Home PageBlogErickson and the Owl

Excerpt from the biography on Milton H. Erickson by Jeffrey Zeig.

The following is in the words of John Grinder:

One of my favorite episodes with Erickson was when Bandler [Richard] and I were dazzled with the elegance and effectiveness of the Ericksonian patterning somewhere in the mid to late ’70s. In our obsessive quest for the testing of patterns we had modeled and coded, we decided to take one of the young people who had spontaneously gathered around the adventure called NLP, and determine whether we could transfer a significant portion of the Ericksonian skill set to such a person. One of our students — Stephen Gilligan, then in his early 20s — had caught our attention by demonstrating an enhanced ability to alter his state.

So, we worked to ensure that Gilligan could not only alter his state under the impact of our inductions but that he could also re-induce an altered state through his own efforts. At our suggestion, Stephen spent an enormous amount of time in a greatly altered state watching videos, for example, the Herb Lustig films of Nick and Monde, and listening to many auditory tapes of Erickson working with patients. Gilligan was very quick on the uptake, and in a relatively short period of time, he had mastered the movements, especially the intonation, timbre quality, and rhythms of Erickson’s voice. Gilligan was a skilled and highly effective replica of a man more than a half-century older than him and could reliably replicate many portions of Erickson’s successes with patients.

When we were satisfied with Gilligan’s excellent replication skills, we invited him to accompany us on our next trip to Phoenix to continue our modeling project. Having heard stories of the plethora of carved figures –a lot of ironwood pieces in particular — that occupied nearly every horizontal surface in his [Erickson’s] office, Stephen decided to purchase a small inch and a half tall figurine depicting an owl, intending it as a gift for Dr. Erickson.

We found ourselves sitting in Erickson’s office awaiting his arrival. My memory is that Stephen asked Richard and I how he might most appropriately offer his small gift to Erickson. We seized the opportunity to verify  Erickson’s highly developed visual acuity by suggesting to Stephen that he position himself in Erickson’s chair, and from that specific vantage point, place the owl figurine in a position where Erickson could see about half of it, the rest obscured by one of the other millions of figures dominating the shelves in the room. Stephen accepted our suggestion and placed the owl in one of the appropriate positions available.

I remember watching with peripheral vision for any indication of his [Erickson’s] noting the presence of this new figurine and I detected none. Then, a most entertaining session ensued. It began with Stephen matching the voice and movements of Erickson with excellent high fidelity. This portion of the session lasted less than five minutes as it quickly became obvious that this was not amusing to Erickson…As if further comment was necessary, Erickson quickly told a series of very thinly disguised metaphors about young men who were sociopaths knocking Erickson off the sidewalk and into the gutter. Stephen needed no further communication to recognize the message and shifted back to be the young man he, in fact, was.

Many highly amusing and instructive incidents followed until it became clear that Erickson was tiring and would soon officially bring our visit to a close. My memory is that just at this point Gilligan, correctly in my opinion, respectfully requested permission to ask Dr. Erickson a direct question. With an affirmative nod of permission from Erickson, Stephen without a supporting nonverbal indicator asked Erickson the following question: ‘Dr. Erickson, have you noticed any new objects among your extensive collection of figures and carvings?’  Without hesitation and without any movement of his eyes from his focus on Stephen’s face, Erickson responded: ‘I don’t give a hoot about new objects in my collection.’

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,