First published in Rapport, journal of the Association for NLP, Issue 51, Spring 2001
A Moment* in Metaphor"
the unconscious formation of conscious information
and the instant of therapeutic intervention
"We shall all be chaunged and
that in a moment
and in the twincklynge of an eye"
* MOMENT signifying TIME
('in the moment')
WORTH or IMPORTANCE ('of moment')
and MOVEMENT ('having moment')
Every moment of our lives is of infinite
worth in that it has the potential for
movement . Every moment in
psychotherapy has a special importance because it is consciously for
that reason. My purpose here is to expand the moment
it takes for a client to process and communicate new information, and
the moment it takes for the therapist to respond. To make these
moments long enough to consider what happens in the conscious and
unconscious mind of client and therapist. And to consider how that
may inform us as therapists at the moment of our next intervention --
the intervention that will become the next input into the client's
system and have the potential for influencing anything from the
further confusion of the system to its total transformation.
I shall make the point that the only information we have about the
client at any given moment is symbolic information.
I shall ask you to consider what happens when we respond to that
information in the moment using clean language, and
what happens when we do not. I shall relate these considerations to
my articles in Rapport about addictions and problem
patterns,1 and develop the analysis
I began in the most recent of those about 'how clean language works'.
This article is about psychotherapy but the
information here may be applied to any related endeavour --
counselling, coaching, interviewing, teaching, managing, supervising,
consulting: for 'therapist' read 'facilitator'.2
* IN THE MOMENT
"What as a therapist do you do in the moment?
Whether the client is remembering the past or imagining the future
their experience of it is in the here and now." JAMES LAWLEY 3
In fact none of us is living precisely in the here and now. We are
all living half a second in the past. At the start of each day we
wake and become conscious. We hear the rain, see the light, touch the
pillow. We have memories of yesterday, and hopes and fears of today.
There is nothing mystical about any of this. All these awarenesses
are created by a complexity of electro-chemical firings in the
physical network of 100 billion or so neurons we call the
brain.4 Yet everything in the brain
-- every sound and sight and thought and feeling -- originated in the
unconscious. It took the brain about half a second to make a
selective representation of experience available to consciousness.
What happens in the moment that it takes unconscious computations
to manifest as conscious information?
An astonishing assault
Every half-second of our lives many millions of light waves,
pressure ripples and chemo-sensory signals cross our physical
thresholds via many millions of sensory receptors to trigger
electrical impulses that travel to the sensory cortex of the brain
for sorting ... an astonishing assault of sight, sound and
sensation-related items ... so many that to make any sense at all, a
kind of parallel neural processing first has to take place involving
billions of simultaneous computations. Sensory processors, time-space
processors and language processors all working away at the same time.
And our conscious minds tell us next to nothing of this remarkable
activity. Just as the audience for a film has little idea of the
behind-the-scenes drama and technical complexity that went into
producing what we see on the screen. If we attempted to hold every
contributory factor in our heads as we sat there we'd never be able
to enjoy our popcorn or follow the story.
Imagine this nigh-on infinite number of information inputs
entering our brains at any one moment -- bits that will combine or
connect to become the pictures, sounds and smells of everyday
experience. Imagine those billons of cells in the sensory cortex
processing this uncountable input. How do they cope? "Not very well,"
you might say, or "Incredibly well, considering". For what happens
given the physical configuration of the brain is a physical
interaction between the new information and historical information --
a ready-made store of neural circuits predisposed for activation
across an enormously large number of different levels of organisation
... thus the present prompts the past ... and the brain (not always
reliably) 'makes sense'.
"Every mental image has to be constructed in our
heads. We create a highly personal inner world ... using our
knowledge of everything we've ever seen in the past to imagine what
is there." PROFESSOR SUSAN GREENFIELD 5
You see, it's not actually the past that is evoked by
the present. The past is always a reconstruction. Memory is a present
experience. I notice a tree outside. I see not only its particular
patterns of light and shade, shape and colour, I am re-minded of
other light, other leaves, thoughts of childhood, dreams of tomorrow,
feelings of pleasure, nostalgia and pain ... conscious content
arising at several levels. And that conscious content, whether it be
a sensory representation of external reality or a sensory
representation of internal imagining, is a result of a process of
'serial selection' in the brain. Some scientists call it the left
hemisphere at work -- a cognitive-linguistic problem-solving machine
that has evolved to make more sense of sensory processing.6
This stage of cerebral activity takes the complex coded output of
parallel processing and generates a simpler, coded, selective output
... which allows me to see the leaf, hear a word, taste my morning
tea, reconstruct or imagine other times and other places. I can only
do this because my brain is forming representations.
Correspondences. Billions of computations are being translated into
explicitly symbolic form that betoken (signify/stand
for/denote) the elaborate organisation of the relationships between
their component parts, and as a result I can form and express complex
feelings or concepts with relative ease. This serial selector acts
rather like the TUC committee that examines resolutions from all
around the country and cobbles them into a composite motion to put
before Conference. It is the coded information output of enormously
What it means in essence is that we are only conscious of
information that has been represented
This explains how we can be aware of the outcome of mental
computations but not of the computations themselves. The operations
of unconscious processing are not accessible in consciousness because
they work subsymbolically. Whereas the processor for consciousness
works -- and can only work -- at a symbolic level. There
is no actual picture of a leaf in my brain. The 'leaf' I see is a
metaphor that helps me make cognitive-linguistic sense of that which
it is a metaphor for.
The brain does not differentiate between 'real' and 'imaginary'
metaphors, by the way. The mental image -- what Joseph LeDoux calls
'that most ghostly of cognitions' -- is the product of an unconscious
process indistinguishable from the process that results in our
perception of an external object. If you look at a scan of someone's
brain while they create an internal picture of, say, their bedroom,
you will apparently see activity in the same vision and recognition
areas that would be activated if they were actually looking at the
room.8 There is a small difference,
in that more sensory neurons seem to be activated in response to
outside stimuli than in response to self-generated sensory
experience, which would account for the fact that
internally-generated symbols -- tree, light, pillow, say -- are often
fuzzier and less well defined than externally-generated symbols --
tree, light, pillow, etc.
Often, but not always. Every kind of sensory experience can be
generated internally and seem vivid and real. On numerous occasions I
have heard clients in autogenic metaphor process describe a symbol in
such evocative detail -- the springy consistency of moss, the
bitter-sweet fragrance of quince, the tinkling sound of a fountain --
as if these imaginings were present. Which indeed they are. Rita
Carter quotes research with hallucinatory patients which demonstrates
that the voices they hear are in fact their own -- they generate
speech in one part of the brain and experience it as auditory input
in another part.9 It is a facility
exercised to some degree and in every sense by all of us.
How metaphor works: 4-stage information processing
To summarise what happens in the moment.
The unconscious mind works like a series of primary
parallel processors, constantly computing a limitless number of
information inputs subsymbolically, in codes neither accessible to,
nor decipherable in, consciousness. And since not all subsymbolic
coding necessarily feeds into the consciousness processor, some -
even most - subsymbolic processing will remain inaccessible to
direct experience.10 See STAGE 1 of
Figure 1, How Metaphor Works .
Here's an experiment you can try if you would like another
metaphor for subsymbolic processing. Cover and close your eyes so
that no light can enter. Then 'clear your mind', in any way that
works for you, of all recognisable mental images. Some people do this
by focusing on the smallest element of what they can see, then
focusing on the smallest element of that, and so on. What eventually
do you become aware of? Random pinpoint effects? Shifting, amorphous,
indescribable shapes? These may be as close as you can get to a sense
of the non-visually-related neural firings of the sensory
Next in the unconscious is a secondary serial selection
process which manipulates (or generalises, deletes and distorts in
NLP terms) the coded output of parallel processing to create symbols
- representations - in a way which is neither directly
accessible to, nor directly decipherable in,
consciousness. See STAGE 2 of Figure 1.
As the threshold to the conscious mind is crossed we become
introspectively aware of the symbolic representations of serial
selection. This stage is accessible to, and may
be decipherable in, consciousness. Figure 1, STAGE 3.
Thereafter we give nonverbal indication of, and verbal utterance
to, our symbols. We gesture, articulate, express ourselves, and in so
doing give form to who we are. A stage that is clearly
accessible and decipherable (though not necessarily easily) in
consciousness. STAGE 4 of Figure 1. We don't know what
has happened in the unconscious, because our awareness comes deeply
coded, but we do know what it's like. These likenesses
cannot be modelled directly. They can be modelled via
their symbols or the aggregation of those symbols in metaphor. The
whole half-second of information processing is summarised below.
* MOMENT OF CHOICE
There is a moment immediately following a client's unconscious
computation (Stages 1 and 2) and conscious introspection (Stage 3),
and during their conscious articulation (Stage 4), which is of
enormous importance for us as therapists. It has particular
moment . It is the moment just before we speak.
In that instant we have the opportunity to remind ourselves that
the same mental activity which is going on for the
client as they process information and express themselves is going on
for us as we listen. Exactly the same. Nothing can prevent a
multiplicity of meaning-making processes being activated in us as the
client speaks, and this making-of-meaning is happening so fast, and
is so out of our consciousness, that we can have no sense of what is
happening or how until we have already made symbolic sense of what we
The nonverbal and verbal language of the client is entering our
brains as physical input, and over the next half-second as it is
processed many millions of electro-chemical neural firings are making
physical connections to existing neural circuits in our brains, and
these connections are evoking internal representations which are
Only a small proportion of these activities will be in our
consciousness. Yet the whole of our reaction -- not just
the conscious part -- is shaping our response. And this is our moment
of choice. A moment in which we can further our co-dependency with
the client or advance the cause of their autonomy.
A seductive time in a significant relationship
We know that the language of the client is a symbolic notation of
a hugely complex subsymbolic reckoning. And we know that many clients
are confused by their internal processing.
There's so much going on. My head is spinning.
How tempting, then, having heard a client express their confusion,
to nod and say, "I know what you mean", and feel virtuous, or to nod
and say, "This suggests you are still quite vulnerable", and feel
This moment of intervention is a seductive time in a significant
relationship, a precarious moment when therapists may allow their
symbolic expressions and the client's -- their language -- to become
hopelessly entangled. Feeling wanted can be a pretty good fix for a
therapist, and feeling reassured can seem like a pretty good fix for
a client. Is it any wonder that one may become addicted to helping
and the other to needing help? Or that a client may suffer what can
only be described as abuse in their relationship with a therapist who
is using language to compensate for unresolved needs of their
I'm really sorry to hear that. You must feel awful. I
A political decision
How therapists perceive language largely determines the way they
conduct therapy, say Lawley & Tompkins.12 I agree, and go further. I believe a
therapist's choice of language is first and foremost a political
decision. A decision based on a judgment about where power properly
lies. Should it be with the highly trained therapist or the
In the 16th century reformist priest William Tyndale resolved to
challenge the orthodoxy of the day by translating the Bible into
English for the first time, and for the first time in England this
key instrument of church authority was taken out of the hands of
monks and scholars and made available to all. If Tyndale is the man
who taught to England to read,13
then 20th (and 21st) century psychotherapist David Grove is teaching
the world to listen. Grove has developed a language -- or more
accurately a philosophy and methodology of communication -- which
obliges the learned therapist to listen very carefully indeed to the
lay client, and in so doing cede authority back where it rightly
In every half-second before we intervene as therapists we can
remind ourselves of our personal responsibility for making this
choice. Where does power properly lie?
Authority or autonomy
The immeasurable importance of David Grove's contribution to the
politics and science of psychotherapy is that for the first time we
have a language which minimises the possibility of
abuse-by-suggestion, equalises the balance of power, reduces the
confusion of negotiating between two sets of metaphorical perceptions
-- client's and therapist's -- and ensures that the client's
attention is wholly and appropriately on themselves. This is Clean
Clean Language does not seek information for the therapist (though
it provides it); it finds information for the client. Its questions
do not presuppose answers (though they elicit highly relevant
responses). Its answers do not require 'understanding' (of content);
they invite discernment and decoding of pattern and
process.14 The unique syntax of
clean language concentrates the client's attention on the higher
organisation and deeper meaning of their symbolic
perceptions,15 and in so doing
encourages -- indeed optimises -- the conditions for independent,
How clean language works
And it all happens in a moment. Here is a transcript of a recent
I want to be able to make the decision to
And you want to be able to make the decision to
And when you want to be able to make the decision
to stop, what kind of able is that able?
(Pauses) It's like when my head and heart work
together I'm able to decide.
And when your head and heart work together that's
work together like what?
Oh, like Olympic gold.
The exchange lasted 30 seconds. Let's consider what was going on
consciously and unconsciously for client and therapist in that time.
The notes below in bold develop my systemic analysis of 'how clean
language works' from a previous article,16 and combine it with the symbolic analysis
of information processing and the political analysis of therapist
choice in this article. Other comments indicate some of
the thoughts that were going on in the mind of the therapist at the
(Is trying to keep up with a bright, beguiling client who
has been talking for several minutes in the first session
about the problems of their infidelity. Therapist is
attempting to pace client while listening for
neurolinguistic patterns underlying the content.)
(Finally sums up their outcome for the therapy.)
I want to be able to make the decision to stop.
(Client's conscious coded output of their unconscious
computation of various aspects of the problem.)
(Client output becomes input into therapist system ...
is immediately processed unconsciously ... makes unconscious
connections in therapist's brain ... which are represented
symbolically ... and become introspectively accessible to
therapist as conscious 'information'.)
(Wonders 'What does this mean? I thought client simply
wanted to stop their infidelities. I want to be able
to make the decision to stop sounds more like a
desire for the session rather than for the therapy as a
whole. What is the underlying pattern here? How does this
relate to what I already know about client? About
infidelity? About relationships? Does client expect me to
resolve this for them? Is client already wondering if it was
worth coming?' Therapist begins to question their own
adequacy and competence, connecting to related memories of
inadequacy and incompetence. Inclined to say something like
'I understand what you mean' in order to sound sympathetic,
but knows this would be lying. Finally after a couple of
seconds remembers there's no need to know what client
'means', it's ok to be in the moment with this information.)
(Reflects the information to affirm it.)
And you want to be able to make the decision to
(Therapist clean language reflection helps detach
therapist and client from co-dependency potential and
orientates both to client information.)
(Therapist output re-enters and re-informs client's
system as enhanced input ... is re-cognised in client
unconscious ... re-cognition forms a symbolic
(Still pondering the construction of client's outcome,
which is not 'want to stop' or 'want to be able to stop' but
'want to be able to make the decision to stop' and betokens
a more complex unconscious computation. Therapist reflects
that awareness of complexity would once have evoked a sense
of intellectual challenge, and a conscious urge to 'get it
right'. Now simply goes with the information.)
And as you want
(Linguistic construction 'as' + present tense 'want'
maintains client in their 'perceptual present' -- the moment
-- this moment. Not seeking rationale in the indefinite
past, or anticipating change in the uncertain future.)
(Therapist meanwhile thinking it may be relatively normal
for a person to want to make a decision, but more unusual to
want to be able to make one.)
(Reflective syntax allows therapist thinking/intuiting
to be able
(Tonality invites client to orientate their attention
to this particular symbol in the organisation of their
to make the decision to stop ...
(Momentary pause allows client to process, and allows
therapist to orientate their own attention to this
moment of choice ... What question to ask? Whether
and how to be 'clean'?)
... what kind of able is that
(Clean question: (1) respects and reflects client's
own un/conscious construction, (2) maintains therapist
distance from responsibility for resolving the problem, (3)
minimises the imposition of therapist metaphors,
suggestions, asssumptions and interpretations, and (4)
shifts client attention away from their external perceptions
-- therapist, chair, picture on wall -- towards their
internal processing. Use of present tense 'is' maintains
client in the only time-space in which change can happen.
And use of demonstrative pronoun 'that' invites client to
attend to this particular 'able' rather than any other.)
(Clean question: (5) re-enters client system as
further-enhanced version of their original information, (6)
sends client on a search for higher
organisational/deeper-structural information, and (7) in
this case orientates client towards a potential resource --
a personal able-ity)
(Clean question has set up a systemic feedback loop
between client and their perceptions, encouraging further
information to emerge. Subsymbolic computation leads to
unconscious symbol formation -- introspective representation
-- and conscious articulation.)
It's like when my head and heart work together I'm
able to decide.
(Client output becomes therapist input. This is new
(Is initially distracted by making unconscious personal
meaning of client symbols 'head' and 'heart', and
consciously resisting temptation to suppose client's meaning
is same as own. Now consciously recognises client's
construction as more a pattern of not being able to decide
rather than not being able to stop, which vindicates earlier
decision to make no assumption of meaning.)
And it's like when your head and heart work
together you're able to decide.
(Reflection using client's exact words unambiguously
affirms to client and therapist this new information.)
(Client has specified when they are able to decide, which
presupposes to therapist that 'head' and 'heart' are not
working together over the infidelity problem ... which
supposes they do work together when client is able to
And when your head and heart work together ...
(Minimal pause invites client head and heart to do
just that, in the moment ... and allows therapist
another moment of choice .)
that's work together like what?
(Clean question: (1) reserves political power for the
client, (2) invites client to make a search for simpler
symbolic representation of what may well be a complex
unconscious relationship between 'head' and 'heart', and (3)
opens up possibility of resource metaphor emerging.)
(Therapist output re-enters client system as clean
focused input prompting enhanced/higher/deeper unconscious
computation and representation.)
Oh, like Olympic gold.
In two clean language questions the client has discovered a
metaphor for the potential resolution of their presenting problem.
Ostensibly. 'Olympic gold' is a wholly autogenic (client-generated)
metaphor and may have powerfully redemptive associations, yet the
therapist will not make an unequivocal presumption of significance,
or attempt to interpret the metaphor, or suggest how it may be used.
At this early stage of the therapy 'Olympic gold' may signify a
latent resource that requires another context, or the client to make
other connections, before it can come into its own. And only the
client's unconscious will know how or when that might happen.
At this point we may have all kinds of unanswered questions about
this client. What is the function of the non
-Olympic-gold relationship between head and heart? What part of their
system is dis -abling it? Whatever significance 'able',
'head and heart' and 'Olympic gold' may hold for the future they are
perfect examples of unconscious client patterns manifesting in
metaphor in consciousness here and now. And after all it is not the
past that keeps clients from having what they want, but the way their
perceptions are organised in the present moment .
© 2000 Philip Harland
1 Addictions and Patterns: Philip Harland,
'Possession and Desire' Rapport Autumn 1999, Winter 1999
& Spring 2000; and 'Resolving Problem Patterns'
Rapport Autumn 2000 & Winter 2000.
2 General applications of clean language:
Chapter 10, 'Outside and Beyond', James Lawley & Penny Tompkins,
Metaphors in Mind, The Developing Company
Press 2000. The definitive book on Clean Language, Grovian
Therapeutic Metaphor and Symbolic Modelling.
3 Therapist/client in-the-moment experience:
James Lawley, 'Supervision Live!' ANLP Psychotherapy
& Counselling Services seminar, October 2000.
4 Brain cells: most recent authoritative sources
I have seen say there are 'about' 100 billion neurons in the brain.
One source reckoned 10 billion, but that could have been a misprint.
Everyone agrees it's a lot.
5 The brain hasn't evolved in order 'to' do
anything. It wasn't predesigned. The brain is a biological
accumulation of lots of little changes over extremely long periods of
time. (Dawkins 1982, LeDoux 1998)
6 Construction of mental images: Susan
Greenfield, Brain Story, BBC television series 2000.
7 Symbolism in consciousness: P.N.
Johnson-Laird, The Computer and the Mind: an introduction to
cognitive science, Harvard University Press 1988.
8 & 9 Real and imaginary seeing and hearing:
Rita Carter, Mapping the Mind, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
10 Subsymbolic processing: A. Newell et al,
Symbolic architecture for cognition, in
Foundations of cognitive science, MIT Press 1989.
11 Therapist addiction to helping: see
'Understanding Addiction' in Possession & Desire, Part I.
12 Therapist language: see also Chapter 3, 'Less
is More: Basic Clean Language', of Metaphors in Mind.
a fascinating website devoted to his life, work and martyrdom, with
music of the period and all.
14 More on patterns and clean language in Resolving Problem Patterns with clean language and autogenic
metaphor, Part II.
15 James Lawley points out the relationship
between 'higher' organisation and 'deeper' meaning: as a client's
perception goes (metaphorically) 'higher' up the NLP logical levels
it takes in meaning at each level and (metaphorically) 'deeper'
meaning is created automatically. And vice versa; as
deeper meaning is reached, we are at a higher level of perception.
16 'How Clean Language Works': Figure 8 of
Resolving Problem Patterns, Part II.
Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain, Weidenfeld &
James Lawley & Penny Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind,
The Developing Company Press 2000
John Searle, Mind Language and Society, Weidenfeld
& Nicolson 1999; and The Rediscovery of the
Mind, MIT Press 1992
Gerald Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, on the Matter of
the Mind, Allen Lane 1992
Susan Greenfield, ed. The Human Mind Explained,
Cassell 1996; and Brain Story, BBC-TV series 2000
Rita Carter, Mapping the Mind, Weidenfeld &
New Scientist, Neuro-Biology Millenium Conference Report,
David Grove: trainings, writings, audio tapes, research seminars,
personal work 1996-2001
Penny Tompkins & James Lawley: trainings, writings,
supervision, creative feedback 1995-2001