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A Brief Introduction to Hypnosis

by Philip H. Farber

(originally published in Hypnosis Today)

When was the last time you experienced hypnosis? Many people are surprised to learn that they have frequently encountered hypnotic trance states throughout their lives.

A popular conception of hypnosis isolates it in the psychotherapist's office, in some kind of occult setting, or in the performance of a stage hypnotist. While early theories of hypnosis were based on mystical "mesmeric fluid" or "animal magnetism," a modern understanding of the field treats hypnotic phenomena as a process that utilizes natural shifts in our language and perception.

There is no hard and fast definition for a hypnotic experience or "trance." The best that we can do is to say that a trance state is an altered state of consciousness, one that represents a shift from "ordinary" waking consciousness. Some emphasis has been given to the ideas that a trance state represents a more internalized experience, a narrowing of focus, "dissociation," increased suggestibility, or automatism. While any of these can come into play in a hypnotic experience, none of them are either necessary or universal. Perhaps one of the most useful definitions of hypnosis is "a goal-directed striving which takes place in an altered psychological state." (Ronald E. Shor, Amer. J. Psychology, Vol. 13, 1959, pp. 582-602). Speaking of hypnosis in the context of a therapeutic setting, another writer said, "Trance permits the operator to evoke in a controlled manner the same mental mechanisms that are operative spontaneously in everyday life." (Milton Erickson)

With this in mind, it may be easier to understand that our minds have the ability to shift from one state of consciousness to another very easily. We have all experienced trance-like states while daydreaming, while bored in a lecture or class, while driving along a long highway, getting a massage, sitting in a hot tub, when we shift our attention in order to read an article or book, to watch television, or to go inside our own minds to think about something. You may even be in a kind of trance state right now!

Taking this approach, some writers on the subject debate whether "all communication is hypnosis," or "nothing is hypnosis" (John Grinder and Richard Bandler, TRANCE-formations, Real People Press, 1981). Both points of view have their merits since, if hypnosis is simply altering consciousness, then any effective communication will do that to some degree. Simply describing something that changed your own experience can have the effect of enabling you to re- enter the experience.

For instance, if you once went on vacation to a place that was enjoyable and relaxing, you could describe the experience of being in that place, using a few key hypnotic techniques, and re- experience the relaxation. Likewise, by making a few well-targeted suggestions about such an experience, you can help a patient or friend to relax. In such an exercise, a few important things to remember are: 1) Use all of the senses: sight, sound, feeling, taste and smell -- some people will tend to remember one sense more than another; by eliciting all of them, the experience becomes dramatically stronger, and may contain some otherwise unconscious elements. 2) Be "artfully vague" -- if you are directing someone else into a hypnotic memory, you can only ask about or suggest what you are sure of. For instance, you can suggest, "You can feel the temperature of the air," but you cannot necessarily suggest, "You can feel the warmth of the air," since, in another person's experience the air might not be warm. 3) Match your voice (or internal voice) to the experience -- if the experience is relaxing, use a relaxing tone of voice and rhythm, if it is exciting, let your voice reflect that. The process is outlined below:

Hypnotic Memories:
1) Identify a particularly relaxing or enjoyable experience.
2) Recall what you saw there, what colors were present, whether it was bright or dark, what objects were in your field of vision, whether there was motion or stillness in what you saw.
3) Recall what you heard there, what kind of tone the sounds had, whether it was loud or quiet, rhythmic or not.
4) Recall what you felt at the time, the temperature of the air, what position your body was in, what your skin felt like, what kind of emotional or internal feelings you may have had.
5) Recall what you tasted or smelled at the time, whether it was sweet or sour or bitter, strong or mild.
6) Run through each sense and increase the intensity in your mind -- make the colors brighter, the sounds clearer or louder, the feelings stronger.
7) Enjoy your experience and explore it in whatever way is comfortable.
This kind of suggestion can be used in a therapeutic or medical context to help a patient relax in the face of what might otherwise be an anxiety-producing situation. By accessing a past state when the patient was more relaxed, or had a reduced heart rate or lower blood pressure, it may also be possible to help the patient re-experience the physical parameters of that memory, as well as the mental. The suggestions can be incorporated into a conversational context, or can be marked out to isolate a "relaxation experience." As with anything else, practice is required, though these techniques are simple enough that they can yield effective results very quickly.

There are many, many methods of hypnosis and self-hypnosis. For a long time, some researchers used a kind of statistical approach to studying hypnosis. That is, they would take one method of inducing trance and apply it to a large group of test subjects. The results, invariably, would "prove" that only a percentage of the "population" were "good hypnotic subjects." In fact, all that was really demonstrated was that that particular method of hypnosis was effective with a percentage of the population. In the 1960s and '70s, a medical doctor named Milton H. Erickson began publishing papers on his inquiries into hypnotherapy. Erickson proposed a new model of hypnosis that suggested that trance states could be accessed quickly and easily in everyone by using flexible trance inductions that developed a biofeedback loop between the therapist and patient. That is, Erickson would incorporate observable aspects of the client's experience and feed them back to the client in a variety of ways. He would, for instance, match the rhythm of his voice to the client's breathing or heart rate, while describing with his language other verifiable aspects of the client's experience, such as the way they were sitting, any movements they made, what they were looking at, etc. The observable aspects could then be tied to less verifiable "leading" suggestions, for instance, Erickson might gently slow the rhythm of his speech while saying, "As you breathe... like this... you can become... more relaxed." The tendency is for the patient to follow into the suggested states.

Erickson's techniques can be applied to self-hypnosis as well as the therapist/client situation. The following is a simple method of self-hypnosis that can be learned and practiced quickly:

Sitting comfortably, with eyes open or closed, list (to yourself) three things which you can see, then three things which you can hear, then three things which you can feel (for example, "I see the color of the wall, I see the person opposite me, I see the color of her hair, I hear the sounds outside the room, I hear people moving about, I hear my own breathing, I feel the cushion underneath me, I feel the air on my skin, I feel my hands on my lap..."). Then narrow it down to a list of two things in each sensory mode, then one thing in each mode. Tell yourself, "As I count from ten down to one, I can go into a deep, comfortable trance." Then count breaths backwards from ten to one and enjoy the trance that you are drifting into. This works most powerfully when the verbal listing within your head is timed in a rhythm with your breathing.

These simple methods can provide some experience of what hypnosis is all about, but barely touch the surface in terms of the depth and power of recent explorations of hypnosis. The field as a whole is becoming widely recognized as a useful technique in medical, dental and psychotherapeutic settings. Research has been done with hypnosis as a form of pain control, habit control, increasing performance, achieving goals, and in many other areas.

The status of hypnosis varies from state to state. Some states have recently passed legislation regulating the practice or requiring licensing or accreditation for practitioners. If you choose to explore the option of working with a hypnotherapist, it would be best to learn what requirements are mandated by your state, and to find out what accreditation the practitioner has. It should be noted that even in states that require accreditation, some accreditation organizations require only a weekend seminar to certify members, while others require years of study. Some active certification organizations include the National Guild of Hypnotists, The National Board of Hypnotherapist Examiners (who provide the Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist or CCH certification), The Society of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), and the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners.

John Grinder and Richard Bandler; TRANCE-formations, Real People Press, 1981
Richard Bandler and John Grinder; Patterns in the Hypnotic Technique of Milton H. Erickson M.D., Vol. 1, Meta Publications, 1975.
Jay Haley; Uncommon Therapy, New York, Grune and Stratton.
Philip H. Farber; FUTURERITUAL, Eschaton Productions, 1995.
Charles T. Tart, ed.; Altered States of Consciousness, Doubleday Anchor, 1969.