Beliefs #1: The Meta-Levels of Beliefs

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

As you woke up this morning and moved out into the day, you did so by gathering up a host of beliefs to take with you. You then put them on as spectacles through which to view the world. You have beliefs about yourself, your skills, your value and dignity, etc. You have beliefs about other people–what makes them tick, what they want, how to relate to them, etc. You have beliefs about work, play, recreation, hobbies, volunteer activities, etc. You have beliefs about the world: politics, education, crime, police, the justice system, other countries, wars, journalism, environment, etc. You have beliefs about a thousand different concepts: time, history, the past, the future, causation, personality, emotions, destiny, etc.

Further, because you “have” these beliefs, you operate from them as one uses a map to navigate territory. Beliefs as mental maps govern our life, emotions, health, skills, and everyday experiences. Pervasive “things,” these belief maps. But where did they come from? How did we develop, create, or absorb them? How much validity do they have? What comprises these beliefs? How would we change them if we wanted to?

Understanding Beliefs

When we explore the structure and content of beliefs, we recognize that beliefs arise from and exist in “thoughts.” Let’s do a mental experiment to explore the composition and nature of beliefs. Begin by simply thinking of something you believe… and pick something in the following realms:

Something you believe about politics.

Something you believe about yourself.

Something you believe about “time.”

Something you believe about children.

Something you believe about spirituality.

Now step back to notice how you have represented your beliefs. Notice the VAK structure of your beliefs: what sights do you see that visually represents it? What sounds did you hear? What sensations or smells? How about words? What words did you say, see, or sense that enable you to code the belief?

“Beliefs” exist essentially as generalizations about something. As such, they provide us a way to summarize experiences and understandings and to code them into some kind of category. Now consider an even more critical question:

How do you tell the difference between a thought about something and a belief in something?

More experimentation. Notice that as quickly as you read the following list, thoughts immediately pop into your mind:

The White House

Black ice cream

Paying your taxes

Making a speech

The red flashing lights of a police car behind you

Asking for a raise

A crying baby

Sitting in a hot tub

The “thoughts” of consciousness zoom about so quickly that noticing our thoughts necessitates speeding up our noticing so that we can catch our thoughts before they vanish. Additionally, we can either slow down the “thoughts” that blast through consciousness, or hold on to them longer, so that we can recognize them.

How do you differentiate the experience of entertaining a thought of the White House from “believing in the existence of the White House”? How does the “thought” of the President’s White House in Washington D.C. differ from your “belief” that “U.S. presidents live in the White House?” How does that idea differ from the “belief,” “The White House represents an honorable tradition in American Culture.” Or, “They need to install more security around the White House to guarantee the President’s safety.”

Thoughts do differ from beliefs. To think the thoughts that make up a belief (as you undoubtedly did) while reading the previous paragraph does not mean that you necessarily “believe” such thoughts. This means that we can think without believing! It means that we can know and learn things without necessarily believing them. In other words, representation alone does not create a “belief.” So what does?

Now read the following statements with the intention of noticing three things. First notice how you represent the thought, second, whether you believe the thought or not, and third, how you represent where you “believe the thought” or not.

“I have the skills to take criticism effectively.”

“Adversity doesn’t make or break a person,

but one’s attitudes toward adversity.”

“There is no failure; only feedback.”

“Acceptance empowers me in adjusting to reality.”

“Thoughts” take on greater complication and conceptual richness when we move away from just thoughts about “things” — the objects and entities of static reality to “thoughts” about higher level concepts. In the first statement, “I have the skills to take criticism effectively” we can visualize the subject, “I” but what do we do with the concept “have the skills…” What picture, sound, or sensation represents that? Or how do we code “criticism?” Did you picture a specific person at a specific time saying words that critiqued something and used that memory to stand for “criticism?”

If the entire process of representation itself involves more complexity when we move to such statements, how much more complex does “believing!” How shall we explain this or conceptualize this?

The Meta-States Model suggests this distinction: thoughts (even complex ones) operate typically at the primary level of experience while beliefs operate at meta-levels.

When I think about taking criticism effectively, my consciousness goes “out there” into the world where I imagine a movie of someone saying something and imagining myself handling it by listening calmly, asking questions to explore in order to understand, using it as information, etc.

But when I believe in that thought (“I can take criticism effectively”), I move to a higher logical level. Reflexively, my thoughts come back to reflect on my previous thoughts. This puts me at a meta-level to my thoughts-and-feelings about the first level thoughts-and-feelings. They no longer refer to something out there in the world, but to something “in here” in my mind. They refer to a concept about conceptual realities.

Figure 1

MS:                                  T-F: “Yes!”
“I Validate that!”

(about- @ )

PS:              “I can take 6 Criticism offered to me
effectively from someone in the world

[Code: T-F: Thoughts-and-feelings.  – about. MS: meta-state, PS: primary state]

Structurally, a belief involves thoughts about something or another plus validating, affirming, accepting thoughts about those primary thoughts. This explains why merely repeating an empowering belief statement will not have the same effect as believing an empowering belief statement.

This provides insight into the structure of a disbelief. To disbelieve a statement, we essentially bring thoughts of doubt, unsureness, questions, etc. to bear on the primary thought. “I have questions about that idea.” Hence, a state of doubt about a state of thought.

This follows O’Connor and Seymour (1990) who said that beliefs exist as “the various ideas we think are true, and use as a basis for daily action” (p. 78). So, “truth thinking” about ideas defines the meta-level structure of a belief and distinguishes it from just a thought. This further explains the quality of trust in beliefs. In beliefs, we trust or give our allegiance to the idea.

This answers, I believe, Major’s (1996) question about “the nature” of belief in his excellent NLP World article, “A Critical Examination of the Place of ‘Belief’ in NLP.” Beliefs do not exist as things, but higher level (meta-level) constructions of thoughts-and-emotions about other conceptual constructions, hence a generalization of a generalization.

The Stages of Belief

As we use consciousness to take cognizance of reality as it impacts our nervous system via our sense receptors, we first have vague representations of what we experience. We “think,” but don’t “know.” We have questions and doubts about how to organize our thinkings into conceptual constructions of knowledge. Yet as these representations gain more and more clarity, we develop various forms of knowledge about things, and as that knowledge solidifies, it takes the form of our learnings or understandings, our definite ideas and mental constructs. At this point we have fewer doubts, less questions, and more of a solid sense of reality. Now we believe in those ideas. We feel convinced about them and so eventually we view these beliefs as our convictions.

In Figure 2, I have portrayed this process as a narrowing and focusing of consciousness until we build more and more structured understandings.

Figure 2

The Focusing & Narrowing Of Consciousness


Consciousness        Thoughts ….         Understandings,          Ideas          Beliefs …          Convictions

Don’t know…                              Know                  Sure          No doubt          Convinced

As we wrap our mind increasingly around some idea or understanding, we move more and more from thought to knowledge to belief. All ideas do not inevitably grow up into beliefs, although they can and frequently they do. Even the mere repetition of any idea (even weird, crazy, non-sense ideas) can eventually focus the mind more and more so that the idea seems more acceptable, “real,” matter of fact, believable. This explains one of the contributing factors involved in how Hitler could convinced an entire nation to believe in him, his ideas, and his agenda. And if “Repetition is the mother of learning,” then “repeated learning functions as the mother of beliefs.”

After all, thoughts only exist as representations in consciousness, and beliefs only exist as our validation of those representations. This means the brain has no internal Quality Control mechanism for ferreting out stupid, ridiculous, or harmful beliefs. Beliefs do not even have to correspond to anything “out there” in the Territory!

People can, and do, believe all kinds of utterly idiotic things. I have so believed, and probably still do. How about you? Even Kant’s a priori ideas (time, space, cause, etc.) do not indicate specific innate beliefs, only categories for thinking. The specific content ideas that we believe–can range from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous.

Now beliefs do need support to exist. What do we use to support beliefs? We “support” our beliefs using experiences, events, testimonies, and proofs. Ask anybody, “Why do you believe that?” They will then produce their evidence–their proof. They will provide information from experiences, readings, conversations, reflection, etc. You may or may not find it convincing or not, rational or not.

This highlights the role that experiences, events, and arguments play in developing beliefs. Such operates as our raw data to draw conclusions. We use such to draw generalizations and to create and attribute meanings. This explains why beliefs always and inevitably exist at a level meta to the primary level. People can experience the same event in life, even entertain a similar thought or representation, but draw different conclusions about that event. They construct different meta-level thoughts (beliefs and belief systems) about the lower level representations.

This underscores that meaning doesn’t exist “out there” in the world on the primary level. Meaning exists only “inside” the mind as we connect and link ideas with experiences in our primary state and in our states-about-that-state.

What does a harsh tonality “mean?” It all depends upon the ideas that you have connected to it. It depends upon the thoughts-and-feelings you bring to bear upon it from a meta-level. If you connect the experience of “a harsh tonality” with the idea of “insult,” “contempt,” “disapproving me,” etc., and then you feel convinced that this truly means this, then you believe that “a harsh tonality means someone intends to insult, disapprove, etc. you.”

Did you catch the multi-level structure of a belief in that last statement? The belief state (of feeling convinced) stands as about the tonality statement. Then to move up one more level, suppose you believe in that belief! Belief-about-belief generally creates fanaticism.

Beliefs develop. Over time… out of our experiences, we construct our beliefs via the ideas, thoughts, feelings, meanings, etc. that we bring to bear upon various concepts. At birth, we have no beliefs. Rather, beliefs arise as our perceptions, understandings and learnings grow up and solidify as a form of focused awareness. In this way they develop into some very durable internal maps about the territory “out there.”

What helps a belief to grow? Repetition really, really helps. In fact, if we repeat pure non-sense, we can eventually even install such as our belief systems. Take care what you repeatedly expose your mind to! This includes looping around a fretful thought. The more you loop, the stronger the representation seems! Then you might jump to the conclusion that “since it feels real, it must be real.” Too much exposure to any thought can very well lead to belief.

Consistency contributes to the growth of a belief. Any consistent system of thoughts helps because it counteracts the influence of contradictory facts or information. So the more we have a coherent systemic thinking about something–the more we will come to believe it.

Desirability makes our beliefs grow. Many people only use desirability for watering their beliefs. If they want to win the Lottery, they believe that they will. If they want to become rich and famous, then they believe that they should and will. If they want to believe that things ought to go smoothly for them in life, so they believe! This represents the thinking of children and primitives–those without a more scientific outlook on the world, without the ego-strength to look unpleasant and undesired experiences straight in the face without caving in, or personalizing in an unproductive way.

An authority or expert voice also helps makes beliefs grow. The sense of “proof” or evidence that arises from thinking that “the authorities say…”, “the statistics indicate…”, “the facts lead to the conclusion…” “everybody uses Dial!” enables us to more solidly represent our ideas–thereby making them grow and solidified.


Major, David (1996). “A Critical Examination of the Place of ‘Belief’ in NLP.” NLP World. The Intercultural Journal on the Theory & Practice of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Nov, 1996, pages 21-34).

Author: Michael Hall, Ph.D., author of numerous books in NLP and NLP Trainer conducts training in meta-states, advanced language skills, etc. He can be reached at 1904 N. 7th. St. Grand Jct. Co. 81501.