Mining the subconscious

Reflections on hypnotherapy, total wisdom and being made to bark like a dog

When you awaken from this caption, you will have no conscious recollection of the total enlightenment you’ve just achieved.

When you awaken from this caption, you will have no conscious recollection of the total enlightenment you’ve just achieved.

Hypnosis conjures up images of showmen

turning audience volunteers into terriers, spies brainwashed by the Chinese, and therapists with German accents plumbing an unconscious client’s mind. A common attitude looks at hypnosis as hocus-pocus, a novelty act with uncertain purpose. We clench at the thought of offering a stranger access to parts of our mind we ourselves don’t know and don’t understand.

That we enter trance states similar to those of the hypnotized patient every day—while watching television, driving our cars or gazing out the window on a rainy day—hardly affects our ideas about what the hypnotized state consists of. That hypnosis offers a passageway to our subconscious mind, where we might find answers to our deepest life puzzles, doesn’t seem to register as a selling point.

Yet, in virtually every indigenous culture in the world, shamans used trance states, typically triggered by drumming, to communicate with spirits and promote healing. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all used a form of trance healing. The practice fell out of favor with the rise of Christianity until Johann Joseph Gassner, a Catholic priest who lived in Switzerland, revived it in the 18th century. Theorizing that illness was caused by devils, Gassner used a crucifix for hypnotic exorcisms, with church approval.

In the 1950s, the British and American medical associations approved the use of hypnotherapy—hypnosis in a therapeutic setting. Today, hypnotherapy is used for smoking cessation, migraines and weight loss as well as for more far-reaching personal growth by giving the client direct access to the subconscious mind.

“As most hypnotherapists believe, [the subconscious] is the part of us that has total wisdom about our path in life and our purpose in life and fills in the blanks for the reasons why we’re doing things,” said Joanne Marrow, a professor of psychology at California State University, Sacramento. She’s also a licensed psychologist and a hypnotherapist. Marrow said that the idea of the hypnotist turning the subject into a terrier and setting him loose is unfounded: Clients are conscious throughout the hypnosis, with their moral compass fully intact. If the hypnotherapist makes a suggestion you don’t like, you’ll reject it.

Although I was intrigued by the idea of engaging with the part of myself containing total wisdom, it took me years to investigate. Instead, I was caught up in the rational world of deadlines, errands and social engagements, where deeper questions of life purpose seemed easier to shelve than to engage. Finally, at a crossroads romantically, where nothing was happening, and in my career, where I wanted new challenges, I set up an appointment with Diane Davis, a certified hypnotherapist.

At her East Sacramento office, Davis gave me a form to fill out with my information and a series of questions: How long have you wanted to do this? If you had a magic wand and could fix anything in your past or present, what would it be? How would you rate your childhood?

“Often, when somebody has something they want to look at, it has something to do with their childhood,” she said. “That’s what I’m looking for: How balanced is their life?”

She led me into a small room and had me lock the door. A massage table covered by a pink sheet was in the middle of the room. I sat on a chair against the eastern wall, and Davis sat next to me. To my right, I could hear ocean waves; to my left, the gurgling of a waterfall.

What question did I want to answer in the session, Davis asked. Was I afraid of heights? Did I want to sit or lie down?

I sat.

“Take deep breaths,” she said. “Breath in through your nose and out through your mouth.”

She invited me to visualize a peaceful, quiet place in nature and then to relax my body. When I was comfortable, she asked me if I had a happy childhood. I surprised myself by saying yes. I remembered being 8.

“What are the things you like to do?” she asked.

“I like to play with baseball cards and Legos and read books. I have stuffed animals I play with, too.”

She put something in my lap—a teddy bear. It sat there uncomfortably. I asked her to take it away. As soon as she did, I wanted it back, as if it were a metaphor for my childhood, a period of time in which I was happy but had pushed away.

Now I was 12. Various people came to mind. Davis asked me what I wanted to say to them. I said whatever came to mind, fully conscious but without the judgment or recrimination usually present. I wanted to keep these conversations going on longer. Too soon, Davis roused me from the hypnotic state. Ninety minutes had past, but it felt like 20.

“You go into your inner world to make it more the way you wished it had been, to help in relaxing the anxiety that occurred,” Davis said. “You see things you may not have seen before; you feel things you may not have felt before that can be buried for all these years. These things that are in your body, they need to be said—to get the anger out of the body, to express the emotion you didn’t allow yourself to feel.”

I left with a general feeling of well-being but without a sense of life-changing insights. Nevertheless, within two weeks, I’d met a woman I felt a deep connection to and recognized a new clarity about my work in the world. Was this a result of the session or just my natural evolution? It was impossible to say.

“My belief is that all the answers we have for ourselves are within us, and the issue is how to access that,” said Davis. “We are so into our conscious mind that it’s very difficult to access what’s in the subconscious. A lot of times, it’s like finding a buried treasure. You have to kind of dig and move earth around a little bit.”