We're sitting in a pleasant, sunny room in the Hypnosis Clearing House (HCH), a Lafayette-based hypnotherapy school where people like Bobby come to learn the esoteric art of mesmerism. For the students and hypnotherapists at HCH, what is happening to me is no mere parlor trick; for them, and many others, hypnotherapy is a healing discipline on the cusp of legitimate acceptance.
Next Bobby has me picture a yardstick, and she asks me to pick a number on it that represents the depth of my incipient trance. I pick 12. She has me move my attention down the stick, telling me that as the numbers grow, so will my spell. This is called a deepening technique, one of several Bobby has learned in the 200 hours of training she's been through at HCH. As I picture the mental yardstick sliding by, the darkness before my eyes seems to move back a step or two, like there's space between me and the inside of my eyelids -- a sensation I've had before, but never without beer. I make it down to 28; now the real work can begin.
The issue I've chosen to address is my smoking, a common complaint hypnotherapists are asked to help alleviate. Bobby encourages the part of my psyche that simply can't do without butts to talk for a bit; then the voices in my head that nag me about smoking get their say. Finally Bobby has what she terms my "higher wisdom" take a turn at the psychic lectern. During the entire process I remain aware of everything around me; at any time I could open my eyes and walk out of the room. And the physical sensation of being in a trance is interesting. For a while, my chair feels as though it's rising; and, as my "higher wisdom" speaks, I notice that my eyes are darting around under my eyelids as if I've slipped into the dreamy, REM stage of sleep.
One thing that doesn't disturb my concentration is the cost. A typical hour of hypnotherapy like this can run upward of $95, which is exactly what Holly Holmes-Meredith, HCH's clinical director, charges. But because Bobby is an intern in a program unique to HCH, the cost is a measly 20 bucks.
A former high school psychology teacher, Holmes-Meredith, 45, has been running HCH for 10 years. She learned hypnosis from Dr. Freda Morris, the school's founder, while working toward her marriage and family therapist license in the early '80s. Morris, an author of two books on hypnosis for laypeople, found an adept pupil in Holmes-Meredith, who understood the value of hypnotherapy as a healing tool, an understanding that stemmed from an adolescent experimentation with "altered states" (achieved through meditation and dance, Holmes-Meredith assures me with a laugh).
"I knew the profoundness of accessing that part of myself," she says. "When I became a therapist, it was just a natural thing to study hypnotherapy and to do most of my therapeutic work in an altered state. It's cheaper [than traditional therapy]," she laughs, "and it's much faster for the client; and it's more empowering because the medical model of the therapist being in the authority position is totally blown out when the client has their own experience of healing themselves."
HCH teaches traditional "directive" hypnosis -- the old watch-the-watch stuff, in which the client is led through a hypnotic experience by the hypnotist; but it specializes in a newer, more touchy-feely "transpersonal" hypnotherapy, which lets the client steer the experience while the therapist asks questions and elicits responses (what Bobby's using on me).
One part Jungian analysis, one part hypnotic rap-session, this altered-state therapy was pioneered by the American father of modern hypnosis, Dr. Milton Erickson, and a Czech doctor named Stanislav Grof, who began his experiments back in the early '60s when LSD was legal and altered states a little easier to come by.
To become a hypnotherapist at HCH takes some time and some dough. Students, who range from licensed therapists to curious amateurs, spend 200 hours in class, mostly on weekends, generally over four months; there are three texts, a video assignment, and a whole lot of hypnosis. It runs about $2,900.
"It's very hands-on, very experiential," Holmes-Meredith says. "It's a very supportive environment both to have personal experiences and learn the techniques. A lot of therapy surreptitiously takes place because people are practicing on each other."
The practice continues in HCH's in-house internship program. After a student finishes the classwork, he or she can put up a shingle as a certified hypno-therapist under HCH's aegis in one of its three Bay Area clinics in San Rafael, Berkeley, and Lafayette. (A new clinic is scheduled to open in S.F. by the end of December.) An hour with an intern runs 20 bucks; this money goes to HCH (the interns are unpaid) to help pay for marketing and rent.
At the end of six months, the interns can take any of their clients with them, no hard feelings. There is no standard scenario; some clients remain with their hypnotherapists because they've established a rapport or are in the midst of long-term therapy, while others simply rotate interns, attracted by the low fee. The duration of hypnotherapy also varies from one or two visits to several weeks, depending upon how much work is needed.
"It works for everybody," Holmes-Meredith says of the internship program. The interns are closely supervised by Holmes-Meredith herself, even after they've completed the scholastic part of their training. That puts HCH "in a different niche," she says, from most other hypnotherapy schools.