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Photo by Richard Cupidi

You are feeling very relaxed…

Essay | 12 minute read
A hypnotherapist reflects on a practise that can take us into deep rest states that serve as portals to our unconscious mind, and help us make long-lasting behavioural changes by trusting our unconscious mind

On Falmer pond

All she wanted was six eggs, an unassuming carton from the organic farmshop, nestled near Falmer Pond with its resident ducks where she used to entertain her kids, at least until her husband died. Afterwards, as loneliness and grief gradually seeped into everything, even the blue-water pond, her isolation morphed into a general fear of being out there, in the world. Doctors with good intentions labelled her agoraphobic. And there she stayed.

For nine years she refused to leave her front door unless escorted by her son. When he eventually convinced her to see me, she could only crawl up the stairs to my office, a frail shadow of her fifty-three years. We spent some time in conversation building up trust, although for Jenny (not her real name) even the space between us as we talked felt like an uncomfortable divide. She smiled occasionally at the seeming abstractness of it all until I asked her what she really wanted. Then those eggs appeared, right in front of her, just beyond her grasp. That’s how her journey began, in her imagination to Falmer Pond, several times over several sessions, in a state some call trance and others daydreaming, but which I simply call deep emotional rest.

On each visit, we immersed ourselves totally in its fabric – the colourscapes of seasons and its changes, the shifting greenness of trees; the soundscapes of children’s laughter, of ducks rootling underwater for seeds; the sharp smells of pond life mixing with the sense of sunlight on her skin. Afterwards, of course, she would buy those eggs for sharing around the breakfast table. Once her journeying became familiar, we would extend it to other neglected places – the rooms in her own house first, and then a few tentative steps outside to her garden shed. Feeling more comfortable and empowered, Jenny began carting away rusting bicycles, mattresses and other accumulated baggage in real time, transforming that shed into a quiet room, a place of her own where she could think about what mattered in her life now.

One afternoon, about three months after we began our sessions, I received a phone call from Jenny. “Do you know where I am?” she asked. “I’m here at Falmer Pond and I’m holding a carton of eggs in my hand… thank you.”

Metaphors to live by, stories to tell

We all share Jenny’s capabilities, her unconscious mind’s capacity for small miracles. In its subliminal role as the guardian of our internal universe, our unconscious already supports life itself, automatically regulating our breathing and our heart beating, sustaining our sleep and that emotional recovery zone we call dreaming. Often labelled ‘primitive’, our unconscious nonetheless processes emotions and long-term memory, as well as housing our imagination, creativity and intuition.

Most of us have already experienced trance states because they occur naturally: when we immerse ourselves in the pulse and rhythm of some great music; or when we’re transported into some impossibly distant yet viscerally real world at the cinema; or when characters from a powerful book or an unbounded storytelling come alive in our imaginations.

In hypnotherapy, deep rest states serve as portals to the unconscious mind where emotional learning takes place, and where profound, long-lasting behavioural changes happen. As catalysts for those changes, hypnotherapists assemble and apply a multitude of enabling techniques including controlled breathing, pausing time, surprise and confusion, reframing possibilities, and widening one’s focus of attention.

Still, there is debate about how hypnosis works. Some believe that because individuals relax they are more susceptible to suggestion. Relaxation certainly increases, but it’s a common misconception that hypnotherapy operates on ‘suggestibility’, as if we plant tiny propaganda seeds in people’s minds. The reality is, in fact, completely different. Hypnotherapy is a safe, simple and drug-free way of helping people discover their own problem-solving capabilities. As one client put it: “Being hypnotised is the best feeling, like giving your brain a warm bath… using self-hypnosis whenever you need it is like having a secret super-power”.

Children are the ones who most readily accept these adventures in the unconscious, at least until the educational system rinses creativity and imagination out of them. Felix was a vibrant nine-year-old boy who loved music, learning and football. However, five nights out of seven he wet the bed, and had done so ever since he was a toddler. Bed-wetting not only kept him awake, it also forced his parents into permanent cleaning-up mode. What’s more, it hampered Felix’s evolving independence, preventing him from going on field trips or sleepovers. Having ruled out any physiological cause, the whole family were drowning in frustration.

When Felix and I met at the children’s clinic, I asked him to teach me what scoring a goal felt like. With only a moment’s hesitation, Felix closed his eyes and kicked an imagined ball into an imagined net. I got him to repeat that action several times, making each goal more dynamic and kinaesthetic than the one before. Felix radiated goals.

At our next session I asked him to picture himself standing centre stage at a World Cup Final. Like Jenny at the pond, we visualised this event in sensory-rich detail. Felix felt physically and emotionally present in that stadium, immersed in its atmosphere of passionate anticipation. Closing his eyes for maximum concentration, he weaved his way effortlessly through the defenders and, without any hesitation, struck the winning goal. Uplifted by his own sense of accomplishment and the roaring crowd, Felix punched the air in jubilation. At home afterwards, his task was to keep a daily wall-chart, recording symbolic goals for every dry bed. In that first month, Felix scored twenty-nine goals out of thirty, and his bed has been dry ever since. What Felix experienced in that stadium became his own inspiration for change.

Nor iron bars a cage

Milton Erickson, regarded as the founder of modern hypnotherapy, contracted polio as a teenager in 1919, when polio meant either a death sentence or life limited by paralysis and isolation. “The boy will be dead by morning,” he overheard doctors whisper to his mother, yet unconsciously Erickson refused to cooperate. In the following months, although shrouded in wet canvas and confined to bed (as was the medical treatment then), he joined the outside world in his imagination. When he heard children playing, he would insinuate himself into their games with such intensity that his leg muscles would often start twitching. Noticing but not necessarily understanding these physical responses to his emotional confinement, Erickson began imagining himself as an Olympic athlete, practicing and strengthening those small body movements. Within a year, he had regained use of his limbs and, as if to prove that miracle to himself and a disbelieving world, he embarked on a 1,000 mile canoe trip – solo.

A group scholar performs hypnosis on a patient; illustration from 1880 by B. Falkenberg (Photo by Bildagentur-online/UIG via Getty Images)

Erickson went on to establish an international following for his version of hypnotherapy, rich in therapeutic stories and idiosyncratic teaching tales, challenging conventional assumptions about emotional change. Once, when dealing with an alcoholic individual who lived with an alcoholic partner and worked in the alcohol-soaked culture of print journalism, Erickson simply invited him to visit the local botanical gardens. There, his task was to marvel at the cacti that could survive three years without water or rain, and give them some serious thinking time. It worked – both the journalist and his partner realised that you could thrive without alcohol, and stayed sober for the rest of their lives.

Erickson’s life and work demonstrates just how powerfully our unconscious mind affects both physical wellbeing and emotional health. That awareness is what motivates me as a hypnotherapist, and what prompts me to share some of the metaphors I live by, and some of the stories I have to tell.

Wishes, lies & dreams

In my practice, a typical session begins with a transition: a passage from the emotional landscapes outside into our special time, the time for making changes. During this transition we also invite the patient’s unconscious to be fully present as mentor, colleague, friend and guide.

In a first session, we establish one specific, tangible goal that the individual wants to work towards, set out some strategies for getting there in an approximate timeline. I am a pragmatist. Because every person comes from a unique matrix of experiences, wishes, lies and dreams, I use whatever resources they bring to the table with whatever questions, observations, and techniques I can provide. Whatever works for the client, also works for me. In the words of Milton Erickson, “I don’t have theories, only patients.”

In therapy we look at the underlying emotional patterns sustaining the specific behaviour an individual wants to change, we look at what resolutions have been tried and whether they helped or not. Unlike many talking therapies that endlessly replay an individual’s problems and past disappointments, we minimise dwelling on the past, focusing instead on changing the future.

In most situations, we do a short series of five sessions, reviewing our progress every meeting so that we stay focused on making changes rather than making conversation. With stopping smoking for example, we only need two sessions with a success rate of 85% or more.

Surprise, confusion & learning

When I ask people what they want from our working together, they often reply with a few well-practiced aversions, citing things they don’t want. Then they get the taxi story: ‘So, you’re in the taxi and the driver asks ‘where to?’ and you say, ‘Well, I don’t want to go to London… I don’t want to go to the seaside…’ to which the driver responds, ‘Thanks, but where do you actually want to go?’

I encourage my clients to answer honestly with ‘I don’t know,’ not as an admission of inadequacy but as a starting point for change. For me, confusion and uncertainty mark the beginning of learning. We sustain that learning process by helping individuals alter their frames of reference and their ways of looking at situations, sometimes by shifting focus, sometimes by raising alternative interpretations, often by an unusual metaphor. When clients stubbornly cradle an issue from the past, I often roll out the story of Sisyphus, who was condemned to carry huge boulders up Mount Olympus, only to have them slip from his grasp at the last moment and cascade back down. His punishment was having to retrieve them over and over again.

With individuals who overwhelmingly feel the need to be in control and be perfect, I often suggest that they don’t play God. This unexpected blasphemy usually startles and confuses them, so that they unconsciously look inwards for resolution. Introducing self-reflection and the notion of difference can open up small cracks in their otherwise rigid thinking. ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,’ sang Leonard Cohen. In the case of perfectionists, those widening cracks help them realise that they aren’t omnipotent, that they don’t need to feel always in control, and that they aren’t responsible for other people’s actions or happiness. I often add, ‘Don’t worry, no one’s in control.’ One client characterised his changed attitude as ‘getting control of my life but without having to control anything.’

One summer, a confident, thirty-something woman came to see me about the profound personal and professional changes ahead. She was due to get married, change jobs and move house, all in the next six months. Statistically, such major emotional frictions might be encountered over the course of a lifetime, not condensed into half a year.

We agreed on a short course dedicated to the proposition ‘what do I really want.’ During a deep rest state in our first session, Nyonga startled herself upright in epiphany: ‘I know what I want. I want to find my missing headphones!’ Not a world-shattering revelation for most people, but it made her realise that, ever since her headphones disappeared, music had also gradually seeped out of her life. At our next session, she recounted how her dedicated search had located the headphones, how she had also rediscovered playing the piano, and was offering free lessons for children in the neighbourhood.

Eventually she got married, moved house and changed jobs, keeping tension at bay with music, that universal language of the unconscious. Nyonga’s parting words about our sessions: ‘I arrived in tears and left laughing!’

Out of whose mind

There have been many attempts at defining the dynamically fluid relationship between our conscious and unconscious parts. Although enormous advances have been made in neuroscience, our understanding of the mind and its interconnectedness with the body is still in its infancy.

Consider brain plasticity, the emergent recognition that our brain possesses a dynamic capacity for self-repair, for rewiring itself. Or recent research in the neuroscience of cannabis, revealing how powerful and extensive the endocannabinoid neuro-regulatory system is in our bodies. Not that shamans and other indigenous therapists weren’t aware of that already.

Or take the notion of placebo, often applied in testing the efficacy of new drugs, regarded as biologically inert. However, the placebo effect consistently produces statistics indicating resistance to disease, outperforming medical drugs a majority of the time. What if we reframed the debate? What if we reframed the placebo effect as an expression of our unconscious mind’s ability to self-heal, of its capacity to profoundly affect wellbeing throughout the body? That’s a notion big pharmaceuticals overlook or dismiss because they can’t make money out of it, yet. More open-minded research is certainly needed.

Revisiting Falmer pond

In my clinical experience, effective hypnotherapy is as much an art as a craft, which is why most attempts to quantify it completely miss the point. They measure the craft (skills, technique, percentages) while overlooking the art (transformation, intuition, empowering metaphors). Hypnotherapy is a process, not a formula or template. It remains a subjective experience, an evolutionary process that takes time, like good friendships take time.

If you want to start making significant changes in your life, begin by trusting your unconscious. Start small, by doing one unfamiliar thing every day for example. Start anywhere with this clean and clear question: ‘What do I really want here – at this particular time, in this particular situation, with this flux of people?’

Ask for help. None of us are broken and everyone needs some help, some time. Since no one is in control, you have as much possibility as anyone else to figure things out. Accept confusion and uncertainty as the precursors of change, not the end of hope. If you don’t know yet, then there is still everything to discover (and we can continue this conversation at Hypnobrighton, where I practise, anytime).

As for Jenny, I don’t know whether she went home to make an omelette, or stayed to feed the ducks or simply paused to relish her newfound independence from fear. What I do know is that several months later, after moving out of her rambling old house with its limiting memories, she sent me a postcard: ‘I’m sitting in my new garden, admiring the azaleas and enjoying the sunlight on my skin. The eggs are tasty, too.’

Remember that life is even more extraordinary than we can imagine.

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