The relationship between hypnotherapy and philosophy is all about clarity. One way to characterize philosophy is that it is the pursuit of mental and conceptual clarity. An important part of the philosopher’s job is to help ease confusion by clarifying points of similarity and dissimilarity in concepts and beliefs, and by so doing, reduce contradictions and inconsistencies that may be lurking in an individual’s thinking. In hypnotherapy, one of the primary goals is to clear away subconscious mental blocks that may be interfering with a person’s ability to act or feel in the manner that s/he consciously wants to but is prevented in doing so by mental conflict. However, the barrier between the conscious and subconscious minds is not clean or completely unambiguous and there is a continuous interplay between both mental spheres. Sometimes, before hypnotherapy can be successful, it is first necessary to achieve mental clarity on a conscious level. My approach to conscious mental clarity is the practical application of philosophical method. To some extent I use philosophical techniques in the “pre-talk” or interview phase of hypnotherapy, but sessions devoted expressly to philosophical issues are made available to clients at their option. Philosophical sessions can range from discussions of particular issues of interest to more formal philosophical counseling aimed at resolving some philosophical confusion or angst that may be interfering with the client’s happiness on various levels. I also moderate philosophy discussions on an ongoing basis.
There is a wonderful symmetry between hypnotherapy and philosophical counseling. Both hypnotherapy and philosophical counseling are generally considered to be short-term therapies. Most significantly, both fields see themselves as oriented towards individuals who are mentally healthy but are seeking to improve their lives in specific ways. While licensed psychologists or psychiatrists in some cases may employ hypnosis, and no doubt some also (knowingly or not) employ philosophical techniques as well, independent practitioners of hypnotherapy and philosophical counseling typically see themselves as devoted to helping individuals who are otherwise mentally healthy to achieve a more complete realization of their potentiality. I subscribe to the characterization by Gerd Achenbach, who started the modern philosophical counseling movement when he opened his practice in Germany in 1981, that philosophical counseling is “therapy for the sane.” The same my be said about the major share of hypnotherapy that flourishes today. But Achenbach’s characterization must be considered to be a bit hyperbolic because many if not most kinds of psychotherapy can be used on behalf of individuals who are far from being “insane,” which is an awful word anyway that ought to be reserved for cases in which persons suffer from very extreme types of psychological disorder in which their contact with reality and, perhaps more important, their ability to function in it is severely impaired. The phrase “therapy for the sane” should be interpreted more for affect as a means of underscoring a distinction from mental health professions that diagnose and treat psychological disorders. As non-licensed professionals, hypnotherapists and philosophical counselors do not diagnose or treat psychological disorders. My goal is straightforward: to assist clients to obtain mental clarity and personal empowerment, sometimes employing the context and the backdrop of broader philosophical perspectives.
My orientation towards philosophy is pluralistic and multi-perspectival. I am continually broadening my knowledge and expertise in a wide range of philosophical traditions. I am a pluralist and from that perspective I see myself very much in harmony with much of William James’ thinking as well as of pragmatism in general. However, true pluralism requires a familiarity and intimacy with other traditions, and the philosophers and philosophical traditions that I am frequently drawn to include analytic philosophy (especially Wittgenstein’s later work and “ordinary language philosophy”), Nietzsche, existentialism, the philosophy of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Stoicism, and classical Greek philosophy (Aristotle particularly). And while I profoundly disagree with Hegel’s absolutism, I have a strange facination with his dialectic. I am also currently studying and broadening my interest in mysticism, particularly Taoism, Zen, and Kaballah. I draw on the evolving breadth of my philosophical interests which I apply as appropriate during the course of philosophical counseling.
Perspectivism is somewhat distinct from pluralism in that it is more focused on particular philosophical perspectives than on distinct philosophical traditions or broadly characterized categories of philosophical belief. Nietzsche’s perspectivism is, in my view, extraordinarily powerful and has great relevancy for the modern age. I share Nietzsche’s view (and James’ as well) that categorical thinking not only in ethics but in all areas tend toward rigidity that can quickly lose effectiveness and relevancy. The challenge, of course, is to establish a consistent rational grounds for judgment without rigid rules which can lose applicability and hence rational justifiability in particular situations and contexts. Particular philosophical perspectives can be enlivened and enriched by associations with broader philosophical beliefs, however, this broader association is by no means necessary nor is it necessarily applicable. The importance of individual beliefs from a perspectivist point of view is the rational grounds of the perspective and also an intellectual appreciation of the diversity and freedom possible within a rational and ethical context. The point of philosophical counseling is, in my view, to discover the richness and power of one’s own evolving philosophical perspectives.
Perspectivism provides a dynamic point of interconnection with hypnotherapy. The renowned psychiatrist and hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson, developed the therapeutic concept of reframing (later developed further by Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch in Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution) in which changing the perspective (or frame) in which a problem is perceived while still retaining a commonality with the old perspective facilitates acceptance of change because it is cast in terms that the client can accept. The commonality between the two perspectives or frames is the bridge to change. A charming story about one of Erickson’s patients illustrates reframing. A young very freckled little eight year old girl was angry at the world because the kids at school teased her about her freckles. Erickson told the defiant girl that she was a thief! Why? Because she was stealing cinnamon cookies and cinnamon buns when they spilled on her face and she became a Cinnamon Face! That new, fun way of looking at herself allowed her accept her appearance in a special, positive, and adorable manner that profoundly influenced her therapy and allowed the freckles to be viewed by her as something pleasing (as cinnamon is pleasing). (This story is recounted in Sidney Rosen, ed., My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson, W. W. Norton & Company, 1982, p.152-154). Another, more directly philosophical example of reframing is provided by Anthony Robbins in Unlimited Power, in which he recounts the story of an army general who told his troops who were under heavy attack by the enemy that “We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in another direction.” (from Anthony Robbins, Unlimited Power: The New Science of Personal Achievement, Simon and Schuster, 1986, p.257). If the general simply said that he is retreating he would have signaled to his troops, as well as send an internal message to his own psyche that his army had been defeated, but by reframing the event he put the entire episode in a more positive perspective that provided both motivation and hope that victory was still attainable. The fact that the army is retreating was not changed, but the reframing of that fact powerfully altered its meaning. Philosophy has been described as the pursuit of meaning, and the general’s reframing of the situation is an example of finding positive new meaning in an otherwise negative situation. I prefer to think of philosophy as the search for rational perspective. And if philosophy is the search for rational perspective then the general was also a philosopher.
In some ways, however, reframing can be a limitation. The pluralistic and multi-perspectival approach challenges a rational, philosophical agent to consider a wide array of philosophical beliefs and perspectives that go beyond the common denominator that is required to reframe a particular perspective into one that is different. Reframing requires enough sameness shared between an old and inadequate perspective and a newer and more effective one in order for the tranquil adoption of the new perspective to occur. Radical pluralism may be seem unrealistic but it is useful because the thinker is challenged to consider points of view s/he would not have otherwise considered, and it may be hoped that the outcome results in a stronger and more cogent perspective. In my view, the best methodology must incorporate both the more rigorous pluralism with a strategy of philosophical reframing. Philosophy, unlike traditional therapy, must constantly strive to think outside the box. Reframing can help facilitate change, but whether or not the new perspective that is reframed is philosophically meritorious is a separate matter. Still, change is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of life itself, and as a facilitator of change the “gentle art of reframing” (Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch’s coinage) can assume a valued role in philosophical counseling.
Alongside the art of reframing, the traditional philosophic art of dialogue remains a paramount tool of philosophical counseling. The establishment of rapport is important in all forms of counseling and therapy. In hypnotherapy, the absence of rapport can prevent the successful induction of hypnotic trance. In philosophical counseling, rapport encourages the fruitful exchange of ideas. Plato’s Dialogues, for many, remain as the most vivid representation of the nature of philosophical discourse. In truth (from my perspective) this is a false impression. Dialogue is essential, but Plato’s Dialogues and the Socratic Method which they exemplify demonstrate the legalistic process of “leading the witness” forcing a necessary conclusion that is based upon the contrived nature of the argumentation and the definitions that unfold in its course. For Isaiah Berlin and many pluralists, Plato stands at the head of a long line of absolutist thinking that has dominated most of Western philosophy. The term “absolutist” is a bit harsh and I would not like to confuse philosophical absolutism with the political despotism the term is suggestive of. However, the tradition of rigid definition, starting with Plato and then modified by Aristotle, and Aquinas, down to Hegel and beyond is divorced from the ineffable nature of reality and the subtlety of the of the human condition. The rigidity of the old philosophy began to get undone in the Enlightenment, most notably by Hume. But it is Nietzsche’s perpectivism and rejection of categorical thinking, followed by the development of pragmatism and the general movement in the twentieth century towards non-absolutist and relativistic frames of reference which have converged to form the real challenge of modern philosophy. That those like myself who have been influenced by these philosophical movements reject absolute definitions and moral rules existing outside of contextual reality does not mean that we reject truth or morality. But definitions and rules are, in the final analysis, only guideposts which while valuable are always subject to revision. The rejection of categorical thinking means that greater understanding of nuance and the subtleties of wisdom are required. Certainly, there is no more powerful tool to help achieve greater understanding than the fine art of dialogue.
The form of dialogue that I favor steers away from the character of the debating society that Plato’s Dialogues sometimes seem to suggest, and maximizes the establishment of rapport and the fostering of a multi-perspectival understanding of the philosophical issues involved. Certainly, the less polemical approach is more suitable for philosophical counseling. The ebb and flow of the Tao, enabling and empowering both sides of a philosophical argument so that each better understand the other is in harmony with the pluralistic and multi-perspectival point of view, which values as many positions as possible before reframing and other techniques allow some perspectives to emerge as more persuasive or perhaps an altogether new perspective may instead be synthesized. Martin Buber’s I and Thou captures some of the spirit of this form of dialogue. (see Michael Kahn, The Tao of Conversation by New Harbinger Publications, 1995 for a good statement of this attitude including the Buber/Tao connection). The Taoist/Buberian form of dialogue, which we can simply refer to as the Open Dialogue is more right brained than left, less concerned with winning an argument and more interested in the ebb and flow of philosophical perspectives, finding the point of least resistance so that the most effective and friendly approach is utilized while also remaining on the lookout for new and better solutions. While dialogue is not ego-less, developing the capacity to understand the other side and to discover new and challenging points of view requires a lessening of egoistic interference and a heightened awareness of what Plato would call Truth or Good that is transcendent of ego. But Open Dialogue is more illusive than Socratic Method, and the Truth or Good may not be viewed as taking the form of an eternal and unchanging ideal. Perhaps Truth and Good are inherent in the situation and therefore are themselves transcendent of the ideal! The transcendent is perhaps beyond the capacity of any ideal to symbolize or express. But our understanding must strive to grasp it but without the contrivance of convenient definitions or absolutist ideals. The Open Dialogue is as well-suited for this task as any method of philosophy, but we must be eager to use all methods that are at our disposal.
Philosophical counseling is well-suited for individuals who find that questions are themselves an integral part of the solution. Sometimes a question posed as the answer to a question can be downright annoying, but in philosophy the freedom to question can sometimes be the best therapy.
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