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The Sumble and You

     by Don Webb (*)

     It is a truth universally acknowledged that we are programmed by our language. A ton of opportunistic therapies take advantage of this maxim. Lots of New Age occultniks sell seminars based on this simple principle.

     But very very few people do what I'm about to do. I don't think people should sell water by the river, and if they are I don't buy it. Here's how to do it. If you want to program your own wetware, find a study of the concepts that underlie the language, and then use the concepts. Step one means real research at seriously heavy libraries, step two means try and try again until you get a formula that works and then use it. I've found (with the help of a few philologists, cultural historians, and health professionals) a formula that works. Or like anything in life -- it works for the dedicated self programmer. It is never enough to just know the secret, you must practice it as well. Since I believe in human lib just as much I believe in computer lib, I'll give it to you free. I've passed it on to a software engineering group, and they're going great guns.

     The technique is called the sumble. It is derived from a Viking custom of boasts and toasts made the night before an expedition was launched. I'll skip the mythic/philosophical underpinnings right now (although as an amateur cultural historian, I not only can but sometimes do go on about them for hours). Suffice it to say that you don't have to wear a hat with horns while you do it, nor worship Odin, nor get into a longboat when you're done. It has nothing to do with racial ties, but with the language you speak.

     The practice reflects the nature of time in Germanic languages -- English, German, Norse, Dutch, etc. In these languages there are only true morphological verb forms for the present and the past. There are no verb forms for the future. "Future" events can only be described with "helper" verbs. The time notion of the Germanic languages (including the one we think with or try to think with everyday) isn't divided by past-present-future, but by Urdhr (everything that has happened), Verdhandi (everything that is in process now) and Skuld (that which should happen). In short the Germanic languages focus on the past as a guide for the future, and the magical and religious practices of these peoples make use of the past rather than being doomed to repeat (i.e., What should happen rather than what must happen). If you want a quick handle on the nature of language as programmer, the works of Benjamin Whorf are good -- if you want a book on time structure in the Germanic languages -- try The Well and the Tree by Paul C. Bauschatz, Amherst University of Massachusetts Press, 1982. This unusual and useful time structure is at the base of the sumble. I'll describe a sumble and then I'll discuss its effects on the individuals who participate. A sumble consists of four rounds of toasts. Someone has brought apple juice, a pitcher and cups. The sumble leader pours the apple juice into the cups at the beginning of each round of toasts. There is no passing, everyone must toast each round.

     The first round is to Principles, those things that each individual thinks are important. For example the leader might say, "I raise my glass to the principle of Communication, because through Communication our mental processes exceed the sum of their parts." Then she drinks her cup. The next person might say, "I raise my glass to the principle of Loyalty, because only through loyalty are we able to go that last mile." Then he empties his cup.

     And so on.

     The second round is to heroes, real men and women living or dead that particularly inspire us in our work.

     The leader might say, "I raise this glass to Issac Asimov, because he showed that with clear and simple prose you could open the doors of others' minds." She drains her cup. The next person might say, "I raise my cup to Matthew Hanson, Admiral Perry's aide who carried him to the North Pole when the Admiral was sick, so that Perry might 'discover' it." And so on.

     The third round is the round of boasts. Here each participant tells something that he or she has accomplished and is proud of. For example the leader might say, "I raise this glass to myself, I went to Dallas and presented a good paper on the de Bono method at the Association for Software Engineering Excellence."

     The fourth round is the round of oaths. Here each participant tells of something they are about to do. The leader might say, "With this cup I pledge to get release three out the door a week ahead of schedule with no defects." Note that the oath is something that the individual must have control over -- you can't set goals for somebody else here. There is a meta-rule for the oaths. If it is possible for you to aid another in fulfilling his oath without harm to yourself or your goals, you are honor bound to do so.

     Each of these rounds of toasts has at least two distinct benefits each. In the first round, the participant has to figure out what principles are important to him or her. This isn't something we do in this country. We like to act as though money is the be-all and end-all of our existence. It is almost a taboo to say that we like any part of our jobs or think that they are important.

     Secondly, it lets you find out what other people think is important. I know of people that have sat at sumble -- who even though they had worked on projects together for years -- found the first session very revealing and transforming. The second round produces effects similar to the first.

     It makes the participants see something heroic and meaningful in their own work, and it allows them to share that inspiration with their fellows. We know that our current difficulties can be solved because others have solved them in the past. We are choosing an heroic model from the well of Urdhr -- if it worked before, it can work again. The discovery of transpersonal patterns that have Worked before is one of the safest and most effective source of tool for self transformation. If we truly want to find out what we are, and what we can become -- one of the most important places to look for the structure of our consciousness is in the myths that shape the language -- not only on a word level, but on a grammatical level as well. This is one of the greatest hidden aspects of our lives, a mystery we should seek after if we are truly interested in self transformation.

     The third round is also taboo breaking. We are never supposed to talk about our achievements -- particularly if we are team players. However this not only gives us a chance to brag, it integrates our achievements into the work of others. We achieve recognition for our own work, and we recognize the evolving stream of quality around us. Again I have seen individuals, walking away not only amazed at finding out what the guy sitting next to him did, but also amazed at the wonderful scope of achievement that he had to work with in his projects.

     The fourth round is of course the kicker. This not only makes the individual come up with a reasonable goal to overcome, beyond the dead specs of a given project; but it also makes sure that each individual -- now filled with the confidence that the toasts have produced -- will apply his principle to give shape to the work that should come into being. This gives each individual a voice in what's taking place, confidence that his goals are both important and achievable, and a sense of commitment to the team.

     In terms of the time model discussed above, the first three toasts come from the well of Urdhr and the last from the well of Skuld. It's programming that's deeply wired into us by our language. It makes an excellent use of wetware. Like any piece of linguistic programming, it works better if repeated. It's great if your goal is an individually determined freedom, why not buy some apple juice and try one today?

* Copyright © 1992 Don Webb. All rights reserved.