The following is a part of a series of informal conversations between Trudy Goodman, Ph.D., Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. and Steven Hickman, Psy.D. about the relationship between mindfulness and hypnosis in psychotherapy and beyond. Enjoy!
Trudy: (I recently had an opportunity to explore the differences and similarities between mindfulness practice and hypnosis with a client. I thought it might be worth exploring here in our ongoing conversation on mindfulness and psychotherapy.)
In mindfulness practice, we give our full attention to one subject at a time as a way of training our minds to be attentive to another dimension of awareness, "beneath" the discursive consciousness and the thinking mind (what the hypnotherapist calls executive functioning), and yes - the protective activity of the amygdala can be activated and trained via conscious, mindful breathing for example. Meditation does mirror the receptivity of hypnosis in this way.
In hypnosis, one is led and taught how to drop down beneath the flow of habitual patterns of thinking and perception to a receptive, open state where the therapist's suggestions can be embedded and incorporated into conscious living. We are doing something similar but different, too. We may also invoke the relaxed, alert, receptive altered state, but we emphasize investigation, inquiry, and looking deeply at what is arising (with the intention to understand, rather than to judge, and the accepting, non-judgmental approach is similar in hypnosis).
One difference is that with mindfulness meditation we are learning how to be both receptive – open, relaxed, alert; and active – forming the intention to stay with experience as it arises and passes away. One goal of MBSR training is to establish and cultivate mindfulness -- your ability to direct your awareness intentionally towards what is actually happening, in real time, moment by moment, so you can receive more information, understanding, and compassionate insight as your life unfolds.
There's no conflict between what your hypnotherapist tells you and what we're doing because we are actually engaging many capacities of consciousness simultaneously when we focus on one thing at a time – many cognitive and emotional qualities come into play, like the intention to aim or direct awareness, to sustain a close connection with the subject of awareness, AND with awareness of the ebb and flow of mindfulness itself – a kind of meta-awareness – with clear comprehension combined with the suffusion of warmth, acceptance, kindness, even affection, into our mindful awareness of ourselves, others and our world.
So yes, your mind can and does operate on more than one level at a time. What we are doing is bringing more and more of this activity into conscious awareness. We are cultivating strong mindfulness and metta, enabling us to make more conscious choices about the way we relate to experience. Hopefully, wise choices that result in our living committed, compassionate lives, and enjoying more peaceful, harmonious, loving relationships along the way!
Steve: While I am no expert in hypnotherapy, I do have a strong sense that both mindfulness and hypnosis share an interest in helping people “get out of their own way” in regard to longstanding but dysfunctional, limiting or unskillful habits, attitudes and behaviors. The single-pointed, quiet and patient focus of both practices allows us (both client and therapist) to see these habitual patterns against a plain backdrop of awareness, rather than the cluttered one of everyday busy-ness.
I liken our attempts to make sense of our problems with our typically distracted, multi-tasking minds to trying to watch a movie when someone is trying to carry on a conversation with you at the same time. Both the movie and the conversation might make sense in their own rights, but together they become a mass of conflicting and confusing features that seems completely overwhelming and sometimes discouraging. Mindfulness practice (and therapy) allow the client to develop the attitudinal skills to observe this chaos and respond patiently and kindly, and the attentional skills to direct attention (and psychological resources) toward the “real” issues and perhaps away from imagined or feared ones. This shift can allow a person to see things for what they are, and to recognize where the constructions and stories that we all create are just that: creations, and not facts to be dealt with or resolved.
I am told that hypnosis cannot bring about behavior that is not first desired by the patient or client. If someone does not truly want to change a particular behavior, hypnosis has no magical ability to transcend that desire. Similarly, intention is at the heart of mindfulness in psychotherapy. We seek to tap into the natural intention that each of has to move toward ease, kindness, compassion and fulfillment, by reducing the “obscurations” of habit and conditioning, and thereby reduce suffering. Not much difference between hypnosis and mindfulness in that, is there?
Elisha: I want to make sure we’re differentiating here between mindfulness as a way of life and formal meditation practice. We can practice mindfulness in formal and informal ways and I think the guided formal meditation practice is the one that can be confused with hypnosis. Having been the recipient of both, I would say the big difference for me is that mindfulness is couched within a much larger context and can be seen as a way of life. Not in any dogmatic religious way, but as a philosophy and practice that we can bring into all the things we do.
Mindfulness at its core trains the mind to more actively drop into a kind attention, cultivating a natural warm presence to bring with us throughout our days. In my opinion, this is at the core of self-healing.
Mindfulness also brings people together in community who are interested in living a more present and compassionate life. This may be one of the most important pieces. Ultimately it’s my belief that the most helpful way for people to make change is through a community of peers who support them with this. I see people who engage with mindfulness in psychotherapy and beyond having an inclination toward wanting to be a part of a community that supports a more mindful life.