Wednesday, May 17, 2017

GOING DEEP: A Book Review

by Benjamin Moss and Judy Prince

Be it said from the start that I am not the target audience for this book. The target reader is the therapy practitioner intrigued by the potential of hypnosis and looking for another tool in the therapeutic toolbox. The book is a concise, experiential and eminently practicable manual in the art of hypnotherapy. If I were a therapist—I’m not—I would value its detailed, easy-to-follow scripts and its no-nonsense do’s and don’ts. Everything you need to know is here, wrapped in a manageable and attractive package. As one who values brevity and concision, I’m impressed by the amount of practical wisdom that fit snugly in its ninety or so pages.

That said, even as a layman with no professional application for its contents, I enjoyed the read and learned a lot from it. I came to it with some presumptions about hypnosis from which Moss and Prince speedily disabused me. No swinging timepieces or crystals here, no spooky instructions to “Go to sleep!”, no invitation to weird or untypical behaviors. No regression to childhood experience or prior lives. Moss, the hypnotherapist of long years of experience and Prince, a psychotherapist who came to him originally to learn the practice, are at pains to distinguish what they do, for both the reader and their clients, from the “going to sleep” model. For them, its all about relaxation, gentle guidance and suggestion; the hypnotic state they describe is one of deep concentration and awareness, in which the relationship of trust between practitioner and client is at once intimate and respectful, deep and compassionate without being probing, intrusive or domineering.

What struck me most, in reading The Gift of Hypnosis, was how closely the experience resembles in both skill and intention a practice I myself have been following for more than twenty years: breath meditation. The practice described in these pages is in many respects identical to a guided meditation in which the voice leads the process and suggests a path to follow. Meditation of course is usually less specific in its purpose: hypnotherapy intends to address particular problems—the fear of public speaking, for example, the cessation of smoking, or the improvement of self-confidence or self-esteem. Both skills, or arts, however, (I see them as both) seek the relief of suffering—in part, as the authors point out in a final chapter, by learning non-attachment. Both are a way of going deep into the human psyche, beyond consciousness, and tapping into the limitless and usually unrealized power of the subconscious mind.

It surprised me that Moss and Prince remain so pragmatic in their approach. Romantic that I am at heart, I was expecting something, well… more Jungian in their exploration of the potential of hypnosis, a greater access to the domain of myth and archetype. Thinking back on what I read, though, I realize that what the authors so usefully provide is no more nor less than a gateway into the life of the mind. What interests us in stepping through that gateway may vary greatly. Psychotherapists will, I’m sure, want to take advantage of the access it offers to the past, or to that poetic, let’s say spiritual landscape of dream and mythic narrative where ultimate meanings are opened up for exploration. Others, though, will be satisfied with its potential to arrive at a kind of inner peace and a more balanced sense of self.

The "gift," of course, works two ways, as this small book makes clear. It is not only what is received by the beneficiary, it is also the skill of the practitioner. And, too, the book itself is intended as a gift, as the authors make clear in their introduction. For myself, The Gift of Hypnosis brought me to this realization: not only is the practice related in many unexpected ways to meditation; in some ways, too, the practice of meditation may be a benign form of self-hypnosis. Something, surely, on which to meditate!

Saturday, May 6, 2017


An interesting question came up after the bi-weekly meditation session at my house this past week. I had suggested at the beginning of our sit, in conformance with the metta practice I have learned over the years, that participants send out wishes of compassion and goodwill to all, including those we dislike or mistrust. In this context, at this point in our history, the name of Donald Trump comes inevitably to mind.

So do we send out wishes of goodwill to a man who represents everything we dislike and whose transparent and consistent lying fosters anything but trust? One of our participants balked at the prospect. She thought it would be hypocritical to wish well for a person she despised--and with good reason, amply provided by the man himself. Should she have felt compassion for, say... Adolf Hitler? And in any case, would the goodwill she sent out have any discernible effect? We all thought, probably not.

Thinking back on our discussion--it was not an "argument," because we weren't at all in disagreement about the man who sits, to our mutual dismay, in the Oval Office--I began to wonder if "hypocrisy" was quite the right word. Hypocrisy is a disconnect between the moral values we embrace before the world, and the words we speak or actions that we take. My own core values, and those that inspire the metta practice, include compassion and the Buddhist injunction to "do no harm."

Do I feel inner resistance to sending out compassion to a man I judge does not deserve it? Yes! It's hard to do without an inner reservation of some kind: fingers slyly crossed behind my back! Some part of me definitely does not wish the man well. Some part of me wishes passionately for what I believe to be his deserved comeuppance. And that part, too, derives from what I believe to be another set of core values: justice, equal opportunity and treatment for all human beings, respect for the natural environment, and so on. Is it hypocritical to bypass these in favor of the others? Do some core values stand in open conflict with others?

I think not. I think they are consistent with each other. What's inconsistent with the whole package is to blame others who transgress them. That's where hypocrisy lies. If I extend compassion only to those I judge deserve it, I liken myself to those in political circles who truly believe that health care should be available only to those who've earned the right and the ability to pay for it. Compassion, I have to believe, must be bigger than myself or those for whom I feel it. Compassion has to be unreserved or it becomes, well... uncompassionate.

In meditation, then, if I'm to abide by the value of what it is I'm doing, I need to get past those obstacles in my mind--judgments, reactive feelings--that prevent me from finding that "bigger" place from which to exercise compassion. It also helps to remind myself that compassion can be as healing for myself as much as others.

Thursday, May 4, 2017


No surprise that I found myself thinking about abstraction as I made my way through the spectacular Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last week. I was pondering some pretty basic, perhaps even na├»ve questions, like Why abstraction? And, What is abstraction anyway? Also, gazing at the sometimes unfinished, sometimes sketchily brushed surfaces of both these artists’ paintings: Why leave these surfaces incomplete? And, Is incompleteness abstraction manifest?

I like this simple definition of abstraction: “the process of removing something.” In art, what is removed is generally understood to be any reference to representational or figurative qualities. But then of course something is “removed” as soon as you put paint to canvas, even if your painting is representational or figurative. Say you’re working from a nude model—and there is a whole gallery of superb life drawings by both Matisse and Diebenkorn in the exhibition—you’re removing all the flesh and bones from the human being in front of you and substituting… what? Charcoal, graphite, ink on a sheet of paper. You’re removing the third dimension, too, of course, and making it two-dimensional.

By this token, then—to state the obvious—all art is abstraction, no matter the medium, the period, or the style. What was of particular interest to me, in this exhibition, were the degrees of abstraction chosen by each artist and how they moved—especially, of course, Diebenkorn—in and out of it. I was fascinated, for example, by the juxtaposition of Matisse’s 1914 View of Notre Dame...

Henri  Matisse, View of Notre Dame, 1914, oil  on canvas; the Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired  though the Lillie  P. Bliss Bequest and the  Henry Ittleson, A. Conger Goodyear, Mr. and Mrs. Robert  Sinclair Funds, and the Anna Erickson Levene Bequest given in memory of her husband,  Dr. Phoebus Aaron Theodor Levene; © Succession H. Matisse /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
... with Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #79, 1979...

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #79,1975; oil on canvas; Philadelphia  Museum  of Art, purchased with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and with funds contributed by private donors; © the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

.... both lyrical compositions that work with strong, rhyming lines and overall blue hues. For Matisse, the actual cathedral building recedes in importance in this painting in favor of its general shape, its “aura,” and illusory volume. Its placement in the overall composition floats it improbably above lines that evoke streets and square. It’s the “abstract” of the cathedral rather than its representational stand-in. For Diebenkorn, likewise—as the eye reminds us from neighboring representational images of the artist’s Ocean Park Studio—the physical appearance of the studio, the surrounding streets, the distant ocean are abstracted into a structure consisting of lines and shapes alone.

For both artists, structure, shape, line, color and the application of paint on the canvas surface take precedence over devotion to external appearances. What happens on the surface is their reality, not what’s going on outside. It’s the inner process of perceiving that interests them more than the object of perception—an observation that helps me with my second set of questions, those wondering about completion. Because what’s left on the surface is a record of the perceptive process. What we learn from the artist in these sketchy brush marks, or washy, dripping areas of paint is something more vital than the nature of the world out-there. We learn, human eye to human eye, human mind to human mind, what it’s like in this moment for a fellow human being to experience and recreate the world we share with them. Through the act of laying paint on canvas they communicate not a judgment about the world but a shorthand, instantaneous experience of it, a being-in-the-world, and share that experience with us.

These are two great men—men who have given unending thought to what they do in the studio and how they perceive the world. They are, in a real sense, giants, head and shoulders above the rest of us. From the heights they have scaled through an unfailing commitment to seeing and to making an account of what they see, they offer us the opportunity to follow the path they have blazed for us—if only we will take the time to journey along with them. They require nothing more—nor less!—than our attention.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017


Here's a story of my own that has been on my mind to write. 

By Peter Clothier

My uncle Neil was the back sheep of the family. At least so I believed from conversations picked up from my parents when I was perhaps ten years old. He was my father’s youngest brother (there were three of them) and he had left England as a young man, emigrating to what was then the British colony of Rhodesia. He was, horrors, divorced—an unheard-of scandal in my family in the late 1940s. When he came back to his native country on a visit he brought with him a tan that we, pale Englishers, could only marvel at and envy.

He was, in the eyes of my sister and myself, an impossibly handsome stranger, impeccably dressed in the fashion of those days—always informal in a light suit, white shirt, and ascot. He radiated a kind of cheerful, devil-may-care energy that set him apart from all our other aunts and uncles and inspired in us a sense of wide-eyed, disbelieving awe. His visits in the post-war period, all too rare, were great events in the respectable tedium of our family life.

One of those visits happened during term-time, when I was away at boarding school. I was at first bitterly disappointed, thinking I would miss him; but then thrilled when I was told my uncle was going to stop by and “take me out.” These were momentous occasions for all of us boys during my early schooldays, when parents or relatives would descend for a day, sometimes a whole weekend, allowing us to abscond for a few blissful hours from the dreary prison life of school. 

It was, therefore, with a sense of tingling anticipation that I awaited his arrival. And you can barely imagine how chuffed I was, in front of all my school friends, when Uncle Neil arrived like a Hollywood movie star in a bright-colored, streamlined convertible. They watched with what I was sure was envy as I climbed proudly into the front seat beside him and we headed off down the long school driveway to the main road.

I remember little of the day I spent with Uncle Neil other than the drive. We must have had lunch. I suspect he indulged me with strawberries and cream, my favorite visiting-day treat. But the drive between the chalk cliffs and the green hillsides of the Sussex Downs in a convertible speedster… well, that was memorable!

It happened that not far from the school there was a stretch of “dual carriageway.” There was no such thing as a motorway in those days, and a dual carriageway, with its four lanes separated by a center divider, seemed the most miraculously advanced of modern highway engineering. Sensing its possibilities, my uncle put his foot down on the accelerator and the car shot forward.

The wind blasted into my face and took my hair. I watched the needle follow the arc of the speedometer on the dashboard… sixty, seventy, eighty miles an hour. I was exhilarated. I had never in my life been driven so fast. My uncle glanced over at me with a mischievous grin. Ninety… ninety miles an hour! With a final dip on the accelerator the needle edged up slowly to a hundred… a hundred miles and hour! What a tale to tell when I got back to school! A hundred miles an hour!

And finally Uncle Neil eased his foot back on the accelerator and the car slowed gradually to his normal high rate of speed. He leaned across and patted my knee in a gesture of shared conspiracy. “That was fun,” he said, “wasn’t it?”

It was. Those were the days, of course, before the niceties of seat belts, let alone protective air bags. But then, I knew my uncle was a man who liked to live dangerously and I loved him for it. Loved? No, idolized… Since that glorious drive I have driven a hundred miles an hour myself on more than one occasion, but never with the taste of danger that thrills me even today when I think back on it.  

Think of it, a hundred miles an hour!

Monday, May 1, 2017


... the art of living.

I was surprised to discover, in the course of this morning's meditation, a previously unnoticed reserve of tension in the wrists and hands.

Asking myself what might be the cause of tension in this unexpected place, I came upon this insight: if heart and mind are the instigators, wrists and hands are the instruments of much of my daily action.

The tension, my mind concluded--spontaneously, without great effort of thought on my part--derives from the need to do: I must do something.

And as I reflected further on this insight after meditation, that famous line from Archibald MacLeish's best known poem, Ars Poetica, popped into my head: "A poem should not mean, but be." So I came up with this useful paraphrase as a reminder: A person--particularly a person of respectable years, such as myself--should not do, but be.