The Article of the Month

by Robert Dilts.

Modeling the Wisdom of Jesus

The words, ideas and actions of Jesus of Nazareth have been a major influence on Western civilization for almost two thousand years now. Through the ages, Jesus has been viewed as many different things by many different people a teacher, a miracle worker, a charismatic healer, a magician, a political and religious leader, the son of God, a metaphor, etc. Having been raised Catholic (and attended Catholic schools through secondary school) I was continually exposed to the gospels and the stories of Jesus' deeds. I have often contemplated the relevance of the stories of Jesus' works for NLP and vice versa.

It is well known that the field of NLP was established as a result of modeling effective 'healers'. NLP began when Richard Bandler and John Grinder modeled patterns of language and behavior from the works of Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton H. Erickson, M.D. The first 'techniques' of NLP were derived from key verbal and non-verbal patterns Grinder and Bandler observed in the behavior of these exceptional therapists. Bandler and Grinder's first book was titled The Structure of Magic. The implication of this title was that what seemed magical and unexplainable often had a deeper structure that, when illuminated, could be understood, communicated and put into practice by people other than the few exceptional 'wizards' who had initially performed the 'magic'.

A number of years ago it occurred to me that perhaps a similar kind of modeling could be done with respect to the records of Jesus' teachings and works of healing. My first study, Cognitive Patterns of Jesus of Nazareth, explored the structure of the cognitive strategies employed by Jesus in his various works and teachings and how we might apply Jesus' strategic thinking abilities to our own lives. A forthcoming work, Epistemology of Jesus of Nazareth, will explore the beliefs, values and assumptions that lie behind the words and works of Jesus as viewed from the perspective of NLP and systems theory. For the past several years I have been examining the reports of Jesus' acts of healing through the filters of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, culminating in my seminars and video tapes on The Healing Patterns of Jesus.

Since a great deal of my own work in the field of NLP has related to its numerous applications in the area of health and healing, I have long been intrigued by the accounts of Jesus' works of healing. In many ways Jesus' healing works seem as remarkable to us today as they did during his own time. Jesus' exceptional abilities to heal are mentioned in the gospels more than 35 times - many of the references describing how he healed "multitudes" of people "that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatik, and those that had the palsy," (Matthew 424), including the "lame, blind, dumb and maimed" (Matthew 1530). Thus, it is somewhat surprising to find that very few efforts had been made to examine Jesus' works of healing from the point of view of what they might contribute to practically promote the process of healing. As Ian Wilson points out in his book Jesus The Evidence (1985)

"If there is one feature of his activities that repeatedly shines out from the gospels, it is [Jesus'] capacity to work what men have called 'miracles'...in the sheer magnitude of his reported successes Jesus was without equal...Yet paradoxically, it has been one of the least explored." (pp. 99-100)

I believe that the tools and distinctions of NLP can help to cast new light on this fascinating area.

There's an interesting Far Side cartoon depicting a professor, who looks somewhat like Albert Einstein, madly writing a very complex series of mathematical equations on a blackboard. At a certain point in the midst of all of this very scientific looking scribbling, he stops and writes, "And then a miracle happens." And then madly goes on again with his equations. One of his colleagues is standing nearby pointing at the comment about the miracle and asking, "Could you be a bit more specific about that part there?" In a way, that is a metaphor for my study of Jesus' healing patterns. A lot has been written and said about the 'equations' surrounding the miracles. Is it possible to be a little bit more specific about the part where the miracle happens? I think that, in considering Jesus' works of healing, there will always be a point where we must simply say, "And then a miracle happens." The question is, "Is it possible, by modeling the descriptions of Jesus' healing works, to discover verbal and behavioral patterns which create a context in which it is more likely that a 'miracle' will happen?"

The Power of Belief

In the New Testament two words are used in reference to healing 1) iaomai - which means to heal in the sense of 'curing' or 'repairing', and 2) therapeuo which means 'to attend to someone'. When Jesus referred to healing, he used the word 'therapeuo'. The implication being that he viewed healing as supporting and encouraging the natural self healing ability of the system as opposed to exerting power over it himself to 'repair' it. Jesus was able to tap into and encourage the healing process in a way that was both effective and systematic. One of the ways he did this was through the person's belief system.

Certainly, a clear pattern that emerges in the accounts of Jesus' healing works is that a great deal of his words and actions were directed toward influencing people's beliefs and belief systems. As the following statements indicate, Jesus placed a great deal of emphasis on the power of belief.

These quotations certainly imply that belief is one of the key factors in helping a miracle to happen. As Goethe maintained, "The miracle is faith's most cherished child." Even modern medical science acknowledges the healing influence of beliefs in the form of the 'placebo effect'. My own work in the applications of NLP in psychotherapy and healing have certainly highlighted for me personally the significance of people's beliefs upon their mental and physical health. [See Changing Belief Systems with NLP (Dilts, 1990) and Beliefs Pathways to Health and Well Being (Dilts, Hallbom & Smith, 1990).] I have seen some fairly 'miraculous' things happen when people have changed limiting beliefs regarding themselves and their health; including recovery from cancer and other tumors, arthritis, allergies, lupus, eyesight problems, mental illnesses of many types and even symptoms of AIDS.

The three most common areas of limiting beliefs center around issues of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness. These three areas of belief can exert a great deal of influence with respect to a person's mental and physical health.

Hopelessness occurs when someone does not believe a particular desired goal is even possible. It is characterized by a sense that, "No matter what I do it won't make a difference. What I want is not possible to get. It's out of my control. I'm a victim."

Helplessness occurs when, even though he or she believes that the outcome exists and is possible to achieve, a person does not believe that he or she is capable of attaining it. It produces a sense that, "It's possible for others to achieve this goal but not for me. I'm not good enough or capable enough to accomplish it."

Worthlessness occurs when, even though a person may believe that the desired goal is possible and that he or she even has the capability to accomplish it, that individual believes that he or she doesn't deserve to get what he/she wants. It is often characterized by a sense that, "I am a fake. I don't belong. I don't deserve to be happy or healthy. There is something basically and fundamentally wrong with me as a person and I deserve the pain and suffering that I am experiencing."

At the core of Jesus' works of healing was his ability to elegantly and effectively help people to shift these types of limiting beliefs to beliefs involving hope for the future, a sense of capability and responsibility, and a sense of self-worth and belonging. Jesus' uncanny ability to be able to gain access to and transform core beliefs and identity issues in his patients and followers can no doubt at least partially account for the dramatic changes he was able to effect.

By all accounts, Jesus had the unique ability to easily and consistently help people to change limiting beliefs and establish new empowering beliefs. The core question in modeling is, "How did he do it?" One clue is provided by the type of strategies he promoted in his teachings and parables.

The Sower and the Seed A Fundamental Paradigm for Change

Jesus' parable of the sower and the seed provides one of the clearest and deepest insights into his approach to working with people's beliefs and belief systems.

And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in his doctrine, Hearken; Behold. There went out a sower to sow, and it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the wayside, and the fowls of the air came and devoured them up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth, and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth, but when the sun was up, it was scorched, and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it and it yielded no fruit. And others fell on good ground and it did yield fruit that sprang up and increased and brought forth, some thirty, some sixty, and some one hundred. And he said unto them, Ye that have ears, let them hear. Mark 42-9

I believe that the parable of the sower and the seed embodies Jesus' fundamental paradigm for change regardless of whether that change related to healing, teaching or leadership. As Jesus later explained to his disciples, the 'seed' is like a new idea or belief. For the belief to grow and produce fruit, it must first be placed in the appropriate context. If there aren't some kind of internal reference experiences for the new belief to 'take root' in, it will disappear in the face of any criticism. The 'bird' plucks it right out of the heart. If there's no experiential 'soil' for it to grow in, all somebody has to do is to look at you cross-eyed, and you think, "Oh, well, I guess I'm being stupid and foolish, etc." So if the new belief "falls by the wayside," if it's just shallow and you're running around speaking it but not feeling it, hearing it, seeing it or tasting it, then it's easy for it to be "trodden down" or "devoured". When a new belief "falls on stony ground" it is blocked, as Jesus explained, by the "hard places in the heart." These 'stones' may relate to past experiences, things that you're not ready to let go of. In my work with beliefs and health, for instance, people often need to work through 'imprints' experiences in their past that might create a "hard place." The roots of the new belief can't grow because the person can't get past this particular feeling or this particular event in their life. When this occurs, even though the belief begins to strengthen, it "withers" in the face of resistance. When 'the sun is up' it becomes "scorched" and, since it has no root, it "withers away, because it lacks moisture." Thus, it is important to find ways of either removing the rocks or crumbling them up into more fertile soil. For example, finding the 'positive intention' behind a symptom and finding new choices to meet that intention is a way of releasing some of those hard places.

A belief that 'falls among the thorns' is one that is confronted by conflicting beliefs, incongruency or 'thought viruses'. These resistances may come from either external or internal sources from within the person or from the person's environment. Conflicting or limiting beliefs are kind of like the thorns that overshadow or 'choke' the new belief, even if there is rich soil in which it could grow. It is not that the 'thorns' have to be poisoned or destroyed, but they do need to be resolved or sorted out. You need to create an ecological context; otherwise the new belief gets choked.

The power of this metaphor is that 'healing' is likened to 'gardening'. You can't make a tree grow. Rather, you can prepare the soil. The gardener doesn't go, "I'm going to make this tree grow, no matter what!" But what the gardener can do is to remove the rocks, make sure the soil is fertile and see that thorns aren't surrounding the seedling. That is the essence of Jesus' view of change. In order for a new belief to strengthen and for new capabilities and behaviors to develop it is necessary to:

  1. Deepen the experiences which will serve as the references for the new belief or behavior.
  2. Address the internal resistances and interferences to the new belief or behavior.
  3. Deal with any incongruence or conflicts within the person or his/her environment.

The next step in the modeling process is to explore more specifically how Jesus accomplished these goals in his healing works.

Healing Through Word and Touch

Is it possible to actually model specific processes through which Jesus was able to transform the obstacles to empowering beliefs and precipitate healing miracles? According to the Gospels, Jesus' primary approach to healing involved the systematic use of language and the 'laying on of hands'.

"...they brought unto him many that were possessed with devils and he cast out the spirits with his word..." Matthew 814

"...all they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them unto him; and he laid his hands on every one of them, and healed them." Luke 440

These descriptions would seem to imply that Jesus tended to use words to address problems related to the mind, and his hands to treat physical illness. NLP too has many therapeutic techniques that are centered on the use of words and touch. It is intriguing to consider what similarities and differences there are between Jesus' healing work and the NLP approach.

Like many, I grew up with only a vague picture of what Jesus did specifically as a healer. I had an image of him walking up to the blind, the crippled or the mentally ill and 'zapping' them with supernatural power, barking commands and haranguing them about sin or Satan like some prototypic 'televangelist'. As I read the various accounts of his healing work, however, I found something quite different. He treated different individuals in different ways. He is described as interacting personally with each individual he was healing, often in a gentle, supportive and even loving manner; addressing his patients as "son" or "daughter" never as "sinner".

He also treated different kinds of illnesses with different approaches. In all of the descriptions of his work with lepers, for instance, Jesus tells them directly that they are healed and sends them to complete a task at the temple (see Matthew 82-4 and Luke 713-19). The blind, however, are sent on no such task. Instead, Jesus emphasizes the importance of their own beliefs in their healing, asking "Do you believe I can do this?" and proclaiming, "According to your faith be it unto you" (Matthew 927-31). It is only with the lame that Jesus even mentions "sin," telling one man that his "sins are forgiven" (Matthew 92) and encouraging another to "sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee" (John 514).

These types of variations indicate a high degree of sophistication and flexibility based on the type of issue one is working with. Consider, for example, the following description of Jesus' healing of a blind man.

"And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up and he was restored, and saw every man clearly. And he sent him away to his house, saying, Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town." Mark 822-26

There are a number interesting elements to this report. The first is that Jesus did not immediately heal the man but made two attempts in order to successfully complete the process, using the feedback he got from his first attempt. He did not perceive the initial lack of success as a failure on his part, the part of his subject or on the part of God. It is also interesting that that Jesus made the man "look up". This is considered an 'accessing cue' for the visual representational system in NLP. Considering that the man had problems with his vision and that, at the point Jesus had him look up, he had partial access to his vision, this may be an indication that Jesus knew about (at least intuitively) and used accessing cues.

The fact that he led the man out of the town and told him not to go into the town nor tell anyone in the town about the experience, would indicate that Jesus was not doing this work as any particular 'sign' to the people there. Rather Jesus' focus is on the health of that individual. Clearly, Jesus makes no mention of sins or unclean spirits as he does in some of his works. The fact is, Jesus was described as doing some very specific things with his subject that were different from the way he treated others, and took two iterations to complete it.

Another of Jesus' healing works that particularly fascinated me was the account of his treatment of Simon's mother-in-law's fever. Luke (439) reports that, "he stood over her, and rebuked the fever; and it left her" Matthew (815), however, mentions that "he touched her hand" and Mark (131) says that Jesus "took her by the hand, and lifted her up." These description are interesting in that, taken together, they indicate that even though Jesus was "rebuking" the fever verbally, he was supporting the woman kinesthetically. In other words, his auditory communication and his kinesthetic communication were directed towards two different levels, and performing two different functions. His words were directed toward the symptom and his touch was directed toward the person.

From the NLP perspective, we can think about the interaction in terms of a verbal 'message' and a non-verbal 'metamessage'. The message involves the "rebuking of the fever". It is directed at the behavioral expression of the symptom. The touch of the hand is a nonverbal metamessage that communicates, "I'm supporting you." Jesus took her hand and lifted her up while rebuking the fever. Thus, there's no confusion that he is "rebuking" the patient for having a fever. I think there's something very profound and powerful about that simple combination of word and touch.

It is also interesting that the word "rebuke," in English was translated from the Greek word, epitimao which doesn't simply mean to be verbally abusive. It means 'to set a weight upon'. The implication is that Jesus was not necessarily speaking angrily, but rather 'putting pressure' on the symptom. So we are given this beautiful sense of putting pressure on the fever verbally and lifting up the person physically. He is removing the 'stones' and 'thorns' while at the same time he is supporting the 'soil' by lifting and supporting the person. I think that reflects a deep aspect of healing. This type of verbal and non-verbal combination has been the inspiration for a number of the techniques in the 'Healing Patterns' seminar.

These are only two of the many fascinating examples of Jesus' healing works. Unfortunately, to go into depth with any others is beyond the scope of this article.

The Mission to Heal

More than anything else, what shines through the reports of Jesus' works of healing was that there was a 'mission to heal' behind his actions. I think that in many ways having the mission to heal is even more important than having the tools to heal. I think 'healing', as opposed to 'curing' or 'fixing' or 'mending' something that's broken, comes out of that sense of mission.

One of the things that shows up quite clearly in the gospels is that Jesus didn't try keep the mission or ability to "heal" to himself. Matthew (101) reports, "And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease." In fact, one of the first tasks he assigned to his disciples was to go out and "Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils freely ye have received, freely give." (Matthew 108) 'Freely have you received, freely give'. This is not a message that healing is something to be held on to and practiced only by an elite few. Rather it implies that healing is a mission to be shared.

According to Mark (314-15) "And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, And to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils." Luke (101) adds that, later on in his ministry, Jesus "appointed another seventy also, and sent them two and two before his face to every city and place", telling them to, "heal the sick that are therein..."

We are also told that Jesus did not discourage the practice of healing in his name being done by people that were not even his followers (Mark 938-40, Luke 949-50). When Jesus is told that somebody who was not one of his disciples was out healing in his name, and asked if he was going to chastise this person Jesus replies, "he that is not against us is with us." (Luke 950). It is as if he was saying that anybody who shares the mission to heal shares something that is really important and deep.

My interpretation of Jesus' comments and actions is that the ability to heal was not just something that Jesus intended to keep for himself, but rather was something that he intended others to learn and to do. Not only did Jesus want and encourage others to heal, he seems to have been fairly successful at transferring the ability. Mark (613) mentions that Jesus' disciples, "cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them."

It is in the spirit of the mission to heal that I have approached the study of the structure of Jesus' healing works and invite others to approach it. Regardless of one's religious background or beliefs, I believe it is possible to find a connection between these patterns and the mission to heal. Whether a person is 'Mother Teresa' or a shaman, people who have a mission to heal, or to be healed, share a similar path and have something to gain from such a study.


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