A middle-aged man came to see me under pressure from his wife. She had told him she would leave if he didn’t make some life changes. Both husband and wife expressed that their marriage was very important to them, but it was clear to us all that their marriage was near collapse. He told me he did not know what the problem was even though his wife had complained about his commitment to his work for many years. He acknowledged that he was highly committed to his work, but said it was important to them both and that he was very successful. He wasn’t completely aware, nor was he in agreement, that his business interfered on other levels of their lives.
His wife described the man’s work as his mistress and his only interest and hobby. He didn’t even take vacations without sleeping with his telephone by his side. At, and away from, home, where he wasn’t talking business he was reading financial magazines. He was not interested in his wife’s activities and was unwilling to converse about things of interest to her. They had virtually no social life as a couple.
When he arrived at my office the first time, his cell phone was clipped to his belt. He explained he was waiting for an important call. When it rang, he interrupted our session to talk at length on the phone. When I asked him if he thought the information that he was going to get from the phone was more important than what he might learn in my office, he replied without hesitation, that it was business and therefore very important.
I told him that if he couldn’t pay attention here in my office, it was clear to me he would not remain married. I asked him to turn the phone off. Reluctantly, he did so.
During the course of therapy, he agreed to follow my directions regarding an important intervention that I told them, could save their marriage. I prescribed what I knew would be an ordeal for him. He agreed to go on vacation with his wife to a place without a telephone or fax machine close by. He also agreed to let me provide all his reading material. I gave him a sealed package which I had already prepared.
His wife later reported that when they arrived at their destination, he opened the package and cursed, threw it against the wall and stormed out of the room. Inside the package was only one book. When he opened it, he discovered there were only blank pages and a pen. On the inside cover, I had written, “Dear John. Fill this book with whatever makes sense to you at the moment. You can choose to write in dialogue or in simple prose but you must write in this book every day. I ask that you to come to this task with openness and truth, and to tell the truth of your experiences at that moment.”
He cursed, threw the book against the wall and stormed out. His wife picked up the book and read my note. When he returned, and continued to rail on, she said, “Why not write this down?” She pointed out that writing about how angry he felt might be useful for him and would certainly provide a topic for later sessions. Her words struck a key with him.
Later in the vacation, he found an interesting stone that was covered with lichen. He knew lichen was an organism formed by a combination of fungus and algae growing as a unit on a solid surface. Picking up the stone, he inserted it into a hollow he created in the pages and began to write around it. “Everything grows connected to something other than itself.”
He began to describe himself as the lichen feeding from the impersonal rock of business. He recognized he wanted to find another way to thrive. This moment of insight became the beginning of productive therapeutic expansions and of rebuilding the marriage between two committed people.
I chose this somewhat ambiguous but potentially powerful intervention because of what I learned from Erickson and other medicine men I have known. They taught me that the most important knowledge is that derived from life experience not from theories or equations. If you can help people look again at their present experiences and at themselves with different perspectives, they can create new directions. The process of psychotherapy is to find creative ways through which you make the invisible visible.Discussion by Ricky Pipkin, Ph.D.
Hammerschlag had a client typically considered difficult–a reluctant participant in therapy wanting a specific outcome without realizing that a generalized change must be made to reach that outcome. Additionally, this man was clearly successful in many areas of his life and accustomed to making fact-based business decisions. It often is easier to factor out emotional content and disregard the importance of feelings and, in business, it often is more efficient. However, this couple was highly motivated to keep their marriage which provided needed leverage.
The problem in the marriage was not a “business” one–it was that the wife felt discounted and unimportant. Hammerschlag’s problem was twofold. First he had to capture the client’s attention; second, he had to make him understand that feelings and intangibles are important to a well-rounded life. As well as to relationships.
Directly confronting the inappropriate use of John’s cell phone during session and telling him that, what he learned in session could save the marriage was a business-like approach to a multi-level symptom. He used language that John was used to and could understand. John’s willingness to continue participating in therapy without using his phone created an implicit contract.
The sessions before the important intervention of the vacation were preparation for John to expand his own perceptions. Every act of insight, of expansion, is the result of the prepared mind and some serendipitous moment. Finding a rock with lichen, knowing what lichen was, provided John a metaphor of his own making. He recognized that even a lowly lichen is a union of different things, joined together to create a different and more complex organism. The needs of each part must be nurtured.
The simple moment of finding the lichen-covered rock and following, in his own way, Hammerschlag’s instructions, provided ways to understand himself differently. These changes were necessary in order for him to have what he really wanted-the continuation of his marriage. This would not have occurred had not Hammerschlag first gotten John’s attention by using the techniques and language of business. Then, during the vacation, John was given only one concrete outlet for his thoughts and energies–self-examination in writing “the truth of his experiences of the moment.”
Erickson had a gift for creating and telling stories that patients could hear. He taught us all to look at our own blind spots and how to reach beyond them. Hammerschlag provided that for John by setting the stage for him to tell his own story about his own blind spots and to understand how to reach beyond them by the seemingly simple ambiguous and open assignment of writing on the blank pages , ”with openness and truth.”
Obviously, there was careful preparation so that John would be willing to go on vacation with no phone, fax or business reading materials. Hammerschlag’s success also demonstrates the value of using the client’s own language and world. The implicit contract between Hammerschlag and John insured that the directions would be followed even though, as business, John could implement them in his own way.
Good therapy often appears much simpler than it actually is.
Once Erickson has fixated and focused a patient’s attention with a question or general context of interest (e.g., ideally, the possibility of dealing with the patient’s problem), he then introduces a number of approaches designed to depotentiate conscious sets. By this we do not mean there is a loss of awareness in the sense of going to sleep; we are not confusing trance with the condition of sleep. In trance there is a reduction of the patient’s foci of attention to a few inner realities; consciousness has been fixated and focused to a relatively narrow frame of attention rather than being diffused over a broad area, as in the more typical general reality orientation (Shor, 1959) of our usual everyday awareness. When fixated and focused in such a narrow frame, consciousness is in a state of unstable equilibrium; it can be “depotentiated” by being shifted, transformed, or bypassed with relative ease.
Erickson believes that the purpose of clinical induction is to focus attention inward and to alter some of the individual’s habitual patterns of functioning. Because of the limitations of patients’ habitual frames of reference, their usual everyday consciousness cannot cope with certain inner and/or outer realities, and they recognize that they have a “problem.” Depotentiating patients’ usual everyday consciousness is thus a way of depotentiating facets of their personal limitations; it is a way of deautomatizing (Deikman, 1972) an individual’s habitual modes of functioning so that dissociation and many of its attendant classical hypnotic phenomena (e.g., age regression, amnesia, sensory-perceptual distortions, catalepsies, etc.) are frequently manifest in an entirely spontaneous manner (Erickson and Rossi, I 975). Depotentiating the limitations of the individual’s usual patterns of awareness thus opens up the possibility that new combinations of associations and mental skills may be evolved for creative problem solving within that individual.
Erickson’s approaches to depotentiating conscious sets are so subtle and pervasive in the manner with which they are interwoven with the actual process of induction and suggestion that they are usually unrecognized even when one studies a written transcript of his words. In order to place them in perspective we have outlined the microdynamics of induction and suggestion in Table I as: (I) the Fixation of Attention; (2) Depotentiating Conscious Sets; (3) Unconscious search; (4) Unconscious Processes; and (5) Hypnotic Response. We have also listed a number of Erickson’s approaches to facilitating each stage. Most of these approaches are illustrated in this volume and are discussed in more detail elsewhere (Erickson and Rossi, 1974; Erickson and Rossi, 1975; Haley, I 967; Rossi, 1973). Although we may outline these processes as stages of a sequence in Table I for the purpose of analysis, they usually function as one simultaneous process. Because of this, and in order to distinguish these processes from the broader dynamics of induction and mediating variables previously outlined (Barber and DeMoor, 1972) we designate ours as “microdynamics.” When we succeed in fixating attention, we automatically narrow the focus of attention to the point where one’s usual frames of reference are vulnerable to being depotentiated. At such moments there is an automatic search on the unconscious level for new associations that can restructure a more stable frame of reference through the summation of unconscious processes. There is thus certain arbitrariness to the order and the headings under which we assign some of the approaches Erickson used in Table 1. He could equally well begin with an interesting story or pun as with a shock, surprise, or a formal induction of trance. Once the conditions in the first three columns have been set in motion by the therapist, however, the patient’s own individual unconscious dynamics automatically carries out the processes of the last two columns.
A number of Erickson’s most interesting approaches to facilitate hypnotic response are the hypnotic forms listed in column 3 of table 1. All these approaches are designed to evoke a search on the unconscious level. Allusions, puns, metaphors, implications, and so on are usually not grasped immediately by consciousness. There is a momentary delay before one “gets” a joke, and in part, that is what is funny about it. In that delay period there obviously is a search and processes on an unconscious level (column 4) that finally summate to present a new datum to consciousness so that it gets the joke. All the approaches listed in column 3 are communication devices that initiate a search for new combinations of associations and mental processes that can present consciousness with useful results in everyday life as well as in hypnosis. The hypnotic forms listed in columns 2 and 3 are also the essence of Erickson’s indirect approach to suggestion. The study of these approaches may be regarded as a contribution to the science of pragmatics: the relation between signs and the users of signs (Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson, 1967). Erickson relies upon the skillful utilization of such forms of communication, rather than hyper suggestibility per se, to evoke hypnotic behavior.
As noted in Chapter One, it is important to recognize that while Erickson thinks of therapeutic trance as a special state (of reduced foci of attention), he does not believe hyper suggestibility is a necessary characteristic of such trance (Erickson, 1932). That is, just because patients are experiencing trance, it does not mean they are going to accept and act upon the therapist’s direct suggestions. This is a major misconception that accounts for many of the failures of hypnotherapy; it has frustrated and discouraged many clinical workers in the past and may have impeded the scientific exploration of hypnosis in the laboratory. Therapeutic trance is a special state that intensifies the patient-therapist relationship and focuses the patient’s attention on a few inner realities; trance does not ensure the acceptance of suggestions. Erickson depends upon certain communication devices such as those listed in column 3 to evoke, mobilize, and move a patient’s associative processes and mental skills in certain directions to sometimes achieve certain therapeutic goals. He believes that hypnotic suggestion is actually this process of evoking and utilizing a patient’s own mental processes in ways that are outside his usual range of ego control. This utilization theory of hypnotic suggestion can be validated if it is found that other therapists and researchers can also effect more reliable results by carefully utilizing whatever associations and mental skills a particular patient already has that can be mobilized, extended, displaced, or transformed to achieve specific “hypnotic” phenomena and therapeutic goals.
In the therapeutic trance situation the successful utilization of unconscious processes leads to an autonomous response; patients are surprised to find themselves confronted with a new datum or behavior (column 5). The same situation is in evidence in everyday life, however, whenever attention is fixated with a question or an experience of the amazing, the unusual, or anything that holds a person’s interest. At such moments people experience the common everyday trance; they tend to gaze off (to the right or left, depending upon which cerebral hemisphere is most dominant, (Baken, 1969; Hilgard and Hilgard, 1975) and get that “faraway” or “blank” look; their eyes may actually close, their body tends to become immobile ( a form of catalepsy), certain reflexes (e.g., swallowing, respiration) may be suppressed, and they seem momentarily oblivious to their surroundings until they have completed their inner search on the unconscious level for the new idea, response, or frames of reference that will restabilize their general reality orientation. We hypothesize that in everyday life consciousness is in a continual state of flux between the general reality orientation and the momentary microdynamics of trance as outlined in Table I. The well-trained hypnotherapist is acutely aware of these dynamics and their behavioral manifestations. Trance experience and hypnotherapy are simply the extension and utilization of these normal psychodynamic processes. Altered states of consciousness-wherein attention is fixated and the resulting narrow frame of reference is shattered, shifted, and/or transformed with the help of drugs, sensory deprivation, meditation, biofeedback, or whatever-follow essentially the same pattern but with varying emphasis on the different stages. We may thus understand Table I as a general paradigm for understanding the genesis and microdynamics of altered states and their effects upon behavior.
This excerpt has been extracted from Hypnotic Realities by Milton H. Erickson and Ernest Rossi’s Collected Works, Chapter 6: Facilitating Hypnotic Learning.
My friend Kevin’s 5-year-old granddaughter is known for her dramatic snits, which can be of epic proportions. Once, when he was visiting, she was in the midst of an exceptional performance: cringing under a table, clutching her blanket, sobbing with periodic outbursts of saying “NO!” or “GO AWAY!” All efforts by her parents to end the drama were equally futile.
After her parents left for an appointment, Kevin decided to try his hand. He wanted to engage Aurora in a way that did not demand a response. Standing in the doorway to the living room where her older sister was playing, he told a story loud enough for Aurora to hear.
“Once upon a time, two musicians were hiking in the meadows of upstate New York. Suddenly, they heard a beautiful sound in the distance. It sounded like an animal roaring, and it was rich, melodic, and lovely: ‘ROOOO…A…A…A…AR.’
As the two hikers stepped into a clearing, they saw a magnificent beast — a stunning white dinosaur, holding its head high and filling the air with music! It slowly nodded as the two men approached. One of them spoke quietly: ‘You know, you have a beautiful voice. In fact, I think it is the loveliest roar I have ever heard, even nicer than from animals that have had singing lessons. I think you could have a career as an opera singer, but there is one problem. When you sing opera, you can’t just sing ‘ROAR.’ An opera singer must also sometimes sing ‘AH.’ The dinosaur nodded its head and gave it a try: ‘AH…AH!’ The musicians nodded their heads, ‘Very good. Now try it again.’ ‘AH…ROAR…AH!” “AH…ROAR…. AH!’” By this time, Kevin was singing fortissimo to his granddaughters. He glanced down, and there was Aurora wistfully looking up at him and smiling. He nonchalantly continued: “I never did learn the dinosaur’s name, but I know she sang a couple of times at the opera house. When she was taking her bows, someone in the audience threw her a bouquet of flowers, and she caught them in her mouth. Then she ate them.
TOMMY My friend, Lettie Mohammed, once noticed a young boy in the corner, flailing his arms as his mother tried to corral him. “Come on, Tommy — we’ve got to go! We’re late already.” Tommy showed no interest in going anywhere. Lettie immediately sized up the situation and said, “Tommy just wants to stay in here where all the pretty ladies are!” Tommy glared at her. “If he stays in here long enough, we can all give him a kiss!” With that, Tommy grabbed his mother’s arm. As she was being pulled out the door, she lamented. “He won’t even let me kiss him!” There are at least three principles implicit in these interventions: (1) Nobody loses face when a power struggle is defused rather than crushed; (2) Cooperation is better than obedience, and there are many ways to enlist it; (3) If you don’t mind making a fool of yourself, you can have a lot of fun in life!Commentary By Eric Greenleaf, PhD
When teaching therapists Ericksonian approaches, remember: If it works with children, it’s likely to work with adults. Similar to the work of Rogers – Carl or Mister – the three principles exemplified by Henry Close, as he brings the power of loving interaction to the world of families, is elegant and effective.