Hypnosis: The Secular Sacrament (Part 1)


By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.

I often think of hypnosis as a secular sacrament. At first glance, "secular sacrament" appears to be an oxymoron. How can something sacred, and therefore traditionally a part of the religious community within a society, be the same thing as something secular, and therefore a part of the political and socio-economic community of a society? This chapter will show how hypnosis functions as a secular sacrament yet remains outside of the trappings of the larger cultural and social realities.

What is the process of hypnosis which allows it to function as a sacrament and, in so do doing, bring us to an experience of the sacred? Hypnosis functions as one of many possible catalysts to bring us to an experience of ourselves at a soul level by revealing our most deeply-held needs, motivations and desires. The hypnotic state is an altered state of consciousness described by all cultures, but it takes different forms in different cultures. Some of these forms of experience include the experience of the self through the use of mind-expanding drugs, meditation, chanting, singing, extreme physical exertion, and prayer. Hypnotism as used by western practitioners today was rediscovered and redefined in the last century by Mesmer, Jung, Erikson, Freud and others.

The sacred allows us direct experience of the reality of our being beyond the filter of culture. People experience this core level of being in different ways. People who meditate may describe it as becoming part of phenomena rather than observing it. People who pray deeply may describe this experience as a sense of one-ness with God. Those who take psychogenic drugs may describe the same experience as having their usual personal perspective superseded by a more expansive, all-inclusive understanding of reality.

Naturally, the culture where we are raised is bound to influence the way we describe this experience. But although culture and its structures may affect the path we take, they cannot ultimately influence or change us at a soul-level. This always remains beyond the reach of acculturation.

Because the hypnotic state is common to almost all cultures even though it is understood in different ways, much can be learned about this altered state of consciousness by looking at how different cultures view it. In some cultures, the use of hypnosis to touch the realms of the sacred is revered. In others, such as our own, it is not widely valued. In cultures where the understanding of the self and an acquaintance with the reality of the soul are considered to be instrumental to the maintenance of the dominant culture, the hypnotic state is sought out. It is considered to be an important tool with which to understand the nature of the reality which lies beyond acculturation. In traditional cultures, shamans and medicine men are the keepers of this knowledge. Non-shamans in such societies may or may not come to their own experience of the world of the sacred to which the hypnotic trance is just one door. But they respect and understand the shaman's or medicine man's abilities to enter it. Following are some brief illustrations of shamanic practice in different cultures which illuminate the ways in which the hypnotic trance is used to experience the sacred.

In Shaman's Drum, Winter, 1996, William S. Lyon, Ph.D. reports on the Lakota (Sioux) Yuwipi ceremony which has been documented by other anthropologists as well. The Yuwipi is a ceremony designed to address physical and sometimes psychological dislocation or imbalance within the tribe. This ceremony is conducted by a medicine man of great personal skill and experience who is able to handle the intense powers associated with the ceremony. All of the members of the community recognize the value of the ceremony which is often reflected in the return to balance of the patient. The patient is often in an altered state during the ceremony and the shaman is in a deeply altered state. This state is called a hypnotic trance in the west. It functions in renewing a connection with the sacred nature of the experience of the self at a soul level. This may be done by retrieving parts of the self that have been disconnected from the larger self through trauma or illness. Yuwipi ceremonies are conducted as needed to heal various physical illnesses, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and asthma. At times, it is used to treat those who are experiencing what, in Western terms, would be considered psychotic episodes. The ceremony has a uniting effect in bringing the different parts of the patient together into present time. It has the same uniting effect of bringing the community together as the community witnesses the shaman assisting the person for whom the ceremony is conducted into better communication with his inner life. In this context, there is minimal conflict between an individual experiencing the sacred through the institutions of the culture.

In the same edition of Shaman's Drum, Carol Cumes and Romulo Valencia report on the festival of Q'ollorit'i which is held by the Q'ero people of Andes mountains in the book, Pachamama's Children: Mother Earth & Her Children of the Andes in Peru. They describe this annual festival as the most sacred festival of the Andean year. The point of the festival is to bring the individual into deep communication between his inner life and the mysterious energies of the cosmos. Rather than perceiving this inter-communication as a threat to the order of the society, it is viewed as an event which brings the community into harmony and order. Some of the ceremonies associated with the festival are conducted by priests, some of whom incorporate elements from the Catholic religion. Again, we have an example of a cultural institution which helps the individual reestablish his connection with the sacredness of his being on a soul level.

In the Fall, 1995, issue of Shaman's Drum, there is a description of Flora Jones' initiation into the role of shaman. She is a member of the Wintu tribe of northern California.

At the age of seventeen came the climactic event of her calling - her first trance. She was engrossed in a card game with friends when, without warning, her ears were filled with a ringing sound and a burning pain. "It was like a hot bullet going through my ear," she recalled. "The pain went through me and I passed out for four days." Years later, she viewed this traumatic experience as her first ecstatic encounter with a helping spirit. She awoke from her prolonged unconsciousness singing. With her were four older Wintu shamans, who had cared for her, administering medicine and taking her to sacred places to pray.

If an individual were to undergo such an event in the context of most western cultures today, it is unlikely that her experience would be recognized as a voyage to the sacred calling within her. Even if religious authorities of almost any persuasion were called, it is unlikely that they would recognize the experience as anything other than one which would require some sort of curative measure. But within the Wintu tradition, there is a culturally-understood place for ecstatic encounters of this nature. These types of experiences are viewed as deepening both the community's and the individual's connection with the sacred. This culture does not see the individual's direct connection to the divine as a threat to religious or cultural hegemony; it welcomes it as quite the opposite.

Within the mystical traditions of many organized religions, there are stories of spiritual awakening through the 'dark night of the soul.' The individual undergoes a severe psychological or emotional crisis which brings him to a wider understanding of himself. Ideally, this understanding is allowed to remain one of intense, personal and direct connection with the divine. It is within this context that organized religion could accommodate the individual encounter with the divine. Hopefully, these religious institutions can allow the person who has such an experience the freedom to explore his psyche. Hopefully, the structure of religion acts as a light-handed guidance through the experience. Ideally, the institution does not feel threatened by such individualistic understanding and does not seek to limit such experiences.

Because religions, by their nature, are group events, their authorities can sometimes feel threatened by an individual who experiences the divine without the mediation of religious authorities who seek to create group cohesion. It is simply a conflict of interest. The group seeks to perpetuate itself, and to do that it must have the cooperation of its members. The individual seeks to know himself, and he may choose to know himself with or without the filter of the group. Traditional religions in many "civilized" cultures of both the east and the west have had a stake in mediating the religious experience of their members. To the extent a priest or a guru can control or influence a follower's experience of the divine, his control and authority is measured and exerted. And the group is perpetuated. This may not be the goal of a person seeking self-understanding with as few filters as possible.

If one is to believe the accounts in many organized religions' scriptures, people in the distant past did have intercourse with their deeper selves which were accepted by that religion. People did have experiences with the sacred, which have been described as encounters with God. Descriptions of these experiences form some of the most basic teachings of the Bible. In Genesis, we have the following description of one of Adam's and Eve's encounters with God:

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day; And Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

David has a similar encounter in Chronicles:

He raised his eyes, and saw the Angel of Yahwe hovering between the Earth and the heavens and his drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem.

Such mystical encounters do not often find a place within the confines of many religious practices today because they tend to break or stretch the tradition set out in ancient scripture. It is important for religious institutions to maintain tradition in order to keep the religious institution in place, so people who have such non-traditional, non-ordinary experiences often find it difficult to find meaning within the context of traditional liturgy.

But there are people who have had these sorts of experiences since the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads, and other ancient holy books were written. Indeed, these encounters with the sacred are quite common in hypnotic states. I have experienced them personally and many people I work with have experienced them as well. Outside of the context of the secular sacrament of hypnosis, these events can be viewed with some consternation by the arbiters of some societal institutions.

But, because of the force of conviction born in those who have such an experience some religious authorities may recognize this phenomenon. Some organizations will even encourage this type of divine encounter, but they will stop short of leaving the individual to discern his own understandings from it. Rather, the authorities tend to make the encounter a reason for the experiencer to bring more people to the institution. This intention may be a good one in the eyes of the group, which needs to perpetuate itself in order to continue to exist, but it may interfere with personal self understanding.

I had an encounter with a member of a Christian Pentecostal church. It is one of those institutions which encourages its members to have personal mystical encounters as a way of perpetuating itself. I found this melding of the personal encounter with the sacred within the context of the group a very intriguing blend of personal mysticism and group dynamics.

I met Mr. Young when he was attending the death bed of his father at the hospice where I work. I had been struck by his devotion to his father and his willingness, which I did not observe in his siblings, to be present in a very difficult and painful situation. I asked him if he was a member of his father's Catholic church. He told me he had joined a Pentecostal congregation because there was no Catholic church in the town where he lived. He then told me the following story as I asked him questions.

"I was praying one day when suddenly I heard the most beautiful song."

Q: What was the song?

A: Birds. It was a music I have never heard on earth. Heavenly music.

Q: What color were the birds?

A: I could not see them I could only hear them.

Q: Where were they in relation to you?

A: They were singing in my left ear.

Q: How many birds were there?

A: Three

Q: How did you know there were three if you could not see them?

A: I just knew there were three. I could hear their wings.

Q: What did you think when you heard them?

A: I was very happy. I was never so happy in my whole life.

Q: What happened then?

A: I went and told my pastor and the congregation about the music. They all rejoiced and prayed for me. Then I began speaking in tongues.

Q: Did you recognize the language?

A: No. It was just sounds repeated over and over like, 'Oo lai lai, oo lai lai,' like that.

Q: How did you feel when you heard yourself speaking in tongues?

A: I was very joyful. I told God all the bad things about me and he forgave me. Now I have forgiveness in my heart.

Q: How has this experience affected your life?

A: Well, I must tell everyone about this. Because anyone who has not experienced Jesus as his personal savior will go to Hell. Even if they are good people and do good things, they will go to Hell if they do not have this experience of Christ. And they will never get out of Hell. So I was very anxious to have my father accept Jesus as his personal savior before he died so he would go to heaven.

Q: Did he accept Jesus as his personal savior even though he is a devout Catholic?

A: Oh, yes. I am very happy. He will go to heaven now. I am very happy that I have helped him in this way.

Q: What other effects has this experience had in your life?

A: Before I used to think about making money all the time, and material things, but now I just think about saving as many people as I can from Hell by bringing them into my church.

The experience of the birds was outside of Mr. Young's dominant reality. He had never heard this music before. In terms of symbology, we have the three birds, messengers of the trinity, a symbol common to all religions. And we have divine music, another common feature of the encounter with the divine in many contexts. This is a wonderfully inspiring personal experience of the greater reality of the self at a soul level. This is the reality which underlies the dominant cultural conscious-mind based reality, which is the only reality most people think they live and die in.

Less inspiring is the church's definition of this experience as a calling to save all non-believers from Hell by having them join the church. The church established itself as an arbitrator of the divine in Mr. Young's life. It had ready-made explanations for him which might have a tangential relationship to the experience of personal transformation which can result from such an encounter. This tangential relationship to what is the truth of Mr. Young's personal encounter with God gives the church credibility in Mr. Young's eyes. It allows him to surrender the experience to the church. But he must do it in such a way as to rally new members to the church in order for it to continue its hegemony. If he does not, he has no way to integrate this divine encounter into his dominant cultural model or his sense of self. The church has perpetuated itself by drawing Mr. Young's experience of God and putting it toward the furtherment of its own goals. Given the fact that again, the church is a group phenomenon, it needs to do this to maintain the group.

Naturally, Mr. Young has allowed this to happen. It is his choice to find this context for this completely mind-altering experience. To choose to do otherwise could possibly lead him down the path of madness - or set him on the equally-daunting course toward an ever-expanding journey of self-knowledge.

(Continued - See Part 2)