THE MULTIPLE MEANINGS
OF THE WORD “META”
L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
During the past year I engaged in an extended discussion with Steve Andreas about the term meta. You can read that discussion on either the Neuro-Semantic website or Andreas’ website. It’s all there for your pursual. You will probably noticed that in the discussion, we both seemed to talk past each other and as a result we did not come to a meeting of minds. And while I pretty much anticipated that, I really do not understand why we could not get on the same page. Steve claims that I did not answer his questions. In my view, I fully answered his questions. I feel that he did not really seek to understand the multiple meanings that are entailed in the term meta.
In reflecting on this, I suspect that a possible reason is that some people simply do not see the wonder and the “magic” of meta is that they do not recognize that the term meta is both a multi-ordinal term and a systems term that requires the acceptance of numerous system principles.
To explain this, I will first describe multi-ordinality and then the “magic” of meta within a system and as a systems dynamic. That will then allow me to specify how linearly thinking is the problem in preventing a person from seeing the richness of the term meta.
Alfred Korzybski describe terms that have an overgeneralized meaning and whose meaning changes according to its level. He termed these infinite-valued terms multi-ordinal. This means that at all of its levels (“multi-”) the term is reflexive—it can be used on itself. You can fear fear. You can love love. Linguists say that such terms are polysemous, that is, “marked by multiplicity of meanings.” Korzybski writes (Science and Sanity, 1933/ 1994):
“‘Mankind, science, mathematics, man, education, ethics, politics, religion, sanity, insanity, iron, wood, apple, object, etc.’ We use them not as one-valued terms for constants of some sort, but as terms with inherently infinite-valued or variable referents.” (pp. 138–9, 433)
Korzybski argued that his Theory of Multi-Ordinality and Reflexivity solved the problems created when we confuse map and territory. They fail to distinguish the levels of abstraction (logical levels). For this reason I added multi-ordinality to the extended Meta- Model (Communication Magic, 2001).
“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness. … If we reflect upon our languages, we find that at best they must be considered only as maps. A word is not the object it represents; and languages exhibit also this peculiar self-reflexiveness, that we can analyse languages by linguistic means. This self-reflexiveness of languages introduces serious complexities, which can only be solved by the theory of multi-ordinality. The disregard of these complexities is tragically disastrous in daily life and science.” (p. 58, italics added)
The term meta has multiple meanings precisely because it is a multi-ordinal term. Can you go meta (step back to a higher perspective) to the process of meta (stepping back)? Yes, of course and you can do that level upon level. Yet if you are using linear thinking to understand this, you will not and cannot understand this. Korzybski stated that the “Theory of Multi-Ordinality” (i.e., General Semantics) addresses map/territory confusion. The linguistic distinction of multi-ordinality explains why any word used multi-ordinally means something different at every level. And that’s why we have to ask, “At what level are you using that term?”
Multi-ordinality means that the term takes on a different meaning at each ordinal level (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.). That’s why we have to ask, “At what level are you using the term?” So fear at the first level refers to something “out there” in the territory that is dangerous. But can you fear your state of fear? What is fear2 of fear1? We could say that the second-level of fear (fear2) is paranoia. Could you fear3 your fear-of-fear?1
The term meta at the first level simply means “above, beyond, or about.” Context then determines what is put at a higher level to the first level. You can have an emotion about an emotion; a thought about a thought. When you talk about the way you talk, your language is meta-language. When you use a metaphor to make a comparison, you are meta-stating with that metaphor. A metaphor is literally meta and phorein (to bring, to carry over). As you create a metaphor, you bring one image, thought, idea, reference, etc. to another so that it becomes the frame which formats a structure for the first. When you do this, you think about one thing in terms of another. Andreas uses the word “scope” for the primary level and “category” for the meta-level (Six Blind Elephants, I, p. 26)
The Strangeness of Systems “Magic”
When you put one state in a meta-relationship to another, you are likely to create which seems like magic. This “magic” is not literal, it rather describes an effect— how meta-relationship can strike us as magical because the result is often surprising, unexpected, and amazing. Here is the meta-stating process whereby one element interacts with another element and out of the mixture, something new and different and unexpected arises. Since a gestalt refers to something that is more than and different from the sum of the parts, multiple meta-stating gives rise to gestalt states.
What this means is that if you add up all of the parts, elements, or components together, you cannot explain the resulting experience. What we call “learning” becomes a very different experience when you bring joy to learning. “Joyful learning”— here the quality of the learning changed, but the experience itself hardly seems like learning at all. It seems like fun. People in the meta-state of joyful learning seem to be very happy and passionate. Looking at them and evaluating what they are experiencing, you could say all sort sof things such as—they are “in the zone,” they are in a state of pleasure, they are just enjoying themselves, etc. Yes, you could also put “joyful learning” as one member of the class of “learning” as Steve does. Yet that does not deny or prevent “learning” within the category of “joy.”
This is the way it is with systems. In systems, when various components interact with other components, new emergent properties arise that cannot be explained by adding the elements together. A new quality arises. Bring respect, calmness, and kindness to your primary state of anger— “I’m angry because you snub me and didn’t give me a referral” and you have a very different experience. Calm respectfully kind anger is hardly felt or experienced as “anger” at all by the one receiving it. The person giving it is firm but the calmness and kindness gives it an unique quality as the respect tempers the person’s words and confrontation so that it is quite acceptable. It doesn’t seem like anger, it seems that the person is simply being direct and open. Andreas’ mindset seems to make the “anger” category his primary referent than “going meta” to that category.
Consider the person who has forbidden himself from feeling anger because he considers that it means being “out-of-control.” Here we have multiple levels. (Believing anger means out-of-control) (I forbid myself) from (experiencing anger). So when anger is experienced, because it is forbidden, that taboo could create one of several different gestalts— inability to recognize anger, blindness to one’s anger, anger transmuting into stress (or frustration or fear or some other emotion). If you calibrate to that person’s state, would you even recognize that he is angry? Maybe not.
Consider the person who hates selling because to him it means “taking advantage of people for monetary gain.” What is the primary state? Presenting a product. Suppose it is the state of wanting to present or offer a product, a product he believes “is good value for money,” and “useful.” But the belief frame “selling takes advantage of people,” which the person hates, now holds him back. What is the feeling? The person feels stuck. The person feels conflicted inside. “I know it is a good product, but I don’t want to be aggressive or controlling.” The gestalt state here is being stuck. This emerges from the inter-relationship between the thinking-feeling components in the person’s mind. Yes, “hating selling” can be treated as a member of the class of anger (Andreas’ position). We can also see “selling” in the higher category of “hate” (my position). It is not an either/or choice. Both are legitimate.
In Neuro-Semantics, we talk about this layering of multiple elements (the meta-stating process) as texturing the state’s quality. How do you want your learning state textured? How do you want your loving state textured? If the quality of your life depends on the quality of your state, then the quality of your state depends on the quality of your meta-state. The state that you put at a meta level to your first state — qualifies it, textures it, and sets up the “magic” of the emergence of new properties. This is the point that Andreas has not (or will not) concede.
Consider the primary state of acting sequentially in a step-by-step way (the procedure meta-program). Let’s call that—being “disciplined” because the person is following a procedure. Now ask, “What do you think and/or feel about being disciplined?” (i.e., acting sequentially). Imagine that a person says, “I think that I’m losing my spontaneity and that I have no freedom.” That now becomes the higher category. What will be the effect of that belief (a category and meta level state) about the primary state? Probably stuck and unable to act. “I can’t do that.” If we again ask for an explanation, she might say, “without freedom I have less opportunities and won’t grow, I’ll be dying inside.”
This is another example of tabooing a primary state. The person stops herself from “acting sequentially, one step after another” because at the meta level category she attributes the meaning of having no spontaneity, choice, freedom, growth, etc. The meaning at these meta-levels over-loads the primary state (the scope) and shuts the person down.
“Magic,” in the sense of something being surprising, unexpected, and amazing, arises from the emergent properties (qualities) when we bring one or more thoughts or feelings to another. It is the interplay of these elements that systemically give rise to experiences that can’t be explain by mere addition.
When a gestalt occurs from combining multiple elements what happens is that we cannot anticipate the results. Add commitment to a goal, responsibility and passion to the primary state of fear and out of the mixture will sometimes come “courage.” Courage, as the gestalt of those components, is something “more than” and “different from” adding those elements together. A reductionistic analysis of “courage” will not find those pieces or how they intermingle. This is the “magic” (the wonder and surprise) of creating a gestalt of multiple meta-level components.
Consider making a mistake. At the primary level, this is something we all do on a daily basis. But “making a mistake” does not stand alone. You think and feel something about it. But what? What category do you put it in? Do you (fear) (making a mistake)? Do you (judge yourself as a person) for (making a mistake)? Those are different states/ categories. And they are radically from (learning) from (making a mistake). What if you bring (appreciation) (learning) (wondrous curiosity) and (playfulness) to (making a mistake)? What gestalt experience would that generate?
Part of the “magic” of meta-stating various resourceful elements to a primary state consists of the surprise and wonder of the emergent properties and their qualities. What if you were (fascinated) and (joyful) about (embarrassment)? You might experience something like the outrageous physical humor that Jim Carey is known for. What if you had (gracious) and (playful) (persistence)?
All of this suggests a process that we use with the Meta-States Model. We write various “states” on pieces of paper and then pick up 4 or 5 of them and try them on in our imagination. What would (outrageous) (optimism) and (passion) along with (joyful exaggeration) do for a trainer? Could that turn out a Anthony Robbins?
Take any primary state experience — whether you focus on behavior, emotion, or thought— and then playfully layer on top of it various resourceful states and consider what could arise as an emergent property.
- (Accepting) (loving) (gentle) compassion.
- (Relaxed) (dedicated) (persistent) engagement.
- (Thoughtful) (calmness) (proactive) decision-making.
When you “go meta” to the next higher level and layer on yet another state of thinking-feeling, you then put a twist on the primary experience because you are putting it into a higher category. It textures that experience. It adds another quality to it. The mixture of multiple resources sets up a systemic complexity that operates as a catalyst for a new and unpredictable emergent property.
When you “go meta” you are doing what Ken Wilbur described as “transcending and including.” It is not either you are transcending or you are including, you are doing both simultaneously. Yes you transcend from the primary level to a meta-level and you are including that primary experience inside of a new meta-level that becomes its frame. This generates all sorts of new possibilities.
The Problem is Linear Thinking
If meta is a multi-ordinal and systems term, then what stops full appreciation of it is linear thinking. And surprisingly this is a very common problem for many in the field of NLP. This, in spite of the fact that there were many system influences in the founding of NLP (Satir Family Systems, Perls Gestalt, Korzybski’s General Semantics as a non-Aristotelian system, Bateson’s cybernetic systems, etc.).
When you have have a complex adaptive system that involves large number of parts (elements, components) and which interact with each other, then you have a kaleidoscopic array of simultaneous non-linear interactions. Given this, the sum is not a simple sum of the behavior of the parts. And why? Because as the elements interact and as the aggregate behavior of the whole occurs, all of these are fed back to the individual components. What in linear thinking is viewed as the effect then becomes the next level cause. And around and around it goes.
The key then lies in the interfaces that occur when one meta-level or phenomenon interacts with another. The following comes from Meta-States (2012) and is included in the training manual.
1) Reduce painful primary states: Calm about anger.
2) Intensify or magnify primary states: Worry about worry, anxious about anxiety.
3) Exaggerate and distort states: turn psychological energies against oneself: fear of anger: anger at one’s fear.
4) Negate or neutralize a state: In doubt about doubt, I feel more sure.
5) Interrupt states: Humorous about serious, intentionally panicking.
6) Confuse States: Ridiculous about serious.
7) Contradict levels to create paradox: hence “paradoxical intention,” the “be spontaneous now” paradox. Try really hard to relax, “never say never”
8) Dissociate from strong feelings: observing a remembered trauma.
9) Seed a new process to create response potential: courage to have courage, playful uncertainty.
10) Grab Attention: appreciative about anger, lovingly gentle about anger.
11) Entrance or hypnotize: Rebel against thinking about just how comfortable you can feel if you don’t close your eyes before you’re ready to relax deeper than you ever have before, now. I wonder if you’re going to fail to succeed at not going into trance at exactly your own speed or whether you won’t.
12) Generate gestalt states: Suppress excitement—>anxiety.
13) Jar consciousness for humor: An accomplished liar, flexible compulsiveness.
14) Qualify, temper, texture an experiences: Joyful learning, ruthless compassion.
15) Solidify a atate: Believe or value in X, take pride in X.
16) Loosen states: Doubt X, question X, be playful about X.
The meta process is a very dynamic one. Further, if used in an open system, then it never reaches an end-point, it never achieves its goals and “arrives,” it keep evolving, growing, and developing— becomes increasingly complex. This is why many do not see the dynamic nature of meta and why it takes on new properties and meanings at different levels.
- At the primary level, meta just means “above, beyond, or about.”
- Meta then establishes a relationships that is hierarchical as it establishes levels.
- As meta is used in relationship to something else, it takes on the meaning of “including and transcending
- ” which speaks of a system of inter-related components.
- As a system and systemic in nature, meta enables various emergent properties to emerge that cannot be explained by adding them together. It is non-linear, non-additive.
Do I use the term meta in several different ways as Steve Andreas suggests? Yes I do! That’s because the term is multi-ordinal and systemic. That’s also why and how the Meta-States Model can help us model complex, long-term system experiences.
Interesting enough, Steve Andreas, quoting his wife Connirae’s work in Core Transformation, actually describes how the meta-stating process works. He uses the word “category” where I use “meta-state.” After starting with a primary level limitation, you ask—
“‘Having this outcome (X), what do you want, through having X, that’s even more important?’ This question is asked repeatedly, each time substituting the previous outcome, creating a series of outcomes in a hierarchy of importance. Each successive outcome is a more general category of experience, with increasingly larger scope and importance.” (2006, Vol. I, p. 89)
Then he says, “the description usually falls into one of several categories: ‘being,’ ‘inner peace,’ ‘love,’ ‘Okness,’ or ‘oneness.’” These vague terms are meta-states and/or meta-level understandings or beliefs.
Polysemy refers to a word which has many different meanings. Mentioned in Six Blind Elephants, I, p. 59.