By Nick Church
Following a degree in Philosophy in the late seventies, I began teaching English as a Foreign Language. Over a four or five year period I taught at schools in England, at a petroleum refinery in Algeria, and at a university in Spain. I also went back to university in London for post-graduate training in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). That was all very varied and interesting experience. In 1983, my first child was born, in Spain, and it seemed an appropriate time to consider establishing a permanent home and settling somewhere, perhaps where the world could travel to me, rather than vice versa.
And so, later that year, I bought a large house on the South coast of England and set up a residential language school, teaching EFL to adult ‘speakers of other languages’. Over the subsequent years, hundreds of adult learners from dozens of overseas countries came to improve their English on a wide variety of courses I had developed to cater for the broad range of purposes and requirements the individuals brought with them. The students stayed as live-in residents for anything from one week to two years, from absolute beginners to proficiency level, on general courses with, for example, strict structural content or, by contrast, functional/notional, communicative approaches – in accordance with their cultural upbringing, experience and expectations. Saudi Arabian students required a fundamentally different approach to the Italians or Dutch, generally speaking. And each individual adult, naturally, or ‘nurture-ly’, has his own strengths and weaknesses, capabilities, preferences, expectations and constraints, and so on. They would also come for different, and some very specific, purposes, many of which related to widely diverse careers and working environments.
As far as possible, my ethos and educational philosophy was to relate appropriately to each individual, and – in consideration of, and with respect for, the socio-cultural, ideological, psych-physiological and pragmatic variations – to endeavour to engage with and encourage that individual learner so as to augment their learning experience, and maximise their progress.
It was with this role and purpose in mind that I began, with certain individuals, individually and in small groups, to introduce, in the mid-1980s, selected procedures of relaxation and concentration, some yogic techniques, and light meditation, into the learning environment. It had become apparent that some learners could benefit greatly from letting go of their specific, subjective constraints that might be manifesting themselves as prejudice or preconception, or issues with self-confidence and anxieties concerning ability and performance, and so on.
This approach, and its different forms, tended to appeal to the more open-minded individuals with liberal backgrounds and non-dogmatic educational histories. Ironic, perhaps, because these people also exhibited, on the whole, a lesser degree of obstruction or uneasiness of expression, and a greater self-confidence, than those who could not or would not entertain such ‘diversions’ from the task at hand, or from the serious business of attaining the requisite grade. For some, therefore, this approach was inappropriate and out of the question; for others, however, it offered an effective means to enhanced understanding, increased participation, improved learning ability and greater communication performance.
In 1988, I got myself qualified in hypnotherapy. By using some of the techniques explored in that training course, I began to develop more structured, individualised practices for more specialised purposes. I also, on occasions, significantly deepened the states of relaxation to levels which allowed for a complete bypassing of the conscious, analytical mind of the student, to achieve direct access to, and communication with, the subconscious. I was aware, in doing this, that I would need to be particularly attentive to the peculiar restrictions, and possible dangers, that the language limitations and potential misunderstanding might create or exacerbate. Any linguistically communicated guidance, or suggestions, would have to be very carefully framed, constructed and delivered in order that the correct message was conveyed. In this respect, special skills had to be developed with these non-native English speakers that are quite unnecessary – or, rather, unnecessary to that degree – when dealing with subjects who are native speakers of our own mother tongue. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations had to be avoided at all costs. My skills as a language teacher had to be rigorously applied to ensure that my language usage was within the understanding and recognition of the recipient. Interestingly, however — and in line with what one might theoretically expect – the capabilities of the student when in a hypnotic state were much augmented. I refer here to the receptive, passive skill of listening, and of listening comprehension; active oral participation of the students was minimised, or avoided altogether, when they were in the hypnotic state. Of course, their capabilities in English comprehension and communication in or through that state was not of any real or practical interest, and exercising or evaluating such skills was of no import, and not required. The use and value of the hypnotic state comprehension level or ability would be subsequently gauged only insofar as my instructions or suggestions could be made to accurately and effectively facilitate the active and passive language skills of the learner, once that learner was consciously, wakefully, using the target language in real situations arising after the hypnosis.
To give a flavour of the range of situations in which I used hypnotic induction of varying depths in some language learning lessons, I have selected three different examples – two typical, and one rather extraordinary. I shall briefly describe these, and indicate some of the effects and benefits, as I perceive them. As the title suggests, this is not a formal paper; it is the setting down, sketchily, of some true anecdotal experiences, with the object of presenting an idea, an image, open to further elaboration.
The first example is a small group situation. With a group of normally up to six learners all sitting, with me, around a large table, I would incorporate the following procedure on a daily basis throughout the duration of a short, two to four week, course. On arrival into the room for their first lesson each morning, we would exchange warm greetings and one or two pleasantries, but little or nothing more. When we were all present, we took our places around the table in silence and quickly made ourselves comfortable in our seats. Each person adopted a sitting position that he or she individually favoured, and tended to stick with this very closely every time. I required that backs should be straight, both feet firmly on the ground, and eyes closed. Some would sit a little back from the table with hands in laps or on knees; others would sit close to the table with hands upon it. The key objective in posture selection was to feel comfortable and relaxed, and at the same time alert.
Speaking in a calm, soothing tone, slightly slower than normal, I told them, or reminded them, to relax, and allow any tension to dissolve…to let the feeling of relaxation spread through them from head to toe. Their minds, like their backs, should be set in an attentive state, but entirely at ease, and free of thoughts, free of thinking. They should let go of all concerns, feelings, senses, attention inside their bodies, outside their bodies, inside their minds, outside their minds…and become aware only of their breathing, their gentle, relaxing, rhythmical breathing…each breath bringing more calm and quiet and peace…and with the calm and quiet and peace would come more relaxation – clear, easy, wakeful relaxation…
“Your mind is wide awake and thinking of nothing. Nothing. It is open…and clear…and free – and limitless. It is light and open and clear and free. Mind is…light…openness…freedom…expansion. The mind of light opens, free, expansive, limitless…Effortlessly, without movement, it is empty – and it contains all. All knowledge. In the stillness, in the emptiness, is…all. No thing…and all.
“Now, know it…sense it…see it. All…No thing…and all. All becoming…all potential knowledge. In the mind…In your mind. All… All potential…All becoming…All potential knowing…All potential knowledge all becoming…”
Something along these lines – unscripted and hence always a little different – would be said, in a relaxed, calm, gentle voice. Then, gradually picking up the pace of the delivery to a normal speed, their attention would be directed back to their breath, and then their bodies, “…and stretch your fingers…and open your eyes”.
This routine, once familiar to the group, took around five minutes or so. And it was time well spent. As previously mentioned, the individuals were selected, and, of course, their agreement to participate sought and confirmed. But among all who agreed to participate in this simple, daily starter, I never had one who opted out, or who even showed any signs of dissent or reluctance. Quite the opposite: each and every one participated wholeheartedly, showed real and unequivocal appreciation – and claimed, to one extent or another, that it was beneficial.
The sense of general wellbeing and alert, clear-minded, easy relaxation was universally reflected. Many felt that this type of shared experience, its natural equality of perception and achievement, together with the de-stressing effects, helped to bond the group – making the members more comfortable and confident (with themselves and with one another), and facilitating trust and understanding, and improving communication (crucial for the language learning situation).
Some were adamant that, as well as these advantages, the process definitely improved their learning and retention skills. This claim is of course difficult to measure objectively and to corroborate evidentially; and I did not spend time devising methods of analysing the possible advantages, or attempting to quantify them. The students’ own subjective claims and feedback was evidence enough for me, reinforced by my own observations. My observations also noted that this worked as an effective ‘equaliser’ of group member variation in age, education, culture, nationality, gender roles, etc. It appeared to provide an invisible, common platform upon which a mixed collection of individuals could interact and relate with greater ease and efficacy.
The second typical example I have chosen of the use of hypnosis I conducted in my role as an educator was with individuals, rather than groups. The induction employed in this example is fairly long; and the state of relaxation achieved is much deeper than that reached in the previously described one.
By way of illustration, I shall describe a particular case. Yuri, let’s call her, was a Japanese woman in her mid-twenties, visiting England, for the first time, to improve her existing lower intermediate-level English. She had recently completed her post-graduate university education in Japan, and was clearly unsure about her next step. Would it be a career move – or marriage and nest-building? Or might it be a break from those conventional moulds? Her sojourn in England appeared to be less a positive move in an opted-for direction than symptomatic of a delay in decision-making. Now, my role, as I saw it, was not to influence, or even facilitate, Yuri’s life-affecting decision-making; she had not come to me for that (at least not directly, that is). Her indecisive and directionless state of mind did, however, have a significant effect on her learning capabilities at that time. She demonstrated a marked lack of focus and inability to concentrate, which in turn reduced her capacity to understand conceptually, and diminished her powers of retention. I concentrated, therefore, on improving that specific aspect of her presenting condition for which I had a professional remit.
I gave Yuri the option of a comfortably carpeted floor to lie on, or a comfy armchair to sink into. She went for the floor, with some encouragement from me; she would be able to relax more fully there, while being less inclined to feel sleepy. I then induced a deep relaxation with a classic mind-body induction that took about twenty minutes. With the aid of simple deepeners, she went further, into a ‘level three’/’basement’-type state of relaxation in which my commands were automatically and easily understood and acted upon or reacted to. It was immediately apparent that, upon accessing her subconscious without interference from the analytical, conceptual mind, her understanding became enhanced to a significant, remarkable, degree. I was able to speak to her at normal or accelerated conversational speeds, using vocabulary, syntax and semantics that she would normally be flummoxed by – and she demonstrated effortless comprehension.
I spoke to her along the lines of a general, positive, non-dogmatic, quasi-esoteric philosophy, and made suggestions carefully constructed to impact psychologically. A minor abreaction of tender tearfulness quietly indicated that something had clicked. I did not pursue it at that point, but only encouraged relaxation and gentle, secure release of the emotion. I allowed her some ten minutes or so of silence, punctuated only by the occasional suggestion of reassurance and relaxation.
After about a total of forty-five minutes, I brought her back to full wakefulness. From that moment on, during her stay in England, she behaved quite differently – as though she had begun to look at life through a clarified lens. Not only was her performance as a language learner significantly improved, but she also exhibited a new zest for life in general, together with strength of determination, a sense of direction or motivation, and an increased self-confidence. This translated practically into a manifestation of rediscovered decisiveness.
She went on to achieve excellent results in her English learning. She then travelled the world, and subsequently launched herself into a promising career. I do not in fact know, but it is quite possible of course, that she raised a family, too – and thus fulfilled all the options she had had difficulty in choosing between. That, however, must remain mere speculation, as I later lost contact with this particular person.
I shall only touch the fringes of my last example, as it deserves, to my mind, fuller treatment perhaps elsewhere.
Hans, as I shall refer to him, was an intelligent young man from Stuttgart, Germany. He was the only child of a doting mother and a domineering, university professor father. Although he was sensitive and imaginative, he showed some signs of a tendency to manipulate, a certain intransigence, and more than a hint of obstinacy engendered by a meticulously hidden insecurity. This was further entrenched and compounded by a resolute reliance on his own not inconsiderable intellectual prowess to steadfastly constitute the predominant beacon, the best trusted guiding light, upon his unfolding way. He was also thoroughly inured by the stereotypically Teutonic obsession with punctuality. The large and extravagantly complex piece of chronographic precision engineering he bore upon his wrist was fingered, flashed, and even tapped, should the stray seconds threaten to run into, God forbid, errant minutes!
Hans and I had developed a good, mutually respectful, working relationship and friendship, despite, or perhaps in the light of, our several personality differences. He came to me to learn, practise and improve his English for a month every year for four or five years in succession. It was during the last visit of this series that he requested a session of deep hypnosis and guided visualisation.
I will interject briefly at this point to explain that I had experimented for many years, by that time, with relaxation and guided visualisation or image-building, and story-telling, as an effective combined tool for language reinforcement and vocabulary building. It proved to be a popular technique among many of the more advanced students. Certain aspects of the language learning process could be absorbed and retained comparatively effortlessly and enjoyably by this means.
So, back to Hans. His command of English was by now very high; and, because he had shown great interest in its somewhat esoteric subject-matter, I proposed playing him a tape recording of a quite lengthy, ‘magical’ visualisation written and read by an associate of mine, a well-known (in his field) and prolific author and musician. Hans eagerly agreed.
I induced in him a deep, ‘sub-basement’, hypnotic trance, and played the tape. In all, the session lasted, I suppose, an hour or more. (Mercifully, I escaped, this time, of course, the attempted influence of the strict, law-keeper hands of the mighty chronograph…)
Now, I shall dwell but little further on this particular case, except to say that a truly remarkable effect eventuated. For all I know, it could be unique in its duration. Directly upon his ‘wakening’, Hans underwent a marvellous abreaction. From deep down inside, there bubbled up in him an irrepressible mirth.
He laughed, non-stop, for three days. Three days. Non-stop. He had trouble chewing and swallowing his food. He howled in the bathroom, heaved spasmodically, chortled and chuckled throughout the day, and whooped and wept, till his tears dried in their tracks down his helplessly distorted visage. He went to sleep at night, so he told me, laughing; and he woke up, so he reported, laughing. For three whole days. He had to excuse himself to take himself off on long walks in the nearby countryside so he could let it out privately in its unremitting, inexorable roll…
It was a truly marvellous experience to witness. For him, it was an at once exhilarating and exhausting, life-changing watershed.
When he next visited, it was as a friend, not a student. He explained how his long-term, deep-seated, dysfunctional relationship with his father had been resolved; how he was happily juggling a central bank management role with television appearances; that he was enjoying a rewarding relationship with a beautiful TV star; and pursuing an ever-deepening, sane and sober, interest in hermetics. All that – and he didn’t appear to be wearing a watch! In diametrical contrast with his previous expression of self, he had become so demonstrably relaxed, easy-going and fluid.
And what’s more, incidentally, he related all this through excellent, fluent English. But to what extent, if indeed any, this too had been affected by the catharsis is a subject for further investigation.