Artist’s Impression of the Hypnotized Mind

Even in our modern age, the actual mechanics of the phenomenon of hypnosis remain in the realm of theory and speculation, even while the phenomenon itself is extensively used for both good and ill in arenas as diverse as medicine, psychotherapy, advertising, political propaganda and interpersonal manipulation.

A primary underpinning of entertainment, whether novels, movies, athletic events, stage productions, political theater, is the aim of capturing and holding the attention of the audience. We say of such experiences, “I was entranced. I was lost in the book.  I lost track of where I was and how much time had gone by”.  On the internet, advertisers call this “capturing eyeballs.” If the attention can be corralled and held by emotionally compelling stimulation, the audience is open to any suggestions, overt or subliminal, whether aware or not of the attempt to manipulate attitude, opinion, desires, behaviors.

Gurdjieff provides a highly detailed and nuanced metaphor about the structure and functioning of the human psyche. Using the ideas and language of his system, we could explore this mystery of hypnosis in the following fashion. He says there are three primary arenas of functionality in our psychological house: intellectual activity, emotional reactions and physical-sensory-instinctive activity. Each of these “centers” or “brains” or “localizations” has its own intelligence, its own history of experiences and its own specific roles to play in the larger organism of which each is a part.

For the most part, they function “mechanically” through conditioned patterns and usually conscious intent is not required for most of our daily manifestations.

He states that due to our ordinary education, with its emphasis on success in the outside world of material objects, including other people, most of us are, at best, dimly aware of the complexity of our inner psychological world. He says, these centers or ‘brains’, should communicate and work together with each other, but usually do not do so for a variety of reasons. Without this enormous realm of additional personal information, we fail to understand who we are and how we function and thus are unable to protect ourselves from the power of suggestibility.

He further proposed that most of our waking hours were actually spent in varying stages of daydreaming, mental or emotional distraction, projection of our own thoughts and feelings onto the people around us, etc., because our “centers” are not well connected with each other. He called this the state of “waking sleep”, as distinct from the experience of uniting the activity of the three “brains” through an atypical quality of attention that brings awareness of the activity in each arena simultaneously with awareness of their interactions with the outside world.  He called this the “third state of consciousness” in which we have a degree of protection from influences since we can see them and their effects in motion within ourselves.

Using his language, we could speculate that one explanation for the hypnotic state is that it results when one or more centers are separated from awareness of each-others’ content and functioning in the moment. In In Search of the Miraculous, Gurdjieff tells his pupil Peter Ouspensky, that to sleep well one must disconnect one’s centers. I often wondered how one would do that voluntarily. In dreamless sleep, our centers do appear to be ‘disconnected’. In contrast, when dreaming there seems either activity in the intellectual center reviewing scenes, story fragments that make ‘no sense’, as they are a patchwork stew of association fragments undigested or organized by the screen of rational or even thematic structuring. There also seems sometimes to be a connection between intellect and emotion when the dreams have strong feelings and meaning associated with them. “Lucid” dreaming can have an aspect of all three as there is intellectual awareness that one is in a dream, there can be feelings, values and meaning experienced and there can be strong body sensations, stronger than actually experienced in life.

In “waking sleep”, we generally only have some subjective awareness (or sensitivity) in one or two centers at a given moment. Advertisers and propagandists craft their stimulation to bring a quality of sexual/creative energy into emotion such that there is little to no rational intellectual activity, but an abundance of emotion, connected either to self-image or to desire for body sensation of a pleasant nature.

The aim is to manipulate, in another, a manifestation wished for by the manipulator in order to strengthen their goals by recruiting an army of puppets who feel good about giving over what is being asked for.

In clinical hypnosis, the doctor is not wishing to manipulate the patient for nefarious reasons. The doctor wishes to ‘help’ the patient to achieve an end that the patient has agreed to with the aim of better personal function in some way. Here the hypnotist ‘disconnects’, or distracts, the intellectual center, with its complaints, worries and objections, from its body and emotional centers, by inducing a shift of attention to the body sensations. The patient, under circumstances they have accepted, is asked to voluntarily relax, clear their mind of thought and focus on pleasant body sensations.

Suggestions for how to deepen this relaxed state are given by the therapist and accepted by the patient. This “letting go” triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to release anti-stress hormones which cause a muscular relaxation in the body, and a shift in blood volume from the exterior to the interior. This facilitates relaxation in emotions and moves attention away from our discriminatory thinking.

With the mind now passive, emotions and body relaxed, suggestions can be inserted into mind or body without objection. The belief by the patient that something good is happening enhances their openness to the suggestion, not out of anger, greed, lust or ego-enhancement, as is the case with advertising and propaganda, but rather a hope for healing for themselves.

In both cases, psychotherapist or propagandist, hypnosis is the correct term, as in ‘sleep’, because the opening is now to an influence coming from outside, for purposes designed, or suggested, by others. The ‘choice’ is to give oneself over to an outside influence, willingly with the doctor and unconsciously with the politician.

In the case also of Gurdjieff’s state of ‘waking sleep’, a lack of capacity and knowledge for sufficient self-observation, leaves one living the moment with attention only in one, or at best, two centers. This is similar to the disconnection of centers in the hypnotic induction. The result is susceptibility to belief from any mechanical impulse, from any of the centers.

Thus, there is no awareness of how, or what, influences are working on us. Thus, the roots of, the implications of, the origin of the impulses from one center to another, cannot be seen or understood. Even if some of this activity is dimly noticed, typically there is insufficient balance of attention and Will to improve the inner relationships between the centers so that it is not possible to change the quality of what is flowing in the inner world. There is no ‘triadic’ grounding, three-centered awareness, in existence at the moment since attention is dispersed and flowing mechanically.

When Attention is awakened in all three centers simultaneously, the former ‘inside’ manifestations, the suggestions and the reactions they are producing, can now be experienced as ‘outside’ our experiential viewpoint. In this place of united Attention, we can intentionally turn our ‘openness’ away from the unwanted influence. If Attention is sufficient and steady enough at that moment, we may be able to see both the world outside, as the source of the influence, and the interior reaction to it. The hypnotic trance is broken by the light of Attention. 

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We are permeable. We cannot entirely close. We must choose the direction of openness or other influences will choose for us. To be awake seems to mean to open to both directions simultaneously. This may happen in a moment of Grace, but to count on that miraculous spontaneity for our spiritual development is equivalent to the analogy of trying to earn a living by finding coins dropped in the street.

Only intentional effort of a certain nature, repeated continuously, can build an inner coherence that can stand in the continuous movement of influences flowing from within and without. We cannot serve two masters. We must either passively submit to accident and conditioning or chose again and again the effort to expand attention in both directions while practicing impartiality to withstand the hypnotic pull of whatever is seen.