Active Aging

Hypnotherapy in Later Life: Part 3

Spiritual Deepening

The conscious mind serves to protect our personality from accepting harmful judgments. Sometimes those judgments are positive, such as when a caregiver is told “but you’re doing a great job” when a request for help is refused. Sometimes judgments are opportunistic, such as up-selling by a car dealer. But mostly they are negative. “Children should be seen and not heard,” “You’re not pretty,” or “Nobody will ever love you like I do.”

While the protection of the conscious mind is admirable, it comes with consequences. The most potent negative messages program our body to ignore its needs. Whether we’re overweight or simply robust, “you’re fat” implies that we should eat less. To avoid weakening of the organism, the subconscious must suppress the influence of the conscious mind on the body. We become divorced from ourselves.

The power of hypnotherapy is in re-establishing those lost connections. That is possible only upon a grant of trust by the client that allows the hypnotherapist to bear witness to their subconscious landscape.

The figure presents the main features of that landscape. The conscious, reasoning mind explores the world, systematically building experience. When transitioning through sleep or during dangerous situations, that information is passed through to the subconscious mind that is concerned with doing and being. “Doing” is expressed through the body; “being” is the province of the soul.

While I introduced the conscious mind as the gateway to the world, that does not mean that it is the most direct route to the subconscious. This is evident when confronted with a trauma. While some among us will try to analyze the situation, others will act immediately to control the physical environment, or we may turn first to a higher spiritual source for strength and guidance.

These tendencies account for the richness of the wellness industry. Therapists and life coaches cater to those that analyze; doctors and chiropractors cater to those that seek a physical control; faith healers and reiki masters cater to the spiritual. Working in the gaps between these disciplines we find acupuncture (body and soul), psychiatry (mind and body) and organized religion (mind and soul). But as the figure illustrates, the subconscious mind links all aspects of the self, and so a multidisciplinary approach may be most effective.

For emphasis: in the modern era the virtue of the analytical disciplines is in creating a bulwark against harmful messages from society. Comparing hypnotherapy and psychotherapy, psychotherapy has the cachet of science. For those seeking spiritual depth, however, that comes with a prejudice against spiritual experience. Modern physics has no model for the soul (a problem that I have tried to solve elsewhere). This is a 20th century insanity driven largely by the terror of industrialized warfare. With psychology resistant to direct engagement, hypnotherapy is the best discipline for those seeking to deepen their spirituality. Hypnotherapy is also accommodating of religious orientation: It doesn’t seek to guide, but only to bear witness as the client seeks harmony.

Given that the modern world drives us to analyze and do, how do we know when we have reached the soul, the fundament of being? A survey of the great theologies reveals these precepts: a receding of concern with concrete outcomes and a growing seeking after harmony between the mind and body; a sense of the world entering into us rather than the projection of the self into the world; and a growing confidence that limitless love is the foundation of reality.

These principles have a long track record in supporting people seeking healing. Spiritual deepening facilitates life review.

In our modern society the greatest obstacle is overcoming materialism that encourages most of us to ignore spirituality – even if “scientific thinking” does not cause us to reject it outright. The strategies for overcoming such resistance are subtle, beginning with a survey of moments of inexplicably deep connection to the self and others. To protect against identity confusion, those experiences must be anchored with love. Love preserves and amplifies virtues in us witnessed by others and protects us from corruption. In Cheryl O’Neil’s Therapeutic Imagery, those truths are established as a foundation before undertaking any hypnotic work.

But the end goal of spiritual deepening? That is informed by a simple precept: spirituality is the negotiation of the boundaries between “I” and “we.” It is a process that can occur only in community, ideally among those seeking similar aims. When that condition is lacking, conflict arises. As a core principle, then, spiritual deepening requires inner peace, our next topic.

Part 1 || Part 2 | Part 4

Basics, Mind Management

The Ethics of NLP

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a discipline developed by Richard Bandler and Eric Grinder. If you think of computer programming as “cyber-linguistic programming,” you’ll get the gist of NLP. Assuming that the mind is an information processing device, NLP proposes a model of how the mind receives and filters information, and then provides methods of communication that allow us to hack the program.

NLP was popularized in the 1990s by Tony Robbins, whose Unleash the Power Within seminars use a form of group hypnosis to encourage people to cast off their self-limiting beliefs. During business networking, I have encountered life coaches, mediators, sales people and hypnotists who testify to have mastered these practices in seminars typically lasting a week or so.

A characteristic moment from Robbins’ seminar illustrates the technique. Tony may start “you like me – want to get the most out of this weekend.” Through emphasis, that innocuous sentence embeds the suggestion that “I like him.” The suggestion is obscured by the pause between “you” and “like,” and so may be discarded by the conscious mind when the sentence is completed. But the emotional effect lingers on in the subconscious, and subsequently affects our behaviors.

I could elaborate the NLP model, but I hesitate for ethical reasons. That caution was codified by Milton Erickson when founding the America Society for Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH). All members must be licensed clinicians with a degree in mental health. (That’s right: I don’t qualify for membership.)

This is significant because Erickson was one of the clinical luminaries that Bandler and Grinder studied to develop the communication patterns that give NLP its power. Erickson’s caution is illustrated in a published paper that applies those patterns to his own work: “Transcript of Trance Induction with Commentary.”

The value of the paper is not just in its elucidation of the techniques that would be adopted in NLP, but also for what it reveals about the context in which those methods were developed. Erickson was an academic researcher, and coaxed many of his patients to serve as experimental subjects before beginning therapy. This was because Erickson felt that successful therapy required the application of “hypnotic work” that was accessible only after twenty or more hours of conditioning. But the experimental subjects were not limited to patients. Erickson and his wife also hosted weekend gatherings in which friends and colleagues were encouraged to explore hypnotic experience.

“Transcript…” is interesting on its face because it shows how skillfully and gently Erickson went about bringing his subjects into hypnotic experience. But for the concerns of this post, the important point is made near the end of the session. Erickson takes the subject into an age regression. The commentary reads:

Her hand didn’t point, so then I started narrowing down. Have her point with her left hand. When she failed to do that, I knew how deep in the water I was. I was out of contact with her.

The problem is in having convinced the subject that she was about eighteen years old, severe trauma would occur if she awoke in that mental state in a room with people who related to her as a thirty-year-old – not least her husband.

NLP techniques are powerful in part because they bypass the conscious mind – but that in itself is why they are so dangerous. The subject changes their behavior and doesn’t understand why. They begin to fear that they are losing their grip on themselves, and so that they might begin to express their worst tendencies. The mind turns against itself and may break.

As I summarized in a prior post, Erickson was extremely sensitive to this vulnerability, and eventually began to try to dissuade practitioners from application of his methods of speaking. Paraphrasing, his observation was

Do not believe that you can adopt my manner of speaking and thereby achieve the same therapeutic results.

I believe that he left silent the stronger caution: that in fact, the subject can be harmed when linguistic methods are applied with neither psychological understanding nor compassionate intuition. (This is not a hypothetical: I have interviewed a client who was so affected.)

Some confirmation of this caution is found in Hammond’s “Handbook of Hypnotic Suggestions and Metaphors.” Hammond summarized the collected wisdom of the ASCH, and in surveying research on the effectiveness of techniques for formulating suggestions, reported studies that showed NLP was of marginal therapeutic value.

For those of us without clinical degrees, Cheryl O’Neil’s Therapeutic Imagery program, the culmination of the lay hypnotherapy program formulated by Dr. John Kappas at HMI, is a safe practice. The therapeutic method facilitates self-improvement through gradual reconciliation of conscious and subconscious perspectives. The pacing of the process is under the full control of the subconscious mind, whose over-riding concern is to preserve the subject’s well-being.

Basics, Mind Management

Hypnotherapy and Polyvagal Theory

In the basic Kappasinian Theory of Mind, we all need balance between adventurous (euphoria-seeking) and protective (fear-avoiding) behaviors. The goal of all therapy is to establish and maintain a healthful balance for the client. In this post, I consider how Kappasinian practices relate to Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory (described wonderfully here).

As emphasized by Porges, our bodies are designed to seek homeostasis (the restful state in which we “feed and breed”). When threatened by unfamiliar or overwhelming experiences, we drop into a simple decision-making process: should we fight (“Can I eat it?”) or flee (“Can it eat me?”). If neither of those tactics resolves the conflict, we simply freeze (conserve energy until an escape presents itself). In the animal kingdom, survivors use shaking and quivering to discharge the residual energy, restoring homeostasis.

These kinds of experiences are traumatic, and if repeated drive us into protective behaviors. On the other hand, in safe social circumstances, those same kinds of experiences can evolve as play. When playing our pretend threats are accompanied with gestures and statements that reassure our partner. The classic pet behaviors are the dog crouching on its fore-paws, or the cat gnawing on our finger in between licks. During play, both euphoria and fear are at elevated levels.

The nerve that mediates our overall physical state (the vagus nerve) has an ancient (reptilian) part that manages the freeze response, and a more recent (mammalian) part that controls excitement. As these responses involve complex coordination among all the body parts, the vagus returns ten times as much information back to the brain as it sends out.

One of the challenges in overcoming traumatic experiences is that fear suppresses our ability to exchange reassuring gestures and statements. This permanently suppresses our ability to feel euphoria, leaving us at the mercy of fear. That prevents us from restoring homeostasis, leaving us in a perpetual state of self-induced stress that damages our physical and mental well-being. If the trauma occurred early in childhood (such as a difficult birth), we may be unable to remember the circumstances, and thus release the trauma.

Porges’ solution is to deal with the problem symptomatically. Exposing the sufferer to soothing sounds, sights or sensations overcomes the blocks to reassuring stimulation. When accompanied by mindful relaxation, the mind learns to tie that reassurance to homeostasis.

The classic Kappasinian therapy for fear and anxiety builds an experience that mixes these same elements – but with the amplifying factor of hypnosis (our optimal learning state).

Therapy begins with a progressive relaxation that establishes homeostasis.

If the trauma is mild, circle therapy is used to walk the client through a remembered experience. If the fear is irrational or of unknown origin, systematic desensitization is used to command the subconscious (the true source of the reaction) to produce the emotion. Ideomotor finger raising is used to control the level of anxiety. When discomfort is visible, the client is told to lower the finger and “pass it,” directing them back into homeostasis. As the process is repeated, the mind becomes confident in its ability to control the transition, and eventually chooses homeostasis.

If the trauma is deep, these practices are preceded with sessions that build a safe haven in the subconscious landscape, ensuring that the learned skills take root in a context free from debilitating memories. For this purpose, today’s practitioners will often use therapeutic imagery, but even they will reinforce that work with a staple of Kappasinian therapy: a staircase deepener that projects a positive, confident self-image into the subconscious.

The final element of Kappasinian therapy is to suggest that the client begin to chuckle and smile as they come out of hypnosis. As the therapist smiles and speaks soothingly, this reinforces the ability to exchange reassuring signals. Of all the suggestions offered by Kappasinian therapists, this is the most playful.

Porges first articulated his polyvagal theory back in the early 1980’s and the therapeutic practices were not popularized until well into the new millennium. Hypnotherapists trained with Kappas’ methods have been performing these therapies since the sixties. Not only do those techniques have the same effect as those offered by Porges, but they are coupled to far broader strategies for overall behavior development.