Forty years ago, on March 25, 1980, Milton H. Erickson, MD passed away. Erickson is known as the father of modern hypnosis and one of the greatest psychotherapists of the 20th century.
Born in 1901 in a log cabin in Aurum, Nevada, and raised on a farm, Milton Erickson’s modest lifestyle was evident throughout his remarkable life. At 17 he contracted polio, and for decades to come, until his death at 78, he suffered many physical ailments due to what is now known as post-polio syndrome. He had muscle deterioration, double vision, loss of coordination, impaired hearing, and chronic pain. He was also colorblind. But instead of wallowing in his own suffering, he utilized his maladies to benefit others. He lived by example. He was happy to be alive and brought this sense of joy and triumph over his physical limitations to his therapy. Milton Erickson was the quintessential “Wounded Healer.”
Erickson used several techniques in therapy; techniques he not only mastered, but perfected. Utilization, tailoring, orienting toward, storytelling, metaphor, and destabilization, to name a few. He offered experiences, not advice. He rarely connected the dots for patients or students. His goal was to elicit a realization of a concept that could promote adaptive behavior.
In the mid-70s, when Haley’s book, Uncommon Therapy, came out, students and distinguished professionals began to flock to Phoenix to learn from Erickson. To keep up with this quest for knowledge, Erickson began offering training seminars. Many of those who he took under his wing and mentored, including Stephen Gilligan, Stephen Lankton, Bill O’Hanlon, Ernest Rossi, and Jeff Zeig became his intellectual heirs and went on to develop their own techniques and style. This is exactly what Erickson fostered. He did not want carbon copies of himself. He wanted others to forge their own path and discover their own insights.
Stephen Lankton had this to say about Erickson:
“I sincerely hope that therapists and their clients have made significant gains from studying the contributions of Dr. Erickson. They are the legacy of a venerable man. Buddha once said that great men are like mountains — they can be seen from a distance. With mountains, there are always those who climb and create paths for others to follow. Many dedicated and creative therapist-trainers have created paths up the mountain of Dr. Erickson’s work. But the mountain he gave us to explore is still more massive than anything yet embraced. He gave us all a journey, if we so choose, and, as Erickson has said, when embarking upon a journey with patients, ‘my voice goes everywhere with you, and changes into the voice of your parents, your teacher, your playmates, and even the voice of the wind and the rain….’ And, 40 years after his death, his voice can still be heard.”
Jeff Zeig calls his first experience with Erickson:
“I vividly remember coming to Phoenix for the first time in 1973 to learn from Dr. Erickson. I had read his writing and was awed by his wisdom. Fortunately, he invited me to be his houseguest, which was great because I did not have money for lodging. It also became apparent to me that he was not going to charge for his time. My goal was to learn about hypnosis and psychotherapy, but by the second day, that changed. I was so moved by Erickson that tears streamed down my face. I no longer cared about learning his methods; he was teaching me to be a better version of myself. I am forever grateful to Dr. Erickson and I have tried my best to keep his spirit alive.”