The Complex Simplicity of Meta-States

Or is that, the Simple Complexity?

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

Meta-States describes a very simple phenomenon.  In fact, the Meta-States model describes a human phenomenon that’s so common, everyday, and down-to-earth that it hardly needs mentioning.  Yet, at the same time, we have to mention it or people will miss this obvious elusive.  Through the iteration of a simple process, meta-states represents one of the richest and complex phenomena in the world, perhaps it is the very dynamic that uniquely separates us and creates the essence of our humanness.

  • What is this simple and complex dynamic or mechanism that lies at the heart of what we call “meta-states?”
  • How can the very same mechanism be both simple and complex at the same time?
  • What is the essential heart of meta-states and how does it relate to the uniqueness of being human?

The rest of this article answers these questions to reveal the essence of the meta-state mysterious simplicity.

It All Begins with “State”

Each and every day when you wake up to face the world, you wake up in a state—in a mind-body state.  This state is a state of mind, a state of body, and a state of emotion.  This is the most basic essence of our reality, isn’t it?  Do you ever leave home without being in some state?  Could a person ever be state-less?  No, not as long as we are sentient beings embodied in our anatomy, physiology, and neurology.   Not as long as we have a highly developed set of nervous systems that culminate in our brain which we use to detect and respond to the world “out there.”

We are always in a state.  Call it a mood, a predisposition, an attitude, the space we’re in, the place we’re coming from, an emotion, a frame of mind—whatever we call it, as mind-body-emotion beings we are always in a state.

Yet all states are not the same.  Some are simple and primary; others are complex and secondary, or layered with many thoughts-and-feelings.  Primary states are like the primary colors in that there are only a few basic ones from which the others arise.  Primary states are more instinctual or biological.  Maslow called our basic needs instinctoid to highlight that while they are connected to our biology, they are not in the same category as animal instincts.

Primary emotions are joy—sad, fear—anger, comfortable—discomfortable, tense—relaxed, aversion—attraction, love—apathy, playful—serious, caring—hateful, etc.  We experience them mostly as our response to some stimulus that’s triggered from the outside.  We experience them in our body in an immediate and direct way.  This means that we can mostly point to some place or location in our body where we feel tense or relaxed, attraction or aversion, etc.  There’s a physiology and body correlate to the emotional state.  If we asked, “Where do you feel that?”  We can generally notice where in our body we experience the primary feeling.

Secondary states are mixtures.  What do we feel when we experience a mixture of sadness and attraction?  A mixture of joy and anger?  A mixture of relaxation and joy?  A mixture of tension and love?  This becomes even more complex with more mixtures: what is the feeling of a bit of tension, fear, attraction, excitement, and hate?

And Then There are Meta-States

Yet while mixing bits and pieces of states creates a certain level of detail complexity, it doesn’t create meta-states.  For that, we have to do something very different and very special.  This is what creates the “higher” intelligence in humans and in the more intelligent animals, as well as the “intelligence” that we have been able to create in machines—in artificial intelligence.

What is this very different and very special dynamic?  We can call it by many different names: layering, texturing, reflexivity, logical levels, frames, framing, taking another perception position, an infinite regress, the ghost within, stepping back, going meta, etc.

The experience of having states about states or meta-states is grounded ultimately in a particular facet of “thinking,” or “awareness,” or “mind” which everyone is familiar  with.  This facet is described everywhere.  You can find it described in psychology, in communication, in leadership, management, coaching, personal development, religion, etc.  It is that commonplace.  It is a facet that philosophers, writers, artists, and leaders have known about and addressed.  Yet while many models of mind or consciousness acknowledge this fact, it is almost never used as the theoretical foundation for building an understanding of people.  There are exceptions.  Korzybski did with his levels of abstraction.  Bateson did with his levels of learning, and then I did with the Meta-States model.

And Then There is Reflexivity

What is this wonderfully magical facet?   It is reflexivity.  We reflect.  We are reflective creatures.  We reflect upon our experience.   We reflect on our thinking-feeling experiences and we do so repeatedly, again and again infinitely.  The process never ends.  We iterate and reiterate it again and again.   Whatever thoughts-and-feelings we experience we reflect upon those and with each reflection we simultaneously transcend one state and include it within yet another state.  In doing this we rise above our first experience or state in our thinking-and-feeling so that we set our next thought-and-feeling as our frame over or about the first.  It is in this way that we create rich and complex layers of awareness that we call our mind or consciousness.

The higher animals can reflect upon themselves and even their thinking one or two levels.  But we … we do so repeatedly in an “infinite regress.”    The power and the magic of this is that we can step back from ourselves—conceptually, mentally, emotionally, personally, and interpersonally and take another point of view, frame of mind, perspective, feeling, etc.  In other words, we are not stuck.  We are not stuck in our current state, thought, emotion, speech, behavior, or response.  We can step back and mapping things out in a different way, operate with an entirely different set of blueprints or schemas.

This step back can give us the ability to gain a greater and higher perspective.  For example, if we’re irritated and angered by something or someone, and we step back from that experience, we can explore how the experience was created, what triggered it, what went on inside of us that generated our response, how it fits or doesn’t fit with our larger purposes and values, how useful or ecological the experience is, and what we could do to alter our response.  The mental-emotional step back gives us new perspective, understanding, insight, and choice.

Philosophers have recognized this step back mechanism for ages and have called it “an infinite regress.”   That, in turn, led to questions about “the ghost within.”  If I can step back from the pictures and memories and imaginations that I play on the theater of my mind and observe them, then who is actually observing my mental processing?  And if I can step back from my observation of my observations, who is actually watching the watching-me?

Today we recognize that these questions are not only poorly formulated, they are formulated in such a way as to create the problem.  No one is watching other than myself.  I am watching my own processes!  How?  I am watching myself reflectingstep back yet again.  This makes the reflexivity an infinite progress.  I can keep progressing up the levels.

In everyday talk we describe this as moving up into la la land, into abstractions, into the ozone, etc.  We also talk about all of the ideas, thoughts, and feelings in the back of our mind that can either support or undermine us.

Is it Simple Complexity or Complex Simplicity?

What is it?  Are the meta-state structures that we create in our mind-body-emotion system, are they simple complexity or complex simplicity?

If you feel joyful and playful and full of fun and surprise and adventure aboutjoyful learning state—is it complex or simple?  If you learn to feel fear and dread and terrible apprehension about feeling open and vulnerable, is that fearful vulnerability state, is that simple or complex?

In structure, the state is very simple.  You have accessed one state (either joy or fear) and applied it to another state (learning or vulnerability).  Structurally, it’s very simple.  Even if you layer it with many other states, the structure is still basic and easy to comprehend.

For example, if you access safety, centered in your values, esteem and dignity for self as a human being, playfulness with words, realization that mental maps differ from the territory they map, recognition that others can get cranky and grumpy and apply them all to the primary state of “receiving critical information,” you could very likely create an un-insult-able state that keeps you open and curious when someone is criticizing fairly or unfairly.

Yet while the structure may be simple, but experience probably is not.  Suppose that you were being criticized while in that multi-layered state someone asked, “What do you feel?”  What would you say?  Perhaps you would feel “un-insult-able.”  Or you could feel simply curious, or compassionate, or fascinated, or conscious of your skill to not take offense, or “it’s just words,” or a dozen other feelings.

So it is the experience of our meta-states that tends to be complex, not its structure.  Structurally once you know how we build and construct these complex states, human experience and its infinite variety can seem actually pretty simple, even obvious.  This is one of the presuppositions of NLP and Neuro-Semantics.  There is structure to experience.  And that structure is made out of the basic stuff of thought, emotion, and body.

Similar to the great literature of history, it’s all made up of simple things—letters, commas, words, paragraphs, etc.  There nothing there but a basic alphabet and a few basic rules.  The magic is in the structure.

And Then There is the Matrix

When you bring one mental-emotional state to another and layer various thoughts, memories, imaginations, hopes, fears, dreams, etc. upon another, it creates a matrix of frames.  By reflecting over and over about something, anything, we create matrices of frames of meaning, frames of mind about all kinds of things.  I use framesto summarize all of the “levels”—our belief frames, our value frames, our understanding frames, decision frames, intention frames, memory frames, imagination frames, etc.

And taken altogether, these make up the complex Matrix of our mind-body-emotion system that we live in.  We were born in a Matrix—the matrix of all of the belief and value frames of our family and culture.  Eventually, we begin to wake up to that matrix to recognize it as our internal world, the universe of meaning that we have inherited and constructed with our child mind.  And it is in waking up to the matrixthat we begin to experience choice, the power to truly choose what to think, feel, believe, intend, imagine, etc.

Then we can rebuilt the Matrix so that it reflects better and more useful maps about the world.  Then we can reload new belief and value frames that help us to tap all of our potentials for living fully and actualizing our best talents and skills.  The magic of meta-states begins with the realization that we ourselves are the creators of our Matrix, that we have created it by applying various mental-and-emotional states or frames to ourselves.  It’s as simple as that.  It is as complex and profound as that.  Ultimately, it’s all about our frames—the meta-stating of various thoughts and emotions that set the frames we then live in.

The Magic of Meta-States

What is the magic within our meta-states?  It is the magic of creating our internal world, the world of meaning that informs our whole mind-body-emotion system.  What does any word, action, activity, person, or experience means?  It depends on what thoughts and emotions you apply to (or meta-state) it with.  It depends on how you frame it linguistically, emotionally, and metaphorically.  It’s our frames that create our neuro-semantic states.

The Meta-States model describe all of these processes to give us a simple way to describe the systemic complexity of our mind-body-emotions system.  This involves two loops, the feedback loop and the feed forward loop.  One constructions information as it maps out an understanding of the world, the other converts the information into energy.  The first is our information encoding of the triggers and stimuli that impacts us.  The second is our energy response to those triggers.  The first is the stimulus coming into our system; the second is our response to that stimulus.

First, the Meta-States model enable us to follow the feedback loop of informationfeed back to ourselves more information about that information.  This feedback process constructs our matrix of frames.  We feed back to ourselves, layer upon layer of ideas, beliefs, understandings, beliefs, etc.  Each layer textures the previous ones.  Each new progressive layer sets the frame for the previous layers.

After we do that, then we feed forward that information back down the levels of our mind and brain and neurology.  Doing this literally in-forms.  That is, it forms us on the inside and so creates various energy manifestations.  Some of these are just signals to the nervous system, others are commands.  This feed forward process shows up as emotions or somatic movements in our body, behaviors, skills, etc.  In other words, the feed forward loop of energy is what happens as we respond back to the world of stimuli.

Meta-Stating Our Matrix as a Unified Model of Human Functioning

When you first learn about your meta-states and the process of meta-stating, you are invited into a different kind of thinking.  What kind?  Non-linear thinking, systemic thinking, both-and thinking, and holistic thinking.

From there you are introduced to the Meaning Matrix and the seven levels of meaning-making that we create via the framing or meta-stating process.  This sorts out the levels of processing, encoding, and abstracting and the circular way we think, our use of reflexivity to create both the negative vicious spirals that send us into more and more distress and the positive upward virtuous spirals that send us upward into expansive self-actualizing states and peak experiences.

Recognizing how we create our Matrix of frames, we recognize the three process matrices of State, Meaning, and Intention.  These then create the five content matrices that make up the in-formation that we carry with us everywhere we go, the matrix of Self, Other, Power, Time, and World.


So what is it?  Complicated?  Complex?  Simple?   To all of these questions, the answer is Yes.

Author: L. Michael Hall, Ph.D. developed the Meta-States model in 1994 while researching the complex state of resilience, from there he developed Frame GamesMatrix Model, the key models that make up the field of Neuro-Semantics.

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