Pastoral Hypnotherapy

KinserAfter much research into what constitutes the hypnotic state, and why it happens, no single factor can explain all of the phenomenon one may encounter. Actually, “many psychological and physical factors, acting reciprocally through the image-producing faculties of the mind, induce the perceptual response called hypnosis. Hypnosis is not a sharply delineated state, but rather a mental process along the broad, fluctuating continuum of what is loosely referred to as awareness, depending upon the degree of perceptivity.”(1)

The capacity to enter into hypnosis is as natural a phenomenon as sleep, but it is distinctly different from sleep. Hypnosis has been described as “a state of consciousness involving an extension of concentration combined with a susceptibility to suggestion occurring during physiological relaxation.”(2) Another definition I find useful is: “Hypnosis is a process which produces relaxation, distraction of the conscious mind, heightened suggestibility and increased awareness, allowing access to the subconscious mind, through the imagination. It also produces the ability to experience thoughts and images as real.”(3)

My own approach to hypnosis, pastoral hypnotherapy, and treatment comes out of my training and experience in using the therapeutic insights and writings of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. (1901-1980). From that perspective, hypnosis can be seen as an altered psychological state “generally characterized by certain physiological attributes (e.g., relaxed muscle tone, reduced blood pressure, slowed breath rate), by an enhanced receptivity to suggestion, and by an increased access to unconscious feelings, ideas, and memories”(4) Michael D. Yapko, Director of the Milton H. Erickson Institute of San Diego, defines clinical hypnosis as “a process of influential communication”(5) and as “a skill of using words and gestures in particular ways to achieve specific outcomes.”(6)

It is important to remember that hypnosis does not have to involve the stereotypic rituals of swinging pendulums, watches or crystal balls, and that it is not a fixed internal state. It is useful to see clinical hypnosis as “an interchange or form of communication between two (or more) people that results in the accessing and subsequent utilization of latent or underdeveloped resources. These resources may consist of past experiences, affects, or forgotten skills, and their renewed experience or application can result in changes in one’s memory, perception, sensation, and/or emotion so that new behaviors and attitudes manifest.”(7) However, I would not limit my definition of hypnotic trance to the necessity that it take place between two (or more) people. “Clinical” hypnosis and “pastoral” hypnotherapy, on the other hand, do imply a clinical or pastoral setting, with the focus more on the process of communication and therapeutic outcome, rather than on the hypnotic state involved.

Clearly, hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness, i.e., it is different from normal waking consciousness. However, it is believed that all people go in and out of hypnotic trance on a regular basis. In a book on “Healing Approaches in Quantum Psychology,” Stephen Wolinsky, Ph.D., states: “Trances are often a necessary means of surviving and negotiating the physical universe. They are like tunnels you walk through in order to maneuver and focus in the world. Some trances are functional and pleasing; others are dysfunctional and pathological. Some trances will be in alignment with your goals, while others will impede you.”(8)

Many people have experienced a type of hypnotic trance state while driving a car and becoming unconscious of the fact that they are still driving. As they come out of the trance, they suddenly realize they do not remember what has happened for the past several minutes. It is as though an unconscious part of the mind was able to drive the car, avoid danger, speed up and slow down as necessary, while the conscious mind went off on a brief vacation thinking about something else. A trance may be experienced in the movies or while watching TV, when people become so involved that they actually cry about a picture that has been projected onto a screen. At one level of their minds, they know the picture is fiction. On another level, their minds move voluntarily into a trance in which there is a suspension of reality testing and an acceptance of what is happening on the screen as real.

Likewise, when people experience hypnosis or hypnotic trance, they often simply allow their bodies to relax and their minds to focus attention on the words they hear and the various images they may represent in their minds. As Erickson observed, this is not hypersuggestible mind control but a very natural process that allows clients to more easily reach goals or objectives they have chosen for themselves. As one moves into the hypnotic state, he or she may receive information that the mind processes through the central nervous system and relates to the neurophysiologic complex of controls built into the human system for self-regulation of homeostatic or adaptive mechanisms. Thus, there is greater receptivity of sensory inputs with a minimal degree of interference. This enhances the mental processes so that, with proper motivation, the client moves naturally and easily into a comfortable hypnotic trance state.

It is also helpful to think of hypnotic trance as “an experience that allows for the creation of a new phenomenal world for the client. New behaviors and attitudes are able to evolve and manifest because old, limiting, rigid, or maladaptive ones are modified, dissipated, or shifted to more innocuous areas of emotional or social functioning.”(9) This is normally a safe process in the hands of a trained hypnotherapist. However, as with all therapeutic interventions, there are contraindications for certain types of processes, which are discussed more fully in Chapter Two of the soon to be published text, “Pastoral Hypnotherapy.”

In summary , hypnotic trance, when utilized by trained and competent practitioners, can be a natural, comfortable and helpful process of communication, during which clients and/or parishioners may experience increased attention to suggestions, profound concentration, heightened recall of memories and access to state-dependent memories, greater image-producing abilities, and increased ability to form new habit patterns. All of these positive benefits can be used to greatly enhance spiritual practices, deepen meditation and prayer, control stress, assist in physical, spiritual and emotional healing, and, in general, assist individuals to find greater wholeness and happiness in life. When these processes are used by a trained pastoral counselor, that is pastoral hypnotherapy.

By Rev. Dr. Prentice Kinser III. “Hypnosis and Pastoral Hypnotherapy” is a portion of Dr. Prentice Kinser, III’s doctoral thesis: “Prophecy, Trance and Transference; Hypnosis as a Pastoral Counseling Modality,” presented in June, 1997 at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.


  1. Milton H. Erickson, The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson on Hypnotism. Volume I, The Nature of hypnosis and Suggestion (New York: Irvington Publishers, Inc., 1980), p. 32.
  2. David Fox, “Mind/Body, Brain/Soul: Halakhic Explorations of Hypnotic Trance Phenomena,” Journal of Psychology and Judaism, Vol. 16, No.2 (Summer 1992), p. 97.
  3. A.M. Krasner, The Wizard Within (Santa Ana: American Board of Hypnotherapy Press, 1991), p.2.
  4. John H. Edgette, Psy.D., and Janet Sasson Edgette, Psy. D., The Handbook of Hypnotic Phenomena in Psychotherapy (New York: Brunner/Mazel, Inc., 1995), pp. 3-4.
  5. Michael D.Yapko, Ph.D., Essentials of Hypnosis (New York: Brunder/Mazel, 1995), p. 9.
  6. Ibid., p. 3.
  7. Edgette and Edgette, p. 4, quoting J.K. Zeig “Therapeutic patterns of Ericksonian influence on communication” in J. K. Zeig (Ed) The Evolution of Psychotherapy (New York: Brunner/Mazel, Inc, 1987) pp. 392-412).
  8. Stephen Wolinsky, Trances People Live (Falls Village, CT: The Bramble Company, 1991), p. 19.
  9. Edgette and Edgette, p. 4.

The Rev. Dr. Prentice Kinser III, B.A., M.B.A., M.Div., D.Min., CPC, NBCCH, is Executive Director and Pastoral Counselor for the Blue Ridge Pastoral Counseling Centers, Inc. (BRPCC), is an ordained minister (Episcopal priest), has received a Doctor of Ministry degree in pastoral counseling and psychotherapy, is certified as a Pastoral Counselor and Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, is an Adjunct Faculty member at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, and is a National Board Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist, a Certified Trainer of Clinical Hypnotherapy, a husband, a father of three children, and a grandfather of three grandchildren. In addition to conducting pastoral counseling, Dr. Kinser is now serving as Priest-in-Charge at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Oak Grove, Virginia, and St. James’ Episcopal Church, Montross, Virginia. Dr. Kinser has also provided professional consultations with individuals, churches and industry for a wide rage of problems and needs. For example, Dr. Kinser leads Vestry retreats, spiritual growth classes, stop smoking, weight loss, and performance enhancement programs. Dr. Kinser is the author of the doctoral thesis “Prophecy, Trance and Transference: Hypnosis as a Pastoral Counseling Modality.” and the soon to be published texts Therapeutic Imaging and Pastoral Hypnotherapy

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