Article from

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

Philip Harland

"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


"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.

Infinite input

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

Selective representation

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 complex input.

Symbolic output

What it means in essence is that we are only conscious of information that has been represented symbolically.7

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.

Stage 1

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 unconscious.

Stage 2

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.

Stage 3

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.

Stage 4

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.




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 have heard.

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 uniquely ours.

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 needed.

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 own?11


I'm really sorry to hear that. You must feel awful. I suggest...

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 inexperienced client?

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 belongs.

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 Language.

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, self-generated change.

How clean language works

And it all happens in a moment. Here is a transcript of a recent exchange.


I want to be able to make the decision to stop.


And you want to be able to make the decision to stop.




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 time.


(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 stop.

(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 representation.)



(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 time.)

to be able

(Tonality invites client to orientate their attention to this particular symbol in the organisation of their perceptual present.)

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 able?

(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 information.)

(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 decide.)

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 1998.

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.

13 is 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 & Nicolson 1998

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 & Nicolson 1998

New Scientist, Neuro-Biology Millenium Conference Report, April 2000

David Grove: trainings, writings, audio tapes, research seminars, personal work 1996-2001

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley: trainings, writings, supervision, creative feedback 1995-2001


Photo of Philip Harland Philip Harland is a neurolinguistic psychotherapist with a private practice in London, England. He has written many articles on Clean Language for professional journals and the internet. In 2009 Philip published the first book related to David Grove's last innovations, Emergent Knowledge, 'THE POWER OF SIX: A Six Part Guide to Self Knowledge'. You can order a copy from or


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