When my friend Dave Karchmer, a local doctor of Chinese Medicine, told me he had become a certified hypnotherapist, I raised an eyebrow.
I imagined Dave in a black suit swinging a watch in front of patients’ faces. Or, even worse, I saw him standing on stage convincing hapless volunteers from the audience to cavort like baboons. It was an unsettling thought.
But I was curious. If Dave, one of the smartest guys I know, is convinced that hypnosis works, there must be something to it. So I talked down my inner skeptic and told Dave to hypnotize me.
I don’t know if I slipped into what could only have been a hypnotic state in one minute or five, but it happened fast. My brain was so happy to check out.
According to Dave and thousands of other doctors, hypnosis, which has been in use for over two centuries, could transform the way modern medicine manages pain and illness, if only it were more widely practiced.
Doubts be gone, I’m game. But before our session, I need Dave to promise he would not turn me into a baboon. In fact, I want him to clarify a few things. Yes, he said, there are the show biz hypnotists and the watch swingers, but that kind of formal, ritualized hypnosis only works effectively and consistently on a small percentage of the population—people who, after taking a standardized test, are categorized as what professionals call the “highly hypnotizable.” Dave doesn’t do that. He does what some call conversational hypnosis, based on the model that hypnosis pioneer Milton Erickson initiated in the middle of the 20th century.
“The field of hypnosis has changed dramatically over its history, especially with the work of Erickson,” Dave said. “Up until Erickson, hypnosis was a highly ritualized, formal procedure that followed a format — the watch swing, 'you are getting sleepy' — those are the formal rituals. Although Milton Erickson’s methods came under scrutiny, and were widely criticized during his time, both the man and his methods are now widely regarded as ingenious in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. Erickson’s principle contribution was the use of informal, conversational approaches to induce hypnosis, which he favored over the highly ritualized approaches of his contemporaries.”
I woke up feeling refreshed, clear-headed and happy. My hypnotic trance had put me in a very good mood.
While there are a number of competing explanations for why it is so effective, many practitioners suggest that hypnosis works by helping the analytical brain move into a relaxed state in order to access the ‘unconscious,’ and have a little conversation with it. Your attention becomes very focused, your mind calm. The able hypnotist becomes your guide into the mysterious landscape of your own mind.
Ok, I can handle a little relaxed, informal conversation with my mind. Plus, maybe Dave could help me rack a few more hours of sleep. Because I have two young children who wake up and walk around in the night, my mom brain never totally shuts down and sometimes, although I am dead dog tired, I still cannot sleep. Could Dave actually convince my brain to sleep a little deeper and longer?
One Saturday afternoon, I visit Dave at his home office in a cozy bungalow in central Austin. A witty guy in his early 40s, I befriended Dave twenty years ago when we both performed in Shakespeare at Winedale. He still reminds me of King Henry, the role he played in Henry the IV, Part One; his deep voice and dark, focused eyes seem fitting traits for a hypnotist.
He invites me to lay back and get “very, very comfortable.” I think hypnotists like to repeat themselves. So I sink down into Dave’s very, very comfortable couch, cross my hands over my stomach, and let myself be hypnotized. I just shut my eyes and listen. It’s that simple, for me anyway — Dave has to do all the work.
“What’s different about this conversation is that it’s really a one way conversation,” Dave starts, in the kind of very slow, deliberate voice you’d expect a hypnotist to use. “Absorb the sounds of words and not the content… it’s easy to forget how content is distinct from sounds. … As we go through this enjoyable and relaxing experience together, each word that I say can really help you to create for yourself a feeling of ease and rest even without any attention devoted to the content. You really can relax simply by listening to the flow of sounds as sounds…”
I have to confess, time was an elusive entity in this whole experience. I don’t know if I slipped into what could only have been a hypnotic state in one minute or five, but it happened fast. My brain was so happy to check out and stop paying attention that I found myself slipping quickly into something akin to lucid dreaming. I just knew that when he told my conscious mind that it could float away like a cloud, there I was, on the cloud. I didn’t know it at the time, but Dave’s invitation to dissociate sound from meaning was what hypnotists call the “induction.” Dave, with his slow steady voice, had coaxed my conscious mind to let down its guard so he could have a little chat with the unconscious.
How did it feel? At one point, I thought I had just fallen asleep. But I hadn’t, I was just in a very relaxed, focused state. How can I be so sure? Because in what felt like it could have been ten minutes max, but was actually twenty-six, he was telling me to come back into the room, and I did, just like he asked. Boom, my conscious mind came back down from the cloud exactly when he asked it to. And throughout the trance, I found myself agreeing with what he said, although I didn’t say it out loud (Dave said I didn’t make a peep throughout the session actually, but my lips trembled, a slightly embarrassing detail.) Furthermore, part of me had heard everything he said, because when I went back and listened to the recording of our session, it was all very familiar.
I woke up feeling refreshed, clear-headed and happy. My hypnotic trance had put me in a very good mood. Dave told me that he had encrypted little messages to my unconscious brain that would coax it to sleep longer at night. And if it didn’t fully clear the insomnia, I had a recording of our session in hand to listen to at my leisure — repeated hypnosis hits the message home. I walked out into the bright August sunlight with a lighter step.
And I am happy to report, so far, at least, I’ve been sleeping better than I have in a long, long time.