Can a Christian Counselor / Therapist Use Hypnosis / Trance
Bobby G. Bodenhamer, D.Min. Edited by L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
Can a Christian counselor use medical hypnosis or trance techniques and still remain Christian? Two Christian authors and counselors that I deeply respect and admire, John and Paula Sandford, categorically say no:
"Hypnotism in counseling involves not only occult error, it may release power to demonic and/or fleshly forces to discover what the Holy spirit would not yet or perhaps ever reveal... No Christian counselor should be involved with hypnotism."
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!"
In this article I will answer the first question and then ask and answer another question which I believe gets to the true core of the matter. It involves a more appropriate question that we should raise. Namely, "Is it even possible to be involved in the healing process of 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 renown 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.
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 this. 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 stores 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. Transmission can take place, however, functionally, no transmission does take place. 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.
I am writing this article using the computer software Word Perfect. If you imagine that the computer represents the human nervous system, then the software Word Perfect represents a part or facet of that system. Whenever I want to run the Word Perfect part, I use "wp" to execute the Word Perfect program. Yet I have, in my computer, other programs. So each of these programs exists and operates as an example of what we mean by a "part." They lie dormant in the computer, as potential resources, until I execute them. And, each software program has its own command that calls it up (evokes it) so that as the operator, I can then use it. For example, Microsoft Works uses the command "works" to activate its programs.
We likewise have stored within our minds various parts or memories. And frequently they can run independently of each other. Where do our parts come from? In many ways: education, learning, modeling, etc. And one of the key ways unconscious parts get installed in our human "system" involves Significant Emotional Experiences, whether positive or negative--but especially emotional experiences of Pain (SEEP). In painful experiences we create parts that don't fit with the rest of the nervous system. If they did fit, they would congruently operate as a functional part of the whole nervous system. If congruent, these parts would communicate and cooperate with the rest of the mind. But as incongruent parts, as split off and disowned "personalities," they conflict with the rest of the nervous system.
Bob knew that his problem concerned his weight. He had good control of all areas of his life, except in the area of his weight. Yet he desperately desired to let Christ operate as Lord in all areas of his life. His conscious outcome for his life involved letting Christ become Lord over all his life.
When Bob communicated with his "eating part," he discovered that this eating part dated back to his early childhood. While yet a child, Bob's father deserted him and his family. And, due to her work, Bob experienced his mother as absent from home most of the time. So Bob sought comfort elsewhere. Through eating, he received a form of warmth and comfort that he found lacking in his parents. The warm food not only gave him physical nourishment, but he also experienced it as giving him emotional support. At the time when this part came into existence, this "eating part" functionally met his needs as a fairly workable substitute.
But now that Bob had become an adult, the "part" within him that sought to find warmth and comfort via food had become very incongruent with his outcome for himself. This unconscious part, now with a life of its own, didn't treat food as food--as nourishment, but as filling an emotion need and so Bob had lost control over his eating and body weight. Bob's felt this incongruity. The part of him that wanted to let Jesus exercise lordship over his eating and weight conflicted with the part of him that didn't want to give up feeling warmth and comfort.
Now as I worked with him, as Bob focused on this unconscious part, he went into trance. Likewise, as Bob focused on the Lord as his Healer, he also entered into a trance.
Not only do these parts operate incongruently with the rest of the nervous system, they also have an incongruity within themselves. At the time of their creation, the each part has a positive intent. Our part want to accomplish something of value for us. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) expresses this as one of its key presuppositions. "Every behavior originally arises to accomplish something useful and adaptive in some context."
In Bob's case, the eating part provided the much needed warmth/comfort that he craved (and needed) as a child. This described the original positive intent of his part. However, over the years and out of that context, the behavior of the part led to Bob's obesity. And, as an adult his obesity and eating behavior caused him problems in his profession as a minister. Meanwhile Bob desperately prayed for Christ to exercise Lordship over this area of his life. How could he find success in this?
One day a minister friend asked him, "Bob, how can you preach against gluttony?" Ouch. This question burned into Bob's soul. "How can I?" Now instead of providing him warmth/comfort, his eating part only provided him the opposite. Bob now felt rejection, confusion, and inner conflict. Thus, the intent of the part had come to operate in a way incongruent with the behavior it produced.
Our parts explain why we make choices detrimental to our long term welfare. Ann also had a weight problem. Ann, in her mid thirties, served in a church staff position. As a single adult, Ann wanted to do something about her weight. So once Ann got in touch with her eating part, she soon discovered that she ate whenever she felt insecure, rejection, or guilt.
For her, the creation of this part arose in early childhood. She learned from her mother to eat whenever she felt rejection, guilt, or insecurity. Her mother modeled this behavior regularly and systematically for Ann--who learned it all too well. So, whenever Ann experienced any of these emotions, she would eat, and eat, and eat. Rejection, guilt, and insecurity functioned like the magical words that activated this part to run its over-eating program.
The letters "wp" in my computer activate the software program Word Perfect. Similarly, those emotions individually, or collectively, activated Ann's over eating part. Consciously, Ann knew that over-eating would harm her health, her work, and her relationships. She knew this in her intellect. Yet, Ann would over-eat whenever the circumstances called for rejection, guilt, or insecurity.
Ann's over-eating part with its minor personality easily over-rode her conscious mind in controlling her behavior. Created during the imprint period of her childhood, the over-eating part controlled her.
The creation of such parts may occur at any time. Significant emotional experiences occur throughout life. And parts created by grief may last a life time. NLP offers models of therapy that can remove symptoms of grief in one session. Most parts generate during the imprint period (from birth to age seven). They have years of practice in controlling behavior.
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 that, in most cases, we can trace to parental imprints. 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. The Sandfords acknowledge the development of such bitter roots.
"The Body of Christ, especially its counselors, need to have their eyes open to the terrible fact that very many of the practices in our old nature, with which we struggle so fiercely as Christians, were formed in our first two or three years on earth!"
When we fail to take our bitter roots to the Cross for healing we suffer harm in our personal, spiritual, and relational lives. Now just after the section wherein the Sandfords condemned hypnosis, they write:
"However psychological his training, however informed his mind, a Christian counselor remains as we have said earlier, a midwife, assisting the Holy Spirit and the other in the arena of birth."
Obviously I agree that Christian counselors/therapists function only as instruments in the hands of the Holy Spirit. However, when the Holy Spirit focuses the attention of a person to a bitter root, that person, by definition, enters into a trance or hypnotic state. I do not find myself in real disagreement with the Sandfords. For, they realize that most problems lie deep. They stress the that the Holy Spirit must bring about the focusing on the problem. To that I heartily agree. The Christian counselor/therapist, by definition, functions as a person of prayer and belief in the Scriptures. Why? So that by living "Spirit motivated," his or her work will operate in a "spirit motivated" way. My only qualm with the Sandfords and other counselors like them concerns their wholesale condemnation of trance and hypnosis.
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 remember 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.
Biofeedback also operates as trance. In biofeedback, we teach a patient to focus intently on body functions. With the use of monitoring instruments, the patient consciously monitors and thus controls facets of their body and nervous system. With such feedback, a patient can control such things as blood pressure, heart rate, skin temperature, etc. When a person concentrates so that he or she can control blood pressure, they have accessed a deep trance. Similarly, much of the stress relieving techniques on the market today base their effectiveness on trance.
A person may even plot "trance" on the EEG (electroencephalogram). The EEG divides the intensity of the energy manifestations in the brain among four different wave lengths: beta (12 - 25), alpha (9 - 12), theta (5-8) and delta (0 - 4). When the EEG prints out beta waves, this indicates the brain in a state of actively thinking. Alpha waves indicate a relaxation state. Theta waves means the person has entered into a trance state. An EEG printing out delta waves indicates a person asleep.
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 (or hypnosis), therefore, enables a therapist to communicate ideas to the deeper mind of the client and in this communication, trance empowers the person to become most receptive to those ideas.
Recall that the unconscious mind tends to accepts suggestions uncritically when we gain rapport with a person. When you have rapport with a person, they focus entirely on you and so they have entered in trance with you. As such, trance moves the critical and argumentative conscious mind out of the way. 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, 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.
Both the Bible and the Church actually refers to and makes 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, Christian counselors 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. 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 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, did our Lord kick them hard when he 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, do 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.
Today many people flock to the Pentecostal churches. Why? Their 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. The background of rock music induces trance, does it not with its beat? 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 trances because when they enter such trances, they focus more clearly and powerfully on God.
In your work as a Christian counselor/therapist, you will deal with unconscious behaviors. In bringing healing to these behaviors, you must establish communication with the part producing the unwanted behavior. And, at times, you must discover a part or parts that will produce alternative behaviors. These parts lie in our "mind" outside of consciousness, in our unconscious mind. Establishing communication with these unconscious parts will require trance on the part of your client. Your challenge as a therapist will therefore involve getting the person's conscious mind out of the way so you can lead them to fix the unconscious mind. Indeed, most of your clients experience emotional illness precisely because their conscious mind has gotten out of rapport with their unconscious mind. Trance places one's conscious mind in rapport with one's unconscious mind. And that offers yet another reason why we enjoy trance so much.
(c)1997 Bobby G. Bodenhamer, D.Min. Edited by L. Michael Hall, Ph.D. All rights reserved.