The meta-states in Symbolic Modelling

It’s relation to Neuro-Semantics
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Published in Society of Neuro-Semantics eJournal, #2, April 2001.

In previous works, I have described the role of “metaphors” as language (The Secrets of Magic, 1997) and as meta-level phenomena that sets higher frames or meta-states over primary states (Meta-States Journal). Even the word tells us about this. You can see the word “meta” in “metaphor;” it is built right into the term. Meta (above, beyond, about) and phorein (to bring, carry over) speaks about how we bring one thought or reference over to another. When we do that, we set the metaphor reference up as a formatting frame for whatever experience we’re in reference to. Doing this enables us to engage in a much higher level kind of thinking, we are then able to think about one thing in terms of another. And, that’s what a metaphor is, an analogy.

We start with a basic level domain and we transfer it to another domain (a target domain). In doing so, we do not work horizontally (although it seems that way at first). We rather work vertically. We move up a level. We put one primary level domain at a meta-relationship to another. It becomes the frame or meta-state of the other.

When we hear a single adult says that she doesn’t want to play any games, we know that the term “game” functions as a way to think about relating. The relationship made up of a bunch of relatings (primary state). Above that we have the metaphor frame of “game.” We also have it framed negatively and so it brings with it, as entailments, connotations of “bad game.”

I say all of that to introduce a new work by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins. For years they have turned their attention and expertise to the area of metaphors. From that study, they have developed a model for working with metaphors which they call “Symbolic Modelling.” This model comes partly from NLP (lots of meta-modeling questions at the heart of it) and partly from David Grove’s so-called “Clean Language” model. In their new work, they have provided an excellent presentation of working with metaphors in order to model human experience.

You will find this insightful work about metaphors and modeling in their book; Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling (2000). What I really like about this new work is their research in Cognitive Linguistic, Cognitive Psychology and self-organization theory. This shows that they are not lost in the NLP world but use NLP as a model to understand other fields and to enrich NLP with current research.

Much of what they write in this work sounds like Meta-States and Neuro-Semantics. When you read it, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Just as surprisingly, they make no reference to Meta-States. Yet, because their basic model has so much meta-stating involved in it, I will review it here to highlight some of the best facets of this work and it’s relation to Neuro-Semantics.

Symbolic Modelling

We recognize in NLP and in Neuro-Semantics that all of our maps are made-up, constructed, and not real. As a meta-class of life, we live in the higher realms of the mind – in symbolic domains. This is precisely the arena that Lawley and Tompkins have sought to explicate in modeling metaphors. Assuming that a metaphor implies a metaphorical landscape and that there’s a lot more behind a metaphor than appears, they use several sets of questions to explore the metaphor.

Similar to how we distinguish levels of thinking and mind in Meta-States, they separate out levels of domains of experience. In their model, they come up with three: sensory, conceptual, and symbolic (p. 4) whereas in NS we recognize all conceptual levels as symbolic and so do not distinguish the metaphor level from the more “dead” metaphors in our concepts. By separating out “metaphor” as entirely different category, the authors focus exclusively on metaphors. This is the strength of this book and adds to the field of NLP.

The authors use symbolic modeling to facilitate individuals to become more intimately acquainted with the symbolic domain that lies embedded inside of their surface statement metaphors. This is the heart of NLP and NS. We model to gather information about how a mental-emotional system works. A model allows us to describe how something functions. With a model, we can then replicate the experience in others.

Using Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors we Live By and Pinker’s work on How the Mind Works, the authors take the submodality of location (space) and make it central to their work (p. 12). This allows them to begin to construct and model out the metaphoric landscapes as they work with people. They then construct a generalized description (or model) of how a person’s internal system works.

“For a symbol to exist, it must be located somewhere in perceptual space. This space acts like a theatre in which symbolic events can happen…” (p. 122).

Modelling the levels of the mind & the patterning that our framing creates

The authors recognize the nature of levels of organization, individual “symbols” making up “relationships of symbols” embedded inside of larger level “patterns,” within yet “patterns of organization” (p. 30). If that sounds like the meta-levels of Meta-States, the diagram used similarly looks like it as with each level we transcend the previous and include it in the higher.

Above the Symbols are “Relationships” … or as we say in Meta-States, the structural interface, which occur when we bring one state to bear upon another state.

“Symbols and their relationships to each other do not exist in isolation. They are part of wider contexts and larger systems consisting of higher level patterns.” (p. 32) “Symbols do not exist in isolation – in fact, they only exist in a network of relationships with other symbols.” (p. 124)

They quote Capra (Web of Life) that these “cannot be measured or weighed; they must be mapped. To understand a pattern, we must map a configuration of relationships.” So their Symbolic Landscapes correspond to what we describe as a Semantic Network of frames within frames.

“Patterns emerge from a network of relationships. They connect components across multiple spaces, times, and forms. They exist as stable configurations, repeating sequences, and recurring motifs.” (p. 33)

“We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.” (Norbert Wiener)

This gives us a frame system – “the organization of the relationships” which creates the pattern. It has a wheels-within-wheels nature.

“It is because self-organizing systems are organized into levels that they can be regarded as a whole or a part, that they can balance self-preservation with adapting to others, that emergent properties can exist, and that limitations and contradictions can be transcended and included.” (p. 35)

Modelling via metaphors

With this way of thinking about symbolic reality, then how a system is organized becomes crucial. And that’s what we model – the structures, symbols, relationships, interfaces, etc. Lawley and Tompkins starts were we all start in NLP, the way we talk about things contains cues and clues about our mental structuring:

“Our language not only expresses who we are, it also allows listeners to peek into our private perceptual world.” (p. 51).

I’m also pleased to see that they use the up metaphor to describe their modeling. This shows up as a chart very similar to how we chart the meta-levels of thought:

The approach or framework that Lawley and Tompkins use in the modeling of metaphors is as follows (p. 41). This reflects the general pattern we use in meta-stating.

  1. First the entry a into metaphor: use everyday dialogue to enter into another’s world of symbols.

  2. The developing of symbolic perceptions from the metaphor using “developing” questions: Focus on a single symbolic perception.

  3. Modelling the symbolic patterns to bring forth a more complex metaphor landscape.

  4. Encouraging conditions for transformation: concentrating attention on the levels of organization, attending to the higher, more significant patterns (awareness of meta-levels), broadening attention (pre- and post-framing), identifying conditions necessary for change.

  5. Finally, maturing the symbols to bring things to a new narrative.

Comparing that to meta-stating,

  1. Primary state: Begin with a primary level state or experience.

  2. Represented Reference: Find out about the person’s VAK representations and language.

  3. Meta-States: Flush out the meta-level frames that form the basic patterns that govern the primary experience.

  4. Gestalt States: Identify the larger systemic patterns that emerge from the meta- stating, aware of meta-stating interfacing and meta-level principles.

  5. Executive States: Identify the person’s intentional stance, overall outcome frames, ecology concerns and bring to bear upon the everyday attentional level.

  6. Align for Congruency: Use Alignment process and mind-to-muscle processes.

In terms of modeling, they recommend the state of “not knowing.”

“You can never know another person’s experience … what you can do is build a model which has a corresponding organization (is isomorphic) with their metaphor landscape… Symbolic Modelling is a dynamic process and your model of the client’s model will require continual revision as each new piece of information emerges…” (p. 46)

The so-called "Clean Language"

As a tool for achieving this, they recommend “clean language.” This is where I find the work weak. They speak of “clean” language as if we can speak and inquire of anyone without influencing the system. Quoting David Grove, they write:

“… In asking a question we do not impose upon the client any value, construct, or presupposition about what he should answer…” (p. 52).

Yeah, really. Yet all of the questions do precisely that. In spite of using “the client’s words” – the rest of the question sets frames for how the person is going to respond. In fact, David Grove, in the same paragraph admits as much:

“By asking clean questions we shape the location and direction of the client’s search for the answer.” That’s why the questions are not “clean.” They impose.

The Framing Nature of the so-called “clean” questions (for “thing” or “that thing” has been substituted “the client’s words”):

QuestionsStructuring Frame
“And is there anything else about that?Expanding Frame
“And what else is there…?”Quality frame, Categorizing frame
“And what kind of a thing is that thing?”Metaphor frame
“And that kind of a thing is like what?”Location frame
“And where is this thing?”Location frame
“And whereabouts is this thing?”Spatial location frame in future time
“And then what happens?”Spatial location frame / Consequence frame
“And what happens next?”Prior spatial location frame
“And were could this come from?”Source frame

Then there are the stretching the edge of the map questions (p. 196).

“What’s beyond that?”
“What’s outside?”
“What’s above, over, on top of… below, under, beneath … behind?” (p. 196)

As much as Grove and these authors may want to believe that such questions keep the results “clean,” they do not. They cannot. These are the words that invite people to invent all kinds of things that was not there before. Yes, focusing on the person’s words and symbols does create a focus on a single event, and to some extent explores the person’s mental world, but it also invites creating things by that very focus. The symbolic domain, like all facets of consciousness, changes and transforms by the very accessing of it. All memories are like that. With every re-accessing of a memory, the memory will change.

All questions invites frames. Even the simple question, “What kind of an X is that X?” invites a person to step out of the content to describe and invent the qualities and nature of the frame. We do that in Meta-States as a way to elicit and flush out the frames we have around an experience. “What is the quality of your anger?” Whatever the person answers tells about his or her higher frames.

Other questions invites pure invention. “What is that X like? It is like what?” This question “prompts the client to convert her everyday narration into symbolism.” (p. 69). Yes, indeed!

Location question, “Where is it?” invites the person to embody and to start populating his or her symbolic space. We do that in NLP all the time. “Where is your past? Your future? Today?” The “time” questions (What happened before, What happens next?) are the Pre- and Post-framing questions which are influence questions designed to reframe meanings conversationally (Mind-Lines, 2000).

There are outcome questions: “What would you like to have happen instead of X?” There are epistemology questions: “How do you know that this is X?” They even have several diagrams that are similar to those we use in Mind-Lines. From “Before –> During –> After” (pp. 73, 74, 75) that show pre-framing the past, presenting framing for the now, and post framing for the future. The Nine-Question Compass (p. 78) offers four directions for sending consciousness from the magic cube that we have in Mind-Lines. This makes the idea of these questions being “clean” and not persuasion techniques even more questionable.

Transformation patterns

In Meta-States, when we bring one state, frame, emotion, thought, etc. to bear upon another, all kinds of transformative effects can occur. We have specified 16 of these relationships. These allow us to manage the transformation process with a new level of mindfulness. Similarly, in Symbolic modeling, transformation occurs frequently but with this difference, transformations occur in a more unpredictable and novel way, in a way that’s full of surprise.

“You cannot know when, where, how, or what form a transformation will take, until after it has occurred. … Transformation is a change to a higher, more significant level of organization. Higher and more significant ‘because more of the [client’s] universe is reflected or embraced in that particular wholeness.'” (p. 176)

Detecting patterns

We all seek to recognize “patterns” and to make sense of them. As a symbolic class of life, we have to. Lawley and Tompkins have provided suggestion that we can detect patterns via connections and coincidences, familiarity with processes, sense of wholeness, a repeating sequence, isomorphism, etc. Patterns are a part of a higher organizing process that repeats. The particular pattern detection in Symbolic Modelling involves mapping out the Metaphor Landscape.

The developing, transforming, and maturing questions do something else. They not only expand and stretch the metaphorical map, but transform it. In terms of exploring, profiling and expanding a Semantic Network (as we do in Neuro-Semantics), we ask questions about meaning, associative meaning and contextual meaning. We find out what a person has connected to something to, and then the frames and frames embedded in frames that give it conceptual and metaphorical meaning.

They have a nice case study involving a teacher and several upset kids. The teacher conducted a Symbolic Modelling with the entire class. In part it went as follows (pp. 239-240):

One child shouted, “It’s not fair.”

And it’s not fair. And when it’s not fair, is there anything about it’s not fair?

The child bombarded her with lots of things including: “You’re mean.”

The teacher said, “And what kind of mean is that mean?”

“You’re cross.”

And what happens just before I’m cross?

One reply included, “You’re not cross, you’re upset.”

And what’s the difference between cross and upset?

“There’s respect.”

And when there’s respect, what happens next?

This process settled the class down, defused the negative emotions, and engaged the children in learning — all powerful results. From a Meta-States structural point of view, we have a piece of associative meaning, an X => Y (Upset => Mean) that we then outframe with awareness of quality, then prior-ness, then difference. Each outframe represents a different state and a different resource experience that qualifies things as a higher frame.

Modelling binds and double binds

Lawley and Tompkins also deal with a facet of mind that we have highly focused on in Meta-States, the “binds” and “double-binds” of interfacing levels. What creates “binds,” as in mental binds and double-binds, are thoughts, ideas. And when we have a repetitive self-preserving pattern of thoughts (alias, frames of beliefs), we have a binding frame that holds a self-organizing process in place. These typically reveal a meta-state structure wherein the higher frames binds some primary state experience– ordering it, forbidding it, necessitating it.

I found it humorous that the authors stayed with the nominalization and spoke about “binds” as if they were things rather than processes.

“Binds can be expressed conceptually, metaphorically, or non-verbally, and they come in all shapes and sizes.” (p. 182)

“The inherent logic and organization of a bind compels each component to fulfill its function in the service of maintaining the bind.” (p. 183)

Of course, following from Bateson, a secondary bind (belief that frames a situation) prohibits escape from the primary bind because it “conflicts with the first at a more abstract level.”


The book and model of these authors is a good one and adds much to the NLP model by enriching it, integrating current research in Cognitive Linguistics, systems, and brain research. It enriches the modeling we do in NLP and NS also as it opens up yet another way to model experience and excellence by listening to and exploring the metaphorical landscape that people live in.

© 2001 L. Michael Hall


Lawley, James; Tompkins, Penny. (2000). Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling.London, England. The Developing Company Press.

Hall. L. Michael (2000). Meta-States: Managing the higher levels of your mind. Grand Jct. CO: Neuro-Semantics Publications.

Hall, L. Michael. (2000). Secrets of personal mastery: Advanced techniques for accessing your higher levels of consciousness. Wales, UK: Crown House Publications.

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