|"Simply exaggerated suggestibility."|
"A state of intensified attention and receptiveness, and an increased responsiveness to an idea or to a set of ideas."
"Primarily a special psychological state with certain physiological attributes, resembling sleep only superficially and marked by the functioning of the individual at a level of awareness other than the ordinary conscious state."
These disparate definitions of hypnosis bear witness to an observation by psychology researcher Martin Orne: although there is no widely accepted definition of hypnosis, considerable consensus exists at a descriptive level. In other words, "Don't ask me to define it, but I'll tell you how it works and what it can do."
To consult the newspaper ads placed by Marin County hypnotherapists is to encounter claims that hypnotic induction can do a lot, including helping people: lose weight, quit smoking, overcome phobias, improve athletic performance, enhance self esteem and motivation, reduce stress, explore past lives, get off cocaine, overcome sexual dysfunction. The list of proven applications goes on, all attesting to what William James considered the greatest discovery of his generation: "that human beings can alter their lives by altering their minds."
I first became interested in hypnosis during my college years when I read that a young Viennese physician named Sigmund Freud worked with Joseph Breuer, considered one of the best medical hypnotists of his time. Just as Freud later was unable to tolerate Jung's intellectual independence, neither could he accept the fact that he himself wasn't much good at inducing hypnosis. As his jealousy over Breuer's superior skill increased, Freud abandoned hypnosis and developed free association and dream interpretation.
As I began to research the field of hypnosis for this article, I was struck by the fact that although abandoned by the controversial Father of Modern Psychotherapy, hypnosis has continued to develop a sophisticated array of approaches and techniques for altering behavior by altering awareness. After exploring my own capacity for trance in sessions with several Marin and Sonoma hypnotherapists, I discovered that most of them had taken their training at the Hypnotherapy Training Institute.
Founded by Randal Churchill, the Hypnotherapy Training Institute has offered private hypnosis counseling since 1971. The Institute began offering an intensive state-approved program to educate and certify hypnotherapists in 1978. What is hypnosis and how does it work? Why are so many entering the helping professions with a primary focus on hypnosis? And can you help me resolve a phobia I've had for a long time? These were the questions I took to Churchill earlier this month.
"I wish I could give you a simple, concise theory to explain all of the psychological, physiological and interpersonal factors involved in hypnosis," Churchill told me. "But the hypnotic state is extremely complex and diverse, just as are waking and sleep states. Heightened suggestibility is just one of the uses of hypnosis. The state of hypnosis itself is ideal for pain control, stress reduction and overcoming insomnia. The effectiveness of hypnotic pain control alone has drawn numerous physicians, dentists, chiropractors and nurses to take our professional training. Also, since in hypnosis one is tapping into the inner mind, the subconscious, memories, become more accessible. This has ramifications ranging from improving test scores to finding lost objects to helping witnesses recall details after a crime."
"The hypnotic state is extremely complex and diverse
He added, "Increased memory recall is part of the key to hypnotherapy for past traumas, as the realizations people have in hypnosis typically affect them far more profoundly than in their normal conscious awareness."
At that point I knew I could either continue to engage Churchill in questions about theory, or ask for proof. The first path seemed safe, and most of all I love safety. Which is why I¹ve steered pretty clear of swimming pools since I came close to drowning at age six. Having had a vague memory of my older brother Jeff jumping onto the air mattress I was on and knocking me below the surface, I recently have wondered whether mine is a love of safety or, rather, a fear of its absence. No matter, I said to myself; summer is coming, and this is the year I want to go swimming again.
"Got anything in your bag of tricks for a good water phobia?" I asked apologetically, as if to make it clear I'd gladly settle for more theory. He didn't miss a beat, gently suggesting that I push back in my reclining chair and take a deep breath. When he asked me what specific issues I wanted to explore, I told him as much as I could recall about the swimming experience and my subsequent fears. "What I really want is to get into and beyond that event so I can enjoy swimming laps again." Churchill urged me to take another breath, and then another. As I felt my fingers tingle, my trust for him grew. "If your eyelids begin to feel heavy, just let them start...to fall...shut," he continued. My eyelids closed.
"As your state of relaxation deepens, Keith, consider that hypnosis is a process through which you gain greater, not less, awareness, and that you can choose to go as far as you want in exploring the dynamics of your mind. You're in control here..." What he was saying was true: far from the carnival-like demonstrations in which the hypnotized person seems to be a mere puppet, I was beginning to feel a marvelous sense in which I knew I was free to accept only those suggestions in hypnosis which were right for me at that particular moment.
He continued to induce what at first was a light trance, then a much deeper one. (He remarked later that changes in my breathing rate and skin color suggested natural hypnotic depth.) I don't remember his words, only the gentle melodic tone of his voice and an image of descending a spiral staircase and entering a sanctuary of safety and peace. Then Churchill gave me the suggestion that while in hypnosis my subconscious could respond to yes and no questions through the fingers on my right hand, giving information which I might not have consciously remembered.
"One of your fingers raises in response to questions to which the answer is yes. Allow that finger to signal now," he urged. After a pause, my index finger - to my surprise - lifted gently. Through this process I discovered that my thumb signaled "n" and that my middle finger lifted in response to questions to which "I don't know" was my answer. "I'm not ready to say just now" announced itself eventually through the trembling of my pinkie.
"Got anything in your bag of tricks for a good water phobia?" I asked apologetically, as if to make it clear I'd gladly settle for more theory.
Certain details of my experience are too sketchy to recall, and therefore too sketchy to write about with any clarity. Churchill later assured me that not remembering all details of the trance state is common, especially among "hypnosis adepts." What I do remember is him mentioning something about the hands of an ancient grandfather clock beginning to move backwards, counter-clockwise, signaling a return to a previous time in my life. Whether it was suggested or not, I also saw yellowed pages of a calendar being lifted off by a swift breeze.
"How old are you now?" Churchill asked.
"Are you inside or outside?"
"Outside," I said. "In the pool."
"Alone or with others?".
"I'm alone on my floating mattress, but others are near."
"Describe what is happening now." he suggested.
"I'm belly down on the float, daydreaming that I'm skipper of a great ship, looking for dolphins. Oh no..."
Churchill told me I didn't have to speak right now and that the appropriate finger would signal whether it was safe for me to recall and be open emotionally to whatever it was I was on the verge of recalling. My index finger said yes, to both questions. He suggested that I would be able to review the experience as if watching a television screen. Since the actual event happened so many years before, he added, it would be safe to allow the events to unfold like an old movie.
My brother jumped from the side of the pool onto the air mattress, the ship of which I was captain, and I saw myself fall beneath the surface and swallow what seemed an enormous amount of water. Previously, my conscious mind had turned off at this point, no doubt protecting me from the memory. In hypnosis, assured of my physical safety, I was able to recall my mother pulling me above the surface choking and coughing. Wrapped in towels, more coughing. Fear of dying. As the worst passed, I began crying as if the worst had just begun. My sense of anger, fear and relief were tremendous, and all mixed up together, now in hypnosis as then in reality. As I continued crying, I felt my anger and terror subsiding.
As the revivified experience passed, my body ceased to writhe, and I felt a growing sense of calm. Churchill encouraged me to communicate as the six-year-old and dialogue with my brother, my mother, even with the water and my fear of death. With each completion, I felt more of a strange peace come over me. Then they encouraged my "adult" self to share insights with the child about the experience. "You're well, and strong and safe", he said, echoing and anchoring my growing subconscious understanding.
"As you leave that experience behind you," Churchill added, "reflect for a moment on your new relationship with water." He gave me a series of clear, succinct affirmations reminding me how much I enjoy being in the water, how much I love swimming, how skilled I am at taking care of myself, how much I benefit from my laps in the pool.
"You swim with the grace and elegance of the dolphins you waited for in the pool," Churchill suggested gently. It was as if he knew precisely how positive this image would be for me. An unknown amount of time passed in this drowsy reverie, and then, inevitably, the reality principle returned in his words: "As I count from one to five, with each number you become more alert, more awake, more rested, more ready to return to your normal, waking state of consciouness."
I didn't want to return; the realm felt so good. First they gave me some quiet time to integrate my experience, and then we talked about the session. With each word I spoke, I became more aware of the ways in which my experience in the pool had programmed my attitudes not only toward swimming, but sailing as well. My sense of release was amazing. I felt like a newborn baby for the rest of the afternoon.
I met with him a week later in his office just as he was preparing to teach a summer intensive for prospective hypnotherapists..
"I swam 20 laps yesterday," I said.
"Well?" he asked, "what was it like after all these years?"
"Like a dolphin."