Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Stuck In a Cup
Waiting For Godot

In San Francisco, in 1983, two people sat at a small table in a walk-up flat on Post Street. The friends were having tea; he coffee, when suddenly the woman looked into her cup. Something was going on, and she began to talk as if a crowd had gathered there.  It was odd.  The man looked on with sympathy, when suddenly the tea leaves began dancing (or so she said).  And then they spoke to her.  They called out, and from across the table they found voice in a woman staring at a cup:  “Help us,” they were shouting, she said, “Help Us!”

Suspended high in the air above Union Square images of the holiday dance in the sky next to the likes of Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. Visitors marveled as they walk to the stores of downtown San Francisco. The holograms were festive; the streets filled with excitement.

It could be any year since holograms have filled the sky at Christmas, but during this year the crowds harbored missionaries armed with a new psychology called Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NPL, is a registered trademark today, but back in 1983, it was routinely taught in college, and perhaps is royalty free in college psychology classes still.

Just a few miles north in Sonoma County, for example, “Frogs into Princes: Neuro-Linguistic Programming” had been required reading in the counseling department of Sonoma State University.

“Frogs into Princes” is believed to have started the Neuro-Linguistic Programming revolution. Joseph Riggio, a customer of, reviewed his copy of the book and said that “Frogs into Princes” was a “10,” and a hoot to read. “Even though it's now over 20 years old,” he wrote, “this is the first (and best-IMHO) book introducing the still cutting edge technology of human communication and cognition—Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP™).”

The book, according to Riggio, is an example of “doing” NLP™ as opposed to “describing” it. “You'll want to read it with your eyes open,” he cautioned, ”—sometimes more easily said then done—since what the authors are doing is often presented in hypnotically engaging language. … The material is written in such a way as to resolve itself as you read. This is an example of ‘nested loops’ a teaching technique Bandler and Grinder use extensively” (Riggio, 2000).

In San Francisco the holographic images and crowds hid the dispossessed, the hungry and underemployed who became easy marks for those seeking converts. Even the street-smart residents walking to get the newspaper, or resting in the park, could be fooled.

But this is not a story against NLP™, or missionaries. Helping psychologies have nothing to do with converts. And those offering a hot meal can have a good heart. The difference is between a Church and a cult, as both heed the call to converts.

At a banquet in San Francisco, hungry visitors ate salads, vegetables, bread and meat. Most had been approached by members of the Unification Church. All who had listened were invited to a meal and a lecture.

Competition for converts at this lecture was keen, and some assigned to work in San Francisco for the church deceitful. In a citation on the website, Wikipedia, the church is explained in far greater detail than would have been possible at the lectures that day. In fact, talk of the Heavenly Father did nothing to reveal what members truly believed about God.

“Unification Church beliefs,” the citation reports, “are summarized in the textbook ‘Divine Principle’ and include belief in a universal God…and that a man born in Korea in the early 20th century received from Jesus the mission to be the second coming of Christ. Members of the Unification Church believe this Messiah to be Sun Myung Moon.”

Regular folks in San Francisco could meet members of the Unification Church anywhere in the community, especially during those years of heavy recruitment. And in 1983, at least one recruiter in the church knew about “hypnotically engaging language.”

The details of NLP™ cannot be explored in any depth here, but the idea on one level is simple: nested loops explore communication and cognition—it is a teaching tool to help others learn new behaviors.

After an invitation to a meal, hungry guests heard about a retreat. They were offered more food, along with the opportunity to learn about the church.

O'Connor and Seymour (1994) who wrote about NLP™, said that metaphors, cover stories, parables, similes and jokes “are more memorable than just information, for you can make a point much more deeply and effectively with a story than just relating facts” (O’Connor & Seymour, p. 75).

Although it can be argued that tea leaves dancing in a cup is problematic, many who went to the retreat, and heard the lectures that followed dinner, would have experienced what O’Connor and Seymour called “training by nesting metaphors one inside another.”

Thus, O' Connor and Seymour, advised “start with a story that you leave unfinished as you move into the course of the material. You can start another metaphor at any stage which you also leave unfinished…as it leads you to another part of the training material. You can do this a number of times: this sets up what are called ‘nested loops.’ Nested loops require unnesting in reverse order. So the structure is as follows:

“Start training

Story A . . . material A. . .
Story B . . . material B. . .
Story C . . . material C. . .
Story D . . . material D. . .

“Now come out by completing the loop by finishing story D. . .

(then) Finish story C. . .
Finish story B. . .
Finish story A. . .
End of training” (O’Connor & Seymour, p.75).

At the Unification Church in 1983, the lectures were looped in such a way that the stories were never finished. Many people who attended a meal never found answers to their first story, their first lecture or even during the entirety of a week-long retreat.

In fact, the Church’s loops went on and on, until perhaps someone joined, when the story would perhaps be finished.

How guests learned the Revered Sun Myung Moon was considered the Messiah is still unknown. A would-be disciple left in frustration. But no doubt somewhere in NLP™ training there is a cautionary tale against the rejection of  too many nested loops.  For even after a chilling cry for help from desperate tea leaves, one visitor could not overcome the frustration of nested loops.  Simply, the “aha” moment never came, and the tea leaves went to a dishwasher in a flat on Post Street. 


O'Connor, J., & Seymour, J. (1994). Training with nlp. Hammersmith, London. Thorsons.

Riggio, J. (2000, August 2). Customer review. An nlp trainer’s review of the book that began nlp. Retrieved July 27, 2010, from

Editor’s Note: This is an update; "Stuck In a Cup" published on Blogger, July 27, 2010, drew sharp comments.  These can be found at 2010/07/stuck-in-cup.html by scrolling to the bottom of the page.


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