Although many of us tend to think of hypnosis in terms of swinging stopwatches and making unsuspecting people act like chickens, it turns out that this age-old practice is now being used for far more practical purposes, including better health and lower hospital bills. However, as progressive as this may sound, I wonder if such an approach to easing suffering ultimately gives us more or less control over our bodies.
The practice of hypnosis dates back to the late eighteenth century when German physician, Franz Mesmer, theorized that the universe contained an invisible, health-inducing “fluid” that could be transferred from one person or “animate being” to another using inanimate objects such as magnets; a process he called “animal magnetism.” (Using this term to describe someone’s sex appeal didn’t happen until years later.)
Over time, Mesmer discovered that simply passing his hands in front of a patient’s body had the same effect as when he used magnets. This led to the introduction of the term mesmerism, which eventually gave rise to the practice of hypnotism some 70 years later.
At one point the French government appointed a Board of Inquiry to investigate Mesmer’s theories. They concluded that not only was there no evidence of the so-called animal magnetic fluid, but that any supposed benefit from Mesmer’s treatments was due entirely to the imagination of the individuals involved.
Today, the practice of hypnotism looks much different than it did in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, although the underlying premise—whether applied knowingly or not—is the same: the idea that you can be trained to think, act, and even feel differently through the power of suggestion.
Despite its dubious debut, many in the medical field now consider hypnosis—when performed on oneself or, more commonly, with the help of a trained practitioner—to be a reliable, if not entirely understood, form of therapy. According to a recent column by Melinda Beck in the Wall Street Journal, “Scientific evidence is mounting that hypnosis can be effective in a variety of medical situations, from easing migraine headaches to lowering blood pressure, controlling asthma attacks, minimizing hot flashes, and diminishing side effects from chemotherapy.” One study even found that patients who were hypnotized before surgery saved an average of $331 on doctor’s bills and pain medication.
Citing various experts, Beck goes on to say that, contrary to widespread misunderstanding, “Real hypnosis for therapeutic purposes gives subjects more control over their minds and bodies, not less.”
At first blush this may seem like a reasonable conclusion. But, as I’ve thought more about the subject, the one question that keeps coming to mind is if it would ever be a good idea to allow another individual—even someone with good intentions—to manipulate my thoughts. This sounds like I’d actually be losing control of something I’ve learned—and many doctors and medical researchers confirm—has a direct impact on my health.
If I agree to relinquish control in one instance, who’s to say that won’t leave me that much more susceptible—for better or worse—to the power of suggestion in the next . . . or the next?
For me the most effective and health-inducing thoughts come from deep, contemplative prayer. While some say that this is just another form of self-hypnosis or even self-delusion, I’ve found it to be quite the opposite, providing me with a clearer, more enlightened view of my relationship to the Divine.
Certainly what’s happening in the field of medical hypnosis offers further evidence of the undeniable link between mind and body, and it seems to be working, at least to some extent, for a growing number of individuals. But my hunch is that as we gain a more divinely inspired sense of self-control, we’ll start seeing more consistent results. Not because of another person’s suggestions, but because of what we discover about ourselves through our own spiritual transformation.
Legislative advocate for Christian Science in Northern California
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