©2011 by Dr. Brian Cullen & Sarah Mulvey
In a previous article, I showed how J. K. Rowling’s amazing magical instrument, The Sorting Hat, can be seen as a metaphor for the choices that we make in our lives. I chose this metaphor to show how NLP itself is fundamentally about increasing the choices in our lives. When we increase our choices, we can follow our own roads rather than those assigned not only by others but also by our own past experiences. In this article, I continue to explore the rich world of Harry Potter, again viewing the magical instruments of Rowling’s imaginary world as rich metaphors for understanding and applying the techniques and concepts of NLP.
A key element in the third volume of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Rowlings, 1999) is the Time-Turner, a tiny sparkling hour-glass that allows the user to go back in time. Although its use is strictly regulated by the Ministry of Magic, the highly studious Hermione is allowed to borrow the Time-Turner from Professor McGonagall so that she can attend more than one class in any specific time period at the school. However, when Harry and his friends later use the Time-Turner, it is for the much more important purpose of saving the lives of Sirius Black and others. The Time-Turner allows them to go back to view themselves carrying out the unresolved experiences of an earlier time in their lives. They can then take the appropriate actions necessary to resolve those experiences in a more beneficial way that will as the changes spread out through their future.
Although the use of the Time-Turner for such purposes is illegal in the magical world of Harry Potter, in NLP terms the magical Time-Turner can be seen as equivalent to Time Line work, and it is not only legal but also very powerful. Dilts and Delozier (2000) discuss the historical development of the notion of Time Lines in the writings of Aristotle, William James, Sigmund Freud, and later in the work of Richard Bandler, John Grinder, and Tad James. Dilts and Delozier summarize the idea as:
The ‘present’ is one’s current physical position, with the ‘future’ represented as a line extending off in front of oneself and the past trailing behind – such that one is walking into the future and leaving the past behind. One could, however, reverse one’s direction and walk back into the past.
In other words, the human mind encodes time in very specific ways by visualizing time as a line in the external world. Walking along this Time Line allows us to revisit earlier experiences that are encoded in our unconscious memories. If you walk back along your Time Line, you can see a younger version of yourself and see what resources that younger you needed at that time. Then you can potentially send a message to your younger self in some way, and as those changes percolate along your Time Line and through your unconscious, you may find that you can make a change in the present. In NLP terms, the magical Time-Turner allows Harry and his friends to walk or even make great leaps back along their Time Line to revisit the experiences that must be resolved in the past in order to create a better present.
A second key element in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the introduction of the Dementors, certainly the most horrific creatures in the Harry Potter series. Their reputation for destruction precedes them so much that the powerful Headmaster of Hogwarts, Dumbledore, says that “no Dementor will cross the threshold of this castle while I am Headmaster” (p. 180). Professor Lupin describes the horror of the Dementors in detail to Harry:
Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them…. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory, will be sucked out of you …. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.
The witches and wizards in Harry Potter’s world can see the Dementors as physical beings. In our own non-magical Muggle world, we cannot see the Dementors, but even Muggles like us can feel their presence when they pass by, causing us to experience a draining of hope and happiness from the air. When we get trapped into certain ways of thinking and acting because of traumatic past experiences, Rowlings suggests that a Dementor may be nearby. In NLP terms, the Dementors bring back memories of bad experiences from the past and force us to keep reliving them. We tend to associate directly back into those memories again and again, and relive all the pain as if that earlier experience were happening in the present.
The first time that Harry encounters the Dementors, he hears the echo of the voices of his dying parents in his head. The effect on him is so strong that he collapses. In another instance, while playing the sport Quiddich, he falls off his broomstick fifty feet to the ground, and ends up in the school hospital. Harry asks Lupin why he is more affected by the Dementors than other people, assuming that he must be weak in some way.
‘It has nothing to do with weakness,’ said Professor Lupin sharply…. ‘the Dementors affect you worse than the others because there are horrors in your past that the others don’t have.’ (p. 203)
It is our own past experiences, and especially how we view them, that can cause us to be susceptible to the horror of our own Dementors. At the prison, Azkaban, which is guarded by Dementors:
… they don’t need walls and water to keep the prisoners in, not when they’re all trapped inside their own heads, incapable of a single cheerful thought. Most of them go mad within weeks. (p. 204)
In the same way, people who have suffered traumatizing experiences can continue to suffer from them years later as they associate into those moments of trauma again and again. As they relive these traumas, they feel unable to get over the incident and onto happier thoughts. A trauma is similar to an Azkaban inside our own head, a prison in which we are trapped and cannot see that the key and a pathway forward are already there in front of us. The way forward and onto that path lies in the ability to get beyond the original traumatic experience by learning to view it in a new way. The NLP trauma cure works by helping the person to see the painful experience as ‘dissociated’ – in other words, as if looking at yourself in the past through a different set of eyes, as an observer to rather than a participant in the traumatic experience. In Rowlings’ terms, the Dementors are driven away and the bad experiences can be viewed in a dissociated way, as something that happened to someone else a long time ago.
Professor Lupin explains to Harry that the only way to fight a Dementor is to conjure up a Patronus:
… a kind of Anti-Dementor – a guardian which acts as a shield between you and the Dementor. The Patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon – hope, happiness, the desire to survive – but it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the Dementors can’t hurt it.” (p. 257)
However, the spell for conjuring a Patronus is very difficult even for a highly trained wizard and the teachers doubt that Harry can master it. A Patronus is conjured “with an incantation, which will work only if you are concentrating, with all your might, on a single, very happy memory.” In NLP, we might call this happy memory a powerful resource anchor.
Harry first sees the appearance of a mighty Patronus when he is in the direst danger from the Dementors beside the lake:
a pair of stong, clammy hands suddenly wrapped themselves around Harry’s neck …. He could feel its putrid breath …. and then, through the fog that was drowning him, he thought he saw a silver light, growing brighter and brighter … he felt himself fall forwards onto the grass … saw an animal amidst the light, galloping away across the lake .. it was as bright as a unicorn …Harry watched it canter to a halt as it reached the opposite shore …. somebody welcoming it back … raising his hand to pat it … someone who looked strangely familiar … but it couldn’t be … (p. 413 – 415)
Harry escaped thanks to the help of the mysterious ‘somebody’ who he initially believed to be his dead father. This escape is one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Harry Potter series because the Dementor was about to use its worst weapon on him:
The only time a Dementor lowers its hood is to use its last and worst weapon …. They call it the Dementor’s Kiss … it’s what Dementors do to those they wish to destroy utterly …. They clamp their jaws upon the mouth of the victim and – and suck out the soul …. You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you’ll have no sense of self any more, no memory … no anything. There’s no chance at all of recovery. You’ll just – exist. As an empty shell. And your soul is gone for ever … Lost. (p. 268)
It is only later when Harry uses the Time-Turner to go back in time that the author, Rowlings, reveals the true significance of the event. Harry is back watching the same event, seeing the Dementors move towards his younger self, and waiting passively for his father to appear at any moment to conjure the Patronus:
It was time for the rescuer to appear – but no one was coming to help this time – And then it hit him – he understood. He hadn’t seen his father – he had seen himself –
Harry flung himself out from behind the bush and pulled out his wand.
‘EXPECTO PATRONUM’ he yelled.
In the first occurrence of the scene, Harry had seen what he thought was his father driving away the Dementors. It is only when he watched it as an outside observer and realized that it was he himself who had performed the action that he was actually able carry it out. Later, when Harry tries to explain this rationale, he says: “I knew I could do it this time,” said Harry, “because I’d already done it … Does that make sense?” (p. 443). Harry has posed a good question here–does it make sense that visualizing an action allows you to carry it out more successfully in the real world when you actually do it?
NLP would definitely say that the answer is “yes.” Harry’s actions can be considered as an example of the New Behavior Generator in NLP. This involves visualizing a desired behavior, kinesthetically associating into the image, and then verbalizing anything else that needs to be present.
In Harry’s case, he saw a dissociated image of himself across the lake in the first episode, an image which was actually his father. However, seeing this dissociated image was not sufficient for him to carry out the same behavior. In other words, just watching someone or imagining ourselves doing something is not sufficient to achieve the desired result. It is when Harry kinesthetically stepped into the visualization and took action that he was able to do the astonishing feat of driving away the Dementors.
When Harry tells Hermione what happened, she is completely shocked:
Harry, I can’t believe it – you conjured up a Patronus that drove away all those Dementors! That’s very, very advanced magic …
Indeed, it is very, very advanced magic. NLP gives us the structure of this magic and allows us to break it down into sensory distinctions and actions that a person can learn and teach to other people. Just like Harry Potter uses the Time-Turner in the world of magic, so we too can use an NLP Time Line to revisit previous experiences and learn to see them in more useful ways. In a recent book (Bandler, 2008), one of the co-founders of NLP says:
Of course, we can’t change what happened to us. But we can change the way we respond to it–either consciously or unconsciously. (p. 192).
And creating a more useful response to previous experiences is just one of the areas where NLP can really help. While Harry Potter may live in a very different world where magic is real, NLP offers us real-world tools that are almost as magical. The Time-Turner for Potter is NLP’s Time Line. Both act as tools allowing us to walk back to our past experiences, and to learn the strategies and acquire the resources that we needed at an earlier time in our life. Using the Time Line helps us to overcome the past traumas and the darkness of the Dementors, and walk forward into a brighter future.
Bandler, R. (2008). Make Your Life Great. London: HarperCollins
Dilts, R. B., & Delozier, J. A. (2000). Encyclopedia of Systemic Neuro-Linguistic Programming and NLP New Coding. N L P University Press.
Rowling, J. K. (1999). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury.