Recently, a Christian colleague made it clear to me that he found the use of hypnosis at the very least questionable and at the very worst “dark.” He asked me to refrain from using it in my psychotherapy work with my contract patients in the agency he founded. For lack of time, I assured him that I would honor his wishes, but quickly pointed out to him that the use of hypnosis (whether it was formal trance or Verbal First Aid, which is the use of words to facilitate healing in acute situations, such as accidents or shock) was no different than the use of a knife. In the hands of a good surgeon, it could be a life-saver. In the hands of a madman, it would be dark indeed.
Afterwards, it became clear to me that his understanding of hypnosis and mine were quite different. And any good debate must begin with a clarification of terms. Too many reasonable discussions deteriorate into pointless argument because no one fully defines himself.
What do we mean then by trance and hypnosis? More specifically, what do Christians who fear hypnosis mean by it and what do ethical clinicians mean by it? For our purposes today, we will leave the madmen out of it.
The Christian Definitions or Concerns:
It is very important to address this because what Christians fear about hypnosis is something rather fearful: deliberation manipulation, external mind control, or spell-casting that leaves a person open to spiritual corruption. They form their impressions of the technique from what they have read in popular media (including the early reports on “Mesmerism,” which was presented as a demonic seduction of young women by irresistible and wretched old men), watched on TV, or seen in lounge acts where hypnosis is reduced to having some poor sot play air guitar or bite happily into an onion.
It is not hard to see what makes them uneasy. And, what is worse is that there are people in the world who use hypnotic trance unethically. They may not be madmen, but they should not be calling themselves healers or professionals by any means.
In fact, the worst of these “trance inducers” have nothing to do with lounge acts or private practices. There are at least two times a day when most people are in the deepest, most vulnerable and suggestible trances they are ever in: When they are driving in their cars and when they are at home watching television. And the messages they receive in those states-usually corporate advertising-are what they are unconsciously absorbing.
2. Spiritual Bankruptcy
In Christianity’s beginnings, as in early Judaism, sickness (or insanity) was seen as a function of sin or possession. And the ONLY thing that could cure sin was God and our faith in Him. Anything that interfered with that relationship and dependence on God was prohibited. In those days, that interference usually took the shape of idolatry and pagan religions.
When seen as “mesmerism” or as a loss of control to an unknown entity (e.g., the intentions or spirituality of the hypnotherapist), hypnosis leaves the individual vulnerable to literally who-knows-what-malevolent suggestion, criminal manipulation, and demons.
As Father Russell Radoicich, an Orthodox priest from Butte, Montana, wrote, “Christianity has always called people to live in full awareness, in reality, with nothing having mastery over us except God.” When hypnosis is defined as making one person subject to another (spiritually or mentally), is it any wonder that it is seen as questionable if not downright dangerous?
Hypnosis seen this way-as a quick fix with little depth-can also be considered a crutch or a deterrent to spiritual growth, which is why Father Russell reminds us that “the spiritual work must be done or there is no true rehabilitation. People may lose weight or stop smoking, but the deeper matter has not been addressed.”
Hypnosis, when used as a proper tool in a healing manner, can actually help to facilitate what Fr. Russell is referring to as “the spiritual work” or “the deeper matter.” Again, it is in the hands of the practitioner and the patient as to where the work goes. And in this regard the choice of clinician is important.
3. The Loosening of Moral Inhibition
One of Christianity’s great fears about hypnosis is that it induces a moral laxity and makes the prohibited permissible in the patient’s mind. And, again, when hypnosis is seen this way its prohibition is understandable.
The truth, however, is that clinical hypnosis cannot make anyone do anything that would undermine their moral or ethical resolve.
In an article interview on Hypnosisnetwork, Paul Durbin, a United Methodist minister with a long history of clinical and pastoral service, recalls a famous story about Milton Erickson, M.D., one of the great hypnotherapists and psychiatrists of the last century.
One day Dr. Erickson went to his secretary and told her he was tired and wanted to rest. If anyone called, he told her, she was to say that he was out of the office. She agreed to do this for him. Some time later he put her in a hypnotic trance. He then made the same request-to tell people he was out of the office when he was in fact taking a break. While still in a formally induced trance, she refused him. “Why?” he wanted to know.
“Because,” she said, “it would be a lie.”
Ironically, in hypnosis she had a stronger moral resolve than in her normal waking state.
Hypnosis is not “brainwashing,” as Durbin points out. Brainwashing can be accomplished at any time, with or without formal trance simply by the constant repetition of suggestion. In our culture we call this advertising and media bombardment.
Let us now take a look at how responsible clinicians see hypnosis and how it can be helpful and safe for Christians to utilize it in their own healing process–whether that’s from a back injury, a surgical procedure, or a painful divorce.
The Clinical Definitions:
1. Trance As An Ordinary State of Consciousness
Perhaps the most important definition from the clinical point of view is that hypnosis only utilizes a state of consciousness that is already natural and normal. Trance is not something that is artificially induced in a person. It is not something the hypnotherapist “does” to the patient. It is simply a state of awareness in which we are more focused on an internal process (breathing, thoughts, heartbeat) and most importantly it is something all of us move in and out of all day.
Trance is normal rather than exceptional. What a good clinician will do is utilize that ordinary ability to shift awareness so that pain can be relieved, psychological blockages removed (e.g., fixations on traumatic events), and healing can be facilitated in a variety of ways.
This normal shift of awareness is even more common and spontaneous when we are frightened, hurt, or ill, which is why Verbal First Aid works so well to help stop bleeding, reduce an inflammatory response, and lower blood pressure. We can see it even more dramatically when it is used with children who enter fairly easily and frequently into “trance.”
2. Hypnosis is a Tool. Healing is Spiritual.
Healing is not dependent on one technique. A good healer or responsible clinician has more than one tool in her tool kit. Hypnosis may be one of them, but it is almost never the only one.
Hypnosis, when seen this way, as just another tool, becomes less threatening. Most clinicians acknowledge that the deepest healing is often spiritual in nature and that they are facilitators, not magicians.
Pope Pius addressed the concerns of Catholics regarding hypnosis in childbirth and stated that when used by a health care professional who was properly trained, treatment was permitted.
He also cautioned us that:
· Hypnosis was a serious issue and that it should not be toyed with;
· Practitioners should be guided by the same moral principles (Judeo-Christian ones) in their use of hypnosis as with anything else;
· The rules of good medicine must apply as much to hypnosis as to any other technique.
The truth is that no one other than God knows how healing actually occurs. We can suture one piece of skin to another, but how it knits together remains an ineffable mystery.
How Verbal First Aid Works in Alliance with Faith and the Faithful
If the definitions of trance as clinicians use it are accurate (and I believe they are) and the dangers are real as Christians see them (and I believe they certainly can be), how can the healing use of imagery work together with the faithful so that as Jesus said in John 10:10, “I am come that they may have life and have it more abundantly.”
In the beginning was the word.
That words are powerful is a familiar concept to those who read the Bible. According to many biblical scholars, the first sin was not pride, was not disobedience, was not sex. It was gossip-the misuse of words. And it is a most serious act with terribly dire consequences. The serpent whispers to Eve: “You shall not surely die.” He lied. He misled her and all of humanity, for with those words he surely brought us death.
And the only sin for which the Lord will not find us guiltless is using His name in vain.
Words have a prominent position in the Bible from the third sentence: And GOD SAID LET THERE BE LIGHT. He did not create with His “hands” or “eyes”. The “word” is used throughout to mean the “truth.” He spoke-“By the word of the Lord were the heavens made (Ps. 33).” To speak is to WILL into existence. What we say and how we say it is a co-creative act. What we say hangs somewhere between heaven and earth.
Words matter. The mystics have always known this. Only now is science catching up.
Why? Because they create images in the mind of the person to whom we are speaking. Those images and the thoughts that flow with them generate cascades of chemistry that dictate not only how we feel emotionally, but how fast or slow our hearts beat, how high our blood pressure goes, how profoundly we feel the pain of an injury, even the way our livers function.
We all use words all the time. And they have the power to help or to harm. This is already happening–on the streets, in our classrooms, on our cell phones, in our cars. What we say–and what we hear–changes the way we live and heal at the most fundamental levels. Isn’t it our obligation to make what we say as healing as possible? That’s what Verbal First Aid does–gives us the tools to be healing with our words.
Hypnosis is no different than a sermon, a lecture, a television show or a good book. It is the use of words to move us. When used in the right way with a proper intention, those words can help us heal.