The Use of Intention in Dreamwork, Hypnosis and Ecstatic Trance

by Nick Brink Ph.D

In working with dreams, hypnosis and ecstatic trance we often seek to find answers to questions, solutions to problems or ways to change with the help of these altered states of consciousness.  We often approach these altered states with the intent to influence the state in some way to attain such goals.  I will briefly review dreaming with such intent before examining the use of intention in hypnosis and then more fully its use in ecstatic trance, the power of which I have become most impressed over the last few years.

With regard to dreams, those who are adept in lucid dreaming recognize the power of intent in dreaming lucidly, that asking questions of, giving direction to and influencing lucid dreams is a powerful tool to gain greater self-understanding, give new directions to life and go beyond our conscious and personal unconscious to access the Universal Mind or what others have called the Akashic field, the morphic field, the divine matrix or the collective unconscious.  An exceptional resource in understanding the power of lucid dreaming is Robert Waggoner’s book, Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self.

For the more common none lucid dream, influencing the dream can occur to some degree by expressing the intent of what is sought and wanted from a dream while falling asleep.  One of my early valued experiences in expressing such intent was suggested many years ago by Hawk Little John, a Cherokee Medicine Man who suggested to me that when falling asleep “Ask your dreams to give you a gift.”  Jean Campbell, in her book, Group Dreaming: Dreams to the Tenth Power has examined the power of asking for something from a dream while falling asleep.  She offers the results of a number of experiments of when individuals of a group who may live at a distance from and do not know each other were instructed to fall asleep with the intent of meeting each other in their dreams.  The book Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge uses this technique to lead a person dream lucidly.  He suggests that throughout the day ask yourself the question, “Am I Dreaming?” and eventually you will ask that question within a dream and you can answer, “yes,” thus beginning the experience of a lucid dream.

Yet influencing dreams is much more difficult than influencing a hypnotic experience.  The core of hypnotic literature is just that, the power of the influence of hypnotic suggestions in giving new direction to one’s life.  First, like dreams, hypnosis can be used to uncover or retrieve information from the unconscious regarding issues of concern in one’s life.  The information that comes from both dreams and the hypnotic experiences is generally in the language of metaphor.  What comes from dreams is spontaneous, while what comes from the hypnotic experience is accessed with intent or hypnotic suggestions.  The topic of trance induction will not be considered here, but once trance has been induced suggestions sometimes framed in metaphor can assist a person in accessing unconscious information.   For example a person can be hypnotically led to go down in an elevator or down a hallway to look behind doors, doors sometimes labeled with such signs as “What is bothering me?” or “What is the solution for me to let go of my anxiety?”  What is then experienced can provide answers to the issues of concern.  This process can be very creative, exciting and effective in finding answers and directions.   A psychotherapist is generally the facilitator in leading a person to find answers and directions, but in some cases, for the experienced person, self-hypnosis can be effective in providing the same results.  Again many books have been written on this topic, some collections of hypnotic techniques and suggestions to be used for specific problems.  One classic is William Kroger’s Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis In Medicine, Dentistry and Psychology.  A second more recent book is Handbook of Hypnotic Suggestions and Metaphors edited by D. Corydon Hammond.  My first book, Grendel and His Mother: Healing the Traumas of Childhood Through Dreams, Imagery and Hypnosis offers many examples of the use of dream work and hypnosis in psychotherapy.

But five years ago, after more than 30 years of using dream work and hypnosis in the clinical setting I learned of the power of ecstatic trance, thus adding a whole new exciting direction to this work.  After reading Felicitas Goodman’s book Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences I had the chutzpa at the 2007 International Association for the Study of Dreams conference in Sonoma to lead a morning dream group using her techniques to demonstrate the power of eight different ecstatic postures.  I led this group without having experienced this technique and was amazed at the consistency of the experiences with those of Goodman.  I went home from this conference to start a weekly ecstatic trance group that continues to this day on a biweekly basis.  I have also offered a dozen or more workshop for other groups around the country and have collected over 1000 ecstatic experiences that were the resource for my new book to be released in the Spring of 2013 by Bear & Co., The Power of Ecstatic Trance: Practices for Healing, Spiritual Growth and Accessing the Universal Mind.

I will be returning to hypnosis and dreamwork but first I need to explain ecstatic trance.  The anthropologist Felicitas Goodman examined what causes the religious trance in the Apostolic Churches such that members of the congregation begin to speak in tongues.  She concluded that there are five necessary elements: the participants need first a private physical space separate from their activities of everyday life with, second, the expectation of going into a nonordinary state of consciousness that is, third, not crazy but normal, enjoyable and pleasurable.  Fourth, meditative techniques need to be offered to help the participant concentrate, and fifth, rhythmic stimulation of the nervous system is required such as provided by the clapping of hands, the shaking of a rattle or the beating of a drum.  Taking these experiences out of their religious context, she called these experiences ecstatic trance experiences.

Something though was missing when she used these five elements with her students at Dennison University.  Direction was lacking in her students’ experiences.  Then an article by the Canadian psychologist V. F. Emerson gave her the answer, i.e. meditative body postures are an important factor.  Goodman researched books on ancient and primitive art to find what she believed were the postures used by ancient and contemporary shaman and had her students sit, lie or stand in these postures.  With this discovery she found that specific postures led to specific trance experiences.  Some postures were for journeying into the underworld, the middle world or the sky world.  Some were for metamorphosis or shape shifting, while others provided a death-rebirth experience.  Some postures were for going inward for healing and others for divination.   Thus ecstatic trance adds a new dimension while working with altered states of consciousness by adding to the experience rhythmic stimulation of the nervous system and specific body postures.

To understand the power of ecstatic trance lets return first to the power of hypnosis and specifically analytic hypnotherapy.   The process of analytic hypnotherapy is first to use hypnosis to uncover the nature of the problem that brought the client to therapy.  Generally the client comes to therapy seeking a solution to some problem whether emotional, behavioral or of something that is blocking the attainment of some life goal.  The person is then led to as clearly as possible define the affect or feeling triggered by the problem.    By using this feeling with either hypnotic time regression to take the feeling back through time, a procedure developed by and referred to as the affect bridge by John Watkins, or by leading the person to journey with this feeling into his or her unconscious mind using a metaphoric image such as going down in an elevator, the source of the problem is uncovered.  Once the source or cause of the problem is uncovered, there are numerous hypnotic techniques that can lead to resolution of the problem, e.g. suggesting that “with all the wisdom and understanding of your adult self, go back and help your younger self understand find what you need in life to overcome the problem.”  The third step is to bring what is needed forward in time, suggesting that the adult self can now provide him or herself with what was needed by the younger self to overcome this problem, thus providing resolution.

This exact same process can be used in ecstatic trance but without the extensive direction or facilitation of the therapist.  Direction in this process is provided by the selected body posture.  We will examine the reason why body posture is effective in a couple of minutes, but first, let’s consider the seven categories of ecstatic experience, each defined specifically by a body posture: journeying into the three worlds, metamorphosis, initiation or death-rebirth, healing and divination.  In this process we will focus on three of these categories, i.e. divination, journeying into the underworld and death-rebirth, and draw parallels of these to the process of analytic hypnotherapy.  The use of the other categories is also important and effective is different situations but beyond the scope of this paper.

The first step of defining the nature of the problem is revealed in the ecstatic experience provided by using a divination posture.  This revelation generally is provided in the language of metaphor and may not be clearly understood by the rational or conscious mind, but it is most importantly understood by the unconscious mind.  The concern the client brings to the session may at times not be the real problem, e.g. misdirected blame, and this concern may lead the process of therapy down misdirected paths until the right path is found.  The content of dreams though, being spontaneous and reflecting the unconscious mind, often gives more clear clues to the correct path.  The use of a divination posture, of asking the diviner a most general question, “What do I need to be working on?”, as with dreams, opens the person to the more direct path.

The second step is to journey into the unconscious mind to find the source of the problem and sometimes the solution.  Using one of the postures for journeying into the underworld provides us with that avenue into the unconscious mind.  Again what is found is likely offered in metaphor and may not be clearly understood by the rational or conscious mind, though I expect that those experienced with dream work are more likely to understand this language and thus the meaning of the experience.

The third step is to bring the understanding and solution into one’s present life through using a death-rebirth posture.  The death of some hindering aspect of one’s life and the birth of a healthier way of living can be experienced in using such a posture.  Often the person is not immediately aware of the change that occurred, but I have frequently interviewed a person a number of months later to discover that a valued and important change did occur.

How do these postures provide this direction?  Goodman collected many ecstatic experiences for each posture, and gradually the intent of the posture was revealed by recognizing the similarities found in different people’s experiences and growth with a particular posture.  While using this same process of discovery, I was astounded by the consistency of experiences for particular postures.

One thing I now do at the beginning of an ecstatic trance sessions is to have each person stand, sit or lie in the posture, experience it and share what he or she feels the posture is expressing.  For example what do these divination postures remind you of?   Consider the Jama-Coaque Divine and Mayan Oracle postures.   What are they trying to express?  One answer frequently offered is Rodin’s The Thinker, but more open, the fist is not resting against the forehead.  It is a posture of thinking or looking more openly for an answer to some question, and sitting in this posture you are using your entire self in asking the question, not just your thinking, using your rational mind, but using your entire body.  Every muscle of your body is kinesthetically asking the question.  Your body is also expressing the emotion involved, and I venture to say that the spiritual dimension is also present from the preparatory ritual for inducing trance, that is the posture contains all four aspects of a person, the intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual.  For those of you who understand the concept of the medicine wheel which I use in the preparatory ritual, the posture brings together the four directions, East – the intellectual, South – the physical, West – the emotional and North – the Spiritual.

Now consider the underworld postures, the Sami and the South American Lower World postures.  If you want to journey into the lower world it makes sense to be lying down, to be close to the earth.    The posture for journeying in the middle world, such as the Priestess of Malta, is standing with our feet planted, while journeying into the upper world, the sky world, the Lascaux Posture, is the most unstable, lying at a 37 degree angle, to release one from the bonds of the earth.  Lying prone takes us into the lower world.

What is the posture for the death-rebirth experience seeking to express, for example the Feathered Serpent?  The language I often hear is that with your hands at your waist it is expressing “I am ready for anything” or a sense of defiance.  Early in the process of therapy, such change in one’s life is likely frightening, but when the person finally reaches the point of being ready to make that change, what is to be expressed is “I am ready” with a sense of strength and even defiance.  With each posture, the person’s whole self is involved, intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

One finally comment – as a therapist I have led people to resolve problems in their life and helped them open the door to greater personal and spiritual growth.  But with the postures in charge of the process I have found a third and higher direction to this growth, that is of accessing the Universal Mind, something that has rarely if ever occurred in my practice of psychotherapy because therapy is problem focused.  People who are doing okay in life do not come to me for psychotherapy.  Now I am meeting people who seek to go beyond what is usually expected in life, and accessing the universal mind occurs more frequently.