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Hypnosis and Meditation

by Philip H. Farber

Originally published in The Journal of Hypnotism.

I'm often asked if there's a difference between self-hypnosis and meditation. It's a simple question on the surface, but there are so many different forms and techniques in both categories that it's tough to make more than a general comparison. Nonetheless, while the boundary between self- hypnosis and meditation might not be clearly delineated, I think it is possible to make a distinction.

Both hypnosis and meditation can produce states of deep relaxation, both can claim a wide range of similar health benefits, but the routes to what might be a similar destination are a bit different. In meditation, the conscious awareness of the practitioner is called into play. That is, the meditator intentionally focuses his or her mind on something in particular: a symbol, a candle flame, a mantra, the rhythm of the breath, or an overall awareness of the environment. In most forms of hypnosis, the practitioner may begin with some conscious focus of attention, for instance counting, visualizing, gazing at something, but as the trance is induced, the conscious concentration becomes less important. Concentration may continue, but it is not necessary to the experience. In fact, when I'm in session with my clients, I usually offer the suggestion that "it's not necessary to listen to my voice" (which suggests that consciously they may drift off however they choose, but unconsciously they will, hopefully, still be "listening"). Please remember that this is a general tendency, and there are multiple exceptions to every rule.

While many people initially begin meditating for well-defined reasons, perhaps a particular spiritual goal or something as practical as physical relaxation, the practice is usually less goal- directed than hypnosis. Indeed, more experienced meditators often discover that a key to practice is "meditating for the sake of meditating," practicing simply for the experience of practicing. The expressed purpose of meditation in many different systems is the quieting of the conscious mind, the general chatter and parade of images, sounds, and feelings that constantly occupy our minds throughout the day. Concentrating on a goal or objective, even, paradoxically, the objective of quieting your mind, will itself constitute a break in concentration from the object of meditation.

With that principle difference between meditation and hypnosis noted, I would suggest that meditation is among the most useful things a hypnotherapist can study or practice. The ability to pass along simple meditation techniques to your clients can extend the range of effective modalities that you offer. Once a client has experienced the state of relaxation or quiet produced by meditation, that state can be incorporated into behavior modification in numerous ways. For instance, a client can be taught to meditate or experience a state similar to that induced by meditation, instead of having a violent reaction, smoking, drinking, or any other habit or situational behavior that is associated with stress. The act of meditating can be linked to the situation using hypnotic suggestion.

That's probably the most overt benefit for your clients. The benefits for you are more subtle and varied, but nonetheless of great possible usefulness. Meditation is a wonderful way to explore the functioning of your own mind, and by extension, the way that human minds in general tend to operate. When you begin to meditate, to hold your attention on the object of your meditation, the conscious mind starts to squirm around and begins to offer a seemingly endless exhibition of distractions, ranging from verbal commenting in your head to full-tilt, technicolor, surround- sound daydreams. The content of these breaks in concentration can provide important clues about what kinds of thoughts are normally flowing just beneath the surface of your mind. Meditators are usually encouraged to take note of their "breaks," acknowledge and accept them, then consciously return to the object of meditation.

I often get letters from beginning meditators to the effect of, "I'm attempting to do the meditation, but every time I try, my mind fills up with distracting thoughts." My response is, invariably, "That means you're doing it right. Keep practicing."

With practice, eventually the frequency of "breaks" diminishes and other states of consciousness become more prominent (some of which will be discussed in future columns here). For a hypnotherapist, having command of relaxed and alert states of mind, at will, is a wonderful tool to help prepare for client sessions and to unwind after the session. Meditating briefly between client sessions is like clearing your palate between courses of a meal - it allows you to pay attention to what is happening in the present, with your client, and eliminate lingering or distracting thoughts from the previous session. A relaxed and perceptive demeanor is a quick way to gain the confidence of your clients.

In terms of inducing trance, I heartily subscribe to the Ericksonian-influenced school of thought that suggests that the trance state begins in the consciousness of the hypnotist, that you create the experience in yourself first, then pass it along to your client. With that in mind, exploring a range of meditative states (and there is a rather extensive range of them) can add to your repertoire of experiences that you can provide for your clients. From the basic level of adding an additional stress-free and relaxed component to your work, to the exploration of extremely deep, unique, spiritual, or even mystical states, you can, in effect, convert your own powerful experiences into something accessed via trance induction.

We'll be discussing various forms of meditation in this space in future issues, but for now I'd like to offer the suggestion that meditation can be extremely simple. Indeed, very often, the simpler the practice, the better. A very simple Zen meditation can be practiced safely by everyone. Simply sit in a position with your spine vertical and straight (a chair will do nicely). Allow your breathing to become relaxed and natural. Let it set its own rhythm and depth, however it is comfortable. Focus your attention on your breathing, on the movements of your chest and abdomen rather than on your nose and mouth. Keep your attention focused on your breathing. For some people an additional level of concentration may be helpful. You might add a simple counting rhythm, spoken in your head as you breathe: "One" on the inhale, "Two" on the exhale, and repeat. Or you might visualize your breath as a swinging door, swinging in on the inhale and out on the exhale.

Other thoughts, images, sounds, or feelings will likely arise, distracting you from your concentration on your breath. Take note of these thoughts, observe them briefly, then return to your concentration. Begin with a time that is comfortable for you, then increase that time. It helps to do your meditation at the same time and place each day, on a regular schedule, although there is something to be said for meditating on an "as needed" basis, too. Concentration often becomes easier as you practice, with noticeable results of relaxation and lasting calm even after just a few days.

Keeping a written record of a meditation practice - noting when you meditate, for how long, what you experienced during the meditation, any breaks in concentration, etc. - is a valuable practice. This can help you to determine what factors contribute to the most interesting states of consciousness, and adding as much detail as possible to your description will give you important clues later toward modeling the meditative states through hypnotic methods (more on that in future columns!).


© copyright 2002 Philip H. Farber. All rights reserved.