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Transforming the Mind ~ by Peter Shepherd


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Words & Meanings


Beliefs are an important part of our personality, yet they are often expressed in very simple terms: if I do this ... then that will happen. I can ..., I can't ... And these are translated into: I must ..., I should ..., I must not ..., and so on. The words become compelling, and this is partly because of the nature of language. Words have the power to evoke images, sounds and feelings in the listener, as every poet or advertising copywriter knows. They can start or break up relationships, sever diplomatic relations, provoke fights and wars.

Language is a tool of communication and as such, words mean what people agree they mean. It is a shared way to communicate about sensory experience and concepts derived from it. Without it there would be no basis for society as we know it. We rely on the fact that our sensory experience is sufficiently similar for our maps to have many features in common. But we do not all share exactly the same map, we each experience the world in a unique way. We give words meaning through their anchored associations to objects and experiences throughout our life, and of course we all have different experiences. The fact that people do have different maps and meanings adds richness and variety to life. We will argue far into the night over the meaning of such abstract words as 'honour', 'love' and 'morality'.

Language is a powerful filter on our individual experience. It is part of the culture we are born into and cannot change. It channels our thoughts in different directions, making it easy to think in some (socially acceptable) ways and harder in other (less conventional) ways. The average person (not a vegetarian) will respond positively to 'tender juicy filet mignon' on the menu; but not to 'a piece off a dead castrated bull'. But the two expressions mean the same thing.

The same behavior can be described in many different ways, and can be used to manipulate: 'I am firm; you are obstinate; he is a pig-headed fool'. 'I am daring; you are pretentious; she stinks'. 'I am flexible; you bend with the wind; they are a bunch of opportunists'.

Consider the following descriptions:

Smutty book

Daring and original theory

Sexist enterprise

Wooly-headed liberal

Sound, sensible economics

realistic novel

Wild and implausible speculation

Dealers in rare and exotic art

Passionate humanitarian

Stingy, heartless commerce

A phrase on the left can describe persons or events that might very well be described by someone else with the corresponding phrase on the right. Note that it is easy to see the bias in someone else's semantic map, but not so easy to see the bias in one's own.

These matters are symbolic but more than linguistic. For example, the Englishman who dressed for dinner every night in his lonely tropical hut was no fool; he was keeping an English third-program reality bubble around himself, to avoid becoming immersed in the reality bubble of the natives. It takes only a few weeks in prison to become 'a convict', whatever your definition of yourself was before. It takes only a few weeks in the army to become 'a soldier'.

Words are usually only a pale shadow of the speed, variety and sensitivity of our underlying thinking. To make our point quickly we apply a selection process: a great deal will necessarily be deleted, but perhaps too much; we may over-simplify and so distort the underlying meaning; and we tend to generalize, not wishing to spell out all the possible exceptions and specific conditions that apply.

The words 'can' and 'cannot', 'possible' and 'impossible' define (in the speaker's map) what is considered possible. They are often used to define capabilities but because they are too generalized, they are limiting: 'I just couldn't refuse', 'I can't change' or 'It's impossible to do this'. It is taken as an absolute state of incompetence, not amenable to change. Fritz Perls used to respond to this with: Don't say 'I can't', say 'I won't!' thus immediately shifting his client into at least acknowledging the possibility of choice. One might also ask: 'What would happen if you did?' or 'What stops you?' It is these consequences and barriers that have been deleted from the person's conscious thinking.

“If not grounded in reality, the mind is cut off and un-aroused; it is then particularly susceptible to influence.”
Similarly, words of necessity like 'should' and 'should not', 'must' and 'must not', 'ought' and 'ought not' are rules of conduct, but not explicit enough. This is exposed by asking for the consequence of breaking the rule: 'What would happen if you did, or did not, do this?' This 'What if' question is the basis of the scientific method. Once consequences and reasons are made explicit, they can be thought over and critically evaluated - otherwise they just limit choice and behavior.

Consider the sentence: 'I can't do that here'.

'I' is the person's identity; 'can't' relates to their belief; 'do' expresses their capability; 'that' indicates a behavior; 'here' is the environment. The person saying this is cutting themselves off from the environment, from reality, by unnecessarily limiting beliefs based on a distorted use of language.

When too much in one's head is language that does not correspond to experience, because too much is assumed, left out or generalized, this may cause a feeling of the mind's separation from the body. Beliefs do not correspond with what the senses are telling you, thoughts don't create the anticipated feelings, desires do not result in the actions to carry them out. Because it is then not grounded in reality, the mind is cut off and un-aroused; it is then particularly susceptible to influence. This is the mind-body split, that results in an emotional dependence on others that is a fertile ground for hypnotic effects, and this results in a state of cultural trance or 'field-dependency'. Unfortunately, this affects most human beings, especially in the current culture. The Semantic Differential technique drastically reduces the possibility of these kinds of language distortions, and by extension, reduces the grip of cultural trance.


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