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What if Richard Bandler Had Modeled NLP From Maslow?

Why is humour so important?

Written by Michael Hall

“Every age but ours has had its model, its hero. All these have been given us by our culture; the hero, the gentleman, the knight, the mystic. About all we have left is the well-adjusted man without problems, a very pale and doubtful substitute.

Perhaps we shall soon be able to use as our guide and model the fully growing and self-fulfilling human being, the one in whom all his potentialities are coming to full development, the one whose inner nature expresses itself freely, rather than being warped, repressed, or denied.” Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 4.

Now if Bandler had modeled Maslow rather than Perls, then yes indeed, how different indeed NLP would be! Well, after all, history is the story of accidents, coincides, and unplanned events—probably to a greater extent than planned strategic occurrences.

That’s especially true of the beginning of NLP. It all began in 1972 when young college student Richard Bandler accidently found himself in a situation where he got the opportunity to listen to audio tapes of Fritz Perls. That happened because of another accident, some years earlier, when he got acquainted with Dr. Robert Spitzer and his family when he had a speech impediment. And that led to another fortunate opportunity; he got a part-time job in the warehouse of publisher Science and Behavior Books.

Then, it just so happened that Dr. Spitzer, the publisher for both Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir, receive a lot of audio tapes of Perls’ speeches after Fritz died on March 14, 1970. So he decided that he could now finish the last book which Fritz had been working on.

That’s when Dr. Spitzer got Bandler, who was 21 at the time, to listen to those tapes and transcribe them. That’s how it came about that Bandler “modeled” Fritz Perls— he heard the voice, tone, and language patterns of Perls with his gruff and frog-like voice doing the Gestalt conversations like having someone hallucinate his mother in a chair and yelling at her. Bandler thought it was funny. So he began playing around, mimicking the psycho-drama of Perls. Then, from that, somehow Frank Pucelik got him to “do” Gestalt as a class at Kresge College, and out of that NLP eventually arose.

But Perls was not exactly the best person to model. By his admission in his biography, In and Out of the Garbage Can, he was a “dirty old man” and proud of it. He was rough and crude, cursed a lot and smoked even more, had numerous mistresses, and loved getting into the hot sulphur pools at Esalen with the young girls. In spite of his character flaws and lack of applying the Human Potential principles to himself, or maybe because of them, Perls was the person Bandler modeled. Then, with Perls as his model, Perls set the tone for how Bandler played out his life for during the next few decades as he, consciously or unconsciously, incarnated Perls.

“He [Perls] liked to refer to himself as a dirty old man, and often introduced himself as such…” (The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Wakening, Anderson, 1983, p. 131)

Perls’ style, using Gestalt, was full of theatrical and dramatic techniques. It was a good show! He believed that life is a stage and so using the “hot seat” he led experiences of psycho-drama:

“… the more crying and volume, the better. Fritz would encourage the individual to project the various personalities of his or her psyche into the room and deal with them verbally and emotionally in an attempt to reintegrate the fractured self and so create a new gestalt or whole.” (Kripal, 163)

And that’s what happened in 1972 when Bandler and Pucelik began their Gestalt Awareness class in Santa Cruz, as Terry McClendon noted in his book The Wild Days of NLP.

But what if … what if Dr. Spitzer had been the publisher for Maslow and what if he had received a box full of tapes of speeches and presentations of Maslow? And what if Bandler had modeled Maslow instead? Now imagine that! What if…? 

When I run that thought experiment in my mind, my first thought is that NLP would be completely different today. As a strange coincide, both Fritz and Abraham Maslow died the same year, Perls in March and Maslow in June of 1970. So it could have happened. There are, after all, numerous tapes and videos of Maslow that have never been transcribed and published.

Now as a historical reference, Perls and Maslow didn’t get along very well. Perls was quite envious of Maslow, and as Jeffrey Kripal wrote in his biography of Esalen, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (2007), Perls was there and wanted to “capture the flag” of the Human Potential Movement. He wanted to create it after his preferences, namely Gestalt. In fact, because he could not do that, he left Esalen in 1969 and went to Canada to establish a Gestalt Kabutz there. But he was old and sick and died soon after.

Perls was a star at Esalen. He was a celebrity, and Murphy even had a house built for him there. “Despite his favored position, Fritz remained insecure, jealous, and combative.” (The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Wakening, Anderson, p. 133).

“Fritz was Murphy’s greatest problem. He was hard to handle, and he would not get in step with the human potential movement, even though everyone recognized that gestalt therapy was a principle ingredient of it.” (The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Wakening, Anderson, p. 133)

Walter Truett Anderson in his biography of Esalen, The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Wakening, describes how Perls conflicted with everyone there. He had conflicts with Michael Murphy and Dick Price. He conflicted with Will Schultz. He even conflicted with Maslow.

“Nobody has ever described Fritz as ‘nice.’ … He would insult you by describing you, to your face and in front of a roomful of people, with any of the inelegant terms he had available to describe ways of being phony: bitch, shithead, weeper, mindfucker, crazy-maker. If you bored him, he might fall asleep in his chair.” (The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Wakening, Anderson, 1983, p. 131)

Maslow visited Esalen twice every year. In 1966 Maslow went there to launch the first set of leaders to be trained at Esalen. On that visit, Maslow describes the concept of “being language” as part of the higher being-values within the self-actualization needs. He appeared in the Maslow Room (which is still there) and of course, he was always received as the primary founder of the Movement. On that occasion, Perls was there, scoffing at the “fluff” and the “bullshit” of what Maslow was presenting. Everyone else was captivated, and people were asking questions:

“‘This is just like school,’ Fritz called out. ‘Here is the teacher, and there is the pupil, giving the right answer.’ Maslow pretended to ignore this. Getting into arguments was not his thing, he preferred to have friendly high-level discussions about humanistic psychology.” (The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Wakening, Anderson, p. 135).

While Maslow was speaking on being language Perls, who was nearly 70 years old, decided on a new way to insult Maslow.

“Fritz was sliding down from his chair onto the floor. In a few second everyone else had noticed, the whole group watched in horrified silence as Fritz slithered across the floor toward the philosopher, reached one supplicating arm toward him, and said. ‘Come down here with the rest of us; get down with the common people.’ Maslow told Fritz he was childish, so Fritz proceeded to be childish in gestalt therapy style: do it all the way… He crawled around on the floor and made whining sounds and hugged Maslow’s knees… ‘This begins to look like sickness,’ Maslow said.” (The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Wakening, Anderson, p. 136)

Perls had been looking to push Maslow’s buttons, and that finally did it. Maslow was furious and threatened to leave. This was what Perls loved—psychodrama, shouting, yelling, and stirring people up.

What would have been different about NLP?

Enough of that for now. Let’s get back to the thought experiment. What would have been different about NLP?

Lots of things! NLP would have started from the source person of the Human Potential Movement instead of from the two people who were second-generation leaders–Perls and Satir. Then instead of the “dirty old man”, NLP would have modeled Maslow who was himself very much a self-actualizing person— caring and compassionate, intelligent and passionate, collaborative and visionary, etc.

“Maslow was as good a model of self-actualization… he had reached the top ranks of his discipline, but was still an unpretentious, available person… The only thing anybody had against him was that sometimes he seemed too nice, too warm and generous, suspiciously lacking in rough edges. Gregory Bateson, who didn’t much care for Maslow, would sniff and say, ‘He was always so good.” (The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Wakening, Anderson, p. 67)

Bandler, Grinder, and Pucelik never model the persons of Perls, Satir, or even Erickson. What they modeled, or at least what came down as “NLP”, was what they did with their language. And that’s why NLP is essentially a Communication Model. Wyatt Woodsmall noted this many years ago: the founders of NLP did not model the persons, just their products.

In 1937 Maslow modeled Max Wertheimer who founded Gestalt Psychology and Ruth Benedict who founded Cultural Anthropology as the first two self-actualizing individuals. He then spent 40 years modeling hundreds more. He focused on human excellence, peak experiences, meaningfulness, being-cognition, being-values, character, etc. He also wrote a book The Psychology of Science, about how to do science. That was one of the seminal books which began the movement to qualitative research. He presented ideas about research questions, recommendations for how to do so, etc. NLP would have started with respect for research and using newer methodologies from the sciences – rather than iconoclastically challenging and mocking statistical models.

Yes, NLP would today be a very different discipline and field if Bandler had modeled Maslow rather than Perls. But, of course, he did not. He did not go to the source of the Human Potential Movement, and somehow all of the original co-developers did not know it. Or, if they did, they didn’t give credit to Maslow and Rogers and the movement seeking to make explicit the process of self-actualization. And that’s why, standing on the shoulders of so many insightful geniuses, we in Neuro-Semantics are correcting those historical errors in service of explicating Self-Actualization Psychology.


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