Relaxation and Imagery, Meditation, and Hypnosis—What’s the Difference?

Since imagery is a natural language of the unconscious, a coding language intimately related to our feelings, experiences, memories and visions, it is involved in nearly all mind/body approaches to wellness and healing.
Common mind/body methods include relaxation techniques, meditation, hypnosis biofeedback, and “body/mind” approaches such as yoga, Tai Chi, and Chi Gung. When you closely examine what actually happens in each of these practices, you find it almost always has to do with imagery–whether focusing on it or letting it go.
Relaxation techniques are the most widely used, easily learned, and generally useful mind/body techniques because stress is often a significant factor in illness and health-related issues. The easiest and most effective technique I have found for relaxation is abdominal breathing, muscle relaxation, and imagining going to a peaceful, safe place for a 5- to -20 minute daydream vacation.
There are many forms of meditation, but the most common ones involve concentrating your attention on either a neutral or meaningful focus–a single word, image, sound, external object, or one’s breath. Vipassana, or mindfulness meditation, teaches you to simply observe whatever is happening at the time as a focus of meditation.
Meditation tends to create a physiologically relaxed state and helps develop peace of mind because it tethers your mind and prevents it from being carried away by your fears. In essence, it is a way to free your mind from its attachment, fascination, and perhaps even addiction to fearful and worrisome thoughts. Meditation can often be a first step toward being able to use your imagination for your benefit.
Almost every major religion teaches some form of meditation, but as Harvard Professor Herbert Benson has shown, the stress relieving benefits of meditation are generic in that they create a “relaxation response” in the body that is the opposite of the stress response.
People beginning to work with meditation or guided imagery often have concerns or questions about their relation to hypnosis, a much-misunderstood phenomenon. Hypnosis simply refers to a mental state of relaxation in which your attention is highly focused. Hypnotic states occur naturally, whenever your attention is highly focused. “Everyday” hypnotic states often occur when you are watching movies or television, get thoroughly immersed in a good book, work on the computer, or when you are driving long distances. When you are surprised that you’ve just driven 150 miles, or that it’s 3 o’clock in the morning when you only intended to read for half an hour before going to sleep, you have been in a hypnotic state, where time distortion is a common occurrence.
Many people worry that hypnosis is a mystical interaction where the hypnotist “takes over” your mind and can make you do things you wouldn’t normally do. This fear comes largely from stage and television hypnosis acts that appear to do just that. Stage hypnotists use a variety of techniques to be successful, beginning with selecting audience members who are primed and ready to do what they ask them to do. They watch the audience for people who are laughing at their jokes, nodding their heads, or leaning toward them when they move or gesture. This identifies people with high hypnotizability who are already favorably disposed toward the hypnotist.
Once such people are called on-stage, the pressure to comply with suggestions mounts, amplified by the disorientation and anxiety most inexperienced people feel on-stage. This results in these people being very likely to do what the hypnotist suggests, after going through whatever ritual they are told will put them into “trance.”
The truth is, they are already in “trance,” a state where they are likely to accept suggestions, and they were before they were selected from the audience. Stage hypnosis is entertaining, but using hypnosis therapeutically or for self-improvement is quite different.
In order to change the way you think about, feel about, or respond to situations, it’s helpful to use your natural receptivity in a relaxed yet focused state to concentrate on the new ideas, images, and thoughts you’d rather have as your “default” settings. With repetition and reinforcement you can build new thinking habits that relieve worry and stress instead of creating it. You can also use that mental state to build calmness, confidence, creativity, or any other quality you would like to manifest more.
 If you like the idea of self-hypnosis, call it that, and if you don’t, call it relaxation and imagery, or imagery-based meditation. Whatever you are comfortable calling it, the effect is the same– an accelerated way to learn new patterns of thinking and being.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this very articulate and eloquent description of these mind-body methods.  And especially for clarifying "everyday trance" and the distinction between 'stage hypnosis' and clinical or therapeutic hypnosis.  When one googles the term "mind-body methods" a plethora of terms emerge and it can be pretty confusing.  Your books and audios have done so much to enlighten and guide the way to achieving mind-body healing.

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