I was without a face and it touched me: Milton Erickson as a healer

In Milton H. Erickson, M.D.: An American Healer (Profiles in Healing series)

Apr 1, 2006 by Bradford Keeney PhD and Betty Alice Erickson MS

And it was at that age...that Poetry arrived
in search of me.  I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
There I was without a face
and it touched me
 Pablo Neruda, “Poetry”

I was awakened by the healing presence of Milton Erickson in 1974.  A young man of 19 years, I was a confused but intensely curious undergraduate student in Psychology at UC Santa Cruz.    The previous year had seen me drop out of college and descend into a dark pit of depression and suicidal thoughts, which led to a sort of death and rebirth process within myself.  When I returned to college, I met Gregory Bateson, an old colleague and friend of Erickson’s, and then John Grinder and Richard Bandler.  Through these connections, I soon had the luck of meeting Milton Erickson. 

That meeting changed my life forever, and Erickson’s legacy has absorbed much of my life path over the past 30 years (e.g., see Gilligan,  1987; 2002).  One thing about Erickson is clear: Like most people, he had many different identities--psychiatrist, father, researcher, journal editor, mentor, practical joker, lover of nature, and more.   He had a keen intellect and was deeply grounded in social realities; he was an exceptional  communicator and a therapist without peer.  He taught in medical school,  founded and edited an academic journal, and worked tirelessly with psychiatric patients for close to five decades.  But along with these rational and worldly achievements, Milton Erickson was also a great healer. [1] Given his heroic efforts to distinguish hypnosis as a reputable therapeutic modality, it is understandable that this aspect of Erickson has been relatively ignored.  However, this oversight has led, in my view, to an incomplete understanding of his work and the possible paths it illuminates for other serious therapeutic practitioners.   What I would like to do in the following pages is sketch a few aspects on the path of the healer, and how Erickson walked it, in hopes that others may find the courage and capacity to find their own paths as healers.

Walking in two worlds: The ground of the healer’s gift

One of Erickson’s greatest skills was his capacity to operate in two “realities” simultaneously: the interior world and the exterior world.  His “inner work” (with a dazzling array of naturalistic trance experiences)  showed the infinite possibilities of consciousness;   his “outer work” (with all sorts of directives to act differently in the social world) showed many creative paths for shifting a person’s identity; and his skill at holding both worlds simultaneously gave him a special capacity as a healer.

 I think none of his students has come close to emulating the remarkable “bi-nocular” balance that Erickson displayed, this beautiful capacity to operate at the intersection of the two worlds, and in doing so,  having a greater depth of vision.  Part of the problem, I think, is that Erickson has been primarily viewed from the traditional Western “mono-nocular” model of external reality being the only viable and “real” world.   Bateson pointed out the dangers of this limited understanding, especially in understanding Erickson’s work, 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)

The capacity to work within the “weave of the total complex” suggests an experience of “internal relatedness,” a process of mindfully entering within the interior of a communal field of consciousness.    In their remarkable book,  A general theory of love, Lewis, Amini, and Lannon (2000) describe this process of an interpersonal neural hook-up as “limbic resonance”:

“To the animals capable of bridging the gap between minds, limbic resonance is the door to communal connection.  Limbic resonance supplies the wordless harmony we see everywhere but take for granted—between mother and infant, between a boy and his dog, between lovers holding hands across a restaurant table.  This silent  reverberation between minds is so much a part of us that, like the noiseless  machinations of the kidney or the liver, it functions smoothly and continuously without our notice.” (p.64)

 By intentionally and mindfully using this process of “limbic resonance,” I think Erickson was able to enter a person’s interior consciousness,  expand it and relocate it within a more vast, resourceful field of which he was a part, and then work within this healing field for therapeutic purposes.

Initiation of others into the deeper world

This sense of a communal healing field was present in my first meeting with Erickson.   I had some strange sense that this is what I had been waiting for all my life.   I surely went into a sort of trance, the first of many with Erickson.  I felt in his presence something wondrous, vibrating, and alive.  I vividly remember an image arising from deep within me, an image of an “American Freud”—a sort of conventional, uptight, dissociated analyst-type with patches on a tweed jacket, pipe in mouth, and massive emotional constipation.   It was an image of who I thought I should be when I “grew up”—you see, I knew from an early age that I would be a therapist.  (I sometimes joke that one look at my family would make it clear that somebody in that mess needed to be a therapist!)        I surely assumed that to be a good professional or, for that matter, a responsible citizen, you needed to assume that disconnected,  emotionally constipated,  up-in-the-head  consciousness.   Erickson, with his sparkling shaman-like presence, coupled with his exceptional  professional  achievements and talents, exploded that image into a thousand pieces,  never to be reassembled again.  In its place was a deep encouragement to be myself, to go deep within and find happiness  in my own unique ways while also helping others.   This was my first healing with Milton Erickson.

Other deep learnings soon followed.  Milton Erickson was the first person I met who was clearly better at trance than me.  I wasn’t good at much else, but I learned a lot about living in a trance while growing up in a violent, alcoholic,  Irish Catholic family (some would say that’s redundant).   Meeting Erickson was a little like the scene in the movie, “Close encounters of the third kind,” where the simple musical pattern offered to the extra-terrestrial space ship is met with a incredibly more complex and beautiful pattern.  Erickson could dance circles around me in the inner space of consciousness,  and I felt like I had finally met my teacher.  More importantly, he was using trance in a fundamentally different way than I had ever imagined.  Rather than using trance to dissociate “away from” the living world of human connection, which is the only way I had ever used it in the trauma-field of my boyhood, Erickson was using trance to “move into” human connection.   In other words, he was using it as a healing process. 

As I attuned to his hypnotic rhythms, I found myself in an incredibly vast, seemingly infinite,  inner space.  I felt surrounded by a loving presence, and touched by an inner spirit.  This spirit offered freedom to explore anything,  to be open to everything, and to be curious about all the possibilities.   Later, I realized that this was the spirit of healing, the spirit that Erickson embodied that touched many lives in profound ways.

This connection awakened something in me that I don’t think I will (or can) ever forget, despite my periodic efforts to do so.  It showed me that however big problems seem to be, there is always a deeper, wider space of possibility and healing that is available.   (Most importantly, the latter is a generative field for the former.)  It showed me that when I feel too restricted, too limited, or too upset, that I am forgetting my membership in an infinite world of spirit.  And that when a wound or trauma needs healing or an identity calls for transformation, there is an inner world with immense intelligence and wisdom that can absorb, hold, guide, and allow such a journey.  In short, these trance experiences with Milton Erickson initiated me into an awareness of a great consciousness far beyond what we usually settle for.

The path of the wounded healer

 In many ways,  Erickson’s personal life followed the classic profile of the wounded healer as described by many writers (Campbell, 1949, 1973; Moore & Gillette, 1993; Eliade, 1958; Turner, 1969), summarized by Campbell (1973):

“The usual pattern is, first, of a break away or departure from the local social  order and context; next, a long, deep retreat inward and backward, as it were, in time, and inward, deep into the psyche; a chaotic series of encounters there, darkly terrifying experiences, and presently (if the victim is fortunate) encounters of a centering kind, fulfilling,  harmonizing,  giving new courage; and then finally,  in such fortunate cases, a return journey of rebirth to life (p. 208)”

 In Erickson’s case, this departure from the normal social order began early.  Life dealt him an interesting nervous system to live within.  He experienced an unusual form of color blindness (so that he could only “enjoy” purple); he was arrhythmic and tone deaf, so what we experience as music was not available to him; and he was dyslectic.  One aspect of his dyslexia was that he didn’t realize that the dictionary was alphabetized until he was a teenager! [2] In a deep sense, all these early experiences placed him in a position “at the edge of the village,” the classic place of the shaman/healer.

This pattern of separation intensified with a severe polio attack at the age of 17.   A major wound to a young man right around the time of initiation into adulthood is a classic sign of the healer in traditional cultures (cf. Eliade, 1958; Moore and Gillette, 1994).    Erickson’s body lay paralyzed (except for his eyes), and he was told by doctors he would never walk again.   This prompted an intensive series of “experiments in learning”, what he would later call “deep self-hypnotic trances”, to explore the possibilities of inner healing.  Extraordinarily, he found through the connection to inner resources and a “creative unconscious” a way to rehabilitate his body (see Erickson and Rossi, 1977).   He walked again with the aid of canes, and was physically very active.  At 46, he was felled by severe serum sickness from a tetanus shot, nearly dying from it.  From then until he died in early 1980 at the age of 79, he was periodically bed-ridden and chronically pain-afflicted with various ailments, perhaps as part of a post-polio syndrome.[3] Throughout all of these immense challenges,  he used his connection to the interior world not only survive but continue to enjoy life.

As an example of his journeys through strange interior worlds, I remember him recounting to me how when he was paralyzed from polio, he couldn’t sense his body in space.  He knew he had a left arm, but could not for the life of him sense where it was in space.  Maybe it was over there, no, maybe over there, oh, perhaps over there.  He knew he had a left foot, but couldn’t image where it was in space or in relation to his right hand.  As Erickson described this sort of jumbled syntax of body parts, I thought of the Scarecrow in the “The Wizard of Oz”, his limbs thrown every which way. 

What was amazing about this experience, and all the others described above, was his relation to them.  He was not a bitter or defeated man.  On the contrary, his eyes would twinkle as he described them as opportunities for learning.   Life threw so many strange things at him, and he responded by going “deeper and wider,” by finding a deep place of interior consciousness  (‘trance”) where he could allow a wise intelligence  (“the unconscious”) to join him and help him accept all these realities as opportunities for learning. 

The return of the healer into the community

It was this hard-won acceptance and curiosity about using difficult experiences to grow and develop as a human being, especially with inner trance states as a resource, that Erickson brought back into the community.   This capacity to skillfully enter and transform painful states of suffering was the basis for his success as a healer and psychiatrist. For the first several decades of his psychiatric career, he worked primarily with psychotic patients in inpatient hospital settings.  He found out pretty fast that they couldn’t enter his reality, so if he wanted to establish communication he would need to enter their realities.  His collected works (Erickson, 1980a, b, c, d) reveal a breathtaking capacity to intuitively work with severely disturbed patients.  With a patient who could only speak word salad, Erickson spent months studying recordings of the man’s speech patterns and then spoke the word salad to develop rapport, gradually adding other types of communications over the course of therapy.  With another patient who believed he was Jesus Christ, Erickson put him to work as a carpenter on a hospital building project.  

With all of his patients, Erickson exhibited a remarkable compassion and understanding of non-rational states of consciousness, and was exceptionally skillful  at guiding people through such inner realms for therapeutic gains.   He used the traditional tools of a healer/shaman:  deep trances, metaphorical stories, temporal/spatial disorientation,  confusion and surprise, non-rational  communications, intense interpersonal absorption, and many other experiential-symbolic methods.  He believed in the value of disrupting the social order of ordinary consciousness as a pathway into deeper realms, and then finding ways to integrate these learnings back into the consensus world.  He was not interested in intellectual  understanding so much as the experiential  transformation of consciousness  so that new realities and possibilities  could emerge.  These are all essential aspects of a healer.

But while he had dazzling  technical prowess and mesmerizing presence, at the heart of his healing capacity was his love and compassion for his patients.  This is often overlooked in all the published accounts of Erickson, partly because it is difficult to convey in words.  But I believe that his exceptional  ability to enter and gently affirm a person’s deepest identity was responsible for much of his success.   Patients and students trusted him and thus opened to his influence in no small part because his heart was kind and generous.  This “discerning heart of compassion” is an integral part to the healer’s approach, and I think Erickson embodied it thoroughly.

Passing on the lineage

Like other young students who studied with Erickson in his final years, I never paid him any money.   This was good, since I was a very poor college student and my family had no money to speak of!   Of course, I fully expected to pay him, and asked him how much it would cost to study with him,  confident that I could secure a student loan.  He looked at me intensely with twinkling eyes and said, “Oh, that’s all right.  You don’t have to pay me anything.  The way you can repay me is that whatever you find helpful for yourself here, pass it on to others.  That’s how you can repay me!”  I sometimes joke that I wish I would have just paid the old man off to satisfy my debt once and for all,  but it is only a joke.  I feel that Erickson embodied a certain lineage of healers that is so needed in the world today, and I am grateful to have “received the transmission” in my own small way to try to pass it on.

That’s my intent in writing this paper.  There is a general consensus that Milton Erickson was one of the great psychotherapists of the last century.  He was unorthodox but highly effective and ethical.  In seeking to understand the nature of his work, we need to appreciate that there were many facets to the jewel: scientific rigor, steely determination and commitment, endless delight in the complexities  of human behavior, exceptional  commitment to professional standards,  remarkable mentorship of students, and a deep connection to the archetypal path of the healer.   I have focused on this “healer” facet, suggesting it was deeply present in Erickson but not sufficiently emphasized by his students.  I have noted a few crucial aspects of the healer’s path, especially in terms of the “hero’s journey” of (a) connection to the regular order of consciousness,  (b) the “break” and descent into a deeper “unconscious” where many thresholds and challenges are navigated, and (c) the return back to the community with the new expanded identity of self.    I suggested that in going through this hero’s journey, Erickson had the healer’s skill to help many others on their own “hero’s journey.” 

The point of all of this is not to deify Erickson, but to encourage others to find their own “hero’s journey.” My intent is to nurture an archetype whose presence is needed in today’s difficult times.  Those of us who feel a “calling” to help others can be encouraged by Erickson’s example to go deeply through our path and to help others to do the same.   We can experientially realize that “reality” is much richer and more alive than we often sense; that there is a vast and deep interior space (“the unconscious”) that can be safely explored for therapeutic gains; and that there is great intelligence within and around us, far beyond the disembodied intellect with which we too often become identified.  We can realize that problems are not to be feared; that wounds are openings to a deeper consciousness;  that symptoms and others non-rational  expressions  can be seen as naturalistic attempts at healing; and that life’s setbacks and challenges are great opportunities for learning and healing.   In engaging with these challenges,  we are guided by Erickson’s “utilization” principle that encourages deep acceptance of difficult experiences;  a safe and effective absorption of them into a deeper realm of a healing consciousness,;  and then skillfully engaging with them with a consciousness  imbued with a fierce/tender/playful presence that is curious about how they may be transformed.  From the healer’s perspective, we can see that this “utilization” principle is not just an intellectual  concept to be flatly applied,  but a relational process that requires the presence of all of our heart, mind, and soul.    It is indeed a hard and difficult path requiring great commitment and ongoing learning, but also a rewarding path that allows us to truly enjoy life, to sense it as sacred and precious, and to enjoy the possibilities of healing and transformation that are always present.

 In seeing the healer in Erickson, we can begin to claim it within ourselves.   In doing so, we understand more deeply the wise words of the great Sufi poet, Rumi:

The inner being of a human being

Is a jungle. Sometimes wolves dominate,

Sometimes wild hogs. Be wary when you breathe!


At one moment gentle, generous qualities,

like Josephs pass from one nature to another.

The next moment vicious qualities move in hidden ways.


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.



Campbell, J.  (1949).  The hero with a thousand faces. New York: Pantheon Books.

Campbell, J. (1973)  Myths to live by. New York: Bantam.

Eliade, M. (1958).  Rites and symbols of initiation: The mysteries of birth and re-birth.  New York: Harper & Row.

Erickson, M.H. (1980a).   The nature of hypnosis and suggestion: The collected papers of M. H. Erickson, Volume 1. (Edited by E. L. Rossi).  New York: Irvington

Erickson, M.H. (1980b).  Hypnotic alteration of sensory, perceptual, and psychosocial processes: The collected papers of M. H. Erickson, Volume 2.  (Edited by E. L. Rossi) New York: Irvington.

Erickson, M.H. (1980c).  Hypnotic investigation of psychodynamic processes: The collected papers of M. H. Erickson, Volume 3.  (Edited by E. L. Rossi).  New York: Irvington.

Erickson, M. H. (1980d).  Innovative hypnotherapy: The collected papers of M. H. Erickson, Volume 4. (Edited by E. L. Rossi).  New York: Irvington.

 Erickson, M. H., & Rossi, E. L.  (1977).  Autohypnotic experiences of Milton H. Erickson.  American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 20, 36-54.  (Reprinted in Erickson, 1980a.)

Gilligan, S.G. (1987).  Therapeutic trances: The cooperation principle in Ericksonian hypnotherapy.   New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Gilligan. S. G. (2002).  The legacy of Milton H. Erickson: Selected papers of Stephen Gilligan.  Phoenix, AZ: Zeig Tucker Thiesen.

Keeney, B. (1977).  On paradigmatic change: Conversations with Gregory Bateson.  Unpublished manuscript.

Lewis, T., Amini, F., and Landon, R.  (2000). A general theory of love.  New York: Random House.

Moore, R., & Gillette, D. (1993).  The magician within: Accessing the shaman in the male psyche.  New York: William Morrow.

Rossi, E. L., Ryan, M. O., & Sharp, F. A. (Eds.) (1983).  Healing in hypnosis: The seminars, workshops, and lectures of M. H. Erickson.  New York: Irvington.

Turner, V. (1969).  The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure.  Chicago: Aldine.

Zeig, J. K. (1985). Experiencing Erickson: An introduction to the man and his work.   New York: Brunner Mazel.



[1] In using the term “healer,” I wish to make it clear that I am not invoking supernatural forces or ascribing magical powers to Erickson.   He worked all his life to emphasize his work in terms of basic (though usually unconscious) processes, accessed by certain states of attention and intention.  On the other hand,  by using the term “healer” I deliberately hope to extend an understanding of Erickson beyond merely mechanistic or materialistic notions. 

[2] For a fuller description of Erickson’s personal challenges and his creative ways of dealing with them, see Erickson and Rossi (1980e), Rossi, Ryan,  & Sharp (1983), and Zeig (1985)

[3] A more complete description of Erickson’s long struggle with physical ailments is given by his wife, ElizabethErickson, in Zeig, 1985.