Hypnosis and Mindfulness

September 29th, 2011

“This is the only way…for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of namely, the Four Arousings of Mindfulness.”
Satipatthana Sutta

Mindfulness is becoming ever more popular. Techniques associated with mindfulness are being incorporated into psychotherapy, most notably into cognitive behavioural psychotherapy but also into psychoanalysis and various other types of therapy and counselling.

This can only be a good thing. At any rate, it offers an alternative view of humanity and its place in the world from that of economists, politicians and the mass media. For them, a person is essentially a consumer. A person’s role in today’s world is to work every longer hours in order to earn ever more money, to spend ever more money and thus contribute to an economy which is conceived on the unstable basis of eternal and endless growth. Generally speaking the “average person” (whoever he or she may be) is richer than ever before. But he or she is by no means more secure and certainly not happier.

Future generations face seemingly insuperable obstacles in this race towards every greater acquisition. Degrees used to be free (for those able to make the grade) but the cost has gone up from £0.00, only a few years ago, to £27,000, and rising. House prices are terrifyingly high – great for those who own them, horrific for those who aspire to ownership. Fulfilling, meaningful employment is ever more hard to come by.

This emphasis upon acquisition as the be-all and end-all creates a climate of anxiety which the mass media attempts to assuage by offering a false message of hope. Britain’s Got Talent – therefore So Have You! “Musicians”, with no discernable executive talent and absolutely no ability to create something for themselves, are rewarded with untold Fame and Fortune. Some of the highest-paid people in this country are – people who are good at playing football. It is politically incorrect to rate the cultural achievements of the past as greater than the mass-produced cultural products of today. Today, one can suggest that Mozart and Michael Jackson are artistic equals and expect to be taken seriously. It is OK to rate the latter higher than the former but absolutely not the other way round. Artistically, we live in a fast-food culture. Music, books, films, shows, and other entertainments, are endlessly mass produced for the consumer to binge upon and then discard. And if the arteries of the soul get a bit clogged – well, such diseases are invisible. Or are they?

Mindfulness stands in stark contradiction to all of this. Where “society” demands endless stimulation and variety, ever greater acquisition and endless growth, mindfulness promotes stability, acceptance and (ultimately) transcendence. But what is “mindfulness”? Where did it come from and who invented it?

The recent appearance of mindfulness in the context of therapy might lead us to think that mindfulness is something new. It isn’t. The concept ultimately derives from early Buddhist literature, such as the Satipatthana Sutta, from which the above quotation is taken. This work is part of a body of literature which was developed orally over a period of many centuries and first written down sometime in or around the first century BC. If mindfulness is enhanced self-knowledge then this is something we find in early Greek history and culture, from the Delphic Oracle’s demand to “know thyself” to Socrates’ dictum that “virtue is knowledge”. In another era, and a different continent, Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote: “To understand a problem obviously requires a certain intelligence, and that intelligence cannot be derived from or cultivated through specialization. It comes into being only when we are passively aware of the whole process of our consciousness, which is to be aware of ourselves without choice, without choosing what is right and what is wrong”. (Krishnamurti: The Problems of Living). If that’s not a definition of mindfulness then I don’t know what is.

How does mindfulness relate to therapy? Is there any relationship between mindfulness and hypnosis? Can mindfulness be incorporated into hypnotherapy?

In an article entitled Mindfulness and the Mindful Therapist: Possible Contributions to Hypnosis (Contemporary Hypnosis 26(4): 234 – 244 (2009)), Dr Michael Harrer considers this very question. His article discusses certain features and characteristics of mindfulness, in theory and practice, which don’t concern us here. He argues that mindfulness in the therapeutic relationship is likely to be of great advantage to both therapist and client. The “mindful therapist” is attentive, prepared to confront all feelings and experiences, accepting, empathetic and compassionate, and many other things besides. But what I find most interesting in this article is that Dr Harrer’s attempt to relate mindfulness to hypnosis tends to accentuate the differences between them rather than the similarities.

In an earlier article about meditation I suggested that there was some similarity or overlap between hypnosis and meditation and my reason for saying this is that I believe that suggestion and suggestibility ultimately lies at the heart of both. But it might be better to think of the two phenomena as two very different sides to the same coin. I would suggest that the effect – the outcome – of the practice of mindfulness is similar, if not identical, to the practice of Transcendental Meditation, whatever other differences there may be both in theory and practice. The aim of both is to raise awareness, to make the practitioner more aware. But, in my opinion, this is not the aim of hypnosis. Harrer points to certain similarities, or shared features, such as absorption, concentration, focus and the like. But to grasp the essential difference, just consider the language that we use to characterize hypnosis on the one hand and meditative states on the other.

Height / depth imagery is common to both. In the practice and induction of hypnosis we tend overwhelmingly towards depth imagery. We speak of trance depth, we use state deepeners, the visual imagery we use will very often incorporate the notion of descent. Hypnotic subjects might be asked to imagine that they are going down in a lift or on an escalator, or that they are gradually descending some steps. In meditation, not only is depth imagery avoided, the whole emphasis seems to be upon the contrary direction. We go upwards, awareness is heightened. The very notion of transcendence seems to imply rising-above.

So the question remains: do these rather different types of mental practice render the subject more or less susceptible to suggestion? I strongly suspect – though cannot prove – that highly suggestible people will respond better to meditation as well as hypnosis. I therefore think that it is highly likely that meditation as well as hypnosis enables the subject to accept and receive (positive) suggestions. But the only way to prove this is to put it to the test – to experiment.

Harrer, M. E., (2009) Mindfulness and the Mindful Therapist: Possible Contributions to Hypnosis (Contemporary Hypnosis 26(4): 234 – 244)

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