Book Reviews

Ericksonian Elicitation: A Book Review

Milton Erickson was a titan of psychological research. He’s also a personal hero. His most important paper on trance makes the firm statement that the therapist’s highest priority is to protect the integrity of the subject’s personality. For me, this commitment has been central to the development of clinical rapport. We can analyze technique and method, but I read Erickson’s papers and understand that his intuition was guided by people that wanted to reveal themselves to him. His phrasing of suggestions reflects the tenderness with which he confirmed their invitation.

Erickson’s impact upon his students was profound. One of them – Jeffrey Zeig – peppers “The Induction of Hypnosis: An Ericksonian Elicitation Approach” with personal vignettes. The instruction that follows makes evident his devotion to Erickson’s memory. A whole chapter celebrates his impact on the history of psychology following World War II.

For the professional, the development is a little slow. In part this follows from ambiguity in the definition of hypnosis. For the first six chapters, Zeig offers metaphors and stories in building a procedural definition rooted in the experience of the subject. The subject experiences, in order:

  1. Modified awareness – even something as simple as becoming aware of their breathing.
  2. Altered intensity – noticing the correlations between focused attention and experience.
  3. Avolitional experience – being guided into awareness without conscious ratification.
  4. Avolitional response – responding to experience without conscious ratification.
  5. Ratification of hypnosis – the operator bringing these elements into awareness and labelling them as “hypnosis” or “trance.”

The goal is for the subject to become receptive to suggestions from the operator. This requires agency on both sides: the subject trusts, and the operator builds rapport. On the operator’s side, Ericksonian phrasing makes the transition extremely comfortable. The pattern is pace, lead, and motivate. In pacing, the operator offers truisms – observations that are natural to the situation. Having attained that agreement, the subject is then led into the next step of the elicitation. Finally, they are offered a statement that aligns the step with their motivations. When the step is taken, it seems not only natural but as though it always was that way.

Zeig guides the reader through the grammar of Ericksonian elicitation. This is a finicky subject, and while clearly described, actual use of the grammar requires extended practice. This is emphasized: Zeig cautions that the operator should not be thinking “This would be a good place for a presupposition. Oh, and then I can offer an embedded command!” Instead, the operator is tracking the subject’s descent into hypnosis, and intuitively offers statements that serve the elicitation. To facilitate the development of that intuition, Zeig analyzes transcripts for study – all involving students that offer intelligent analysis of their experience. That is no substitute for immediate practice.

As a professional, I found myself wanting more at the end of the book. Zeig does a detailed deconstruction of a “traditional” model of hypnosis that I would characterize as a “straw man.” Zeig focuses on scripts. While the structure of a session does follow the pattern Zeig lays out, non-Ericksonian therapy does not require scripts – and even when I reference a script I rarely follow it slavishly.

Having demolished his straw man, Zeig promotes a core virtue of Ericksonian therapy: a session begins with elicitation. Unfortunately, the shift to therapy takes us out of the pattern of elicitation, into (progressively) 1) confusion and destabilization, 2) perceptual alteration, and 3) disassociation. The goal is to identify the mechanisms held in the subject’s mind that allow behaviors to be adapted. Sensory metaphors figure prominently, each wrapping a suggestion to create, modify, or delete an experience or behavior. Once disassociation is attained, those mechanisms can then be used to alter behaviors independently of the rest of the mind.

Zeig allows that to survey the subject’s inventory of adaptive mechanisms involves several sessions before therapy can proceed. Unfortunately, that procedure is not developed in depth, leaving the professional to wonder what to do after hypnosis is elicited.

The focus on disassociation is also troubling. Disassociation allows the subconscious to control movement and sensation without conscious awareness. In his writings, Erickson was proud of automatic writing and waking hallucinations. But ultimately the subject must integrate their experience and learnings. That may be accomplished by reinforcement as the subject is brought back into the normal state. Erickson never addressed this point, and neither does Zeig. What Erickson reported was, in fact, that by use of these disassociation he could create long-term syndromes in colleagues .

At the conclusion, Zeig’s writing left me a little flat. In attacking the methods that I use every day, Zeig showed a lack of respect for the work that has been done in the “traditional” model to assimilate Erickson’s central tenet: protecting the integrity of the subject’s personality. That includes:

  • offering the subject’s conscious mind a simple explanation of the therapeutic process,
  • the origination of free-style imagery in which the subject has autonomous engagement with their subconscious as the unified mind seeks for healing, and
  • allowing that the subject may evolve new behavioral development strategies.

More daunting, however, is Zeig’s observation that Erickson seemed to make it up as he went along – and that his most impressive elicitations involved unspoken elements. Erickson may not have been a therapist in the normal sense – he may have been a guru.  Zeig steers safely clear of those waters.

Book Reviews

We Are All Energy Workers (A Book Review)

In The Women’s Book of Healing, Diane Stein presents both theory and practice for developing our natural skills to project healing energy.

In the theory, physical dis-ease (Stein used hyphens to emphasize the tendency of the being toward wellness) is the manifestation of energetic imbalances in the psychic layers that surround it. Those layers focus the emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of our lives. As Stein explains, the layers also host one or more chakra energy centers, each chakra having a corresponding color in the rainbow. Red is the color of the body, progressing outward to purple at the highest spiritual layer. Beyond that is the transpersonal layer, which as the source of all colors is white.

Obviously much of this is metaphorical – concepts built over milennia that humanity uses to access energies that reach all the down to subatomic realities. For that reason, there are some inconsistencies. As Stein testifies in discussion of practice, healers that honor the intentions of the “Goddess” can dispense with the metaphors.

Stein explains not only how to use the metaphors for healing, but how to heighten sensitivity through meditative practices. That begins with the ability to see the psychic layers as auras. Next comes color visualization as the healer scans upwards through the chakra centers in the physical body. In remote healing, dis-ease is imagined as blotches on the psychic layers. “Tinker Woman” work describes the development of personal healing metaphors (stapling cuts closed, putting in faucets and drains for blockages).

Laying on of hands is more abstract, dealing directly with energy flows. The book ends with chapters on crystal work, building and enhancing the color metaphors at the beginning of the book.

The resources of the earth is emphasized throughout as essential to grounding energies, thereby avoiding transference and to ensuring that both parties (healer and healed) are not left open to harmful invasion.

In talking about these methods, the book is generally light-hearted and generous. According to Stein, the ethic of the woman healer is to work without compensation. Respect for the autonomy of the dis-eased is emphasized again and again.

Where most fault is to be found is in Stein’s militant feminism. Matriarchy is good, patriarchy is evil. Conflation of patriarchy and allopathic medicine is rampant. Both serve to suppress women’s self esteem, seeing their bodies and intentions as foul and inferior. Male practitioners are recognized, but their contributes are cast as “finding the Goddess within.” Conversely, Stephen Harrod Buhner (The Lost Language of Plants) reports that many country doctors were intuitive herbalists.

I have reached out to Stein with the observation that the ethic she mandates is modern. Allopathic medicine (surgery and medicine) was pursued in part to guarantee that both patients and doctors were protected from psychic entanglements. Negative intentions can be projected in both directions. I know that a tender of money justifies abusive rage in clients that don’t receive the benefits they expect. But how else is a practitioner to stay alive? And how can we believe that those dependent upon their craft might not be moved to extort money from their clients?

The slipperiness of this slope is evident in one particular practice offered by Stein. This is the use of an imaginary “healing bag” to store negative energies collected during visualizations. These can be splotches on the aura or pools of negative energy. The practice, at the end of the session, is to imagine the bag burning up along with its contents.

But how did those splotches originate? Stein tends to the perspective that they all originate from patriarchal abuse, but I have met dragon ladies that fail to honor Stein’s ethic. Just as a healer can remove blotches, the dragon lady can tear pieces out of the souls of her victims. Those pieces never integrate properly, and so manifest as blotches that generate dis-ease in the dragon lady. Is it right to remove them and burn them up? Or should they be returned to their point of origin?

This contextuality is not acknowledged by Stein. It is non-trivial. Priests talk about predators the “lie with their whole being.” This is a practice used by abusers to hide their intentions behind the façade of victimization. (Their victims, after all, will naturally fight back against them.) Peering past that façade is safe only for practitioners that have progressed past the use of metaphors to work directly with the underlying spiritual forms.

When I was in graduate school, I met a massage therapist at a bar in Boulder. He troubled me with his difficulties clearing the negative energies he accumulated while working with Wall Street bankers. I finally told him “Look, don’t be an enabler.” Reading Stein’s work, I am concerned that she is unwittingly creating a culture of enablers. That concern is reinforced by the way my skin crawls every time she inveighs against “the patriarchy.” Damn it, Diane, their wives profit from that system as well.

So put away the hatred, and write a book that offers useful metaphors for transforming negative associations in the psychic layers. I’ll offer my own system in the near future.

And for those that wish to use the beautiful metaphors and practices collected by Stein: make sure that you know your clients well. To do otherwise is prideful, and leads down harsh and painful roads.