In looking for ideas about the power of the mind in healing, I’ve never thought about a possible link between mindfulness and hypnosis. Until now.
Michael Yapko claims there is a close connection between the two in his latest book, Mindfulness and Hypnosis.
He maintains that the teaching of mindfulness meditation closely parallels the use of hypnosis in psychotherapy. As he sees it, both rely on the power of suggestion, and the key to both lies in the mind’s ability to dissociate – to separate consciousness into different parts.
That’s a lot to get your mind around. First, I’ve always thought of myself as immune to the power of suggestion. Hypnosis seemed like trickery carried out with gullible people, and a lot of psychotherapists think the same thing.
I started to take it more seriously when I read about the key role of hypnosis in the recovery of novelist Reynolds Price from the excruciating pain of spinal cancer. I have also learned a little about the recent development of hypnotherapy.
But try it for severe depression? My gut reaction was simple: No way anyone was going to hypnotize me.
Mindfulness, though, that’s a different story. Learning to focus attention on moment-to-moment awareness has helped me take stress down by orders of magnitude.
It’s helped me to stop accepting all the inner beliefs of depression I used to think were true. And it’s taught me how to redirect my conscious awareness – on my own. I’m not being manipulated (that’s the way I thought of it) by a hypnotherapist.
And what about dissociation? That’s been a damaging symptom of depression in my life. It takes me back to all the times I separated myself from meetings I was running, my disappearing from emotional moments in family life and some of the worst, even delusional, states of panic I’ve ever experienced.
I can see how hypnosis brings out a level of consciousness that you’re not even aware of. My experience of mindfulness meditation is quite different. It’s a method of achieving a conscious awareness that sharpens and expands my mind. It feels more like a joining of different dimensions of mind rather than separating one from another.
I guess Yapko would say that I have a lot to learn about the contemporary practice of hypnotherapy, but I’m not alone.
He readily admits that most meditation teachers and therapists regard his idea as heresy. What could meditation possibly have in common with the process of hypnosis?
Besides rejecting the idea on principle, many professionals simply don’t want their practice of mindfulness associated with hypnosis. Making that connection could push meditation back into the suspect realm of the exotic after years spent bringing it into the mainstream of psychotherapy.
But I believe Yapko is trying to do the reverse – bring hypnotherapy to the same level of respectability now given to mindfulness. I think his ideas should be looked at with an open mind.
He wrote an article for Psychotherapy Networker a few months ago that spells out his view of meditation training as a form of psychotherapy based on the power of suggestion.
He analyzes a talk by the psychiatrist Jon Kabat-Zinn, who originated Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Yapko explains how Kabat-Zinn takes his audience through a series of seven steps to induce a meditative state, much as a hypnotherapist induces a trance-like state.
Kabat-Zinn, in contrast, refers to his work as training rather than psychotherapy. In his words, he gives courses and workshops to teach a set of practices, including mindfulness and yoga, that people can use on their own in any phase of life.
You can follow the talk in a You Tube video. It’s one of the series of Google Talks, and the sound quality, in particular, is excellent.
You can hear perfectly the intonations in Kabat-Zinn’s voice. For me, the sound of his voice is one of the most important qualities in his teaching. It has a calming effect and draws you gently into a meditative state of awareness.
These are the seven stages as Yapko explains them.
Stage 1: Preparing the Client
Yapko calls this opening a “psychoeducational preface” designed to capture attention and stimulate motivation to take part in the meditation workshop. Kabat-Zinn does this by finding the words that appeal to this group of Google employees. We have “a stone-age mind in a digital world.” Meditation is a way “to have fun and be creative.” He prepares them for the experience by comparing it to a laboratory. You’ll try to see if you can hold this moment in awareness. It’s an “adventure” in finding out who you actually are.
Stage 2: Orienting the Client
Kabat-Zinn frames the meditation experience scientifically by defining “proprioception.” This is an unconscious perception of movement from sensations within the body itself. As Yapko says, it lays the groundwork for an experience of dissociation. Kabat-Zinn tells them: “You can have a Google mind” that includes everything the whole world is searching for right now. The mind has no boundaries, and awareness expands without conscious effort, like breathing.
Stage 3: Focusing Attention
Next Kabat-Zinn moves from general ideas to the specific about how to focus and what you can focus on: See if you can feel yourself breathing. Sit in a position that implies dignity. As Yapko puts it, selective attention gives rise to the dissociation that is essential to activate the experience of awareness. Kabat-Zinn’s suggestions help his listeners separate one form of awareness from all the others that people can have. By dropping a sense of a bounded mind or self (achieving mindlessness) the experience of mindfulness emerges.
Stage 4: Building a Response Set
Suggestions are made to intensify focus and deepen absorption in the process as it unfolds. This is what Yapko means by “response set.” The group spends a couple of minutes in silence “to rest in awareness” – to “surf on the sensations” of the breath moving in and out of the body.
Stage 5: Offering Therapeutic Suggestions
Therapeutic suggestions, in Yapko’s phrase, help the group deal with inevitable frustrations. Kabat-Zinn describes the mind as having a mind of its own and a tendency to drift into revery. He tells the group to notice this and bring focus back to breath. It’s just the way the mind is. Wandering doesn’t mean you’ll be a bad meditator. If your mind “wanders 10,000 times, you know what’s on your mind 10,000 times …”
Stage 6: Generalization
The next goal Yapko emphasizes is helping the group reproduce a meditative response in other settings. Extending the practice to daily life, Kabat-Zinn says it is available 24/7 wherever you are. The point is not to look for an experience like relaxation or well-being. It is simply to rest in awareness of each moment. Then “the meditation process winds up doing you much more than you’re doing the meditation practice.”
Stage 7: Ending the Experiential Session
Kabat-Zinn rings a bell to mark the end of the meditation session. As Yapko describes it, he is giving “permissive suggestions” to encourage the group to extend the practice into everyday life. He leads them back to a different awareness by inviting them to have a dialogue about the experience they’ve just been through. But he adds: You can no more stop meditation than stop life. Real meditation practice is your life and how you carry yourself in awareness.
As he tries to demonstrate through this seven-stage analysis, Yapko interprets the meditation process as rooted in the power of suggestion and dependent on an experience of dissociation. But he is clear that Kabat-Zinn uses these methods unintentionally. The question Yapko raises is how much more could be achieved if the process were structured in a more intentional way.
A process that depends on creating new experience, he believes, should be tailored to the unique needs of each individual rather than delivered in a similar way to everyone.
How he manages that during hypnotherapy is the next part of this discussion.
Does the comparison of meditation and hypnosis make sense to you? (I found that I could understand it better as I watched the video.) Have you ever been in hypnotherapy for any reason? Did it work for you?