed breakdown of how a master coach teaches a quarterback the drop-back. The most telling proof of the principle, however, is in the failure of chess masters to recall random board configurations, where they can instantly recall actual game configurations. The chess master sees actual game configurations in “chunks” of related pieces.

While hypnotherapists are not life coaches, the insights of The Talent Code are critical to our discipline. Emotional attachment is the foundation of excellence. Hypnotic rehearsal builds myelin networks in the brain, but must be tied immediately to myelination in the rest of the body. Habits are best maintained under variations that instill challenge, and best undermined by substituting alternatives to feed higher behaviors. Recovery from loss may be facilitated by seeking actively to tie high-level networks to new contexts for expression (“chunking-down” instead of “chunking-up”).

Perhaps most importantly, however, is in managing client expectations. Learning is not life-long – it must be actively maintained, and constantly evolves as others adapt to our capabilities. In fact, that tension is critical to skill. The subconscious may resist change, but great accomplishments derive from the struggle to overcome that resistance. In some sense, the properties of the myelin system are how the brain comes to understand what is really important to us.

Mind Management

“Gateway” Drugs

I’ve had two people point me at Michael Pollan’s new book “How to Change Your Mind.” It’s the latest celebration of drugs as a gateway to psychological balance and spiritual experience. Predecessors include the writings of Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and Sam Harris.

What few remember is that the same thing was said about cocaine in the ’70s – doctors considered it a mild addiction, and users celebrated the clarity that it brought to their mental process.

But the fact is that a drug elevates your mind in an unsustainable manner, and in spiritual affairs every gate opens both ways. When the high comes down and it slams shut, you no longer are able to manage the demons that have taken up residence in your psyche, and they slowly begin to amplify your weaknesses as they take over your motivations.

I raised my children with the precept that “Love is the Anti-Drug.” Drugs are merely a way of creating the state that is achieved when you are in a committed, loving relationship. If you have to take a drug to achieve that state, then the real problem is that you are resistant to that kind of intimacy.

The benefits of submitting to the discipline of commitment to another are immense. They see aspects of you that you can’t see yourself because your consciousness resides at the surface of your psyche. This is why Shamballa Buddhists celebrate tantric sex – it’s not just a physical experience, but a bearing of witness that is a powerful aid to achieving spiritual clarity and connection.

But just as with gateway drugs, the Shamballah tradition does not see tantric sex as a foundation of spiritual development. It’s a refinement intended for mature practitioners.

If you’re not ready to open yourself to the spiritual winds but want to prepare yourself for that engagement, please contact me. If you look at my blogs ( and you’ll see that I’ve been refining my capacity to express love unconditionally for a long time. I’ll bear witness to your journey, and ensure that what comes through the gate serves only your best interests. All for a fee that does little more than ensure that I’ll be there next week for the next step – and the next, until you’re ready to fly on your own.

Basics, Mind Management

Hypnotherapy and Polyvagal Theory

In the basic Kappasinian Theory of Mind, we all need balance between adventurous (euphoria-seeking) and protective (fear-avoiding) behaviors. The goal of all therapy is to establish and maintain a healthful balance for the client. In this post, I consider how Kappasinian practices relate to Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory (described wonderfully here).

As emphasized by Porges, our bodies are designed to seek homeostasis (the restful state in which we “feed and breed”). When threatened by unfamiliar or overwhelming experiences, we drop into a simple decision-making process: should we fight (“Can I eat it?”) or flee (“Can it eat me?”). If neither of those tactics resolves the conflict, we simply freeze (conserve energy until an escape presents itself). In the animal kingdom, survivors use shaking and quivering to discharge the residual energy, restoring homeostasis.

These kinds of experiences are traumatic, and if repeated drive us into protective behaviors. On the other hand, in safe social circumstances, those same kinds of experiences can evolve as play. When playing our pretend threats are accompanied with gestures and statements that reassure our partner. The classic pet behaviors are the dog crouching on its fore-paws, or the cat gnawing on our finger in between licks. During play, both euphoria and fear are at elevated levels.

The nerve that mediates our overall physical state (the vagus nerve) has an ancient (reptilian) part that manages the freeze response, and a more recent (mammalian) part that controls excitement. As these responses involve complex coordination among all the body parts, the vagus returns ten times as much information back to the brain as it sends out.

One of the challenges in overcoming traumatic experiences is that fear suppresses our ability to exchange reassuring gestures and statements. This permanently suppresses our ability to feel euphoria, leaving us at the mercy of fear. That prevents us from restoring homeostasis, leaving us in a perpetual state of self-induced stress that damages our physical and mental well-being. If the trauma occurred early in childhood (such as a difficult birth), we may be unable to remember the circumstances, and thus release the trauma.

Porges’ solution is to deal with the problem symptomatically. Exposing the sufferer to soothing sounds, sights or sensations overcomes the blocks to reassuring stimulation. When accompanied by mindful relaxation, the mind learns to tie that reassurance to homeostasis.

The classic Kappasinian therapy for fear and anxiety builds an experience that mixes these same elements – but with the amplifying factor of hypnosis (our optimal learning state).

Therapy begins with a progressive relaxation that establishes homeostasis.

If the trauma is mild, circle therapy is used to walk the client through a remembered experience. If the fear is irrational or of unknown origin, systematic desensitization is used to command the subconscious (the true source of the reaction) to produce the emotion. Ideomotor finger raising is used to control the level of anxiety. When discomfort is visible, the client is told to lower the finger and “pass it,” directing them back into homeostasis. As the process is repeated, the mind becomes confident in its ability to control the transition, and eventually chooses homeostasis.

If the trauma is deep, these practices are preceded with sessions that build a safe haven in the subconscious landscape, ensuring that the learned skills take root in a context free from debilitating memories. For this purpose, today’s practitioners will often use therapeutic imagery, but even they will reinforce that work with a staple of Kappasinian therapy: a staircase deepener that projects a positive, confident self-image into the subconscious.

The final element of Kappasinian therapy is to suggest that the client begin to chuckle and smile as they come out of hypnosis. As the therapist smiles and speaks soothingly, this reinforces the ability to exchange reassuring signals. Of all the suggestions offered by Kappasinian therapists, this is the most playful.

Porges first articulated his polyvagal theory back in the early 1980’s and the therapeutic practices were not popularized until well into the new millennium. Hypnotherapists trained with Kappas’ methods have been performing these therapies since the sixties. Not only do those techniques have the same effect as those offered by Porges, but they are coupled to far broader strategies for overall behavior development.