I recently attended a conference in Pasadena where I had an opportunity to see Brain Weiss. Dr. Weiss is an author and a classically trained Psychiatrist. The focus of Dr. Weiss’ work is past life regression. This focus evolved over a twenty-five or thirty year period and he has written several books about it. I find his work to be particularly interesting because I am not sure that I accept the concept of past lives and the ability of someone to regress to memories of those past lives. Dr. Weiss writes well and articulately about the experiences many of his patients have had. Part of what I find fascinating about him though, is this argument that no matter what your religious or cultural traditions and beliefs are as a clinician, it is not necessary for you to believe or dispute whether we are dealing with reality here. This is what matters: Does the conceptual framework of a past life regression help the patient to find a way to heal themselves and to alleviate their pain and struggle? If the client is better as a result of the experience, isn’t that the goal?
I find this line of thinking to fit with what I do believe. It also fits with what I learned from Dr. Milton Erickson’s works. Erickson often said that the client always knows what they need to know, and the client knows what they need to be better. They may not be able to share it with the clinician, but they know. Erickson says that the clinician does not need to know because their job is simply to facilitate and to create a safe holding environment that enables the client to safely explore and rehearse what they need to do to improve the condition of their life and the script that they follow.
It seems to me that these men, both classically trained Psychiatrists, are trying to say to us as fellow clinicians, is that the magic of therapy is in the holding frame and in the relationship. Additionally, both Erickson and Weiss speak with a calm, reasoned voice that lacks excitement, passion, or stimulation. They both have trained themselves to speak hypnotically. They softly frame the experience of the client or of the workshop participants so that they allow and support a self-hypnosis. The script they use allows you, as the subject, to frame what you will “know,” “remember” and “discover” so that you can then “understand” or “know” what you need to do with it. In this workshop, Dr. Weiss utilized techniques from Gestalt therapy, imagining the two chair technique where the patient becomes the two conflicted parts of himself and converses in turn from the perspective of each part so that a dialogue and negotiation can occur between the disparate or conflicted parts of the self.
Setting the frame and the holding environment is one of the most important skills of the therapist. As Dr. Weiss began to explain what he would attempt to do over the hours of the workshop, he spoke calmly and hypnotically in a soft and gentle voice. He utilized self-deflecting humor and a quiet, low energy voice modulation to prepare us for the experience of guided imagery that would allow us to become self -hypnotized.
In therapy sessions, I no longer attempt to use hypnosis. My perspective on that changed some years ago. I came to believe that our memory blocks us until we are strong enough to remember. When we have the strength to remember and to deal with what we remember, we will have a flash of recall that will “reveal” what has been hidden. When we can handle knowing we will know. That door will open when we are ready to see what is on the other side. So I no longer use hypnosis as a device to uncover past memories or lost memories. I tell my clients who are experiencing flashbacks that those are not things to be afraid of, rather, they are signs that you are getting stronger. The wall of dissociative separation from the trauma of the memories is beginning to break down because you no longer need it to protect you from “knowing” the truth of what happened. I encourage my clients to accept the frame that the memories breaking through are evidence of their strength and their growth. I warn them that sometimes the truth hurts, but that they are strong enough to know what it is and deal with it. If they are not, then the truth will not come.
That being said, I do use hypnosis as a form of a relaxation trance that allows their bodies to stop the anxieties they feel as distracters. I use hypnosis as a way for them to focus their “third eye” so that they can look without fear and despair, and that they can remember and evaluate their experience from the perspective of the “now.” The stronger, adult “them” can look back at the mental movie of whatever happened. They can be aware of the pain, the fear, or the shame of the experience, but they can filter the affect through the technique of the relaxed hypnotic state. They can watch the movie, pause it, turn the volume down or off, back it up and replay it fast forward it, or do what ever they need. They can even become the director of the film and change the script and the motions and behaviors of the actors. They can rehearse alternative endings to what happened. They can see themselves as actors in the play who change their participation and their understanding, as well as change the words and behaviors of the other players in the drama, if doing so would help them heal. They have the ability in this safe holding environment to have imaginary conversations that never took place. The adult “them” can talk to the child “them.” they can assure themselves that they will survive and become strong. They can explain that the trauma is not their fault, that the shame and hurt of the abuse belongs to the abuser and not the child who is on the receiving end of the violation of power, or on the wrong end of the sickness of the adult. They can praise and honor, with love and affection, the ability of the child to survive and grow to some day become a stronger and functional adult who will be able to take care of them so that they cannot be bullied or traumatized again.
The similarity of how I work to the way that I understand Dr. Weiss and Dr. Erickson work, is that we take the client of today, create a vehicle whereby they can review their past experiences and memories and find a path towards healing and strength. It does not really matter at the end of the day whether or not these experiences are concretely provable. It doesn’t matter if someone remembers being a slave in ancient Egypt, being saved from drowning by their heroic father or being abused by their grandfather, actually had those experiences. It is not possible, nor relevant to identify the perpetrators and prove in a legal sense their culpability. What matters is that the vehicle of the imagination and “memory recovery” enables the client to challenge their ego dystonic processes and navigate a path forward towards ego syntonic choice and healthy self awareness and functioning.
The magic of therapy is not in the wisdom or knowledge of the therapist. The therapist cannot change nor heal the client. What the therapist can do, and should do, is create the safe holding environment of the non-shaming and non-controlling therapy session so that the client can utilize their inner strength and awareness (although unconscious) to learn what they need to know to heal and forgive and grow into someone who does not follow a victim script. The victim script would continue to limit their life choices and cause them to repeat the dysfunctional behaviors and habits. They have used to survive as a result of the abuse they experienced and the script they were taught as a way to protect their abusers.
Do not get your ego involved. As a clinician, it is not about you. Your job is to be calm and safe for the client. You want them to use your strength until they find their own. You are not to rescue or save them, you are not to solve their problem. You do not know what they need. You cannot direct them or choose for them. Your job is to create the therapeutic frame and the holding environment. You can project your calm accepting strength and appreciation of the client. You can encourage them to be aware of your acceptance, your non-shaming, your belief in their innate goodness and their ability to make changes in their lives. If you do that, they will do the rest.