Maps Beyond the Mind: NLP and Spirituality - International Academy for Deep Transformation

Maps Beyond the Mind: NLP and Spirituality




By the mid 1990s, people in NLP had begun to take an increasing interest in the spiritual. This was natural. After all, we consider NLP ‘the study of the structure of subjective experience’, and the spiritual forms an important part of human experience.

Yet in the domain of the spiritual we can easily stray, as Bateson put it, quoting Alexander Pope, to where,‘angels fear to tread’. Firstly, the spiritual is perhaps the one area of human experience where there has already been extensive modelling. All the major religions of the world – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism – have developed maps of the spiritual and pathways to its attainment, sometimes as part of their mainstream, as in the case of Buddhism, sometimes esoteric and hidden, as in the case of Sufism. Furthermore, the traditional Eastern method of surrendering to a spiritual teacher or ‘guru’ implicitly involves extended second position intuitive modelling.

Besides the major religions, a host of teachers and teachings have offered their own maps and methods. The shamanic and animist traditions from around the world, for instance, so much in vogue in recent years, offer a vast repository of knowledge and wisdom about body, mind, and spirit. In NLP, we are if anything brash newcomers to a field with a long history.

Secondly, the spiritual generates great passions. Directly, and indirectly through the often ossified structures of organized religion, the spiritual has engendered fierce conflict, leading to often brutal intolerance. Confusions of map and territory abound in this area, with potentially horrendous consequences in terms of inter-community strife and personal repression.

Thirdly, many would argue that NLP is a mental discipline, arising from the conscious mind, and as such ill-equipped to deal with the spiritual, which, they suggest, touches realms of revelation that surpass and reframe our ordinary experience. One thinks of the theologian Aquinas, one of the great minds of the Christian tradition, writing after an intense spiritual revelation towards the end of his life, that ‘all I have written is so much chaff’. For many our approach to experiences of the sacred and the ineffable could be reductive. Questions abound: Can analytic modelling do justice to ‘transcendental’ experience? Can the latter be defined in terms of submodalities? If we want to know God, is it enough just to change our state? Or is that ‘chunking on the wrong logical level’?

My own view is that there is a place for our discipline in coding and modelling spiritual experience so that it is better understood and more easily accessible to those who are ready for a spiritual journey. But we need to proceed gingerly, treading more lightly even than angels, if we are to help resolve map-territory confusions, rather than add to them. Our approach needs to be aligned and code-congruent with what we are exploring if we are not to find our work reductive or simplistic.

In this article, I attempt to provide a comprehensive if loose map of different kinds of spiritual experience, both in relation to each other and in relation to our existing maps of experience in NLP. I hope that subsequently it will be possible to make finer distinctions than I do here.


The Varieties of Experience

Since the 1980s, the only widely accepted map of human experience in NLP that acknowledges the spiritual has been Robert Dilts’ ‘Neuro-Logical Levels’.

His model offers a cursory glance at the spiritual in terms that are essentially humanistic and neo-Christian. Dilts recognizes five mundane ‘logical levels’ to experience: Environment, Behaviour, Capabilities, Beliefs and Values, and Identity. He adds a number of supra-mundane levels, which he terms ‘spiritual’, such as Family, Community, Country, Planet, and Cosmos. He defines these as answering the question ‘Who else?’, as to who or what there is beyond our identity. He cleverly masks the implied theistic direction of his question by pointing to our experiences with other human beings and nature. The G-word is hinted at but not dwelt on, allowing the model to nod wisely in the direction of both believers and non-believers alike.

At first sight Dilts’ spiritual levels are arguably part of the environment in which we find ourselves, influences on our individual self. What makes them spiritual is the extra dimension of transpersonal connectedness present in special moments such as childbirth, deep love, or death. According to a Newsweek survey in the mid-90s, 68% of Americans sense the sacred at the birth of a child; 26% during sex.[1]

However, such experiences form only a small part of the possible meanings that people ascribe to the word ‘spiritual’. Expansion of our personal boundaries through relationship with others is neither sufficient nor necessary for spiritual experience. Other types of spiritual experience are also important.

At the ‘World Conference on Psychotherapy and Spirituality’, held in Bali in July 1994, NLP trainer Anne Entus used simple NLP questions to have a multi-cultural group of Europeans, Asians, and Americans (North and South) identify and share what the word ‘spiritual’ meant for them. People were somewhat surprised that a word which they thought they all understood had such different meanings for different people.

I noticed that people tended to attach the word ‘spiritual’ to five types and contexts of experience, notably wonder and awe at aspects of nature, including experiences of deep connectedness with others, particularly in birth, death, and love; experience of ‘magical’ or ‘psychic’ phenomena; communion with a Supreme Being; religious life; and deep transcendental experiences in meditation.

I have grouped these five kinds of experience under the headings:

  • Transfiguration of the Natural World
  • Opening to Other Realms
  • Communion with the Divine
  • Religious Life
  • Awakening to Transcendence

The first three categories, although including a considerable variety of experience, fall within Dilts’ spiritual levels, the fourth in a sense spans many of the usual everyday levels of experience, especially special environments and behaviours, and beliefs and values, but also touches the higher spiritual levels, while the fifth involves experiences which fall outside and outframe the logical levels altogether.

These five kinds of experience transcend cultural differences. Although the content and emphasis among them may differ, much that is structurally similar recurs in people’s experience in different parts of the world. These distinctions, I believe, can provide a basis for a simple model of spiritual experiences, which covers a broader ground than Dilts’ original map but is compatible with his coding.

I hope my model can provide a frame to help reconcile some of the important debates in the study of spiritual experience, such as: What is the relationship of theistic and non-theistic experience? Are the deepest experiences personal or impersonal, non-dual or dualistic, with form or without form? How do content-present and content-free notions of the spiritual relate to each other?


Map and Territory

Before exploring these categories in more detail, let us briefly consider some of the pertinent map-territory issues that can easily add to confusion in this area.

Michael Paffard notes in Inglorious Wordsworths: A Study of Transcendental Experiences in Childhood and Adolescence that a very large proportion of the population has experiences of expanded consciousness in a variety of situations. He makes an important distinction between experience and beliefs about the experience. How people respond to experiences and describe them depends a lot on their belief systems. What appear to the outsider to be closely similar experiences may be interpreted in quite different terms. For instance, what one person considers a ‘spiritual’ experience may for another be considered an ‘aesthetic’ experience. There is a difference between the experience itself and the meaning attached to it.

Dogmatic pressures, particularly in religions (such as Christianity and Islam) that have emerged from the Middle East, may also influence the experiencer to bend language somewhat in order to translate experience into terms acceptable to religious authorities. Unorthodoxy can mean expulsion from the club, as in the case of the popularizer of ‘creation-centred spirituality’, the erstwhile Dominican theologian, Matthew Fox. In less benign times and places it can be fatal.

As we know in NLP, words are not the same as what they refer to. Moreover people typically find that the qualities of spiritual experience are often difficult to express, arguing that they are ‘utterly beyond words’. Yet language can be indicative of the nature of privileged experience. Successful evocation, however, often involves a mix of metaphor and abstraction, such as St John of the Cross’s mysterious ‘I entered into unknowing’. Often the metaphors used are period and culture-dependent. The ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, for instance, may have connotations now quite different from earlier usage. It may be important to know some of the coding of stock terms and phrases.

People typically find it difficult to understand experiences that they have not themselves had. The language used to describe an experience may seem arcane, until a similar experience makes it comprehensible. In much spiritual experience, mind and senses surpass themselves in a heightening of consciousness quite unlike our ordinary waking state. You have to have been there too in order to really know it.

A person’s beliefs about the meaning of their experience are an important but not necessarily decisive factor in examining spiritual experience. It is important in modelling the experience of others to recognize that both our own and their belief systems can inhibit understanding of experience. It is incumbent upon us in approaching experiences that touch the sacred to recognize that rapport will require us to enter into values and states that beckon us far beyond the confines of our ordinary waking awareness.

My concern here is not to get into wrangles about what experiences are more valid or true, but to stay as close as possible to NLP notions of usefulness. I presuppose that spiritual experiences are both important and of value. While they cannot entirely be divorced from the belief systems that surround them, as we come to understand the structure and relationship among them, we can begin to find ways to facilitate the process of unfolding who and what we are in accord with that very spiritual notion that all the resources are already within us.


Transfiguration of the Natural World

Dilts’ original category of the spiritual primarily covers a class of experiences in which it is as if scales fall from our eyes, ears, and hearts to reveal a dimension of deeper meaning in people, places, and even things. I have termed such experience ‘Transfiguration of the Natural World’.



In some experiences, people are filled with a Wordsworthian awe and reverence at an unseen presence sensed in the heart of nature. Such experiences triggered by the beauty or majesty of mountain or tree become commonplace in the West with Romanticism. But we find them before with a more theistic gloss in a long tradition going back at least to Hildegaard of Bingen and St Francis’s magnificent ‘Canticle of the Creatures’.

Such experiences touch inner feeling through the senses of sight or sound, which may be further heightened. People report sensing that nature is as if on fire, ‘every common bush afire with God’, as Elizabeth Barrett-Browning puts it. The world, ‘Nature’s bonfire’ (Gerard Manley Hopkins), can seem to pulse and glow with creative energy and light – ‘The World is charged with the grandeur of God’. And for the seventeenth century poet-mystic Thomas Traherne, even the streets seem paved with gold.



Experiences of transfiguration of the natural world may also involve other creatures. Wonder at the beauty and grace of animals can lead to a sense of the mystery of creation and the unseen hand of a creator beyond. Rilke’s poems about animals in the Neue Gedichte (New Poems) with the tense pacing of panthers and flamingos ‘striding into the imaginary’ suggest his studied entering into the living otherness of the creatures we share this planet with. In his letters, he describes how his attention, reaching far into the centre of a creature he observes, awakens to a sense of the very moment in which the creator releases his creation and ‘finds it good’.



Experiences of divine presence and transcendental awe in Nature often lead to attempts to re-evoke such experience through art or poetry. The resultant ‘art’ may itself become a secondary medium for such experience, awakening a sense of wonder, reverence, and awe in the perceiver. Traditionally in Japan short ‘haiku’ poems have been used to capture and communicate the often fleeting and poignant, ‘suchness’ of being in nature. In an inverse process, Judith DeLozier uses aesthetic appreciation of parts of nature, what she calls ‘God’s Art’, and identification with the master-artist to awaken something of such experience.


Connection with Others

Transfiguration of the natural world can extend to our fellow human beings. The key transition points of life – childbirth, contact with the new-born, moments spent with the dying, death, and falling in love – can trigger profound experiences in us that we experience as sacred and spiritual. At such moments people may open to a profound feeling of love that is both personal and transpersonal. They may awaken to a sense of the other person as a timeless spiritual entity independent of the body.


Collective Consciousness

Among such experiences, we can include the profound recognition that humankind shares in a collective soul or consciousness It is as if at times part of us reaches out from our isolated body to embrace a common humanity uniting us all. In such experiences we may have a sense of belonging to a much larger collective consciousness, in which ‘I’ and ‘You’ form a ‘We’ that contains us both.[2] This ‘we’ may be a small group united in a deep moment, or it may expand to include a sense of oneness with all the beings on this planet. The Catholic Church’s notion of the ‘mystical body of Christ’ and Teilhard De Chardin’s ‘Noösphere’, a field of consciousness surrounding the planet resulting from the consciousness of each of us, imply such experience.


Opening to Other Realms

At the 1994 Bali conference in Psychotherapy and Spirituality, a number of participants, particularly those from Indonesia, indicated that they considered psychic and magical experiences one of the key ways they encountered the spiritual. Such experiences reminded them of other forces and presences than those accessible to the conscious mind. Such glimpses awakened a sense of wonder and awe in them. They provided powerful reminders of our connection with realms of experience and a pattern much larger than ourselves.

This category overlaps somewhat with the territory evoked in the previous section. As the world becomes transfigured, the membrane separating us from experience of other realms thins. The magical thinking of some of our animist forebears and cousins in other parts of the world, where everything is sign, symbol and portal to the worlds of beneficent and maleficent spirits and gods, is more accessible.

This grouping, then, includes experiences that stretch our habits of rational materialism. They include Jung’s synchronicity or meaningful coincidence, psychic phenomena, such as telepathy, much channelling, magic and other ‘supernatural’ phenomena, and visions. Experiences range from visionary encounters with departed souls, fairies, devas, demons, angels, and gods seemingly visiting this world to full-blown visionary visits to other worlds, travels to so-called ‘astral planes’ or to hidden heavens and hells.


Other Worlds

Accounts of visits to other realms, while superficially different, have sufficient structural similarity among individuals and even across cultures to interest the pattern-modelling abilities of the NLPer. Descriptions of other realms appear to exist around the world. India, Ancient Rome and Greece, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Tibet all offer visions of other realms coloured by local climate and geography, but structurally similar. Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and ‘Paradiso’ offer visions of other worlds not dissimilar to those found on Tibetan Tankas, or on the paintings on the ceiling of the pavilion of justice in the royal palace at Klungkung in Bali.


Near-Death Experiences

One important class of such experiences has received considerable attention in recent years – Near-Death Experience. Reports of these experiences have a structural consistency. People commonly report a sense of travelling down a long tunnel, towards a point of light, encounters with emissaries from beyond, such as deceased relatives or friends, or key figures from the person’s religion, such as the Christ. Such experiences, whatever their explanation, are often profoundly influential, altering a person’s belief and value system in the direction of a greater appreciation of, and commitment to, the precious gift of life, together with a greater detachment, as if being here is in no sense the be-all and end-all of existence. People are frequently convinced that this world is only part of a much larger picture in which there is a continuity to personal existence.


Channelling and Mediumship

Another a way in which people encounter the spiritual by opening to other realms is through ‘channelling’ or mediumship of other entities or levels of experience. Arthur Hastings has provided a very sane and comprehensive treatment of this subject.[3] Hastings offers a useful discussion of the two predominant explanations for channelling: communication from an external agency of some kind or from another part of the self. He points out some of the merits and demerits of both points of view. He suggests that the quality of channelled information varies enormously from banal platitudes to the comprehensive and sophisticated teachings of the Course in Miracles. What comes through appears to depend on the quality of the channel. For instance, channelled entities have no higher ESP scores than their hosts. Both channelled entities and the derived information, he suggests, need careful assessment.

In the 1990s New Zealand trainer Richard Bolstad and his then partner, Margot Hamblett, used NLP to model channelling. Among their findings, they discovered that NLP can be used to help channels channel more easily and effectively. The NLP modellers also found that the relationship of the channel with their ‘spiritual guides’ and guidance can involve a radical transformation of personal life. As the person surrenders to an often bizarre period of instruction, they may become progressively detached from their old practically-oriented material self, and increasingly aligned with a deeper intuition and wisdom which eventually becomes their own.

Eileen Caddy (one of the founders of the Findhorn Community in Scotland) describes this evolution in simple terms with an interesting switch of referential index. In the early days of Findhorn she reported hearing a voice of guidance, which over the years gradually changed. At first it addressed her as ‘My child’, then ‘My beloved child.’ Later still she realized that she was separating herself from God: ‘There is no separation between ourselves and God, there is only “I am”. I am the guidance. It took me many years to realize this . . . About three or four years ago, it all suddenly changed and I realized that if I accept the God within, then “I am” is the highest source . . . Yes, I still listen to the voice, and we all have that voice inside us . . . It is now in the first person.’[4]


Communion with the Divine

Eileen Caddy’s experience of channelling divine guidance leads us to the next category, in which I have placed experiences of devotion to, and communion with, a divine being.

In such experience, that which transcends one’s personal self is sensed to be ‘higher’ and ‘larger’ than oneself. There is a worshipper and the worshipped. In the theistic traditions, this is generally considered the ultimate truth. Both Sufi and Christian mystical literature (Rumi and St John of the Cross, for instance) employ the metaphor of a relation between a lover and the beloved. Writings of mystics, however, suggest that this ultimately yields to a kind of mystical union, where lover and beloved become one. Ramakrishna describes how the devotee may become attached to this blissful relationship and have difficulty letting go to enter into a deeper unity.

Sometimes people describe a somewhat more distant relationship in which they receive ‘God’s grace’. This appears to denote a sense of connection with a beneficent emanation from a divine being. Often this is encountered through prayer, which the Catholic Catechism describes as ‘raising the heart and mind to God’. My research suggests that this can refer to a simple process in which one directs one’s attention to connection with a ‘Higher Being’ by opening awareness at the heart and sensing a link through the upper part of the head with a kind of presence above. One then feels a link with a subtle but powerful energy and wisdom. Once this connection is made it is possible to commune with it, receiving energy and light. One can also seed it with questions or requests, which may be answered immediately or with some delay with a sense of rightness and truth.

People typically report knowing that their prayers have been heard through a mix of external evidence, inner feeling, or an inner voice or vision. Thus a request manifests, often in unexpected and serendipitous ways. Or a reassuring sense of ‘divine grace’ and the prayer having been heard are felt. Or an inner voice is heard or vision seen that appears to answer questions or offer useful guidance or suggestions. People often report that ‘the small still voice of truth’ appears to have a different spatial location and submodalities than ordinary internal dialogue, indicating to the perceiver that the communication is not from their usual conscious or unconscious mind.

Devotional experience may involve our sensing through our mind and body our actual connection with the larger universe, a deep recognition that we also are linked to what Bateson called ‘the pattern that connects’. The question of whether this is an experience of connection with another being or a connection with an important aspect of oneself ‘the Higher Self’ or ‘Higher Unconscious’ (see Roberto Assagioli’s egg-like map of the psyche which distinguishes between a lower, middle, and higher unconscious) is interesting in the light of Eileen Caddy’s experience.[5] While the meaning we ascribe to something influences our attitudes and relationship with it, it appears that as our experience evolves, our relationship with it also changes. What at first may seem Other may eventually be experienced as nothing other than one’s own essential nature or Self. Understanding can influence our interpretation of experience, but experience can also modify our understanding.

If we apply the criterion of use rather than truth, the practice of devotional prayer appears valuable. We alter the state of body and mind in a positive way, engendering a sense of peace, connection with a larger whole, source of creative and intuitive insight. Many hesitate to pray because they don’t necessarily believe in a higher Being. According to Newsweek, 60% of Americans believe that you have to believe in God to experience the sacred. This is clearly erroneous, as many people have acquired their belief in God as a result of surprise visitations of the sacred. Of course beliefs can help or hinder experiences of all kinds, including the spiritual. But it may be that as we model the structure of devotional and petitionary prayer, we can enjoy the benefits without presupposing prior extensive changes in belief-systems. A little innocence and acknowledgement of our place in a larger pattern may be enough.


Religious Life

The words ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’ are closely intertwined. However they are not the same. The spiritual may be experienced outside of religious contexts, while aspects of a religion – such as its politics or its financial management – may have very little to do with the spiritual. Membership of a religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for spiritual experience. Yet, for millions around the world, particularly those externally referenced, active participation in a religion provides the context in which the spiritual is experienced. Through their places of worship and rituals, religions provide a context and structure to help people connect with the sacred. At the Bali conference mentioned above, this was particularly true for the Indonesians professing Islam. According to Newsweek, 50% of Americans also feel a deep sense of the sacred all or most of the time at church service.[6]

Structurally, the spiritual element of religious experience typically fit into one of the other categories of experience – such as transfiguration of the natural world or communion with the divine. I have used a separate category because religion provides a context to support spiritual experience, a context in which people may believe it arises or upon which it depends. Unfortunately, many people are unable to distinguish the spiritual from the religious context in which it is typically encountered. Their path may then become the only path, as they reject and distort other paths. In contrast, studies in comparative religion or the psychology of spiritual experience, which point to common patterns in religious experience, such as those undertaken by Stace, Huxley, Laski, and even the rather biased R. C. Zaehner, are close in spirit to NLP.[7]

Religions often arise from the teachings of an inspired individual. Because profound spiritual experiences of the type we have been briefly discussing in this article engage a level of experience that seems far larger than our personal ego, they can fire a voice with a wisdom and rightness that moves others to make radical changes in their lives. Spiritual experience often involves deep attunement to the present moment and can yield profound insight into issues pertinent to a whole group of people. Such insights may form the core of a teaching, as in the case of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.

Although subsequent followers may embroider or re-interpret past inspiration rather than generate it afresh, over time religions can become vast repositories of means for orienting life towards spiritual awakening. Religious behavioural guidelines can facilitate the kind of life that will provide a context in which spiritual awakening is easier. The sense of sharing in a communion of other beings dedicated towards supra-mundane ends can be both supportive and socially cohesive. (Although it can also be divisive and dangerous as a group separates itself from ‘infidels’ and followers of other paths).

However, there is also some truth in Illich’s observation that institutions end up achieving the opposite of what they were originally intended for. Over time the founder’s fresh insights are codified and commentated into fossilized dogma. Rigidity and failure to respond freshly to changing conditions may even stifle the impulse to awaken. Ritual observances become mechanical. Behaviour is confused with spirituality.

Jesus’ fresh and immediate replies to those that challenged his free interpretation of then current behavioural rules – such as his retort to those that objected to his disciples nibbling ears of corn on the Sabbath, that ‘the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ – indicate that he recognized this process. His pointed remarks suggest a strong internal reference and chunking at a higher logical level than the behaviourally-oriented scribes and Pharisees. Yet, his own inspiration gave rise in time to an institution capable of similar dogmatism.


Awakening to Transcendence

The final category of spiritual experience is quite subtle. It involves awakening to one’s own ‘essence’ or ‘being’. Paul Valéry describes how he became increasingly aware, at a deeper level of experience than his personality and personal history, of ‘a profound note of existence’ that formed a kind of permanent background to the changing patterns of personal experience. This is awareness or consciousness itself, what Sogyal Rinpoche calls ‘Rigpa, a primordial pure, pristine awareness that is at once intelligent, cognizant, radiant, and always awake’.[8]

Usually we are aware of the contents of consciousness, rather than the medium of consciousness itself. Sometimes this is glimpsed like T. S. Eliot’s ‘stillness half-heard between two waves of the sea’. Pure Consciousness is identifiable in gaps between thoughts and between perception. ‘When your attention is off a thing and not yet fixed on another, in the interval you are pure being’, remarks Swami Nisargadatta Mataraj.[9]

Eventually such experience can lead to a profound reordering of the person in which one ceases to identify with the machinations of our usual individual self, and identifies instead with the almost abstract field of consciousness itself. Swami Nisargadatta offers one of the most compelling accounts of awakening to, and identification with, such experience, which he claims took about three years of introspection under the guidance of his teacher:

Nobody ever fails in yoga . . . It is slow in the beginning and rapid in the end. When one is fully matured, realization is explosive. . . In the great mirror of consciousness images arise and disappear and only memory gives them continuity. On such flimsy foundations we build a sense of personal existence – vague, intermittent, dreamlike. This vague persuasion: ‘I-am-so-and-so’ obscures the changeless state of pure awareness and makes us believe that we are born to die and suffer. p. 113

One thing is quite clear to me: all that is, lives and moves and has its being in consciousness and I am in and beyond that consciousness. I am in it as the witness. I am beyond it as Being. p. 92


The Problem of Identity

Modern Western psychology is predicated on building a strong sense of individual self. Yet many of the great spiritual traditions – especially those of the East – appear to suggest that the individual self is our real problem. As a field, NLP has probably failed to tackle this issue, appearing for the most part content to bolster and fulfil the personal self. This for many people who have reflected deeply about such things makes NLP also part of the problem space – making the prison more comfortable, rather than shattering its walls.[10] Perhaps before posing the question: ‘What is beyond identity?’ we should ask: ‘What is identity?’

As I understand Dilts’ model of ‘logical levels’ of experience, identity is that sense of individual selfhood which encompasses the various beliefs, values, capabilities and behaviours of the lower logical levels. We sense identity when matters of deep importance pertaining to ourselves are touched. We sense identity in others also in moments of deep interpersonal contact.

However, if one tries to identify identity within, it is hard to do so, as most of our experience turns out to consist of beliefs, values, behaviours from lower logical levels. What is more constant is a sense of ‘I’ or ‘I amness’. It would seem, as Bateson suggests, that identity is the sum of our learnings, about who and what we are, attached to a sense of ‘I’ – ‘the biggest nominalization of all’.

Thus one spiritual practice recommended in India by Ramana Maharishi and others is an inquiry into the nature of self to answer the question ‘Who am I?’ For Sri Nisargadatta entering the sense of ‘I am’ is pivotal between ordinary mental and emotional experience and that which is ‘beyond’, Pure Awareness, Being. ‘The way leads through yourself beyond yourself’, p. 166. It is a small step between settling into a deep sense of one’s own existence – which is the immediate in-the-now complex equivalence of ‘I am’ – to merging into the simple awareness of existence itself.

Accounts of such experience abound. The French poet Mallarmé described how his habit of nocturnal self-enquiry led to dissolution of his personal identity into ‘nothingness’ (le Néant) in which he became completely impersonal. ‘I am no longer the Stéphane that you knew, but an aptitude that the spiritual universe has in order to see and develop itself through what was me’. Mallarmé describes a kind of inner death and rebirth in which identification with personal identity is irrevocably broken. The usual perspective in relation to our context, actions, and the inner machinations of the individual self, shifts. They are, as it were, now experienced from the outside, as an observer. The American philosopher, Franklin Merrell-Wollff, in The Philosophy of Consciousness-without-an-Object describes similar experience in considerable detail.

Dilts’ logical levels of experience do not really accommodate this kind of perspective, in which we jump outside maps altogether to a reflexive awareness devoid of content or defining qualities. Typically, I place such experience to either side of the figure I use to illustrate the various logical levels, from context to self. I situate the sense of ‘I am’ pivotally, vertically between the mundane and supra-mundane logical levels of experience. The sense of ‘I amness’ also provides an access point ‘sideways’ to the consciousness-existence implicit in, but independent of, cognition of the various possible contents of consciousness, from earth to heaven, from ants to angels (See below, Figure 1).


Personal and Impersonal

One of the most thoughtful and thorough commentators of the subtle realms of inner experience, A. H. Almaas, notes that most people find the notion of spirituality involving loss of personal selfhood to an impersonal being-existence disconcerting. Given a choice between loss of self and experience of the world, he suggests, most people choose the latter.[11]

Almaas proposes that there is another possibility. He draws on both Sufism and psycho-dynamic object-relations theories of how the individual self is constructed in the early years. He suggests that as the ego develops we create a false self. However, the impersonal realm of pure being, consciousness-without-an-object, or what he calls ‘Essence’ can also be tinged with a personal quality. This ‘Essence’, as opposed to the ego, is our ‘True Self’. Personal essence on the one hand has a flavour unique to an individual, and on the other derives that flavour from the universal being that illuminates it. It is this quality of essence which permits genuine contact with others. It is the essence and fulfilment of our humanness, but it is a quality of being rather than a discrete function of the ego or personality. As we go deep into the sense of our own existence, through experiencing the sense of ‘I am’, we come to experience not only impersonal being, but the quality of personal essence which imbues our everyday life and relationships.

This quality of personal essence resembles the ‘core states’ encountered in Connirae Andreas’ Core Transformation process, described in terms such as ‘being’, ‘inner peace’, ‘love’ (lovingness), ‘OKness’, and ‘oneness’.[12] These seem to be experiences of states at the heart of personal identity yet touching more impersonal realms at the intersection of the higher and lower logical levels and the personal and extra-personal facets of existence.


Mapping the Spiritual: Unity and Duality

Having outlined the key types of spiritual experience, we can begin to consolidate our understanding of how they relate to each other. Philosopher Walter Stace offers a helpful model. In Mysticism and Philosophy, he groups spiritual experience according to whether it is introvertive (internal) or extrovertive (external), unitive or dualistic. We thus have the possibility of four primary kinds of experience, notably that which is 1) both introvertive and unitive; 2) introvertive and dualistic; 3) extrovertive and dualistic; or 4) extrovertive and unitive.






1. Introvertive & Unitive

4. Extrovertive & Unitive


2. Introvertive & Dualistic

3. Extrovertive & Dualistic


In introvertive unitive experience, the variety of active experiences of the mind return to a common ground. The Indian sage Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras calls this the ‘cessation of the modifications of the mind’. The divisions of the psyche are transcended and suspended in a state of oneness, of simple being-awareness. Tennyson used to access such states by inwardly repeating his own name, until the latter faded away and he passes ‘into the Nameless as a cloud melts into heaven’.

Stace accurately observes that such experiences typically involve two kinds of state. One is void, flat, empty, dark – what St John of the Cross termed ‘the dark night of the soul’. People can have a sense that they are losing all that they loved and enjoyed in the world as well as the warmer aspects of inner experience. It is as if they are being stripped bare. This can seem quite painful, as if one is losing everything one held dear and gaining in return an empty Nothing. In the other kind of introvertive unitive experience, this emptiness appears light, full, brimming with the sense of unexpressed possibilities.

The language used to describe introvertive unitive experience is usually paradoxical, often highly nominalized or mixed with metaphor – as in ‘The cloud of unknowing’. It can be full of negation – such as ‘And my spirit/ was given an understanding/ while not understanding, /Transcending all knowledge.’[13]

Introvertive dualistic states often begin to occur, while resting in Merrell-Wollff’s undifferentiated ‘consciousness-without-an-object’, when we become aware of inner thoughts and feelings arising and passing. This content appears without overshadowing the deeper ‘pure awareness’ that is the silent, unexpressed reflector of experience.

Certain Buddhist techniques of ‘Mindfulness’ are predicated on this kind of realization. Practitioners are encouraged to stay in a state of inner quiet, simply noticing that ‘there is thinking’. It is presupposed that some quieter backdrop of mind is simply present to the comings and goings of internal computations.[14]

As this experience becomes more familiar, it begins to persist in ordinary waking consciousness. One rests in, and identifies with, being-consciousness, while observing the presence of the coming and going of the usual machinations of self, its thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

In both introvertive and extrovertive dualistic experience, the contents of consciousness are witnessed from a spacious awareness outside the frame of the usual ‘logical levels’ of experience (sensory experience, cognition, etc.). Inner witnessing, first experienced in meditation or meditative contexts, comes to exist in everyday life. Experience acquires a quality of detachment, as if ‘doing is being done, but I am not the doer’. Identification is not with the personal self, but with a kind of impartial witnessing awareness, which merely reflects what occurs within it. Much extrovertive dualistic experience, then, simply extends introvertive unitive experience into daily life.

Subsequently there may be a further shift in which separation between self and non-self, between consciousness-without-an-object and the objects of consciousness, first softens and eventually almost disappears altogether. All is experienced as one.

Extrovertive unitive experience involves recognizing that both the mundane and supra-mundane levels of experience are ultimately fluctuations of this underlying consciousness. In extrovertive unitive experience, what we perceive in the world is taken as part of a unified whole that is ultimately simply our own inner awareness. It is as if our transpersonal being-consciousness is recognized permeating all levels of experience. Our own sense of self-being is experienced as no different from the being of all things. Differences continue to exist, but they do not predominate over the sense of intimate harmony and unity.

Stace’s model also accommodates many of the other experiences we have discussed in the earlier sections. Thus devotional prayer tends to be internal and dualistic. But the perspective is typically, at least in those at the beginning stages of devotional practice, not from outside the frame of the usual ‘logical levels of experience’, but from inside them. The personal self and its expressions remain in the foreground as the locus of our attention. The one praying is usually engaged in some kind of behaviour that turns the attention to the supra-mundane ‘level(s)’ of experience. The dualism is between the usual sense of personal thoughts and feelings and the felt sense of divine grace or presence.

When such introvertive dualistic prayer becomes unitive, typically the person passes, like St John of the Cross, into the state of consciousness-without-an-object outside the frame. Traditionally this has been termed ‘contemplative prayer’. The challenge facing many Christian mystics, such as Meister Eckhardt, was how to describe such impersonal experience (Eckhardt calls it the ‘Godhead’) in terms that were accurate, while remaining within theistic orthodoxy.

When introvertive pure awareness reflects a sense of the divine Other, mystics such as Rumi and St John of the Cross may describe subtle dualistic states in terms of a meeting of lover and beloved, in which separation and unity, knower and known, are so very close:

All through eternity
Beauty unveils His exquisite form
in the solitude of Nothingness;
He holds a mirror to His Face
and beholds His own beauty.
He is the knower and the known
the seer and the seen;
No eye but His own
has ever looked upon this Universe.[15]

Experiences of opening to other realms are typically dualistic. They can be either introvertive, glimpsed in meditative or dream-like states or extrovertive, involving visions in the world, such as the reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary to Catholic children in a number of different parts of the world. The sense of self may be heightened through the feeling of wonder, but the experiencer does not necessarily rest in pure consciousness – although Dante appears to describe something like this in the final cantos of the Paradiso.

Experiences of transfiguration of the natural world are typically extrovertive. They may be unitive or dualistic, according to whether the experience emphasizes a unity in nature that includes the experiencer or not.

Experiences of heightened perception in which nature appears tinged with a radiant and celestial quality are usually dualistic, involving a sense of wonder and awe at the Beauty present in nature.

In extrovertive unitive experiences of transfiguration of the natural world, the boundaries of self dissolve in a state of unity. Everything – we, the world – is experienced as arising and unfolding within the one field of Being.

Thus a summary of the experiences we have discussed so far using Stace’s model might look like this:






• Emptiness, void, dark

• Fullness, light

• All is one

• One with all that is


• Witnessing of inner experience

• Communion with (a) higher being

• Witnessing of waking state

• World transfigured by divine energy and presence


Typically, over time we might find a progression in a person’s spiritual life, sometimes over many years, from encounters with inner union leading to internal dualistic witnessing, to external dualistic witnessing, thence to a sense of oneness with the world (extrovertive). To those whose spiritual life is oriented towards devotional communion with a divine being, we may find introvertive dualistic experience preceding introvertive unitive experience, and thence a sense of the presence of the divine in everyday life, and from there realization of our ultimate unity with it.

Of course glimpses of any of these experience may occur at any time.

Our map (Figure 1) allows us to situate many of the key philosophical and spiritual traditions, according to which parts of the map they emphasize or are centred in. Thus materialism and classical science are typically locked into the bottom triangle (area 1). Existentialism, Nihilism, Beckettian stripping away of the trappings of life, Pascalian pits, loss of meaning, etc. derive from the partial realization of the emptiness of the introvertive void. I become disconnected from the surface elements of life, but not yet fully grounded in my own Being. I encounter void, as something flat, empty, and separating (1a). Much of Eastern spirituality (Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism) emphasizes knowing areas 1a and b, in order not only to witness inner experience (2a), but to attain 3, in which the seeker awakens to inner awareness as the uninvolved reflector of relative experience (Nirvana, Satori).

Other traditions, such as Hinduism ultimately aspire to a fuller embodied awakening that unifies self and non-self (4). This process is condensed in the traditional Mahavakyas used to seal enlightenment, by summarizing the key realizations on the way. First ‘I am that’; then I realize also that ‘thou art that’; finally I recognize that ‘all this is that’; ‘there is nothing but that’).

Animism emphasizes the two arcs of sector 2b and 2d. The great theistic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) emphasize 2c, which may lead to familiarity with 2d and 4. Naturally this is a simplification. Elements of each kind of experience crop up in every tradition. They are all part of our human heritage and the deep structure of human experience.


Attention and Intent

Our account of spiritual experience may have important implications for our teaching of NLP. In its first decades NLP was primarily conceived of from within the frame of the mundane logical levels (area 1). Other experience was mainly viewed from there. If we begin to view NLP from the other parts of the map, whether from the ‘side’ perspective of ‘consciousness-without-an-object’ or from the perspective of the supra-mundane logical levels, we might re-evaluate the significance of the NLP endeavour and consider new priorities to accommodate these other perspectives.

Grinder and DeLozier’s New Code goes in this direction. Their starting presupposition appears to be that what we know is less important than how we are in ourselves. The emphasis in New Code NLP shifts from acquiring concepts and techniques to moving more elegantly through the world. How we are gives immediate and unconditional access to the resources we need in life. From this perspective, we find that the quality of our experience in life depends on how we orient our attention. If we know the world only indirectly through our representations, and these representations become the stuff of our inner life, then our attention becomes crucial in determining the nature and quality of our experience. New Code NLP picks up Castaneda’s notion of conventional ‘first attention’ and shamanic ‘second attention’, which is closer to pure presence and witnessing of experience.



Nelson Zink, author of the Structure of Delight, also emphasizes the importance of attention. He suggests that attention has a number of important modalities, depending on whether it is oriented to external or internal experience, and whether it is widely or narrowly focused. These four facets of attention mediated through each of the three primary senses give twelve modes of attention: visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic, which is either held with a broad or narrow focus, and oriented to either internal or external contents.

Awakening implies being at home in all modes of attention. But in spiritual experience, wide attention is particularly important. Most spiritual experience involves a sense of expansion of awareness. The sense of being unbounded in space is a characteristic of experiences of consciousness-without-an-object. Space is common to all sensory modalities. Space transcends the sensory modalities and unites them. All visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic experience presuppose location. They all depend upon a common space that they share. Experiencing the space implicit in all sensory experience is close to awakening to being itself. Opening to the sense of the limitlessness of space in which we find ourselves can expand attention to a sense of being-consciousness. It is a potential portal to ‘second attention’.

Paradoxically many spiritual practices achieve this expansive quality of experience by narrowing the field of attention, for instance, restricting it to a thought such as a mantra, the sense of ‘I am’, or an image, or feeling, such as in the flow of the breath. However, the attention subsequently expands radically as the mind becomes settled and passes beyond the object of attention to the unlimited field of consciousness itself.



Intention sets the direction of attention. What we set intent for is what we get. What we intend tends to manifest.

Intent operates at both the level of the conscious and unconscious mind. If we need to draw cash, we may hold the intent at the level of conscious mind until we come across the necessary bank. Or we may forget about our intent at the conscious level until, passing a bank or ATM, our unconscious mind gives us a prompt.

One of the functions of the unconscious mind is to maintain past intent. This has both positive and negative effects depending on the nature of the intentions already programmed in the unconscious. For instance, we may experience the recurring effect of intentions set in early childhood throughout our lifetime. At the deepest level, these are ultimately oriented towards shoring up our personal self, protecting us, for instance, with and from unspoken fears of annihilation.

One could define NLP as the management and realignment of intent. Ultimately this involves inventorying those knee-jerk responses of early intent that keep us within the frame of the mundane logical levels. Much belief-change work involves reorienting past intents so that they better serve us in the present. In my own personal one-to-one work, much of what I do involves identifying deep structures that inhibit opening to the spiritual core of life outside the mundane logical levels. This is important, since our life problems and challenges are compounded by over-attentiveness to the mundane, while ignoring the supra- or extra- mundane levels of existence.


Setting Intent

Setting intent can be simple. We first establish a positive relationship with our conscious and unconscious mind. We then identify our desired intent, seed it into the conscious mind, and let it go. If we repeat this process, regularly, what we intend manifests.

However, our choice of current intentions and our ability to set them are shaped by the intents we have already set in the unconscious mind, often long ago. As such setting intent requires humility and wisdom. It is preferable to coax, rather than force, our life into a self-evolving process. For this it is advisable that at the conscious level we orient our intent by asking our unconscious to help us identify intentions that will help us move forward with grace and wisdom.

This same process can help enhance spiritual life. Spiritual life is to a large extent the product of intent. If we are interested in and seek the spiritual, we tend to favour situations that allow it to unfold. A large part of the value of religious structures and codes of conduct lies in programming intention for our life to move towards balance and relationship with a larger whole than our personal selves.

Prayer, for instance, often serves as way of setting intent. A young Balinese explained to me that she always prays before going to sleep, using the customary flower offerings and traditional mantras. One of her personal requests is that she may be free to choose in life what is good for her, but if she is about to choose something that is bad for her, may God let her know. When I asked whether and how God lets her know, she described a number of kinaesthetic signals, which we would recognize in NLP as communications from the unconscious of inner incongruence. She also told me that before she sleeps as part of her night prayer she asks God to show her the future in her dreams. She informed me how she notes her dreams and finds that things she dreams subsequently happen in her life.


Intention and Awareness

If intention orients attention, both depend on and can open awareness. Awareness is that which enables us to recognize not only what we are attending to, but any associated intents. In many meditative practices, spiritually-oriented intent effectively turns attention onto itself, and we attend to the process of attending. In so doing, we come to know the source also of attention, awareness itself. Awareness is then recognized as that consciousness-without-an-object, which enables us potentially to attend to any part of experience within the logical levels. Awareness becomes both an end and a means in spiritual life.

As we come to know that awareness, we find that it is the magical ground of our own mind. It is the source of the little inspirations and intuitions that allow us to set intent wisely. Through a closer relationship with that creative consciousness, we find ourselves naturally orienting attention towards selecting intentions that enhance our awareness. We find ourselves attending quite naturally to what will support a life of quality. We choose a more balanced pathway of action, respecting our needs as a whole, eating and drinking more wisely, for instance, enjoying more creative sparkle and inspiration in our life. In the most simple of ways life becomes a sacrament, with everything imbued with a sense of being and meaning. We find ourselves in a virtuous circle from awareness to intent to attention to greater awareness. Life becomes without pretence or pretentiousness, in ways small and large, simply spiritual.



Although the spiritual can involve rapturous experience that can appear to take us out of the body, the body is closely involved in spiritual experience, contributing either to its presence or absence.

Typically spiritual experience has profound effects on the body contributing to a sense of peace, well-being, ease, purification, renewal and health. Difficulties in accessing spiritual experience are often connected to tension and walling off in the body.

Brian Van der Horst, in Volume 1, issue 3 of NLP World (1994), proposes that we consider ‘energy’ as the key to exploring spiritual experience. Here we have emphasized consciousness, however there is a sense in which the two terms are two faces of the same coin. Spiritual awakening involves a heightening of consciousness that goes hand in hand with the freeing of inner energy in the body.

Many spiritual practices aim to enliven energy within the body in order to flush out blockages to the awakening to spiritual awareness. Physical movements, postures, gestures, dance, and ritual movements are used to enliven spiritual states – yoga, tai chi, and dervish ‘turning’ are examples.

Spontaneous movements, unanticipated kriyas and mudras, shaking and quaking, may arise quite naturally in altered states of awareness of a spiritual nature, as well as stimulating such experience. The unbidden unfolding of the body’s kundalini or shakti energy both opens and cleanses the subtle channels of the body in a naturally arising ‘inner dance’. At the same time, ecstatic dancing, ‘shaking medicine’, and other body- and energy-oriented practices can prime the pump for powerful energetic release and awakening.

In this process, ‘cool’ practices that emphasize a settling of body and mind are complementary to ‘hot’ practices that rattle our personal cages in a sacred and ecstatic shattering of boundaries.[16]



Breathing, too, becomes very important in awakening the flow of energy in the body and redirecting awareness. Shifts in breathing both stimulate and arise from shifts in energy and movement in the body. As mental activity quietens, so does the breath. Glimpses of consciousness-without-an-object often occur in the pause between the in and out flow of the breath.


The Three Chambers – Head, Heart, Gut

Many spiritual and psychological systems acknowledge the importance of different parts of the body in the overall balance and well-being of human life. A simpler version of the chakra system alluded to by Brian Van der Horst considers three major centres: centred on the head, the heart and the viscera, corresponding to intellectual, emotional, and vital or moving centres. I have found that most ill-formed deep beliefs about self or world involve some energetic blocking in the communication amongst these parts of the body.

These centres, or ‘chambers’, seem to predominate in different kinds of spiritual experience. The head appears central in introvertive unitive experiences of consciousness-without-an-object, in which the body is typically very still and breathing much more settled or suspended. The head also appears central in many dualistic experiences, particularly in dispassionate witnessing type awareness.

The heart centre, the seat of compassion and generous love, is involved in many dualistic experiences of devotion. The function of devotional prayer is to open and awaken the heart centre. It is no accident that the typical posture for prayer in much of the Christian West involves hands joined at the level of the heart. (In Bali hands may be joined at the heart, forehead, or above the forehead. Each position shifts the mind-body system, altering the nature of experience.)

The vital or moving centre, in the gut, seems to be the repository of our deepest fears and anxieties, concerning the survival of our personal ego. From our entrails comes the deepest sense of personal selfhood. As we come to identify with our physical body the head says ‘I’ and the guts ‘me’. From our belly arise the great resources of energy that mobilize our selfhood to defend itself against perceived threats to its separate existence. It is perhaps natural that the release of deep tensions and associated beliefs in this part of the body should make possible the surrender of the fortress self, and open the way to greater union, whether with the otherness of the Divine, with other people or with nature as a whole. As the power of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ loosens its grip, paradoxically it increases it, but lightly now. For what was before exercised to exclude in bolstering separateness, now expands to include.

It is possible to trace a typical, but by no means uniform, progression in spiritual awakening from states centred more in the head (Buddhist mindfulness, dispassionate witnessing) to experiences centred more on the heart, compassionate connection with the divine, with other creatures, and with nature, to an awakening in which the roots of emotional separateness contained in emotional/energetic blockages in the belly, resolve to permit a full experience of unity within and without.

Premature opening of the heart can lead to an overriding of rational thought and behaviour driven by the unredeemed ego. We then have the emotionally-driven narrowness displayed by fundamentalists of quite different persuasions. Their faces may glow with inner light and they may express and enjoy much warmth and intensity in their lives, but they can be rigid in their beliefs and unable to consider that others possibly have a spirituality as valid as their own. They are unable to go meta to their own world-view, a gift of the head.

Balinese and much oriental spirituality appears to acknowledge this need for a balance and alignment among these three primary centres. Man is viewed as occurring between Heaven and Earth, between the energies of earth and sky, connected with the dispassionate masculine through the head and with the mother through the earth. Typically we are biased too much towards earth (materialism, immersion in nature) or too much towards the sky (intellectuals and airheads). Energy must flow in and through the body in such a way that we experience balance and connectedness, poised between the two, with the heart awake and open as a bridge between the two, and as a conduit for the outflowing of our personal energy towards meaningful contact with others and our world.



The above lightning tour situates the range of spiritual experience in a simple comprehensive frame. It offers some simple ways of considering the structure of such experience (unitive and dualistic; introvertive and extrovertive, for instance). It also begins to consider some of the elements that help awaken spiritual experience. The two NLP presuppositions ‘every behaviour serves a positive intention’ and ‘people have all the resources’ have always tacitly acknowledged that the fruits of our change processes ultimately derive from that which is beyond the ordinary logical levels, an implicit guiding wholeness, which is, I would suggest ultimately spiritual in nature. In modelling and mapping the spiritual, NLP has the exciting prospect of rediscovering and transcending itself.


Peter Wrycza, PhD

This article was first published in NLP World, Vol. 2, 1, 1995, pp. 35-65. This revised version, Sidemen, Bali, August 2017.




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  1. December, 1994, p.40.

  2. The ‘We space’ (a proposed fourth perceptual position) was discussed in NLP World I, 2, in an article with Jan Ardui, ‘Unravelling Perceptual Positions’.

  3. With the Tongues of Men and Angels: A Study of Channelling, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Fort Worth, 1992.

  4. ‘Willing to Change’, interview in One Earth, issue 12, pp. 8-11 (Findhorn Community), 1993-4, p. 9.

  5. Psychosynthesis, pp. 200-1.

  6. Structurally we find many recurrent features to ritual around the world used systematically to alter the participant’s state, such as slow rhythmical incantation, the use of purifying smoke, aromatic incense, water, the symbolic sharing of food and so on.

  7. A. Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy; M. Laski, Ecstasy; W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy; R. C. Zaehner, Mysticism Sacred and Profane.

  8. Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, p. 47.

  9. I Am That, p. 90; see also Sogyal Rinpoche: ‘When one past thought has ceased and a future thought has not yet risen, in that gap, in between, isn’t there a consciousness of the present moment; fresh, virgin, unaltered by even a hair’s breadth of concept, a luminous, naked awareness?’ The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, p. 160.

  10. See, for instance, Ram Dass’s keynote remarks at the NLP Comprehensive conference, Denver, Co., September 1994.

  11. The Pearl Beyond Price, pp. 7-19.

  12. Connirae and Tamara Andreas, Core Transformation.

  13. St John of the Cross.

  14. Some question whether Mindfulness practice, particularly in novices, involves witnessing of experience from pure awareness or attempts to attain such realisation by imitating the nature of experience encountered in awakened consciousness. Making the result the method, imitating the effects of consciousness, may not make for the most effective approach, if it reinforces the active mind as observing mind, rather than letting go of it altogether, such that its operation is innocently and naturally witnessed. Such questions are pertinent to the modelling of subtle experience and expertise. What are the limits of insight into the nature and structure of subtle qualities and abilities and how these can be transmitted to others? How far can the modelling of the spiritual help ease and accelerate the unfolding of others?

  15. The Divani Shamsi Tabriz XV.

  16. Shaking Medicine.