There are perfectly intelligent people who believe that on Thursday, Dec. 2, a little after 10 a.m., I invited the Devil into my soul.
I'm a skeptic. I find it amusing to think there's a Satan, an infinitely powerful entity of pure evil, who's nevertheless obliged to abide by certain rules. He can't possess you, for example, if you play an LP forward, or if you and another person experiment with a Ouija board together - but play the same record backward, or touch the planchette for a moment alone, and bam, your learnin's burnin'. Evidently, the almighty Lord of Darkness is only mostly mighty; like a vampire, he has to be invited in.
If you're superstitious enough to believe I shouldn't be joking about a soul-sucking arch-demon from Hell, then my recent Thursday morning adventure probably won't sit well, either - because I gave a mild-mannered hypnotist an all-access pass to my innermost mysteries.
Meet Marlene Bennett. She's an instantly likable person, mellow and maternal, and she speaks in a soothing tone of voice even when she's not invading my consciousness. I've come to Evergreen Counseling, her relaxing home office in Lacey, to experience a legally altered state. Bennett is a hypnotist, a hypnotherapist to be precise, and I've asked her to put me under for the first time in my life.
It's impossible to say who "discovered" hypnosis. Indian yogis have used self-hypnosis in trance ceremonies for centuries, religious rituals that influenced early 19th century French physicians of the so-called "Mesmer school." Franz Mesmer was an Austrian doctor who believed humans generate magnetic and telepathic energy and that healing could be improved through the use of magnets. His ideas were garbage, as demonstrated by an elite scientific panel including Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (the guy after whom the guillotine was named, despite his opposition to the death penalty). To this day, the word mesmerism is a synonym, however shaky, for hypnotism.
Hypnotism, on the other hand, was coined (as "neuro-hypnotism") by a Scottish doctor named James Braid in 1842. He too thought the Mesmerists were wingnuts, so he sought to replace their pseudoscience with careful observation grounded in real-world psychology. He arrived on the right track; his methods were practical enough to influence decades of research after his death.
What Braid realized was a hypnotic state is not, in fact, a form of deep sleep as he and other European doctors first believed. Rather, it's an alternative state of waking consciousness in which an entranced individual becomes focused on a narrow line of thought while unusually suggestible. We've since learned we enter trance states all the time, usually without realizing. Ever been driving while thinking, then suddenly realize you've arrived home as if by magic? Your conscious mind was so focused on a primary line of thought that your subconscious took over as chauffeur, and your "missing time" was a form of hypnotic trance.
We've all been hypnotized, but this time I wanted to go deeper.
Bennett says hypnotherapy can be used to address a variety of psychological ailments including depression, addiction, sleep disorders, even post-traumatic stress. We decided to focus on my tendency to overeat. After all, I don't want to end up as one of those guys you see on a Wal-Mart shopping mower.
"Overeating," she explains, "is so complex and has so many emotional factors. It's really a long process. I work at getting to underlying attitudes and beliefs. ... Eating becomes a subconscious activity, and our brain has all these little different games that it plays. ... When (people begin) to eat unconsciously, they're not registering that whole process. They're not really experiencing the food. They're not paying attention to how much they eat. They disconnect about (neck high) from their bodies, so if we eat too much, we might notice we're uncomfortable for a short period of time - it's usually just a second or two - and then the head ‘goes away' and disconnects from the body." As in hypnosis, conscious thought is so focused on something else that the subconscious mind is free to run amok.
"With weight," she said, "what I do is work to return food to a place where a person eats only when he's hungry and can readily recognize when he is hungry ... and is able to be conscious and in his body enough to recognize when to stop eating." Bennett believes most issues, including addiction and overeating, are related to secret self-esteem problems, so she starts there, with repeated affirmative messages.
Bennett usually hypnotizes a client in the first session to help relieve nervousness about the process, the kind I'm feeling right now. She encourages clients to practice autohypnosis (self-hypnosis) from then on. She gives me a CD she recorded, Relax Into Your Inner Strength, to help facilitate this.
I ask Bennett about some of our common "knowledge" about hypnosis, gleaned largely from TV and comic stage hypnotism. I ask her if people on stage are really entranced, and she says they probably are. Stage hypnotists have methods of selecting the most suggestible audience members. "It's not that difficult," Bennett shrugs. A performer may, for example, scratch his or her cheek while watching to see who unconsciously mimics the gesture. "Contagious" yawns are a symptom of suggestibility.
Is it true some people can't be hypnotized? I'm wondering, of course, if I'm such a person, as that'd be devastating for the purposes of this article. Bennett insists her methods work on anyone.
I ask if hypnosis can really unlock memories we can't remember with our conscious mind - the address of my first apartment, say, or the identity of the killer in the black fedora. She says it happens, but the process of storing experiences is so poorly understood that "recovered" memories are not admissible in court. It's easy to manufacture memories, even without trying to; therapists have been fined millions of dollars in court for "finding" memories of incidents that were ultimately proven never to have occurred.
Bennett says it's good for a client to know as much about the process as he or she wishes before going under. Eventually, though, it's time to get down to business. The session takes place in her smallish office. I turn on audio and video recorders, then sit back. "I always keep it a little warm in here," Bennett acknowledges, as it keeps clients from feeling chilled when their blood circulation slows from deep relaxation. She sits in a rolling desk chair with access to a microphone. I lounge in a recliner, my feet extending off its leg rest, and don old-school headphones. Those are the doors by which Old Scratch, in the person of soft-voiced Marlene Bennett, will be allowed to slither into my sacred soul.
Technically, the process is called induction. Bennett explains she'll ask me to envision, as fully as possible, a scene from nature. That setting can be real or wholly imaginary, but it must be a place that puts me at ease. She tells me people often have a hard time imagining their scenes completely and focus on one detail at a time. I anticipate no such difficulty, as I dream in full-color IMAX 3-D with surround sound. She says I might drift into a "gray soft fuzzy space" and encourages me to go with it. I scoff inwardly. Right, Marlene. Sure.
"That pleasant scene in nature," she explains, "is used to keep the conscious mind busy, which allows the subconscious mind to come to the surface. ... At that point, I can scoot around the conscious mind and deal very directly with the subconscious, to get those underlying attitudes to turn around so much faster."
After a few comforting affirmations, Bennett instructs me to take three deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling completely each time. Then she counts to 15 slowly. Behind her voice I hear spa music - birdsong and lapping waves over slow synthesizer chords - from a New Age CD. The first weird moment occurs sometime around the number 10, when I suddenly realize I can't remember the last number Bennett said.
"Let nothing bother now," Bennett breathes. "Twell ... Thuhteen." Those aren't typos. She's using a speaking technique called psychosonics, which derived from research into how children learn language - and how to hide subliminal messages in advertisements. "It's a way I have of speaking," she explained earlier, "where I barely round the word off, just enough to make it difficult for the conscious mind to understand." Extra effort is needed for the conscious mind to complete Bennett's speech patterns. Besides, the content of what she's half-saying is deliberately "boring and repetitious." After a while, the conscious mind "gets frustrated" and goes looking for other, more entertaining diversions ... and that's when Bennett instructs me to think of my nature scene.
I know exactly which scene to use. When I was a grad student in Illinois, my friends and I would go skinny dipping at a lake in a remote nature preserve. We'd stay out all night, warm from bottles of red wine, and bask as the sun rose pregnant and red behind soft layers of mist. My friends were young and beautiful, but the setting was always more idyllic than erotic for me. It was rather like the nymph scene in Fantasia. Strangely, though, I'm finding I can't fully imagine the scene now. I can only recall one sense memory at a time. I can hear the lapping water, or feel it against my waist, or imagine a face, but not all at once.
I asked Bennett before the session if she can tell when a person's under. "It is so easy to tell," she said, smiling. "You can see their breathing change, and there's different things to look for - rapid eye movement during a certain part." Sure enough, I can feel my eyes starting to twitch. Holy schnikes, this is actually happening. I experience no fear as the trance washes over and through me like a fog bank.
As with a drug trip or any other altered state, it can be challenging to describe an experience for which we possess no common vocabulary. Bennett tells me to "release all tension," and my limbs grow so heavy I can feel my arms digging grooves into the chair. Only my index finger feels weightless. My feet appear to have been stuffed with lead weights, and I remind myself there's no danger of my leg bones snapping where the chair rest ends. Bennett's voice continues in my ear, though when I listen to the tapes a day later, it's often impossible to make out what she's whispering. The effect is eerie, like something from a Ghost Hunters EVP analysis. I make out, "Heaven ... heaven." It was actually, I'll learn later, the phrase "heavenly within." But in this dreamy moment, though I've never in my life believed in a God-designed afterlife, it strikes me how wonderful it would be if my lake scene could stretch out forever - if this could be my Heaven, at least in that protracted moment before my dying mind slips into oblivion. On the audiotape, it sounds as if Bennett whispers - she can't possibly be saying this - "Release all death." So I do.
Even for a non-believer, the word Heaven has such powerful cultural connotations that it serves as a kind of password. It's at that exact moment, in fact, that a gray soft fuzzy space swells into my mind like hot wax from the bottom of a Lava Lamp.
"Things are true," a voice assures me, though I'm aware I'm hallucinating. I want to go into the cloud, very badly in fact, but I can't make this happen. Instead, as my eyelids flutter, occasional warped glimpses of the outside world beam into my brain as through a fisheye lens. I follow Bennett's admonitions to refocus on my nature scene. I imagine my friend Lisa, who wears nothing but long brown hair and fat beads of mist, hugging me warmly. Then the moment dilates into a limitless future. I weigh more than a neutron star. Pain is gone. It's my Heaven. I'm in Heaven, and my heart beats only a few times a year.
Bennett tells me I can wake now, that I'll be alert and energized, yet I feel pleasantly paralyzed. I can open my eyes, but I can't close my mouth or even change the direction of my eyes. The time it takes me to rouse fully, as shown by the tape, is less than five seconds, but it feels like five minutes. "So," Bennett asks, "How ya doin'?"
"Huh?" I'm still buried up to my eyeballs in warm honey. I ask how long I've been under. I expect 20 minutes. It was 40. I'm unable to formulate intelligent questions, asking only whether we conversed while I was in my deepest trance. She says no, that all she did was soothe and reassure me. I'd asked for a posthypnotic suggestion, but she says she never gave me one. I finally manage, "What's the most surprising thing that's ever happened during a session?"
She seems uncomfortable but divulges that every once in a while, a client will "recall" something under hypnosis that couldn't possibly have happened within his or her lifetime. One client vividly described the day she and her husband were buried alive. She could see the sun winking out as the last brick of her sepulcher was slid into place. I ask whether the client might be remembering a dream, or a childhood viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Bennett shrugs. Who can say?
I can't say whether Heaven exists, though I see now what I'd like it to be. I don't know whether repressed memories represent actual events, or re-narratized constructions, or mere inventions of the subconscious mind. What I do know is this: I had an experience under hypnosis that I've never had before. I really did glimpse Bennett's gray soft fuzzy space. Was it the power of suggestion? Sure. Does it matter?
A few minutes later, I was ravenously hungry, as if I'd played through two consecutive seasons of Survivor. It was literally the hungriest I've felt in years. Even so, halfway through lunch, I felt unpleasantly full. I skipped dinner that night, skipped breakfast the next day, and ate a reasonable lunch. Was it the placebo effect? Of course. Bennett never said a word about my appetite while I was under, at least that I can hear on the tapes. Indeed, some therapists believe hypnosis depends entirely on the placebo effect. But y'know what? The placebo effect has an effect. It often works. I don't know how long the changes to my eating habits will last, but I was smiling all day.
I guess what I'm saying is, if Marlene Bennett is my Dark Lord and Master now, I could do a lot worse.