Blog #7 June 10, 2013 3 Comments

Generative Coaching:
The Practical Use of Creative Consciousness

Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.
Encinitas, CA

(The German translation of this paper will appear in Handbuch Coaching im Dialog, Edited by Alica Ryba, David Ginati, Daniel Pauw and Dr. Stephan Rietmann; Beltz Publishers in Germany)

Between the conscious and the unconscious, the mind has put up a swing:

all earth creatures, even the supernovas, sway between these two trees,

and it never winds down.

Angels, animals, humans, insects by the million, also the wheeling sun and moon;

ages go by, and it goes on.

Everything is swinging: heaven, earth, water, fire,

and the secret one slowly growing a body.

Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and it made him a servant for life.

(Kabir, translated by R. Bly)

Helping people to improve their lives is one of the world’s oldest professions.  It has assumed many forms—philosophy, fortune telling, shamanic healing, religious rituals, informal relationships, psychotherapy, and so forth—but the underlying process of people seeking guidance for life changes has endured.  The practice of generative coaching, that I have co-developed with Robert Dilts, is a third generation version of the more recent tradition of professional people helpers.1 This brief paper overviews generative coaching, first by briefly situating it in a historical context and then outlining the five basic steps of the approach.

Generative Coaching: A Third Generation Approach

Over the past century, many different methods for helping people to change have been developed.  Relevant to coaching, we can distinguish three generations of such approaches. The first is traditional psychotherapy, initially developed by Freud and others.   Here the focus is primarily on problems (often thought of as “mental disease”) and the past (in terms of negative events that “caused” present problems).  The idea is that intellectual understanding of historical causation will free the person from the grip of their problems. It is essentially re-hashing the past to try to free up the present, with the therapist a distant expert figure who diagnoses the pathology of the client.

For many, this approach was not attractive because it (a) took too long, (b) was very expensive, (c) pathologized and stigmatized people, and (d) often produced little or no real-world changes.  In response, a second generation of change approaches emphasized a person’s resources and positive goals, action over analysis, and solution-focused future orientation.  These approaches developed first within psychotherapy, with diverse brief therapy methods such as the Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls, the Transactional Analysis of Eric Berne, and the hypnotic utilization approaches of Milton Erickson.

Concomitantly, the related field of the human potential movement arose in the 1960s and 70s.  It rejected authoritarian and pathologizing approaches in favor of positive changes through increased awareness, self-actualization, and altered states of consciousness.  These new methods shared a client-based, positive-oriented view that stood in stark contrast to the first generation.

These second-generation approaches constellated in the 1990s’s with the emergence of what might now be called traditional coaching.  Coaching was not for “sick” or “damaged” patients, but for healthy people seeking to improve their professional and personal lives.  Freed of the “crazy” stigma and strict hierarchies, coaching was attractive to many people, and has found applications in a number areas, such as life development, business, health, and sports.

However, in positioning itself as a counter-point to traditional therapy, coaching declared areas like emotional work and internal consciousness to be taboo or irrelevant.  We believe that such restrictions are unhelpful and unnecessary, and that the best  coaching involves equal attention to the “outer game” of a person’s goals, lived experiences, and practical choices; as well as to what Tim Gallwey (2000) calls the “inner game” of a person’s state of consciousness.  Such an approach assumes that all reality and identity are constructed, and that a person’s or group’s state—e.g., their beliefs, intentions, perceptions, somatic patterning, and cognitive meanings—is the base for such constructions (Gilligan, 2012). This orientation to integrating various dualities in a “both/and” approach—internal/external, problems/resources, past/future, cognitive/somatic, etc.—constitutes what we call third-generation approaches.

To understand the differences between these three generations of change work, a brief example might be helpful.  John is a 40 year old man living with his mother, struggling as a telemarketer.  If he came to traditional psychotherapy, he would likely be diagnosed in terms of some mental disorder that he is trapped in—e.g., depression, anxiety, character disorder—and the work would focus on either medicating him, removing the symptoms by understanding their historical causes (e.g., negative childhood experiences).or challenging his negative or non-reality based thinking.  Traditional coaching would give more primary attention to his positive, future-oriented goals (e.g., starting a business) and seek to identify the resources (mentors, associates, positive associations) and actions needed to practically achieve it.

Generative coaching would ensure his goals/intentions are congruent and resonant (as will be elaborated below), then look to develop his best state of consciousness to allow the positive intention to be realized.  This attunement to an optimal state might include somatic centering; identifying and transforming negative beliefs; accessing and integrating a variety of resources; ensuring action plans; identifying and transforming negative emotions and relationships relevant to the goal; and opening to a creative consciousness.

Thus, we see generative coaching as a broader and deeper type of work than traditional coaching.  In emphasizing that a person is responsible for creating their own life, it invites people to learn how they can realize their dreams by mastering their own creative consciousness. While it maintains a positive orientation to the future and “infinite possibilities”, it sees all of a person’s experience—positive and negative internal states, beliefs, historical experiences, creative imaginations, somatic states, etc.—as potential resources to achieving these positive goals.  To understand this process a bit more, we now turn to the five basic steps of generative coaching.

The Five Steps of Generative Coaching

Generative coaching sees creative work as a process of disciplined flow—that is, it needs to both activate and trust the creative consciousness that flows through all creative work, but also provide the discipline needed to skillfully shape the flow of experience into creative action.  We see this discipline organized around five core steps.

The first step:  Identifying positive Intentions/goals

At the heart of generative consciousness is a positive intention to live creatively into the world.  Positive intentions, when held with deep somatic resonance, are the “drivers” or organizers of creative consciousness; patterns of infinite possibility coalesce into specific actualities around them.

Positive intentions and goals can be identified with various questions:

What specifically do you want to achieve?
What is your mission?
What is your vision/dream?
What is your calling?
What is your deepest intention?
What do you stand for in life?

Of course, “positive” does not mean “good” vs. “bad”, but rather a declaration of something a person wants to experience or achieve in the world—for example, an intimate relationship, a successful business, good health.  To be generative, such positive goals need also to be succinct.  By succinct we mean that the content of the goal statement should be 5 worlds or less.  For example, the client might be asked to use the following statement:

What I most want to create in my life is X

X is limited to 5 words or less.  This can be strictly but playfully enforced by the coach holding up a hand and counting the number of words the client uses for the goal content.  If the word limit is exceeded, a playful “beep” is sounded and the client is asked to find a more succinct wording.  The point is to find a clear, simple declaration of the goal.  Becoming too “wordy” at this primary level will muddy the waters of awareness.  While the secondary level of background information is important, it should be distinguished from the simple base of the primary goal.

A third condition for a generative goal is that it be resonant.  This means that the client’s speaking of it should create a felt sense in both the speaker and listener(s).  If no one is touched by a persons’ interest, it will likely have no potency.  Thus, a general question we use throughout the interview is:

When you say/think/experience X, where in your body do you most feel its center?

Such questions allow the connection of the verbal (cognitive) mind to its somatic base, which we believe to be integral to the mindbody unity needed for creative action.  Without it, words often have no power.  By coaching the person to sense the somatic/cognitive connection underlying creative consciousness, words become magic.

While these three conditions for a well-formed goal—positive, succinct, and resonant—are simple, they are often not easy to meet in practice.  As we elaborate elsewhere (Gilligan, 2012; Gilligan and Dilts, forthcoming), skillful coaching is typically needed to ensure that clients can find and maintain a palpable connection to their deepest goals.

John, the client cited above, came to see me for generative coaching.  When initially asked about his goals, he could only say that he wanted to “feel better,” “not live with his mother,” and “stop worrying,” These would not be considered well-formed goals in generative coaching, being too vague and/or negative. It took several sessions for him to sense and speak a deeper positive goal of “creating a successful internet company”.  This shift came after we took the time to help him develop a generative state, which is the second general step of the approach.

The second step: “The inner game”: Develop a generative state

To realize their dreams, people must be able to develop and maintain creative states of consciousness.   This is the focus of the second general step of generative coaching. To reiterate, a core premise is that each person actively creates their reality and experience, and that this creative process occurs through multiple levels of filters or maps.  These filters are like stained glass windows, transducing creative consciousness into the particular patterns of experiential reality (see Gilligan, 2012).  They map multiple levels of identity—for example, neurological, cultural, familial, or individual—and include many types of values (for example, beliefs, body images, core values, ideas about the future, transgenerational patterns, etc.).

The particular reality that results is a function of the settings of these filters.   For example, in my research at Stanford University on state-dependent memory, we found that when individuals were in a particular emotional mood (such as sadness), their cognitive processes—e.g., memory, perception, attention, and predictions about their future—would be biased by that mood (Gilligan & Bower, 1984).  Shifting to a different mood (such as happiness) resulted in significant changes in these cognitive processes, in the direction of the new mood.  Thus, emotional mood serves as a filter through which a reality is experienced.

There are, of course, many other types of biases.  In generative coaching, we distinguish three general types of filters (1) somatic, (2) cognitive, and (3) relational fields.  A person in a problem state can be observed to have negative patterns in their somatic, cognitive, and relational fields—e.g., a slumped or rigid posture, negative beliefs, and critical support teams.   By shifting these filters to more positive and higher quality values, new experience and reality is possible.  Thus, generative coaching gives a lot of attention to helping clients get into a “generative state.”

One set of acronyms we use to explore this with clients is COACH vs. CRASHCOACH stands for centered, open, aware, connected, and holding space; CRASH stands for contracted, reactive, analysis-paralysis, separating, and hurt/hateful. CRASH states give rise to problems and stuckness, whereas COACH states allow creativity and positive responses.  We teach clients to recognize when they are in the negative states, and how to shift into a generative state before trusting their thoughts or actions.

In the coaching with John, he was clearly in a low-quality negative state when thinking about his professional life—worrying, self-blaming, tense, and focused on negative images.  We explored how he could develop a generative state involving centering, attuning to a set of positive futures, and developing an imaginary “resource council” (Gilligan, 2012) of mentor-like figures to advise and guide him.  He practiced this generative state many times throughout the day.  Slowly he replaced a CRASH state with a generative COACH state, especially for his work identity.  Significant improvements in his work performance resulted.

Step 3:  Taking action

Once intention is set and a generative state is developed, a person is ready to take creative action in the world.  We see three parts of this process: (1) plans, (2) actions, and (3) evaluating results and re-acting.  These are central parts of most coaching methods: A client is asked what they want to achieve and how they might do it, and is then encouraged to take action.  Depending on how things go, these plans and actions are modified accordingly.

We find it helpful to have clients write down their plans, getting specific in terms of what have been called the “journalistic questions” of what, where, when, with whom, and how.  The client is then asked to make commitments to enact the plans, and keep written notes of their actions and results.

There are a variety of other methods we use for this general step.  One is to have a person keep a daily journal with two categories: (1) What did I do today that brought me closer to my goal or intention?  (2)  What did I do today that brought me further from my goal or intention?  This simple form of self-reflection can be very helpful in shaping one’s behavior and experience towards a more positive way of being.

My client John made plans and took action in many areas of his work life, including recruiting new personnel, changing his marketing strategies, redesigning his personnel training practices, and reorganizing how he spent his time at work.  As is typical, it was only when he took action that he became much clearer about the best ways to make things work.

Step 4:  Transforming Obstacles

In the course of any creative path, many obstacles are encountered.  They can be external, such as people or institutions that try to thwart development, financial or health crises, or setbacks and failures.  They may also be internal obstacles, such as negative beliefs or emotions, ambivalences, or lack of motivation.  Generative coaching sees creative utilization and transformation of such inevitable patterns as integral to success and growth—partly because to ignore them is too often to be limited by them, but more importantly because such negative patterns carry energy and potential resources.  Thus, we take a sort of aikido approach to problems, shifting from the counter-productive “fight/flight/freeze/or fold” responses, to creative flow to transform problems into solutions (Gilligan, 1997; 2012).  This is one of the unique and distinctive features of generative coaching, as our forthcoming book details.

An underlying idea here is that in the creative unconscious, an experiential pattern has many possible forms, both negative and positive, with its actual form a result of the human connection to it.  For example, fierceness could be positive (e.g., commitment, self-protection, determined) or negative (e. g., angry or destructive), depending on how it’s humanly held.  By bringing positive skillful connection to negative experiences, they can be transformed to their positive forms.

For example, John found himself unable to hold his sales people accountable for meeting their sales quotas.  He discovered that he was afraid of getting angry, lest he repeat the rageful legacy of his father.  In connecting with both the anger and fear as “energies” in his body, he found ways to develop and integrate their positive versions of sensitivity and focus.

Step 5: “Keeping it Going”: Practices of Generative Self-Development

Given its core principle that a person’s state of consciousness is a primary determinant of what realities and experiences are possible, a final step in the generative coaching process has to do with ensuring that clients develop positive mindbody practices to keep growing and changing.

I typically talk about this with clients in terms of the three major pillars of a happy and successful life.  The first two are work and love (family, intimacy partners, etc.); most people agree that success in these areas is crucial to happiness, health, and creative living. The third pillar of the “good life” is practices.  While work and personal relationships always entail some responsibility and attention to others, practices are primarily about giving whole-hearted attention to your self.   Examples include journaling, meditating, walking, reading, physical exercise, self-affirmation practices, and so forth.

I like to say that you’re only as good as your practices.  If you are dedicated to improving your quality of consciousness on a daily basis, your life will get better; if you are not, positive development is much less likely.  The most common excuse for not doing regular practices is “I’m too busy right now.”  We challenge such an excuse, emphasizing that most of us will never be given the time for practice, we must take it—e.g., several 20 minutes of self-practice sessions per day.  Such practices not only improve the quality of experience and performance, they also provide the expanded time sense needed for well-being and creative consciousness.

We help clients identify which practices might be most helpful and rewarding for them, and focus on the how to ensure that they are done on a regular basis.  With John, he found that taking a long walk each morning was exceptionally helpful, as was going for a walk whenever he found himself mired in anxious thinking at work.  He also returned to an old practice of playing and writing music, and this reconnected him to an inspirational and creative energy.

With all his hard work and positive changes, John’s life took off.  His company became enormously successful, with over 80 employees, and he met a woman who became not only his general manager but also his wife!  As he said, he was living the life of his dreams.  Further challenges arose, but his continued commitment to training and living from a generative state allowed him to successfully navigate each step of the way.  The last time I talked with him, he was wealthy, healthy, and happy.


We see generative coaching as a third generation of change work.  It includes most of the basic principles and methods of traditional coaching—an emphasis on positive goals, future orientation, and action plans—but also gives major attention to a person’s state of consciousness, including their negative emotional states.  By emphasizing the “inner game” of a person’s performance as equally important as their outer life allows new possibilities to emerge.  By having a positive curiosity and skillful orientation to negative experiences (in the service of positive goals), lost energy is re-claimed and new skills are discovered.  Most important, its primary goal is to connect clients with the creative consciousness needed to generate a happy, successful, and meaningful life.

1Robert Dilts and I were students together at UC Santa Cruz in the mid-70’s, and part of the original group of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. While Robert became one of the most important developers and teachers of NLP (Dilts, 2003; Dilts/Delozier/Bacon Dilts, 2010), my path moved through Ericksonian hypnosis and psychotherapy and then onto generative approaches to change. (Gilligan, 1997; 2012). We re-connected around ten years ago and have been co-developing various approaches to generative change (e.g., Gilligan/Dilts, 2009). The generative coaching approach is a culmination of this collaboration. The material from this article is elaborated in our forthcoming book, “Generative Coaching: The art of creative consciousness.”


Dilts, R. From Coach to Awakener. Capitola, CA: Meta Publications, 2003.

Dilts, R./Delozier, J./Bacon Dilts, D. NLP II: The Next Generation. Capitola, CA: Meta Publications, 2010.

Galway, T. The Inner Game of Work: Focus, Learning, Pleasure and Mobility in the Workplace. New York:  Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2000.

Gilligan, S. The courage to love: Principles and practices of self-relations psychotherapy. New York: Norton, 1997.

Gilligan, S.  Generative Trance: The experience of creative flow.  Cardiff, Wales: Crown House Books, 2012.

Gilligan, S., & Bower, G.  Cognitive consequences of emotional arousal. In Izard, C/Kagan, J./Zajonc, R (Eds.),  Emotions, cognitions,
and behavior.  New York: Cambridge Press, 1984.

Gilligan, S./Dilts, R.  The Hero’s Journey: A Voyage of Self- Discovery. Wales: Crown House Publishing, 2009.

Blog #6 May 7, 2012 1 Comment

Both Sides Now:
Complementarity and Generative Trance

by Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.

(The soul) doesn’t see joy and sorrow

as two different feelings.
It is with us
only in their union.
We can count on it
when we’re not sure of anything
and curious about everything.

W. Symborska (“A little bit about the soul”)

The great quantum physicist, Neils Bohr, used to say that there are two types of truth.  In the shallow type, the opposite of a true statement is false; in the deeper type, the opposite of a true statement is equally true.  In generative trance work, these two levels correspond to the conscious mind and the creative unconscious.  We see the conscious mind as being tied to a specific position in a systemic field (of many positions), while the creative unconscious rests in the field (of all positions).  We further see the conscious mind as being helpful when we want to repeat previous patterns, while the creative unconscious is better when new patterns or understandings are needed.

Of course, it is easy to get stuck in the rigid positions of the conscious mind, and thus repeat the past.  A main focus of generative trance work is thus how to free consciousness from fixed positions, so that new learnings may occur. A central method in this regard is the process of complementarity, wherein attention is simultaneously attuned to multiple (often contradictory) positions—for example, I am wounded AND I am whole and unwounded, or I am connected with others AND I am separate. When held in a centered, open way, these “both/and” patterns break the “tyranny of the single truth” and open the gateways into the “infinite possibilities” of the creative self.  However, these same patterns, when held in a disintegrated context (such as stress), can throw us into the abyss of symptoms and sufferings. This blog explores how these general understandings constitute a cornerstone of generative trance work.

1.  Duality is the basic psychological unit underlying experiential realities.

At its core, the cognitive mind is organized around dualities.   Everything contains its opposite, and reality is constructed through a dynamic relationship between these opposites: Breathing in and breathing out, self and other, stillness and movement, etc.  One of the basic differences between the conscious mind and the creative unconscious lies in this relationship between opposites: The conscious mind organizes around “either/or” relationships and gives preferential focus to one side of the complementarity over the other, while the creative unconscious holds a “both/and” relationship in which both sides are simultaneously engaged.

2.  When opposites are held in rhythmic balance, life goes well.

In that the conscious mind can be seen as the managerial facilitator of the vision of the creative unconscious, a balanced shifting between positions makes sense.  For to create anything in the world, one value must be chosen over another at any given point.  To walk, for example, we need to put one foot forward, then the other, then back to the first, etc.  As long as there is a rhythmic balance, there is no problem.  We work hard, then we rest, then we work again; we connect with others until we need solitude, which then brings us back into connection with others; we have a stable map that eventually becomes untenable and unstable, which leads to a new stability.  In this way, the conscious mind realizes the vision of the creative unconscious (see McGilchrist, 2010).1

3. When opposites are held in rigid opposition, with one side represented as “good” against another labeled “bad,” problems and symptoms develop.

While each side of a complementarity can be used in either positive or negative ways, and can be experienced and expressed in a virtually infinite number of possible forms, it is easy to get locked into fixed values and judgments.  This blocks the rhythmic shifting between opposites that is crucial to creative unfolding, and thereby creates symptoms.  For example, Claire grew up in a family where a core rule was, “Always work hard,” with the corollary injunctions to “never rest” and “never take it easy.”  The family was exceptional, most members being highly successful people who also did significant community work.  They resembled the old Kennedy family clan, where vacations were spent engaged in vigorous, mandatory athletic competitions.

In this family, the fixed values were around the complementarity of “active/rest”–being active was “good” and meant always work and be successful in the world, while rest was “bad” and meant sitting around and feeling guilty and worthless. This is an example of the conscious mind biasing one side over the other, which if held in neuromuscular lock will produce a rigid imbalance. Jung used to say that the unconscious is always compensatory to—i.e., trying to balance—the imbalances of the conscious mind. Thus, it was not surprising that Claire developed a symptom involving not being able to be active, i.e., a strange type of chronic fatigue that left her bedridden and unable to work.  In the generative trance model, the symptom is in a negative form because its core pattern is being held in a negative human relationship.

A major focus of generative trance is how to hold both sides of a relationship in positive ways, and then see how they can “make love, not war.”  Thus, Claire was helped into a generative trance and invited to welcome the part of her that was experiencing chronic fatigue.  When I asked this part her intention and need, the heart-touching response came:

I just want to surrender.

After a few moments of silence, she added,

But I love my work so much.

To her fixed understandings, these complementary needs—the yin of surrender and the yang of work—were mutually exclusive, thereby generating a symptom.  In generative trance, we explore how the conflicting sides of a symptom may be experienced as parts of a deeper unity, such that their balanced integration allows creative breakthroughs, rather than destructive breakdowns.  Claire was thus invited in trance to allow her creative unconscious to develop new ways to experience and express integrated forms of this complementarity, i.e., to BOTH do good work AND stay connected and relaxed. Finding a balance between the two sides became the integral part of her healing process.

4. When both sides of a complementarity are held negatively and activated simultaneously, deep splits and negative symptoms occur.

While usually one side of a complementarity is more dominant, periodically both sides are simultaneously and equally activated.  This produces a strange and powerful effect: The conscious mind falls apart and the quantum field of the unconscious opens.  This could be something as simple and enjoyable as a good joke.  One of Milton Erickson’s favorites was the following:

Mr. and Mrs. Bigger had a baby and everybody wanted to know who was the biggest Bigger.
Of course, the baby was a little Bigger.

The laughter from a joke occurs when the two different positional frames—in this case, Bigger and bigger—are simultaneously held.  The bindings of the conscious mind are popped and the creative unconscious releases with the musicality of laughter.

In generative trance work, we see the holding of opposite sides of a complementarity as a succinct formula for generating a trance. An equally important premise is that the unconscious can be positive or negative, depending on the human relationship with it; thus, some of the resulting trances can be decidedly negative.  For example, Bateson’s (1955/1972)2 research with schizophrenia led him to propose a “double bind” communicational theory in which schizophrenic experience and behavior was a response to contradictory messages given in a negative context.   Thus, a mother might repeatedly implore her child to come closer (as a verbal message) while also insisting he stay away (as a nonverbal message).   These double messages would be accompanied by three unspoken rules : (1) You can’t meta-comment on the double messages; (2) Whichever message you respond to, you’re wrong, and (3) You can’t leave the context. According to Bateson, this schizophrenogenic double bind pattern would evoke a structurally similar response in the recipient, namely, “schizo” (split) “phrenos” (mind).

More recently, a similar sort of negative double bind has been proposed by Peter Levine (2010) in his ground-breaking work on trauma.3  He describes a cross-species response to traumatic threat, a sort of “trauma trance” where an animal gets locked in frozen immobility or folds into helplessness.  He especially emphasizes how the initial response to threat is either to run away or fight back.  If neither of these limb-based responses are available, it sets up a sort of “negative double bind” that produces the “trauma trance.”

In a more general way, we can see most symptoms in terms of a violent clash between opposites.  A simple representation of a problem is,

I want X but Y happens instead.

In such cases, X and Y can be seen as complements that, when activated in a mutually inhibitory relationship, overwhelm the single position of the conscious mind and create a disturbed (unintegrated) experience of the “both/and” unconscious, i.e. a negative trance or symptom.  As we will see, trance provides a safe and resilient context in which conflicting parts can be untangled and then integrated into a complementary unity.

5. When both sides of a complementarity are held positively and activated simultaneously, creative integration and new consciousness occurs.

One of Bateson’s (1955/1972) most extraordinary contributions came in his elaboration of the “double message” communication beyond schizophrenia, in which he suggested that all distinctly human communications contained double messages.  This includes humor; play; mature love (where two partners create a space that includes the different individual position, plus a third “we” position); and hypnosis (where there are two levels of experience, the conscious and unconscious minds).  In these contexts, the “both/and” quality of the communication opens a deeper dimension beyond the single frame of the conscious mind.  In his later work, he emphasized how any ecological map must minimally carry “double description”—that is, at least two different, even contradictory perspectives.  When the different descriptions are aesthetically combined, a deeper dimension is opened, much like the process of binocular vision or stereophonic listening.

This capacity to experience seemingly contradictory realities in trance is known as trance logic (Orne, 19594), and is generally regarded as one of the defining phenomena of trance experience.  It reflects partly the structure of hypnotic communications, where the paradoxical suggestion is given for the person to do something, but not at a conscious level —for example, your hand will begin to lift all by itself, without your conscious effort. The resulting experience is a paradoxical, I’m BOTH lifting my hand AND I’m not (consciously) lifting my hand.

This trance logic takes many different forms.  For example, when I was 20 years old, I was sitting in Erickson’s office with a friend of mine.  Paul, also 20, had a big mustache at the time.  Erickson guided Paul into a very sweet trance involving age regression.  When asked, Paul reported he was 4 years old, and he really looked and sounded like it!  Ever playful, Erickson then asked Paul what was up on his (mustached) lip.  Paul momentarily looked alarmed, then said in his best 4 year old way, “Nothing!”  Erickson playfully persisted, suggesting that maybe Paul had eaten some corn flakes for breakfast, as something sure seemed to be up on his lip.  His suggestion that Paul reach up and touch his lip to see what was there was met with a staunch refusal. Erickson asked why not, and Paul said, “I know what’s up there!”   “What’s up there?”, Erickson asked. “Hair!”  Paul responded.  “What’s hair doing on the lip of a 4 year old boy?” Erickson inquired.  Paul paused, as if needing to go deeper into trance to consider the question, then brightened and responded, “Oh, that’s easy, that’s when I was older!”  Erickson laughed and agreed, “yes, that’s when you were older.”  He then talked about how in trance you could be both an adult and a child at the same time, in so many ways.

The value of such a possibility is hopefully self evident.  Imagine the creativity of “both sides now”—for example, having the maturity of an adult and the innocence of a child; or feeling a part of something yet also apart from it; or holding feelings of both wanting something and not needing it.

Interestingly, the capacity to enjoyably experience opposites has been found by a number of investigators to be a central characteristic of creative genius.  Arthur Koestler (1964), in his landmark book, The Act of Creation5, proposed that central to the creative process was the process of bisociation, where two previously unrelated ideas integrate together.  Frank Barron (1969)6 found that creative geniuses were strong in three areas: (1) the willingness/ability to sit in “not knowing” states of active curiosity; (2) a deep sense of unwavering unshakability once a conviction was developed; and (3) the appreciation of paradoxes, contradictions, and other forms of both/and logic.  In another study, this one of 91 creative geniuses, Csikszentmihalyi (1996)7 found that these extraordinary individuals shared 10 characteristics, all having to do with “both/and” qualities.  For example, they were intensely active and energetic, but spent considerable time in restful reverie and trance-like states; they were playful but also quite disciplined; and they both introverted and extroverted.

(6)  Generative trance is an excellent context for creatively working with the core complementaries underlying a reality or identity.

Its positive context allows each part of a systemic identity to experience acceptance, respect, and support.  Its deconstructive nature allows the different surface forms attached to a part to be dissolved, and new possible forms to be explored.  Its fluidity allows many new possible connections to be explored.  In a core sense, generative trance is a creative field that carries virtually unlimited potential for new consciousness.  A person shifts from identification with one position (against another) to a field that holds the interplay of all the perspectives in the field.  Thus, conflicting relationships can be untangled and put back into play, allowing new connections to slowly move towards an integrative crescendo that gives birth to new dimensions.

The above comments only faintly hint at the central importance of both/and logic to creative consciousness.  Happiness, health, healing, and creative performance are all expressions of an aesthetic intelligence that integrates the parts and the whole of a systemic identity.  Examples of such aesthetic intelligence include a musical symphony, a good meal, an excellent book, a well-functioning family or business, or a creative person.  In such systems, multiple positions dynamically work to create something beyond the sum of the parts.

All parts are not the same in such a system.  In fact, a core pattern is the juxtaposition of opposite parts: point and counter-point, sweet and sour, joy and suffering, etc.  This coming together of opposites is sometimes called the “the magic of conflict” in the martial art of aikido, wherein differences blend to create something new.  (Remember, this is how each of us was created!)   This creative growth requires an underlying context wherein each side is equally respected, valued, and included.  When this does not happen, the conflict creates symptoms and sufferings.

In Generative Trance work, we are always on the look-out for how creative wholeness may be realized.  For every truth or position that is expressed, we are interested in the underlying complementary position(s) that brings consciousness to a greater integrity.  By weaving these opposite positions into a musical mandala within the non-dual field of generative trance, a genuine growth of Self may occur.  And this, to be sure, is a worthwhile experience.

Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.
May 6, 2012


1 McGilchrist, I. (2010) The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

2 Bateson, G. (1955/1972). A theory of play and fantasy: A report on the theoretical aspects of the project for study of the role of paradoxes of abstraction in communication. In G. Bateson (1972), Steos to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

3 Levine, Peter A. (2010). In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

4 Orne, M.T. (1959). The nature of hypnosis Artifact and essence. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 277-299.

5 Koestler, A. (1964) The Act of Creation: A study of the conscious and unconscious in science and art. New York: Macmillan.

6 Barron, F. (1969). Creative Person, Creative Process. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

7 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.

NOTE: Generative Trance is the primary topic of this year’s Trance Camp, held in July in San Diego. You can attend one, two, or all three weeks of this special intensive training. Click here for further information.

Blog #5 May 11, 2011 1 Comment

The Nature of Trance

by Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.

To remember
the other world
in this world
is to live in your
true inheritance.

David Whyte

In previous blogs, I talked about how the Generative Self approach distinguishes two worlds: (1) the classical world of the conscious mind and (2) the quantum world of the creative unconscious mind.  These worlds are complementary and mutually fulfilling—roughly speaking, the creative unconscious is the visionary, while the conscious mind is the manager.  You need both to live a creative and fulfilling life.

Of course, you don’t need both at all times.  For routine moments, when you just need to do what you’ve done in the past, you don’t really need the creative unconscious.  When you go get a cup of coffee in the morning, for example, you don’t have to be in a highly creative state. But there are inevitably times in life when what you’ve done in the past won’t help you deal with the present challenge.   At such times, you need to create something new—a new way of looking at things, a new way of understanding yourself, a new way of acting in the world.  This is precisely where generative trance is a helpful state, as it allows you to think, experience, and act in new ways.  This blog will explore this understanding of trance.   Five basic ideas will be proposed:

(1)    Trance as absorption in the creative unconscious.
(2)    Not all trances are equal.
(3)    Trance is naturalistic.
(4)    Trance is psychobiologically necessary.
(5)    Hypnosis is one psychosocial context for humanizing and shaping trance.

Trance as absorption in the creative unconscious

In general terms, trance can be defined straightforwardly as:

(1) A temporary suspension of the classical world of the conscious mind, and (2) an experiential absorption into the quantum world of the creative unconscious.

Most adults spend most of their time in the managerial world of the conscious mind.  They are one step removed from direct experience, thinking about things, analyzing and worrying.  The conscious mind is a world defined by, and held in place by, verbal descriptions and verbal rules.  These include beliefs, expectations, ‘shoulds,’ and stories about who you are and why, and what you can expect to happen in your future.  It is easy to get stuck in this ‘identity box’, succumbing to what Henry David Thoreau called ‘lives of quiet desperation.’

Trance is a way out of this, a reawakening into the quantum world of infinite possibility.  When you go into trance, the constraints of the ego-box are temporarily suspended.  You drop the analytical thinking and conditioned perceptions and immerse yourself in the ocean of primitive consciousness, a world of images, feelings, symbols, movements and energies.  Like in dreams or at play, in trance you can go anywhere from anywhere; the normal classical reality gives way to a more subtle quantum field of creative possibility.  All the ordinary structures of identity that are usually fixed—time, meanings, embodiment, memory, logic, brain maps—become variable, free to generate new patterns and identities.

Not all trances are created equal

However, immersion in this new world does not guarantee the generation of new possibilities.  Some trances are low quality – spacing out, television trances, numbing out – that may give you a break from active ego processing, but don’t do much to refresh or transform your consciousness.  Other trances are downright negative – such as depression, anxiety, addiction, resentment, self-pity.  We’ll see how what makes these trances negative is the human relationship with the unconscious, and how by changing this relationship to a positive one you can transform them into positive trances.   Other trances are positive but non-transformative—you relax and get a genuine feeling of security, but it doesn’t really shift anything in your core patterns.  They’re ‘nice’ experiences that don’t really make a lasting difference.

I studied with Milton Erickson, while at the same time doing my graduate work in psychology at Stanford University, which then had the largest hypnosis laboratory in the world, run by the great experimental psychologist, Ernest Hilgard.  My graduate research used hypnosis, so I worked in this laboratory under Hilgard’s supervision.  This is where the famous standardized hypnotizability tests were developed.  So I had this interesting experience of running the standardized hypnotic inductions in the university lab, then visiting Erickson and experiencing a whole different type of trance.  To me, they are apples and oranges: the trances developed by standardized suggestion produce a qualitatively different type of trance experience compared to what you can and should be developing in a therapeutic setting, where the unique aspects of each client are the main ingredients for the ‘trance soup.’

The standardized inductions completely ignore the unique elements of a person, and rightfully so: they are primarily concerned with developing a relatively uniform experiential state so that traditional research can be done.  In therapy, of course, the goal is the opposite—you want to create a space where the unique strengths and dimensions of a client’s identity can be accessed and creatively worked with for transformation and healing.  You want to develop a trance where a person can go beyond their previous limitations and create something entirely new in their life.

This is ‘generative trance’.   It is an experiential state in which you’re deeply connected to the creative unconscious, but still have an intelligent conscious mind-presence to hold intention and creatively work with experiential patterning and re-patterning. Generative trance unites the unconscious mind and the conscious mind into a third ‘creative unconscious’ or ‘generative trance’ mind that has extraordinary properties and potentials.

Trance is naturalistic

Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?

While the soul, after all, is only a window,
and the opening of the window no more difficult
than the awakening from a little sleep.

Mary Oliver

Trance is fundamental to the nature of consciousness.  It is a state that humans must drop into periodically in order to renew, protect, re-create, and transform their identities.

This idea, central to Erickson’s work, is radically different from the traditional view, which defines trance as an experience that comes from something called ‘hypnosis.’  It’s thought to be a very artificial thing, an artifact of hypnotic technique or suggestion.  In other words, it is generally assumed that trance happens because a hypnotist says ‘Booga-booga-booga’ and because of these magical incantations, some strange exotic state begins to develop.  This state, in this way of thinking, is caused by, and controlled by an external person, the hypnotist.

Therapy is supposed to be a process of learning a greater sense of your own control and skills, of being able to take back projections, to claim responsibility for one’s way, of finding one’s own voice. The traditional idea of hypnosis is totally incongruent with that; it is another example of someone else defining your life or telling you what to do. So it is not surprising that many people, if you mention hypnosis to them, will be at least a little bit afraid, thinking, ‘I’ve already experienced what it’s like to be controlled by somebody else.  That’s the problem, not the solution.  I’m here to get beyond that, not to do more of it.’

This is why I generally no longer use the word hypnosis: it carries too many connotations of one person’s conscious mind controlling another person’s unconscious mind.  We are looking instead to open a creative, mutually respectful relationship between the conscious mind and creative unconscious, both between and within people.

In English, we have two different words for learning.   The first is ‘instruction,’ which means ‘to pack in.’  The second is ‘education’, which means ‘to draw out that which is already there.’  Generative trance, continuing Erickson’s tradition, orients to this second view.   So rather than seeing trance as some strange artificial state, we become curious about the many trance-like experiences that a person already has.  For example, it can be helpful to ask:

When you need to really connect with yourself, what are some of things that you do?

When were times when you lost track of time and all your worries?

Can you remember times when you felt a sense of wonderment?

For most people, the answers are not surprising: they include relatively low-cost, ordinary activities like reading, walking in nature, cooking, meditating, listening to or playing music, and so forth.  Each of these activities is an aesthetic practice for letting go of the control structures of the conscious mind and opening to the experiential absorption in something beyond your ego, namely, the intelligence of the creative unconscious.  That’s what we’re doing in trance work.  We attune to natural experiences and create a safe and resonant unified field that allows all parts of a systemic identity to be safely present.  We then add other ingredients—for example, resources and other positive experiences–and then stir the soup to discover how these different experiential patterns can blend together to make nourishing and transformational food for the soul.

Erickson’s understanding of trance did not come primarily from intellectual or conceptual awareness, it came from his own experience. It came from his immense curiosity and from his having to deal with the unusual set of challenges he faced in his life.  He decided that the best way to deal with his challenges was to accept them deeply, in a way that allowed him to become affectionate and curious about how each of these unique patterns could be gifts rather than curses; how they could really be positive aspects of his life rather than negative.

For example, when he developed polio, the doctors told him he would never move again.  He thought that was an interesting ‘suggestion’, and began a series of deep inner explorations.  He was 17, he knew nothing formally about ‘hypnosis’ or ‘trance’, but he knew how to use his imagination.  So he would go into these deep states of inner absorption and become curious about what he could learn.  He would find himself attuning to long-forgotten pleasurable experiences—for example, a memory of throwing a ball with his brothers when he was a child.  He didn’t know why he was remembering that, but some inner resonance seemed to encourage him to deeply immerse in that memory.  After weeks, sometimes months of doing so, something amazing would begin to happen: the muscles involved in that childhood memory began to reactivate in his present body.  In other words, the natural memory of throwing a ball became a central resource and reference structure for re-activating the same pattern in his present life. His trance was developed from simple, unforced experiences, and natural memories became the basis for a new learning.

Trance and other non-rational processes are psychobiologically necessary

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

Rainer Maria Rilke

In generative trance work, we are assuming that symptoms and all so-called pathologies are not only potentially positive, they are necessary for meaningful growth.  They are what in Gaelic is called anam cara, or ‘friends of the soul.’  The brain needs to go into non-rational states; a person needs to lose control at least occasionally.  Each life is an unfolding spiral of death and rebirth cycles.  Empires rise, empires fall; ego identity is stable, ego identity becomes unstable; you are in control, you are not in control.  When ego identity destablilizes, trance occurs spontaneously.  The main question is whether this happens in a positive or negative way.  In generative trance work we see how this can be done positively, including how seemingly negative trances can be turned into positive ones.

The idea that altered states of consciousness are integral to growth and health is beautifully expressed by Michael Ventura, an American writer who spent a year teaching poetry to high school students.  In recounting his experience, he talks about the central importance of art to human consciousness.  (In the quote, I have inserted the words ‘symptoms’ and ‘trance’ in brackets, because they apply perfectly.)  Here’s what he has to say:

“Why does art (and symptoms and trance) exist at all? In part at least art (and symptoms and trance) exists because normal daily life isn’t enough for anybody and it never has been. The student (like the client in the consulting room) isn’t wrong, isn’t a freak, to be frustrated with the limits of daily life. Everything that humanity is proud of, and many of the things that it has good reasons to be ashamed of, comes from testing and breaking those limits. Something in the world, something that human beings both express and shape and store in art (and symptoms and trance) is constantly communicating to us that there’s something more. And it doesn’t merely invite us to change, but tells us that we must. That’s the starting point, that’s the central point of art’s (and symptoms’ and trance’s) spiritual geography – that at any moment you can step out of the state that you’re into and do something more intense, even exalted. In this way, poetry (and trance) is a preventive medicine against the incredibly debilitating disease of the idealization of the normal. At the least poetry and art (and trance and symptoms) are teaching that it is normal for the normal to be fragile, to break apart at any moment into one or more of its many paradoxical elements. Poetry (and trance) teaches you always to be on the lookout for the extraordinary in the so-called ‘normal.’ And this indeed is a healing knowledge.”  (words in italics added)

There is great wisdom in these words.   Whenever the limitations of the conscious identity state are too strong, the creative unconscious will step forward to bring new experiences and resources.  The specific form, meaning and value of the experience is determined by the human connection to it.  One of the crucial ideas of generative trance is:

An experiential pattern from the creative unconscious can be positive or negative, depending on the human connection to it.

In other words, there is no innate meaning or value to any experience.  To reiterate from an earlier blog, reality is constructed by an observing (human consciousness) interacting with the quantum world of the creative unconscious.  More plainly stated the state you’re in when you connect with an experiential pattern determines its meaning, value, form, and subsequent folding.

If an experience seems to have no positive value, it reflects a relationship history in which the pattern was not positively valued.

For example, let’s consider sexuality, a core energy and pattern of each human being.  At its core level, it is beyond “good” or “bad”, it just is.  Let’s now imagine that sexual energy first awakening in a young boy, and it being witnessed by his family and social environment.  If met with negative human presence (e.g., hostility, anxiety), that relational connection will create a negative experience of sexuality in the boy.  That resulting identity image may be further reinforced, leading to a negative sexual identity that plays out in various ways as an adult.  But the negative sexual behaviors as an adult doesn’t mean his sexuality is inherently bad, just that the previous human relational connections with it were negative.

This is where trance work can be helpful: it allows the previous psychological frames to be released (this is what an induction is for), and new frames to be developed, resulting in a more positive identity map to be experienced and expressing.  This allows us to distinguish (1) the psychobiologically necessary experience of trance from (2) the psychosocial human relational context (such as hypnosis) used to shape it and give it value.

Hypnosis is a context for humanizing and shaping trance

At every moment a new species arises in the chest –
Now a demon, now an angel, now a wild animal.

There are also those in this amazing jungle
who can absorb you into their own surrender.
If you have to stalk and steal something,
steal from them.

Rumi, “A goat kneels”

Trance can be negative or positive, depending on the human presence connecting with it.  It can take many forms: In Africa, trances often involve wild shaking; in Bali, they are expressed as sensual possession trances; in the West, trances most often involve an immobile or slumped body following the verbal commands of the outside expert (‘’hypnotist”).

This infinite variety of forms and functions of trance allows us to see clearly the difference between trance and hypnosis.  Trance is the psychobiologically essential experience of human consciousness that occurs whenever ego identity is destabilized, while hypnosis is one of the psycho-social rituals that give human shape and form and meaning to the trance.  Trance is the experience, hypnosis is the context.  And of course as this context changes, the experiential form and meaning of trance changes.

Seeing that the quality of a trance experience is a function of the human context in which it is held, we can then see the “negative trance” of a symptom reflects the degraded state of consciousness in which the creative unconscious is being held. For example, if you are caught in the neuromuscular lock of “fight, flight, or freeze”, any experience that arises will tend to be experienced and expressed in a negative fashion.  More important, if you can put primary emphasis on developing and then maintaining a high level generative state of “creative flow,” any experience that arises can be “invited to tea” and met with confidence, curiosity, resourcefulness, and transformational skill.  This is the core underlying premise of Milton Erickson’s principle: that a negative experience can be transformed into a positive one by virtue of bringing it into a high state of consciousness—that is, a generative trance—where it is engaged with creative acceptance, skillful sponsorship, and genuine respect and curiosity.  This is the promise of the work, and the beauty of the practice.

Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.
May 10, 2011

NOTE: Generative Trance is the primary topic of this year’s Trance Camp, held in July in San Diego.  You can attend one, two, or all three weeks of this special intensive training. Click here for further information.


Blog #4 April 12, 2011 No Comments

The Hero’s Journey

by Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.

Beat the drum and let the poets speak.
This is the day of purification for those who
Are already mature and initiated into what love is.

No need to wait until we die!
There’s more to want here than money
And being famous and bites of roasted meat.


Life can be lived in many ways.  You can make it about making money or winning at all costs, or pleasing other people, or perhaps never standing out.  Or you can live your life as a great journey of consciousness, one filled with many challenges and surprises, one that makes a positive contribution to the world. I want to talk here a bit about these different paths, emphasizing that the Self-Relations approaches of Generative Self and Generative Trance are especially tools for supporting the latter path.

Life as a journey has been described by many people, most notably the mythologist Joseph Campbell.  Campbell (1949; Gilligan and Dilts, 2009) studied the stories of many different cultures and found a universal monomyth that he called the hero’s journey.  The hero’s journey is about a quest to go beyond the limits of the present world and create greater wholeness in one’s self and/or community. This can take a number of forms: a new type of artistic vision or social modality; some kind of personal or social healing; or perhaps a radically new way of thinking, acting, or understanding the world. Interestingly, Campbell’s model was used by the filmmaker George Lucas as the basis for the incredible Star Wars movies.

A great example of a hero’s journey is Milton Erickson, the psychiatrist who revolutionized ideas about how trance could be used for creative healing and transformation.  I studied with Erickson the last six years of his life.  He was a classic Yoda-like character by then, a wizened old healer with twinkling eyes and amazing skills. But it took a long and courageous journey for him to arrive at this place of a genuine healer.  He was born tone deaf, dyslexic (including not knowing the dictionary was alphabetized until he was 15!), and color blind (purple was he only color he could ‘enjoy’).   Severely paralyzed by polio at 17, a condition from which the doctors said he would never recover, Erickson learned to walk again through inner work that featured what only later he came to call “naturalistic trance.”  On the basis of his positive and creative relationship to his own challenges, he developed a startlingly original way of working with all sorts of psychotherapy problems.  His utilization approach changed core problems into resources by creatively accepting them and then opening a generative trance within which they could transform into their positive roots. The good news is that this anybody can learn and practice this positive utilization approach with the many challenges that life brings.  How to do this is the primary focus of the Generative Self approach.

You don’t have to be a genius, as Erickson undoubtedly was, for your own life to be a hero’s journey.   And the journey needn’t be on a grand social scale; it could be within your family or outside of the public spotlight.  But the possibility exists within each of us to live a deep and meaningful life, to be on the “long and winding road” of deep transformation and unique contribution.  Of course, such a life isn’t a given; you have to want it and choose it and commit to it with all of your being.  There are certainly alternatives to this way of living.  As Campbell (see Osborne, 1991) pointed out, we have three possible life paths available to us: (1) the village; (2) the wasteland; or (3) the journey.

The Ego Ideal of the Village Life

The “village life” is the ‘ego ideal’ of the group.  Here you basically follow the traditional pathways of your society/ culture/ family, where all values and structures are externally given.  In the village, “the good life” moves through a clear sequence: you are born, obey your mother and father, do well in school, graduate, get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house, retire and then die.  The promise is that if you successfully follow this script, you will be happy and fulfilled.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this way of life; for some people, it is the best path. However, many individuals find themselves unwilling or unable to live within the confines of the village.  They may be denied membership because of skin color, ethnicity, sexual identity or gender, or socioeconomic status.  Others may find that the way they think, the way that they know the world, the way that they are called to live, cannot fit within the “Pleasantville” of the village.  Still others may be exiled by a trauma that shatters the “ego trance” and plummets them into a dark shadow world that most villagers don’t want to know about.

The Shadow World of the Wasteland

The river’s tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank.  The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard.  The nymphs are departed.

T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland

This shadow world is what Campbell and others (such as T.S. Eliot) called the wasteland.   Here, the predominant experiences are cynicism, meaninglessness, and negativity.  Many dark streets line the wasteland: the despair of depression; the numb trance-land of television; the violence of hatred, criminality, and fundamentalism; the haze of drugs, alcohol and other addictions; the withdrawal of fear and isolation.  As the shadow to the ego ideal, this world is primarily a negative rejection of (or by) the village.

When people come to therapy, they are typically stuck in the wasteland, unable or unwilling to participate in normal village life. Often the request, explicitly or implicitly, is to get them back to the village, so they can just be “normal.”  The fantasy is that if you can just get rid of the shadow world (of symptoms) through numbing, will power, medication, or other forms of self-violence, then you can re-enter the ego ideal of the village and live happily ever after.

It is important to realize that this may not be possible, or even desirable.  In generative trance, we see that seemingly negative experiences may be positive signals from the creative unconscious that some deep transformation is needed, that a person cannot live within the restrictive role that has been assigned to them.  As Campbell said, sometimes you climb the ladder all the way to the top only to discover you’ve placed it against the wrong wall—the wall of other people’s expectations.  In this view, symptoms are often a “call to return” to a deeper soul consciousness, a call to a hero’s journey.

Inherent in opening a positive relationship to a symptom is the crucial understanding that what makes an experience positive or negative is the human relationship to it.  That is, what comes out of the creative unconscious is not innately good or bad; its form, value, meaning, and subsequent unfolding in the world are created by the human connection to it.[1] Thus, a symptom represents some part of consciousness that has not yet been positively valued by human presence.  From this view, treating the symptom with hostility and violence is “more of the same,” splitting consciousness further into the seemingly irreconcilable “ego ideal” and “shadow” camps. In the hero’s journey, the exiled shadow is engaged with creative nonviolence to integrate the broken parts of a world into a new wholeness.

The Wholeness of the (Hero’s) Journey of Consciousness

Out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.


Beyond the confines and hypocrisies of the village, and the alienation of the wasteland, there is a third possible path– the transformational life of the hero’s journey.  Rather than following the beaten path of the village or falling into the ditch of despair, you live life as a “call to adventure.”  You develop your own path, venturing into new places and creating new psychological realities, going “where no man nor woman has gone before.”  Generative trance is a vehicle for this journey.

“Generative” means to create something that has never before existed.

The journey of consciousness is not a rejection of the village, more a move to transcend it.  As Jesus said, “Be in this world, but not of it.”  This is what we are able to do in generative trance: to be with something without being limited by it.  In his seminal study of creative geniuses, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1996) found that such people—who certainly would be examples of individuals on a hero’s journey—are distinguished by complementary ‘both/and’ traits.  For example, they are typically well trained in the classical aspects of their field, but at the same time rebel against the orthodox beliefs and practices within that field.  In the same way, a person living the journey of consciousness knows how the village works, but is deeply committed to moving beyond its limitations.

The journey is often initiated by what Campbell calls “the call.”  A person experiences something that swells their attention in an extraordinary way.  This could be positive: Campbell often encouraged people to “follow their bliss.” While often misunderstood within the village as an irresponsible advocating of hedonism and debauchery, he was actually inviting people to notice when their experience ‘lights up’ and is filled with a deeper resonance.  This ‘bliss’ tells you what you’re in the world to do.

I often ask clients if they can remember experiences in childhood where they suddenly found themselves in a magical moment, where the world opened up to a higher, enchanting space.  Many people initially say “no,” but upon further reflection begin to remember such beautiful moments.  One man remembered the feeling of excitement and resonance when he first started reading poetry in high school, an amazing experience wherein he realized he was not alone in his deepest thoughts and feelings. A woman recalled her feeling of “cosmic wonderment” when she gazed into the starry sky during a camping trip as a girl.  I remember the moment at 19 years old when I was first touched by Milton Erickson’s work: a fire ignited in my soul; a silent voice spoke, “This is why you’re here”; and a sublime feeling opened within and all around me.  Despite various efforts to ignore or put that fire out over the years, it seems inextinguishable.

Every soul has its own calling.   It may be ignored or rejected—what Campbell calls “the refusal of the call”—but often at great cost.  While some people can go to sleep and stay asleep, silently counting the moments until death, others suffer terribly when living away from their soul.  I sometimes tell clients, only half jokingly, that they appear to be constitutionally incapable of being a “couch potato”—that something inside of them is unwilling to let them stay disconnected.

In this sense, ‘the call’ may initially seem negative. (It usually is in the Hollywood version of the journey, where an ‘inciting incident’ knocks the protagonist off their mundane path.)  Thus, depression can be a message suggesting that no matter what you do or how hard you try, your current path is unworkable.  In other words, your conscious ego state (usually built to please others) is so completely disconnected from your core self, that nothing it does or thinks will make a significant difference.  That’s good feedback!   The positive response would be to “stop doing” and instead connect with your core self, such that you can release the old identity state and let a new one be born. This is precisely when and why we use generative trance: when existing brain maps aren’t working and new ones need to be created.  Generative trance allows you to unbind consciousness from the neuromuscular lock of a fixed identity state and move back into the resource-laden waters of the creative unconscious, where different identity parts can fluidly reorganize into new mandalas of self-identity.

For example, one client came from a very successful family where the strong (“ego ideal”) rule was to always be active and busy, focusing on helping others.   Interestingly, her symptom was a strange form of “chronic fatigue” that had resisted all medical treatment.[2] From the Self-Relations point of view that the symptom is very often the unintegrated shadow of the ego ideal, and thus an attempt by the creative unconscious to balance and make consciousness more integrated, the “problem” of “tired inactivity” was a classic complement to the “family trance” of “always being active.”[3] In trance, I asked her to connect with the “chronic fatigue” part and let it speak.  In an achingly beautiful way, she softly said, “I just want to surrender,” probably speaking the longing of the whole family.  Briefly pausing, she then slowly added, just as poignantly, “But I really love my work.”  Her challenge thus became one of integrating the two complementary sides—the exiled “yin” of rest and non-effort with the “yang” of action and effort—into a deeper wholeness.  This is precisely the type of challenge one faces, at many levels, on the hero’s journey.  As Eliot observed:

We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion.

All of this suggests that the hero’s journey is no simple task.  It involves developing a deep connection to your center, and an expanding beyond your known self to something greater and grander.  It requires many skills: the “disciplined flow” of intentional but flexible consciousness; the capacity to construct, de-construct, and re-construct brain maps and filters at different levels; the willingness to learn creative nonviolence; the know-how to transform problems and suffering into solutions; and the courage to love your self and the world with all your being.   The Self-Relations work, especially the approaches of Generative Self and Generative Trance, are explorations of how to do this.  In further blogs, I will elaborate on the details of these approaches to creative consciousness.

Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.

April 7, 2011

[1] In Blog # 2, we explored how the quantum world of the creative unconscious holds all possible forms of a given state, and that it is only when a human presence engages with it that it collapses from a “field of infinite possibilities” to a specific actuality in the classical world.  If the specific form is undesirable, it may be transformed by allowing the pattern to be re-absorbed into the quantum (archetypal) patterns of the creative unconscious, then re-created into a more positive classical (conscious) form.

[2] It is important to emphasize that all somatic symptoms should be thoroughly checked by relevant medical professionals.  In this case, I consulted and worked with her medical doctor for the duration of our work.

[3] The idea that the unconscious is always trying to balance and heal the limited identifications of the ego was a major tenet of Carl Jung’s work.

NOTE: The Hero’s Journey and Generative Trance are the topics of this year’s Trance Camp, held in July in San Diego. Click here for further information.


Campbell, Joseph. (2008). The hero with a thousand faces. San Francisco: New World Library (Original work published 1949).

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.

Gilligan, Stephen & Dilts, Robert.  (2009)  The Hero’s Journey.  London: Crown House Books.

Osbon, Diane K. (ed.). (1991). Reflections on the art of living: A Joseph Campbell companion. New York: HarperPerennial.

Blog #3 February 23, 2011 No Comments

Three Minds and Three Levels of Consciousness:
A Self Relations Framework for Generative Trance

by Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.

Generative trance is a higher state of consciousness wherein new identities and realities may be created.  This state allows consciousness to unbind itself from the fixed settings of the conscious mind and re-attune to the infinite possibilities of the creative unconscious, thereby making possible the reorganization of the mental filters underlying reality construction.  This blog overviews a model of how to do this. We will start with the central premise of three interacting minds—Somatic (in the body), Cognitive (in the head), and Field (in the space around).  We will then see these three minds can operate at three different levels of consciousness— Primitive, Ego, and Generative.   These core distinctions of “three minds, three levels” can suggest how and why generative trance can be developed.

Central to the framework is the idea that the state in which an experiential pattern is held significantly determines its meaning and subsequent unfolding.  This was the basis of Milton Erickson’s core principle of utilization, which I believe was his most radical contribution to the practice of psychotherapy.  The utilization principle states that under proper conditions, a problem can become a solution.  Thus, creative acceptance of a problematic pattern allows you to turn it into a resource while also opening beyond it. This is what we are looking to do in generative trance: create the proper conditions that will allow a transformational relationship with a challenging experience.  What generally happens when individuals face a difficulty is that their state degrades—that is, they move from an ordinary “business as usual” ego state to a primitive “fight, flight, or freeze” state of diminished resources and response potential.  In generative trance work, we look to turn the tables by giving priority to establishing and then sustaining a high quality state of consciousness, so that the connection to the experiential challenge results in a positive outcome.

Three Minds of the Generative Self: Somatic, Cognitive, and Field

To develop a generative trance, it is helpful to distinguish three different minds that interactively operate in human consciousness—the Somatic mind of the body, the Cognitive mind of the intellect, and the Field mind of the larger contexts to which we belong.  The Somatic mind is the animal mind shared by all mammals; it is your embodied intelligence, knowing yourself and the world through feeling, action, nonverbal awareness, and emotion. The mammal mind carries a past and a present, but no future awareness.  Like your pets and young children, it has the potential for amazing awareness, but no self-awareness; that is, it can’t think about itself or represent itself.  It is attuned not only to your personal history, but also to ancestral history.  It carries instinct, archetypes, and intuitive knowing, all basic elements for transformational change.  In terms of trance, it is the first (but not only) “unconscious mind”.

The Cognitive mind is the conscious mind “in the head.”  It uses verbal descriptions and symbols to “re-present” self and the world in terms of images, maps, plans, meanings, beliefs, and possibilities.  It thinks in terms of narrative and story, sequences and values.  It has the potential to see the world from many different perspectives and with many different values, even though it often gets locked in one or two.  In traditional hypnosis, it is the “conscious mind” that is usually targeted by a hypnotic induction to dissolve or at least relax for awhile, so that the hypnotist’s “conscious mind” can re-program the person’s base somatic mind.  As we will see, however, in generative trance the cognitive mind is shifted to a higher level of consciousness and invited to be an active part of the trance process, in reciprocal interaction with the other minds.

The Field mind is the greater systemic intelligence that is operating all around us.  There are many different fields that may be operating at any given moment in time: culture, family, personal history, political, etc.  You may work in the field of psychology, or be absorbed in the field of your “family trance”, or sense a “negative field” in a business meeting, or be absorbed in the “zone” of “creative flow.”   These contexts for our consciousness may be positive or negative, and constitute a second type of “unconscious mind”, that is, the creative unconscious beyond the individual ego position.

Three levels of Consciousness: Primitive, Ego, and Generative

The three minds can take different forms, depending on the level of consciousness at which they are operating.  Self-Relations distinguishes three different levels: Primitive, Ego, and Field.

(1) Primitive Level: Wholeness without self-awareness.  This base level is connected with the core energies and forms of the primordial world.  It has “wholeness without self-awareness,”  a sort of “quantum soup” or great field of consciousness, without any linear order or conscious control within it.  Nature is an obvious example: Everything is part of an ecological unity.  The creative unconscious is another example: It is a unitary system of auto-poetic intelligence that guides the creation and balance of psychological life.   Its strength lies in its wholeness: within it, “everything is connected to everything” as part of a deeper unity.  Because it is the ocean from which our individual consciousness arises, we must sometimes return to it for rest, integration, and healing.  In this way, trance—whether it is developed through hypnosis, music, rituals, symptoms, etc.–is a return to primitive consciousness, a psychobiologically necessary state of consciousness.  At least periodically, we need to let go our constructed separateness and return to our native wholeness.  As we will see, this is not only when we need to rest, it’s also when we need to create new identity maps.

In primitive consciousness, time is cyclical rather than chronological.  There is a rhythmic circulation of elements: night and day, exhalation/inhalation, active/passive, etc.  As such, primitive consciousness is not especially generative; its evolutionary (or “generative change”) rate is rather slow. it is generally content to recreate endless versions of itself, only very slowly growing beyond itself.  In the ancient myth of the race between the turtle and the rabbit, it is the turtle.  (And as I tell my clients, always remember who wins that race!).

While its strength is its systemic wholeness, its shortcoming is its lack of self-awareness.   It cannot “stop time” and analyze a situation, or isolate one part of the system, or rapidly generate multiple different maps.  It changes from the inside out, (very) slowly evolving a greater complexity, and even more slowly making “evolutionary leaps” to higher levels of consciousness.

(2) Ego Level: Self-awareness without wholeness.   One of the most astonishing evolutionary leaps in the history of the universe is the emergence of self-awareness.  This capacity for symbolic self-representation has given rise to a second level of consciousness to rest on the surface of the Primitive, like waves arising from the ocean. The emergent properties are amazing: consciousness can now step out of time and create imaginary worlds in which symbols of all sorts are used to run very fast, virtually endless simulations of possible realities.  The evolutionary fruits of this shift are obvious and stunning: verbal language, art, awareness of future possibilities, technology, whole cities and other time-transcendent miracles.

All this, of course, has come at a great price.  Perhaps because this gift of self-awareness is so relatively new, we only seem able to self-identity with a small part of consciousness at a time.  Thus, I might end up identifying with the “me” of my physical body, or the “us” of my group, against the “it” or “them” of the rest of consciousness.  In this way, the Ego Level has self-awareness without wholeness.  We end up dividing the unbroken wholeness of primitive consciousness into endless units of “self” vs. “other”, “good” vs. “bad”, “us” vs. “them”.  This is not necessarily harmful in itself; in fact, the analytical process of breaking the whole into parts allows us to then recombine the parts in many novel ways, allowing the creation of new wholes which transcend the previous unities.  In other words, it allows evolution to develop at markedly increased levels.

However, the way we typically do it is what spells trouble. First, we usually break our connection to the natural world to enter the symbolic; in the simplest terms, we think with contracted muscles and inhibited breathing, thereby creating a functional dissociation from the living world.  (In trance terminology, the conscious mind is most often a disembodied intellect that dissociates from the creative unconscious.) Second, we identify with our ego position in a way that dis-identifies with the rest of the field.  Third, we maintain these one-sided ego positions inflexibly and indefinitely, not allowing a rhythmic shifting among different positions that would enable a more whole view.

As we will see, these limited forms of self-awareness are unnecessary though very seductive; like an addiction, once we get hooked on them, they’re difficult to release.  The predictable resulting experiences are alienation, loneliness, and violence.  We cut off from the wisdom and healing of natural intelligence and become disconnected from a space bigger than our map-making, leading to ever-more imbalances and unhappiness.  For many people, it is only when they “hit bottom” with terrible suffering that new options are possible.  This is where generative trance is helpful: it allows a safe letting go of ego positions and a reconnection with primitive consciousness. As we will see, however, this is not sufficient for healing and transformational change.  For that, we need to open to the third level of generative consciousness.

(3)  Generative Level: Mindful awareness within differentiated wholeness.  A core idea in Self-Relations is that it is possible to creatively combine the intense energy and wholeness of primitive consciousness with the disciplined intentionality and self-awareness of ego consciousness to form a tertiary system of generative consciousness. This integrated state allows intention with spontaneity, yin and yang, self and other, inner plus outer, conscious mind with creative unconscious. We can operate at two levels simultaneously: the wholeness of the field and its many differentiated parts. This creative patterning breaks the tyranny of the fixed ego positions while still allowing intentional thinking.  It is especially useful at those times when our regular maps are insufficient or unhelpful, when we need to go beyond where we’ve been before.  While the ego position is essential conservative, looking to re-generate versions of the past, the generative state allows fundamentally new realities to emerge.

This higher state of “disciplined flow” that comes from harmonizing the Primitive and Ego levels is distinguished by a variety of emergent properties. Five bear brief mentioning here.  The first is non-dual field awareness—that is, a “space of oneness” opens up, thereby making room for all the different forms in the field of awareness.  This non-dual field is non-judgmental, humanizing, and welcoming.  Examples are the “we-ness” that develops in a mature loving relationship (in a couple, a group, or even an individual) that allows all the different “me-nesses” to be welcome in their differences.  Gregory Bateson once defined wisdom as the capacity to sit around a table and talk about differences without trying to change them.  In this sense, the non-dual field is the base for wisdom.  As we will see in later blogs, it certainly is a necessary condition for a generative trance that can integrate and transform the many parts of a systemic identity.

A second property of generative consciousness is subtle energy.  At the ego level, awareness is muscle-bound and thus heavy-handed and relatively coarse; at the generative level, the “chi” flows in currents of grace and skillful sensing.  This is apparent in any aesthetic experience—for example, reading a good book, cooking, listening or playing music, being in nature.  In such intrinsically rewarding experiences, awareness becomes more subtle, less rigid, more differentiated and skillful.  I was once talking about this in a Berlin workshop, and a participant raised his hand.  He shared that as a brain surgeon, he often performed 10-12 hour operations with his team.  He noted that they typically listened to classical music and discussed philosophy while operating, and he had just realized why: Such aesthetic practices created the subtle awareness that a brain surgeon needs to do such intricate, demanding work.  As we will see, subtle awareness is similarly needed for the challenging work of transformation and creativity.

A third property is mindfulness, which we might define here as non-reactive self-awareness permeating an experiential field.  That is, you can be with something without reacting with the “fight, flight, or freeze” that distorts and degrades consciousness, thereby re-creating a “problem” state.  You can notice negative thoughts without being disturbed by them, become aware of different ego-parts playing out their automatic games, and sympathetically and analyze a particular conditioned pattern.  This allows consciousness to be helpful and not harmful, curious and intelligent.

A fourth generative property is what might be called quantum superposition, or the capacity to hold multiple contradictory states or positions simultaneously, without conflict.  (Interestingly, this is the definition of “trance logic,” which is typically regarded as a defining feature of trance.)   This means that something can be “true” and “not true” simultaneously; or something and its opposite are both true; or even more widely, that multiple positions can be simultaneously valid.  This “both/and” logic has been found in different studies of creative genius—e.g., those done by Frank Barron in the 50’s, and by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 80’s—to be a fundamental property of creative consciousness.  It is especially relevant in therapeutic work, where conflicts between different parts often create impasses.  By being able to hold multiple parts in a generative state, the possibility of creative reorganization of those parts into a deeper wholeness becomes possible.

A final characteristic of generative consciousness is creative flow of information and energy.  That is, when a subtle “space of oneness” is opened that allows mindful awareness of all the different parts of the whole, this naturally allows energy and information to flow freely.  This is encompassed in a core suggestion of both trance and meditation—“just let it happen”. This “creative flow” is the superior alternative to “fight, flight, and freeze allowing healing, vitality, and many new possibilities to emerge.  Oriental medicine generally holds that illness reflects “blocked chi,” and that healing and well-being occur when the life force is flowing within and through us.  This is precisely what we’re looking to develop and sustain in Generative Trance work.

In the next blog, I will further develop these ideas of “three minds, three levels of consciousness.”   We will investigate how the different minds can operate in negative or positive ways, depending on the human presence connected with them.  We will see also how significant life changes—for example, a birth or death in the family a job change, starting or ending a significant relationship—break a person’s normal identification with ego identity, and moves consciousness back into the Primitive level. If the neuro-muscular lock of a  “fight, flight, or freeze” response develops within this regression, a symptom is created.  But if a mindful state of “creative flow” is present, then the “death” of the old identity leads to the “birth” of a new self-identity that is more whole (integrated) and differentiated (i.e. more choices), i.e., you become more intelligent and capable of greater happiness. By learning how to develop and sustain a generate state of consciousness, we become able to significantly succeed on this amazing path of self-realization.

Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.
February 19, 2011

NOTE: You can learn more about Generative Trance—how to help yourself and others to use it creatively—by attending my July “Trance Camp” held in San Diego.  Click here for further details.

Generative trance and the great journey of consciousness April 15, 2010 2 Comments

by Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.

Generative trance is an experiential space from which fundamentally new dimensions of reality can be created. It is thus an especially helpful vehicle for navigating the journey of consciousness that is at the heart of a meaningful life.  This journey is about going beyond where you’ve ever been by creating new positive realities, transforming consciousness, healing wounds, and evolving to higher states of consciousness.  The result is membership in the “4-H club”—greater (1) happiness, (2) health, (3) helpfulness to others, and (4) healing of self, others, and the world.  To understand how generative trance can activate these capacities, we can examine three core premises:

  1. Consciousness is primary.
  2. Consciousness creates the quantum fields of the creative unconscious, which in turn create the classical world of the conscious mind.
  3. Mind creates and navigates representational maps through the world(s)

These premises provide a foundation for understanding generative trance as a practice for moving the conscious and creative unconscious mind to an integrative level where creative transformation Is possible.

Life is a journey of consciousness

Generative trance work starts from the core premise that reality is created by consciousness itself.  This view, long held in mystical approaches, has been slowly developing over the past century from findings in quantum physics.[1] In contrast to the materialistic view that posits consciousness as an epiphenomena arising from brain states, it sees classical reality as being created by consciousness interacting with quantum wave fields.  These wave fields are “virtual realities,” that is, they exist as infinite possibilities, not actualities.  The “popping” of a virtual wave “field of infinite possibilities” into a specific reality occurs when an observing consciousness engages with the quantum field.  This view basically says: no consciousness, no reality.  And as we shall see, consciousness is each of us and all of us.

This view is, of course, radical in relation to our traditional Western thinking.  As physicists such as David Bohm point out, it arose in part from astonishing experimental findings such as (1) electrons moving in a discontinuous way from one orbit to another, (2) an electron appearing as either a particle or wave, depending on the observing consciousness, and (3) non-local influence, i.e., that one particle can instantaneously (i.e., faster than the speed of light) influence a distant particle.   More recent work shows that most of the universe—about 96%!!—consists of invisible “dark matter” and “dark energy.”  Such findings indicate that the classical world of time/space is not primary.

Appreciating consciousness as primary, generative trance work sees each person as having infinite potential for creative action.   Realizing this potential is no easy task, and so a core focus of the work is how to foster the states of higher consciousness necessary for this adventure.  The assumption is that consciousness is evolving at many levels, albeit slowly and with many twists and turns; the challenge is how to align with it and allow it to unfold even further.  In practical terms, the generative trance practitioner sitting with a client is “relationally meditating” with ideas like “something is waking up”, “I’m sure this makes sense”, and “something is trying to heal.”  Much of the process is then about ensuring that both the client and the practitioner are in a generative state to realize these possibilities.   This is the purpose of a hypnotic induction: to shift to a higher state of consciousness in which generative learning is possible.

To develop such a state, we become especially attentive to whenever a person’s energy swells or intensifies, their consciousness no longer bound to the “business as usual” state of the ego identity. This might be a positive event, as when someone is touched by love, opened by beauty, or lifted by aesthetic presence.    But It can equally be negative events, such as the fears, addictions, and “out of control” experiences that constitute a common currency of therapeutic work.   We see such experiences as the buds of “spontaneous naturalistic trances” by which the creative unconscious is attempting to let go of old “maps” in order to heal, transform, or create something new.   Whether this attempt is successful depends on the quality of the human relationship with it; that is, the consciousness connecting to the experience creates it either as a positive or negative event.   If an experiential event is held in a positive (“generative”) way, good things (e.g., transformation) happen; if it is held in a negative (“degenerative”) way, bad things (e.g., symptoms) will happen.  To create a generative trance, we therefore start by positively sensing that something is trying to awaken, then look to create a generative state of consciousness that allows that to happen.   In this way, generative trance is a way to midwife new consciousness into the world.

For example, a man’s elderly mother was dying a slow death from cancer, and the man found himself troubled and dismayed by his periodic angry outbursts while sitting with his mother.  He was helped to welcome this “other than ego” pattern, which included developing a centered inner state where he could witness the experience.  Sitting in a mindful trance, he noticed where in his body he felt the energy, and what earlier ages (“8”) were associated with it.  Other associational experiences, both positive and negative, also arose within the “quantum soup” of the trance.  Guided by positive intention for healing and grounded by mindbody centering, he was able to realize this old anger as representing one of the core pieces of his mosaic identity that was transforming in response to his mother’s passing.

Of course, major life changes—deaths of loved ones, births, illnesses, marriages, divorces, etc—will occur throughout a person’s life. We see such major life changes as natural and inevitable, like a river flowing through a person’s life, bringing many possibilities for growth and awakening.  Again, generative trance is about organizing contexts so that these potentials can be received and positively realized.

Consciousness creates the quantum fields of the creative unconscious, which in turn create the classical realities of the conscious mind

The unfolding of consciousness takes us through two successive worlds. These two worlds go by many names—for example, imagination and reality, possibility and actuality, creatura and pleroma, primary and secondary, etc. In generative trance work we describe them as (1) the quantum reality of the creative unconscious and (2) the classical reality of the conscious mind.

The quantum world is the deeper order: It is the imaginary “field of infinite possibilities” from which realities are created.  It is “before and beyond” time or space, empty of real (material) forms but pregnant with infinite potential forms.  When you ask a person where a creative idea came from, a typical answer is “I don’t know” or “it just came.”  We refer to that “mystery space from which all creative thought comes” as the quantum field of the creative unconscious.

When consciousness interacts with the quantum world, it “collapses” a wave field that contains many possibilities into the classical world of the conscious mind that holds a specific actuality. This classical world is the conventional reality of separate “things”: solid matter, space and time, Newtonian physics, stuff “really” there.  It is the empirical world of single values: something is true or not; if you are here, you’re not there; what you see is what you get.  Causal logic abides, time marches forward (and not backwards), that which is born must also die, things are as they are.  The classical world includes what we’ve experienced before, the mainstream traditions and history of where we’ve been so far.

These two worlds complement each other in many ways, including the following:


















Looking at these complementarities, we can see that creative consciousness needs both worlds. The quantum fields of the creative unconscious hold all possible forms or states of something.  Applied to psychological identity, this means that the creative unconscious holds all “possible selves” of a given individual.  So let’s say a fellow named Dave comes in complaining of depression.  As he shows his state of “depression,” we appreciate that in his creative unconscious there are many other “Dave identities”—a playful Dave, a serious one, a young boy, a wise man, etc.  So as Dave is collapsed into “depressed Dave,” we make room for that presence while also sensing the many other possible selves available in the “creative unconscious” of his quantum field.  The task of generative trance, then, is to help a person relax the attachment to the specific state, and open up to the greater quantum field of additional possibilities. The ingredients of this “quantum soup” can then be stirred into a nourishing and transformative meal.

Of course, to experience new possibilities in trance is not enough: you need to actualize them in the classical world to make a real difference.  Otherwise, you are left with mere “ghost fruit” rather than the nourishment of new realities.  While the creative unconscious holds infinite possibilities, it is the conscious mind that makes them real. The conscious mind breaks the wholeness (what David Bohm calls the “implicate order”) of the creative unconscious into a field of many parts (what Bohm calls the “explicate order.”)  The shifting relationships between the different parts of the whole is what allows time, space, self-awareness, and existence to emerge. (As Bateson would note, mind is based on “difference.”) Thus, it is the conscious mind of the classical world that allows the self-realization of consciousness.

It is important to remember that each mind completes the other, as all too often in trance work the unconscious is thought of as superior to the conscious mind.  As we shall see, generative trance work looks to move in both worlds at the same time.   To do this, we need to appreciate how the minds of each world can be generatively structured.

Mind is the medium for creating and navigating the two worlds.

We have thus far distinguished three different levels: consciousness itself, the quantum world of the creative unconscious, and the classical world of the conscious mind. The distinctions parallel what the mythologist Joseph Cambell (1949) described in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” as the monomyth of the “hero’s journey” of consciousness found across many cultures.

“We have come two stages: first, from the immediate emanations of the Uncreated Creating to the fluid yet timeless personages of the mythological age; second, from these Created Creating Ones to the sphere of human history.  Where formerly causal bodies were visible, now only their secondary effects come to focus in the little hard-fact pupil of the human eye.”  (p. 315)

“Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world—all things and beings—are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve.  This is the power known to science as energy, to the Melanesians as mana, to the Sioux Indians as wakonda, the Hindus as shakti, and the Christians as the power of God…its manifestation in the cosmos is the structure and flux of the universe itself.

The apprehension of the source of this undifferentiated yet everywhere particularized substratum of being is rendered frustrate by the very organs through which the apprehension must be accomplished.  The forms of sensibility and the categories of human thought, which are themselves manifestations of this power, so confine the mind that it is normally impossible not only to see, but even to conceive, beyond the colorful, fluid, infinitely various and bewildering phenomenal spectacle.  The function of ritual and myth (Gilligan: and generative trance) is to make possible, and then to facilitate, the jump—by analogy.  Forms and conceptions that the minds and its senses comprehend are presented and arranged in such a way as to suggest a truth or openness beyond.  (p. 258)”

In these brilliant passages, Campbell traces the progression through the three levels, emphasizing how we get caught in the content of the conscious world, creating an amnesia for, and negative hallucination of, the deeper levels from which they emanate.  This imprisonment is especially revealed in those situations for which people seek therapeutic assistance; they are caught in a self-created world of great suffering, a sort of a limited hypnotic trance with little or no awareness of the greater possibilities beyond.  The goal of generative trance, then, is to help a person become, in Campbell’s words, “transparent to the transcendent”[2], that is, to dissolve the opaque walls of their conscious world to illuminate a shimmering world of greater possibilities beyond.

To do this, we need to remember that both the creative unconscious and conscious worlds of experience are generated through filters.  This is a main function of mind: it is the tool of consciousness that (1) creates an experiential world and then (2) navigates within it.  We can now extend the idea that (1) there is no reality independent of an observing consciousness, to further emphasize that (2) the observing consciousness is using certain filters to create this reality.  These filters operate at many levels—for example, a nervous system is a mental filter, as is a cultural identity, an individual self-identity, or even a single experiential memory.  Each generative trance is an “experiment in consciousness” exploring how these filters (or at least the relationship to them) might change, thereby allowing the construction of a different reality. Again, this is no easy task; generally speaking, your level of awareness must be at least as deep as the level of the pattern you wish to change.  But at the very least, the realization that you are actively participating in creating your reality allows you to deeply explore how you are doing that, and how you might do it differently.  This curiosity is the essence of generative work.[3]

The idea that consciousness-with-filters is creating reality means that there is no fixed structure to either the unconscious or conscious minds. Thus, Freud looked into the unconscious and saw a dark orgy of sex, drugs, rock n’ roll.  Jung saw a pantheon of archetypal figures that evolved from centuries of core human experience.  Erickson observed a vast storehouse of experiential learnings that could be used as resources for creating a happy, fulfilling life.  When you look into the unconscious, what do you see/create?

Equally important, there is no fixed structure to the conscious mind.  While the traditional Western conscious mind is too often constructed as a disembodied intellect bent on controlling or consuming whatever it encounters, there are many other possibilities.  Milton Erickson modeled an exceptional example of a conscious mind that was curious, cooperative, relationally connected, and eminently creative.  How would you like to organize your conscious mind filters?

To be sure, there may be long-held traditions—that is, deeply conditioned filters—for creating a reality in a certain way.  These conditioned patterns exist at neurological, cultural, familial, social, and individual levels.  Once a pattern is set, it will automatically function as the default value unless disrupted or transcended; and to transcend a default value is no small feat. Thus, this constructivist view is not some shallow solipsism that declares that positive thinking at the ego level will bring instantaneous and complete change. Rather, it is way of appreciating that we are observer-participants in the creative process of life itself, and that it is possible to attune our consciousness to align with and transform some of the realities in play.

This is the main interest of generative trance work.  We are working in those areas where new realities are needed.  If reality is constructed by consciousness-with-filters, then by adjusting these filters we enable a new, more fulfilling reality to be created.  Later blogs will explore some of the ways we do this in generative trance work.  For example, generative trance work identifies three types of mind—Somatic, Cognitive, and Field—and looks to move each of them to a Generative Level where emergent properties of creative transformation appear.  Some of the properties of this generative consciousness are mindfulness, flow of information and energy between states and levels, subtle awareness, and creative acceptance.  Most important, this generative level allows us to move from experiencing ourselves as victims of a fixed external reality to creative participants in the great unfolding journey of consciousness and self-realization.  And this, indeed, is a healing and transformative knowledge.

Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.

April 2, 2010

[1] For example, see Fred Alan Wolf, David Bohm, and Amit Gotswindy.


[2] Campbell credits the German psychiatrist Karl Durkheim as the source for this luminous quote.

[3] I knew Milton Erickson in the last 6 years of his life, from 1974-1980.  I often witnessed students asking him just what the possibilities were in using hypnosis to change some particular condition.  His typical answer was something to the effect of,  “I don’t know!  But I’m very curious is discovering just what is possible for you here today.”  He would often add that the longer he worked, the less certain he was about what exactly was possible and what was not.

Generative Trance: A Third Generation of Trance-Formational Work Stephen Gilligan Ph.D January 4, 2010 3 Comments

steve3This year’s “Trance Camp,” held in San Diego in July, is organized around the theme of generative trance as a third-generation trance work. The first generation of trance work is the traditional hypnosis that is still holds sway in most places. Here both the conscious mind and the unconscious mind of the client are considered to be, well, idiots. So trance work involves first “knocking out” the conscious mind, and then talking to the unconscious mind like a 2-year old that needs to be told how to behave. So if a person comes in wanting to change a personal habit, they’re told to be quiet and follow the orders of the hypnotist. To relate to a person in this way seems like the problem, not a solution. Is it any wonder that so many people are (rightfully) leery of trance and hypnosis?

Milton Erickson created the second generation of trance work. He approached the unconscious as having creative wisdom and each person as extraordinarily unique. Thus, rather than trying to program the unconscious with new instructions, Erickson saw trance as an experiential learning state where a person’s own creative unconscious could generate healing and transformation. This radical idea of the unconscious as tremendously intelligent led to a very different type of trance work–for example, each trance was unique, the communications were primarily derived from the person’s own patterns and ongoing experience, and the hypnotist-client relationship was cooperative rather than authoritarian.

At the same time, Erickson for the most part carried the same low opinion of the conscious mind, seeing it as more a nuisance than an integral part of self-transformation and healing. Thus, Ericksonian hypnosis looks to bypass the conscious mind with indirect suggestions and dissociation, and depotentiate it with confusion techniques. The idea is that once the conscious mind is out of the way, the creative unconscious can do its thing.

The third generation of trance work sees this negative attitude toward the conscious mind as unnecessary and ultimately unhelpful. Creative action requires a skillful conscious mind to realize the potential of the unconscious mind. The conscious mind is needed to set and maintain intention, to sense and evaluate multiple pathways of possibility, to properly name and represent experience, and to organize actions in a sequential and linear way. William James used to say that the unconscious mind is the horse and the conscious mind is the rider; it’s the relationship between the two that is most important. And while some organizations of the conscious mind are unhelpful, this does not mean that all forms of conscious mind are.

Erickson demonstrated this beautifully in modeling a generative form of the conscious mind that was mindful, respectful, and attentive. His relational style with the unconscious mind was not the traditional “fight, flight, or freeze,” but rather the “creative flow” of skillful acceptance, positive curiosity, and endless flexibility. But in attributing the client’s positive change to the intelligence of their unconscious mind, Erickson gave an incomplete and misleading picture. If the unconscious was so smart, then why was the person showing up in the office with such troubling problems?

A more accurate description is that the change arose from the relationship between the client’s creative unconscious and Erickson’s generative conscious mind. In effect, Erickson replaced the client’s conscious mind with his own, and then skillfully interacted with the client’s unconscious mind to create extraordinary outcomes. To be sure, he was exceptionally respectful and skillful in utilizing the client’s reality as the basis for all communications. Still, the implicit message was that he could do for his patients what they couldn’t do for themselves. Given the cultural context that Erickson was working in some 50-60 years ago, this is hardly surprising: The ideas of self-generativity and mindfulness had not yet taken root.

We live in different times now, with a much deeper appreciation and support for each person’s capacity for self-awareness and self-transformation. So we must ask if the hypnotic strategy of dissociating (rather than differentiating) a person’s conscious mind from their creative unconscious is the best we can hope for. Was only Erickson capable of that generative form of the conscious mind pattern that we might call “the Erickson function”? If so, we’re in trouble, because he’s no longer here. Are only the “high priests” of psychotherapy skillful enough to speak directly with the unconscious? This would affirm the antiquated idea that the unconscious is fundamentally a dark and dangerous place that we should fear and stay disconnected from. Again, such attitudes seem like part of the problem that disempowers people, rather than the therapeutic goal of helping people to find their own voices and their own ways.

In emphasizing equally the complementary intelligences of the conscious and unconscious minds, Generative Trance is a third-generation type of work. It sees both minds as having an endless number of possible organizations— some helpful and others not–and seeks to help people to develop those that best allow them to live in a transformational way. Like William James, it sees the relational fit between the two minds as the most important issue. In this way, it is like couples therapy that starts out staring at two seemingly irreconcilable realities. The goal of both couples therapy and trance work is not to see one side as more “right” or “better” than the other, but to see what kind of context and conversation might allow a mutually respectful relationship in which the two sides can “make love, not war.” Moving to such a mutually inclusive and reciprocal relationship opens a space beyond opposites. In Self-Relations, this space is the Generative Self that allows healing, transformation, and creativity.

The practical question, of course, is how to create such a generative relationship. In the Generative Trance workshops, participants learn how to skillfully connect with three different types of Mind: Somatic (the mind of the body), Cognitive (the mind of the head), and Field (the mind beyond the individual position). You learn how to shift each of these minds to a higher (generative) level of consciousness that allows a deep conversation with the creative unconscious. Somatically, this is done via principles of alignment and centering, including basic elemental skills such as relaxation, absorption, fluidity, openness, and felt sense. Cognitively, this is done through principles of creative acceptance and transformation—for example, how to clear a space, set a positive intention, creatively make room for whatever is there, bring balance and complementarity, express something in multiple ways, and integrate parts into creative wholes. In field consciousness, we explore how to open a space beyond the problem, include resources, and receive direction from the creative unconscious.

That’s saying a lot in a short space, but the basic idea is that generative trance is a higher state of consciousness that can allow healing, transformation of problems into solutions, and the creation of new realities. And to find the highest state for a person, it’s best to include both their conscious mind and unconscious mind in a harmonious collaboration. Erickson demonstrated how he could this with a person’s unconscious. Generative Trance shows how each person can have that same generative relationship with their unconscious mind. In essence, you can “become your own Milton Erickson,” your own inner hypnotist that can work skillfully and safely to achieve extraordinary outcomes.

(For more info on trance camp, click here)

(For a free audio interview with Dr. Gilligan on the topic of generative trance, click here.)

MP3 Download Store Launched October 16, 2009 No Comments

We’ve launched a store where you can purchase mp3 downloads of Trance Camp 2009 as well as some shorter generative trance experiences. Come take a look: Steve Gilligan Downloads. Steve will start blogging when he gets back from his trips to China and Europe.

Welcome to the Blog of Dr. Stephen Gilligan August 17, 2009 2 Comments

NEW YORK  - OCTOBER 15:  Jay Jay, an Iams trai...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I am in the beginning stages of getting this blog going, so pardon my “dust.” I’m going to be sharing with you some of my insights and stories about the history of hypnosis and trance, my initial work with Milton Erickson, and future directions in the work that I know call, “Self-Relations Psychotherapy” and the development of the “Generative Self.”

If you are interested in books, dvds, CD’s and downloads, please stop by my store where you can buy products related to Milton Erickson, Hypnosis, and the Generative Self.

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