Sunday, November 1, 2009

O-priming your life

In the field of General Semantics, there is a linguistic technique called ‘E-prime’ that involves using English in a way that excludes the use of the verb ‘to be’ and its various forms.

The idea underlying this suggests that the ‘is’ of identity and the ‘is’ of attribution can lead to unsane thinking and consequent behaviour. For example, if you say “I am stupid” you are linking the process of stupidity to your identity, rather than expressing the behaviour as one of many skills or traits that you do. This can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies that maintain an unconscious competency of doing stupidity at all levels of your life.

Since language influences perception, the use of E-prime encourages the careful choice of verbs and meanings. E-prime can also lead to a less dogmatic style of expression and reduce the possibility of misunderstanding and conflict. I'll talk more about E-prime in a future blog entry. Today, I want to introduce you to a concept and skill called O-priming that I've been exploring.

Grasping, Desire and Ownership

The ancient philosophy of Buddhism maintains that the nature of the universe is impermanence and that consequently much suffering stems from attachment and grasping. The need for ownership and attachment can lead to unhappiness.

As the Buddha propounded in the discourse on the Four Noble Truths:
due to contact there is feeling;
due to feeling there is attachment;
due to attachment there is grasping;
due to grasping there is suffering;
suffering has ignorance-obscuration as its root cause;

There is a way out of suffering, which is to eliminate attachment and desire.

The Materialist Imperative

"We've been raised to compete, to want more! More! More! It's a way of life. It's about greed.”
Sandy Duncan

We have a long evolutionary history of hunter-gathering and an instinctual predisposition towards ownership. We love owning and gathering things. It’s the materialist imperative. We desire things: houses, cars, boats, clothes, toys and all the entrapments and enchantments of bling.

It’s also the ownership trap! Because everything you own, owns a small piece of you, and the more you own, the more it owns you. Remember this!

The psychology of ownership is fascinating and understanding it is crucial to overcoming patterns of attachment, desire and greed.

The psychology of ownership

Ownership changes perceptions. Research by Social Psychologists has shown that once a person owns an item they place higher perceived value on it than on an identical item they do not own.

Stop and think about this. The mere fact of owning something increases how much you value it!

Ownership is also linked to Loss Aversion. The research shows that people prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Indeed, some studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful psychologically, as gains.

So once you own something, it really does start to own you emotionally and psychologically. You become attached to it and form a relationship with it. It takes up your time, thought, energy and life.

Marketers are well aware of these traits and use them to manipulate you. Partial ownership confers similar effects on perceptions, so they encourage free 30 day trials and money back guarantees, knowing that the majority of people will grow attached to the item and not return it. Similarly, in on-line auctions, people start feeling they own the item even before the auction has completed and so drive the price higher than they would pay if they’d bought it from a shop.

Sure, owning stuff is useful. Where would we be if we owned nothing? Probably still swinging in the jungle and living from hand to mouth.

The problem occurs when we own too many things; when we get stuck in the greed of the ownership trap – of wanting more and more and more. And this problem is even more insidious when we 'own' ideas, when we grow attached to concepts, beliefs and ideologies.

Greed is a verb

Let’s get one thing sorted right away. Greed and attachment are verbs. They're processes. We often talk about greed as if it’s a noun, an object, a thing. However, people don’t ‘have’ greed. They ‘do’ greed – more accurately, they do greeding. Same with attaching. It’s an active process, a skill, an unconscious competency.

The behaviours of greeding and attaching occur naturally, use primitive biological survival circuits of the brain and body and are in large part instinctually driven. That’s why they're so insidious. Research shows that greeding is linked to hunger and sexuality, so it can be very powerful.

But the main point is that it’s a process that can be controlled and moderated. It's a skill that has counter skills that can be used to constrain and control these unconscious behaviours. Learning to notice and control the thoughts and languaging that supports greeding and attaching is one of these key skills.


So to summarise: Everything you ‘own’ owns a piece of you, and that ownership, attaching and grasping can cost you dearly. Nothing lasts forever and everything is always in a state of flux and change. So grasping, attaching and ownership are insidious enemies to life enhancing happiness and can lead to much suffering.

Based on these deep insights from the ancient wisdom of buddhism and modern psychology, and following on from the neuro-semantic concept of E-prime, I have created the technique of ‘O-priming’.

O-priming involves the use of English in a way that excludes the use of the verbs, adjectives and predicates of ownership and attachment – especially in the case of ownership of intangible experiences. O-priming is effectively the use of english without the use of the verb ‘to have’ and other linguistic presuppositions of ownership.

O-prime is a semantic tool that helps you notice and filter for processes of attaching and ownership that can impoverish your model of the world, your experience, thinking and ultimately your behaviours. O-priming also encourages denominalising - shifting nominalised nouns (disguised verbs) back into their active verb form.

For example, if you say “I have an understanding of General Semantics” then you are indicating ownership. You are saying you ‘have’ understanding.

This suggests a grasping and need for understanding and nominalises the process of understanding into an object that you own. However, understanding is a process that can change with time, experience and knowledge.

If you feel you ‘have’ an understanding of General Semantics and then someone shows you your current understanding is not complete, how do you feel? There’s every possibility you may feel threatened since ‘your’ ownership and ‘your’ understanding is about to be ‘lost’.

Contrast this with the O-prime version that replaces ownership with process – that shifts “I have understanding” to “I do understanding”.

With O-prime, you could more accurately say “I feel I do understanding of General Semantics very well”. Or perhaps you may express it as “General Semantics is something I understand well” [though this would not be e-primed :-)].

These O-primed ways of thinking and communicating remove the semantic presuppositions of ownership and grasping.

Practical O'Priming

Removing all forms of ownership expression from your language is not really practical and not what is suggested. The key message of this deeper understanding is to note that the language of ownership can at times be pernicious and lead to unsane thinking and behaviour.

Instead, use O-prime appropriately to allow yourself to gain more choice and control over how you are modelling your world. Where useful, track for and replace the language of ownership in how you communicate and express your experiences so that the language you use supports your outcomes. This is much more life enhancing.

Stop grasping after permanence and allow yourself to flexibly flow with the ongoing processes of change. Every opportunity you can, refuse to be sucked into the ownership trap. Notice and adjust your languaging to support a more sane and life enhancing way of thinking and living.

Some Examples of Ownership Predicates

Presuppositions of ownership are indicated by words such as:

- All forms of the verb 'to have' e.g. Have, had, will have
- Get, got, own, buy, rent, contract, pay etc.
- My, mine, yours, theirs etc.
- Grasp, grab, catch, hold, take, possess, keep etc.
- Create, establish, build, make etc.

Do wording powerfully and in a way that supports enhancing your life and the lives of those you care about!

Life enhancing best wishing,

And here's some Life Enhancing reading for you:


  1. Hey great blog Grant! I'm trying to introduce those ideas into the way I do my life. For example, commenting on my sons behavior recently I focused on his inappropriate behaviour adding that the comment applied to his behaviour and not him personally. This allows him to change his behaviour far easier, I believe. Which he did! :)

  2. Once again you take what could be cumbersome semantics and idle intellectualism and build a practical bridge to reality. What makes so many systems of positive thinking ulitmately fail is that they become dogmatic instead of emphasizing that they are just tools. You never lose that perspective. Love the connections you make to life enhancement, Grant.

  3. Thanks Grant for your great new entries.

    I have in particular passed your entry onto my business partner. I went to a play on Friday night to watch his daughter perform in a production called 'CASH'. Your entry re materialist Imperative was topical, timely and thought provoking.

    Thanks again and best wishes

  4. Dear Grant,

    I really like "O-Prime", and more generally your deconstructing of the notion of ownership.

    Eckhart Tolle has a great line in 'A New Earth' about how if you stand on the corner of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, point up at a skyscraper and say "that's mine", the distinction between whether you're very wealthy or crazy is based on whether other people agree with you - and either way you're still just standing on a street corner looking up at a skyscraper.

    thanks again,

  5. Hi Oliver, thanks for your great comment. I really appreciate it. And thanks for the positive feedback on o-prime. I like Eckhart's ideas and it's so true, ownership is such a socially constructed fiction, as in reality none of us 'own' anything, we just borrow it and use it for our short time we have on this planet :D

    As Eckhart Tolle says "you are telling a story in which the thought form “I” and the thought form “building” merge into one. That’s how the mental concept of ownership works. If everybody agrees with your story, there will be signed pieces of paper to certify their agreement with it. You are wealthy. If nobody agrees with the story, they will send you to a psychiatrist."

    And for anyone interested, Oliver Burkeman has a fantastic article on 'E-Prime' at the Guardian, entitled 'This column will change your life: To be or not to be…' that is really worth checking out:

    cheers, Grant


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