An earlier version of
this article appeared in 'The Model' magazine, Edition 2 ,2006
Keeping it Clean
'Who translates, corrupts' Anon
Lieh Tzu asked gatekeeper Yin, "How can I walk underwater and not drown,
move through fire without burning, and pass amongst the multitude of forms of
Yin replied, "You must move within limits which have no limit; be secluded
within boundaries which have no beginning; and journey to where both the start
and the end of all life is."
"How can I do this?" asked Lieh Tzu.
Yin replied, "You must nourish your original breath."
What is this passion for? – The
influence of others – A new language – The search for information – Light
beyond Alison's cloud
thesis is simple: we each have a mind of our own. A 'personal mind', the
American psychologist William James called it. A unique, extraordinary
labyrinth of neural networks to which no-one else can have real access. Any
process aiming to help us change our minds for developmental or therapeutic
reasons must start from the premise that the choice must be ours alone.
What is this passion for?
is what the brain does. It is the word we give to our experience of the brain's
activity.1 I shall use the terms 'mind', 'brain', 'mind~body' and body~brain' more or less interchangeably here, and ask
forgiveness of those who still believe that the mind is somehow independent of
the brain. I think of myself, as I think of you, as one complete system, even if
I notice bits missing occasionally. And I have no difficulty believing that the
inconceivably complex workings of the brain-in-the-body are perfectly capable
of producing my experience of mind, consciousness and self, though I am happy
to define these as emergent properties of body~brain processes, at least until
the day when nanotechnology allows us to upload our minds onto computers and
survive without biology, as some scientists predict, when we may all have to
reconsider our definitions of, and beliefs about, existence.
My brain contains about 100 billion
neurons, or brain cells, which give me an enormous capacity for difference from
the 100 billion or so in your brain. Every one of those 100 billion neurons has
an average of 2,000 synaptic connections to other neurons. I don't advise you to
try this, but if you were to calculate the number of connections possible
between 100 billion neurons with 2,000 synapses (100 billion times 100 billion
times 100 billion and so on and so on), you would end up with a phenomenal sum
greater than the number of fundamental particles in the known universe.2This may give you a hint of your capacity for difference. You live in an
enchanted forest, a measureless web of brilliant threads that are both
purposeful and capricious: at times knotted, matted, pained and perplexed; at
other times dazzling, luminous, original. And if ever your brain feels like
what Virginia Woolf once called "the
most unaccountable of machinery – always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring
diving, and then buried in mud," you may want to ask yourself, as she
did, "Why? What is this passion
The logic of natural selection would say
that mind evolved to replicate as many as possible of the genes that created
it: to grow itself. It began life as an information processor that learnt to
evaluate – to utilize or reject information - and the logical outcome of this
was our capacity to have preferences, to imagine and plan.As a
psychotherapist, a species that evolved long after natural selection had
produced animals smart enough to be capable of self-reflection, I suggest that the
primary purpose of the mind now must be to know itself. As best it can.
Our brains form a million new connections
every second of our lives. As the activation of this multitude of intimate couplings
varies enormously in any one person from one second to the next, it is obvious
that every manifestation of any particular combination in any one mind,
especially when ninety-nine per cent of the activity takes place in the
unconscious, conspire to make that mind wholly and unknowingly different to any
other. We are, no doubt about it, exquisitely and exceptionally ourselves. And
one of the great challenges of life in the 21st century, perhaps its
greatest, is to know more about who we are – and, knowing more, to make more of
The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire declared
that individuality mattered more than conformity. His was a voice of passion
and reason challenging the mindless compliance and religious intolerance of
pre-revolutionary France. The battle
for minds is still being fought across the globe, but the cri de coeur of a civilized society is the same now as it always
has been: let people be different!
I grew up in a district of Yorkshire that
enjoyed a strong community feeling at the expense of considerable social conformity.
Differences were, to put it mildly, undesirable, and this resulted in a certain
amount of what we call in the trade 'deceit and denial'. Although my paternal
grandparents lived in the next street I never met them, because for some reason
that was never discussed they had cut off my father when he married my mother. Meanwhile
my great-grandmother would have nothing to do with her daughter, my maternal
grandmother - who lived in the house opposite - because she was a music-hall
singer and divorced (I don't know which was thought worse at the time). Good material
for local gossip, you would have thought, but no-one even mentioned these things. I grew up on the premise that everything was fine and that everyone was
alike. Later when I began to wonder a bit I was reassured by geneticists who
pointed out that the six billion of us who inhabit the earth are in fact very
closely related, and by mathematicians who calculated that we only need
twenty-four acquaintances to connect randomly with every other person on the
planet. After many years of re-education, I can happily say now that I find our individuality, our
singularity, our multiple peculiarities, endlessly fascinating.
Where do our differences come from? Charles
Darwin declared that divergence of character derived from the process of
natural selection, and with good reason: "During the incessant struggle of all
species to increase in numbers, the more diversified these descendants become,
the better will be their chances of succeeding in the battle of life."3Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker
notes the way that sexual reproduction results in a unique scrambling of the
genes of unrelated people; how random variations in our neurology produce
brains that differ structurally; how our inimitable biographical histories and
unreplicable collections of memories and desires make each of us qualitatively
unalike. Natural selection, says Pinker, is the homogenizing force within a
species that eliminates the vast majority of obvious design variants that are
not improvements, while at the same time producing a proliferation of tiny
differences between us that result in endless and enduring variety.4
Identical twins are a case in point. They
share the same DNA, but can have quite different personalities. The Iranian
twins Ladan and Laleh Bijani spent twenty-nine years conjoined at the head,
their brains fused together, yet the twins said they felt like two completely separate
individuals. "We have different world views," said Ladan, "we have different
lifestyles, we think very differently about issues." They even managed to
pursue different careers. Ladan was studying law, and Laleh journalism. Sadly, they
died in a Singapore hospital in
2003 in an attempt to separate them.
In 2001 in Lexington, South
Carolina, identical quadruplets Grace, Emily,
Mary Claire and Anna Mathias were born only thirty seconds apart, but all developed
unique characters. When they were four years old their mother Allison said of
them, "I have a leader, a – I hate to say – a whiner, and then somebody who
thinks she's the boss, and I have a teaser." According to their father Steve, "They
get along wonderfully, but fight famously."
"Internal difference is where the meanings
are", wrote Emily Dickinson. The taste of blueberries, the smell of coffee, my
sensations of pain and joy, have an embodied meaning for me that is mine alone.
Scientists are beginning to acknowledge the
subjectivity of data gathered for scientific research, accepting that nothing can
be known unless someone has observed it, and that the fact of observation – this
would seem obvious to anyone but a certain kind of scientist, perhaps - produces
subjective, rather than objective, information. The biologist Francisco Varela made
a plea for the validity of subjectively-sourced science in a 1996 paper 'Neurophenomenology'. He called it 'first-person reporting',
and suggested that the detailed phenomenological examination of human
experience (that is, via the senses rather than by intuition or reasoning) required
a revolution in scientific thinking and a complete change in the way science
was taught. "We need to introduce new first person methodologies way beyond
those we have at the moment," Varela observed in 1996. "We are extremely naïve.
It's like people before Galileo looking at the sky and thinking that they were
Clean facilitation is directly concerned
with first-person reporting. Information is elicited directly, without paraphrase
'And then what happens?'
'And for you that is like what?'
non-assumptive questioning brings abstract or cognitive concepts to
phenomenological life by supporting the subject to access an inner dimension to
their experience in a way they may not have done before. And what appears is 'objectively
subjective' information, different in kind to any other.
'It's like riding a beam of light.'
The influence of others
difference does not mean we are not open to influence. Quite the contrary. Being
human puts our minds in relationship. And being in relationship – one person as
the cause of an effect on another, especially in indirect or intangible ways - was
entirely responsible for what became my vocation as a psychotherapist and what
led to my commitment to Clean Language.
qualifies me to write about this new psychology of change? I could say that
it's having witnessed its evolution over many years and thousands of hours of
research, personal work, client facilitation and practitioner training with a
wide range of participants of many persuasions. I might also say that it's
having witnessed its efficacy countless times in helping people resolve
problems and transform their lives in ways that traditional counselling or
coaching would never have thought possible. And with all that it might be
nearer the truth to say that it is more like the effect of a lifetime of lies –
several lifetimes, in fact. I am the product of generations of prevaricators who
learnt to deny the reality of their own process: their own lives, relationships
and responsibilities. Denial derived from shame in turn begets shame, and in the
process reinforces itself:
shame →denial →shame about the
denial →more denial →
A familiar example of a neat and deadly, self-reinforcing 'loop'. Circularity
of this sort causes bewilderment in families, and children face exceptional difficulties
in breaking out of it. You will know for yourselves the monosyllabic menfolk of
the family who could fudge any issue, the hypocritical women who would say one
thing and mean another, the prolonged domestic arguments - uncivil wars – that
raged around who was right and who was wrong, and who said what to whom, and
why. When I was young the communications of those close to me contained a code
I never quite managed to crack.
Clean Language does a good job of unravelling the knots and binds of deceit
and denial, but is really more about veracity than honesty. It elicits and
facilitates the subjective truth, an internal reality uncontaminated by the
assumptions, presumptions and manipulations of others. This is not the absolute
truth that Plato tried (and failed) to define, and nor is it the unbiased, empirical
truth about the patient to which Freud and others aspired. It is personal intelligence
that no-one but the person themselves may retrieve. Only when I trained as a psychotherapist
did I begin to appreciate the depth, richness and uniqueness of this
information that we hold behind the heavy doors of the unconscious - and then
was frustrated to find that the analytic, cognitive and humanistic models of therapy
I was studying were intent on interpreting the information owners in ways not
dissimilar from the ways I had always interpreted them; ways that stemmed more
from the limited perceptions of my own world view than from the infinite possibilities
I came across David Grove's work in 1995 all my familiar escape routes from reality,
from the difference of others, were cut off. And there could be no going back.
I could no longer be satisfied with guiding clients by my own lights when honouring
and facilitating theirs was so much more demanding and fulfilling. The principles
of Clean Language gave me a framework for facilitation and change that was
simple, chivalrous and subversive: simple in that anyone can engage in it at a
basic level after no more than a day or two's training,6 chivalrous
in that it is, I believe, one of the most respectful and companionable of all language-based
modalities, and subversive in that it constitutes a fundamental challenge to the
old, directive, manipulative, habit-of-mind methods.
A new language
As long ago as the 5th century BCE the moral
philosopher K'ung Fu Tzu was reminding the rulers of the Chou Dynasty that the
harmony of the state depended on the value it placed on the individual: "From the emperor down to the mass of the
people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of every thing
besides." A century later the Seven Sages of ancient Greece took the principle
further when they gathered, it is said, in the temple of Apollo at Delphi to agree on a number of
maxims for inscribing there. The first and what was to become the most enduring
of these was 'Know thyself'.7
among these seven wise fellows was the philosopher-scientist Thales of Miletus,
the first to propose natural rather than theological or mythological
explanations for the phenomenon of the cosmos and the accommodations we are
obliged to make to it. In our wisdom it has taken us another twenty-six
centuries to develop a scientific and pragmatic means of fulfilling Thales'
first maxim that does not depend on the gnomic utterances of an Oracle or its
contemporary equivalent the suggestions of a therapist. Clean Language is about
eliciting and facilitating self-knowledge in a way that works more certainly
and ecologically than either of these hit-and-miss (and frequently contaminated)
years before Grove, the language theorist Alfred Korzybski was declaring that
almost all progress in human affairs depended on radical linguistic revision.
It was obvious to Korzybski that Planck's formulation of quantum theory (1900) and
Einstein's theory of relativity (1905) could not have emerged without
revolutionary departures from the structural and semantic conventions of the day.
New languages had to be created, and this meant rejecting old attitudes and practices.
For language and mind-set to transform together there had to be a fundamental
paradigm shift. Planck, Einstein and their followers saw to it that there was,
and every line, letter, dot and molecule of what we know about the world has
been affected ever since.
paradigm is a set of metaphors that suggest a certain world view. Freudian-style
analysis was based on a world view that became so deeply embedded in the cultural
unconscious that its figurative basis – those metaphors of 'defence mechanism',
'Oedipal complex', 'repression', 'transference' etc – was all but forgotten. We
failed to seek out alternative metaphors, or to check what the familiar
metaphors were revealing or concealing. Yet Freud's heart was not in treating individuals,
as psychologist Steve Ayan points out in his paper 'Psychotherapy on Trial'
(2006)8, but in refining his theories. He took the knowledge he had
gleaned from certain patients and applied it to people in general. The ideas in
Freud's book, 'The Interpretation of Dreams' (1899), were as influential and
became as familiar as Darwin's and Einstein's, but later Freud revised and
discarded many of them, and came to recognize that the new sciences of biology
and neurology might one day blow away his hypotheses.
theory of General Semantics (1933) called for a new world order in which everyone
would be taught to question the familiar and to re-evaluate the limits of their
language for themselves. General Semantics is more than a scientific treatise, it
is an impassioned plea for the transformation of society and the individual. In
quantum theory in particular Korzybski found a structural parallel to his
notion of psychological individuation. I interpret his reasoning this way: if
the particles of which we are made have no fixed form or position, if they are
able to spin clockwise and anticlockwise at the same time, if they can exist
simultaneously in two places at once, we have immensely – immensely - more
potential than we know.9 It is not so long ago that the laws of
physics were thought to be fixed and immutable. Today we are writing new narratives
of fluidity, ambiguity and possibility. The assembly of conflicting factions of
which the body~brain is composed is capable, we see now, of subtle and flexible
internal negotiations, and this gives us more scope for change than ever before.
would have embraced the philosophy and principles of Clean Language without
reservation. Clean Language calls for a leap in imagination from the old
psychology (re-interpreting others in the light of our own 'wisdom') at the same time as a leap in procedure
from the old language (making endless assumptions and generalizations of the
sort that encourage our so-called wisdom to intrude). The old language is a
severely limited system. We can never quite say what we mean, or mean what we
say, so we circle endlessly, like flies around a shuttered room. The old
psychology was a part of this unproductive pattern. In his pioneering book 'Against
Therapy' (1988), former psychotherapist Jeffrey Masson advocated the abolition
of the psychotherapies of the day. "No matter how kindly a person is," he
wrote, "when that person becomes a therapist, he or she is engaged in acts that
are bound to diminish the dignity, autonomy, and freedom of the person who
comes for help."10 I have to agree, and have more to say about this
in the next chapter. Yet many of the therapists, coaches and agents of change I
know would argue that their training equips them to 'know better' than their
clients and students, that confronting a client's or a student's 'erroneous'
belief system is the best way to change it, and that the loss of a little
client/student dignity and autonomy on the way is a small price to pay. To these
ends their language patterns are designed to interfere fundamentally with the other's
experience. My hope is that as our knowledge of neurology advances and we
become increasingly fascinated about how the mind works, there will be a
greater acceptance of, even delight in, difference and pluralism. The urge to
know more about ourselves and others will become a prime strategy for survival.
We have little choice. Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees reckons this could be
humanity's last century unless we sort ourselves out.11
readily appreciated the uniqueness of his patients' inner worlds and used to
say that it required him to invent a new language for each patient. What he
meant was a language of his own, of course. It did not occur to him that the
new language he should listen out for, and listen to, existed already. It was the patient's own.
The search for information
Most people who
seek help with healing think they have to choose between therapist-directed techniques
that are out of touch with today's philosophy of self-help, and medically-directed
drug treatments, with their crude impact on the delicate balance between brain
chemistry and psychology. Before David Grove, no school of psychology other
than Neuro Linguistic Programming had approached information gathering and change
from an integrated structural and semantic standpoint. NLP cut through a lot of
the waffle of 1970s humanistic psychology, and it did so by systematizing
our mental representations – the symbols we employ to capture and
communicate what is really going on in the unconscious. It was a significant
step, but it did not go all the way. That benign developer of new patterns of
NLP, John McWhirter, has said that the techniques of NLP are not in themselves a
complete therapy. I agree. They may reach many of the underlying constructs
that hold a client's unwanted behaviours, beliefs and feelings in place, but at
the critical point of contiguity, that boundary between stimulus and response,
input and output, they oblige the practitioner to hallucinate what the best
interests of the client require. In this important respect they do not deliver
The first principle of Clean Language is to
ease the client's entry into the organization of their subjective experience untainted
by outside interference and into an altered state of their own creation: to know themselves in their own way.When Grove began
to develop his philosophy in the late 1980s this was a radical enough concept,
but his means of achieving it were novel and original, and some thought bizarre.
The structure of Clean Language follows the empirical structure of the client's
own language, exactly as expressed. The client's words are repeated back to
them without re-interpretation, without challenge, without comment, without paraphrase,
without subtle re-wording; attention is drawn to what the client has said; and
a clean question is asked about what they have said. (You can find the detailed
syntax elsewhere on this site.) To put it as simply as it deserves: clients
hear themselves back to themselves, and are invited to embark on the search for
more information. The less attempt there is by the facilitator to change the
client's model of the world, the more the client gets to know it for themselves.
And what happens next
is inevitable, and not complicated: the self-system learns from itself.
Power returns where it rightly
belongs and change emerges organically
in the context of the outcome desired.
today as clean algorithms begin to enter the psychological mainstream they are still
resisted by some professionals. How can over-anxious or mentally unbalanced patients
be trusted to know what is best for them? How can trained professionals admit
to ignorance of what is best for their clients? Only with an about-turn in our philosophical
and linguistic orientation can we get our heads around such ideas.
questions are asked, as Grove has said, "so that the client can understand
their perspective internally, in their own matrix. Our questions will have
given a form, made manifest, a particular aspect of the client's internal
experience, in a way that they have not experienced before."12Information gathered for rather than from the other person.
we explore the inherent logic of our model of the world without
re-interpretation the metaphors that represent our internal experience are
honoured. We hear ourselves back to ourselves, and in so doing we re-create ourselves,
and somehow, sooner or later, there comes a moment when something unexpected, even
middle-aged woman is weeping as she describes the "black cloud of despair" that
has enveloped her for months. She has a sense that there is "light beyond the
cloud", but it is "too bright, too harsh" to venture into. It is a moment when the
conscientious counsellor, doctor, colleague or friend might come up with any
number of ideas to move Alison out of her despair and to make things happen. Instead
I ask a question that suggests nothing:
And when black cloud
of despair, and light beyond that is too bright, too
what happens next?
is a long pause. Again I am tempted to intervene, to move things on, to do or
say something to 'help'. After all, my client has been in this situation countless
times before, stuck in the cloud, aware of nothing but darkness and despair around
her. But this time something new happens. Her tears stop, and when she speaks
her voice has a quality of curiosity:
I make a
little hole in the cloud. It lets diffused light through and I see a
little blue sky.
is at this moment that Alison brings metaphor and reality together and chooses
an entirely new way of perceiving herself and the world. And she does it in a
way that only she knows how. Without revisiting childhood trauma, without years
of analysis, and without any suggestion from me, she has learnt to trust her unconscious.
The 17th century Spanish writer
Cervantes made his protagonist Don Quixote a new kind of hero, one who was
neither over-introspective nor at the mercy of others. He was "one who wills to be himself."As 21st century heroes, neither
self-consumed nor subordinate to others, we almost certainly have more will to
be ourselves than any generation before us. All we have to do is keep it clean.
2006 Philip Harland email@example.comPhilip is a neuro-linguistic psychotherapist
specializing in Clean Language, Clean Space and Therapeutic Metaphor. He has a
practice in north London working with
individuals and couples, and also works on the phone nationally and
internationally. More articles of his can be found on the website.
Keeping It Clean / notes
1 Mind is what the brain does, etc: Steven
Pinker, How The Mind Works, Penguin 1999. Neuroscientist Susan
Greenfield characterizes the mind as 'your
personalised brain' that requires you to see the world in terms of things that
have happened to you already and to you alone (Sensational Minds, New
Scientist 2 February 2002).
2Brain capacity: Edelman (1992), Greenfield (1996, 2000), Pinker (1997), Carter
(1998). Those who like numbers have calculated that there are about 1070 particles in the visible universe, a modest
sum compared to the 10100s (googols) of different words, sentences,
meanings, feelings, melodies, objects, ideas, places, chess games etc etc etc
that the brain is capable of processing and distinguishing between. Pinker
calculates that in addition to whatever incalculable inexpressible thoughts we might have each of us can entertain
something like a hundred million trillion different expressible thoughts, or about a hundred times the number of
seconds since the birth of the universe!
3 Divergence of character:
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859.
4 Endless and enduring variety:Steven
Pinker, as before.
reporting:Francisco Varela in an
interview with Susan Blackmore, Conversations
On Consciousness, Oxford 2005. Varela's paper Neurophenomenology: a methodological remedy for the hard problem,
was published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies in June 1996.
Language training: the basics can be learnt in a day or two; the more
advanced training takes two weeks; the experience to practise intuitively takes
as long as you like.
7 Maxims of the Seven Sages: 'Know
thyself','Nothing to excess', 'Seek
one sole wisdom', 'Choose one sole good'. 2,600 years ago Thales of Miletus was asking
'What is the source of all things?', a question we are still trying to answer.
heart not in treating patients: Steve Ayan, Psychotherapy on Trial, Scientific American Mind April/May 2006.
9 Progress via linguistic revision:
Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian
Systems and General Semantics, International Non-Aristotelian Library 1933.
10 Client dignity and
autonomy: Jeffrey Masson, Against Therapy, HarperCollins 1989.
11 Humanity's last chance: Martin Rees, Will the Human Race
Survive the Twentyfirst Century?, Heinemann 2003.
questions are asked to...":
from David Grove and Basil Panzer, Resolving Traumatic Memories, Irvington 1989.
Published on this site: 30 May 2007