Is There a Link Between Mindfulness and Hypnosis?

focus for mindfulness and hypnosis

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.

I’ve learned a lot from his well-known self-help books on depression (Breaking the Patterns of Depression, Depression Is Contagious), but he is best known professionally for his work on hypnotherapy.

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 …”

  6. 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.”

  7. 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?

14 Responses to “Is There a Link Between Mindfulness and Hypnosis?”

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  1. Helen says:

    I am confused about mindfulness and hypnosis. After reading your blog my confusion is finished.
    Thank you! For sharing such a informative blog I also have a question How we hypnotize someone quickly?

  2. sharron says:

    I have an ongoing experience of dissociation, going back to childhood + becoming worse when grappling with breast cancer. I’ve been studying mindfulness + reading books, listening to talks etc. In the past I also did a course of both self hypnosis and hypnotherapy. I do find significant differences between them and mindfulness.

    Mindfulness as I practice it is not about becoming less present, more spacey etc. I do that without any help at all lol! Mindfulness is the art of becoming aware in my body, while noticing what thoughts pass through me, observing how my body feels, my breath etc, and not trying to change it, but keeping attention on grounding myself in whatever I’m experiencing. Dissociation creates a lack of awareness and feeling in my body. Hypnosis also created a more spacey unreal feeling. Staying present to emotion, to pain, to discomfort and comfort is very tricky indeed, observing and letting any kind of pain ‘be’ is a learned art for me. I once thought that mindfulness was equal to spacing out and it was a great relief to discover it is actually the opposite!

  3. Carole says:

    I came across your site whilst researching an article on depression. I run a hypnotherapy/psychotherapy training organisation and have been a therapist for over 20 years. I recently heard Michael Yapko at the Royal College of Medicine talk about the similarities between hypnosis & mindfulness. You discuss some of them. Sadly, hypnosis still has connotations of people been made to cluck like chickens. That is stage hypnosis. Hypnotherapy is simply psychotherapy that incorporates hypnosis. It’s an incredibly effective tool, alongside brief therapy and CBT (both of which I also use) that helps individuals fighting depression. Forget suggestibility and trance. Depression may be viewed as a negative trance, where everything seems hopeless. I often teach my clients relaxation techniques, stress management interventions, deep abdominal breathing, brief meditation, mindfulness….whatever the client feels the most comfortable with. With the use of hypnosis we can instil positive cognitions (once we’ve identified the negative ones !) and deal with them. Hypnosis can be used for ego strengthening. It empowers people and makes them resourceful. It builds expectancy and flexibility and intensifies a useful subjective experience. It helps individuals tolerate ambiguity and can be used on a metaphorical level to help people overcome any blocks.
    Simply, it’s a great tool in my therapeutic toolbox and I’d encourage anyone to give it a try. A sense of rapport with your therapist is essential and any hypnotherapist worth their salt won’t mind a list of questions- as long as it’s ‘you won’t make me cluck like a chicken, will you?”

  4. Noch Noch says:

    it makes sense. i actually didn’t even try meditation till recently. but i do that through my calligraphy lessons, where I’m just ‘mindful’ of writing with a brush and nothing else, andit becomes a “zone” i go into and hence some sort ofmeditation, a heightened sense of awareness of my being and who I am
    But i dont know if i’ve mastered it yet. it takes a while to go into that “zone”

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Noch –

      I don’t know much about calligraphy (Chinese?), but I have read a wonderful book that describes exactly what you’re talking about. It’s called, I think, The Chinese Way of Painting. The description emphasizes the spiritual aspect of the art – the inner contemplation and focus that leads to the stroke of the brush on paper. No changes possible so it must be right the first time – and the state of mind behind it seems deeply meditative. I think you’re right on about calligraphy. It also sounds like the way I feel when I’m totally absorbed in writing.


    • berry says:

      congradulation !
      Doing calligraphy is a good time to be mindful. Though we should be mindful all the time, as you have experienced a bit already
       go into a zone
       a heightened sense of awareness of my being and who I am
       very focused in the writing and brush and nothing else
      isn’t it the way we should be ?
      no matter what we are doing, eg. Walking, eating, talking, doing housework, playing ball games, quarreling ……

  5. Judy says:

    I have done hypnosis, off and on, for many years in the course of my therapy. In fact, I would say that EMDR, which I have also done a lot of in recent years, is also very close, if not the same, as hypnosis. I’ve also taken a class in mindfulness meditation and I really do agree with the idea of their similiarity. My experience with hypnosis has been quite positive. I know a lot of people get weirded out by the idea of it, but it’s really just a deepening of your level of self-awareness. Of course, you want to work with a reputable person if you’re going to pursue hypnosis. In my case, never once was anything suggested to me about things I was remembering and often times, it was so real that I experienced physical symptoms that lingered for a while afterward. Initially, I did it for memory recall because I could remember almost nothing of my childhood (for good reason); some of it is still not conscious memory years later and I suspect it’s because things occurred before I was verbal. But my body remembered.

    One of the interesting things that occurred during hypnosis was that I experienced the dissociation that most likely occurred – I could see things happen as if I were perched somewhere near the ceiling. Doing this kind of work does, in a way, allow you to dissociate but in this case, it can be a positive thing because it allows you to see things as if they are occurring in a movie or on a TV screen, with enough emotional distance to prevent you from getting totally sucked into any negative emotions that may have arisen at the time.

    For me, the hypnosis was invaluable in allowing me to find the roots of my depression and in helping me slowly change my beliefs about myself. I’ve done it enough times that I can use it by myself during some stressful situations, such as an enclosed MR,I where I was feeling a lot of anxiety about being boxed in or during long bouts in the dentist’s chair with root canals! Of course, I had novocaine, but the self-hypnosis helped considerably with the anxiety.

    I guess I’d say, from my experience, that hypnosis is probably a more intense version of mindfulness meditation. You will not do or say anything that goes against your core values. I’ve never come out of a hypnosis session not knowing what went on, nor have I ever had a session where I was not aware of where I was. When I first started doing it, I was afraid I wasn’t really hypnotized because of my awareness of what was happening but I think people tend to think of it as being like stuff you see in stage acts or on TV, of which I think a lot is bogus. I do think it requires a lot of trust in yourself and most certainly in the person who is helping you.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thanks, Judy –

      That’s an excellent description and confirms what I’ve been learning from reading Yapko’s book. Given your experience, I’m sure you’d get a lot out of it. What you describe is quite similar to his approach. I’m disappointed that I can’t find a video online in which he explains or demonstrates his method – just a few in which he briefly explains the training he offers (and several on depression that don’t refer to hypnotherapy). Unfortunately, a lot of videos that other therapists have made focus on the speed of getting someone into a hypnotic state – too much like a stunt, with no explanation of therapeutic goals for the client.


  6. Evan says:

    It makes good sense to me in some ways. In some ways I think they are opposites.

    The kind of awareness I am interested in is increasing the precision and expanding the breadth of my awareness.

    Hypnosis/trance can be very useful. People in trance do amazing things and demonstrate the power of suggestion (showing signs of burning when touched by something they are told is on fire and so on). However trance is the opposite of the kind of awareness that I am interested in.

    People I know who use hypnotherapy say they use it to enhance awareness not limit it. I think they may mean that they draw attention to some aspect of the person’s experience and increase the awareness of how this fits into their life.

    Dissociation. We have a primary experience and can observe this. There is a gap between our (primary) experience and our ability to reflect on it. This is dissociation in one sense. We also dissociate under shock – which is often helpful I think. My biggest problem with dissociation in depression and so on is that it tends to happen ‘automatically’ – we don’t feel we have control of the process.

    It is an interesting connection I think

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Evan –

      I urge you to read Yapko’s new book. It’s by far his best, and his description of hypnotherapy begins with the same kind of awareness that’s cultivated in mindful meditation. The difference, as he explains it, is that hypnotherapy works one-on-one to adapt the method to the specific need for change that the client has. It provides structure but in a permissive, suggestive way to elicit the active engagement of the client in working with the therapist. I’m putting up the post about it tomorrow, and I’ll be interested to hear what you think. You have a great way of differentiating the forms of dissociation. You’re quite right about depression – dissociating is just another form of being lost and out of control.


  7. Wendy Love says:

    Yes the comparision of meditation and hypnosis makes sense to me, at least the way you have described it. I like you am doubtful about hypnosis and would probably not be willing to volunteer. But I did like the way you described mindfulness and I believe it is a great strategy for depression management.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Wendy –

      I’m about to post the next installment on a hypnotherapy session. Michael Yapko seems to have a very sensitive approach. He really combines the awareness and acceptance of mindfulness with the goal-orientation of psychotherapy. His version of hypnosis has little to do with the classic idea – and myth, as he would say – about hypnotism as making someone subservient to your will.



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