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Hinduism and NLP
Part of a series of short articles focusing on NLP's relevance to each of the major world religions.
"The whole universe is to us a writing of the Infinite in the language of the finite."
– Swami Vivekananda, Bhakti-Yoga
Hinduism, today's oldest world religion, contains many philosophies, paths, mythologies, symbols and practices. As such, it is difficult to characterize simply. It includes traditions both of renunciation and affirmation, as well as concepts of personal and impersonal Divinity.
One could not go far wrong, however, in describing Hinduism as a mystical religion – one whose cosmology conceives of Divinity as the unified innermost identity of all existence, both immanent and utterly transcendent.
Characteristically, Hinduism widely manifests an unconditional affirmation of life and recognition of an inherent unity of the mind and body, the Universe and Supreme Identity.
It is within this affirmative view of life and integration of mind, body and field that NLP shares with Hinduism a number of foundational presuppositions and similar epistemology.
Maya & Action
The Bhagavad Gita, Hinduism's most beloved holy book, encourages all of us to be active participants in life, even while acknowledging that the phenomenal Universe and our apparently separate identities are all aspects of God's Maya (often mistranslated as "illusion").
"Maya does not mean that the world is an illusion, as is often wrongly stated.
"The illusion merely lies in our point of view, if we think that the shapes and structures, things and events, around us are realities of nature, instead of realizing that they are concepts of our measuring and categorizing minds.
"Maya is the illusion of taking these concepts for reality, of confusing the map with the territory."
– Fritjof Capra, "The Tao of Physics"
NLP would extend Capra's designation of 'concepts' as those which, in Maya, are mistakenly taken for reality. NLP's extension would posit that all sensory perception, representation, imagination, memory and language – much more than just 'concepts' – if taken for "reality," confuse map with territory.
More importantly, NLP does more than propose better concepts. NLP creates practical skills and tools for changing old maps and transcending them to improve a person's quality of life, self confidence, health, relationships, spiritual connection, and career – because NLP is a toolset for the structure of one's subjective experience, itself – every experience and behavior we have.
"Reality? ...What's that?"
"If the many and the One be indeed the same Reality, then it is not all modes of worship alone, but equally all modes of work, all modes of struggle, all modes of creation, which are paths of realization.
"No distinction, henceforth, between sacred and secular. To labour is to pray. To conquer is to renounce. Life is itself religion. To have and to hold is as stern a trust as to quit and to avoid."
– Sister Nivedita, introduction to "The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda"
NLP makes no claims regarding the nature of 'reality', nor does it assert that such a thing either exists or does not exist. Its domain of interest is purely the nature and structure of experience.
As such, it takes no particular position in the age old debate about 'reality' except to say that there is nothing in our thoughts or sensory experience which can, from a purely scientific point of view, be considered isomorphic to any 'reality' – if such a thing exists – "out there" because everything that reaches our awareness has already been transformed by the structure of our nervous system, the biophysics of the transmission of sensory data, and the idiosyncratic nature of any language we can devise and use to interpret it.
Is there a 'reality' out there? Is there a 'reality' "in here?" One approach to finding out, for oneself, might be to first recognize what 'reality' is not, and do what one can – which is quite a lot – to make experience, itself, as clear and untroubled as possible.
The HIndu metaphor of the mind as a clear pool of water speaks to this approach. When the surface becomes calm, you can see clearly through the depths to the gems at the bottom of the pool.
Renunciation or Affirmation?
To a person who is seeking the true nature of 'reality' in way consistent with the philosophies of India, NLP might ask, "What in your experience never changes?"
Thus, by a process similar to Descartes' logic of eliminating everything that could be considered unreal (for Descartes that was anything he could 'doubt'; while for a Hindu that would be anything that changes), one might hope eventually to discover the 'real'.
This process, not just of reasoning but of refining experience, is the process of elimination or renunciation, what HIndus call, "neti, neti" (not this, not this).
Yet Hinduism provides different paths for different people's temperaments, preferences and stages of life, all leading to the same end – the experience of Unity. In contrast to "neti, neti," Hinduism also provides the alternative approach of "iti" (this!), wherein all is affirmed in a deeply spiritual way, whatever the nature of the experience, pleasurable or painful.
"The world, in spite of its pain, is as it were enraptured by itself, and does not count the hurts that go with the procedure: as though lovers in their rapture should mind whether the kisses hurt, or a child eagerly swallowing ice cream whether the chill was a little painful...
"Everything depends on where one puts the emphasis...
"A continuous blending and transformation of opposites through a relentless vital dynamism – even asking for pains, to balance and enhance the intensity of delight – goes spontaneously, powerfully, and joyously with this terrific Oriental acceptance of the whole dimension of the universe. And this wild affirmative is one that is eminently characteristic, as we shall find, of Hinduism."
– Heinrich Zimmer, "The Philosophies of India"
Where one puts the emphasis, specifically, is a matter of attentional direction. NLP observes that our attention is not always directed in a conscious manner– which is generally a good thing.
Our conscious minds are designed for focus and can only attend to a limited number of things at once, while our unconscious can, and does, attend to myriad complex systems simultaneously. The processes by which thoughts and perceptions are brought into awareness are, themselves, largely unconscious.
But what if that which is brought to our attention is serving us less well than something which is not being brought to our attention? Who gets to choose?
Most of us experience our thoughts and perceptions in a fairly passive way. That is, we assume that whatever is brought to our attention is what should be brought to our attention, even if it is causing us emotional or behavioral problems.
NLP makes it possible to make attentional choices consciously, so that what is useful, supporting and life-affirming is automatically brought to our attention by the unconscious. This ability is an astounding breakthrough in the study and practical applications of the mind, a capability which no other psychology or methodology has ever produced so effectively.
NLP accomplished this, and continues to develop it, by identifying the processes, themselves, then developing tools for modifying them.
"Go and Enjoy the World"
"It is as if the Divine Mother said to the human mind in confidence, with a sign from Her eye, 'Go and enjoy the world.' How can one blame the mind? The mind can disentangle itself from worldliness if, through Her grace, She makes it turn toward Herself."
– Sri Ramakrishna, "The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna"
"Such is the attitude that comes to the fore decisively in the Tantric period of Indian thought: the mortal individual identifies his mind with the principle that brought him into existence, that hurls him along and is to wipe him out, feeling himself to be a part of the supreme force as its manifestation, as part of its veil and play.
"One submits to the totality. One attunes one's ears to the dissonant as well as to the consonant strains of the cosmic symphony, regarding oneself as a brief passage, a momentary melody, now raised, but soon to fade and be heard no more.
"Thus comprehending his part and function in the everlasting, joyful-woeful song of life, the individual is not melancholy at the prospect of the pains of death and birth, or because of the frustrations of his personal expectations.
"Life is no longer evaluated by him in terms of sorrow. But the sorrows and the joys of the round are transcended in ecstasy."
– Heinrich Zimmer, The Philosophies of India
Here is the great challenge of the Hindu path of affirmation ("iti"). While the Divine Vision is The Divine's, alone, to give, in this branch of Hinduism one is not enjoined to deny the world but to participate in it fully.
The challenge is that if you enjoy the world, you will also suffer in the world. If you can feel pleasure, you can feel pain. If you can experience the joy of loving someone, you can suffer their loss; yet ultimately, the two are ecstatically joined and transcended in the realization of an undivided, Divine Unity. While we remain short of that union and transcendence we will naturally prefer joys to woes and pleasure to pain.
While it is not NLP's intention to attempt the production of lives that are always happy or always pleasurable – since happiness and pleasure, by their natures, come and go – there remains a great deal we can do with NLP to make our experience happier and more pleasurable because most of what makes us happy or unhappy, and most of what causes us pleasure or pain, is our own processes, not 'reality', and not the external world.
If we can make ourselves happier and make our lives more pleasant in appropriate ways, Hinduism's affirmative stance holds no objection to doing so. In Hinduism, we are not morally constrained to suffer.
If we can reduce our own suffering, why not do so?
With NLP, we can.
Mind/Body as Vehicle
"This is the intelligence of the intelligent, the wisdom of the wise, that a man attains Me, the Immortal One, here in this very life, by means of the unreal and mortal – his psycho-physical organism."
– Srimad Bhagavatam
Here again we find a similarity to NLP's approach to the psycho-physical organism – the whole person, mind and body.
While we acknowledge that the map ("the unreal") is not the territory ("reality" beyond the map), we consider the map as a useful means of navigating.
The less distorted our maps, the more useful they become. While no map is perfect, and while the territory itself may remain unknown until it is actively explored, there is no question that some maps are more useful than others.
The better the map, the fewer difficulties we will have in our explorations.
Language and Experience
"Any discussion of the Absolute or attempt to understand It through the dialectics of the relative world will bristle with contradiction."
– Swami Nikhilananda, introduction to "The Bhagavad Gita."
All discussions and dialectics are constructed in language. From an absolute point of view, words of any kind, no matter what their construction or presuppositions, cannot approach the Absolute.
However, learning even just a little bit about the structure of the language we use for thinking, believing, and interpreting experience provides an experiential basis for understanding the limits, as well as the functional boundaries, of words and concepts.
One of the most integral aspects of NLP is that it makes no attempt to convince anyone of any linguistic concept. NLP considers that concepts are "content," while its focus remains on structure and process. Thus it avoids the contradictions spoken of by Swami Nikhilananda.
NLP would consider the imposition of such content upon a client to be unethically invasive of the client's private world.
John Grinder (an originating co-developer of NLP) and Carmen Bostic St. Clair in their book, "Whispering In The Wind," propose that:
"... the NLP practitioner continue to learn to distinguish between form and content in his work as a safeguard for the clients' integrity in their particularly vulnerable states during the change process; [and] that the NLP practitioner clearly recognize that there is an overarching concern amidst all the complex interactions with clients, such that she accept the responsibility to conduct herself in such a way as to maximize the independence of the client."
In NLP, the client's approach to the Absolute, his or her own unique path, is respected while life's obstacles are identified and transformed.
"The Upanishads speak of Brahman as the end of a trackless path. But they do not leave us helpless. It is not unattainable. It is not easy to teach It in the way one teaches other subjects, but the student can be helped and guided towards it."
– Swami Ranganathananda, Message of the Upanishads
The process of NLP Training, Coaching and Therapy is similarly difficult to convey by old methods precisely because what is being changed for the better is not concepts but experience.
This distinction illustrates why simply reading about NLP, or looking over the description of a series of steps in an NLP process, conveys precisely nothing about what can be accomplished when the process is undertaken experientially.
Those who are as yet unfamiliar with NLP and want to know what it's about often look for such procedural descriptions, then read them through without ever trying them, and remark, "I don't see how that will help me." It is for this reason that I continually emphasize the distinction between thinking about NLP and actually doing it. That is the distinction between abstract thinking and actual experience.
This distinction is not limited to NLP, but applies to any realm wherein it is the experience itself, rather than thoughts about the experience, which are of the essence.
"A concept or idea of Brahman is not Brahman. When a man thinks he knows Brahman, he has formed only a concept of It; he does not know Brahman truly. On the other hand, he who truly knows Brahman, knows that he cannot know it through his sense-organs and mind."
– Swami Ranganathananda, Message of the Upanishads
"As long as there is the least separation between the subject and the object of knowledge, and the process of knowledge, God remains unknown."
– Swami Prabhavananda, Narada's Way
"There is, you must remember, all the difference of pole from pole between realization and mere talking. Any fool can talk. Even parrots talk. Talking is one thing, and realizing is another. Philosophies and doctrines and arguments and books and theories and churches and sects and all such things are good as far as they go; but when realization comes these things drop away.
"For instance, maps are good, but when you see the country itself and look again at the maps, what a great difference you find!"
– Swami Vivekananda, Jnana-Yoga
"In the Chhandogya Upanishad we read: 'When the food is purified, the heart becomes pure. When the heart is pure, there is constant recollectedness of God.'
"What is meant by 'food' being purified? Food refers not only to what we eat, but also to what we gather through the doors of the senses.
"It is easy to eat pure food. Physical purity is easily achieved. But the most important thing is to attain mental purity, purity of the heart. The great ones who have attained it tell us that we do not have to run away from sense-objects or withdraw from the world, but that we must move among sense-objects without attachment or aversion. Thus it is that food becomes purified.
"And when food becomes purified, the heart becomes purified, and then comes constant recollectedness of God."
– Swami Prabhavananda, Narada's Way
Attachment and aversion are understood as neuro-linguistic processes in NLP (see: Buddhism & NLP). The concepts of mental purity and purity of heart, however, suggest more of a state or condition which is fully congruent in body and mind, at all levels – without internal conflict, without distortion or deletion, at every level of one's experience, behavior and identity. 100% purity, in this regard, is a lofty goal, and so long as there remains any trace of the nominalization, "I," it remains out of reach to the spiritual seeker.
NLP does not present itself as a magic, instant solution to the absence of absolute purity of the mind or the heart – rather, only as a very effective means to move in that direction, gaining many benefits along the way.
Even if "purity" and constant recollectedness of God are not your goals, any process that effectively helps you to clear your experience of conflict and sorrow will move you in the direction of a more satisfactory experience. When it is accomplished fully and congruently, it moves you closer to an experience of the Sacred and makes the recollection of God that much more available.
NLP's many tools for state management, and its deep processes for resolving conflicts, forgiveness, healing the past, and connecting with core identity make it a powerful support for spiritual development.
Karma and Action
"The real meaning of karma is not cause-and-effect but simply doing, action, or energy. When something 'happens' to you, be it tragic or comic, hideous or delightful, the Hindus and Buddhists say it's your karma – which doesn't mean punishment or reward, as if someone were keeping books on you, but simply your own doing."
– Alan Watts, In My Own Way
NLP is relevant to the concept of karma as "your own doing" in two important ways. First, "your own doing" is not to be understood as "your own fault," but rather as a process which, given adequate resources, you can change for the better if you so choose.
For example, many people who experience "depression" think of it as a thing. The whole field of psychology, in fact, along with its model of psychopathology adopted by medical insurance companies, conceives of it, and many other problematic mental processes as things – disorders which a person does or does not "have."
From NLP's standpoint, this "thing" orientation is simply a matter of linguistic confusion, specifically that of nominalization – the linguistic conversion of a process into a thing. If I "have" depression, I can clearly think of it as something that happens to me, not something I am doing. And hence it is not my fault. I need treatment, as if I "have" a disease. Unfortunately, this way of thinking about it also takes the power to change it away from me.
On the other hand, if I think of "depressing" as something I'm doing, somehow – even though, of course, I'm not doing it on purpose – then it opens up the possibility that I might learn to do something differently which would effectively change my mood and give me more control over my state of mind in the future. This is a much more empowering framework. It doesn't put me at fault, yet it puts the location of control in my own hands, meaning there is something I can actually do about it!
The second way NLP is relevant to the concept of karma as "your own doing" is that, in the spiritual context of Hinduism, the 'you' referred to is not your ordinary sense of individuality, but something much, much deeper – so deep, in fact, that Hinduism says, "You are that." It points to a Supreme Identity which is transpersonal and common to every thing and being in existence.
Identity and Spirituality
This Hindu concept of core Identity is very different from that in the West. Here in the West, if someone walks up to me and punches me in the nose for no good reason, I would strenuously object to anyone claiming that it was my own doing. I would say, "Just a minute! I'm the victim here!" But in the context of Hindu spirituality, the "I" who punched and the "I" who was punched share a common ultimate Identity.
NLP's "neuro-logical levels" (a hierarchy of neuro-linguistic levels which progressively includes more and more of a person's neurology) a concept developed by Robert Dilts, places Spirituality at the Top, and Identity at the next level down, thus separating the two in a way that would seem very unnatural in the spiritual context of Hinduism. Dilts' hierarchy looks like this:
- Beliefs & Values
In Hinduism, Identity and Spirituality would occupy the same level, so the hierarchy would appear something more like this:
- Spirituality and Identity
- Mission and Purpose
- Beliefs and Values
John Grinder proposes even wider variety – suggesting that research be conducted to ascertain if a formal NLP model can be created which observes that each person organizes his neuro-logical levels according to his own unique set of neuro-linguistic processes.
For a Hindu, for example, the spiritual level might co-exist on every other level. The implications of such a self-organization would have profound implications to therapy and coaching work, and to the types and quality of resources a person might bring to NLP change work.
Fortunately, NLP retains an inherent flexibility in this regard because it is defined as a model of models. This meta-model does not attach itself to any one particular model, and adapts to changes and varying circumstances easily. NLP can as easily work with an Eastern spiritual model as it can with a Western spiritual model.
"The main discipline of the Bhagavad Gita for the attainment of liberation is karmayoga, or the performance of work as a method of communion with the Godhead. Everyone must work. Inactivity is impossible for an embodied being. His eating, his moving, and even the functioning of his bodily organs, mean action. Work is the effective means of self-expression in the relative world. Even God Himself is an ever active Power.
"'I have, O Partha, no duty; there is nothing in the three worlds that I have not gained and nothing that I have to gain. Yet I continue to work.'" ( -- Krishna )
– Swami Nikhilananda, introduction to "The Bhagavad Gita"
Here karma is simply understood as action – any action and all action. Like NLP, Hinduism proposes a very active attitude toward the mind, the body, and the world at large. Both recognize that inaction is impossible, since everything in existence is changing, including our varying states of mind and other mental and physical processes.
In NLP, the question isn't whether you will do things with your mental abilities, but what you want to do with them! Your mind is always active, always working. And you can change the way it works, on purpose, if you like.
NLP gives you the power to say, even at the level of the workings of your mind and body, "Yes, it is my own doing, and it's doing what I want it to do."
Time and Being
"There never was a time when time was not, nor will there come a time when time will have ceased to be."
– Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology
Time is an essential component in many NLP processes. I am not speaking here of clock time, but of subjective time – time as we experience it, time as we construct it, time as we remember it, and time as we control our perception of it.
The simple facts that the past is no longer here, and the future is not yet here, and that it is always that way at every point in time, open profound possibilities for emotional healing and the ongoing potential for positive outlook, perception, and beliefs.
The present moment, being eternal, is the moment in which our memories take place. The very existence of a memory is always a present experience – an experience which is the result of mental processes which are entirely accessible for positive change. Once we have learned what there is of value to be learned from "past" experiences, actions and events, we needn't be stuck with the painful memories, but can change them in realistic and life affirming ways – permanently or for as long as we want to keep the change.
The "future" is likewise accessible to us. Habitually envisioning negative futures, when equally possible positive futures may yet unfold, leads only to anxiety and pessimism – which in turn determine decisions and actions which may create self-fulfilling results.
"Self-fulfilling" can be positive, as well. Given a choice between a self-fulfilling negative future, and a self-fulfilling positive one, which would you prefer? The positive one, naturally. NLP multiplies positive futures by creating the conditions which make them self-fulfilling.
The Hindu perception of eternal, present time, is epistemologically sound from a Western philosophical standpoint and NLP uses that perception to inform processes which allow for the flexible use of time in the healthy construction and modification of subjective experience.
"There was never a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these kings. Nor is there any future in which we shall cease to be."
– The Bhagavad Gita
I hope you have found these few quotes and comments helpful in considering NLP in the Hindu context.
Please feel welcome to call me and discuss how NLP training, coaching and therapy can help you.
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