Living in a Post-Ericksonian World

Living in a post-Ericksonian world.  

In W. J. Matthews and J. Edgette (Eds.),  Current thinking and research in brief therapy: Solutions, strategies, and narratives, Volume 1.  New York: Brunner/Mazel. 1997.


The deep parts of my life pour onward,

as if the river shores were opening out

It seems that things are more like me now, that I can see farther into paintings.

I feel closer to what language can't reach.

Rainer Rilke, "Moving Forward" (Rilke, 1981)


Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, "In the coming

world, they will not ask me: 'Why were you not more

like Moses?' They will ask me, 'Why were you not

more like Zusya?'"

Martin Euber, in Tales of the Hasidism (Euber, 1947)


For many years, I tried to be more like Milton Erickson. This chapter is about the more difficult challenge of trying to be more like Gilligan. It is based on 22 years of teaching, practicing, and writing about hypnotic psychotherapy. It indicates how my path has diverged from Ericksonian thinking. I hope it encourages others on their own paths.

What was really astonishing about Erickson was his willingness to be himself, to accept his "deviancies" from the norm. This courage translated directly, I believe, into compassion for and acceptance of others. To follow a similar path is remarkably challenging. But this is what we stand for as therapists.

In describing where this post-Ericksonian path has led me, I'll start by honoring a few core ideas from Erickson's legacy that still light my way. I'll then raise questions about how these ideas are put into practice. The main intent is to stimulate thinking, rather than to argue about truth.



Milton Erickson contributed several radical and enduring ideas to psychotherapy. These ideas are deceptively simple, slowly revealing their extraordinary value over years of practice. The first has to do with the uniqueness of each person. In these days of corporate domi­nation of mental health, where diagnostic labels loom larger and therapy freezes into more standardized forms, the idea that each per­son is unlike anybody else is increasingly disregarded. One-size-fits­all methods proliferate, and an alternative model based on the fact that each case is unique is even seen as unethical in some quarters.

But in many ways, problems arise when individuals lose a sense of their own unique goodness and gifts. To me, Erickson emphasized that the therapist begins by sensing that goodness and those gifts, and that all effective technique arises from that relational connec­tion. We in the Ericksonian community have been surprisingly silent about how to make and sustain this connection experientially-espe­cially nonverbally.

Without specific traditions from which to draw, seeing and sensing the unique consciousness that is each person may exist only as platitude or concept, not as practice or experience.

A second extraordinary idea offered by Erickson is that the thera­pist accepts and utilizes whatever the client presents, no matter how strange, unusual, or aesthetically repugnant it might seem. This includes behaviors, experiences, cognitions, and idiosyncrasies. Since the potential value of a given aspect of a person's experience is often not immediately dear-indeed, with symptoms it seems to have a distinctly negative value-it is immensely challenging to consistently translate this simple idea into practice. It requires that before "do­ing," the therapist must find a way to "be with" a person's experience. This experiential relationship is, of course, central to the experience of trance, where a person can fully "be with" an experience without a fight (domination or control) or flight (dissociation, denial) response. Moving beyond the inner world of traditional hypnosis, Erickson ap­plied this principle in a dynamic way to ongoing relationships with patients. He was like an aikido master, blending and harmonizing with whatever was presented, neutralizing the violence and reconcil­ing the conflicts inherent in a symptomatic behavior.

This idea of acceptance and cooperation puts that of deliberately trying to change a person in a different light. It means that life is moving through the person, distinct in each moment, and, therefore, change is already in motion. Rather than imposing something on cli­ents, the therapist senses and blends with their immediate processes. This is an active and dynamic responsiveness, not a passive and pur­poseless one. It is an art that requires enormous devotion and study. How does the therapist center his or her attention, be attentive yet flex­ible, expect nothing but be ready for anything, be soft yet effective?

A third key idea in Erickson's legacy involves therapy as a restora­tion of balance in a person's life. To me, one of Erickson's great tal­ents was moving effortlessly between the interior worlds of experi­ence and personal meaning and the exterior worlds of behavior and social community. In reading Rossi (Erickson & Rossi, 1979, 1981; Erickson, Rossi, & Rossi, 1977), one sees transcript after transcript in which patients are hypnotized and their inner worlds of experience are activated and transformed.

One gets the impression that Erickson' s primary interest was to activate inner resources and "spontaneous creativity" in others. But in reading Jay Haley (1967, 1973, 1985a, 1985b, 1985c), one finds more emphasis placed on how Erickson manipulated patients to behave differently in their outer worlds. Here one gets the impression that Erickson's primary interest was in di­recting behavioral changes.

Which version of Erickson is the "true" one? [i]The answer seems to be both: Erickson went both ways. Sometimes he focused on the outer world, sometimes on the inner, but at all times he seemed to recognize the importance of both. I believe this skill reflected an enor­mous appreciation of a principle of balance.[ii] This balance might be between doing and not doing, between experience and behavior, be­tween self and other-indeed, virtually any distinction to be made has its important complement. Erickson seemed to operate with what Jung (1916) called the transcendent function or what the Eastern tra­ditions call the way between the opposites, where a course including, and often integrating, opposite or complementary values is navigated. This might translate into a hypnotic induction in which a person is encouraged both to withhold or resist and to let go and disclose. Or it might translate into a therapy where strategic directives to do some­thing different in the social environment are interlaced with hypnotic trances for self-identity reorganization. Erickson was remarkable in his capacity to know when to use one approach and how to combine both approaches. None of us, it seems to me, has remotely approached this skill. A deeper understanding of the balance principle might be helpful in this regard.

A fourth idea central to Erickson's legacy is that life is to be experienced and enjoyed. For Erickson, therapy was not primarily about analyzing the past or teaching a new conceptual approach, but about helping people to enjoy the "here and now" of life. There was a pref­erence for curiosity over control, acceptance over rejection, experi­ence over intellectual understanding, and flow over fixity. Erickson was a beautiful example of living life on life's terms, and accepting and working with whatever life has to give.



Erickson and his students have detailed some of the many ways in which his simple yet generative ideas can be applied in therapy (Zeig, 1982, 1985a, 1985b, 1994). The appreciation of his work has led, in­evitably, to some reified version of Ericksonian psychotherapy, which just as inevitably, seems more limited and less creative than the origi­nal version. Jung used to say, "I'm certainly glad I'm not a Jungian." Erickson no doubt would echo such sentiments, and I hope most of us would ultimately concur.

Letting go of defining one's self as an Ericksonian allows new un­derstandings and approaches to emerge. In my -own case, this pro­cess has raised questions about premises that seem to be implicit in the Ericksonian community. I raise these questions here with the intention of nurturing the "beginner's mind" so crucial to therapists. As in hypnosis, the holding of a question is usually far more important and productive than than seizing upon of any specific answer.

1. What do we call these "other than conscious" presences?

A corner­stone of the Ericksonian approach is that an intelligence exists within a person that is beyond the normal egoic self. Erickson talked about this in terms of the unconscious mind, and demonstrated beautiful ways to work with it (Erickson & Rossi, 1981, 1989). In my own ex­plorations, it has become increasingly clear that to singularly refer to this other-than-conscious process as the unconscious mind is too lim­iting and can be misleading. possibility for reification is too great and the connotations of the term are too limited for therapeutic flex­ibility. Alternative references include "the inner self," one's center, heart, soul, or what Chogyam Trungpa (1988) has called the inde­structible tender soft. spot with which each of us is born.

We use such terms primarily for practical reasons. We approach therapy assuming that a client has become stuck in a narrow under­standing of, or limited connection to, his or her potentiality. Identify­ing resources and activating them are seen as central to helping the client. The idea of the unconscious is used poetically, not literally, to access an intelligence greater than, and different from, what a per­son is doing. As a poetic term, it invites and evokes a different, more productive way of being. The term is not used in an intellectual ex­change as much as it is utilized as an experiential-symbolic one in­tended to produce a felt sense of non-intellectual intelligence. In short, a major purpose is to open the language of the heart to complement the dominance of the language of the head.

If we appreciate "the unconscious" as poetic language, then we can become curious about other poetic terms as well. Each will carry a different nuance for the client, and each is associated with a differ­ent tradition of acting and understanding. From this perspective, a good therapist will be skilled in finding and using those poetic terms that are most helpful in a given situation.

For example, consider the Japanese martial art of aikido. In this situation, one is faced with physical attacks from all directions. The challenge is how to neutralize violence by receiving, harmonizing with, and redirecting the attack. Nothing is ever resisted or opposed; all behavior is blended with and utilized. (As I said earlier, Erickson was quite the aikido master.) To perform aikido, one does not talk about going into trance and trusting the unconscious, but instead emphasizes finding one's center. This mind/body center is not an esoteric or theoretical term, but a felt sense of an intelligence that allows relational creativity and calmness. Without it, one can only :fight (dominate) or flee (submit); with it, the third choice of flow is possible (see Leonard, 1991).

Is the notion of a center relevant to therapy? I think so. For example, consider a therapy problem where a person is experiencing anxiety when criticized. Will it be more helpful to appeal to the client's unconscious in a trance, or to help the person find his or her center? Each tradition would share an interest in relaxing the-grip of muscle­bound, head-oriented, control-based thinking. But they would go about it in different ways. The tradition of talking with the unconscious is associated with trance and related behaviors, such as eye closure, relaxed muscles, inward orientation, and resource images and sto­ries. The tradition of working with one's center includes learning to drop one's attention below the navel as a primary focus, and then gently to open attention to a field-based perception without grasping on any fixed points (Palmer, 1994). The therapist who is skilled in both traditions will likely be more effective in finding what works best for a given client.

Other terms may also be helpful. For example, the idea of soulful­ness may be quite relevant in various performance arts, such as music, poetry, oratory, and therapy. Yeats (in Jeffares, 1974) could have been talking about Erickson when he observed:

An aged man is but a paltry thing

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing For every tatter in its mortal dress. (p. 104)

If Yeats had used the term "unconscious mind" rather than "soul," the poetry would have suffered. The point is that the unconscious mind belongs to a family of poetic terms referring to something quite knowable yet ineffable; other terms might be superior or complementary in various circumstances. My suggestion is that a therapist with a felt sense of the nuances of each of these poetic terms will be more effective than one who is stuck with a reified understanding of just one of them.

Thinking of this other-than-conscious self simply as the unconscious mind may lead us to ignore what Erickson (1980) referred to as "that vital sense of the beingness of the self [that] is often overlooked" (p. 345). It may suggest a mechanical or impersonal "thing" to be manipulated or programmed, rather than an integral human pres­ence to be felt, honored, and cultivated.

Some may say that such words as heart and soul are too vague or too poetic, or that therapy should just deal "scientifically''. with the mind or behavior. But, of course, the notion of the unconscious mind is even vaguer, and no loving parent or devoted artist would say that nurturing human life is done only via the unconscious mind. As a human encounter, therapy includes elements of both science and art, but must also go beyond them into the areas of love and psychologi­cal struggle. Language here must help the person go beyond Ianguage, touching on the soft, tender spots of being and inter-being. Access to multiple poetic terms can be helpful in this regard. Of course, it also carries the risk of making a mush of things, so the therapist must be skilful in activating felt senses within the client How to do this is, I believe, one of the great contributions of the Erickson legacy to therapy.


2. Is intelligence "in" the unconscious?

Erickson used the metaphor that the unconscious is intelligent. He failed, however, to explain why the patient was doing so poorly before meeting with him. After all, if this intelligence were so magnificent, how did the person end up in such a mess? It seems apparent that the intelligence of the uncon­scious, if we might call it that, began to become manifest only after Erickson started talking with the person. So we might say that the creative intelligence was in the conversation or relationship between Erickson and the client's unconscious.

In this regard, we might say that intelligence is a relational or field­based principle. To use Bateson's (1979) metaphor, it is the "pattern that connects," or the willingness to hold different views, descrip­tions, or truths within a deeper field. This echoes the Buddhist no­tion of inter-being (see Nhat Hanh, 1975}, a nondualistic view that posits the interconnectedness and inseparability of each aspect of life.

This relational view challenges the traditional Western approach that separates and isolates mental process from its larger context, thereby making the mind a thing inside somebody's head rather than a process within relational space. In the relational view, mind is a sort of Great Internet, a web of patterns that flows through each of us, connecting all of us. It is not inside of us-we are inside of it Each of us has a distinct place in the field, an ever-changing ecological niche with unique perspectives and specific knowledge, but the mental circuitry that moves through these vantage points is of a deeper, communal nature. We are individual, but not separate. When a person feels disconnected or separate-whether in inflated (grandi­ose, power-deluded) or deflated (depressed, frightened) ways-di­rect experience and creative responsiveness are lost. In the existen­tialist sense, pathology is precisely the study of loneliness (or the isolation of a process, truth, person, or. experience from others). Thus, I believe a central goal of therapy is to reconnect experience and behavior to larger relational fields, rather than trying to fix something inside a person.


3. Is the therapist really in charge of changing the client?

This Ericksonian view, especially espoused by Haley (1967, 1973), encourages therapists to be in control of the therapy and responsible􀀖for its outcomes, and to think in terms of manipulating the client. This view has been unhelpful to me. It reflects an exclusively hierarchical position that egoic intelligence, particularly that of the therapist, is the only game in town. It encourages therapists to become immersed in the principle of power rather than in a principle of cooperation with clients. Therapists are then faced with the problematic belief that they can and should "cure" clients.

These concerns about ideas of control were voiced by Bateson, who sent many students (including me) Erickson's way.[iii] He repeat­edly warned of what he called the pathological effects of conscious purpose on adaptation (Bateson, 1972), emphasizing that the myth of power is especially corruptive (Bateson, 1979). His concerns about Erickson's students were expressed in an interview with Brad Keeney (1977).


Keeney:  You're saying that people who go to see Erickson come away with a craving for power?

Bateson: Yes! They all want power.

Keeney: Is there something about seeing [Erickson] that induces this power hungriness?

Bateson: Well, it's the skill which he has of manipulating the other;­ person which really in the long run does not separate him as an ego dominant to the other person. He works in the weave of the total complex and they come away with a trick which is separate from the total complex, therefore goeth counter to it, and becomes a sort of power. I think it's some­thing like that. (p. 49)

These comments encourage an alternative to the power principle that traditionally underlies our thinking (see Woodman, 1993). The power principle emphasizes intellect, unilateral manipulation, control, singular truth, and subjugation of nature. Addiction to this principle re­duces relationship to stark contrasts: You either dominate or submit, are right or wrong, win or lose. In this either/ or frame, the other­than-conscious self-whether it be the unconscious or another per­son or a group-is seen as an "it" that needs to controlled, rather than as a "thou" to be accepted and listened to.

A symptom is, in part, the breakdown of this power principle. It signals that a person no longer can maintain some ideological posi­tion, or isolated intellectual control, over the "other(s)" and the rest of his or her world. It suggests that a more integrated·, less mechani­cal understanding of self and world be developed. From this perspec­tive, 􀀺e idea of power-whether it is the client's trying to control the problem or the therapist's trying to control and change the client-is part of the problem, not the solution.

Our images and understandings of cooperation are often undevel­oped and limited, so it is easy to underestimate the value of this prin­ciple. We need to be clear that in rejecting the idea of power and the accompanying idea of the therapist's being in control, we are not left simply with the alternative of passive acceptance of the status quo. Gandhi used to say that if the choice was merely between passive submission to injustice and violent resistance, he would choose and encourage violence. But he articulated and walked a third path of nonviolent resistance.

Similarly, if the choice is only between passive acceptance of a person's suffering and deliberate manipulation to change the person, the latter would usually be a better choice. But a third path, origi­nated but not completely developed by Erickson, involves actively accepting and cooperating with a person's ongoing process to recon­nect with the natural process of change and healing that flows through each living system.[iv]

This view is related to the Palo Alto Mental Research Institute group's notion that the attempted solution is often the problem (see Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 197 4). The Milwaukee group, led by Steve de Shazer (1985, 1988), further developed this idea by encour­aging attentiveness to already occurring (but non-articulated) differ­ences in the person's world as the basis for therapeutic change. For example, if the client complains of depression, the therapist might focus on exceptions (when the person is not depressed or feels less depressed) or the miracle question (what the person would do differ­ently if, by some miracle, he or she were to wake up the next morn­ing to discover that the problem had disappeared). The client is then directed to do more of the different-from-symptom behaviors. In this view, the therapist does not create change. Life does! It is more a matter of "being with" life, a fresh attentiveness to each moment, that allows new experiences (including desired changes) to emerge.

My approach of Self-Relations psychotherapy differs from these approaches in its strong emphasis on felt experience as well as behavior (see Gilligan, 1996). I am especially interested in what happens when the social/behavioral mind (the conscious mind) and the natural/ experiential mind (the unconscious mind) are seen as differ­ent sides of the same coin. (I want to know the name of this coin!) Self-relations suggests that since every moment in life is different, experiencing the "same damn thing over and over" means that a person's conscious self is not "in life" at those times; it has dissoci­ated from the experience of the present moment and is trying (with increasingly dismal failure) to control behavior from some satellite orbit The social mind has split off from the natural world (including the body, its feelings and emotions) and is operating under the delu­sion that it is separate from it and can and should dominate it. The out-of-control nature of symptoms thus can be seen as an error correction process that reveals the illusion of power as it attempts to establish a new mind/nature relationship based on cooperation.

Of course, the transition from control over to cooperation with the natural mind requires some workable practices of controlled surren­der (Leonard, 1991). A first step is to be with experience as it is. For example, mental processes can harmonize with and bring attentive­ness to natural processes, such as ongoing breathing, heartbeats, and physical behaviors. This method is similar to the pacing techniques of Ericksonian hypnosis (see Gilligan, 1987), but the intent is not so much to manipulate the behavior as it is to touch it with 'human awareness. It is like playing with young children, where related­ness and curiosity are crucial to developmental process. The therapist lets go of trying to reframe or change something in favor of properly naming and attentively being with what is present in a person's experience.

This is a piece of what the Buddhist mindfulness tradition calls the skilful means of love. The idea is that when human consciousness touches an experience or behavior with loving awareness, it is af­firmed and grows, to paraphrase Rilke, a little bit more like itself. It is like helping a child learn to recognize, properly name, and respond to different natural states, such as hunger, sleep, and emotional needs. If these states are not properly named and attended to, suffering and acting out will result.[v] A symptom suggests a reoccurring natural state that has no mature human presence to be with it. This natural state might be the need to be seen or to have privacy, or the interest in relatedness, fear, and so on. The idea is that these natural states are not complete within themselves: without a mature human presence to "give them space," they will likely be experienced and expressed as negative forms with little redeeming value.

Mindfulness is, in part, a training of how to listen, be with, and allow the human nature of each of these states to unfold. It is a skill that offers a third choice of what might be called human sponsorship to the existing extremes of (1) repression of or (2) identification with an experience. Sponsorship, distinct from ownership, recognizes the autonomy of the other-whether it is a person or an emotional state or a symptomatic behavior-while also realizing the need for guid­ance, discipline, human social traditions, love, and relatedness. Since the experience or behavior of the other is unique and different in each moment, sponsorship needs considerable skill to practice. It requires that one cultivate listening deeply, opening fully, concentrat­ing, tolerating, being flexible, understanding from the heart, chal­lenging, naming, guiding, and, most of all, loving.

We generally accept the need for sponsorship as a given with chil­dren: Without a human presence to love, accept, and guide them, they will not develop in positive ways. As we mature, we develop the capacity to provide this sort of sponsorship for our own experiences, in addition to the continuing need to-experience it from significant others in our community. A repeating negative expression suggests that some natural experience is occurring without human sponsorship; for it to change, it must first be sponsored. The skill of sponsorship is not simply behavioral, as in the Ericksonian concept of matching behav­ior; nor is it simply empathic, like the Rogerian concept of mirroring. It combines both skills into a third way of artfully being with a per­son. As it develops, change occurs on its own. The therapist then shepherds that change to fruition.

For example, imagine a four-year-old girl with her parents. Her normally charming self is replaced by a whining, unremitting, and unresponsive crankiness. Everybody in the vicinity feels affected by the child's mood, and the parents try nicely, then sternly, to get her to change. These tactics, which usually work, seem to be ineffectual. So the parents :finally come around to listening and wondering what is going on. In this instance, knowing the child's world a bit, the par­ents realize she may be sad about her nanny's leaving and that her best friends next door are moving. So the question becomes how to acknowledge her sadness while also not letting the little girl act out too much or for too long. Again, a key idea is that the persistent nega­tive behavior suggests a natural state (sadness and fear about people's leaving) that has not been properly named and responded to.

Let us compare this situation with that of an adult in a psycho­therapy office, whining about childhood experiences or depressed about current relationships. The same feeling pervades the social context, and the same tendency to want to shut the person down pre­vails. But in the idea of sponsorship, the therapist begins to listen for an underlying natural state that is active but unnamed. This might involve simply listening, or asking questions about present and past social history. The proper naming of the experience is not a scientific classification process, but a touching of an experience with human consciousness. When the naming is accurate, the person will usually soften and become more responsive. The therapist then skilfully stays with the named experience, using language to "bless it'' and bring it into the sphere of the person's normal competencies.


4. Is trance really so common?

In the Ericksonian community," there is a view that trance is an everyday naturalistic state that is exceedingly common. In the extreme version of this idea, trance is every­where, all the time. Formal or even informal testing of trance may be seen as irrelevant, and client reports of not feeling trance may be disregarded, as the all-knowing "Ericksonian wizard" somehow knows the person is in a trance. In this view, powerful yet subtle indirect techniques can access a trance of which only the therapist is con­sciously aware.

The more traditional view is that hypnosis is a socially constructed state or relationship resulting from formal hypnotic induction. In this view, trance is not so common. It requires a situation defined as hyp­nosis and direct suggestions from a hypnotist. Even then, hypnosis tests indicate that only some persons can experience hypnosis.

While there are merits to both views, I would like to suggest a somewhat different approach. In its present form, this view is not so much a scientific fact as it is a clinical suggestion. It sees trance as part of the language of the natural mind, and hypnosis as one of the social rituals for naming, shaping, and giving meaning to its form and expression. This relationship is similar to the idea of sponsorship of other natural experiences: Trance is going to occur, like it or not Without social traditions (such as hypnosis, art, religion, or ritual) to guide and artfully contain its expression, it will manifest as symptom (s) and be experienced as suffering.

What kind of natural state is trance? It is one that occurs when identity needs to preserved, transformed, or recreated. Identity is organic and impermanent, and undergoes major changes at certain times-for example, at such family events as births, deaths, mar­riages, illnesses, job changes, graduations, traumas, divorces, and leaving home. At such times, the old way of knowing one's self and one's world "dies" and a new identity must be born. This is a second­order, and occasionally a third-order, level of change (see Bateson, 1972). Since the normal conscious processes are designed to main­tain the present order (they are conservative in nature), they must be relinquished for a different type of mental process.

Trance is precisely this type of process. In the experience of trance, time is suspended, logic is more flexible, focus is intensified, frames loosen, receptivity is deepened, and primary process is prominent (see Gilligan, 1987, 1988). This makes control secondary and change of perspective primary.

Thus, when a person or system is undergoing an identity change, trance will tend to show up spontaneously. Trance and trance rituals are present in virtually every culture, especially at transitional points. Symptoms also tend to occur around these transitional points; that is, a person is most likely to develop a symptom following significant life changes (Lazarus, 1966). This suggests that symptoms are sponta­neous trances without good social rituals and human presence to spon­sor and guide them. Thus, in therapy the point is not so much to introduce trance as it is to introduce hypnotic forms that allow the trance that is naturally occurring to be socially sanctioned and worked with.

From this perspective, it does not make much sense to think of trance merely as behavioral or simply as a social interaction between hypnotist and subject. This is like reducing love to the exchange of words or the experience of art to the commentary of critics. It makes trance too much about the therapist and not enough about the client's natural experience of growth and change. A minimal understanding of trance requires an appreciation of the inner and outer worlds, of natural mind and social mind, and especially an appreciation of how the altered states in a person's life are always occurring within a life stream of specific events. By seeing the symptom as a trance indicat­ing an identity shift, hypnosis becomes a social ritual that provides a skilful means for connecting the change process to healing resources.

While this naturalistic view of trance is somewhat different from the traditional artificial or purely social view, it is also different from the Ericksonian view that sees trance as exceedingly common.[vi] To confuse trance with the mental "spacing out'' that takes place through­out the day is to miss its deeper clinical significance and potential.

5. Is trance always such a good thing?

We in the Ericksonian com­munity have sometimes naively approached hypnosis as the panacea for all that ails you. In its extreme version, the idea is that if we could only go into trance and stay there, happiness would be ours forever. This dangerous and seductive view makes certain things more difficult, such as being present as a spouse or parent or participating as a citizen in the community. Further, it assumes that trance is always a good thing. My view is that hypnosis, used wisely and in modera­tion, can be a wonderful and helpful experience. But it can be, and sometimes is, used as a narcotic, a drug like state to numb or turn one away from participation in life.

Trance is especially likely to be used as a dissociative tool among trauma survivors, to protect the self from further harm (Terr, 1994). But this dissociative skill may continue to be used long after the threatening conditions have dissipated, thereby turning the person away from the call to re-enter the life of the community. For example, a person growing up in an alcoholic family may have learned to "trance out'' when a parent was abusive or intoxicated, but now automatically uses 􀀪e same strategy to avoid dealing with the fear of intimacy with a spouse. Then, what had been an ally becomes a hindrance to growth.

The value of trance is in the way it is used. You can be in trance and not "be with" your self or "in" life. Erickson had a wonderful capacity to sponsor trance and other psychological states; that is, he really connected the natural experience of trance to the person's well-being and learning. Whereas patients had previously learned to use trance to get away from the world, Erickson joined with where they were to help them use trance to come back into the community. This skill of being with a person's ongoing experience-what the Buddhists call mindfulness-is simple but elusive. It is far more important than whether a trance is present. In fact, when more attention is paid to mindfulness, trance will be used more effectively in therapy. It will be seen as a natural state that can be misused, and thus as something to approach with sensitivity and awareness. What is very important, it will not be seen as a panacea or a lifestyle, but as a resource available at various points in one's path. In this view, hypnosis is one member of a family of approaches that can promote peace of mind, relieve suffering, expand heartfelt understanding, and allow self­transformation.

6. Is indirect communication such a good thing?

A hallmark of the Ericksonian approach is the use of indirect communication, ostensi­bly to enhance therapeutic responsiveness. To me, this is one of the most misunderstood and potentially harmful aspects of the Erickson legacy. Such misunderstandings arise partly, I believe, from a confusion of signs with symbols. Signs are context-invariant descriptions; that is, they mean roughly the same thing in any situation. Symbols are context-variant, their meaning is contextually constructed (see Pribram, 1971).[vii]

Signs and symbols may be seen as two poles on a dialectic. I be­lieve the Ericksonian community is making the same mistake as tra­ditional therapy by becoming too biased toward descriptions as context-invariant signals. A problematic behavior is seen more as a sign to be interpreted by the person in power, that is, the therapist. Thus, the meaning of a headache, a dream, or a marital fight is invari­ant, and is listed in the code book of the therapist's system. For ex­ample, a headache might "signal" sexual repression, which the thera­pist then takes as the "real" underlying problem to be defeated.

In this view, the therapist's superior training and expertise give privileged access to the deeper (problematic) meanings of the client's life. The therapist is justified in the decision to, and even ethically obliged to, technically operate on the client with a method, such as an indirect technique, that presumably will causally change the un­derlying problem. This "benevolent dictator" approach assumes that since the meaning (or deep structure) of a problem, such as a head­ache, is context-invariant, the method (e.g., story or indirect tech­nique) used to treat the problem is also context-invariant (cf. de Shazer, 1994). This gives rise to popular practitioner "story books," similar to dream interpretation handbooks, in which the therapist can look up the proper story to be used to "cure" a given problem.

From a ·relational point of view, this is the power principle in action. The implicit premises are that (1) the therapist knows things about the client that the client does not and should not know (pre­sumably because he or she could not handle this self-knowledge), (2) the therapist can and should use this information to influence the client deliberately without his or her permission or awareness, and

(3) this deceptive practice actually works and is helpful to both the client's and the therapist's growth.

This is, I believe, a dangerous trend in the way the Ericksonian community has used the ideas and techniques of symbolic communi­cation. It gets away from Erickson's cornerstone emphasis on the uniqueness of each person and each situation. Such an emphasis implies that meaning is never fixed; it is different for each person and, to some extent, for each moment If nothing is fixed, the thera­pist has no ground to stand on, no code book to consult, no deep structure to discern.

This other pole on the dialectic suggests that problems, as well as the therapist's theories and responses to them, should be read more as poems than as scientific facts or entities. In poetry, as in hypnosis, the goal is to reconnect language to felt experiences or, to quote Rilke, "to feel closer to what language cannot reach." The idea is that de­scriptions become dysfunctional when they are no longer context sensitive; that is, they no longer are connected to the pulsation of the present moment. When disconnected, descriptions function as fun­damentalist texts that reject what is for what should be, thereby cre­ating suffering (see Gilligan, 1996).

The repoetization of description is first and foremost a shift not in the content of the text, but in the relationship of the reader to the text. Thus, the magic is not in the story or its cleverly constructed details, but in the reengagement of consciousness to a story such that new meanings and experiences are unfolding. This is the primary goal-in experiential-symbolic communication: not cleverly to deceive but experientially to awaken the client's consciousness.

Thus, the client with a headache complaint is seen to be rigidly attached to a frame of reference. The peculiar way that the client is holding on, no doubt in an effort to avoid further suffering; is shut­ting down the healing principle that permeates the present moment. The therapist is seeking to reconnect with that healing principle by joining with the client's process, listening to the "reified poem" of the headache complaint, feeling his or her own poetic responses ("It re­minds me of .... "), and then using therapeutic skills to feed back a related· poem (such as a story, a paradox, or an indirect technique).

Such a poetic exchange is not an associational free-for-all where anything goes. Tremendous constraint and discipline are involved in any art. In the art of therapy, the therapist is committed to the emer­gence of new responses from the client, so considerable concentra­tion is needed to stay engaged with the client at multiple levels. At the same time, the therapist realizes that he or she is not in control or has some privileged access to deep structures; the therapist is more trusting and is curious as to how this engaged poetic process can produce new meanings that are more vital and workable for the client.

The important point is that the meaning of the indirect communi­cation is relationally derived. Just as sweetness is not a property of sugar (rather, it is an experience of the relationship between the sugar and the tongue's tasting it), the therapeutic meaning derives relationally from the connection between therapist and client. This leads to a more collaborative, indeterminate, curiosity-based under­standing of indirect communication.

Thus, I believe the way in which indirect communication has been talked about in the Erickson community is misleading and unfortu­nate. I think it has led therapists to become more absorbed in their clever techniques than in connecting directly with the client. But as the dancer Isadora Duncan said when asked to explain the meaning of a particular performance, "If I could explain it, I wouldn't have to dance it!" So rather than plotting and planning to deceive clients, thera­pists should, like devoted artists, join the psychic field that allows the dancers to dance by the healing principle.


7. Are failures important to admit?

One of the compelling aspects of Erickson's legacy is his success stories. As de Shazer (1994) has pointed out, every therapist has a persona, and Erickson (and espe­cially his students) described his therapist persona from the point of view of Erickson-the-clever. Like Sherlock Holmes, Erickson-the­clever astounded the reader with a common-sense brilliance and re­markable creativity. Also like Holmes, Erickson seemingly never failed. While the work of Erickson-the-clever makes for fascinating reading and inspirational thinking, its value as a teaching style is less clear. Therapists (and clients) must find ways to accept and work with the differences between ideal and actual outcomes, especially failures. Surely Erickson failed many times, but we know little of how he struggled to learn from his failures.

In my own case, this type of omission has not been helpful to my development. For too long I downplayed my weaknesses and failures, and tried to act ever confident and always in charge. My taboo against failure especially compromised the capacity for disciplined not-knowing, that essential ingredient of curiosity and creativity.

I have come to believe that therapist failure is essential to therapy success. It is precisely when the client throws the theory back in the therapist's face or resists the therapeutic (or hypnotic) suggestion that therapy actually occurs. At that point, the client is discovering his or her own way, realizing that it is significantly different from the therapist's understandings. The therapeutic process that begins with the failure of the therapist's way must then be cultivated by following and gently giving human presence and structure to each successive expression of the client's way.

We see this process especially in working with hypnosis and with metaphor. Erickson used to encourage hypnotic subjects to translate his meanings, words, and images into their own meanings, words, and images. I believe the therapist should be quite concerned if the client is literally following each suggestion offered, as it suggests that the person is trying to be a "good boy" or "good girl" and follow the therapist's way, rather than discovering his or her own way. As clients develop openness and self-love, they discover increasing dif­ferences between them and the therapist. The inadequacy of the therapist's perspectives for the client's needs is realized, and the cli­ent learns that he or she must rely increasingly on his or her own thinking and feeling. Thus, the revelation of the therapist's failures becomes the basis for therapeutic progress.


8. Is love a force to be reckoned with?

The discussion thus far has been somewhat critical of ideas of power, manipulation, and deception. It leads us to ask: Is the power of love greater than or equal to the love of power? Is love as a skill relevant to doing therapy? Can it be effectively used to absorb and transform the violence implicit in a symptom?

I believe the answer is Yes to each of these questions. Once we move beyond our immature and rigid understanding of love as a state that "happens to you" under favorable circumstances, we can appre­ciate it as a cultivated skill and force available under the most ad­verse circumstances (see Fromm, 1956) We see examples of this in the work of Gandhi, King, Christ, Mandela, and others. I think we saw it also in the work of Erickson. Love as a skill has many aspects, including opening, understanding from the heart, grounding, receiv­ing, showing compassion (suffering with), protecting, being with, blessing, noticing growth, becoming committed, warning, and being flexible. I think therapy involves a great a deal of love, and that it is unfortunate that we talk so little of it. (Mother Theresa is fond of saying that there are no great acts, only small acts done with great love.)

I have been encouraged by Erickson's example to move from a place of trying to dictate, dominate, and control life to learning how to cooperate with it, in both the inner and outer worlds. I feel great love in Erickson's work, and find it a good example to remind me of what is possible. The core importance of thinking about therapy in terms of love, rather than of power or manipulation, is growing steadily clearer to me. Thus, I believe it is helpful to open discussions of what love as a skill is in therapy, and how to promote and cultivate the courage to love.



My development as a therapist has been strongly influenced by the example of Milton Erickson. His emphasis on the uniqueness of each person, accepting and cooperating with whatever the person offered, the restoration of balance, and the enjoyment of life, continues to light my path and to point onward. As this path has changed, my style has also changed. Some of the aspects of Ericksonian work that I leave behind include the emphasis on power and manipulation; the other-than-conscious self as a mental apparatus; intelligence as being "in" or "of' the unconscious; trance as always a good thing or an ev­eryday event; the value of indirect communication; and a singular emphasis on success and a taboo on failures.

I am more curious about love as a skill; cooperation as a skill; heart, soul, center, inner self, and original soft spot as complementary terms to that of the unconscious; the intelligence in inter-being; the specialness of trance and its connection to "cousins," such as art and meditation; experiential-symbolic communication that bypasses both the therapist's and client's fixed frames; and the skill of being with failures.

I realize that others see Erickson's work differently. This was Erickson's enigma and strength; his work meant so many things to so many people. My major interest here is sharing how what I learned from him 20 years ago is still changing, for better or worse, in my work today. I hope that this remains true for all of us. As the Buddha said, "Be a light unto yourself."




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[i] 1It should be noted that Haley studied with Erickson in the latter part of the 1950s into the early 1970s, when Erickson's health was much better than during the later 1970s when Rossi was a student and when age and illness were taking an increasing toll on Erickson. It may be that Erickson was a different type of therapist during these two eras, contributing to some of the differences in the two authors' versions of him. A counterpoint to this argu­ment, however, can be found in Erickson and Rossi's (1989) publication of the February man case that occurred in 1945. Here, as in most other cases reported by Rossi, the primary emphasis is on hypnotic work. So while Erickson may have changed some, the differences between Haley and Rossi may. reflect more of their own biases. That Erickson's work could support such differences is perhaps the most interesting point.

[ii] A good example of this commitment to balance is found in Erickson's dedi­cation in Erickson, Rossi, and Rossi (1977): "Dedicated to an ever progress­ing understanding of the total functioning of the individual person within the self separately and simultaneously in relation to fellow beings and the total environment."

[iii] The shortcomings of the ideas of power and control have been addressed by others, including Keeney (1983) and Hoffman (1985).

[iv] My personal view is that an admirable struggle existed in Erickson be­tween the power principle, which reigned supreme and unchallenged dur­ing Erickson's time, and the cooperation principle, of which Erickson was a major originator. This struggle is ·similar to that of Morehei Ueshiba, the founder of the martial art of aikido, who was also known as the greatest martial artist in Japan's history. Ueshiba, like Erickson, gave birth to a vision of how to join non-violently with an attacker to reconcile violence. Aikido is one of the traditions that has helped me to see symptoms as acts of violence against self and/or others.

[v] Interestingly, a major tool in 12-step recovery programs is the acronym HALT, for Hungry-Angry-Lonely-Tired. The idea is that these states, if ac­tive but unattended to, are triggers to addictive behaviors.

[vi] There are, of course, other views on the nature of hypnosis. Lynn and Rhue

(1991) provide an excellent summary of the current controversies. I do be­

believe that the present view stands up well as a clinically helpful way to join and transform the client's suffering.

[vii] As Pribram notes, signs can sometimes be used symbolically and symbols can be used significantly, but this but this level of analysis is unnecessary for the purposes of the present discussion.