When I was the rabbi of a congregation, people used to ask me, “What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish boy?” Now I’ve left the active rabbinate and I am a hypnotherapist. Using hypnosis, I help people to quit smoking, lose weight, diminish pain, heal ailments, reduce their stress level, remember things they’ve long ago forgotten, and sometimes even discover the meaning of life.
And sometimes people ask me, “What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish boy?” My past and present occupations have more in common than that particular question. In the first place, I am still a rabbi, even though I am not employed as a rabbi. Occasionally, I do rabbinical guest gigs.
I believe that hypnosis and spirituality are inseparably part of the same piece of human experience. The work that I do is profoundly religious, and Jewish religious life would be enhanced profoundly by opening itself more to inner religious experience.
Modern hypnosis began around the time of the French Revolution with Count Antoin Mesmer. Sigmund Freud began his work with hypnosis but he eventually abandoned it. However, precursors of hypnosis have been part and parcel of the ancient healing techniques practiced by priests, shamans, medicine men/women, and yes, even rabbis, since the dawn of time.
4,000 years ago, when Abraham first intuited the Oneness of God and began Jewish history, his experience was an experience of an altered state of consciousness. When Moses spent all those days and nights on Mt. Sinai learning Torah, his mental state was very different from mine when I drive my car down my neighborhood freeway. When Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel had those amazing visions that have inspired us ever since, their minds and bodies were in a different mode. I would not reduce the magnitude of their experiences to simple hypnosis. However, I do believe that almost anyone could have a taste of their experience by turning inward.
To understand what an altered state of consciousness is, consider your dreams. We all awaken from time to time with the strong feeling of, “Whew! It was only a dream!” (or sometimes, “Oh damn! It was only a dream!”) While in the dream, everything seems very real, only discombobulated, like you’re driving your car down the freeway and suddenly the freeway turns to cranberry jelly. The dream state is a most radically altered state of consciousness. In hypnosis, the alterations of consciousness are less extreme but still significant.
Our tradition has had miracle workers throughout our ages who have done all sorts of things which seem to contradict the normal scientific flow of cause and effect that characterized most of our experience. From Elijah to Rabbi Me’ir to Ba’al Shem Tov, we’ve had objects materialize from nowhere, and individuals who could predict the future, who could heal the sick, and who were able to see into the truth of the matter with uncanny accuracy. And almost anyone who has ever experienced one of these swears that, far from being something only imagined, it was the most real event that ever happened to him/her. At least some of these experiences were felt in hypnotic states. To say that they were perceived in hypnosis does not diminish their intensity or their reality.
While in hypnosis, some people (a small but significant minority) will hallucinate sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches. Most anyone can have a tooth filled with no more than minimal pain. It is easy to resist going into hypnosis, but almost everyone who wants to be hypnotized can be led to significant changes in their sensory and emotional perceptions.
Lest anyone accuse hypnosis of lying outside the fence of what normative Judaism permits, let me invoke no less an authority than Jacob Ettlinger (1808-1871), the teacher of Sampson Raphael Hirsch. When asked, he investigated hypnosis and defended hypnotism against a charge of witchcraft (Responsa Binyan Zion, No. 67). He derived his ruling from a discussion of healing powers in the authoritative code of Jewish law, Yosef Ram’s Shulhan Arukh.
The experience of hypnosis is less strange than most might at first think. It doesn’t require a swinging pocket watch. (I do it all by simple talk.) Anyone who has ever taken a natural childbirth class has gone into hypnosis with the controlled breathing techniques that eliminate the need for chemical anesthetics. Anyone who has ever seen a child so deeply immersed in a TV show that they had to yell his name 15 times before he responded has seen someone in hypnosis. Anyone who has ever sat spellbound to a fabulous speaker for an hour and a half and then described it by saying, “I don’t know what she said but it was utterly fantastic!” has experienced some hypnotic trances.
The process of inducing a hypnotic states, as I do it, begins with physical relaxation. I usually direct the client to breath slowly and deeply and to keep her awareness focused on her breathing, while I lead her to relax different parts of her body. While the body is relaxing, the mind is helped to slow down as well.
Being in hypnosis feels like that last moment before one falls asleep, where you’re kind of walking a tightrope between wakefulness and sleep. In therapeutic hypnosis, we prolong this period of just a few seconds to about 40 minutes.
Most people emerge from hypnosis and say something like, “I’ve never been so relaxed in my life.” It is a most pleasant experience. For many people, learning to relax is all they need. They come to me because they awaken at 3 a.m. and can’t fall back asleep. Once they learn a bit of simple self-hypnosis, falling back asleep becomes almost automatic.
There is absolutely no danger at all in hypnosis. There has never been a documented case of anyone being harmed or doing anything harmful as a result of being in the state of hypnosis. And it is impossible not to come out of it; the worst thing that could happen would be you’d fall asleep and awaken a short time later.
Contrary to popular misconception, hypnosis is not about controlling another person. To the contrary, hypnosis empowers an individual to make better use of his/her active powers of mind.
Why does hypnosis help people quit smoking? I believe it works, not because the hypnotic suggestion is somehow overpowering, but rather, the hypnotic suggestion is “empowering.” In hypnosis, you can become aware of your true inner power… willpower, we sometimes call it. But “willpower” suggests that this is some sort of a struggle. On the contrary, by tuning in to the power that works through you, you realize that you have the strength to change those habitual behaviors, like smoking or overeating, that are harming you. Changing that behavior then becomes almost as natural, as irresistible, as the flower’s petals opening when its season is at hand.
In hypnosis, one becomes aware that the connections between the mind and the body are less rigid than we usually assume. One finds it is possible to let go of what they are afraid of – to release. One connects to a sort of an internal rheostat that regulates our perception of pain. We can direct our energies to any part and scientific studies confirm that this visualization helps the unconscious to remember all sort of information that might be useful. Even the illusive dreams that vanish from memory in the first seconds of awakening can be recalled to awareness.
There is one final aspect to hypnosis which is most important: Hypnosis is a most useful tool to guiding people to discover the meaning of their lives. What I have found is that most people, at a particular point in their lives, set out on a course – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. We all make choices about who we are going to be, what we want to be, and how we feel called by God to express our own unique individuality. And then we forget. We get wound up in doing, and forget what it was we were doing in the first place. Remembering can be overwhelming.
The experience of being in hypnosis is similar to meditation. Whereas prayer is talking to God, meditation is listening to God. Meditation quiets the mind by focusing it on one single thought of experience. As a result, one shifts into an alerted state of consciousness in which deep, spiritual truths can be perceived. There are some differences between hypnosis and meditation but their similarities are greater. Although it has largely retreated to the shadows for a century or two, meditation has always been an essential part of Jewish spiritual life.
Moments of intense religious experiences entail a shift in the state of consciousness. Conversely, through a knowledge of state of consciousness, one can lead another into a profound experience of God. Several months ago, I was treated to participating in, what is to a client, a profound spiritual experience. Typically, these clients emerge from hypnosis saying something like, “Wow! All my life I’ve wanted to have an experience like that. Now I know what all that stuff I learned is about. Too bad they never allowed us to experience it.”
Only about 20-percent of my clients are Jewish. The realm of things they use hypnosis for does not seem much different from the general population to me. Few Jews smoke these days, however. Most people’s intense inner experiences are expressed in symbols that are very familiar to them. Quite a few Christian tell me they experience Jesus. Jews never do. Jews often find hypnosis connects them to ancestors whom they always carry within them. Jews often come out of the process expressing something like, “Why don’t we Jews ever talk about God?” I find that last comment very sad. But that realization motives me to continue what I’m doing.
By Rabbi William Blank: Unlimited Human, VOL 1, # 1