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A Comprehensive Guide?

March 25th, 2013

James, T. (2003) Hypnosis: A Comprehensive Guide: Producing Deep Trance Phenomena, Crown House Publishing.

This book is by an American author and therapist. The approach to therapy outlined in this book is eclectic, to put it mildly. As a therapist, the author uses TimeLine therapy, Ericksonian hypnotherapy, and NLP. As this book is about hypnosis and hypnotherapy the main emphasis is on Erickson. Yet this book also contains a chapter on George Estabrooks and Dave Elman, whose work stands in marked contrast to that of Erickson. There is also mention of the eye-fixation techniques of James Braid, a 19th century pioneer of hypnotism.

The inclusion of such diverse figures and approaches in such a modest-sized book suggests that the author isn’t committed to any fixed theoretical framework when it comes to hypnosis. This is the first of two main problems with this book, and with so many similar books.

The bottom line is that this author, in common with so many other NLP and Ericksonian practitioners, believes – and wants us to believe – that there is no such thing as objective reality. What we regard as “reality” is really something which is mind-dependent. There may be some good philosophical reasons for taking such a view, but not for taking it so literally and simplistically as to imply that absolutely everything can therefore be changed if we only believe hard enough, or that everything bad that happens to us is somehow self-inflicted – our own fault. The subject of cancer is touched upon in the book, along with the suggestion that if we believe that our cancer can be cured then it will be cured. Therefore people who die of it simply don’t believe enough. The author doesn’t state this explicitly but the implication is clear enough. The author may believe this wholeheartedly. I find such suggestions dishonest, misleading and cruel. Dishonest because there isn’t a shred of hard scientific evidence to suggest that belief or faith, whether religiously or hypnotically induced, can have any impact on terminal cancer. Misleading because it suggests that hypnosis is a miraculous cure-all panacea – the language of magic crops up with depressing frequency in books about NLP and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. Cruel because it implies that people with terminal cancer have only themselves to blame for their condition.

For James, hypnosis and hypnotherapy seems to be about turning off the critical faculty. The argument seems to be that if nothing is “real” then anything which undermines the perception of the world as “real” will be sufficient to induce trance. James quotes Erickson’s statement that ambiguity in any representational system is sufficient to induce “trance”. Maybe there is some truth in this, but it is not the whole story. If it were, then trance would be induced by telling subjects that two plus two equals pink, or showing them some of Dali’s pictures of floppy clocks. The book included an “induction” which merely consists of a series of simple questions. I have been a hypnotherapist for long enough to know how utterly ineffectual such an approach would be with most clients one sees on a day-to-day basis.

Related to this is the other main problem with this book. Books about hypnosis and hypnotherapy inevitably contain “scripts” – sequences of suggestions which the hypnotist says to the subject. For an experienced hypnotist / hypnotherapist, reading such scripts can be tooth-grindingly boring. But these scripts have been compiled by an American therapist with American subjects in mind. Does this matter? Yes, because what is perfectly natural and effective for an American therapist and client will probably seem hopelessly false and phoney if delivered by a British hypnotherapist to a British client. Americans are often more emotional and expressive than British people. Inductions which might seem compelling and convincing to an American subject might well seem embarrassing, importunate or even repellent to a British or European client.

What the reader needs, then, is a clear explanation of the principles upon which the induction methods are based, and this is what is largely missing here. Why is it supposed to be effective to ask certain questions, to omit certain words or to phrase things in a certain way? With Erickson, such questions are very hard to answer because, consummate communicator as he was, one can be pretty certain that much of what was effective in Erickson’s own inductions was non-verbal – body language, tone of voice and verbal nuance, personality, charisma and a whole host of other things.

At the end of the day, it is not all about text and script. The poetry of Shakespeare or Keats may move us to tears if delivered by a great actor or speaker, or it may bore us to distraction or make us squirm with embarrassment if recited by someone with no talent or feel for the words at all. The same is true with hypnosis. The same text, script or induction methods may be supremely effective if delivered by person X and totally ineffective if delivered by person Y. Any experienced hypnotherapist knows this to be true but you will find nothing in this book to enlighten you as to why this is the case.

That said, the book is by no means without value. Anyone interested in Erickson might find this a useful introduction. It certainly contains a clear and concise summary of his methods, at least at the verbal level. Reading this book has reawakened my own interest in both Erickson and Elman and it has also reminded me of the power and importance of self-hypnosis and self-suggestion. For that alone the book was worth reading.

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