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Meta-States, Metaphor, and the Layers of the Onion

Courtesy of Rich Liotta, Ph.D. from the Institute of Neuro-Semantics U.S.A.

By: Rich Liotta ©2011

Neuro-Semantics is a relatively new psychological system1 for helping people reach their potential; their highest and best selves. We have a way of understanding our mind-body-emotion system that is holistic, practical, and effective. While neuro-semantics builds on established psychological models, we map the territory of personal growth, healing, and actualizing excellence in a manner different than most are accustomed to. Because of this neuro-semantics has some new concepts and language that may not be immediately meaningful to everyone.

The field of neuro-semantics has the challenge that often happens when new ideas and new technologies are developed; often the traditional way we use words to describe things just does not communicate the heart and nuance of the advancement readily. Metaphors are often needed to help. This is especially true when trying to explain models, theories, and concepts that are outside how someone currently maps their world. We learn new ideas though what we can imagine and what we experience. Metaphor helps us imagine concepts for which we do not yet have an experiential reference.

The subject of this article is one of the central concepts in neuro-semantics, “Meta-states.” Meta-states are easy to understand once you have experienced them. But the challenge is helping people understand their value and power (in facilitating growth, self-improvement, personal effectiveness, and self-actualization) before they have had the opportunity to experience them personally!

Meta-states are our levels of meaning: our thoughts about our thoughts, our feelings about our feelings, our conclusions about what our thoughts and feeling mean, etc. Meta-states are the frames we already have and the frames we can create. The meanings we create about ourselves and our possibilities and potentials effect how we think, feel, and behave; and indeed impact everything in your life! Our frames can limit us or they can unleash us towards transformation. We all have frames or levels of meta-states (they include our attitudes, beliefs, values, and expectations). They are not neutral, they either serve you or they do not! Do your frames (meta-states) serve you well?

Meta-states are really the apps of the brain!2 When you activate and utilize your inherent capacities to make and rearrange meanings you can run you’re your brain, direct your mind-body system, and direct your life! Meta-stating processes are used to explore, transform, organize, and create our meta-states.

So the questions are: What metaphors can help you imagine meta-states? What metaphors can help you imagine the transformation that can occur when you intentionally use your ability to rearrange and amplify your meanings?

In Dr. Hall’s writings he uses a variety of metaphors to help clarify various aspects of neuro-semantics and meta-states. What follows is offered in that spirit.

The next section of this article was originally a standalone article.3 What I had in mind when I wrote it was applying the mind-as-onion metaphor to describe meta-states, meta-stating processes, how the mind is structured and organized, and how we can transform ourselves. I invite you to read it with a frame of playful curiosity!

Secrets of personal transformation: What’s missing from the mind-as-onion metaphor?

The onion metaphor has often been used to describe the process of delving into a person’s psyche. Layers are removed to reveal what is beneath, toward the core. The metaphor reflects the many layers that we have inside us. Most who use this metaphor suggest that peeling away the layers of the onion is the complete story. The assumption seems to be that the awareness that happens as the layers of the onion are peeled away changes people. Is it the tears? Is it some magical healing factor that happens by exposing what was hidden to the light of day? Is it revealing the possibilities waiting for expression in the undamaged inner core? Certainly knowing what is within is useful, but usually insight alone is not enough to make real change and to sustain it.

Something critical is missing from the mind-as-onion metaphor. What supposedly happens when these layers are removed? Some unknown aspect of ourselves is revealed; okay then what?

It seems to me that the onion needs to be reconstructed and put back together, layer by layer, to be whole again. Putting the pieces together again, that is what’s missing!

If we want to make it into something else entirely, such as salad, slices and layers scattered randomly around may be fine. But to be whole, the layers need to be re-placed or re-formed to complete what has essentially become a three dimensional puzzle. Have you ever tried to put a real onion back together? Not likely, but if so, how did that go for you? There is something about taking it apart that changes it. Perhaps that is the sometimes curative element of peeling away the layers of the onion; yet pieces themselves are not a whole.

Let us consider what these layers are for the human mind-body system. These layers are meanings. They are meanings we make from our experiences, our thoughts, and our feelings. These layers are the emotions, possibilities, limitations, beliefs, and intentions that we developed and solidified inside ourselves through our experience. These layers are fundamentally meanings, often multifaceted meanings, which direct how we live our life and how we feel about our life. Just examining these does not necessarily enrich them, or us, in ways that are helpful or in ways that serve us. It is what we do with that information next that matters.

In order to reconstruct the onion, to make it whole, changing the meanings of each layer and how they are stacked together is needed. Sometimes through our life experience the onion grew with the layers it needed to survive to deal with a lack of sunshine or too much rain. The way the layers formed may have served us then, but not now. Now the layers seem misplaced, out of place, malformed or just unhelpful! To make matters worse, sometimes the wrong layer is on top of another layer. The order of these layers matters, as it affects how we feel, how we function, what we think, and what we believe.

In an onion the layers have a static relationship to each other, a specific layer belongs on top of or beneath another and that’s just the way it is. Fortunately our layers have more options! Our structure is not static. It is a malleable, and perhaps even magical, multidimensional puzzle of onion pieces that can be put together in a variety of ways. People have a natural tendency to feel that things are the way they are, often not realizing the strength and power they have to reconstruct the onion and become someone better and different, an enriched version of their former self. We are capable of true transformation!

Changing the meaning is changing the layers; first by examining them, noticing them, acknowledging them, and then by questioning whether those meanings serve us. Changing the meaning is reconstructing each layer. Reconstructing is also deciding which layers go where. It is choosing which layers to honor and which ones are best discarded. Redesigning and improving ourselves is changing the nature of the layers and transforming them into something different, transforming the meanings. Then we can put the layers back together and reconstruct, revise and remap the layers.

Through reflection you can see the layers of your deeper self and appreciate the possibilities of your higher self. Know that you are capable of choosing how to layer and organize all the pieces to create a whole that manifests your highest goals and best dreams!

Who knows what will be the result. Perhaps what you will have at the end is not an onion at all, but something else, something more wonderful, a self transformed!

Concluding Comments:

If I have accomplished my purpose here, you can answer “yes” to these two questions:

– Can I more clearly imagine meta-states, our layers of meaning, and how they can keep someone stuck or set them free?

– Can I imagine the transformation that can occur when someone intentionally uses their inherent capability to reorganize and empower their meanings to serve their goals and aspirations?

If you answered “yes” you have taken the first step to appreciating how Neuro-Semantics helps people live more effectively, reach their potential, and actualize their highest and best goals.

The next step is experiencing meta-stating processes yourself. As a mind-body strategy, full understanding comes with the personal experience. These experiences include (to name just two) the experience of amplifying and applying meanings and the experience of bringing your meanings into your body. Only by doing this can the full benefit of this approach be yours!

For more information on Neuro-Semantics training and Meta-Coaching, refer to the resources and contacts provided on this site.


1. Neuro-Semantics began in 1996, as the brain-child of L. Michael Hall and Bobby Bodenhamer… to read more go to this article: Introducing Neuro-Semantics.

2. Meta-states as “apps of your brain” or “your brain’s apps” will be the subject of a forthcoming article on this site.

3. Article was originally published here: EnrichmentACT-2010.