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"Hypnosis and Shamanism"

“In Western society, many people associate the word shaman with a masked and costumed tribal person who dances around a fire in the dark, accompanied by drumbeats, in a naïve, mysterious ritual. In reality, however, the individual shaman – apart from his cultural shell of mask, costume and ritual – possesses a very real skill, one that distinguishes him from other kinds of religious practitioners.

“All true shamans are able to achieve expanded states of awareness, visionary perceptions of what tribal people often call the spirit world. They usually exercise this unusual ability to heal members of their communities – spiritually, psychologically, and physically. Directed by strong, altruistic motivations, the traditional shaman is a master of trance.”

 — Hank Wesselman, Spiritwalker (Introduction)

Let us start with the hypothesis that it is the job of the hypnotist to stimulate the imagination of the client – to engage the client’s imagination in the contemplation of thoughts, images and feelings conducive to self-empowerment, creativity, and healing. Toward that end, he endeavors to help the client enter into a markedly different state of reality than “normal waking consciousness”.

Most of today’s hypnotists primarily use spoken language to help their clients enter hypnotic trance. Visual non-verbal means of fixing attention, such as spinning disks, candles, swinging watches, and following a moving hand or finger have traditionally been used as well.

I propose that by staying within the limitations of our western, civilized mind-set of what a hypnotist should look or act like, we lose access to so many of the tools, attitudes, and methodologies that we can learn from the world of traditional shamanism.

In the introduction to The Language of the Birds, editor David M. Guss says, “…Rothenberg and others have referred to the shaman as ‘proto-poet, for almost always his technique hinges on the creation of special linguistic circumstances, i.e., of song and invocation.’ Accompanied by drum or rattle, by drugs, costume and dance, the shaman enters his trance through the power of his words, and once there receives the special message he has set out to learn. This message… is delivered in another language… this is the language of transformations and magic Words, the language of the unconscious and the underworld…”

Contemporary practitioners of hypnotherapy, particularly those influenced by the work and approach of Dr. Milton H. Erickson, depend to a large extent on their ability to, a) enter into trance along with their clients, and, b) invoke trance and powerful changes in trance, through ‘special linguistic circumstances.’ Hypnotic language patterns encourage us to ‘invent’ our own grammar.

Our minds are conditioned to receive verbal communication in certain ‘grammatically correct’ patterns. When we receive communications that have been coded differently, it creates confusion and opens the door for new and creative ways of thinking. I often suggest to my hypnosis students to try to put more poetry into their inductions, and ask them if they ever think to sing, chant, or whisper to their client while in trance?

Besides the words, there is also the music of delivery. I have often noticed a certain rhythm and cadence develop, seemingly all by itself, as I allow my conscious mind to withdraw into the background. My unconscious begins to supply a surprising thread of images and metaphors… often with internal rhyme and rhythm! Having collected information during the intake and pre-talk with the client, I allow my unconscious to weave a story with this thread of images and metaphors.

Consider what Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona has to say about this in his book Coyote Wisdom: “[Traditional] healers lacking in any formal education often demonstrate a masterful command of language in telling stories. With their stories, they communicate complex ideas about love, forgiveness, faith, hope, and self-transformation. They practice the sophisticated art of a master hypnotherapist without ever demonstrating any awareness of the techniques they are using. They use the ancient art of storytelling – a masterful tool of persuasion and, no doubt, the mother of hypnosis.”

The use of hypnotic fables and storytelling is another overlap between ancient shamanic healing practices and the work of Dr. Erickson and those who followed in his footsteps.

Okay, so what are some of the other inspirations we can draw from shamanic practitioners? The techniques of the imaginative hypnotherapist, like those of the ancient shaman, may utilize unusual objects or artifacts in the treatment room: sound and light machines to induce alpha-theta brainwave states;  burning of sage, incense, or aromatherapy with essential oils to anchor state-dependent learning in the limbic system; playing of special trance-inducing musical sounds (repetitive drumming, harmonic chanting, singing bowls, etc.,) which are outside of the client’s normal reality.

In closing, let us turn to the classic work Imagery In Healing: Shamanism and Modern Medicine by Jeanne Achterberg. In describing the healings performed by Navaho medicine men, the says “there is emphasis on song, prayer, body painting, sweating and emetic (the purification), and vigil for concentration and clarity of thought… Throughout the long ritual, the patient is involved in symbolic drama, especially as he is encouraged to continuously develop and sustain images of the personal healing process.”

Later, in the same chapter, Achterberg mentions a Dr. Bergman, a physician who studied in a Navaho school for ‘medicine men.’ “Bergman conducted an hypnosis demonstration for those healers with whom he was studying. He said that instead of looking half asleep, as they usually did during their meetings, they watched in wide-eyed wonder (although he noted that they scarcely seemed to be breathing). Thomas Largewhiskers, a venerated 100-year-old medicine man, said he was surprised to see that white men knew anything so worthwhile!”

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