Active Aging, Specializations

Hypnotherapy in Later Life: Part 5

Life in Harmony

Developed in the third quarter of the 20th century, the Ericksons’ Stages of Development end at age 65. Today if we live to 65, we have a 50% chance of living to 90. Given that nearly a third of life can be lived after retirement, we would expect to find stages on that journey into mortality. Indeed, after her husband’s death Joan added a ninth stage of development in which prior successes are challenged as the organism and mind weaken.

Louise Aronson (in “Elderhood”) applies a model arising from the medical community. It aligns with the ninth stage of development but distinguishes social and medical challenges. Retirement, as a social challenge, often occurs while we still have physical and mental vitality. As in Erickson’s model, these “seniors” (as Aronson labels them) are concerned with sustaining the integrity of a personality that slowly is cut off from the pillars that support its expression. It is only among the “old” that accommodation must be made for slacking vitality. Among the “elderly” medical concerns dominate, while the “aged” hope for dignity in the process of dying.

In both cases, of course, we have a sense that the final stage of life is a desperate gripping by the fingernails as the cliff tilts up and back over our heads.

To escape this dread, I add the liberating dimension of spirituality. The practices are:

  • Life review to remove limitations to personal growth.
  • Spiritual deepening as a loving management of the boundaries between “I” and “we.”
  • Inner peace as stillness and sensitivity that guide us into beneficial relationships.

The goal is a life lived in harmony and balance.

Let’s elaborate now on why that is hard. As a child we adapt to the culture defined by our parents. The middle stages of development are driven by conflict between those behaviors and society. To manage that conflict, the conscious mind evolves to engage society and validate experience. The subconscious – the original “naked” mind – continues to operate, but never fully integrates our social experience. Conversely, the conscious mind operates without full access to the physical and spiritual resources managed by the subconscious.

If to live in harmony is to expose those resources, then harmony requires that we heal the divide between the conscious and subconscious minds.

How does hypnotherapy facilitate this process? By helping seniors achieve the Stages of Development in their new living environment, thereby removing resistance to spiritual growth.

I myself began this journey in my adolescence. As a child of the ‘60s entering adulthood in the ‘70s I realized that our society needed to change. I choose love as the fulcrum for that change. In 2005, my exploration of that principle had revealed:

Love dissolves the barriers of time and space, allowing wisdom, understanding and energy to flow between us, and embracing us with the courage, clarity and calm that overcomes obstacles and creates opportunities.

One manifestation of this principle came as my unconscious father clung to life on his last day. I stood at the head of his bed to announce “Dad, a big brain party is waiting for you in heaven.” The hospice nurse, noticing the change in his face, announced “I think that he heard you.”

Seniors have a unique opportunity to cultivate such capabilities. As harmony grows, it becomes palpable to others as a presence of peace. Its effects include dissolving anger and fear, exposing hypocrisy, redirecting resistance, and encouraging collaboration. Those benefits unroll to shape the future. Reaching into the past, peace recovers parts of the personality trapped in sorrow or trauma. Through these gifts, the elder draws to them those less experienced or fortunate. They are beloved not for their ability to entertain, but for their abilities to heal and guide.

In a study of nuns in the Order of Notre Dame, another inexplicable benefit was seen. The academics saw the simplicity of the community as an asset, allowing them to expose the biological preconditions for dementia. As part of the study, the Sisters agreed to be autopsied after their death. The surprise came when the autopsies showed that women in their 90s, fully functional and active, had brains like those suffering from late-stage dementia.

How can this be? My sense is that when life and soul are fully aligned, the brain is no longer necessary to the expression of our intentions. The soul immerses itself directly into the tissues it needs to control. In exploring this new process of living, the soul surrenders fear of separation from the body. When the time comes, it lets go gracefully.

The last post in this series will consider the contrasting outcome – a long, debilitating decline into incoherence – and how hypnotherapy can minimize the associated trauma for both beloved and caregivers.

Part I || Part 4 | Part 6


Clinical Hypnosis is not Hypnotherapy

When our health is threatened, we take extreme measures to protect and restore it. Staying alive, after all, is necessary to anything else. For this reason, when sick or injured we are vulnerable to deception and self-serving by those claiming to restore us to wellness.

To the extent that wellness exists in the body, the methods of science have much to offer those that need healing.

In the medical field, the precepts of science are easy to fulfill. We can diagnose the patient’s condition using objective observations. We can stage clinical trials that compare the efficacy and side-effects of various treatments. And we can apply the methods of engineering to standardize therapies and minimize cost.

Recognizing these benefits, states adopted licensing laws to ensure that medical practitioners adhered to sound scientific practices.

In the 1800s, those caring for the mentally ill encountered diseases that seemed to fit the medical model. Foremost of these was syphilitic meningitis (in which the syphilis bacteria attacks the brain). For this reason, psychiatry was made part of the medical world. Various alternative forms of therapy were grandfathered in, including hypnosis and psychoanalysis.

Psychiatry and psychotherapy were thus granted the imprimatur of science, and states eventually interceded to license their practice. Unfortunately, as generation after generation of therapeutic methods was applied and disproven, it became clear that mental illness was far more difficult to characterize than illness in the body. Schizophrenia, depression, and neurosis were split and blended until with the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual v. 5) there are more than 200 recognized conditions, most of which are recognized as covering a spectrum of severity.

Now this seems wonderfully scientific, but there’s a catch: who among us doesn’t have a psychiatric condition at the low end of the spectrum? This is not idle speculation. Under licensing laws, only a licensed clinician can treat psychiatric conditions.

In California, the methods identified by use for clinicians include interviewing, counseling, drugs, and hypnosis. When the licensing law was proposed, other professions took exception to reservation of those methods. Among those granted specific exceptions were attorneys, religious leaders, and hypnotherapists.

Now hypnotherapy and psychotherapy are often both seen as “mental health” disciplines, but the legal definition of hypnotherapy defies that: it says that hypnotherapists may utilize hypnosis for “vocational and avocational self-improvement.” This is an essential distinction. What it says is that the hypnotherapist’s client knows what changes they want in their behavior, and seeks assistance in accomplishing those changes. Through experience, a hypnotherapist may offer additional guidance, but at every step it is the client who chooses what is inserted into the subconscious mind.

Conversely the psychiatric patient has a generalized malaise and doesn’t know how to change. A psychiatrist is thus allowed to change the patient’s mind with prescribed medication or therapy.

Considering the application of hypnosis, how does clinical practice differ from hypnotherapy? An excellent example is found in the introduction to Erickson’s “My Voice Will Follow You.” Erickson was visited by a woman who was systematically sexually abused by her father until leaving the house at 17. The woman described her painful fear of an erect penis. Erickson’s therapy was to call her “stupid” as she didn’t realize that her vagina could “render any penis soft.” With that established, he suggested that she enjoy “vicious pleasure” in exercising that power.

How is this a hypnotic approach? In calling her “stupid,” Erickson validated her worst fears to achieve a shock induction (kind of like throwing her in front of a bus). He then gave the subconscious a strong image of personal power (the effect of her vagina) before encouraging her to enjoy the exercise of that power.

I don’t know whether he considered the impact on her subsequent sexual victim. At least, given the summary, I hope that there was only one, as that was the plan she had upon leaving the clinic.

Obviously Erickson is skating on the edge of disaster here, and only as a highly experienced clinician should he ever have exercised that authority. If the wheels came off the bus (so to speak) during the shock induction he had the authority to prescribe medication and commit the patient for observation. The problem is that this bravado is typical of clinical hypnotists. As evidenced in the continuation of the introduction, at least some of Erickson’s proteges revel in demonstrations of that kind of power – seemingly magical cures achieved with just a few words.

But this is not what I do as a hypnotherapist. Having heard that this woman suffered childhood sexual abuse, I would have recognized that she was suffering from a mental wound and referred her to a licensed clinician. If she came in complaining only of frigidity, I would have asked her to explain the imagery she associated with intercourse, and helped her develop alternatives that might release her anxiety. All of this would be done in conversation before hypnosis was induced to associate the new imagery with intercourse – and followed by referral to her medical doctor to verify that no health issue existed.

Obviously there is an ambiguous line here: in the first case, the clinician heals the client; in the second, the hypnotherapist helps her strengthen her personality. Is that “strengthening” also a healing? That’s hard to tell. But the question is whether a client wishing to strengthen her personality should be denied the opportunity to have a hypnotherapist facilitate that process.

California’s Business and Professional Practices Code answers emphatically “No!”

The reason that I emphasize this at this juncture is that Psychology Today defines “hypnotherapy” as clinical hypnosis, and pointedly excludes from its recommendation graduates of accredited Colleges of Hypnotherapy (such as the Hypnosis Motivation Institute). Furthermore, psychotherapists often tell their patients that they cannot also seek the assistance of a hypnotherapist. As I see it, both the magazine and the therapist are engaged in illegal restraint of trade – and you can be certain that if I had the resources I would see them in court for it.

Hypnotherapy is a distinct discipline with its own methods, intellectual frameworks and scope of application. So long as services rendered are “vocational and avocational self-improvement,” the public has the right to engage a hypnotherapist to strengthen their personality. If clinician wishes to constrain such use, it must come with a strong written argument that the benefits sought by the client are potentially harmful to their self-interest.

Active Aging, Specializations

Hypnotherapy in Later Life: Part 4

Inner Peace

What does inner peace look like? To many, it would be a serene spiritual figure – the Virgin Mary, Gandhi, or White Tara.

Can we imagine becoming that?

Probably not, and it’s not what I mean by “inner peace.” Inner peace is not an endpoint, it’s a waypoint. It facilitates our growth be reducing inner resistance to change.

To understand how that works, we’re going to take a round-about journey, first looking at peace in the daily world.

In the daily world, most obviously peace is an end to conflict. From the history books, it doesn’t seem to be a natural condition. When peace is interrupted by conflict, nations restore it only by dominance – one side wins the war, and the loser submits to regulation.

But is the loser at peace? “Free will” is often argued against by scientists, but in the original political sense it recognized that the loser’s mind was not restricted from turning toward liberation. You might force a man to work for you, but you could expect him to seek freedom at the first opportunity.

Sometimes that liberation appears in unusual ways. MLK Jr. spoke of being “taken up to the mountain” and having “seen the promised land.” This echoes the testimony of African American theologians born in the early 1900’s. They said that their grandparents had everything taken from them – even the flesh of their flesh – and so turned inward in prayer, discovered a presence of infinite love. That knowledge gave them the psychological strength to turn the tables on their tormenters.

Is this a strange way to start a search for inner peace? Considering the world’s religions, perhaps not. The antics of pagan deities reflect the turmoil present in human nature and thus the individual mind. That private conflict was recognized in monotheistic religions, with adherents cautioned to follow the Golden Rule. (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”) From there it was carried into the theory of psychiatry, with the mentally ill often seen as being at war with themselves. As documented by Anne Harrington (“The Mind Fixers”), psychiatrists were thus given dispensation to wage war against the demented part using isolation, labor, self-recrimination, surgery, and drugs.

We should naturally reject all such models in our search for inner peace.

A more suitable model is the family home. When conflict arises and dialog fails, we send the parties to their rooms. Mature members remain to craft a plan of reunion, while their wards contemplate the cost of isolation.

Taking the home as our example, inner peace only separates conflicting thoughts until they are ready for reconciliation. This is what I mean by inner peace: to recognize when mental conflict originates from tension in our thoughts, and to have the patience and discipline to reorganize our thinking so that the conflict is relieved.

Creating inner peace is difficult in the combative arena of the working world. That is why philosophers and religious seekers are often described as “retiring from the world.” But it also suggests that retirement is a great time to take up this goal.

The journey begins by learning to monitor and manage our level of physical agitation. The body exists to serve the mind, and when the mind is agitated, that comes with elevated blood pressure, restlessness, and even twitching. When we learn to calm those reactions, we can use them to monitor our progress in reducing mental conflict.

Hypnosis is an invaluable aid in that journey because it removes reaction delay. Common techniques include methods that improve tolerance and resilience, and specific types of discovery journeys.

As described thus far, inner peace seems to be mostly an intellectual journey. For those seeking spiritual deepening, however, it is an essential gateway. Spirituality, the negotiation of boundaries between “I” and “we,” begins in community. In group sessions, personal inner peace is extended to others.

Eventually inner peace does lead to profound spiritual awakening. Only those with the discipline to smother conflict are allowed entry to the parts of the spiritual landscape cultivated by our religious avatars. The elements of those landscapes have been shaped, honed, and precisely joined. The avatar’s will squeezes out dissonance.

Fortunately, the goal of every religious avatar is to see flowers bloom in their garden. Step softly and their realm thrills to the addition of the notes of your personality.

Part 1 || Part 3 | Part 5

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

Active Aging, Specializations

Hypnotherapy in Later Life: Part 2

Life Review

While philosophers make much of reason, the most complex parts of the mind evolved to help us create communities.

Community starts with the family – we look at our parents’ faces and find comfort or distress. Sometimes those responses are instinctive: when we smile, blood is forced into the brain and we feel happy. Perhaps intuitively we understand then that it is good when our parents smile. They are happy and reward us with their attention.

But other expressions seem arbitrary. Why make a raspberry, for example?

Well it turns out that not everybody does. Thus comes the problem of community: we wander away from the family and encounter other ways of relating. Rather than a raspberry, another person may snort to show disdain. It is the social center of the brain that allows us to see past the differences to build trust.

Eric and Joan Erickson studied personal growth to social maturity. Their “Stages of Development” recognize that what we learn at an earlier stage supports our success at later stages. In the early stages, however, society expects us to accomplish each stage by a certain age. That means that even if we have not mastered an earlier stage, we will be forced to move into the larger social setting as shown in the table. It’s expected of us.

Age Partner Issue Success
0-1 Mother Will the world provide for me? Trust
2-3 Parents Can I control myself? Autonomy
4-5 Family Can I control my environment? Initiative
6-12 School Can I succeed? Industry
13-22 Peers/Father Will society accept me? Identity
23-35 Lover/Spouse Can I be emotionally responsible? Intimacy
35-55 Workplace Can I be socially responsible? Generativity
55-65 Society Does life have meaning? Integrity

When the shift to larger concerns occurs too soon, we can feel like an alien, like we “don’t fit in.” Sometimes that’s not bad. We’ve all heard of children that were “precocious” – mature beyond their years. But most often it’s a problem for us – we say and do things that are inappropriate, making others uncomfortable and suffering their rejection.

The fulfilled life closes without regrets. Most of us muddle through, surrounding ourselves with people that don’t mind our quirks. At every step we do the best that we can and often find friends at hand when we need help. When that doesn’t happen, we are left with a trauma – and the regret that comes with it.

A good way to think about trauma is a muscle cramp. We strain against some force (like a heavy weight) and the muscle contracts until it gets tired and stops. If we are forced to hold the muscle at that position (perhaps by our own stubbornness), eventually it begins to cramp. Because the muscle tissue tears during a cramp, the effects can last for weeks or even years. During that time, we shift its burdens to other muscles. Those muscles become stronger, but that very strength can cause twisting of the posture that can itself become disabling.

I had several muscle injuries when I started yoga in my fifties, and posture problems to go with them it. While it was painful and frustrating, with discipline and patience they have healed. I learned to relax the compensating muscles so that my posture straightened, and then stretched and strengthened the original muscle.

Having done this work, I find that I move with greater grace and dignity. People stop to tell me how wonderful my posture is.

I spend all this time on muscle cramps because as regards social growth a similar opportunity is available to seniors after retirement. With the pressures of daily life behind them, they can revisit painful experiences in the past and apply their adult wisdom to heal them.

This is the opportunity of life review. The first goal is to prevent social trauma from affecting the choices we make in the present. But as the earliest social traumas ripple down through the rest of our lives, they affect our intimates as well. Our traumas infect others, and theirs infect us. Life review branches out to encompass others. Guided by the Stages of Development and other frameworks for personal growth, we attain insight that leads us toward forgiveness.

On my own journey, I eventually realized that all the people who hurt me were “doing as was done unto them,” looking all the while for someone strong enough to show them how to heal.

Retirement living also drives social change. We leave work and search for new ways to serve our community. Friends and partners retire, move away to be with family, or leave us behind when they die. No longer finding satisfaction is maintaining a large residence, we seek to simplify. One side-effect is close contact with others in facilities designed to stimulate the formation of new friendships and romantic interests.

In recognition of these facts, Joan Erickson suggested a ninth stage of development in which all the earlier stages were revisited. That occurs in retirement. What better opportunity to revisit old wounds and gaps to heal and strengthen our spirits? And find deeper fulfillment in the years that remain! A sensitive and compassionate therapist bears witness to those capacities, ensuring that we recognize and celebrate new growth.

The power of hypnotherapy is always to give courage to the subconscious mind that seeks safety. With gentle and persistent encouragement, it comes forward to reveal depths of experience that are known to few, as we’ll consider in our next post

Part 1 | Part 3