This Way Up: Psychological Means to Spiritual Ends
The so-called power of words is just another cliché until you encounter a master. Psychiatrist Milton Erickson, a seasoned hypnotherapist, shaped realities with words that were chosen with razor edged precision. I learned about the seminal power of words by studying his work.
Many patients suffering from advanced terminal cancer sought hypnosis from Erickson when narcotics did not effectively alleviate pain. Erickson helped a brilliant professor by putting her into a hypnotic trance and teaching her to dissociate. After inducing a trance, he had her envision placing her head in a wheelchair and wheeling it into another room to watch remembered performances of her favourite operas. She used this technique whenever she felt the onset of pain. This method of pain control served her, up until her death.
In another case, Erickson used time distortion techniques to help a man dying of prostate cancer. In trance, he shifted the patient’s experience of time, seemingly lengthening the time between sharp pains while simultaneously shortening the duration of the pain, itself. He also induced an amnesia for all sensations of discomfort, since the patient was so traumatized by remembered pain, he feared pain even when he was in relative comfort.
How did Erickson achieve dramatic outcomes with the use of words alone? For that matter, how about another iconic character: Dr. Jordan Peterson? Scan the comments below Peterson’s YouTube lectures. How is it that people seem to architect stunning degrees of personal change seemingly triggered by watching a handful of lectures?
As much as there are paragons, those with an amazing capacity to wield speech in a powerful way, we must give some credit to the corollary state of silence. That fertile state, associated with receptivity and learning, is the most pregnant of all. Without it, the therapist, the hypnotist or the educator, get nowhere.
A similar notion is found in Torah scholarship. The sage who scribes each Torah is sanctioned to leave specific blank spaces on the parchment between particular chapters. Rabbi Matis Weinberg describes these visual breaks as “the sanctified and graphic illustration of the student’s need for pause.” He stresses, “the silence is as essential as the speaking,” and offers Rollo May’s conception of the pause as “an active, nimble, often intense state . . . . It’s a state that allows integration to occur, creativity to blossom, learnings to accrue. Weinberg likens it to the artist’s “negative space,” the jazz player’s “afterbeat,” and the mystic’s “void.” No wonder the sages describe silence as a primary pathway to achieving greatness.
In a society where words barrage us everywhere we turn, silence is a commodity in short supply. Print media now accommodates our disinterest in silent contemplation. Many newspapers and books are published with material synopsized into short, bulleted points that can be quickly scanned to satisfy busy readers. Even reading, a beloved and most precious pause for many, has come upon hard times. It’s a shame. Some people will never cultivate the ability to be receptive and will never, therefore, reach a deeper state of knowing.
Could the current situation, characterized by the most extensive pause that the world has ever known, help us resuscitate this long-lost skill? Will we explore the pearls we can access in this state, downloading lectures like those shared by Peterson and others who thoughtfully contemplate the meaning of life? Will we listen more and talk less?
Bringing the pregnant pause back into daily life is as simple as taking another moment before rendering an opinion or, at times, withholding judgement totally. Enough practice and we will accrue further benefits: when we do speak, the words we choose may be surprisingly well-chosen, beneficiaries of an incubation that allows a deeper self to articulate.
Let Jordan Peterson be your exemplar: I always admire that moment when Peterson silently collects his thoughts, contemplating the question that he has just been asked, taking stock, performing an ingathering of ideas.
When it comes to seminal words of the pregnant pause, these beloved companions usually work together.