Socrates Meets Dr. Seuss

I’m not here to elaborate some myth of a ‘perfect’ Milton Erickson, as some have. But the man was a real genius, and where there is any understanding of him at all (which in mainstream psychology these days there is not, despite his huge continued influence and public popularity, but more of that anon) everyone knows it. Taking up hypnotherapy against the grain, at the height of the ascendance of the Freudian, and achieving incredible success with it, was just the beginning. Erickson came up with entirely new methods of working with people’s minds to go with his trancework approach, methods which still feed self-change for increasingly large numbers of people. This was a guy who knew how to get human beings to work at their best. Anyone chasing self-actualisation will be glad to make his acquaintance.

What makes him interesting is just how hard it was for people to tell what he was doing. He did not work according to any theory, preferring to have a different theory for each patient, and to have the patient contribute the lion’s share of it. “As elusive as a guru or Zen master” is how the Lanktons describe him. Steve Lankton says of his early encounters with the man:

I knew behavior modification, existential therapy, scream therapy, body therapy, psychoanalysis, TA, object relations, feeling therapy, psychosynthesis, and psychodrama, etc., and I can’t explain a damn thing he’s doing!

A lot of his interventions have a flavour of the surreal. As with so many American sages, his big, bearlike presence ran alongside a cracker-barrel eccentricity. Jay Haley titled his classic Ericksonian casebook Uncommon Therapy (1993), and mentions (p.39):

It is easier to say what Erickson does not do in therapy than to say what he does, except by offering case examples. His style of therapy is not based upon insight into unconscious processes, it does not involve helping people understand their interpersonal difficulties, he makes no transference interpretations, he does not explore a person’s motivations, nor does he simply recondition. His theory of change is more complex; it seems to be based upon the interpersonal impact of the therapist outside the patient’s awareness, it includes providing directives that cause changes of behaviour, and it emphasizes communicating in metaphor.

All of which is very sensible-sounding… a thing Erickson’s interventions mostly are not. :)

What was he up to? One way to say it, not entirely off the mark, is this: he knew how ornery, supercilious, self-regarding, contrary and weird human beings could be, and parts of the subconscious mind could be — yet also, that the subconscious mind knew its own solutions. And somehow he often managed to get that very contrary cussedness to be the solution. As a result, many Erickson cases resemble a Far Side cartoon. He had to have no theory, because the particular cussed strangeness of the person or family walking through the door had to be free to strike him as it would. It was this (the ‘neurosis’) that generated the cure. He had to see what game they were playing and alter it, enough that they themselves found the new conformation they wanted to slot into.

Ronald Havens puts it this way:

Erickson did not view people as inherently or typically perfect. On the contrary […] normal development […] would seem destined to produce a population of rather imperfect, illogical, prejudiced, and even downright strange individuals. Indeed, this appears to be exactly what Erickson saw as he looked about him.

The Wisdom of Milton H. Erickson, 2005, p.67

These manifestations of strange uniqueness delighted him, and he used them to further the patient’s own thinking. By the kind of ‘soft power’ well-known to the martial arts (a comparison drawn many times by Lankton), Erickson would deftly short-circuit the contrariness and turn people where they deeply wanted to go, rather than getting them to try and fit his theory. Negativity became positivity waiting to happen. “When you understand how man really defends his intellectual ideas and how emotional he gets about it,” says Erickson himself, “you should realize that the first thing in psychotherapy is not to try to compel him to change his ideation; rather you go along with it and change it in a gradual fashion and create situations wherein he himself willingly changes his thinking.”

To get an idea of how it works in practice (which is the only place it does work, just as some other therapies only work in theory!): How would you react if you were a therapist, and a patient came in at his allotted appointment time, sat down, and began abusing all therapists and the therapy profession, in extremely vulgar language?

Many might wish to take a stand, or at least get irritated. Erickson’s reaction to this situation, which really happened to him, reminds me instead of a line from a Glenn Morris poem: “When the opponent extends power, take it, eat it, and return it tenfold.” (1999, p.35). He said to the man, “You undoubtedly have a damn good reason for saying that and even more.” So the client continued, and with what the Lanktons describe as ‘profanity, obscenity, bitterness, resentment, contempt and hostility’ laid out a history of the uselessness of the therapeutic profession in dealing with any of his issues. Erickson simply said, “Well, you must have had a hell of a good reason to seek therapy from me.” After that, rapport between them was established and the patient co-operative.

And that’s how Erickson worked, as a hypnotist should: so subtle, it slips right by you. That torrent of compulsiveness is also creative energy, which most people can’t control in themselves. Hearing the first stream of invective, Erickson would have thought: here’s passion, frustrated and misdirected, but passion nonetheless, and we can use this. So he encouraged it, and as soon as the man began producing it at Erickson’s request, and with Erickson’s approval, he was already following Erickson’s suggestions, already seeing him as someone who ‘got it’, and already more prepared to redirect that energy to a positive pattern. The problem had already started to become the solution.

It’s a very subtle way, and a strange one. Initial encounters with the Erickson literature left me far more baffled than Lankton ever was. Then I discovered that this bafflement was in fact deliberate. Everything about Erickson’s communicative style was designed to throw your conscious mind off, and give the subconscious some air. Confusion was a perfect method.

A man came to Erickson, aged 30, unmarried, suffering from premature ejaculation which he had unfortunately come to believe was a punishment for sexual immorality. He had tried with many women and ‘really proved to himself’ that it was true. Erickson’s suggestions in trance were paradoxical, to the effect that a seemingly constant neurosis was in fact inconstant, since its meaning changed with time. This enabled him (over a long, rambling trance of two hours and more) to point out subtly that sometimes neuroses reverse, and one doesn’t know when they will, it can be as out of control as the original neurosis was. A cessation of premature ejaculation can even be as frightening and confusing as the problem itself. And so forth.

The result: just before his next attempt in lovemaking, the man suddenly ‘doubted whether he could ejaculate normally’ — even though he supposedly already knew that he could not! Confused thoughts like this continued, even while sex was going on, which it did for fifty minutes, followed by full intravaginal ejaculation. Then there was an immediate repetition of the act. He asked Erickson later, “Is there any explanation why I’ve become normal?”

The contrary weirdness has become the solution. Confused yet? “In almost all my techniques, there is confusion,” says Erickson. And why not? Zen stories and koans, Sufi teaching tales, and other wisdom-tradition teaching devices, emphasise confusion of the discursive linguistic mind, sensing it as the limiting factor in the human system. Socrates was a great adept of confusion, as illustrated in all the early Plato dialogues, which do not aim at conclusive philosophical proofs and definitions but at aporia — a state of befuddlement (from the Greek aporeô, to be at a loss), of not getting to the answer, and therefore also of potential, of creativity. Socrates also resembles Erickson in his habit of getting people to agree with him early on, hooking them into a process of saying yes.

Here are a few more examples, much abbreviated from their far more interesting tellings in Haley. I must stress that: the original studies are more involved than these very curtailed summaries. I’ve chosen these particular ones to illustrate a couple of the trance phenomena I ran over last time, but — talk about ‘crazy wisdom’!

A 23-year-old woman had become distressed and ineffectual at work, but was entirely unable to speak about it. From friends, Erickson gathered that she was blissfully in love but unable to consummate, instead getting nauseated and vomiting and declaring she ‘wasn’t fit to live’ whenever intimacy approached. In hypnosis, Erickson regressed her age, and discovered that her rigid and moralistic mother had told her at menarche that sex was nauseating and disgusting, and that nice girls didn’t do it. The mother had then died, when the girl was thirteen. Obviously the patient was still completely faithful to her mother’s memory on the subconscious level. Erickson told her in trance how valuable that memory was, and how good it was of the mother to have instructed her and prepared her. He then added as an afterthought that of course, had the mother lived, she would have had more valuable stuff to teach.

Questioning the woman afterwards, Erickson heard her say, “I wonder how Mother would have told me the things I need to know now.” This was the beginning of the cure. Since the patient had now accepted that she needed to know different things at the age of 23 than at the age of 13, it was a short step to knowing the benefits of kissing and sexual desire. She married and had a daughter. Again, the problem, the memory of the mother’s instruction, became the solution. To put it another way, the usefulness of any problem is that it has been accepted, in exactly the way the solution will be accepted. When you don’t have to worry about convincing the rational surface mind, change is deeper and more effective, its rules different.

A 17-year-old girl refused to leave the house, withdrawing from the world, because her breasts had failed to develop. Numbers of techniques had already been tried. Erickson discovered she was terribly embarrassed and becoming agoraphobic, but an impishly humorous person and an excellent hypnotic subject — able to feel hot or cold, comfortable or uncomfortable, at a thought. In trance, he repeatedly suggested that she imagine a very embarrassing situation, sensing the embarrassment with great intensity in her face, but then with relief feeling the weight of embarrassment move slowly down to her breasts. He also had her keep an assortment of ‘falsies’ in various sizes, to use underneath sweaters at college, according to her various impish moods, and gave her some suggestions that she would enjoy college.

She walked into Erickson’s office a few months later, doing well in college, with real breasts, asking him to tell them to stop growing as they were big enough now. Her subsequent career was successful. The embarrassment, which had been the problem, became the solution.

A famous early case of Erickson’s, at a time when his interventions were still taking months, was the so-called ‘February Man’. A woman came to him, saying that she was about to be married and was worried about having children. She had been the daughter of an absent father and a socialite mother who ‘could not have her child interfere with her social life’. Her miserable and lonely childhood, in which she had felt she was not much more than a pain in the neck, had left her afraid to have children of her own. She said, “I really don’t know anything good about childhood.”

Erickson’s solution was to regress her to the age of 4 or 5 and talk to her in a guided hallucination as “the February Man”, saying he was a friend of her father’s, appearing one February and talking to her, whilst waiting for a meeting with him. Thus Erickson got to know her at that age, and they grew to like each other. In further trances, the February Man re-appeared in April, in June, and at Christmas time. The patient had spontaneous amnesia for the February Man in normal consciousness, but always recognised him happily in trance, inserting the hallucination at the right point in her subconsciously recollected personal history. Over the months of real life that followed, the patient gradually met the February Man in her own personal past, many times, until the age of fourteen. Since he was so interested in her and friendly, Erickson thus put in place a definite acceptance and sharing, and she began to have the feeling of an emotionally satisfying childhood. She also began when awake to have much less worry about having children of her own. She later had three.

Joe was an old man with cancer who developed extreme pain. He couldn’t talk, and communicated only with pencil and paper. Erickson knew he was a florist, and began to talk to him about growing tomato plants, varying the intonation of his voice to stress certain phrases, in this way:

Now as I talk, and I can do so comfortably, I wish that you would listen to me comfortably as I talk about a tomato plant… It makes one curious. Why talk about a tomato plant? … You cannot see it grow, you cannot hear it grow, but grow it does… those hairs on the leaves must make the plant feel very good, very comfortable. Maybe the tomato plant does feel comfortable and peaceful as it grows. Each day it grows and grows and grows, it’s so comfortable, Joe…

And so on, the interspersed embedded suggestions always to do with feeling good, feeling comfortable. Erickson says: “Joe had no real interest in pointless remarks about a tomato plant. Joe wanted freedom from pain, he wanted comfort, sleep […] he would have a compelling need to find something of value to him in my babbling.” Joe’s toxic state lessened as Erickson talked, until he had no distressing pain. Treatment continued intermittently over the months. The malignancy was still there, but Joe began to be in better shape and to eat more. He lived far longer than expected, and eventually died quietly, without pain.

Hypnosis is like that, it works absolutely silently within, binding with that ‘compelling need’ in all of us, the same power that expressed itself in all these examples. People sometimes have no idea hypnosis has worked at all. They say, “The hypnosis didn’t do much, I wasn’t even sure I was in a trance, but then I found a way to solve the problem by myself anyhow.” This has happened to many a hypnotherapist, and s/he gets no credit — but then that’s the idea, because actually the cure does come from the patient. Who else? It’s always a question of recruiting their own inner resources and inspiration. Allen Carr made an entire career out of helping people give up smoking, but always insisted that the hypnotherapist he went to see on the day he himself quit hadn’t helped him at all!

I’ve done this, even as the result of scripts I myself have written. Having excited realisations, then discovering I’m recapitulating something that I deliberately implanted in myself — only it is now alive, lived, and it comes out in a completely different and spontaneous form, having bound with personal power. The results of trance sneak up on you, and you find yourself trying them on for size. Since the suggestions have been positive and are now accepted, the new way of being naturally becomes accepted in its turn. It is after all far more comfortable than the old. Following the process through a few times within oneself, one will become very impressed with the deep, silent power that changes all the maps and filters. There is so much in us which of which we normally have no idea at all.

Of course the examples I’ve given here are all clinical. The Lanktons mention how very rare it is for an actual healthy person to show up in search of the next pinnacle of development. Usually the hypnotist is the last-ditch recourse in a bad case of neurosis. But that inner power which hypnosis accesses is the same one that rises in kundalini. You can certainly use hypnosis more as a regular training method and in a quest-like spiritual fashion. More on that later.

Erickson knew that each of us has this power, and his complete faith in its deep workings is what makes his method so extraordinary. One person who definitely used Erickson’s methods to get ahead in self-actualisation was Erickson himself. Getting a flavour of the man shows that very clearly. Zeig (1980) describes him as very alert, alive, present, always enjoying himself, kind and considerate, laughing often. He had an attitude of amazement and awe, including at positive changes a person could make, or even at trance phenomena he had seen a thousand times. He never took credit for the changes in his patients, seeing it as their work, work which delighted him. At the same time, Erickson had an enormous amount of post-polio pain, was practically quadriplegic, had the use of only half his diaphragm, and had paralysed lips and a dislocated tongue. A man whose voice was his living! As Zeig says (p. xx):

Erickson was a genius in the practice of psychotherapy. However, his genius at practicing psychotherapy was eclipsed by his genius at living.


Going for and beginning to achieve something like that state of life is, one could say, the stage after all the most pressing neurotic difficulties are taken care of. It is when a person starts to be psychologically real and complete; it’s the perfect preparation for, and accompaniment to, the spiritual transformation of kundalini. The psychological umbrella term for this ‘genius at living’ is self-actualisation. The importance of that idea in Erickson’s philosophy places him in company with the ‘third wave’ humanistic psychologists — Maslow for example, who observed truly creative and actualised people in action, and decided it would be a worthwhile study to find out how they came to be that way, “almost like a different breed of human beings”.

It was to this tradition and idea that Glenn Morris gave his academic allegiance. He wrote of Maslow several times, and specifically mentions Erickson (Shadow Strategies p. 260) as an improvement on one item of Maslow’s theory. It’s a tradition which does include spiritual experience as an important focus. Placing self-actualisation alongside the traditional shamanic and kundalini-based enlightenment experiences of Glenn’s spiritual development approach, you have a vision of humanity that is both grounded and transcendent, which can take account of scientific data and spiritual experience quite happily, making both actualisers of what truly matters in us. More of that tradition next time.


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