This installment of my “Tools of Transformation” column is a continuation of “Altered Journeys,” my account of four personal altered state experiences that precipitated major breakthroughs in my healing process. I am detailing these therapeutic experiences to give examples of how experiential self-acceptance, the Inner Source method, and hypnotic trance actually work to foster healing. I described two such experiences in last month’s issue. Here I plan to illustrate one of the remaining two examples of altered state work, a session with Dick Olney, who used the hypnotic methods of Milton H. Erickson in combination with his shamanic cosmology. My last example, which I will write about next month, is a session using the Inner Source, facilitated by my consultant Lani Granum. I was in therapy with Dick Olney when the following session took place.
I met Dick Olney while I was studying the hypnotic strategies of Milton H. Erickson in a program sponsored by Cambridge House in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1980. Dick taught the “Self Hypnosis” section of that ongoing seminar. After spending three days with him watching him teach and work with us, I made an appointment to see him for some individual sessions. Over the course of my work with Dick, he became my teacher and mentor. The session that follows took place in his office in Milwaukee in the second year of my working with him.
I felt good coming into this session and wasn’t sure what I wanted to work on. I talked a bit about my relationship with my girlfriend and mentioned some work I was doing with one of my clients. Dick had a way of being warm and understanding, while letting you know subliminally that there was more going on than met the eye.
He said something like, “Well Tom, I find that very interesting, but I wonder if you are aware of your posture as you are talking to me. You are leaning forward as you speak and I wonder if you wouldn’t be more comfortable if you sat back and let the chair support you for a while.” I realized that I was indeed in an uncomfortable position, and I took his suggestion to lean back. Then Dick said, “I want you to pay exquisite attention to the experience of sitting in that chair, as if it’s the most important experience you could be having. Notice all the subtleties and nuances of the experience. Your mind may be telling you that it is a very simple experience, and a boring one at that, but your body knows something else. Your body appreciates, not only the sensory complexity of sitting there, but it also knows that there is something else in play. If you become aware of your breath, you may begin to discover something that you haven’t noticed. It’s almost as if you have a second body, a body of breath, and that body is breathing itself. You don’t have to think about the breath, because the breath body is breathing all by itself.”
Now, as you read the above hypnotic induction, you may think that it sounds like mumbo jumbo, but it had a profound effect on me. Of course, I was trying to be a good client, so I was listening very closely to what he said. It was interesting to me to think that this simple experience could become an important one for me. I knew that I was being invited to be fully present, something which in itself can induce relaxation. But when he began to talk about a second body, I felt confused and uncertain, while at the same time becoming aware that I was breathing easily even though I had not been aware of my breathing at all.
Immediately after he said that the breath body is breathing all by itself, I felt myself lift off of the chair and do a backward somersault “out of my body!” I knew that my physical body was still sitting in the chair, but I was conscious that I was also floating in space on my back. I spoke out loud to tell Dick this was happening, to which he replied, “yes, that’s right Tom, just allow this to happen.” I started narrating the experience as it happened, for I felt that I was leaving the room and floating through space. I began to feel that I was gaining altitude and surprisingly I could tell that I was headed in a westerly direction. At a certain point, I became aware that I was rolling over so that I was now flying face down. I was above the clouds for a short time. Then the clouds began to part and I could see that I was over the ocean. There below me was a flotilla of warships heading westward toward Hawaii. And then I knew what I was seeing. My father was on board one of these ships heading for the South Pacific to fight in World War II.
As soon as I had come to that realization, I suddenly materialized as a very small boy standing in the hallway of our apartment on Keeler Avenue in Skokie, Illinois. I was wearing a sailor suit that my mother had made for me and I looked up to see my father dressed in his naval officer’s uniform. He saluted me and told me that he was going to have to go away for some time, and that while he was away that I would be “the man of the house.” He instructed me to take good care of my Mother. Although I had no conscious memory of this experience happening, in the trance state it seemed exactly right, and I believed that it had actually happened. I believe I was less than two years old at the time.
Once my father had given me his instructions, I began to awaken from the trance. When I came back to full waking consciousness, I felt that I had learned something that had had a profound influence on my life. I was definitely a caretaker. Not only had I become an ordained minister, I was now a practicing psychotherapist. As importantly, I tended to get into romantic relationships with women that I felt that I needed to take care of. At this time in my life my mother had been dead for twenty-seven years, but apparently there was a sense in which I was still carrying out my father’s orders.
Like the two other altered state experiences that I wrote about last month, this experience continued to unfold over the next several months. In retrospect, this trance experience opened a locked room in my psyche. I had cut myself off not only from my father, but from my need for fathering. As Sheldon Kopp says in his first book “Guru,” instead of having the good father, I had tried to become the good father. I had taken on the identity of “caretaker,” but to a fault. In the process of doing so I had lost touch with my needs and my emotions.
As a result of this work, I began to get more in touch with what I had lost. I began to be more in touch with my feelings and the needs that they signaled. I started to take into account what was in it for me before I volunteered to be of help or got involved in some charitable project. The shift in my consciousness allowed me to let go of a lot of resentment that built up if I felt that I was being taken advantage of or taken for granted. I started to become more assertive and more expressive of what I felt and thought. Surprisingly, I also began to feel more affection for my father, as the ways that I was competitive with him for my mother’s love started to dawn on me. I recognized that I was changing quickly, and that these changes would continue to evolve.
This experience contains several important aspects of altered state work. The first is that the induction of the altered state creates a feedback loop of self-awareness for the person who is going into the state. If you recall the meditative exercise called the Betty Erickson Special from my first “Tools of Transformation article,” you will remember that it involves saying out loud what you are feeling, seeing, and hearing over and over. Doing so has the effect of looking at oneself in the mirror. When we can see or hear what we are experiencing, the effect on the body is a calming one. We feel a sense of validation that confirms us in that experience. A hypnotic induction moves from that feedback loop to guiding the person into the hypnotic state. A point of fixation is developed that absorbs the person’s interest sufficiently to change their focus. At this point direct and indirect suggestions can be used to lead the person more deeply into the altered state experience.
In the trance experience above, Dick starts talking about my posture, and then suggests I could be more comfortable. He then moves quickly into leading me into fixating on the experience of leaning back in the chair, because he could see that I was responding readily to his suggestions. He then introduces the idea of a “second body,” the breath body, which successfully detached me from my normal conscious waking state and ultimately from my physical body. What happened from there on out was spontaneous and unpredictable. In this session the only connection between the work that followed and what I was talking about is that Dick could see that I was working too hard to engage him. Even though I was not offering much of anything to work with, he decided to go with what was happening with my body and to use that experience to change my orientation. My body posture was the here and now focus for what followed. The ensuing developments were the work of my creative unconscious mind, which I believe is always there beneath the surface of consciousness waiting to be of assistance in our healing process. It is also important to consider, however, that I was in the second year of my therapy with Dick Olney. He knew who he was working with, what my patterns and tendencies were, where I was blocked, where I was overcompensating. He knew that I was responsive and a good hypnotic subject. He was also a master therapist, who was able to make intuitive leaps in the utilization of trance.
What I am hoping to illustrate here is that there are identifiable elements in all altered state work that can be useful in understanding how these experiences operate. This example shows how quickly the creative unconscious mind can respond, if it is given room to express itself. The validation of our experience and the focus of our attention on some specific sensory data can open the way for the unconscious mind to participate in the process of healing and transformation in surprising ways. The element of surprise is also a way to help someone enter the realm of the unconscious, and surprises often occur once we enter it. The experience is similar to dreaming. We are aware that we are in an altered state, but what is happening is not in our conscious control. We are taken in by the experience because it is compelling and absorbing. Our mind is fully engaged, but it is receptive and passive. We are receiving and allowing whatever happens to happen. This is the essence of an altered state experience.
One of the most important aspects of the altered state experience is the opening that it creates in the psyche and the connections that can be made as a result. This trance experience put me in touch with several parts of myself that I had lost touch with. It reconnected me to my need for fathering and to the love I had for my father when I was a young boy. It also reconnected me to a creative part of myself that I had lost touch with in my early twenties. A short time after my work with Dick, I found myself writing a poem to my father. The poem attempted to express the shift in my feeling toward him. I had been angry with my father for years for a number of different reasons, his idealistic perfectionism, his temper, his critical approach to me and most of all, for the horrible choice he made in marrying my step-mother. This work did not resolve all my anger, but it did have a positive effect on my feeling for him. The poem that I wrote shortly after my session with Dick appears below. It is not a great example of poetry by any means, but it is precious to me, because of the opening to the unconscious and the reconnection to creativity it represents for me.
At heart, my father was a Navy man,
Thrilled and terrified by the power of the Sea.
Sadly, he spoke little of this.
I envision him standing watch on the bridge,
Scrambled eggs on his hat brim announcing his rank
His chin like a ship’s prow cutting the waves.
By the time he returned to us
I’d lost my need for him.
To my four year old mind, Mom and I were fine.
Only now do I begin to feel my affection
For this strong, proud man.
My mother’s heart it seems had room enough for two.
So sail on good Captain,
Dear father of mine.
My shining eyes would fill with tears,
If both of us could take the helm
Our hands entwined. (Thomas Goforth, 1982)
Article written by Thomas Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.