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Buddhism and NLP

Part of a series of short articles focusing on NLP's relevance to each of the major world religions.

"Psychotherapy East & West"

"All wrong-doing arises because of mind. If mind is transformed can wrong-doing remain?" --- Buddha 563BC

The central, positive intention of Gautama Buddha was to end suffering.

Alan Watts' 1961 book, "Psychotherapy East & West," hit upon a key concept regarding the relevance of NLP to Buddhism:

"If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy."

Watts recognized that, while both psychotherapy and Eastern "ways of life" are concerned with bringing about changes of consciousness, the Far Eastern spiritual traditions are concerned with essentially ordinary, presumably healthy human individuals while psychotherapy concerns itself specifically with individuals suffering from psychopathology (mental illness).

It is important to understand that many psychologists in practice today do not adhere, philosophically, to the psychopathology model. Yet, regardless of how forward-thinking or open-minded a particular psychotherapist may be, he or she must diagnose a client with a psychological disorder in order to collect insurance payments for the "treatment."

Psychopathology is a presupposition built into the practice, if not all the theory, of psychology today.

There remains a profound difference between Buddhism and psychotherapy – which is why Watts took care to explain his creative use of the term "psychotherapy" in making his point.

He was, in fact, highly critical of the self-imposed limitations of psychopathology oriented psychotherapies, but he made a notable exception for "the communication psychology" of Gregory Bateson, one of the early participants in the development of NLP, which he felt to be more scientifically precise in its language and approach.

Had NLP existed in 1961 (it was not developed until 1974), Watts would likely have credited it as a major step forward – away from the pathology model of the mind to a more scientifically current, and more widely applicable approach to creating positive changes in our ways of feeling our own existence and our relation to human society and the natural world.

Watts would probably have considered NLP closer to an Eastern approach than psychotherapy (since NLP does not pathologize) but with a more practical, scientific mind set.

The Importance of Spirituality in NLP

NLP, as a model of modeling, contains many models, one of which is that of "neurological levels" – developed by Robert Dilts as an application of Bateson's general "logical levels" of ordering, hierarchy and inclusion.

In this model, self organization is divided into six levels affecting our thinking, feeling and actions, and which have profound effects on our health and peace of mind. The model proposes that the higher the neuro-logical level, the more of our neurology is involved:

      • Spirituality
      • Identity
      • Beliefs & Values
      • Capabilities
      • Behaviors
      • Environment

These levels are not formulaic and may differ from culture to culture, particularly at the top levels. For instance, in Hinduism and some other forms of Far Eastern spirituality, as well as in most of the lesser known nature religions and mythologies, the neuro-logical levels may look more like this:

  • Spirituality and Identity
  • Mission and Purpose
  • Beliefs and Values
  • Capabilities
  • Behaviors
  • Environment

In this Eastern version, Environment wraps around to Spirituality and Identity.

Whichever model one prefers, some form of spirituality -- some thing-ness or non-thing-ness at a higher order or greater than one's sense of a separate, isolated identity -- is at the Top of neuro-logical self-organization.

I have frequently noticed that clients who arrive with a positive frame at the spirituality level make progress at all of the lower levels more quickly; while those who have little or no sense of connection to spirituality either struggle in its absence or eventually come to experience a life changing epiphany at the rediscovery of that dimension in their lives – however they wish to frame it.

Quotes and Comments

The following quotes and comments from a variety of sources further illustrate the relevance of NLP to the Buddhist world view.

Consciousness & The Structure of Experience

"'Reality' is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends upon what we look for. What we look for depends upon what we think. What we think depends upon what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality." – Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters

Buddhism proposes consciousness beyond perception, thoughts and beliefs. If you ask a Buddhist, "What is consciousness?" you might very well get the answer, "It is not a 'what'." A person may still want to know the answer, but one can't very well ask, "Well, then, what is it?" because that question has just been answered.

At first, one might think that Buddhism and NLP have very little in common. NLP's domain of interest is the structure of subjective experience – the processes of perception and internal sensory representations in the brain, and the linguistic structure of the words we use to think our thoughts.

Its concern is to develop and use this field of knowledge to improve the quality of our experience and more easily create excellence in our endeavors. This domain is precisely that which Buddhism seeks to transcend. Yet Buddhism and NLP begin with very similar epistemologies.

"NLP operates solely and exclusively on representations (mental maps) and at no point does it touch upon any questions of the nature of the real world....

"At present, it is impossible to say with any precision or completeness what portions of the world end up represented in our maps, or conversely, what elements in the world are patently not mapped onto our representation, or what elements in our maps are uniquely the contribution of the processing mechanisms.

"The conclusion is clear enough – that (our first access to sensory awareness of any 'outside world') is already a set of transformed representations: products of transformations defined over the incoming data stream....

Further, the sharply reduced set of events that happen to fall within our sensory capabilities is, in turn, only partially reported [to awareness] since variables such as the speed of presentation and scale will further reduce what can be detected and reported.

"Finally, and most interestingly, the reports of events that escape this initial filtering are inputs to a sequence of complex neurological operations whose structure is yet to be elucidated – operations that transform these reports in ways as yet unspecified.

"These transformations remove once and for all the possibility of a simple correspondence between what is out there and what we experience."

– John Grinder & Carmen Bostic St. Clair, Whispering In The Wind

Indeed, NLP does not even propose that there is any such thing as a 'real world' out there which we can know directly through sensory perception, representations (such as memory) or linguistic constructs of thought.

On this point, NLP is in agreement with most forms of Buddhist epistemology. However, neither does NLP propose that 'reality' can, or cannot, be known directly without any form of perception or representation at all. It simply takes no position on the issue.

Buddhism, by contrast, proposes that there is (and is-not) something (or some not-thing) which can be known directly in consciousness without the need of thought or sensory perception.

In other words, in both Buddhism and NLP, there is absolutely nothing "real" (in sensory or conceptual experience) to hang your hat on.

The interesting thing that NLP proposes is, "Well, if there's nothing to hang your hat on, but your thoughts and perceptions are making you miserable, why not change them so you can be happier while you're either seeking or not seeking Enlightenment?"

Preparatory Discipline

From a Buddhist point of view, NLP could almost be considered a sort of preparatory discipline with practical applications that help clear the path for the kind of direct experience Buddhism references.

A person is either 'enlightened' or 'not'. And for most of us, it is 'not'. An illusory person cannot produce 'enlightenment' by the act of an illusory will. However, a person can change his or her experience, sensory acuity, direction of attention, internal dialogue, ways of interpreting, beliefs and physiological responses by an act of will, illusory or not, and thereby improve the quality of his or her life.

NLP says, "Since we're sitting here doing all this thinking, anyway, and since we're perceiving and feeling with our senses and representations, anyway, why not make it excellent? Why not change it for the better, on purpose?

Many Buddhists, having considered this question, come the the same conclusion. Why not, indeed? In fact, it seems a useful thing to do. After all, if NLP has a useful set of tools, and Buddhists use tools just like everyone else – tools such as knives and forks and spoons and drinking cups and electricity and ten thousand other things to make life better while we're living here, even to decrease suffering in the world, then why not use the tools NLP makes available, as well?

In this way, NLP and Buddhism complement each other rather than compete.

Beyond Words

"As soon as you speak, you miss the mark." – (Zen Buddhist saying)

"We are proposing that [Alfred] Korzybski was far too conservative when he said that the map is not the territory. Indeed, we propose that his territory isn't even the territory." – John Grinder & Carmen Bostic St. Clair, Whispering In The Wind

Both of these quotes point beyond words. Grinder and St. Clair take it a step further, pointing beyond any kind of sensory experience or mental representation of experience.

"Do not build up your views upon your senses and thoughts, do not base your understanding upon your senses and thought; but at the same time do not seek the Mind away from your senses and thoughts, do not try to grasp Reality by rejecting your senses and thoughts. When you are neither attached to, nor detached from, them, then you enjoy your perfect unobstructed freedom, then you have your seat of enlightenment." – Huang Po, quoted by Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

Huang Po proposes that the duality of any choice between senses/thoughts and no-senses/no-thoughts is, itself, neither an obstruction nor the means to 'enlightenment'.

"The true nature of Mind-Essence does not belong to any individualized conception of phenomena or of non-phenomena; nor of the absence of phenomena, nor of the absence of non-phenomena; nor of unity or of disunity; nor of the absence of unity or of disunity." – Ashvaghosha, "The Awakening of Faith," translated by Wai-tao, A Buddhist Bible, ed. Dwight Goddard

This highly crafted double-speak is an effect of language attempting to express the inexpressible. As soon as one approaches direct experience which is neither sensory nor linguistics based, words begin to chase themselves around in circles. Thus, in the old days of Zen Buddhism, when a student asked a Zen Master, "What is the meaning of Zen?" the master might simply whack him on the head with a stick, yell "KHATS!" and leave it at that.

"Thinking is limited by language. Thinking is a kind of soundless interior talk....

"It is simply that we do not know that we are moving in a world of mere conventions and that our feelings, thoughts, and acts are determined by these.

"We imagine that our ideas about things represent their ultimate reality, and so we are bound in by them as by the meshes of a net.

"They are rooted in our own consciousness and attitudes; mere creations of the mind; conventional, involuntary patterns of seeing things, judging, and behaving; yet our ignorance accepts them in every detail, without question, regarding them and their contents as the facts of existence.

"This – this mistake about the true essence of reality – is the cause of all the sufferings that constitute our lives."

– Heinrich Zimmer, The Philosophies of India

Thinking is not only limited by language, but in the ordinary sense of what most of us consider to be thinking, it is formed of language. And the structure of the language we use for our thinking has a foundational impact on what we think, e.g., the content of our thoughts as well as our responses to them and the meanings we derive from them.

Zimmer's point that, when we confuse our thinking with 'reality', it causes us to suffer, is an instance of Korzybski's more general principle, "The map is not the territory." This principle is one of the founding presuppositions of NLP.

Common Ground

NLP and Buddhist epistemology share common ground here. NLP is simply more cautious than Zimmer because, as we've noted before, NLP does not take a position on whether there is, or is not, any 'reality' "out there" which we can be confident corresponds to our awareness of perceptions -- much less language.

This scientific and philosophical caution is what allows us to create powerful processes for positive change for which we could never give ourselves permission were we to confuse the map with the territory or insist that our maps are 'true' or that they tell us what 'reality' is.

Instead, we look on maps as either more or less useful for particular territories. While they work, we keep them. When they stop working, we change them.

In the most practical sense, there is simply no need to adhere to any notion of a 'reality' out there in order to have useful tools and live happy, productive lives.

Reducing Suffering

In the sense that Heinrich Zimmer writes above, NLP might be said to have an important spiritual role similar to that of Buddhism in reducing the sufferings in our lives. It is almost as if NLP and Buddhism start at the same point on a globe, take off in opposite directions, and meet again on the other side.

"What is The Experience which these Oriental masters are talking about? The different ideas of it which I had in mind seemed to be approaching me like little dogs wanting to be petted, and suddenly I shouted at all of them to go away. I annihilated and bawled out every theory and concept of what should be my properly spiritual state of mind, or of what should be meant by me. And instantly my weight vanished. I owned nothing. All hang-ups disappeared. I walked on air. Thereupon I composed a haiku...

"All forgotten and set aside–
Wind scattering leaves
Over the fields."

– Alan Watts, In My Own Way

Watts' internal image of little dogs wanting to be petted, and what he did with them, is very NLP-like. In NLP, we would describe what he did as changing the 'modality' of his thoughts from auditory-digital (internal language) to a visual representation, then changing the visual representation in such a way that it no longer presented itself to awareness – sending the little dogs away. The effect of doing so was experienced immediately by Watts in the kinesthetic mode (weight vanishing) and its meta meanings were revealed. It opened a creative channel to a beautifully intuitive poem.

What worked for Watts was of his own construction and might not work for someone else. In NLP, we have innumerable ways of working with representations such as these, and many others, which are custom tailored to what specifically will work for a given individual.


"Nirvana and samsara, we are told, are not two different things, but one and the same thing seen from two different points of view by onlookers whose degree of sharpness of mental vision differs widely....

"The greatest saint, even if he has sacrificed a thousand times all that he held most dear, even his life itself, for love of others, for that of a God or for a noble ideal, remains a prisoner of samsara if he has not understood that all that is a childish game, empty of reality, a useless phantasmagoria of shadows which his own mind projects on the infinite screen of the Void."

– Alexandra David-Neel, "The Secret Oral Teachings"

This quality of projection by the mind – which is often as much of a socially conventionalized hallucination as an individual's unique projection – is very similar to that recognized by NLP – that the ability to distinguish between internally and externally generated representations is an essential skill both for 'reality testing' and functioning well in the world.

Attachment & Non-Attachment

"It is not thinking which blocks the Path; it is attachment to any particular thought or opinion. If we free our minds from attachment on the one hand, and from the practice of repressing ideas on the other, the Path will be clear and open before us. Otherwise we shall be in bondage...

"Non-attachment means not to cherish craving or aversion in relation to any particular thing, word or idea."

– The Sutra Spoken by the Sixth Patriarch, quoted by Aldous Huxley in "The Sixth Patriarch", "Vedanta for Modern Man"

From NLP's standpoint, the term 'attachment' is a nominalization – a process which has been linguistically transformed into a static thing. What, exactly is the process, "to attach"? How do we do that? And how might we do something else if we wanted to?

Craving and aversion are neuro-linguistic processes which can be changed using NLP. Fundamentally, they are the kinesthetic results of mental operations which most often have their origins in other sensory modalities, memory, visually constructed anticipation and patterns of perception – both what we filter and what we select for attention.

The NLP "compulsion blowout" process is one example, among many, of a process which can transform a strong craving into indifference by changing the brain's representations of the desired object. Aversions can be modified by similar processes.

Removing Obstacles

The sutra quoted by Huxley points to a strategy of un-blocking, or removing obstacles, on the Path to a higher state of mind and being.

While NLP includes many "generative" processes which are specifically intended to create more of what we want, its "remedial" processes are largely intended for removing and transforming barriers to emotional healing and spiritual growth. When obstacles are removed, we progress easily along our path.

Any Arising Will Be Wonderful

"Form is the Void and Void is the form. The Void is nothing else than form, and form is nothing else than the Void. Outside the Void there is no form, and outside the form there is no Void." – Nagarjuna, The Prajna Paramita

"This very world, with all its imperfection, is the Golden Lotus World of perfection." – Mahayana Buddhist saying, quoted by Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By

"Now that we understand that causes are really not causes, any arising will be wonderful." – Fa-Tsang (7th Century Buddhist)

"Any arising will be wonderful" is a splendid starting point for any exploration or discovery process. It encompasses the NLP presupposition that "there is no such thing as failure, only feedback," and it adds the qualities of joy and curiosity to our comprehension of the meaning of "the map is not the territory."

While both Buddhism and NLP can appear dry and technical when discussed at length in detail, underlying both is an excitement and exhilaration at the prospect of attaining excellent states of mind that not only reduce suffering, but throw open the doors to joyful being and acting in both our external and internal worlds.

I hope you have found these few quotes and comments helpful in thinking about NLP in the Buddhist context.

Please feel welcomed to call me and discuss how NLP training, coaching and therapy can help you.

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