The Symptom Path to Enlightenment

English Translation: Spanish Magazine Visa, 1996

Updated in 2002

Ernest Lawrence Rossi, Ph.D.

1. How can hypnotherapy help a person who is suffering?

You must understand that I cannot talk to you about the older traditional and erroneous ideas about the role of hypnosis in dealing with human suffering. Over the past twenty years I have developed a new theory of hypnosis and healing that is very different from what most people think hypnotherapy is. Most people still think hypnosis is some kind of magical ritual or evil eye wherein the therapist first puts patients in an altered state so that they are like a robot ready to be programmed by the therapist. I do not do this!!

My research and clinical experience has convinced me that so-called "hypnotic suggestion" is actually the utilization of the person's natural capacity for mind-body healing. The therapist may suggest, but it is the patient's own inner mind and body that has the genius for healing. Most people, however, have very little understanding of their natural inner genius for healing and solving their own problems. Let me tell you something of the path I've been on learning about this over the past 30 years as I explored the scientific research on what has been called "miraculous or spiritual healing" in the past.

Everyone goes through perfectly natural rhythms in their body, brain and mind every hour and a half or two throughout the day and night. These natural rhythms are related to the normal states of change we all go through every day - you sleep and you wake up, you get hungry every couple of hours so you eat. These are the natural rhythms of life that we all experience all the time - rhythms of activity and rest, social life, work, play, emotionality, sexuality and so on. You know perfectly well that you can work or play for an hour or two and then you need to take a break. You then need to rest for about 15-20 minutes while your mind and body recover so you can proceed with optimal health and efficiency to the next thing.

2. Why is hypnotic trance important for regaining health?

I define “hypnotic trance” as the therapeutic utilization of these natural rhythms of activity and rest. In the scientific literature they are called "Ultradian rhythms." They are called that because they are quicker in comparison with our normal "Circadian" or "daily" rhythms. Your heart rate is an ultradian rhythm, for example, because it beats about 70 times a minute. Your breathing is another ultradian rhythm because you breath in and out about 16 times a minute. Most of us have a natural ultradian rhythm of work and play, activity and rest every hour and a half or two.  A researcher at the University of Chicago called this the Basic Rest Activity Cycle (BRAC) that regulates most mental and biological processes - the psychobiological - on all levels right down tp the molecular and genetic.  If you chronically abuse yourself by not listening to your natural mind-body signals to take a natural break (a little rest) every few hours you will eventually build up physical and emotional stress. It is this chronic, accumulated stress that may depress your immune system, for example, so that you may fall ill with either a psychosomatic illness or even an organic illness.  

This the what new field of Psychoimmunology is all about. Much research, for example, has documented how the likelihood of getting something like the common cold, the flu or even cancer can be related, in part, to the degree to which the immune system is suppressed by stress. Evidence is now accumulating that if you force your body to build up chronic excessive stress you may push the level of your stress hormones so high they may eventually kill the cells in the parts of your brain (the hippocampus) that accounts for memory and learning. Some researchers even go so far as to say that a lifetime of such accumulated, chronic stress may be responsible for some of the problems with memory in old age.

Hypnotherapy, the way I do it, becomes a safe period of self-exploration wherein the person learns to tune into their own unique pattern of natural mind-body rhythms of activity and rest.  People learn to understand and respect their natural mind-body signals for rest and natural healing so they can stop the vicious cycle of self abuse, addictions and suffering that comes from ignorance of what their own body is trying to tell them. Your natural mind-body rhythms are very responsive to this process of self-awareness and they quickly normalize themselves so stress and suffering are reduced and healing is optimized. This the simplest and most natural form of self-healing you can experience. In fact, in my book, The 20 Minute Break, I call this "The Ultradian Healing Response." I outline a practical program that anyone can easily follow by learning to recognize their own natural mind-body signals to take a healing break every few hours through out the day. This means that the average person can learn to turn stress into a naturally comfortable healing response about half-a-dozen time a day.

3. People are afraid of being manipulated during hypnotism. Do you see it as an ethical problem?

Well, of course! But as I said I do not manipulate, program or control people in any way! People who are concerned about this question betray the fact that they still have the old black art, authoritarian conception of hypnosis. Most well educated , professional hypnotherapists do not use that older authoritarian, manipulative model anymore. I said, “well educated!” There are still many non-professional people who claim to do therapeutic hypnosis the old authoritarian way as is seen with so-called "stage hypnosis," for example. The public needs to beware of them! Stage hypnosis is not funny. There are a number of scientific reports about how some people who have participated in stage hypnosis actually have been traumatized physically as well as emotionally.

4. The expression “reframing” is very much in used in therapy. How would you define it?

A very good question, indeed! Here is another place where I differ radically from the traditional approach to authoritarian hypnosis and even from the practice of some of my more permissive colleagues. What most therapists, even the well trained and well educated, mean by reframing is a process whereby the therapist helps patients re-conceptualize their problems so that they are “framed” in a more optimistic or therapeutic manner. It is like learning to look at the glass as half full rather than half empty.

This process of cognitive or emotional reframing can be very useful at times if both patient and therapist are very clear about what the patient's therapeutic goals are. Reframing can go very wrong, however, if the therapist is too dogmatic and tries to impose the therapist’s frame or point of view on the patient. It is the same old problem of traditional hypnosis - trying to suggest or program the patient - trying to sell the patient a bogus bill of goods that belong to the therapist and not the patient. Many therapists are wise and usually they can suggest very good ideas to their patients. But that cannot be the real goal of any well-informed psychotherapy. The real job is to help patients learn how to find their own unique style of creativity and healing. Everyone has their own special genius. The best a therapist can do is help each person find their own genius.

I teach entirely natural procedures whereby patients can learn to recognize the meaning of their own sensations, emotions, thoughts, creativity and developing points of view. I help patients discover the new frames of reference that their inner mind-body is creating spontaneously at many levels within themselves. Life is naturally creative - we are always in a state of creative flux to deal with an ever changing world. I help patients to create or, better, to discover the naturally healing reframes that are taking place in themselves all the time. In one of my books I call this "The Symptom Path to Enlightenment." People learn how to listen to the message that their stress induced symptoms may be telling them. They learn how to convert their so-called "symptoms" into "signals" of how and when they need to do their own inner healing. By heeding the message of their symptoms they gradually acquire their own insights and "enlightenment" about how to better their lives and facilitate their own healing.

None of this, by the way, should be taken as being in opposition to good medical practice. While I am psychologist rather than a medical doctor, I fully respect and, indeed, seek to support leading edge medical research as it is reported in our most  scientific journals. In the second edition of my book, The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing, for example, I try to update a broad scientific framework where we can bring together the best of medical and psychological science so we can develop new therapeutic methods for the future. We are living in a very exciting time where mind-body science is making important breakthroughs! 

5. It is said that society is becoming more and more pathological. Do you agree and why?

I’m not sure society is becoming more pathological. It seems we have always been short on wisdom and understanding of ourselves and others. Most people in most societies and era have been rather ignorant of their basic capacities for healing, self-development and self-enlightenment. Sages of all ages have tried to help the average person wake up to their own potential. The problem, it seems to me, is that each generation must learn anew the profound art of becoming an evolving human being dedicated to learning and helping themselves as well as others. The fundamental issue is one of education! Most societies still spend vastly more money and resources on war than education. This is our great tragedy! When are we going to wake up?

From the point of view I have presented above we must understand that the average person is potentially just as creative as any famous artist, musician or scientist. The only difference is that so-called "average people" are not aware of their natural creativity - so they ignore the new and creative solutions that pop up within them - they actually believe someone else knows what’s better for them. I know this from my own family. My parents were first generation Americans who never had a chance to go beyond grammar school. But they did all they could to support my education. Our families and children are our most precious resource. The only answer to this is more emphasis on education - particularly a more holistic education about how to recognize our own natural creativity and problem solving skills.

6. How would you explain the interface between mind and body?

in 2002.  My current theory of psychosocial genomics in therapeutic hypnosis emphasizes the natural flow of information, communication and healing that takes place between the psychological levels of human experiencing and gene expression - the turning on and off of our genes in normal everyday life.  When genes are turned on (transcribed) they generate the formation of proteins (transcription) that are the molecular machines of life.  When we experience novel and enrichening activities, for example, a process called "activity dependent gene expression" takes place within neurons of the brain that can lead to neurogenesis - literally the growth of the brain. Notice that I do not separate mind and body - I emphasize their oneness by combining them into one word, "mind-body" just as Einstein emphasizes the connection of space-time in understanding modern physics.  Information in the form of words, ideas, emotions, images and meaning undergoes many transformations from the brain down to the molecular-genetic level within each of the six trillion cells of the human body. The organized structure of the molecules, tissues and organs of our body contain information just as our organized words and thoughts do - only the form is different. So consciousness as well as life itself can be best conceptualize as the circular flow of information between so-called "mind" and gene that I now call "psychosocial genomics:" the science of how our subjective experiences of mind can modulate gene expression and visa versa to facilitate neurogenesis and real physical healing of the body on the molecular level.  In my view therapeutic hypnosis is not an illusion - a so-called bending of sensation and perception so you think you feel good even when you are not.  The science and art of therapeutic suggestion that I call "psychosocial genomics" engages real healing on the molecular-genetic level.

One way to understand this is by thinking of every cell in your body as a little self-contained house. How many kitchens do you have in your house? Food is very important for life so everyone has at least one kitchen in their house. How many bathrooms do you have in your house? Elimination and being clean is very important for life so most people have at least one bathroom and if they can afford it they prefer two or three bathrooms. It is the same for bedrooms is it not? Sleep is certainly very important for life and health so we like to have a few bedrooms in every house.

Now communication is also important for life - so how many communication devices do you have in your home? Perhaps a radio or two, a TV, maybe a fax machine, a few telephones and maybe even a computer with a modem. So your typical home has at best perhaps half a dozen or so communication devices. Now consider each one of the six trillion cells of your body. How many communication devices do they each have?

One of the most amazing discoveries of modern psychobiology is the new system of molecular communication between brain and body at the cellular level. We now know that "messenger molecules" (also called “hormones, growth factors etc.”) flow in the blood stream between the brain and little “receptors” or receiving stations on the surface of every cell of the body. This is the essence of mind-body communication. These messenger molecules even modulate how nerves carry their lines of communication between mind and all cells of the body.  .

Now back to our metaphor of communication devices in your home. Instead of half a dozen communications devices as in you home, each of the six trillion cells of your body may have tens of thousands of receptors! Many of the cells in your brain and body have hundreds of thousands of receptors. There are some estimates of up to half a million receptors on some cells! What sort of a home would you think you had if you had 100 thousand telephones? A hundred thousand of your favorite TV stations? Fifty thousand or so computers each with its own modem? Each of the 6 trillion cells of your brain and body actually is just such a rich system of communication! This is more than a mere metaphor. You really are that profound communication - that enlightenment, that genius that wants to become manifest in your life!

Perhaps now you begin to get the idea. Life is, above all, a process of information flow and communication between our mind and genes. There is a mathematical science of how this information naturally flows in cycles and rhythms called "complex adaptation theory" or the "non-linear dynamics" of "chaos theory."  That is the source of the natural ultradian rhythms of mind-body communication I told you about. The source of much illness is the distortion of these mind-body rhythms of communication when we don’t pay attention to our natural mind-body signals about when its the appropriate time to do intense activity and when its time to rest and heal naturally. The new hypnotherapeutic approaches I am developing help normalize the stress induced distortions of these mind-body rhythms and can thus facilitate healing, I hypothesize, all the way down to the cellular and genetic level. We are now learning how these approaches can be adapted to practically any goal from the facilitation of healing by reducing stress to optimizing performance in school, work and sports. What is the proof of all this? Ah, to understand that requires much study and further research. One of  my books for professionals that explores the non-linear dynamics of mind-gene communication in this area is The Symptom Path to Enlightenment. We certainly do not have all the answers but I do believe that we are at least in the kindergarten of our understanding now.

Epilogue to:
The Symptom Path To Enlightenment:
Future Prospects For Mind-body Healing, 1996.

This book had its earliest roots in my journeyman days twenty-five years ago when I observed and studied the hypnotherapeutic work of Milton H. Erickson. Right from the beginning my observations and understanding were mostly wrong. Erickson’s first lesson was for me to stop watching him during hypnotherapy. He taught me how to focus my attention entirely on the patient. It was an error to believe that Erickson was doing things to people -- that he was putting them into trance -- that he was the active therapeutic agent while the patient was the passive receiver.

Erickson explained that his approach was naturalistic in the sense that he very carefully observed his patients natural behavior and continually utilized their own language, world view and inner resources to help them solve their own problems in their own way. This is easier said than done! How does one learn to do this? What are the critical observations that need be made? How does one utilize these observations to facilitate the patient’s own problem solving and healing?

My eight years of intensive study with Erickson during the last years of his life gradually led me to observe certain regularities within the continually original, humorous and endless creativity of his hypnotherapeutic work. People usually would come into his office and tell their story in their own way without interruption. After about twenty minutes, a half hour or at most an hour or so, the patient might pause with a look of inquire at Erickson. The Golden Moment! Erickson called it a moment of "response attentiveness:" the patient was fully focused on Erickson with an attitude of expectation and an apparently readiness to receive and respond to what Erickson now said or did.

In normal everyday life Erickson made related observations that suggested how most people will pause spontaneously and experience what he called “The Common Everyday Trance” at various times throughout the day in a natural sort of way all by themselves. Most of us are aware of this in ourselves and others but we usually do not pay too much attention to it. Our usual perception is that we were tired, daydreaming, sleepy or just a little hungry and we needed to pause and take-a-break for a little while. We need to catch up with ourselves, recover from our efforts to cope with the stresses of life and prepare for the next task that is facing us. Humble as it may seem, this simple, common everyday observation is the foundation of what this book is all about.

As I explored the question of why people might be more receptive to therapeutic suggestion, recovery and healing during these natural rest periods, I stumbled upon a vast landscape of chronobiological research stretching back about two-hundred years -- approximately the same age as the field of hypnotherapy! What is the purpose and meaning of the recurring time periods, rhythms and synchronies of behavior ranging from the seasons of one’s life to the monthly, daily, hourly and even minute by minute cycles we all experience? Is it really just a coincidence that Anton Mesmer, a major source of what we today call “hypnotherapy,” believed that all healing was related to these natural rhythms of “the intensification and the remission” of all life processes? Is this related to the paradoxical finding of current theory and research that hypnosis apparently can be a state of active arousal as well as passive relaxation?

Until recently, the rhythms and wave nature of consciousness and behavior has been a little appreciated leitmotif of research in all the life sciences. We now know that memory, learning and behavior are related to the natural rhythms in the circadian (daily) and ultradian (90-120 minute) pulsate flow of hormonal messenger molecules that are the major communication channel between brain, body and gene. Yes, these messenger molecules were the original form of communication when life first evolved on the single cell level. These messenger molecules modulate the activity of all our nerves and every cell of our brain. Further, these messenger molecules modulate the rhythmical expression of genes within every cell of the body that in turn leads to the production of other messenger molecules that flow through the blood stream back to the brain to modulate the state-dependent experiences of cognition, imagery and emotion that we loosely call “mind.”

This basic hypothesis of this book is that this complex loop of “mind-gene” communication is expressed in our everyday experience of the alternating rhythms of waking and sleeping, active work, play and relaxation, problem solving and healing. I view Erickson’s “Common Everyday Trance” and “response readiness” as a window through which we may observe, communicate and interact with these naturally alternating phases of arousal and relaxation that take place on all levels from mind and behavior to gene. The basic idea is that hypnotherapy may “entrain” (synchronize or optimize) the arousal phase (“High Phase Hypnosis”) to facilitate performance in learning, work and play as well as the relaxation phase (“Low Phase Hypnosis”) to support our natural psychobiological processes of healing and recovery. Chronobiology provides a window into the psychobiology of hypnotherapy.

The unexpected implication of this new point of view is that we do not have to analyze, suggest or program behavior in hypnotherapeutic work. People undergo entirely natural phase transitions in the chronobiological flux of mindbody communication that is the basic dynamic of problem solving and healing. The new ideo-dynamic approaches presented in this book, such as The Basic Accessing Question, help people access these naturally adaptive capacities and inner resources to facilitate creativity in a permissive manner that respects their individuality. We find to our surprise that psychological problems and symptoms are actually mindbody signals of potentially creative phase transitions taking place in our lives. With a bit of wisdom we can learn how to use our so-called problems as The Symptom Path to Enlightenment.

But is all this really true? Aye, there’s the rub! A handful of researcher’s over the past decade have done about a dozen pilot studies to document that there is some sort of relationship between hypnotic susceptibility, healing and chronobiology. But what, precisely is the relationship? We still see it only through a window darkly. The first interpretation of the data was that hypnotic susceptibility was periodic on a circadian (daily) and ultradian (approximately every few hours or so) basis. Further research to confirm this early interpretation immediately ran into difficulties, however. The relationship is not a simple linear, one-to-one association between hypnosis and time of day; it involves a host of variables involving personality, stress, and psychobiological factors such as whether one is an owl or lark (more alert in the evening or early morning). This is exactly what we should have expected, yet it leaves the chronobiological theory of hypnotherapeutic mind-body healing on shaky scientific ground. How do we cope with this?

Welcome to the brave new world of non-linear dynamics and chaos theory in psychology and the life sciences. If current research methods establish that there is some sort of relationship between complex and constantly changing variables that is difficult to measure and confirm because it is not linear then, ipso facto, it must be non-linear! We now enter the world of mathematical dynamics as it evolved over the past few centuries from its classical beginning in the calculus of Newton and Leibniz to the development of non-linear dynamics in the work of Poincaré about 100 years ago. It is only now, about 100 years later, that we suddenly notice that the non-linear dynamics of Poincaré and the psychodynamics of Freud and Jung developed simultaneously within the same zeitgeist. Are they related? Have we found, at last, the mathematical language for a truly scientific depth psychology and hypnotherapy?

We began this book with the quixotic quest of bringing together the psychodynamics of hypnosis with the nonlinear dynamics of modern Chaos Theory. We are under no illusion of having completed in this quest. We honestly acknowledge that we are still in a preparatory stage where we sometimes appear to be tilting at windmills. We have seen how similarities in the language of psychodynamics and nonlinear dynamics are intuitively compelling. We do not yet have a generally accepted scientific methodology, however, to explore their apparent association either empirically or by formal proof. The first half of this book has only begun the assembly of the types of theory, data and research that are needed to reformulate the foundations of hypnotherapy from the first principles it shares with the current mainstream of mathematics, physics and biology. Even this beginning, however, is sufficient to clarify how hypnotherapy may move from mystery and magic to genuine understanding.

Our new understanding is that so-called “magic” of hypnotherapeutic suggestion operates just as many other psychosocial variables that can influence (that is, modulate, entrain, synchronize, orchestrate, optimize or disrupt, desynchronize and suppress) our natural psychobiological rhythms of performance and healing on all levels from the cognitive-behavioral to the molecular biology of genetic expression, neurogenesis and healing. Hypnosis was a mystery only because we did not understand the “Mind-Body Problem: how are all the different levels of mind and behavior related to brain, body and gene? The big news is that they communicate! The “messenger molecules” of mind, body and genes speak the same language! The currently emerging fields of neurobehavioral science such as psychoneuroimmunology and psychoendocrinology are providing the linguistic psycho-biological data base for a hypnotherapy of the future.

The communicational and informational aspects of these emerging sciences, however, still remains hidden from the psychotherapist behind the scientific verbiage of neuroscience that models itself after physiology rather than psychology. There is actually very little psycho in the emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology, for example. The messenger molecules that mediate mindbody communication are rarely described as such. Rather, they are called “hormones, peptides, cytokines, tumor necrosis factor, macrophage colony-stimulating factor” and so on. These are all meaningful labels for the physiologist and molecular biologist but they leave the psychologist out in the cold with no hint of the essentially informational and communicational nature of these “physiological” messenger molecules. Neuroscience today is acknowledged to be a branch of information theory, yet it’s speech is still garbed in the world-view of early physiology that originally had no place for mind and psychology.

What hopes can we have, then, for a deeper understanding of The Symptom Path to Enlightenment that facilitates the resolution of psychological problems and the healing of stress related body symptoms by facilitating optimal mindbody communication? We must rescue the informational and communication function of messenger molecules from physiological reductionism! How can we do this? In a word, technology! We already have brain imaging devices that document how conscious thought, planning, problem solving, imagery, emotions and music appreciation as well as dreams can modulate the flow of fuel (e.g., glucose) and the consumption of energy in the brain. They are not yet of practical use in psychotherapy, of course, because they cost millions and only take brief snapshots.

Who can doubt that in the future we will be able to develop inexpensive versions of such imaging technology that will enable us to watch the actual flow of messenger molecules throughout the brain and body of the moving, struggling, and sweating human being in psychotherapy projected on a screen bigger than life? We will no longer be limited to merely hypothesizing how stress, symptoms and problems are associated with “physiological factors.” The psychological path to problem solving and healing will not be confined to the various schools of analysis and interpretation or our current approaches to suggestion and conditioning. We will actually see the flow of messenger molecules throughout the brain and body modulating gene expression, neurogenesis and healing during hypnotherapeutic work. Patients and therapists will watch how certain cognitions and emotional complexes do vastly more than merely modulate muscle tension, blood pressure, heart rate and brain waves. They will actually witness how mind and meditation can move messenger molecules throughout the brain and body to modulate gene expression during the healing process. Surely by then The Symptom Path to Enlightenment will be universally recognized as being more than a metaphor.  My most recent development of these ideas of psychosocial genomics can be found in my book The Psychobiology of Gene Expression: Neuroscience and Neurogenesis in Hypnosis and the Healing Arts  (W. W. Norton Professional Books, May 2002.

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