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