(B.A. Erickson and B. Keeney, Milton Erickson: An American Healer, April, 2006, pp.270-275)
Milton Erickson was the last great psychiatric hypnotist. In an unbroken line from Mesmer to Freud, he taught the critical importance of trance states: those states in which learning and openness to change are most likely to occur. Daydreams, meditations, prayers, being “in-the zone,” or hypnotic inductions are all states in which we see things from beyond our ordinary consciousness. It is in trance states that people intuitively understand the meaning of dreams, symbols and archetypes.
Erickson was a well-known psychiatrist by the 1960s. He was the founding editor of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis; he hypnotized Aldous Huxley in the 50’s and collaborated with him. Margaret Mead, the distinguished cultural anthropologist, studied with him for more than 40 years. But I never heard a word about him when I was in medical school at the Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, or in my residency at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. Psychiatry was beginning to move toward neuro-chemical explanations for the gamut of the human experience. Hypnosis and trance states were relegated to romantic myths of an archaic age.
I discovered Erickson only after joining the Indian Health Service in the mid-1960’s. I spent twenty years in Indian country, most of them as Chief of Psychiatry at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center. Working with Native American medicine men, I saw things for which my training had not prepared me. Traditional healers could cure patients in varying states of psychological disintegration, in ways I’d never been taught in medical school.
Using ceremonies, myths and sacred objects, I saw Shaman cure the disabled and the psychotic. The hypnotic fires of all-night meetings, with drumbeat and prayer songs, the weaving of ritual, myth and symbols into ceremonies of awesome healing power — I didn’t understand a word of the spoken language, but I could feel its impact. The symbolic world clearly opened up channels to the unconscious mind. Their dramatic power changed people faster than I could with drugs and psychotherapy.
This process was difficult to explain in the traditional language of psychiatry (projection, incorporation, identification). It was only when I met Erickson that I began to understand and ultimately learn to speak this nontraditional language. I discovered Erickson through the writings of Jay Haley. When I learned he lived in Phoenix, I sought him out. Here was a psychiatrist who understood my experiences with clarity and translated what I was seeing into a profound awakening that had enormous practical application in my work.
Erickson revealed to me these guiding principles of healing:
1. A healer will see beyond a patient’s pathology, illuminate and mobilize his strengths, and help him move beyond his limitations;
2. Find ways to open up a channel into the unconscious mind and get patients to see their reality differently. Using stories, symbols, shared myths, and prescribing rituals, ceremonies, even ordeals, healers get people to look at the familiar in new ways.
3. Uniquely craft a healing experience for each individual in which both the patient and the healer are totally involved in the experience. There is no dispassionate, distant, unavailable transferential object to work through one’s neurosis.
Erickson was proud of the factor that he had Indian blood. He sponsored a scholarship at Phoenix College for Native American students who retain the practices and language of their tribal traditions. He was the keeper of a Navajo medicine bundle (ji’ ish) which contained the medicine man’s most sacred healing totems. In all my years in Indian country, I had never seen the contents of an entire one. I asked Erickson if he had ever looked inside it, and he said with a twinkle, “You get to see everything, when it’s time.”
A healer is more than a good doctor. A good doctor can make the diagnosis and prescribe the appropriate treatment; a great doctor can make the diagnosis, treat the patient and also add a preventative component that teaches the patient how to avoid exposure to trauma and pathogens. A healer can do all of that and, in addition, make a personal connection with the patient in such a way that touches them at a soul level.
How did Erickson get initiated into the shamanic journey? He got polio at age 18 and suddenly found himself paralyzed. Unable to move, it gave him time to observe people and learn to understand and speak the language of nonverbal communication. It was the beginning of his appreciation of the principle of utilization. It didn’t matter what happened to you, only that you learned something from it, which was its own reward.
Playing the hand you’d been dealt meant that what was once a curse could become a blessing. Erickson never stopped learning. At 57 he was stricken with post-polio syndrome and learned to face the world with slurred speech and weakened muscles.
All healers have the capacity to see things from beyond an ordinary perspective. When
healers look at patients, they see not only their pathology (Western medicine’s forte), but also look inside and identify their strengths. They use whatever symbols and language the patient speaks, in order to mobilize those strengths and move them beyond their limitations. Everything in the natural universe has potential for symbolic value, because symbols acquire meaning only when you supply them with their power.
A friend of mine watched a Navajo Roadman (a spiritual leader in the Native American Church) take out a fluid-filled vial and sprinkle some drops onto a patient. Later, my friend asked the healer, what the stuff was that he sprinkled on the man. The Roadman said it was very powerful medicine and then dropped the subject. The next morning, while my friend was taking a drink from a water bottle, the Roadman took it from him and poured a few drops from the bottle into a teaspoon. Holding the bottle in one hand, and the teaspoon in the other, the Road Man looked at the bottle and said, “If you drink this when you are thirsty its water.” Then, turning to the teaspoon he said, “When you need it for healing its medicine.” Symbols only have meaning when what you bring to them supplies then with power.
Erickson knew that if you look again at everything you know, you might see it from another perspective. If you can move beyond your ordinary consciousness, and suspend your preconceptions, you can create new endings to old stories.
All healers find ways to penetrate into the unconscious without direct interpretation. They know that conscious mechanisms of defense can keep patients from understanding the most insightful interpretation. Healers create a symbolic language that speaks uniquely to each patient and illuminates the undefended areas of the mind. Using stories, rituals, ceremonies, even ordeals, healers make a connection with a patient’s soul that opens up channels of healing.
Early in his career, Milton worked at Worcester State Hospital in Rhode Island. One of the patients was a harmless catatonic schizophrenic who was called “Jesus Christ #1.” Having ground privileges, JC #1 wandered the campus draped in a white bed-sheet prayer shawl blessing everything and everyone. One day, when Milton was out walking, he came upon JC #1 who said to him, “Blessings on you my son.” Milton thanked him, and then told him he was also seeking a blessing for the other doctors at the hospital. They needed to take a break from their strenuous work and exercise. They needed to replenish themselves so they could take care of patients. Unfortunately, the tennis courts were not in good shape. He told JC #1 that he understood he had the power to bless things and make them beautiful. These tennis courts were God’s creation and he could save them and the doctors. JC #1 said he was here to serve mankind and if Milton could get him the right tools, he could do the job.
JC #1 became the court-keeper, gardener and carpenter; he kept the grounds beautifully and was greeted by the entire hospital community with respect and appreciation. If you can speak the patient’s language, you can tell the story in a way that helps them mobilize their strengths.
All healers create sacred space for their work. This does not mean a religious tabernacle, but a place that is different from ordinary space. A setting that invites people to come in and open themselves up in a way that encourages a soulful connection. Milton’s waiting room and office were filled with magical symbols — a dried stingray was twisted into a crucifix and hung from the ceiling. On a bookshelf was a pelvic bone that looked like a skull with flashing lights for eyes, and everything came with a story. This was a sacred space that encouraged the journey into the unexplored mind.
All healers create a partnership with their patients. They understand that it is both of them together who make the healing work happen, and that there are lots of other helpers (people, flowers, animals, fire, and drumbeat). Everything in the natural world provides the symbols that can intensify one’s healing power. Milton didn’t mind if some saw him as odd; he thought it was a blessing that helped him see the world from a unique perspective.
Healers do not separate themselves from the therapeutic experience, they are right there with the patient. They are not detached, unresponsive, trasferential objects; they are totally involved in the event.
A friend of Erickson’s asked him to visit his aunt if he ever spoke in her city. The aunt had become increasingly depressed and now was reclusive. She no longer went to church or spoke to anyone. When Erickson was in her city, he visited her in her home and asked if she would guide him around. Slowly, she led him from room to room. In one of them, he noticed three well cared for African violets. Each was a different color and next to them was an empty pot in which she was clearly going to propagate another plant. This lady was a talented horticulturist, and Erickson told her he knew these were delicate plants and easily destroyed by the slightest neglect. He said he wanted to prescribe something for her, but before he did so, he wanted her word that she would fill it. She agreed to do it.
He told her that there were 13 different hues of African violets and that she was to go to a specific florist who needed a talented African violet lady to help save them. Then he told her to purchase pots and transplant leaves to grow more. When she had an adequate supply he wanted her to put one in a gift pot and send one to every baby born to a member of her church. Then, to every member of her church who was hospitalized. She kept her promise and moved beyond her despair.
To totally participate in the healing event does not always involve preparing for the event; it just requires spontaneity and a willingness to take creative leaps of faith.
Erickson was a healer. He provided me with a structure that helped me move beyond my boundaries and own my own power. He encouraged me, as he did all his students, to tell the story our own way, and not mimic his; to be authentic and use whatever works into our healing repertoire.
On one of our last times together, I gave him a Hopi Sun Kachina and told him it reminded me of his influence on me. He provided the light that helped me shift my need for certainty and enjoy the free-flight into the unconscious, where the magic of our work is realized.