A key to how this may occur can be found in the phenomenon of dissociation, which, simply defined, involves breaking a global, multifaceted emotional, sensory, and/or cognitive experience into its component parts. As soon as you suggest to someone that she focus on some specific stimulus, or experience a sense of detachment from some thought or feeling, you’re directly and indirectly suggesting dissociation—drawing her attention to this aspect of the experience, functionally separating it from the rest. When people speak about “parts” of themselves, as when someone says, “My head tells me this, but my heart tells me that,” or “Part of me cares, and the rest of me couldn’t care less,” they’re using the language—and suggested subjective reality—of dissociation.
During the experience of hypnosis, dissociation becomes especially evident when people respond nonvolitionally, that is, without conscious effort, to a suggestion. For example, a clinician might suggest a feeling of lightness or warmth in the client’s body, and that the client allow this experience to develop. Without being aware of expending any effort to respond, the client readily experiences lightness or warmth that seems to “just happen.” Typically, the first time a client has this kind of dissociative experience, he or she is truly amazed. Beyond suggestions for automatic or nonvolitional sensory experiences, one can just as readily suggest emotional experiences, a procedure in hypnosis known as the “induction of affect.” In this way, hypnosis commonly connects people to feelings of love or compassion, forgiveness or equanimity, hopefulness or firm resolve, and curiosity or resourcefulness, which seem genuine and spontaneous to the subject. While identifying these emotional experiences as effects of suggestion and dissociation rather than signs of profound awakening may remove the aura of spirituality, the beneficial therapeutic impact is the same.
In GMM, dissociation similarly becomes evident when people can separate themselves from their usual frames of reference. When someone drifts off into serenity through a narrowed focus on just the physical experience of breathing, the accompanying sense of depersonalization can be a beneficial dissociative response. The ability to detach oneself from one’s thoughts—externalizing angry or self-destructive thoughts by seeing them, for example, simply as “clouds passing in the sky”—has great therapeutic potential as a critical step in building impulse control, frustration tolerance, and reality-testing skills.
Which of the many elements of experience we pay attention to at any given time—whether during a party, for example, we focus on our curiosity about other people, rather than on what we believe is our social awkwardness—can make an enormous difference in the quality of the overall experience and the lessons we draw from it. In both GMM and clinical hypnosis sessions, we deliberately shift the quality and direction of focus from self-limiting to expansive elements of experience to relieve emotional or physical pain. A client burdened with multiple anxieties can’t solve all his problems in a day, or even in a year. Worrying about solving problems just exacerbates the anxiety, but if that client can just focus on his breathing, and thereby discover an ever-present means of emotional self-regulation, chances are his overriding sense of dread and doom will lift and he’ll get some relief. Similarly, suggesting to a highly self- critical perfectionist that she focus on a message of loving-kindness to herself may, over time, help her recognize she’s much more than just her imperfections, and thereby expand her harsh self-definition to be able to accept herself and find more comfort in her own skin.
Hypnosis by Any Other Name
The point is that whether these states of what we might call therapeutic dissociation and depersonalization result from clinical hypnosis or GMM, they’re achieved via similar, if not identical, consciousness-shaping mechanisms and procedures. Since, as clinicians, we’re supposed to do more than just stumble blindly forward with our clients on instinct alone, it behooves us to know what we’re doing and why—what mechanisms and procedures we use to get what effects. The wording of suggestions and the range and quality of their impact on subjective experiences like insight and “transcendence” have been studied and distilled for decades in the well-established literature of clinical hypnosis. We don’t have to attribute therapeutic gains to abstract awakenings when we can credibly predict them from the nature of our suggestions and the social psychology of the interaction.
As an example of this suggestive structure, let’s consider the guided meditation conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn, famous for helping bring mindfulness into the mainstream of Western medicine and society, during a 2007 presentation he gave at Google. (The entire presentation, guided meditation included, is easily accessed on YouTube: www.youtube.com.)
Stage 1: Preparing the Client
In his psychoeducational preface about the benefits of meditation, Kabat-Zinn told the audience that we have a “Stone Age mind in a digital world,” which “works against creativity.” Since this language was sure to appeal to Google employees, who are dedicated to becoming more creative in the digital world, he suggested a strong motivation to the audience for taking up mindfulness meditation. He prepared them for the experience by saying, “So, let’s see if we can tune in to now for no other reason than just for fun, . . . not to get anywhere, [or] to be more relaxed, [or] to become a great meditator, [or] to break through some problems that you’re having, . . . but to see if you can hold this moment in awareness.”
Stage 2: Orienting the Client
Kabat-Zinn introduced the term proprioception—defined as the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself—as a scientific frame for the automaticity of perception and bodily functions like breathing. This oriented his audience to the credible idea that important bodily responses can arise effortlessly, without conscious involvement. He said, “If breathing depended upon the conscious mind, . . . we’d all be dead already—‘Well, I got busy, forgot, oh yeah, I’m supposed to breathe.’ Luckily . . . the design of the nervous system is much too clever to leave that to conscious control. . . . What’s being suggested is, [let’s] see if we can drop in on the sensations of breathing without fiddling with the breathing at all. It knows how to do it really well, much better than you.”