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Meditation and hypnosis: a Daniel P Brown retreat experience and its science

Some meditation techniques and hypnosis are related. I say this from experience as well as from a theoretical point of view, such as the predictive processing / Bayesian brain theory.

Hypnosis certificate of Till Gebel

I can say this from two perspectives :

  • Attending a "hypnosis-enhanced" Mahamudra retreat of the now apparently defunct Pointing out the Great Way organization with the deceased Daniel P Brown.


  • My training background is also in hypnosis. I have no experience in applying it professionally. But this 12-month training background made very clear to me what was happening in the retreat.


Meditation and hypnosis in history


The magic of switching the mind into a trance state is much older than the 200 years of hypnosis normally attributed to it in the West.


Tibetan and Zen meditation teachers 1200 years ago already had a pretty good idea of how to shift students into trance states for insight. Some examples:


  • Japanese Zen Koans owe their effectiveness to techniques similar to that of hypnotic rapid induction, eg the confusion technique (such as the handshake induction) that was much liked by Richard Bandler (the man ultimately behind my certificate)


  • Tibetan Mahamudra / Dzogchen teachers lead students through pointing out instructions into views (perspectives, vantage points, basis of [mental] operation) that allow sudden insights into the constructed nature of the experience of reality. These pointing-out instructions often require unusual mental operations and thus can have the effect of surprising the mind. The element of surprise is a hypnotic element.


  • In other traditions, such as the Sufi tradition, specific movement patters might have had the same trance-effect.


I believe that professional hypnotic trance induction techniques used by the Mahamudra/ Dzogchen teacher Daniel P Brown in my very first meditation retreat in 2021 played a huge role in how my experience unfolded for me in the space of a short 6 days.


In classical Tibetan literature, the state I experienced is metaphorically described as "Lion's View"(the mind becoming aware of itself). This is a metaphor for the mind recognizing itself, for "reflexive awareness" (Tashi Namgyal). Listen to it here.


It is well possible too, that my hypnotic experience from the past may have facilitated entering a "mystic" experience in a meditation retreat. This is a thesis by Shinzen Young (Guru Viking 2022b, December 2).


An experience of a self-induced hypnotic state through language 30+ years ago


However, I should not have been totally surprised by the mystic state in the Mahamudra retreat. I had had prior experiences, also with self-induced altered states.


Ca 1995/96 I had a self-induced physical/mental whole-body extraordinary bliss state. I then navigated myself into it by memorising and speaking to myself multiple times a hypnotic script from the book "Hypnotherapy for Health, Harmony and Peak Performance".


That script is intended to create a mystical state. Its title is "The Prince's Journey. A metaphorical search for cosmic awareness". The Prince is - of course - the Buddha, although at the time I did not know that. Neither was this knowledge required for the script to have an effect. At the time, I had no idea of Buddhism or meditation.


The script belongs to the set of scripts

designed to evoke approximations of intense alterations in consciousness referred to variously as peak experience, satori , enlightenment and cosmic consciousness

Read it again: Hypnosis is here presented as a tool to reach enlightenment (as whatever that may be defined)


For illustration, I quote a few lines from the middle of the induction script. This text has to be spoken in a particular way to have its effect.


The princes´ palace (I read the full script here in the style of the authors)


.......

Going within

to that calm, still place

where all is

stillness

and there is no need

to make an effort

to pay close attention

to the position of the arms,

or the legs,

or the entire body,

and even the effort it takes

to pay close attention

to thoughts

or sensations

is too much effort

to bother making.

Just drifting down

and entering that inner palace

meeting that inner self

finding

that quiet core

of being there

where the self continues,

now,

even when all else

drifts away from awareness

and there is nothing left

but the silent self

a self

that has no form

no shape

no sound

no thoughts,

no reasons

to do one thing or another.

...

Here are two examples where the induction´s elements are related to Buddhism or non-duality:

  • "the self that has no form, shape" is the empty awareness space or "rigpa" in Buddhism

  • "no reason to do one thing or another" points to Dzogchen "meditation of non-meditation"


And it worked, although it didn´t get me to enlightenment but "only" to a wonderful mental/physical bliss state.


The experience of self-induced full-body bliss through self-administered hypnotic language alone left me stunned. I never succeeded in repeating it, even though I tried it multiple times. But, hey - if you chase it, you won´t get it!


Much later in 2021, my online Mahamudra meditation retreat confirmed the 1990's experience of precise languaging leading into an altered state.


The author and teacher of that retreat, the deceased Daniel P Brown, has co-edited a book on hypnosis, and has taught courses in peak performance at Harvard University. He has publicly stated, that he learned from hypnosis, how important absolutely precise languaging is to achieve specific effects. He describes his fine-tuning of language in the same way as the "father of modern hypnosis", Milton Ericsson.


I have spent 40 years learning the textual tradition and the technical language, and the last 20 years refining the wording for each of the meditation instructions (Daniel P Brown, Retreat Material Feb 2021)

Having applied absolute rigour and testing to his languaging of pointing out instructions, he considers the exact formulations used in the retreats as his intellectual property, to be protected from any use outside of the buyer's personal meditation through heavy fines.


Dzogchen and hypnosis: similarities


Shortly after beginning to draft this post, I came across a work by Wickramasekera on the overlap of hypnosis and Dzogchen. The article summarises:


"Dzogchen meditation has been practiced by Bonpo and Buddhist yogis for at least 1,200 years. Dzogchen uses methods of meditation and yoga exercises that are said to help fully awaken from self-illusion and self-reality that cause suffering in the world. The philosophy and experiential practice of Dzogchen are very similar to hypnosis. Dzogchen techniques use hypnosis-like practices of selective attention, visualization, and posthypnotic suggestion to help yogis experience advanced insights into the nature of mind. The experience of Dzogchen can be compared to the experience of hypnosis in terms of its phenomenological and psychophysiological effects. Finally, there are also many theoretical similarities between aspects of ego state therapy, neo-dissociation, sociocognitive and Ericksonian theories of hypnosis and the tradition of Dzogchen meditation.

(Source: Wickramasekera, German summary). Below, find his Venn Diagram depicting the overlaps:

Venn Diagram of overlaps between hypnosis and meditation

Applicability of hypnotic elements to meditation teaching styles


What follows in relation to meditation seems most relevant to the Mahamudra/Dzogchen style of "pointing out".


There is less relevance and applicability of hypnotic language to styles of meditation teaching that are more rhapsodic and comparatively unstructured.


For example, I like James Low as a teacher of Dzogchen philosophy. He is amusing and wise. But his recorded retreats now seem like meandering stories compared to the structured retreats of Daniel P Brown. The style of Daniel P Brown's retreats, on the other hand, is precision-guided mind surgery at deep levels.


Hypnosis and meditation as attention management


Meditation and hypnosis are forms of attention management or attention training. Both approaches require and train the mind to selectively and deliberately focus attention on a particular object to the exclusion of other objects; to contract and expand focus; and to learn about the role of meta-cognitive awareness (or, as Culadasa says, meta-cognitive introspective awareness).


Daniel P Brown quotes neuroscience when he mentions the role of the anterior cingular cortex. He calls it "selective mind/body (non-drug) activation with


Hypnosis—Hypnosis as condition of heightened attentiveness to a single target and dysattention to everything else.

Meditation—Concentration meditation as Anterior cingulate cortex training." (unpublished seminar documentation).

As a result, Daniel Brown and others see meditation as an extremely useful tool for training the minds of children and adolescents in the fundamental skill of attention management.


I’m a psychologist with a background in hypnosis, I wrote four textbooks on hypnosis. And one of the things in hypnosis that we learned is the wording of suggestions matters a lot. So we’re always changing the wording of the meditation instructions to get them to work the best way for Westerners

Susceptibility to meditation and to hypnosis - parallels


The role of the subject's susceptibility to induced changes in their state of mind is well-known in hypnosis and in meditation.


In both areas, the use of instructional techniques must be varied to suit the student.


Wickramasekera (in Viking Guru 2022b) states that students can be guided into Dzogchen nondual experiences through hypnosis.


Susceptibility in hypnosis

Milton Erickson, the father of the most widely used style of hypnosis today, used to say that everyone can be hypnotised. However, with some clients he needed 20 sessions or more, while with others the first session was enough. More recent research suggests that "only about 10 per cent of the population are generally classified as 'highly hypnotisable', while others are less able to enter the trance-like state of hypnosis".

(Source: Stanford Study)


Stage hypnotists always go through a pre-stage routine of screening subjects for high-susceptibility candidates, so that their stage success (e.g. in impersonating a broomstick) is not impeded.


Susceptibility in meditation for direct realisation

In classical Tibetan works on meditation, students are usually divided into three categories

  • Those with the highest capacity (the fast-path students who can "get it" very fast, e.g. through a single pointing out instruction)

  • Those with middling capacity

  • Those with lowest capacity


Tashi Namgyal uses the term immediate type for those with a high degree of intuitive perception. It is contrasted with those of lesser intelligence who require long procedural practice and conceptual explanation.


The significance of these classifications may be explained by the fact that, as in hypnosis, some students may be more "pre-wired" to go directly into a particular view (= altered state of perception) than others. Students may be less conceptually constrained. Or certain areas of the brain may make them more or less receptive.


Btw: my personal recommendation for the left-behinds of middling and lower capacity is: cheat by attending an Ayahuasca ceremony! Or magic mushrooms in a proper ceremony (the author)

Susceptibility and precision weighting

The relation between hypnotic susceptibility and meditative aptitude is also reflected through the lens of the "predictive brain" hypothesis (see Sam Harris 2023, November, and Chandaria 2022, November). Here are some points of similarity:

  • Both involve gaining voluntary control over precision weighting - the ability to adjust the balance between top-down predictions and bottom-up sensory information. This precision weighting control may be important for shaping one's experience.

  • Susceptibility to hypnosis seems related to the plasticity of one's models and conceptual influence. Meditation also appears to involve shaping/controlling conceptual models and predictions.

  • Meditation may enable greater precision weighting control, just as hypnosis involves voluntarily giving up control over precision weighting.

  • Both hypnosis and meditation can be seen as ways of getting out of our normal automatic patterns of thinking, by altering the balance of conceptual vs sensory influence.

  • Both may be related to phenomenological control - the ability to shape the contours of one's own experience. The degree of control relates to hypnotizability or meditation aptitude.

  • Both can be seen as ways of developing voluntary control over the normally automatic process of precision weighting, to enable greater self-regulation of experience.

So in summary, the key similarity seems to be the targeting of precision weighting control as a means to alter experience and get out of habitual patterns of thinking. Both exploit the malleability of this predictive balance.


Meditative views as altered states of consciousness / trance


A word of caution: equating a meditative view with a trance may be a bit of a stretch. There are significant differences. The most significant:


Meditative views, when performed correctly, require the presence of meta-cognitive awareness ("being aware of the present existence and characteristics of awareness and attention"). This is generally not the case in hypnotic trances, where meta-cognitive awareness is switched off. To illustrate, there is no awareness of "I am currently in a depth 8 trance".


In Mahamudra meditation, a view is a perceptual position that the student/meditator adopts in order to gain deeper insight.


These meditative views for adopting perceptual postures are not in the repertoire of everyday life. In particular, these views reduce or eliminate the standpoint of perceiving from the first-person ego. They reduce or eliminate the felt sense of a duality of subject and object.


Learning to adopt and maintain such a view initially requires effort. I experienced being in it as a kind of altered state, not unlike a hypnotic state.


Obviously it is not an altered state comparable to a psychedelic trip (although that possibility exists, as I have experienced).


It is an altered state in that

  • One can get into it through a kind of induction technique

  • The normal functioning of the brain is altered. EEG studies have shown that, for example, the "Ocean and Wave" view or the "Lion's Gaze" view lead to the activation of specific brain areas and to a high degree of gamma wave synchronisation throughout the brain (Brewer & Brown, 1999).


I had the subjective experience that a particular experience during the retreat was perceived by me as a change in the normal functioning of the brain. I do not know if this actually happened. But I have had the experience before, through an ayahuasca experience, of noticing my mind-brain interaction in a somewhat unusual way.


Overt and Covert trance inductions in hypnosis and meditation


Covert trance inductions

Meditation can use the closed-eyes or the open-eyes approach. Depending on the tradition, one or the other may be preferred. For example, Tashi Namgyal identifies open-eyed meditation as the "vajra view".


From a teaching point of view, this can be used. In one seminar I experienced a "fractionisation induction" using repeated eye closure in order to receive an entire lesson in a kind of deep trance.


Using hypnotic techniques in meditation teaching - summary


As a result of my quick study, I have come to the following conclusions.


  • Many of the generic skills of a professional hypnotist are useful for all parts of meditation teaching. First and foremost these are languaging and delivery skills

  • Formal trance induction techniques are useful only in a limited way.


Generally useful language and delivery techniques


Language:

Delivery:

  • Voice modulation to put stress on significant terms.

  • Tempo of speech and pauses to allow processing time for the mind to form the suggested images and sensations internally

  • Speaking on the out-breath

  • Body language (of course only when there is physical or even electronic presence of the teacher).

And of course,

  • The absolute conviction of the teacher, that this works. In fact, this single precondition may compensate for many other "imperfect" delivery techniques. For example, Daniel P Brown in the mentioned retreat spoke extremely rapidly and with an undifferentiated voice (due to his physical impediment) very untypical of an ideal hypnotist. This, in my experience, did not strongly impact his teaching. It came from a depth of 40 years of experience, without hesitation or doubt.


Selectively useful techniques

  • Trance induction and utilisation. Tibetan meditation is nothing less than dull sleepiness. It requires total presence of mind. In particular, this presence is required for metacognitive introspective awareness. The mind has to know at any moment what it is doing, and how. A classical hypnotic trance is something where that ability is typically switched off. Useful for stage hypnotists to make people behave like chicken. Not so useful for awakening. However, maybe there is a role for deep learning trances in the generation type of meditation, as opposed to concentration and insight types.


Examples (this section is in work)


Connecting terms

Connecting terms let one phrase flow more easily into another, creating a bridge from one idea to another


And the moment you notice that you are lost in thought...
And where are you that you can notice these thoughts?...

Grammatical ambiguity

Grammatical ambiguity can be created, for example, by letting it unclear where one phrase ends and the other begins.


Here an example from Sam Harris´s "Daily Meditations" in his Waking Up app. The sentence "Simply recognise that" can either end the previous phrase, or it could lead on to "..reognise that the outside of you...".


Whatever the world is 
as appearance in and as this moment´s experience,
is a quality of mind.
Simply recognise that.
The outside of you is very much the inside of you.

Precision language

Daniel P Brown has said that the has tested and perfected his languaging for 20 years. This is the same approach used by Milton Erickson, "the father of modern hypnosis".


Thus, the following instructions to achieve a sense of borderlessness of awareness-space guide very precise mental operations.


Now investigate if this field of knowing awareness-space extends in every direction, like an infinite vast expanse. Boundless. If the ordinary mind imposes any edges and boundaries on this awareness, you can move right into the boundaries and edges with your awareness. When you move into the boundaries with your awareness, they immediately dissolve like mist dissolving into the atmosphere. Keep moving into all the edges and boundaries. It is like pouring space into space, pouring awareness into awareness. If the ordinary mind imposes edges and boundaries somewhere further out, just keep moving into those edges and boundaries with your awareness, until it is perfectly clear to you that this awareness is boundless, edgeless (retreat)

Tempo of Speech and Pauses

In particular Sam Harris has a way of speaking, where he sometimes speaks on individual words, with pauses in between to let them sink in. This way, the mind has time to form a cloud of meaning and expectation around each expression. This style is very similar, partially, to the hypnotic delivery by Wolter/Havens.


Transcribed, it looks like this:


Simply decide.  To leave everything.  As it is.   Simply recognise.  Whatever appears.  All by itself.




Resources


Bissanti, M., Brown, D. P., & Pasari, J. (2022). The Elephant Path: Attention Development and Training in Children and Adolescents (2. ed.). Mustang Bon Foundation.


Brewer, J., & Brown, D. P. (1999). Mapping complex mind states: EEG neural substrates of meditative unified compassionate awarenes. Scribd. https://de.scribd.com/document/459103680/neuroawakening-pdf https://drive.google.com/file/d/1u-okd3R8MDAVV1uoB7HeCiXX4g9AXcQF/view?usp=sharing


Brown, D.P. Retreat Training Material (Presentation Slides, 2021) , unpublished

Brown, D. P., & Fromm, E. (1987). Hypnosis and Behavioral Medicine. Taylor & Francis Inc.


Chandaria, S. (2022, October 30). The Bayesian Brain and Meditation: A predictive processing account of radical changes in the character of phenomenal experiences [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eg3cQXf4zSE


Hawkins, J., & Dawkins, R. (2021). A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence. Basic Books.


Namgyal, T. D., & Callahan, E. (2019). Moonbeams of Mahamudra (Tsadra) (Translation ed.). Snow Lion.


Harris, S., & Clark, A. (2023, November). Predicting Reality. Retrieved November 4, 2023, from https://dynamic.wakingup.com/course/CO21D1C?code=SC6551EBE&share_id=8EA8A9CA&source=content%20share


Stanford University. (2017, June 24). Study identifies brain areas altered during hypnotic trances. Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute. https://neuroscience.stanford.edu/news/study-identifies-brain-areas-altered-during-hypnotic-trances


Taft, M. W., & Brown, D. P. (2020). Awakening and the Path of Liberation—FULL TRANSCRIPT. Deconstructing Yourself. https://deconstructingyourself.com/awakening-and-the-path-of-liberation-full-transcript.html


Viking, G. (2022b, December 2). Ep178: Buddhist Meditation, Hypnosis, & Dzogchen - Dr Ian Wickramasekera & Julia Shannon [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKqexib9ivc&feature=youtu.be


Walters, C., & Havens, R. A. (1993). Hypnotherapy for Health, Harmony, and Peak Performance: Expanding the Goals of Psychotherapy/Helping Clients Discover the Pleasures of Trance (Har/Cas ed.). Brunner-Mazel Inc.


Wickramasekera, I. (n.d.). Hypnotic-like aspects of the Tibetan Tradition of Dzog Chen Meditation. Researchgate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340289098_Hypnotic-like_Aspects_of_the_Tibetan_Tradition_of_Dzogchen_Meditation/link/5f1b99ca92851cd5fa44e4e8/download

Interestingly, Wickramasekera has personal experience in professional hypnosis, Dzog Chen , and Ayahuasca. He is also familiar with the work of Dr Daniel P Brown and has met him personally.



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