What is the difference between self-hypnosis and meditation?
I am often asked this very question in my therapy practice and in particular during many of the workshops. The two disciplines are in essence very similar, however in practice they are two very different mind-focusing techniques that each require specific understanding and distinctly different approaches.
Before I elaborate on the ways that they differ, allow me to first establish their similarities.
In principle, meditation and self-hypnosis are both forms of inner-mind trances that can be slipped into or purposefully elicited in your mind through personal intention or guided assistance. An inner-mind trance is a state of internal absorption, a heightened awareness of your innermost thoughts and feelings, a place where imagination and fantasy live alongside memories and intuition. A place where the outside world is temporarily out of focus.
The inner mind is the theatre of all the mental movies we store over a lifetime, from experiences we have lived through, good and bad, to rehearsals and contemplations of things that may or may not ever occur. The human nervous system cannot tell the difference between what is objectively “real” and what is vividly imagined, simply because everything that we sense (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell) although received from external stimulus, requires interpretation by our brains before being consciously registered. Even a scary scene in a movie has the ability to trigger our nervous systems into responding with muscular tension and a stress response, even though it is not real. As an organism, our bodies simply respond to the way we perceive or interpret things.
When we enter the theatre of the mind, we have access to a powerful imagination that can either provoke or calm arousal, rehearse things going well or rehearse things going badly. Whenever we contemplate what to order in a restaurant, imagining what each entree may taste or look like before we decide, we are accessing a subtle inner-mind trance that helps us make our choice. The food may not be exactly as you expected when it arrives, since arriving at the decision to order was based on a mental interpretation of an external stimulus, namely the menu. Without accessing that internally focused state, it would be difficult to get a sense of whether we would like the food item being described in words in the menu.
We are constantly slipping in and out of inner-mind trances every day.
Whenever you drift off in your head or “lose yourself” in thought, the external world fades into the background as your awareness refocuses inwards. The enhanced inner awareness and the decreased external awareness are both characteristics of an inner-mind trance, regardless of the depth of that trance. Some trances can be profoundly deep whereas others may be a shallow slip into a fairly surface thought that lasts merely a moment. Obviously, not all thinking and imagining is self-hypnosis or meditation, even if it is always an inner-mind trance. To distinguish between the two inner-trance states in question, lets look at how they differ.
How they differ
Meditation is an inner-mind trance that generally involves calmness and clarity in order to re-energize the self, enhance empathy and promote innate wisdom and healing. In meditation there are typically no words other than the mantra or prayer used to elicit and perpetuate the trance state. It is a very passive state of inner contemplation and personal observation of inner experiences and understanding. Guided visualizations can help you to access a deeply contemplative state where you become open to new ways of understanding and receptive to alternate ways of seeing things. In meditation the mind is opened to new realizations that may surface, or alternatively, may not surface.
In essence, the meditative state is one of passivity and openness, a non-directive sate of being with what is, in each moment. Long term this inner-trance training can lead to an enhanced connectivity to innate intuitive understanding, greater connection to unconscious processes and an increased sense of self acceptance. The goal of meditation is not hard and fast. Given the non-directive nature of following your own trance-state wherever it leads you, with only a hope of self discovery or a wish for improved well-being. The end point of a meditative hope can nether be anticipated, nor planned, you can only be open to arriving near your destination eventually.
Self-Hypnosis on the other hand, is a directed process, often with a very specific goal in mind. Although it is possible to enter an inner-trance state by yourself, to engage in the directive process of self-hypnosis without engaging the conscious mind by thinking, an external voice or trusted guide is needed. This guide can be a pre-recorded audio hypnosis session or preferably a live hypnosis session with a trained professional that you feel comfortable to allow into your inner experience. In order for you to feel safe to work with whatever comes up for you during the process, I recommend using the services of a qualified therapist trained in the therapeutic uses of hypnosis.
A therapist utilizing hypnosis works within the trust and understanding that develops between hypnotist and subject (commonly referred to as a therapeutic relationship) to earn access into the inner world of the subject where the therapeutic work takes place. Deeply relaxed and feeling safely held by your therapist, your inner mind can be permitted to flow along with the various suggestions offered to you, relating to events, experiences or anticipated outcomes. In this way, the inner-mind trance is allowed to softly linger while a trusted voice is able to communicate with you in that inner-world.
Once you have internalized the trusted voice of your therapist, you will be able to benefit greatly from their therapeutic influence, but you will still be in control of any decisions you make during the process. To clarify, the mind, softly focusing inwards is said to be in a state of trance. If this trance is passive and undirected it is said to be in a meditative contemplative state. If an inner-mind trance is combined with the relational rapport of a trusted other, the trance can now be considered hypnosis.
Both inner-mind trances can greatly improve health and lower stress, however the trance involved in hypnosis may be actively directed to a specific health goal or harnessed to counter a particular area of stress in your life. The simple act of quieting your mind for 10-20 minutes, once or twice a day, has been shown to lower blood pressure, boost the immune system and lead to many health natural benefits as reported by Harvard Professor Herbert Benson amongst many others.
In summary, the main difference between these two inner-mind trances lies in the communication that occurs during hypnosis. It is possible for a conversation to occur within yourself, however, the depth in which you remain in a soft trance will likely be impacted by the conscious processes that are required to pay attention to the topic and structure of the conversation in addition to your ability to challenge some of your ingrained and “hard-wired” assumptions and self-imposed limitations. Not an easy task for a calmed conscious mind to accomplish without a little help.
By directing your energy to focus on your chosen area of concern, self-hypnosis can be a very effective method for manifesting the results you are actively seeking. The opinions shared in this article are certainly not the final word on the topic, but hopefully you will find them a useful definition of subjective nature of trance in it’s various forms. Probably the best advice I can give you if you want to gain further understanding, is to experience these two types of inner-mind trance for yourself. After all, it is only through personal experience that we ever truly know something, especially something as subjective as an experience that happens inside our own minds!