California Dreamin'; Bateson, Communication in Living Systems, and NLP

'We already knew that most of the premises of individual psychology were useless...’ Gregory Bateson in his foreword to The Structure of Magic Vol I.

One of my favourite chapters in Bateson’s most well known collection of essays, Steps To An Ecology of Mind is the father-daughter discussion on play in animals. What is play? How do you know when its happening? How is it different from aggression or bullying when so many of the non-verbal behaviours seem identical?

I once stopped the traffic and got out of my car to make this enquiry of some nearby boys. They appeared to me to be fighting amongst themselves and then piling themselves onto one particular boy who was lying still on the pavement.

I walked through the melee and asked this boy the Batesonian question “Is this play?’

He gave me the most beautiful grin from his completely prone position. “Yes.” He said. So I went back to my car and we all got on with our day.

Communication in living systems can often be ambiguous and hard to read. Bateson was fascinated by how we send and receive messages and meta-messages, and how we make sense of what’s happening, and how we can respond to stay sane and creative.

There’s a lot to say about Bateson’s work and his influence on NLP. After all he was actually in residence as a kind of living sage on the campus at Santa Cruz in the late 70’s when NLP was being trialed and tested. He was known to many of the original developers and co-developers and he even wrote one of the forewords to the first NLP book.

He researched and questioned so many key issues about how humans think and learn, about how cultures form and change, how art and spiritual rituals might work, how thought and meaning is created between people, how pathologies of relationship can get created and then healed.

Turtles All The Way Down by John Grinder and Judith DeLozier, written in the 80’s, is like a sort of love song to Bateson. It’s full of dances and dreams and dares. It calls for NLP to be less individual, less technocratic and instrumental. It suggests that NLP practice can be relational, systemic, beautiful and wise.

In my session at the conference I want to make some of his ideas on communication and learning more practical and accessible. Bateson has so much still to offer us in terms of how to think about health, society, relationships, sustainability and ecology.

And at the everyday level, his ideas offer us a challenge and a powerful framework to understand our own behaviors and those of other people in our day-to-day real life situations.

So what’s going on when we play? What’s necessary for learning? How do humans and other animals communicate?

Do we occasionally have to stop the traffic and find stuff out?

By Judith Lowe