Therapeutic Hypnosis Defined
by Jack Elias, CHT
From Finding True Magic: Transpersonal Hypnosis & Hypnotherapy/NLP
Conscious, subconscious, unconscious. These concepts pervade our culture, and we freely use them in talking about ourselves. To the degree that we do this without having contemplated the meaning of these terms in the context of personal experience, or to the degree that we haven’t determined the usefulness of labeling various kinds of experience with these terms, we really don’t know what we are talking about. We are merely engaged in hypnotizing ourselves by the very familiar process of sloganeering.
For example, the political slogan, “America! Home of the free!” has no specific, universal meaning, but can trigger strong emotional responses of varying kinds depending on the audience. Likewise, a phrase such as, “I know this problem is in my subconscious but I can’t get at it,” gives a person a false sense of knowledge that is really a state of confusion (i.e., a hypnotic state). The idea itself creates the dilemma.
Here’s one we all can identify with: “I know that intellectually, but I can’t stop…”. The phrase, “I know intellectually” is one of the most common supports of ongoing trance. Its most important characteristic is that it short-circuits the possibility of accessing or maintaining an awake state of openness, while affording a bit of comfort in seemingly knowing something. What “I know intellectually” usually means is not that we know something at all. (Knowing it would mean that it is alive within us, an actively available resource capable of facilitating change.) Rather, saying “I know it intellectually” indicates nothing more than our ability to pronounce the words, saying them over and over in our head like a lullaby, with little or no effect on our awareness.
I point this out in order to alert you, especially while you are a student, not to settle for this false kind of “learning.” It is what most of us are conditioned (hypnotized) to do. Bearing that in mind, here are a few of the definitions that successful, highly recognized hypnotists have applied to hypnosis:
“Hypnosis is the use of suggestion, whether direct or indirect, to induce a heightened state of suggestibility in which there is bypass of the critical faculty of the mind, and selective attention to suggestions given.”
“Hypnosis is a state of awareness dominated by the subconscious mind.”
—Michael Preston, M.D.
“Hypnosis is a ‘shrinking of the focus of attention.”
Can any useful sense be made of these statements? What is “the use of suggestion…to heighten suggestion”? What is “the bypass of the critical faculty”? And how can “a state of awareness” be “dominated by the subconscious mind”?
What are these expert hypnotists attempting to describe? Can you relate the terms they are using to your personal experience? First, it is helpful to recognize that such labeling, which we have all been trained (hypnotized) to do, dissociates us from the experience we are labeling and creates subtle and not-so-subtle limitations.
It is important to note the difference between labeling, which diminishes interest and awareness in ongoing phenomena, and descriptive activity, which keeps us engaged with the phenomena. When descriptive interest is reduced to labeling, something alive and vital is lost in the process. The ability to label is, nevertheless, valuable when used appropriately. Labeling is inappropriate in the learning process when it does no more than satisfy the urge to say, “I know that intellectually.” Because no sooner do we say it, than we have put ourselves into trance, and are living in the box created by our words.
We all do it. In fact, this tendency lies at the root of all our worldly difficulties, personal and political, social and cultural. For once we have created a label, a conceptual box we can hold onto, we will grasp it and defend it, even in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. It is easy to observe this everyday phenomenon in the prejudices and politics of our times, but have you ever thought about some of your own problems from this point of view? Take a moment now to remember being in the grip of some personal limitation — one of those times when you act and feel like a helpless two-year-old, despite the truth of your six-foot-two-hundred-pound-body-having-taken-care-of-yourself-daily-for-years experience. That’s hypnosis!
The phenomena these men are trying to describe as hypnosis are marked by the same qualities that pervade our conscious functioning. There is no clear distinction between the two. Even the “critical faculty” is actually a trance state. From this perspective, it is not so important to create a neat label to apply to the phenomena, because that so easily leads to a lazy, and false, sense of knowledge. It is more challenging, and more helpful to the client, to develop and access more resourceful trance states that expand the client’s awareness of choice and power — to the point that, ultimately, they come into an awareness that is beyond trance states altogether.
Buddhism calls this the state of No-Mind. In all trance states, the thinking mind is busy labeling and defining reality, whereas the No-Mind state allows the direct perception of reality without conceptual mediation. (That’s a euphemism for “distortion and interference.”) No-Mind is a state in which the heart/mind and the head/mind functions merge, releasing one’s true, clear intelligence. The mark of this union is one’s reliance on the spontaneous guidance of intuition, direct perception and recognition of identity between subject and object. This intuition of identity engenders an unwavering sense of spaciousness, luminosity, and love. It manifests in a person as the revived capacity to be moved by the beauty of a flower, to see the focus, love, and attention of the whole universe in the movement of a fly’s wings, and to care for the life of all beings as one’s own life.
I define therapeutic hypnosis as taking hold of the mental functions we use every day to contract our focus and numb our sense of being (or to maintain the status quo of an already acceptable contracted state) and using those same functions to expand our awareness of being organically alive. Therapeutic hypnosis releases this mental contraction, the nature of which is fear, into an expansiveness, the nature of which is love. As with natural medicine, we distill the very poison that causes an illness in such a way that we produce its antidote.
Using this as our working definition of hypnotherapy, there is no real or solid boundary between the conscious and the unconscious to get in the way. No borderline exists to stop our own mental processes, skillfully used, from destroying the hypnotic state that keeps us boxed up in the world of our words that prevents us from truly seeing the tree. If one understands this definition of therapeutic hypnosis, not as a label, but as a phenomenon being displayed by the mind, it becomes very delightful to do hypnotherapy. We do not have to be concerned about who can be hypnotized and who cannot be hypnotized. We need only develop the sensory acuity to notice how each person does it to themselves, how we do it to ourselves, and then make the kinds of adjustments that this course intends to teach.
To do this kind of work, we as therapists must place primary emphasis on our own daily practice. We must cultivate greater and greater awareness of our own habitual states, of when these states are triggered and what triggers them. And we must notice these states in ourselves with a growing capacity for spacious, kind-hearted acceptance of their presence. Our daily practice must include some form of body-mind coordination through physical activity. It must also include a meditation or contemplation practice, to develop the capacity to detach from the hypnotic turmoil of subconscious thoughts and feelings — the constant “internal gossip” that we all generally accept as a given and therefore rarely challenge in ourselves.
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