How Meta-States Enriches Logical Levels in NLP

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

People want to know. At least people well-trained in the NLP model want to know. I find it everywhere. Without fail wherever I present the Introductory workshop on Meta-States, “Accessing Personal Genius,” I am repeatedly asked about the relationship between Meta-States and the Neuro-Logical Levels model. Just this past month it happened recently in Monterrey Mexico, in Moscow Russia, in Sydney Australia.

“So what’s the difference between Meta-States and the ‘Neuro-Logical Levels’ of Robert Dilts?”
“Meta-States seems more inclusive and less rigid than the ‘Neuro-Logical Levels,’ is that right?”
“I find it hard to shift from what I know about logical levels, that is, thinking about them as fixed and in a hierarchical ladder to the more dynamic way that Meta-States presents them. How can I make this shift?”

The “Neuro-Logical Levels”

Those of us who love NLP know and have experienced the power and magic of the “Neuro-Logical Levels” model that Robert Dilts created. It’s a great model. It’s not a “logical” levels model, but it’s a great model that has many practical uses. Yes, there are problems with the model known as “The Neuro-Logical Levels”. Many NLP trainers have noted these and written articles about them, I have myself contributed to that dialogue in a couple NLP Journals. And yet, the list is a great and useful list. So even though the list may not formally be a list of “logical” levels, it has provided NLP a great many patterns and processes that are very effective. For that, we owe Robert Dilts much. I’m told that even Robert has recently acknowledged that the list is not “logical.”

What’s wrong with the list that it is not a “logical levels” list? Among them, the fact that “Behavior” occurs within an “Environment” not the other way around. “Environment” is not a member of the class of “Behaviors.” It’s not a behavior at all. It is a context. “Capabilities” is confusing. If it means “Abilities” then it is a primary level experience, so that it operates as a synonym of “Behaviors” and not as a classification of behaviors. if however if means “Possible abilities… those that could be developed, or potentialities” then we would classify it as a meta-level phenomena and put “Behaviors” inside that Category. “Values” and “Identities” are but “Beliefs in the value of something” and “Beliefs in Identifying with something” to make part of one’s self-definition. So with “Mission” and “Spirituality” these are “Beliefs in…” a Mission/Vision and in one’s understandings of being a spirit, etc.

Robert’s list of these levels provided NLP a great checklist of primary and meta-level mental-emotional phenomena.

Spirituality ¾ Why

Mission/ Vision ¾ Why

Identity ¾ Who

Values ¾ Why

Beliefs ¾ Why

Capabilities ¾ How

Behavior ¾ What

Environment ¾ Where

Robert has also provided an analysis of such in terms of indexing: where, what, how, why, etc. And he has taken much about logical levels and applied it to this list. Strange enough, Robert has generated numerous other models of Logical Levels, yet this one doesn’t make the grade because the items are not classes and members, “Environment” is not a member of the class of “Behavior.” (In NLP: Going Meta, 1997, I have devoted an entire chapter to the genius of Robert Dilts and the numerous Logical Levels models that he has created and an critique of this particular one.)

What do we mean by “Logical Levels?”

No one has provided more accurate or useful definitions of “logical levels” than Robert Dilts. Taking his cue from Bateson, Robert has clearly shown that for one level to be higher than another, the higher one has to be about the lower and the lower has to be a member of the class of the higher. When that happens, then the higher level will govern, modulate, and organize the lower. Robert Dilts (1991):

“In our brain structure, language, and perceptual systems there are natural hierarchies or levels of experiences. The effect of each level is to organize and control the information on the level below it. Changing something on an upper level would necessarily change things on the lower levels; changing something on a lower level could but would not necessarily affect the upper levels.” (Dilts, Epstein, Dilts, 1991, p. 26, emphasis added).

“Logical Levels: an internal hierarchy in which each level is progressively more psychologically encompassing and impactful” (1990: 217, emphasis added).

This quotation provides several crucial features about logical levels. Five of these components that enable us to begin to build an operational definition of logical levels, include:

1. Hierarchies of experience.

2. Higher levels organize and control information on lower levels.

3. The modulation effect of the system necessarily works downward.

4. The modulation effect of the system does not necessarily work upward.

5. Higher levels operate more encompassing and impactful than the lower levels.

Again, quoting Robert:

“Logical typing occurs where there is a discontinuity (as opposed to a continuity, as with the hierarchies) between levels of classification. This kind of discontinuity is exemplified:

a) in mathematic, by the restriction that a class cannot be a member of itself nor can one of the members be the class.

b) in logic, by the solution to the classic logical paradox, ‘This statement is false.’ (If the statement is true, it is false, and if it is false, then it is true, and so on.) The actual truth value of the statement is of a different logical type than the statement itself.

c) in behavior, by the fact that the reinforcement rules for exploration in animals is of a completely different nature than those for the process of testing that occurs in the act of exploration.” (1983: 24).

“The informational effects between levels and types is called feedback and is probably the major distinguishing feature of cybernetic systems.” (1983: 39)

“Differences of the same or different logical type interacting at different levels (hierarchical or logical respectively) will result in the modulation of the difference on the lower level.” (1983: 49)

Meta-States as a Model of Logical Levels

Now for those new to the Meta-States model, and to the emerging field of Neuro-Semantics, it is crucial to understand the NLP model of “states” (mind-body-emotional dynamic states) and “Logical Levels” to fully understand Meta-States and more especially to use Meta-States effectively. That’s why we always begin our trainings with some review on these two subjects. After all,

A meta-state is a state that we have applied to self at a higher logical level. It is a mind-body state (a neuro-linguistic process) applied to another neuro-linguistic process. It is the psychological (mind-body) energy that we use to react to our own reactions. It is the reflexive power of our mind-body in action layering and texturing thought upon thought.

When we engage in this process, we create a “meta” (above, beyond, about) relationship. The result is that we end up with one state being about another state: joy of learning, playful about being serious, flexible about being sure and confident, etc.

Awareness of our thoughts is a meta-state structure, running an ecology check to make sure that the way we’re thinking, believing, valuing, deciding, etc. is healthful, enhancing, and empowering is a meta-state structure. So is stepping back from our memories of old hurts. And when we bring a sense of “control” over the encoding of that old memory, we meta-state the old memories yet another time, and when we “run it in reverse from a place of comfort” we meta-state it even another time.

In fact, the greatest and highest magic of NLP occurs in meta-state structures. When you know that, you know much more about the very structure of magic and the secret of how it works¾ and how you can work it. That’s one reason that Meta-States has caught on like it has and has been revolutionizing the NLP model itself. Meta-States explains and expands the magic of NLP because the magic occurs mostly at meta-levels, that’s where “the difference that makes a difference” occurs. Many are saying that Meta-States is not merely the third meta-domain after the Meta-Model and the Meta-Program models, but a meta-domain that unifies the entire field. Of course, it will take time to see if it has that much explanatory power.

Bringing or applying one state to another also describes what we mean by a “Logical” level, because we have put at a higher level a thought, idea, understanding, feeling, etc. so that it becomes about another thought, idea, understanding. Outside of the field of NLP, this has led to the founding of the academic field of Meta-Cognition (1977) which studies the meta-cognitive devices that help with memory, learning, etc.

A Practical Example of Meta-Stating a Higher Logical Level

Consider what happens when I frame my thoughts about my fear and anger (primary state experiences) with the following thought.

“Just Emotions… just signals in my mind-body about the relationship between my Map of the World and the Territory (experience) of the world.”

When I bring this understanding as a higher idea and set it as a frame or state about my everyday experiences of fear and anger, this idea (concept, belief) classifies or re-classifies those emotions. It puts fear and anger into the category of “Just emotions..” . The Primary State (PS) experience of fear and anger now become members of the Class of the “Just Emotions…” Frame.

So what?


Doing this now allows me to play a new Game: The “Emotions are Just Emotions” Game. That lets me Stop playing the old Games of, “Emotions are the Final Word about Reality.”

Do you want to know the trick to all of this?

Here is the trick. As we move “up” the levels of our mental framing (what Bateson called “punctuating”) each mental-emotional move up creates a new Logical Level. Yet these “levels” are not things, not real in that sense, and therefore not rigid. They are fluid. They move. Their fluidity and movement occurs as we think, as we frame. That’s why there is no hierarchy to the Logical Levels. We cannot say there are first Environment, Behaviors, Abilities, Beliefs, Values, Identifications, etc. It does not work that way. It’s frames all the way up.

Actually, let me correct that. It is framing all the way up… because the so-called “levels” are just the way we punctuate or layer one thought upon another, the way we formulate our mental understandings and world. There are no things in the brain, just ways of framing. It’s our language that tricks us here. We name the framing: Beliefs, Values, Identity, etc. and then we begin to behave (and feel) that these are real entities. They are not.

It’s all process.

The immediate processing at the primary level comes and goes and is very, very fluid. That’s why our “states” come and go minute by minute, hour by hour. We never stay in the same state. States are not “static.” Not at all. They are dynamic… always moving, always responding to internal and external stimuli. “States” are our mental-emotional-body energy fields, so when we bring one energy field to bear upon or relate to another energy field… we do not create a new thing, we simply texture and qualify the first energy field. This represents a more systemic way to think about states and meta-states and about all of the mental phenomena of the mind: beliefs, values, identity, spirituality, etc.

The more we layer thought upon thought, feeling upon thought, a physiological response (calm breathing) upon a thought, etc., the “higher” we go. This allows us to set higher frames of reference and this higher framing gives us more of a sense of stability. That’s why we are able to carry beliefs, understandings, decisions, metaphors, expectations, etc. with us for years. These higher semantic states are more enduring than the primary states. We get them into our body, into our muscle memory and so the higher frame self-organizes our neurology. This creates what we call our neuro-semantics.

Meta-States as Systemic Consciousness

There’s another trick to creating higher logical levels, framing, or meta-stating. There is other trick that you need to know if you want to master Meta-States.

Every Logical Level is a belief, a value, an identity, a decision, an understanding, a mission, an intention, expectation, etc.

Take a moment and consider that. It is not trivial. Within that statement is hidden several secrets for working neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic magic at the higher levels. And in this statement also you will find one way that we have moved beyond the “Neuro-Logical Levels” model to offer a much more fluid and systemic model for NLP. This does not make the Dilts model wrong, it merely extends and expands it … and re-organizes it for greater power.

This secret means that not only are there many, many more logical levels, but each and ever level occurs at every layering, framing or meta-stating.

Here again language tricks us. So let me slow down and map this out carefully. Using these nominalizations (named verbs), all these terms sound like things, like entities. They are not. That’s why we do ourselves a favor (a big one) to always use them as verbs… believing, valuing, giving importance, identifying with, intending, expecting, etc.

Consider again what happens when I set the frame that “Emotions are just Emotions…”

I confirmed that thought and so believe it, and believe it is importantvalue it, and understand it, and decide to think this way, and perhaps identify with it, and intend to operate this way and so expect certain things to result …. and so

All of these facets of minding-emoting are true simultaneously … at the same time. As a mind-body system, our neuro-linguistics operate simultaneously, fluidly, as an ongoing process … and it is in the process of our systemic consciousness that we establish the framing of our mind-emotions-body…. that so run our neuro-pathways that it habituates and becomes what Bateson called “the ecology of the mind.”

What does all of this mean?

It means that in learning to think more systemically about our neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic states, we have to shift from thinking about our states as “static” and involving rigid structures, to thinking about it as involving fluid and dynamic processes. It means that “logical levels” are only a metaphor about the layering, texturing, and qualifying of our experiences. It means that every time we transcendinclude the lower levels and texture it with higher levels of resources. (See the article on the Texturing of States.)

And when that happens… all of these frames within frames that qualify our everyday experiences sets up the rules for the Games that we play. This means that we can communicate the NLP and NS models very simply¾ as Frames and Games, or Frame Games. The Games are the everyday actions and transactions that you engage in… and these are informed, framed, and controlled by your internal framing.

This also means that you have to get rid of the old “Jungle Gym” model that Robert and several other early NLP trainers created. You remember that one, don’t you? That model of the Cube that looked like a Borg Spaceship. Forget it. That is such a poor representation of logical levels and the meta-levels of the mind. Robert has created other models that are much more fluid and flexible, especially the work he has done with the energy sheets of attractors as he has described self-organizing systems. Think about those energy sheets and patterns of thinking as “balls” rolling around and falling into energy wells… that’s a much, much better metaphor.

To think about logical levels with any rigid metaphor ¾ ladders, steps, solid cubes, etc. will delude you from the fluid and flexibility of the way the mind layers things. Think more about the energy forms and shapes of a tornado… how it spirals up and down, how it creates energy wells and moves things and never stays put.

Think about a fluid matrix of spirals. Think about the difference between the Artificial Intelligence creates in the Terminator Movies. In the first you have an Arnold Schwartzneggar robot, stiff, solid, made with a metal cassie; in the second you have a robot made of fluid metal that could take any shape it desired, in a second or two.

Think about games… ever changing and playful games. The frame games that we play in our minds and bodies are processes. So as we play games for building wealth, slimming, demonstrating expertise in business, etc., we layer frame upon frame to construct an understanding of the rules, the set up, the players, the payoffs, etc. In NS, we are now using this new metaphor to extend our ability to model dynamic structures and we’re finding that it’s taking us to new places.

The meta-levels (leveling, layering) of the mind occurs as we punctuate and frame thoughts about thoughts, feelings about thoughts, thoughts about feelings, physiology about feelings, etc. The word “levels” is a metaphor, so is “logical” and so are most of the embodied ways that we try to imagine the functioning of the mind.

The bottom line? It’s Frames all the way up… that’s where the magic occurs and then it’s Games all the way down… that’s where the “reality” hits.

See the article on the web site: “The Other Logical Levels.” Also, the book, NLP: Going Meta¾ Advanced Modeling Using Meta-Levels, in that work there is a chapter on all of the logical level systems that Robert has created.

Dilts, Robert. (1983). Applications of neuro-linguistic programming. Cupertino CA: Meta Publications.

Dilts, Robert B. (1983). Roots of neuro-linguistic programming. Cupertino, CA: Meta Publications.

Dilts, R.B., Dilts, R.W., Epstein, Todd (1991). Tools for dreamers: Strategies for creativity and the structure of innovation. Cupertino, CA: Meta Publications.

Hall, Michael (1995). Meta-states: Managing the higher levels of your mind’s reflexivity. Grand Jct. CO: ET Publications.

Hall, Michael. (1997). NLP: Going Meta ¾ Advance modeling using meta-levels. Grand Jct. CO: ET Publications.

Hall, L. Michael; Bodenhamer, Bob G. (1999). The structure of excellence: Unmasking the meta-levels of ‘submodalities.’ Grand Junction, CO: E.T. Publications.

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D., psychologist & international trainer (P.O. Box 9231; Grand Jct. CO. 81501; 970 523-7877; fax: 970 523-5790), developer of the Meta-States Model. The Institute of Neuro-Semantics® ¾