The fact was that I had no idea what the NLP Practitioner Course was going to give me. It’s true that I did a bit of research online before I booked, and saw the slick presentation reels Paul McKenna’s company had posted on Youtube. And in the build-up to the course, I did watch more of Paul McKenna’s tv shows. But the main thing I saw him doing was helping people to overcome stresses. I thought that was pretty cool, but I didn’t see any real benefit to me for all that. I mean, was I really the kind of guy who went around helping people to overcome things?
To be honest, it’s not what I saw in myself, when I looked.
Something else gave me mixed feelings. When I looked at the showreel for the course I was about to go on and saw people handling great big tarantulas that they had once been afraid of, I just didn’t believe that that could be me. I still had in mind the startling NLP stuff that Derren Brown had done with Simon Pegg on his Mind Control show. Getting Pegg to think that he had always wanted a red BMX for his birthday, when the week before he had actually written down that he wanted a leather jacket. Now THAT was what I wanted: to be a better persuader. So, the way I saw it, I was going there to learn some skills. Not change out of all recognition.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I suppose what I didn’t get at the time was that where I was starting from wasn’t really the person I was really about. My starting point was the starting point of someone who had been knocked about by life and who felt disillusioned and unhappy. A person who didn’t really feel a sense of responsibility to others because I had been struggling to make a living for myself in my business for the last 15 years, and I believed the world was all dog eat dog. I was a person who didn’t believe that it was worth following my dreams any more, because my dreams had been torn down and trodden on. None of this was consciously stated. I wasn’t going around doing self pity to strangers like some people do. I was just a pretty cynical guy, I guess.
But not entirely cynical, otherwise I woudn’t have gone on the course. The day came for the training, and still there was this other seed of optimism in me that I guess Paul’s Change Your Life book had planted. And so I turned up on the first day of the course, and went into the lobby at the Ibis Hotel, Earl’s Court, and saw all these smart and smiley NLP Assistants, and the people milling around waiting in the foyer for the doors to open.
I did a quick mingle to see what was going on with people there. There was a guy in business whose boss was a “black belt in NLP” as he called it. This I found reassuring. It was why I was there. But there were others who were looking for something more ethereal, I noticed. People who were there because they seemed to have washed up there, with no sense of direction. As if somehow the tide had drifted them into the Ibis, and they were blinking around themselves looking lost and uncertain.
Others wanted to be life coaches – a phrase which I had poured scorn on when I had first heard it a few months before: redolent as it was with what I considered to be an overly American and pointless occupation. I imagined someone standing at the sidelines at an American Football match, shouting instructions to me as I stood in full football armour with visored helmet, and had conversations with my parents or spoke to business acquaintances in this crazy getup. It was a phrase that didn’t make sense to me at all.
We registered and I went into the seminar room. There was a stage in front of me, with about 400 seats stretching back from it. Was this going to be a show? A really smart-looking guy with an expensive jacket and black polo neck jumper was sitting in the chair next to the one I chose on the front row. He was in his late forties, early fifties, trim and lean. I sat down and got talking with him.
“What did you come for?” I asked, trying to get my range on these people around me.
He looked at me in a friendly way and said: “Well, I don’t know if I’ll be here all week. I came here to get this book signed by Paul.” He held up a copy of I Can Make You Rich.” I just wanted the chance to meet him.”
I thought for a moment. Something wasn’t computing with me. This course cost well over two grand. And this guy had come here to get his book signed?
I think he caught the look on my face. “You see, the thing is, I did everything in this book, from beginning to end. I started two years ago. I am actually a fireman. And now I am a millionaire, as well.”
“But – er – how?” I asked, impressed and taken aback.
“By doing everything it says in the book over and over again. By being unrelenting in doing the NLP exercises, and making sure that you get everything in place. By changing the way you think about money.”
He explained to me that he had devised a computer programme that worked out the odds on bets, and that it somehow meant that you couldn’t lose. My cynical streak kicked in. I didn’t believe a word of it. But, he went on to add, now that he had made himself a cool million, he was looking for other people to turn into millionaires, too, as part of a programming to make more people wealthy. “It works on anything where there’s probability involved. It can be the horses or it can be the stock market. It doesn’t matter which. It always works.”
I still didn’t believe him. But he was doing something right. His Aston Martin he told me about so dreamily and his smart clothes told me that. This was a completely different reality to the one I had got used to. Was it possible? Really?
A woman sat on my lefthand side. She was pale and slim, with grey skin and a distracted look. She had pale strawberry blonde hair and a face that was drawn and tight. She kept biting her nails and looking around her, the concern on her face continuing all the time.
“God, I hope this was worth it,” she said. “God, I really hope this is worth it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She looked at me, hard. “It’s a lot of money… What if it doesn’t work?”
I didn’t know what to say to that. It was a thought that had crossed my mind, too.
“Oh, it’ll be fine,” I muttered reassuringly. And before we could talk any further, music started filling the hall. It was the slightly spooky music that used to accompany the tv show The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna – a little bit ethereal, raising the adrenalin in the blood and filling the world with a sense of possibilities. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” – a line from Hamlet seeming to sum up what that music was telling us. A voice announced:
“Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for Mr Paul McKenna!”
The audience burst into applause, and suddenly Paul was there, walking down the central aisle, with his arms outstretched, as if gathering up the good will from the audience. He went on stage and gave an introductory talk about what we were there to do. He explained that NLP was an amazing mind tool that could help people get more of what they wanted. He told us that we were going to go on an amazing journey over the course of the next seven days, and that there would be hypnosis involved. The audience giggled nervously, and he lampooned our fears before adding:
“Remember, you’re going to be in a room with three hypnotists for seven days… you bet you there are going to be changes in you.”
He then went on to explain that the way he taught NLP was to make sure that we can actually do it. The course wasn’t going to be a major theoretical study. “There are plenty of people out there who talk about NLP, but can’t do it,” he said. “We are interested in teaching you to drive the car, not learn how to take it apart into tiny little bits. That is not a skill that we teach. We want you to be able to actually do it, so that when you leave here at the end of the course you are a competent NLP Practitioner. We don’t need you to be able to sit with a client and tell him or her all the things you could do to help them. We want you to be able to make changes, in yourselves and others. That’s what makes our courses so special.”
His preamble went on a little longer, and then he said: “And now, I’d like you to meet someone who was my teacher, who has had a profound effect on my life, and is a great friend. He will be with you for the rest of the morning, and I will be back later. Ladies and gentlemen please put your hands together for Dr Richard Bandler. He raised his hand to welcome the newcomer.
As he did so, the opening notes to Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze piped through the sound system, and an older guy walked down the central aisle.
“Richard who?” I thought to myself.
I had never heard of this guy. Paul seemed to think that he was important though, and I noticed that there were people in the room who were giving him a standing ovation.
The guy got up on stage and I took my first impression of him. It was not good. Balding, with a ponytail. Yeuk! A series of remembrances of people who had never been able to acknowledge that they were losing their hair came to mind. And then there was the leather waistcoat and black jeans. “Hoo boy,” I thought to myself as the audience seated themselves. I noticed I had crossed my arms defensively.
Richard didn’t mess around with any preamble. He looked out into the audience and said:
“Is there anyone here who has a bad memory they really want to get rid of?”
The grey-skinned nervous woman next to me shot her hand up immediately. An Asian woman on the other side of the room did the same. Richard selected them both and said: “Would you come up here, and take a seat please?”
He sat with them and did a little check. Was this memory something that was causing them difficulties in their lives? Was it safe to get rid of the memory? He asked a few questions, and then asked the Asian woman how she experienced the memory. He did a short series of mental exercises on her, then looked at her intently for a few seconds. Her head dropped on her chest as if she had fallen asleep.
Where I sat on the front row, I took a breath. This was startling. No preamble, nothing. Just a hypnotic trance from nowhere.
He turned to the grey-skinned girl and asked her similar questions. When she experienced the memory, did she make a picture? Could she think about it, now?
He got up to address the audience, and then suddenly noticed that tears were starting in her eyes. “It’s okay,” he said acting very quickly, “think about something else now.” He strode over to her at high speed and suddenly, her head fell forward as she dropped into a trance.
The following 20 minutes were eye-opening. He worked quickly and effectively with both women, turning from one to the other, and then back again. He got them doing mental exercises while they were in this apparent dream-state, and put on the most ridiculous voices. There were moments when both were chuckling in their trance.
And then, suddenly, he was done. I watched the grey-skinned woman get up from the chair. She walked across the stage and down the steps with confidence and a swagger in her step, as if she had just woken from a long, restful sleep. I noticed that all the tension had gone from her face and that her skin was no longer the awful grey it had been before. As she came and sat next to me, giving me a huge beaming smile, I noted something else. Her eyes had changed colour. They were now a vibrant, sparkling blue, instead of the dull grey they had been before she sat down.
“Oh boy,” I thought. “Oh boy. This is something I’ve got to learn to do.”
The change had already started.