Opening the Doors to the Self - Pain as a Guidepost (Part 1)


By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.

As we have seen, one of the most valuable tools in this journey to the encounter of the self at a soul level is the ability to create an atmosphere where it is safe. We must feel safe in order to remain present with pain long enough to be able to understand its origins. Within the framework of hypnosis, the path through pain or imbalance can reveal itself safely. It can lead us across the field of the pain through the psyche to the encounter with the self at a soul level. To begin this journey, it is important to examine the kinds of relationships we have with pain.

We all have different adaptations to pain. One of the most common is a habit which may be ultimately self-destructive, but which eases the pain in the moment. The remarkable thing about habits is that they often have the quality of masking even the origin of the pain they were developed to accommodate. In a way, they are the perfect anti-inflammatory - however temporarily effective and ultimately ineffective their anti-inflammatory properties may be. Not only do habits cool the pain, but they make the conscious mind forget what the pain originally was and where it originated. Of course, the certainty that we will have to deal with the pain eventually one way or the other is also masked.

Because of this dynamic in habit formation, unraveling the nature of self-destructive behavior can be a circuitous task. One of the reasons traditional psychotherapy may get lost in these loops is because it begins at the outside of the matrix and tries to work its way in to the root of the problem. This approach can provide a faulty road map. It can be faulty, because everyone has a different, unique source of pain, which can manifest in similar types of external behavior. We can describe external behaviors, but this does not always help trace each individual path back to the internal motivation behind the behavior. No generalized system can do this.

The only way to truly unravel the matrix of self-destructive or compulsive behavior is to start at the pain which lies beneath the habitual behavior. This means getting the conscious mind and the various constructs which evolved to deal with the pain, to step aside, even for a moment. This is exactly what hypnotherapy provides: a well deserved rest for the conscious mind. This allows the contents of the unconscious mind to be expressed, usually in images. The message it conveys are the keys to the pattern which underlies the external imbalanced behavior.

The process of unraveling and decoding these messages from the unconscious can be very threatening to the personality and its constructs. These are, in large part, developed precisely to mask the pain at the root of habitual behavior. When the personality and its defenses to understanding the true nature of pain are left to their own devices they preserve themselves. They do this by evading the encoded messages the unconscious mind uses to convey its contents. We receive these messages on a regular basis through dreams, deja vu experiences, past-life recalls or other-life bleed-throughs, and other anomalous (anomalous to the world dominated by the conscious mind) phenomena. We will look at how hypnotherapy provides a key to the process of decoding these images later in the book. For now, we are just looking at how our honest encounter with the pain at the root of imbalance can be understood as a path to the experience of the self at a soul level.

Sometimes the messages about the pain our habits are trying to medicate have been altered. This can happen through active intervention on the part of those who would rather not have us remember events clearly. My experience in helping survivors of abuse come to terms with the effects of abuse has shown me that hypnosis can help break down defenses to abuse memories. These defenses may have been useful when they were developed, but many survivors find that these same defenses become an obstacle. This is especially true when survivors decide to integrate the information contained in the abuse memories as they begin the process of self-exploration.

Because most defenses are formulated unconsciously, they can most easily be contacted through the unconscious. Often, the survivor will not even consciously know about the existence of the defenses, much less what thoughts or decisions they are constructed to block. By exploring the nature of these defenses, usually through contact with the issues they were constructed to cope with, the defenses can be slowly and carefully transformed. This can happen in hypnosis once the survivor begins to feel it is safe to do so.

The establishment of safety is essential to this process. The survivor needs to know that the transformation of defenses will not leave him helpless and out of control. By bringing the survivor into contact with the essential self through guided imagery and meditation, we establish both a base to work from and goal to work toward. In effect, we create a container which can hold all of the emotions safely. This keeps the survivor protected while the exploration of the nature of the defenses and the issues they relate to begins.

When I work with abuse survivors, I am less interested in laying down historical fact than understanding the nature of the person's subjective experience. This idea of staying close to the person's subjective experience regardless of actual external events becomes particularly important when hypnosis has been used as part of the abuse.

I have found that there is always some level of cognitive dissonance to hypnotic suggestions which are laid down in the psyche and are a bit aligned with the individual's experience of reality or desired experience of reality. This is especially true of hypnotic suggestions used all too frequently during or after abuse, especially ritual abuse. That is to say, there is some feeling on the part of the survivor that 'something is not quite right' around the issues that have been the subject of hypnotic suggestion. The sensation that something is not quite right can manifest as uneasiness, strongly defended irrational ideas, or a complete unwillingness to look at the idea that 'something is not quite right' about a particular sensation or feeling.

I believe this dissonance arises from the fact that the hypnotic suggestions given during or after abuse do not jibe with the person's authentic experience and sense of self. The mind during the abuse is so open to manipulation that the suggestions do take seat in the person's psyche. But because they are paired with the abuse and generally are contrary to authentic experience, the seat they take is uncomfortable.

My experience with a survivor we will call Jim has many themes consistent with other survivors I have worked with who have been hypnotized as part of the abuse process. When Jim first came to me, he was unaware that he was a survivor of severe parental abuse. In fact, he vehemently stated again and again that his mother loved him very much. The vehemence in these statements was a red flag for me, and I filed this information away, not realizing where it would take us. We began the process of hypnosis to help him with a physician-diagnosed attention deficit disorder which was not responding to medication.

There is much to tell about the long process in Jim's evolution in understanding himself and his inability to focus. It took him some time to come to terms with the idea that he was an abuse survivor. But I will focus here on how it became evident that hypnotic suggestion had been used to screen from him what had actually happened to him.

As the abuse memories began to surface in exploring the roots of the attention deficit disorder, Jim was often aware of a very bright light in the middle of the images that were surfacing. When I asked him to focus on the light, he began to repeat the same phrases again and again. One such session revealed the following set of phrases,

"Your mommy loves you. No matter what anyone else says. You just fell down today. See, your knee is just a little scraped. Those bruises happened when you fell. Poor Jim, mommy helped you fix your knee and made it better. No matter what anyone else says, you know this is true, you know that your mommy loves you every day, more and more and when you look at your knee you will remember that your mommy loves you, your mommy loves you more and more each day."

It took me a moment to put it together that he had been told to look at a bright light while classically-formulated hypnotic suggestions were repeated to him after having been abused. As the truth dawned on me, I realized that we would have to focus on uncovering all of the hypnotic patter that had been given to him during or after abuse.

We discovered that there were many, many different situations where hypnotic suggestion had been used to distort memory. In subsequent sessions, whenever the light would appear, I asked him to look into the light and just allow his lips to move. Each session revealed a new patter to screen a new memory of abuse. After each session where this patter would emerge, I would present the recorded patter to Jim. I would ask him how he wanted to erase the patter which was still stored in his memory.

I never provided him with hypnotic suggestions that he did not write out himself. In each one of the "re-writes" I would include the suggestion that this new hypnotic suggestion would take permanent and total precedence over any hypnotic suggestions he may have been exposed to in his childhood. This worked as a kind of seal to keep the other hypnotic patter from intruding on his sense of self and perception of reality in the way that it had for forty years.

A big part of this work went beyond simply providing a new hypnotic "tape". The new tape would never had been able to take hold had he not been able to deal with the rage and sadness he felt about having been betrayed in this way. It took a great deal of courage for him to be able to see the physical abuse and the way it distorted his ability to concentrate. But the emotional betrayal of the use of hypnosis to cripple his memory, and thus his sense of self, was in many ways a more brutal process to work through for Jim.

Because the damage had been created at a subconscious level, it needed to be undone on an subconscious level. This was accomplished by contacting the methods by which Jim had been conditioned through hypnosis. I am not aware of any process which can provide this repair other than hypnosis. By using hypnosis to explore the nature of his defenses in seeing his mother as anything but a perfect, loving creature, he was able to see how his defenses were keeping him from contacting his ability to concentrate and focus.

Jim is still coming to terms with many of the aspects of being identified as an abuse survivor, but his attention problems are greatly reduced. He is able to focus his attention in ways which were impossible for him before he began the rewriting of these tapes. He is regaining the ability to trust his own experience and make decisions based on it. I am sure if we had not discovered the unethical way in which hypnosis had been used to rob him of these abilities most of us take for granted, he would not have made the progress he has in reclaiming himself.

When we learn that there really is some type of pain at the root of our imbalance we can begin to allow ourselves to understand the nature and origin of it. This is the beginning of the process of shifting our relationship to pain. As this happens, the constructs the personality has created to avoid dealing with the pain become irrelevant. If the truth of the existence of this pain is irrefutable, then it is inevitable that the personality's constructs, developed to mask that pain, begin to lose their foothold within the personality. This can be terrifying to the part of the self which operates solely on the personality level. And it can be threatening to the structures in which the personality operates such as the family and religious, social, economic and political communities the individual operates in. These structures have made adaptations to "manage" the pain the loss of contact with ourselves at a soul level creates; they may even, in some cases, be designed to mask this loss. In some cases they are the cause of this soul loss.

If the pain of this soul loss is resolved, if we can be whole, those structures become less important to us. And we may decide to withdraw our support from them. If enough people do this, the society's institutions must change. It can be extremely threatening to the entire matrix of the agreed-upon, cultural conscious-mind reality to have even one individual throw in his cards and pull out of agreement with the cultural realities. We have only to look at the dynamics of dictatorships and autocracies to see how true this is. If we discover a way to transform our relationship to our behavior by uncovering the origins or nature of our pain, we no longer need the habits or the constructs which the conscious-mind reality's personality has created. These constructs are developed not only to support the habit, but they become part of the mask we use to interact with the larger cultural reality we exist in. When the mask realizes the inevitability of its destruction due to the possibilities inherent in this transformation, fear arises. At the point where the source and nature of the pain is discovered, the personality's mask may generate defenses in the form fear, denial, and doubt. This is natural. One of the main functions of the personality is to keep whatever is perceived as unacceptable unseen. When the need not to feel the pain is greater than the need to know the truth, these defenses are necessary. But as those needs change places, everything changes.

It is understandable that the fear which may arise at this point can create disequilibrium. Fear occurs not only in ourselves as we experience the shift, but also in the larger cultural matrix we exist in. Fear is generated within the cultural institutions which deny or manage pain as their supporters realize the institution's role must change. An institution which is designed to manage or deny pain must crumble if its members decide they no longer need it to maintain distance between themselves and their pain. This type of transformation can be far-reaching. At each level, constructs which have been created to manage this pain of separation must give way to new forms which are based in our honest dialogue with the sources of that separation. For the individual, the personality constructs must shift. For the institutions, their function must shift away from the management or denial of pain as a raison d'?tre. Ultimately, the culture at large must reorganize itself entirely to remove the veils it maintains between the experience of the self at a soul level and that part of the self which interacts with the culture.

Because the truths about pain and the way we try to disguise it can be revealed through hypnotherapy, some view it with consternation. Hypnosis has been labeled suspect by many institutions within the larger cultural context. As we have seen, the legal establishment has labeled it unreliable and some mainstream religious communities have called it the work of the devil. Perpetrators of abuse who have managed to enter agreements of secrecy with those they abuse view hypnosis as a mortal threat to those agreements. I have had many clients who did not understand their parents fear when they told them they were beginning hypnotherapy come to understand it as the abuse is revealed. I have even had clients who have told me their psychotherapists had told them that hypnosis was dangerous. Dangerous to whom? Truth is only dangerous to those who are invested in a lie. When hypnotherapy is used ethically and consciously, there is nothing to fear.

The tragedy of the failure to embark on the journey toward truth is illustrated by one of my clients who came to me for help with his habit of compulsive overeating. He wanted to try hypnosis because he thought I could give him some suggestions which would curb his appetite. I prefer to try to understand the source of the pain and help begin the healing process from the inside out, rather than just putting a bandaid on the pain in the form of positive suggestion. So I asked him a few questions. At that point he revealed to me that he was receiving disability payments for a diagnosis by a government psychiatrist of schizophrenia. He also described in some detail the highlights of his emotional history. He also provided me with a write-up of the government psychiatrist's diagnosis and solution to his problem. From what I could tell, the psychiatrist's reaction to this patient's pain was to discount, ridicule and minimize it. A paraphrasing of the report is something like this:

"Patient believes he was raped and sexually molested by his parents. Parents deny this. He believes he is being abducted by aliens regularly. Paranoid. He thinks all people on the street are after him. Psychotic. Loses track of time. Has recurring episodes where he has visions of parents molesting him. He also dreams same. Diagnosis: schizophrenia. Recommend medication and disability payments."

I could find nothing in the report or in the treatment records where anyone had ever taken the patients' reports about his reality seriously. It seemed like the main goal of the government psychiatrists' interaction with this patient was to neatly compartmentalize the problem. At no point that I could see was anyone willing to actually be present for the pain this patient was experiencing. No one believed that this pain was real, much less that it had a real source somewhere within the patient's psyche.

Under hypnosis, the first image this patient had was the image of a tall gray alien. The second image was of himself as a baby in a crib, with his father standing next to him smoking a cigarette molesting him sexually. The hypnosis session went through other images related to a sense of shame which emerged from these two primary images. Most of these were centered on self-destructive external behavior - including overeating, compulsive sexuality and episodes where he had experienced a loss of time. I took the information provided by his unconscious mind seriously. My approach was not, "Oh, you're seeing aliens, you must be nuts," but "So here is an alien, what does an alien mean to you?"

This type of dysfunction does not exist in a vacuum. It takes the complicity of many actors within the patient's environment to keep this level of dysfunction in place. What would it mean if this patient's father really did rape him? What would it mean if his parents did molest him? Would it possibly mean that his whole complex of overeating was an effort to reconcile what he knew to be his own irrefutable inner reality with the lies which his parents, his doctors, and his benefit administrator reinforced with every action? What would it mean if he discovered and integrated the source of his pain?

The main effect of accepting the patient's experience of reality as truth would be that everyone involved, including the patient himself, would have to take responsibility for their part in perpetuating his pain. This is a huge undertaking. But it is clearly the work this person has to do if he is ever to be reconciled with himself at a soul level. If everyone faced the fact that he had been molested by his parents - either emotionally, physically or sexually - he would have to reevaluate his relationship with his parents. This might mean losing their support (for whatever benefit it was). He would probably lose his disability benefits if was able to arrive at a state of integration with this level of pain. There would have to be a tremendous shift in the external cultural constructs around him if he asked the actors within them to take responsibility not only for his pain, but for their own. For them to be able to be present in an honest way for his level of dysfunction, they would have to look at the pain at the source of their own dysfunction. The initial dislocation on every level would be disorienting at first, but the reorganization around truth would ultimately benefit everyone involved. It would provide a tremendous relief from having to maintain a web of so many lies.

He was so used to believing all the ways in which those around him tried to minimize his authentic experience, that he was shocked when I suggested the possibility that the information he was receiving in hypnosis might be a basis for his internal reality. This reality included the possibility that the nightmares and the psychotic breaks might actually be a reflection of his authentic experience of abuse. The truth of his authentic internal experience (regardless of the actual events in the external reality) was overwhelming to him. It was hard enough to believe that these horrible events could have really happened. But more overwhelming was the task of facing the pain which was being managed by his parents' duplicity and the complicity of the government psychiatrist in an honest way. When I asked him what it would mean if he validated his own authentic experience rather than believing everyone who ridiculed his experience as delusion, he was clearly overwhelmed by the possibilities contained in this shift of perspective.

At that moment, he had to decide if he could manage the confrontation of his pain at its source or if he preferred to remain in the chaos which the denial of that pain had created in his life. He had to decide if he could go through the transformation and the rebirth of himself the integration of this information would generate within his sense of self. I could only promise him that the effort would not be in vain, that he would find new energy and regeneration. And it would be on the other side of the process that this transformation of his relationship to this pain would engender. I could not tell him it would be easy, I could not tell him that I had a little pill that would make it all go away. I could not deny that the dismantling of the undeniably complex matrix he had created to deal with his pain would be difficult. But I could promise that he would experience a diminishment in the gulf that was separating him from an authentic encounter with himself at a soul level.

This process can be understandably terrifying and many people would rather forgo the intimacy with pain it requires. Often, only those whose situations are so intolerable or those who can dimly perceive the light of regeneration at the end of the tunnel choose this path. This patient could not take that path. In making this decision, he could not see that the access to new resources of personal power the integration of the pain would provide him was worth the effort he would have to go through to obtain it. There was nothing I could do but support him in his decision to postpone the process of personal transformation. And truly, this was only a postponement. The journey home to the encounter with ourselves at a soul level is not an option. We can choose how and when we take the journey to a certain extent, but we cannot defer this encounter indefinitely.

While we must respect the individual's limits in his ability to cope with the truth of his inner reality, we must not deny the value of pain. Sometimes, we learn to value pain only when it has become undeniable. This lesson is well illustrated in the case of another client of mine who decided to take the path to the transformation of her relationship with pain.

She came to me hoping to find pain relief through hypnotic suggestions for excruciating pain in her right arm. An army of osteopaths, orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists and internists had judged that it had no origin. Again, because I do not feel comfortable simply applying bandaids of external hypnotic suggestion to deep-seated problems, I asked a few questions about the development of the pain. These questions led back over her life; I was struck by her ability to manifest emotionally painful situations again and again. However, the manifestation of the pain in her arm was the first time the pain had manifested physically. It was clear to me that, contrary to what the physicians had said, that there was a source of this pain. And it could well lie within the emotional aspect of her being. It also seemed possible that the source of the emotional pain and the physical pain were one and the same.

We did several sessions together, including a prenatal regression and a past life regression, to try to understand the reasons why she needed the pain in her life. Each time, the only suggestion I gave when she was in hypnosis was, " We are going back to a time and place or situation which will shed light and understanding on the origins of the pain you are experiencing in your right arm." Each time, I was asking the subconscious mind for the message it was trying to convey through the manifestation of the pain in the right arm. As is customary, the message was conveyed in the language of images.

During a past life regression she regressed to a time where she had been a monk in a place where there were high mountains. She found herself hiding in a place where there was a stone wall and a dirt floor. Through further questioning, it became clear that she was in a monastery. Politicians and soldiers had come into the monastery and were slaughtering all of her fellow monastics. The pain she felt in not being able to control the situation and save them from this fate was acute. Finally, the soldiers found her and took her out into a stone courtyard, yanking her arms behind her back and tying them tightly together. As the soldiers cut off her head, I asked her what the last thought in her mind was as she died:

(Continued - See part 2)