Both Sides Now: Complementarity and Generative Trance

(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.



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.