“A Christian friend of mine once told me: ‘If I was the Devil and I wanted to keep you away from something that could bring you closer to God, I would make you irrationally afraid of it. And I’m afraid that’s what happened to hypnosis because, when you think about what it really is, it is a powerful expression of free will given to us by God and yet we are frightened into not using it. What a tragedy.’” (Devin Hastings, Hypnosis: The Dangers and the Lies Revealed)
Feelings run strong within the Christian community concerning the use of hypnosis. Not infrequently, one can even hear remarks like, “Hypnotism is of the devil!” “Hypnosis is evil!” or “Hypnosis steals your mind.” According to John and Paul Sandford, “Hypnotism in counseling may release power to demonic and/or fleshly forces to discover what the Holy Spirit would not yet or perhaps ever reveal.”
Is it harmful to use medical hypnosis or trance techniques in Christian counseling or in personal introspection? Does it, in fact, “release power” to evil forces? On the other hand, if hypnosis is of the Spirit, why are so many Christians afraid of it?
Let me ask another, more appropriate, question which gets to the true core of the matter. Namely, “Is it even possible to be involved in the process of healing hurting people without involving hypnosis?” I take the position in this article that one cannot take part in the process of helping deeply hurting people and not use hypnosis or trance. As we begin to think through these issues, we must obviously define our terms and set forth our definitions. World renowned author and psychiatrist, Milton Erickson, M.D., described the process of hypnosis in the following way: “Deep hypnosis is that level… that permits the subject to function adequately and directly at an unconscious level of awareness without interference by the conscious mind.”
Thus, anything that allows a person to function in an internal, unconscious, or subjective level involves “hypnosis” or trance. This means that a person in trance or hypnosis has accessed a receptive state to suggestions from the therapist. Indeed, hypnosis essentially describes a communication of ideas and understandings to the client in such a fashion that assists his or her receptivity.
The Function of Parts in the Unconscious Mind
To accurately understand my belief that hypnosis plays an essential role in healing, even Christian healing, a person needs a basic understanding of the concepts of “unconscious parts.” We commonly talk about “parts” when we say that “a part” of me wants this or that, but in my mind or in my emotions, I want something else. It refers to a facet of our total functioning–maybe an emotional part, perhaps a conceptual part (a belief, value, understanding, etc.), or a behavioral part. Unconscious “parts” refer to those areas of the mind, outside of consciousness, that store our non-integrated memories.
By non-integrated, we mean that little or no transmission of neural impulses occurs between this part and the rest of the nervous system. A “split,” so to speak, occurs and the part does not communicate with the rest of the mind. The part functions as a minor “personality,” so to speak. As such, the part takes on more and more a life of its own.
The Bible and Unconscious Parts
What does the Bible say concerning unconscious parts? The Psalmist exclaimed of God, “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom” (Psalm 51:6, KJV). The Hebrew word here for inward parts means “that which is covered over with something else.” A covering conceals it. Note also the plural tense of the word. This indicates the presence of more than one unconscious part.
The writer of Hebrews referred to these unconscious parts as “bitter roots.” “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by it many be defiled” (Hebrews 12:15, NASB). In this passage, the writer speaks about how bitter unconscious parts can result in three harmful consequences. First, bitter roots hinder the grace of God working in the individual. Second, bitter roots can cause trouble to the individual and, thirdly, to others. Indeed, my experience in marriage counseling teaches me that most marital problems directly trace back to bitter roots from childhood.
- Do you fear making yourself vulnerable in telling what you really think or fear?
- Do you find yourself easily embarrassed?
- Do you often believe yourself as inferior to others?
- Do you say to yourself, “No matter what I do, it won’t make a difference; I am and always will be worthless and unlovable?”
- Do you get defensive if someone gives you negative feedback?
- Do you blame others a lot?
- Do you apologize a lot?
- Do you often feel yourself as an outsider?
- Do you consistently think that others judge you?
- In your mind and talk, do you judge others?
- Do you think yourself as ugly or somehow imperfect?
- Do you find yourself obsessed by clothes or makeup?
- Do you have to do things perfectly?
- Do you feel depressed a lot?
- Do you find that you have deceived yourself about things?
- Do you live your life as a people-pleaser?
- Do you go into fits of rage?
- Do you idolize money or status?
- Do you work too much?
- Do you eat too much?
- Do you shop too much?
- Do you gamble too much?
- Do you use pornography?
- Do you experience your identity as shamed based?
- Do you feel guilty most of the time?
All of these expressions exist as bitter roots from life experiences and influences. These bitter roots function as unconscious parts that drive behavior. For healing to take place, we must take these bitter roots to the Cross. Uncovering these parts so that we can take them to the Cross for God to heal describes our use of trance (or hypnosis). Indeed, trance plays an essential role in this process. When we fail to take our bitter roots to the Cross for healing, we suffer harm in our personal, spiritual, and relational lives.
How does a Christian counselor/therapist bring about healing of unconscious parts? We do so via a trance or altered state. Why? Because trance enables a person to function more effectively and directly at the unconscious level. God made it this way, having equipped us with both a central nervous system and an autonomic nervous system that runs our breathing, heart pulse, neuro-transmitters, glands, internal organs, internal bio-rhythms, etc.
We need this deep meditative and inward focus of the trance state in order to deal with the conscious mind which can become an absolute master at keeping our unconscious parts repressed. The beauty of trance lies, in part, in how it can occupy the conscious mind. Once occupied, the conscious mind stops intruding unhelpfully when our deeper unconscious mind provides important information. Given this analysis, anything that allows you to function internally at the unconscious level describes a process that causes trance.
Actually, we all go in and out of trance several times every day. God has built our mind-body nervous system with this ability in order to keep us from going insane. Without the ability for trance, we would hear and process every word that came our way. Trance, as intense focus on something, simply enables us to shut out other things.
Day dreaming offers an excellent example of everyday trance. Have you ever driven several miles and not remembered passing certain landmarks? Or, have you ever started out intending to drive to a familiar place only to end up somewhere else? And, once you “came to yourself,” did you then wondered how you got there? Of course you have! So welcome to the world of trance!
In contact sports, injured athletes sometimes become so focused and concentrated on the game that they lack any awareness of an injury. Not until after the game do they become aware that they have suffered an injury. So where were they or where was their consciousness when the injury occurred? In the trance state, they had altered their normal consciousness to one of intense focus.
Soldiers, too, frequently report of suffering an injury in battle and not feeling pain until after the battle. Their conscious mind so concentrated on the battle that they lost awareness of any pain from even serious injury. Again, in trance they accessed God-given resources within their body–resources that the medical community has designated as hypnotic pain control.
Hypnosis and trance simply describe the same phenomenon. The first word, hypnosis, describes what the experience looks like from an outside observer–”sleep” or as we say, “zoned out.” The second word, trance, describes the movement of consciousness from one state to another; it “transitions” from normal consciousness to an altered one.
How does trance feel? People typically enjoy experiencing the trance state because it feels good. On the EEG, trance lies at a level below relaxation. This means that when we experience trance, we experience a deep state of relaxation.
Contrast this with what Job said in anguish, “I am seething within, and cannot relax; days of affliction confront me” (Job 30:27). What did Job need? He needed to focus on God, and to relax in God’s love, grace, security, and promises. After much struggle, Job did shift his focus (consciousness) and did focus on God. “I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees Thee” (Job 42:5). With his eyes turned away from his problems, Job turned his focus to God. With God’s revelation from the Whirlwind and his searching probing questions to Job, this induced Job into an intense concentration on God and God’s wonderful, but mysterious world, and so Job went into a trance. The long term result of his shift of consciousness? “Job died, an old man and full of days” (Job 42:17).
Many believe, as I do, that when we enter into a deep concentrative trance as such, that our body reaches its healing peak. Milton Erickson, M.D., used trance to communicate with people and to facilitate healing. He would put people in trance and, in that state of trance, Erickson would ask them about their problem. When he asked them about their problem, they would go blank. Their appearance indicated that the problem had ceased functioning as a problem.
Erickson also discovered that, in trance, people experience an inner alertness. Though they look asleep from an outside perspective, inwardly they have blocked out everything but the matter of their focusing. Trance (hypnosis), therefore, enables a therapist to communicate acceptable ideas to the deeper mind of the client and, in this communication, trance empowers the person to become most receptive to those ideas which support their goals and values.
Typically, our conscious mind thinks and behaves quite egotistically. It wants to have its way! When it does not get its way, it goes to war. It then tends to block out any communication both from others and from the unconscious mind. By contrast, trance moves the conscious mind out of the way so that the unconscious mind can then speak. Through the process, once the conscious mind realizes that the unconscious mind only attempts to do its best – often in a protective role, the conscious mind will communicate with it. Since the Holy Spirit does His best work at the unconscious level (within the “hidden parts”), trance offers a most helpful process to the Christian minister. Indeed, I continue to become more and more aware that hypnotic language patterns in the hands of the Christian therapist functions as the language of the Spirit.
Trance, the Bible and the Church
Both the Bible and the Church actually refer to and make much use of trance. Remember how the apostle Peter entered Joppa and, on the house-top where he had gone for a time of prayer, Peter fell into a trance? “He became hungry, and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance” (Acts 10:9-10). The word trance here derives from ekstasis. As you look at that word you can recognize our English word ecstasy–”stasis” (to stand) and “ec” (ex, out), hence to “stand out of yourself.” The Greek lexicon defines this word as “a state of being brought about by God, in which consciousness is wholly or partially suspended.”
Actually this lexicon definition of trance sounds as if it came right out of a NLP manual. The critical addition in this definition differs only in that God brought about Peter’s trance. (Imagine that! God, a hypnotist! And given the vision he saw–what a hypnotist!) As Christian counselors, we know and want all of our work to operate in a Christ centered way–in a way filled with and by the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, a Christian counselor will bathe his or her work in prayer. We do that so that the Holy Spirit will empower our work and enlighten our minds.
Consider the Hebrew verbs for meditation: hagah and siach. Both of these words translate “to muse, speak or talk.” Thus, the concept of meditation comes from the definition “to muse.” Accordingly, the Psalmist said, “I will meditate (hagah) on all Thy work, and muse (siach) on Thy deeds” (Psalm 77:12). In meditating, or musing, on God’s works, the Psalmist announces that he will reflect, ponder or consider at length the work of God. He will go “inside” his mind and there see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the various wondrous works of God–separating Abraham, calling Moses, freeing the Israelites, etc. Trance. When the Psalmist did this or when we do this today– trance occurs.
Prayer too functions as trance. Why or how? Because true prayer involves intense concentration on God. In prayer, we focus our attention on God and do so to such an extent that all other external stimuli move aside.
Probably nowhere else in the Bible do we find the use of trance more evident than in the parables of Jesus. A parable, after all, operates as a metaphor and so takes on the characteristics of a metaphor. Robert Dilts defines a metaphor as “a figure of speech in which something is spoken of as if it were another.” The word “metaphor” means “to carry over.” In a metaphor, the message within the metaphor “carries over” into the other person’s needs. The listener takes the framework or structure of the metaphor and interprets them in the framework of his or her own experience.
This describes the subtle and covert power of metaphors, often an integral element of hypnosis. Because the message lies in the frame of an unrelated story, the message typically will bypass the client’s conscious mind and go right into the unconscious mind. We therefore use therapeutic metaphor and design, in hypnosis, to have a similar structure to the client’s experience. Because of the similarity, their unconscious mind will interpret the metaphor in relation to their own needs. The client will take what he hears and represent it in terms of his or her own experience.
When we hear Jesus’ parables, our conscious mind becomes occupied by the simple story of the parable. We think and wonder about the details of the story. But meantime our unconscious mind interprets the story behind the story, or the intended message for ourselves. By occupying our conscious mind with the unrelated story, our Lord puts us in trance in order to get to our unconscious mind with the message of the parable.
Do you think Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan really concerned two busy religious leaders who obey the Law by remaining clean? Or, do you think the parable speaks about his condemnation of a religious system that caused religious leaders to put legalism above helping someone in need? And, do you think the religious leaders got the point when Jesus chose a hated and despised Samaritan as the one who gave a helping hand to the fallen stranger?
At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus chose to present his teaching in a straight-forward way, as he did in the Sermon on the Mount. But with the resisting Pharisees, his teaching got Him into trouble and threatened Him with death before His time. So he chose the parable as a method by which he could get to the unconscious minds of the religious community in a non-threatening way (Matthew 13). And via the parable, Jesus showed his expertness at placing people in trance. A metaphor comes to the mind in a far less threatening way than does direct advice. Why? Because the information has a veiled form in the metaphor.
If your age places you in the middle to older generation, you probably appreciate meditative organ music prior to worship. What does such do for you? The music relaxes you. It focuses your attention on worship. It puts you into a state of trance. If, however, you do not like the music, you will come out of trance and talk to the person on the pew with you, will you not?
Then, in the sermon, if the preacher makes a statement that focuses your attention on a hurt, a need, or even an interest, then while the preacher continues preaching, you go somewhere else. Do you not? He leaves you behind while your attention goes to something else. Inwardly you focus on your need or interest–your brain swishes to you another time and place. Trance! Actually, most pastors have already become masters at trance work, except they don’t know it (!) nor would many admit it.
Many of our worship services powerfully and marvelously induce people into trances. Rhythmic motion produces trance in people. The raising of hands and the swaying also induces trance. The Africans have enjoyed this for centuries. People not only listen to the words of the song; they feel the music’s rhythm. Trance induction happens as they move from their auditory to their kinesthetic representation system. It seems to me that people love these worship services because when they enter such trances, they focus more clearly and powerfully on God.
We “have been remarkably and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). God created us with this powerful ability, which we call hypnosis, to communicate with our deep inner parts. This natural ability can be used with powerful results when we become aware of how we communicate with ourselves and learn to control what we allow ourselves to believe. We are deceived, at times, into harmful or limiting beliefs and behaviors. Peter warns us to “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). But, as children of God, we have the power of God within us, to overcome the devil’s schemes, “because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Many Christians have allowed the devil to seize them with fear and to hijack one of God’s greatest tools for gaining inner strength and peace. Used purposefully the way God intended, hypnosis can tune in our focus on the Spirit’s still small voice within, open our awareness to the Spirit’s deep inner work, and empower us to live the abundant life Jesus came to give us. “I have come so that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
“Now that you’ve found you don’t have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way!” (Romans 6:22 Msg).
Adapted from “Can A Christian Counselor use Hypnosis,” by Bobby G. Bodenhamer, D.Min, L. Michael Hall, Ph.D., Revised. Bobby Bodenhamer and Michael Hall are Co-Directors of Institute of Neuro-semantics http://www.neurosemantics.com/.