Comparing Buddhism and Hypnotherapy

by Tim Brunson, PhD

The recent cliché-like interest in the application of mindfulness practices within psychotherapy is now being extended to the exploration of its similarities and differences with clinical hypnotherapy. At best this is a difficult and frustrating stretch as it almost always entails a more than simplistic understanding of Buddhism. Furthermore, considering the half-dozen or so rather conflicting definitions of the word hypnosis, any analysis runs the risk of using an antiquated understanding of the field. So, this normally results in an oversimplification of Buddhist mindfulness being compared to a rather incomplete understanding of hypnosis.

Unfortunately, to most in the West, Buddhism is mistakenly viewed only as a colorful religion, which can be summarized as including serene meditation, a renunciation of worldly possessions, and a view that its practitioners consider all reality an illusion. In truth, it represents a very complex, multi-tiered approach to the transformation of the human mind.

Historical and contemporary Buddhism can be summed up as a three-tiered religion. Each consists of a graduated path, which assists a person in their efforts to move away from human suffering and towards one or more specific objectives. It is noteworthy that subsequent levels are based upon the practitioner's mastery of the proficiencies and accomplishments related to the lower tiers. Thus, this approach is significantly different than what is found in the sectarian approaches of the other major religions. For instance, in Christianity it is not assumed that one must become a good Roman Catholic prior to receiving Methodist or Southern Baptist teachings.

The Buddhist levels of transformation are normally divided into the lower, middle, and diamond paths (i.e. Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana). (Hinayana practices are also called Theravada, which translates as the School of the Elders. Jon Kabat-Zinn and Jack Kornfield, two well-know mindfulness advocates, are of this tradition. ) The first primarily focuses on the practitioner's escape from the cycle of suffering, which was mentioned by the Buddha in his first sermon. Hinayana practices tend to center on calm-abiding and insight meditation, as well as the other aspects of the Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha. Mahayana practices, which assume that the Hinayana ones have been somewhat mastered, focus on the achievement of a mind that fully encompasses compassion for all sentient beings. It also adds the necessity of accepting the interconnectedness of all reality.

Vajrayana, which is the approach practiced mainly among Tibetans and Mongolians, encompasses the prior two approaches. However, it adds a very intense set of mental practices. These are designed to enhance the practitioner's ability to influence his consciousness and eventually achieve a level of awareness, which unites all phenomena into a universal interconnectedness that is often called the Clear Light. To achieve this, practitioners receive a series of teachings, which are called Empowerments. These are transmitted by renowned teachers, who represent lineages going all the way back to the Buddha himself. (Vajrayana also is synonymous with Tantric Buddhism. Here the word tantra refers to a continuum, such as the continuum of consciousness between physical lives.)

A current trend in psychotherapy employs the concept of mindfulness within the Buddhist traditions, albeit only from the most basic Hinayana level. Even though the accumulative nature of the Buddhist levels would imply that the mindfulness concept permeates the totality of the religion, it is important to realize that essentially it is a "pre-school" level concept. In order to understand the full implications of Buddhism on Western psychotherapy, an investigator must go much further.

The allure of mindfulness to psychotherapists should not be surprising. If one should delve into the various mental pathologies listed in the diagnostic manuals, careful examinations will reveal that almost all of them have a space/time component. Indeed, traumas – to include those resulting in significant dissociations – anxiety, personality disorders, and even many delusions contain within them a situation in which the sufferer has qualitatively reorganized the perception of location, duration, speed, and direction. For instance, a trauma victim is almost always mentally stuck in a peripersonal awareness of past events. Such memories are deeply encoded within limbic neural substrates, which make it possible to irrationally trigger painful abreactions. Therefore, any trauma treatment should initially (and hopefully with safety in mind) include protocols designed to effectively reorganize the patient's perception of space/time back to a present orientation. If one would presume that mindfulness should be limited only to the present, it is not difficult to understand why such exercises should be of benefit. (However, a more accurate definition of mindfulness would be a peripersonal level of awareness in the past, present, or future.)

Now getting back to the therapeutic use of hypnosis, without an accurate definition it is very difficult to effectively compare it with Buddhism. This task is almost impossible if you should choose to use the rather obsolete post-Freudian views, which are also manifested in the ideas of Milton H. Erickson, MD, that are unjustifiably en vogue in contemporary psychotherapy. This has resulted in an effort to define hypnosis as something that affects the unconscious mind – which is a concept that absolutely lacks scientific credibility – or requires the occurrence of a trance state – which at best is a coincidental, yet unnecessary symptom. If hypnosis is considered to be a state, then it is virtually impossible to compare it to Buddhism, which is essentially a processed-based approach. However, if both are viewed as processes, a rational comparison would be relevant.

There are other reasons that it is difficult to make a comparison between state-based approaches to hypnosis and Buddhism. First, all state-based hypnosis traditions focus on the existence and behavior of the unconscious or subconscious mind. However, Buddhist philosophy has never accepted its existence. Rather, Buddhists – and especially those at the Vajrayana level – recognize that what we know as the mind involves the interaction of subtler forms of consciousnesses. Secondly, although Buddhists at all levels recognize that increased awareness or altered conditions may occur during intense meditative practices, they teach that an attachment to the allure of such states should be a avoided as it may interfere with a practitioner's progress along the intended transformational path.

In conclusion, trying to compare the relevance of Buddhist mindfulness to Ericksonian-oriented hypnotherapy is largely an irrelevant exercise. Any benefit of a mindfulness protocol to a patient undergoing hypnotic treatments is largely coincidental – albeit very beneficial if it helps reorient their space/time orientation away from more pathological ones. On the other hand, if you try to relate Buddhist mindfulness – as well as many from the wealth of the more advanced tantric concepts – to a more appropriate definition of hypnosis, then the comparative exercise will be extremely fruitful. This is possible once hypnosis is understood to be a process involving increasingly efficient selective thought.

The relationship between hypnosis and Buddhism permeates much of what I have written during the past several years. As the primary developer of Advanced Neuro-Noetic HypnosisTM, I must point out that the underlying Neurology of Suggestion concepts were very much influenced by my years of study of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition to my exhaustive examination of both hypnosis and Buddhism, I also have been influenced by the numerous teachings and several tantric-level Empowerments, which I have received from notables such as the abbots of various Tibetan monasteries and even on a few occasions directly from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Once it is realized that both ANNH-related hypnosis protocols and Buddhist practices cause increasingly efficient selective thought capabilities, there should be no doubt as to the meaningfulness of the comparison. Additionally, the probability of enhanced selective thought occurring is much stronger for the higher-level tantric practices than during what I would refer to as entry-level mindfulness endeavors.

The higher levels of Buddhism influenced ANNH in two ways. The concept of interconnectedness – which essentially is the Law of Interdependent Origination that comes from the writings of Nargarjuna, a third century Mahayana philosopher – was one of the two primary influences of Pattern Theory. (The other influence came from the work of artificial intelligence researchers, who were attempting to model the workings of the human mind.) Hypnosis is a process that can be used to restructure the encoding of components of neurophysiological patterns. Thus hypnosis can be employed to affect alterations of both behavior and personality.

However, the richness of any comparison between hypnosis and Buddhism can be more readily found at the higher, tantric level. This is the second way that Buddhism affected the development of ANNH. As both hypnotherapy and Buddhism are involved in therapeutic – or path-like – transformational efforts, both can be considered goal-oriented endeavors designed to restructure mental functioning. In traditional, subconscious-mind oriented hypnosis, the effectiveness of these efforts is largely accidental. On the other hand, within tantric Buddhism the process is much more regimented. For instance, tantric practices are divided into generation and completion stages. The former involves improving the practitioner's ability to concentrate and increasing their span of awareness through space and time. The latter involves the application of these skills to specifically move energy (i.e. consciousness) within their bodies – and presumably between incarnations.

Neurologically these two tantric stages tend to result in the further development of the thickness of neural networks in the practitioner's Reticular Activating System, which is found at the base of the spine, and the Right Orbitofrontal Cortex, which is the brain's center for inhibition, simulation, and anticipation. Further development of the thickness of the networks of the parietal lobes is also to be expected. Simply put, this happens chiefly due to the extensive gene expression, which is caused by the vividness of tantric meditation. Intense gene expression is what causes the complexity of the connections of sensory neurons to motor neurons – which is what converts short-term memory into operational long-term memory. This leads to what is later detected as the competency-based results of tantric practices.

Again, these mind-changing benefits of tantric Buddhist practices cannot solely be the result of unstructured permissive Ericksonian hypnosis techniques – or even direct hypnotic suggestions that lack specific purposes. However, authoritarian/direct suggestions and the best of permissive and indirect suggestions – to include parallel communication in forms of metaphoric imagery – can be employed should the goal be to achieve results relevantly comparable to tantric Buddhist yogas. The Buddhist system is essentially the manifestation of highly focused concentration on specific complex symbolic imagery. This is done best by dedicated practitioners who have followed a process that began with an effort to calm their minds and attain insightful awareness – which are two components of what we now consider mindfulness. This is followed by specific mental exercises designed to cultivate compassion (i.e. empathy and appreciation of others) and an increase awareness of interdependence (i.e. a suppression of unhealthy ego states). Only once that is achieved does the practitioner seek to embark on the more advanced practices, which entails a savant-like development of mental concentration and the ability to manipulate consciousnesses.

Once this is understood, one might gain a better perspective as to the place that the process of improving selective thought may be related to Buddhism. Traditional approaches – although they may at times inspire an increased level of here-and-now awareness – fall far short of attaining the richness of the full mind development processes embedded in the complete range of Buddhist thought. Currently ANNH is the only system of hypnosis, which implies a purposeful regimen of mental development that in any way parallels the essence of Buddhist tradition.

Tim Brunson is a practicing clinical hypnotherapist. He is the founder and the Executive Director of The International Hypnosis Research Institute. He is the primary developer of Advanced Neuro-Noetic Hypnosis, has written and produced 18 courses, and has written and recorded over 150 self-help and clinical CD's, which are available through

Posted: 10/25/2011

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