Hypnosis and Alternative Worldviews

I finally managed to find time to read Hypnosis: The Application of Ideomotor Techniques, which my wonderful wife bought me for Christmas. (It’s been a busy year.) This is the second edition of his groundbreaking book Clinical Hypnotherapy, written with the great Leslie LeCron. It’s a medical textbook. Yes, I read medical textbooks for fun. I’m weird.

While it was a really good, informative book and I recommend it, there was one thing about it which kind of surprised me. Dr. Cheek was a respected and successful surgeon, obstetrician, gynecologist, and healer. But his approach to hypnotherapy includes many considerations regarding what a charitable person would call “alternative worldviews” and what a less charitable, more skeptical person might call “woo.” (If you’re not familiar with “woo:” What is Woo?) These include telepathy, prenatal psychology, past-life regression, and spiritual possession.

Dr. Cheek provides multiple examples of cases involving each of these, especially pre- and perinatal psychology (the theory that unborn or newly born children are aware of what is happening around them, notably their mother’s emotional reaction to being pregnant and having a child.) While of course he is selecting case studies of cases where his theories met with success, this isn’t the first time (or the second, or the tenth) that I’ve heard hypnotherapists describe success with clients using these approaches to hypnotherapy. In his book, Dr. Cheek professes to believe in the objective reality, at some level, of these things, but readily admits that many of them could be symbolic or otherwise psychosomatic manifestations of things which have only subjective reality.

I was struck by this as it is in essence the reverse of my own beliefs. I find things like magnetic mesmerism (which Dr. Cheek is a big fan of,) prenatal psychology, and telepathy unlikely from an objective standpoint. I have a broad education in the sciences and if I can’t replicate an experimental finding consistently, I am dubious about the claimed effect. On the other hand, if people choose to frame their objective experiences – and I have seem some weird stuff, don’t get me wrong – in terms of alternate worldviews, it is not only uncharitable to dispute them in a therapeutic context, it’s downright foolish. If the client wants to hand you a tool to help make their lives more comfortable, why on Earth would you throw it away with a sneer? The proper response is to gratefully accept it and use that framing to encourage the client to accept beneficial suggestions.

On things like past-life regression, I tend to go with the approach one of my professors suggested, which is that if you’re not enthusiastic about it, don’t bring it up. But if the client is interested, and you have the training and understanding necessary to use that framing to help them, then do it. It’s not up to you to tell them how to make their life better, it’s up to you to help them make their life better. So long as you can do so ethically and without harm, you should do it.

A Sympathetic Ear – 7 Cups of Tea

If you’re not familiar with it, one of the web’s great resources is a site called Seven Cups of Tea. It allows people to talk to trained “Listeners” about things that are bothering them, confusing them, or that they just need to vent about. It’s completely free. Listeners don’t give advice, nor do they practice mental-health therapy. They just listen and let you talk to someone sympathetic, who won’t judge or try to change you. The chat is through a simple text interface (no voice or video) and both the Listener and the person talking remain completely anonymous. Listeners have profiles that tell you a little bit about themselves and what areas they have experience with personally. (Anxiety, depression, weight, substance abuse.)

Click Here to visit Seven Cups of Tea!

If it sounds too good to be true, you can read a review written by a practicing clinical psychologist here: A Psychologist’s Honest Review of Seven Cups of Tea.

Hypnosis is the Tool, Not the Goal

Sometimes beginning hypnotists get so wrapped up in the process of hypnosis – which is fun, exciting, and totally captivating – that they forget that hypnosis is a means to an end. In hypnotherapy, the end is improving the client’s satisfaction with life, making them more comfortable – whether physically, mentally, or both. The good thing is, though, that the client’s subconscious will help us find that goal if we just let it.

This is different from stage hypnotism, which is somewhere between a game, a contest, and a conspiracy. In that case, there can be a bit more of an authoritarian, directed approach. While that can be very useful with some hypnotherapy clients, a more cooperative method is usually the first and best approach to try. This approach isn’t just about the suggestions – it can extend even into the induction itself. Let me tell you about a very simple example that illustrates the principle beautifully.

I once worked with a hypnotee who was fascinated by the idea of hypnosis and wanted to learn more, but there was a problem. They had a back injury that would cause them significant pain if they let certain muscles relax too much. Until I worked with them, every time they’d tried to experience hypnosis, the hypnotist would tell them to relax, and they would… until the muscles in their back went into painful spasms. They were at their wit’s end: to be hypnotized you have to relax and if they relaxed they experienced a surge of pain which brought them out of hypnosis!

The solution was both simple and obvious… but totally counterintuitive. I just gave them permission to not relax! Specifically, I used this language in the induction:

“As you begin to go into trance, I want you to be aware of how good your body is at making you comfortable. Take a few deep breaths and think about how easy it is for your body to keep itself aligned, strong and comfortable. The muscles that keep you comfortable know what to do… and they can keep doing it even as the rest of your body relaxes. Another deep breath, and you feel relaxation spreading through your body, even as your back stays strong, aligned and comfortable. It’s amazing how easy it is when you think about it, isn’t it? No matter how deep you go, your back will keep itself comfortable, the muscles holding it in the way that lets the rest of you be comfortable and relaxed… and you’re very relaxed now, and your back is still comfortable, you’re doing great…”

And so on. It was a pretty standard progressive induction… except for that special suggestion to let their back stay as tensed as it needed to be. I didn’t even tell it to stay tense… I just told it to stay comfortable. Their subconscious did the rest, and they had a lovely, deep trance for the first time ever! When they came back to consciousness, they said that not only had their back not hurt, it was more comfortable than it had been in weeks. I hadn’t even meant to do that – they had indicated that their back was not painful so long as they didn’t relax, and I just focused on giving them a new experience with hypnosis. After that, they found entering trance quite easy, and even found their back problem easier to manage.

And all by letting their subconscious decide what to do… offering guidance, and an option, and letting it do the rest! That will so often be the best approach in using hypnosis for change: the client wants change, or they wouldn’t be seeking hypnotherapy. They just need that direction, that encouragement. If they need a more authoritarian approach, there’s always time for that. But first, try just giving them permission to be more comfortable, and see what happens!

A Fun Story about Spontaneous Hypnotism

So I was at a major computer/music/pop culture festival last week (MAGFEST, if you’re curious: http://www.magfest.org) and the topic of hypnosis came up multiple times in multiple venues. Hey, what can I say? When you start paying attention, it’s everywhere! Probably the most interesting was on a session in making “immersive” games. A lot of the discussion was on what makes a game immersive, when are you immersed in a game, and so forth. I try not to be that guy who only has a hammer and goes looking for nails, but after about twenty minutes, I just couldn’t take it any more and made a comment along these lines:

“I’m a hypnotherapist and I’d like to say that every single thing you’ve asked about how to immerse people in a game, or tell when they’re immersed, is exactly the same as the things we ask ourselves about how to hypnotize people, or tell when they’re hypnotized.”

This was prompted by someone commenting that while he loved the “story” or RPG games which everyone was using as examples of “immersive,” the only game that he’d ever really “lost” himself in was Katamari Damacy. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katamari_Damacy) Why did he get “immersed” in that and not in the RPG? Because he had a different modality of suggestibility than most gamers! Or, to be fair, than most gamers who play big-name titles. Given the popularity of games like Candy Crush, Puzzle and Dragons, Bejeweled, or even Tetris, I think it’s fair to say that there are probably many gamers whose minds are more easily engaged at the hypnotic level by pattern and repetition than by grandiosity and realism. (I myself like both.)

After the panel, I discussed it with the panelists, one of whom was a PhD level psychologist. While they do discuss hypnotism in psychology education, it’s usually not taken very seriously. She really seemed to accept, or at least be intrigued by, the idea that perhaps there were some pretty strong parallels between hypnotism, the models we create to explain it, and the way games affect gamers. So I felt pretty good about that.

One of the other attendees also asked me some questions after and again at another point, and I was sort of feeling like a hypno-vangelist. So after my last event of the day (LARP, and don’t even get me started on the hypnotic parallels there!) I undertook a little experiment. I went to the TechOps room (thanks, guys!) and got a piece of paper, a marker, and some gaffer tape. I then made a little sign which said “FREE DEMOS” and taped it to the messenger bag I was carrying so people would see it as I walked around. Keep in mind that it was already 2 AM Sunday morning at this point. I didn’t have any idea if it would work or not. But I had faith. So I walked around and waited to see what would happen.

It wasn’t two minutes before somebody asked me, “Free demos of what?”

Chalk one up for the power of suggestion! Everybody loves free, computer gamers love demos. Put them together and people can’t resist walking up to a total stranger at 2 in the morning to find out what’s going on! Not even if he’s a gray-bearded fellow in a suit walking around a pop-culture convention with a handwritten sign.

My reply was always the same: “Two things. First, that you can make total strangers walk up and talk to you if you put the word ‘free’ on a sign.” *pause a beat, watch their faces* “Second, I am a Certified Master Hypnotist and I am giving free demonstrations of the power of hypnosis. Would you like to try?”

Everybody reacted, and nobody laughed. The first two (men) looked somewhere between dubious and alarmed. Well, you get that with hypnosis – some people think it’s scary. It’s not, which is why I was hypno-vangelizing. But no hard feelings.

The third was a nice lady who looked fairly normal, as people walking around pop-culture conventions at two in the morning go: I would guess that she was in her thirties. We chatted for a moment and I offered to do a demonstration right there, just a bit off to the side. Lots of people watching (I wanted people to watch) and very reassuring for her that if I was up to no good, somebody would surely do something.

So I leaned her up against the wall and asked her some basic questions (health issues, a few suggestibility classfiers, things like that.) Then I just did a simple progressive induction and in less than two minutes she was in a light trance. I gave her some simple suggestions (that she’d be too heavy to move for a moment, for instance) and woke her up. She looked incredulous, but pleased. After that I demonstrated a rapid induction (Cerbone’s “Butterfly Effect”) and took her through a short visualization exercise.

Toward the end, by sheer chance, a hotel employee came up and started emptying trash cans into a big cart. It made a terrible racket! But she never stirred. Afterward, she just asked, “Did something happen while I was hypnotized? It seemed like I heard something strange.” That’s all that got through, even though the cart was less than ten feet away. Hypnosis is pretty amazing.

When we were done with the demonstration, I gave her some general life-affirming suggestions and waited for her to come fully out of trance. By the time I was done with my first volunteer and was sure she was safe to go off by herself (hypnosis is perfectly safe, but people can be a little spacey when they come out) it was nearly three, and I was running out of energy. So I went and got on the elevator to go to my room and hit the hay. But the night wasn’t over yet! I missed my floor on the elevator, and had to ride all the way down and all the way up again due to the crowds. As we neared my floor I heard it again: “Free demos of what?”

This time it was a young man who was accompanied by what I assumed was his girlfriend. I told him, and he looked incredulous. At first all he said was, “Really?” Meanwhile, his girlfriend’s eyes had gone huge.

“Yep,” I said. “Would you like to try? It won’t take long.”

At that point, between his being slightly drunk and wanting to impress his girlfriend, he decided he wanted to. (She obviously loved the idea, and asked him “Can we try?” more than once.) So we went and stood in a quiet hallway and I went through the setup with him. Just while I was asking him questions he started to look a little alarmed and said, “I can feel it happening!”

I of course didn’t look smug or anything (I would never do that.) I just kept going and when the setup was done, started doing a very subtle induction. After a minute or so, he jerked himself awake and said, “How do you DO that? It’s like a superpower!”

I assured him it was just practice, but he was starting to weird himself out. When I used waking suggestion to make him laugh uncontrollably, it made him even more convinced that I could hypnotize him. So he said, “Don’t put me to sleep!” I of course stopped right away: I’d never hypnotize someone without their consent. His girlfriend, meantime, was also laughing, because he had crumbled pretty fast.

So he said, “Try her!” (He’d already claimed she’d be easy to hypnotize.) So I asked her and she still wanted to try. It turned out that she was very into mindfulness meditation. So I made up a mindfulness induction right there on the spot and in a minute she was out like a light. After a convincer suggestion I woke her again and demonstrated some very simple hypnotic techniques. She was a wonderful subject and I think she really enjoyed herself.

Alas, at that point they got a phone call and had to go, so I gave her some wake-up suggestions, made sure she was okay, and headed off to bed. Final tally: two completely successful inductions and one coulda-had-him. (I could have done an instant on him and I’d bet anything it would have worked, but that wouldn’t have been right.) Not a bad scorecard for deciding to do spontaneous demonstrations at two in the morning!

Thanks for reading… and watch out for that guy with the “Free Demos” sign. You never know where he might turn up…


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