Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
- Albert Einstein
Part One: The Model
One of my favorite exploratory models in NLP is Robert Dilts' "Neuro-logical Levels", first laid out in his book "Changing Belief Systems with NLP". Dilts identifies six different levels of experience corresponding to six different levels of neurological 'circuitry'.
Before reading about the levels, choose a behavior (playing a sport, eating, writing coaching tips) or a life area (money, sex, relationships) to explore...
This level corresponds to the peripheral nervous system, and defines the external context for any behavior or event. In simpler terms, it asks the question "where does (whatever you're exploring) take place?"
This is the level of action, which asks the question "what specifically do you do when you're engaged in (whatever you're exploring)?" It corresponds to the body's motor systems through which you take your conscious actions.
Every behavior we engage in in our lives is a subset of a larger area – the area of our capabilities and skills. When I write, I am (hopefully) utilizing the skills of creativity, self-reflection, seeing the world from multiple perspectives, critical thinking, and typing. The question here is "How do you do (whatever you're exploring)? What capabilities and skills do you tap into when you engage in the area of your life you have chosen to explore?" Physically, this level corresponds to your body's cortical systems (semi-conscious actions).
4. Beliefs and Values
Having explored the where, what, and how of your chosen context, the next question to ask is ‘why’? Asking yourself why (whatever you're exploring) is important will assist you in identifying your values; asking yourself 'what's true about (whatever you're exploring)?' will begin to bring out your beliefs.
This level corresponds to our autonomic nervous system - our unconscious responses to the world around us.
I work a great deal with comedians, who in turn spend a great deal of time creating and living in various ‘comic personas’ – that is, they create and inhabit characters who in turn create entertainment for an audience. What is interesting is that as a comedian or actor enters into a new persona, everything else changes too, from the way they hold their body to the sound of their voice to the actual thoughts in their head and words they use to express themselves.
Our sense of identity encompasses a vast constellation of beliefs and values about the world, and is a powerful key to unlocking transformational change. Ask yourself "Who am I when I am engaged in (whatever you're exploring)?"
Physically, this level corresponds to our immune and endocrine systems - the deep, life sustaining functions of the bodymind.
In the wonderful series of books which began with Life 101 and continued on through the NY Times bestseller Do It – Let’s Get Off Our Buts, authors Peter McWilliams and John Roger dealt with the whole area of Spirit by placing it in a place they called ‘the gap’ – that is, the gap between what is observable by anyone and that which is believed by some but not others.
For me, Spirit is my connection to a higher power – my sense of being a smaller part of a greater whole. For you, it may be your sense of mission or higher purpose, or your connection to God, or however it is you connect to that which is beyond your scope as an individual. Physiologically, it corresponds to a holistic or holographic view of the nervous system - how our nervous system as a whole interacts with other nervous systems.
I have seen this area referred to as ‘Connectedness’, ‘God’, Spirit, the Bigger Picture, the Ultimate Perspective, or more simply “Beyond". Choose the language that works best for you and ask yourself "Who or what else is involved in (whatever you're exploring)? How does it fit in with the big picture of my life? How does it fit in with the big picture of life on earth?"
Part Two: The Experiment
Hopefully, just going though that model for the first time you were able to receive some useful insights or perspective into whatever it is you chose to explore. However, this is just scratching the surface of what is possible. While I find this model extremely useful for self-exploration, there is an application of it that is the single most transformational technique I use in my trainings, coaching practice, and personal life.
The first time I ever experienced the unfortunately named “Neuro-Logical Level Alignmment” (now known as 'The Sacred Journey Process") was in Hawaii in 1990. Tony Robbins, then a relatively minor personal development superstar, guided a woman through it on stage in front of 1000 or so of us NLP wannabes. In essence, he marked out six spaces on the floor in front of her, each one corresponding to one of the Neuro-logical levels, and asked her to step into each space and explore her life from the perspective of that level.
As she walked up through environment, behavior, capabilities, beliefs, values, and identity, her body language changed from that of a meek, helpless girl to that of a confident young woman. She told us about her life and the various things in it that kept her from doing what she really wanted to do – in particular, a job that was unfulfilling but paid well and offered a level of security that was important for her and her young children.
When she stepped into the space of Spirit, she became very quiet and very still. After a few minutes, she turned and made her way back down through the levels, and I watched her transformation continue. When she reached the space of behavior, she decided to quit her job and take on the process of honoring her heart's true calling. By the time she returned to the space of her environment, the confident young woman had completed her transformation and become a warrior.
All of us looked on in amazement at the scope of what had seemed to take place so quickly and effortlessly, wondering what the heck had just happened.
My own most memorable experience of using this technique came nearly ten years later on an NLP training I delivered in the living room of my brother in-law Steve. It has long been my practice to treat myself to at least one exercise on every training I deliver – that is, to allow myself to remove my ‘expert’ hat and become a full participant, taking my focus off others and bringing it firmly onto myself. In this case, I chose to do the Neuro-logical Level alignment, the last exercise of a two day segment of the course.
As you can focus on any area of your life you would like to gain insight into, I decided to explore my acting career. I had recently come out of a casting where the producer looked up from my resume and said ‘Wow – if you keep working at this rate you’re going to be the next Ed Bishop!’ It was meant as a compliment, but as I had no idea who Ed Bishop was, I was horrified that she might be right.
(I subsequently met Ed on a radio job and recognized him as ‘the American guy’ in nearly every British television show made since the late 1960’s – perhaps most famously starring as Ed Straker in the TV series “UFO”. He’s a very nice guy, talented, and I hope he continues to do very well in his career. But it was not the height of my ambition, and it was readily apparent to me that I needed to re-evaluate my career path.)
Taking my time, I worked my way up through the six levels, exploring the where, what, how, why, who, and what else made up my experience of my career. On the way back down, integrating my sense of higher purpose into my identity, beliefs, values, capabilities, skills, and behaviors, I experienced a sense of profound peace I often notice when doing this exercise. But it was when I got back to the space of environment that the real surprise was waiting for me.
When my brother in-law asked me to notice if there was anything different about my environment, I was shocked to realize that there was a fundamental difference – I was no longer in London, but in Hollywood!
Nine months later, based almost entirely on the insights gleaned from the experience, we had sold our house, packed the family onto an airplane, and made our way across the Atlantic to a new life and a new adventure.
In the experiment below, I will guide you through the creation of a space where you can do the same exercise for yourself. The usual cautions apply - while this is a fairly robust exercise, it is not a good idea to use it to explore anything traumatic or therapeutic in nature, and regardless of the quality of insights you receive as you go through it, you're still responsible for any changes you may or may not make in your life as a result!
I recommend blocking out at least ten minutes to do this exercise for the first time, and if possible, doing it with a partner who can guide you through it. My experience of doing this with over 1000 people over the past 14 years is that taking out a bit of extra time and space reaps huge dividends…
1. Choose an area of your life you would like to explore, knowing that you will at the least experience some new insight into it and at best transform your experience of it.
2. Stand somewhere with at least six feet of empty space in front of you. Some people like to write out the names of each category on pieces of paper and lay them out on the floor like a series of stepping stones (particularly useful if you are doing the exercise on your own or for the first time).
3. Step into the first space marked ‘Environment’. Answer the following questions (and any others that seem relevant):
· Where are you when you engage in this area of your life?
· What do you see and hear?
· Who else is there with you?
4. Step into the second space, marked ‘Behavior’. Answer the following questions (and any others that seem relevant):
· What do you do when you engage in this area of your life?
· What activities do you engage in?
· If someone was watching you on a video, what would they see you do? What would they hear you say?
5. Now, step into the third space, marked ‘Capabilities'. Answer the following questions (and any others that seem relevant):
· What capabilities do you tap into in this area of your life?
· What skills do you put into practice?
· What areas of expertise do you draw on?
6. Next, step into the space marked ‘Beliefs and Values’. Answer the following questions (and any others that seem relevant):
· What’s important about this area of your life? Why does it matter? What’s most important about it?
· What’s true about this area of your life? What would be the most important thing for someone you love to know about it?
· Complete the following sentences:
"The reality of (whatever you're exploring) is…"
"The most important thing about (whatever you're exploring) is…"
7. Take a step forward into the space marked ‘Identity’. Answer the following questions (and any others that seem relevant):
· Who are you in this area of your life?
· Who are you when you do the things you do?
· Who are you at your best in this area of your life?
· Who are you at your worst in this area of your life?
8. Finally, take a step into the space of Spirit. Close your eyes and take as long as you like to connect with the best and highest thing you can imagine – that which is beyond anything you have been exploring, whether you think of that as God, your highest self, connection with others, or how it all connects with the big picture of your life.
9. When you’re ready, turn and face back down the way you came. Carrying that sense of the beyond with you, step into the space marked ‘Identity.’ Once again, ask and answer the question ‘Who are you?’ in this area of your life.
10. Bringing your sense of connectedness to Spirit and your new or heightened sense of identity with you, step into the space of ‘beliefs and values’. What’s true about this area of your life? What’s important about it? Why does it matter?
11. Carrying your connection to Spirit, your identity, and an awareness of your beliefs and values with you, step back into the space of your capabilities and skills. What new or additional capabilities and skills are you aware of that you draw on (or could draw on) in this area of your life?
12. Still steeped in your connection with Spirit, identity, beliefs, values, and capabilities, what do you do or could you do in this area of your life? How have they changed? How have they stayed the same? What new things occur to you?
13. Finally, take everything you have learned and experienced along the way back into the space of environment. Where are you? Where else? What do you see? What do you here? Who else is there with you? Who is no longer there?
Take all the time you need to allow all the learnings and changes you have made to integrate fully before you resume your normal activities. You may like to take notes of what you learned and experienced, and you may find the changes and insights continue to come for hours and sometimes days afterward.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: Do I have to actually get up and walk or can I do it on my mind (or on paper)?
A: In my experience, the effectiveness of this exercise increases exponentially when you actually walk the levels – by engaging your body and not just your mind, the experience becomes far more profound and the insights it produces reach far deeper. If you do decide to do it on paper, focus on the first part of the exercise – going up the metaphorical ladder.
Q: Does all this have anything to do with Gregory Bateson and his model of Logical levels?
A: OK, so in fairness this isn't a frequently asked question, but it should be, and the answer is 'nowhere near as much as Robert Dilts and the rest of the NLP community would like us to believe'. Any systemic thinker familiar with Bateson's work would throw out this model as arbitrary and based on what Bateson himself would call 'shoddy epistemology'. Having said all that, the technique still works a treat!
Q: What if my life doesn’t change?
A: I have a tendency to 'oversell' this technique because I have so many personal reference experiences of it making a profound difference with myself and my clients. If your experience is not terribly profound, I have three recommendations:
First, repeat the exercise later, if possible with a guide (or on your own if you had a guide the first time). Sometimes an inability to concentrate, distractions, or embarrassment can play a role.
Second, check for the specificity of what it is you were exploring. Specific and personalized contexts like 'My relationship with Bob' or 'My Career', seem to work better than abstract ideas like 'The state of the world today', or 'Poetry'.
Finally, recognize that your insights don’t have to be 'profound' to be valuable to you. There is an old Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy are lying on the pitcher's mound, looking up at the sky. Lucy says, "If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in cloud formations. What do you see, Linus?" "Well," Linus replies, "that cloud there reminds me of the ancient tomb of Nebuchadnezzer, and the smaller cloud to the left is reminiscent of God giving life to Adam as portrayed by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel." Lucy then says "Mmmm, that's very interesting Linus. What do you see, Charlie Brown?" to which Charlie replies, "Well.... I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsy, but I've changed my mind."
Have fun, learn heaps, and happy exploring!
Michael Neill is an internationally renowned success coach and the best-selling author of You Can Have What You Want, Feel Happy Now! and the Effortless Success audio program. He has spent the past 18 years as a coach, adviser, friend, mentor and creative spark plug to celebrities, CEOs, royalty, and people who want to get more out of their lives. He hosts a weekly talk show on HayHouseRadio.com, and his daily and weekly coaching columns can be read on his website at www.geniuscatalyst.com.