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Oct 21

A Milk Bath

By Eric Greenleaf, Ph.D.

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 4 seconds

For two years, teachers from the Milton H. Erickson Institute of the San Francisco Bay Area have conducted masters degree classes in strategic family therapy and Ericksonian hypnosis at Universidad Autónoma Gabriel René Moreno (UAGRM), the largest Bolivian university. Recently, it was my turn to teach.

After the first class I conducted, two women, who were part of a group of six close friends who attended the courses, approached me.
One spoke for the other: “She is afraid to drink water, afraid to bathe or shower in water.”   I replied, “I have little time to talk. I have a meeting in a few minutes.” I asked the spokeswoman, “What does she drink?” “Tea?” “No!” “Does she drink milk?” “Oh, yes!” I turned to the silent woman, “Here’s what I want you to do: When you go home today, take a bath in milk. Not a tubful of milk, just a sponge bath in milk. Tomorrow, tell me what happened.”

At the start of the next class, the woman with the water phobia came up to me smiling. “I’m not afraid to drink water anymore. When I get home today after class, I’ll take a nice, warm shower.”




After working with that woman, I tried to understand what led to me to offer brief, effective therapy. It seems plausible that I used my intuition — picking up on social cues the woman gave me. She was obviously ashamed to approach me with what she considered a strange psychological problem. So as not to embarrass her, I did not direct my speech toward her, but rather to her spokeswoman and close friend. Her friend enthusiastically indicated that the woman hated tea but loved milk.

In saying that I had little time to talk, I had shared with the woman a sense of urgency, which may have moved both of us to act decisively. And, I banked on her unconscious knowledge of the sort of women who bathe in milk: actresses and other highly valued and beautiful women; proud women. My instruction to bathe in milk carried this cultural value to the shame-filled patient, as a sort of Doctor-Teacher’s orders, and as an experiment – could she make do with a modest amount of cleansing?

Intuition is a vectorial sense that leads us in a direction without conscious knowledge of the route to be taken. Dr. Erickson’s intuition, which left observers pleased and puzzled, can be understood as formed by the unselfconscious knowledge of oral traditions in public speech, cultural norms, social roles, and functioning human relationships.

To understand Ericksonian approaches, it helps to think of the basic functions of human experience. All our experiences are represented in the brain. These representations allow us to imitate each other, and to learn from each other. Imagined experience has the same neural sequence as lived experience.

Empathy helps us to imagine the pain and emotion of another person. The hypnotic relationship allows us to imagine the three-legged race we run with our patients, through the mysteries of life and death. Our unconscious minds represent the entire neurophysiology of the body, new learning, surprise, and the problematic and social relationships in our families and small social groups.

We access the unconscious with stories and dramatic interactions. One of my class exercises is to have students imagine their unconscious minds, then place an image of an insoluble problem of their own in the imagined unconscious of the other for a solution. As a patient of mine once said, with bright eyes, “I know what you’re doing when you do hypnosis: You’re telling stories where they belong.”


This excerpt has been extracted from Volume 40, Issue No. 1 of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter.

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