Your Thinking Virtually Creates Your Reality
Penny Tompkins and James Lawley
Encountering our Fears
First published in Rapport, journal of the Association for NLP (UK), Issue 20, Spring 1993.
While in the U.S. recently, a young woman came to us with a fear of being
left alone. The problem had progressed to the stage where she found it
difficult even to drive herself to the next town. It transpired that behind
the symptom was a deeper fear: a fear of death. This fear started when
as a child her father made her watch him slaughter the animals on their
ranch. Her fear was further reinforced when a close college friend suddenly
died. Subsequently, she attempted to avoid re-experiencing feelings related
to this fear of death by such means as dissociation and "pushing them out
of my mind."
The elicitation of the information used standard NLP questioning approaches
and spatial sorting of the feelings, memories, strategies and so on. The
Jungle Gym and S.C.O.R.E. models developed by Robert Dilts and Timelines
were useful concepts in this case.
To say we rarely see our own problems clearly is axiomatic; if we did,
they wouldn't have the same effect and we wouldn't need the help of a therapist
(or life) to enrich our maps. The woman had so avoided her fear of death
that she had not made the connection between what she wanted to escape
from and the circumstances of her life. She was married to a mortician,
lived above the mortuary and was surrounded by death and grieving everyday!
Many philosophies and religions including Christianity and Buddhism allude
to the power of our thoughts to create our reality. If one believes that
our reality is only inside our head this maxim is self-evident. However,
the question takes on a different quality when 'reality' is taken to mean
the physical environment.
Some schools of thought take this idea to its limit, i.e. that everything
is a perfect manifestation of our thinking. Rather than take this approach,
we have found it more useful to ask: just how much of our environment does
reflect our behaviour, capabilities (and limitations), beliefs, values
and deep held presuppositions?
Systemic Reflective Principle
"We are what we think.
All that we are arises
With our thoughts.
With our thoughts,
We make our world."
For the past year, we have researched the 'thinking creates your reality'
concept with ourselves and our clients. We label how people and their world
interact as The Systemic Reflective Principle (SRP). This model brings
together the two NLP Presuppositions from which, according to Robert Dilts,
all others stem: "Life and Mind are one Systemic Process" and "The Map
is not the Territory."
Mind ------------------> Life
/Map <----------------- /Territory
Many of our beliefs, assumptions and presuppositions about ourselves and
the world are out of our awareness. Yet they influence our decisions, our
actions, our reactions, and every word we say. So what is the effect of
decades of these out-of-awareness beliefs? Why is it that time and again
we end up encountering just what we seek to move away from? For example,
how often do people go from one abusive relationship straight into another?
Does the Territory Reflect the Map?
Have you noticed how, when we cannot make our existing maps fit the territory,
our response (after the shock has worn off), is to try and make the territory
fit our map. Thus, over time, the territory becomes a reflection of our
map! When we attempt to change someone else we are usually trying to make
them confirm to our map of correct behaviour. A parent chastising a child
for doing something "naughty" would seem to be a prime example.
We are not saying that every thought ends up as bricks and mortar. However,
we have found that the underlying processes of people's thoughts do resemble
the underlying structure of their lives.
Russian Doll Theory of Life
Another systemic concept that is useful here is isomorphism, or what we
call the Russian Doll Theory of Life. This proposes that the little daily
dramas in our life are identical in structure to the larger events that
occur (and re-occur) over the months, years, and even lifetimes. In Transactional
Analysis these processes are called rackets, games and life-scripts; whilst
fractal is the name used in Chaos Theory.
As both therapists and management consultants we continually apply the filter
"How is the client demonstrating the structure of their problem/solution
now?". When clients identify the parallels of what has jut happened in
the consulting room with the problems "out there" they often have profound
insights into lifelong recurring patterns. And it is at these moments that
new, more productive, beliefs can replace the old limiting convictions.
So, SRP is a label for the concept that we choose our partners, where
we live, the jobs we do, our hobbies, etc. to reinforce our (out of awareness)
maps. The client with the fear of death is a graphic example of this type
of projection. By repeatedly applying the filter, "What if the territory
does reflect the map?" we found a convenient way of addressing central
life-issues. SRP also has a variety of other applications, for instance,
it can be used as an external yardstick to measure personal development.
There are other uses for this approach.
By examining the patterns and structure in our environment we can discover
something about our "blind spots". Those structures and patterns which
are out of our awareness and therefore out of our control. Once in our
awareness we an make a conscious decision to change them. Then an amazing life-enhancing
process often spontaneously starts. As plenty of ex-alcoholics will tell
you, once they've declared at an AA meeting that alcohol is controlling
their lives, it never tastes quite the same again no matter how long they continue
"There is one elementary truth --
that the moment one definitely commits oneself,
then Providence moves too"
Of course, the idea of SRP can be applied to positive and productive areas
of our lives. And it was with this in mind that we presented our session
the November 1992 ANLP Conference. Following the work of David Gordon on
his Meaningful Existence Model, we asked participants: What is it you cannot
not do - regardless of context? In fact, if you did not express these qualities
you would not be you.
Examples of such core attributes were: be honest, be kind, be curious,
be meticulous and be generous. These attributes are so intrinsic, should
you deviate from them your internal (value) system reminds you in no uncertain
terms. It is as if lying becomes a reminder to return to honesty or your
true self. If, in some context or other, you can lie and shrug it off,
then honesty is not one of your core attributes.
We asked participants to consider: If this attribute reflects who you
are, must it not be a means by which you achieve your Life's Purpose or
Mission? Accordingly, fulfilling your Life's Purpose just becomes a matter
of being who you are. And, at some level, you cannot not do that!
Where do Life Purposes come from? In Robert Dilts' Logical Level model,
Missions are a subset of the Trans-mission level, the Spiritual. At this
level we are all connected. In our work we have identified a variety of
ways to enable people to experience this 'connectedness' to the Spiritual.
Our View of Dilts' Logical Levels for Three
Reflections on Life
S P I R I T U A L I T Y
BELIEFS & VALUES
BELIEFS & VALUES
BELIEFS & VALUES
E N V I R O N M E N T
So what stops us from always operating from a place of perfect alignment?
From a Logical Levels viewpoint, our beliefs, capabilities and therefore
our behaviours can conflict with our core attributes. Thus who we are (our
Identity) gets distorted before it is manifested in the world.
In order for participants at our Conference presentation to experience
SRP operating in their own lives we developed an exercise called "Reflections
Through applying the filter of SRP to what they "cannot not do" participants
explored the connection between a core belief and how it manifests itself
in their physical environment.
In an earlier exercise participants had
been guided to access a Spiritual/Mission state for themselves. After re-accessing
this state, participants stood on a chair and reviewed their beliefs, behaviours
and environment from this perspective. Finally, the new learnings were
integrated into the previous states.
The feedback received from participants suggests they expanded their
maps of their world and realised they may have more influence over their
lives than they had previously thought, i.e. a paradigm shift had taken
As with all models, there are limits to its application. One of the potentially
unwanted consequences of applying SRP is "magical thinking" i.e., the belief
that we can manifest good or evil in the world just by thinking about it.
We met several Clinton supporters during the recent U.S. elections who refused
to contemplate "What if Bush wins?" in case they caused it to happen!
Similarly, there is a world of difference between taking responsibility
for one's health and feeling guilty for having 'caused' a life-threatening
In addition, we do not live in a vacuum. So SRP for an individual can
only happen through the interaction with the thousands of others whose
thoughts eventually influence our lives. Nevertheless, who has had more
opportunity to influence our personal environment than ourselves? Are our
choices of partners, romantic or otherwise, arbitrary? Or is there an 'emotional
equation' involved which means we choose our partners to play their part
in maintaining our maps of the world?
M. Scott Peck says in The Road Less Travelled that one of the most
difficult changes we can undertake is to alter our "Weltanschauung", or
world view (i.e. alter the deepest structure of our maps). For this reason,
as the title of Peck's book implies, many people choose not to go down
this route. An alternative path is to attempt to make the territory fit
Similarly, telling someone who is homeless and unemployed that their
thinking creates their reality is hardly acknowledging their model of the
world. We also recognise that SRP is itself a map. It is not 'the truth'.
For these reasons, and because of the phonologically ambiguous implications,
we inserted the word "Virtually" into the title of our presentation and
this article. The mind is, after all, a near perfect Virtual Reality Machine
as anyone who has had a nightmare will testify.
As an experiment, from a First Perceptual Position [your own viewpoint
and feelings], take a problem that's been around for a while and ask yourself:
"If the structure of my environment (in the context of the problem) reflected
the structure of my thinking, what information would that give me?" and
notice what you get. Adding a Second Perceptual Position [imagine you ARE
the environment] and a Third [Meta - outside the whole system] will likely
add further information. Like any skill, the more you practice, the more
it 'gets in the muscle.'
At the End - A New Beginning
"Fulfilment is manifesting my true self in the world."
And what of the woman with the fear of being left alone? We recently contacted
her three months after the one and only time we met her. First to get
her permission to use her story in this article, and secondly for an update
on how she is progressing. "The terrible thoughts and panic attacks don't
control me anymore. I just don't think about them in the same way," was
her response. Her environment as a result of this change in thinking has
literally expanded: She is seeing more of her surroundings now that she
is comfortable driving alone, and has set up a new business venture!
We would be pleased to receive comments on your investigations or any
other aspect of this article. You see, we cannot not stop developing ideas
© 1993, Penny Tompkins and James Lawley