An Interview with Dr Stephen Gilligan (former student of Milton H. Erickson)

by Chris & Jules Collingwood

Dr Stephen Gilligan was a member of the original group who where present when John Grinder and Richard Bandler were first developing NLP. He studied with Dr Milton Erickson and was able to model him extensively. As a result of this, Dr Gilligan became one of the greatest exponents of Ericksonian Hypnosis. Since then he has developed his own approach to psychotherapy and personal development and is a leading member of the Ericksonian Foundation, an organisation for health care professionals to promote Milton Erickson's work. Dr Gilligan is the author of Therapeutic Trances; The co-operation principle is Ericksonian Hypnotherapy, Therapeutic Conversations, The Courage to Love; Principles and practices of self-relations psychotherapy and is the editor with Jeffrey K. Zeig of Brief Therapy; myths, methods and metaphors. He is the co-presenter with Dr John Grinder of 2 volumes of the Syntax of Behavior audio tape series. He has a forthcoming book (from NLPU press) The Legacy of Milton Erickson; Selected papers of Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.

1. What was the atmosphere of the context you were in at UCSC?

I attended UCSC from 1972-1977. It was a very wild time. There were many different areas of activity with radical politics, t-groups and the humanistic psychology movement, the beginnings of ecology and feminism, the presence of people like Gregory Bateson and Norman O. Brown and on and on. UCSC was the answer to the UC Berkeley riots, which railed against (among other things) the lack of attention to undergraduates. Santa Cruz was an experimental campus. No grades, very open, set in the redwood forests that provided great resources and tremendous freedom to experiment.

In that environment, John Grinder was an assistant professor of linguistics who was very interested in radical change, both at an individual and collective level. I met John right around the time he was getting together with Richard Bandler, who at that time was a renegade Gestalt therapist operating in the Santa Cruz mountains. I was in their first training and research groups, completely immersed with them from 1974 until I left Santa Cruz in 1977 to go to graduate school at Stanford. There were about a dozen of us altogether, pretty much all students at UCSC. People like Leslie Cameron, Judy Delozier, Paul Carter, Frank Pucilek, and David Gordon. (Robert Dilts started in about 1976, if I remember correctly.) This was before NLP was NLP. It was the Meta Model and Milton Model back in those days. A very wild and experimental time, to say the least!

2. What was it like to be a student entering into Milton Erickson's world?

Incredible. Amazing. I was 19 years old. Milton Erickson touched a place deep in my soul and lit a fire within me. It has never been doused, despite my times of inattention and neglect. I had always been interested and very skilled in altered states of consciousness so I pretty much lived in a trance growing up as a kid in an Irish-American alcoholic family. I didn't know about much else, but I knew a lot about trance. Erickson was the first person I met who could clearly run circles around me in terms of hypnotic skills. Somehow I knew immediately that I had met my teacher.

Even more significant than his hypnotic skills was the way in which he was using them. He was embodying the healing aspects of trance, not just the dissociative aspects. I had only known how to use trance to get away from things. Pain, trauma, family, life itself, whereas Milton was using trance with himself and others to reconnect with the world. An extraordinary difference that I continue to appreciate some 25 years later. It is actually the basis of the hypnotic work; how to use what people have employed to move away from the world to help them return to the world in a centered, effective way.

3. How were you introduced to Milton Erickson?

Gregory Bateson and Milton Erickson had been buddies since 1932, when Bateson and Mead went to Bali to study trance rituals. Before going, they consulted about trance process with young Milton Erickson, who was then a psychiatrist in Detroit. From that encounter, Erickson developed life long relationships with both Mead and with Bateson.

Bateson lived on the same property with Bandler and Grinder in the Santa Cruz mountains. When he read their first book, The Structure of Magic I, he liked it so much that he said if they really wanted to know something about communication, they should visit the great Purple One (before Prince!) who was living in the Phoenix desert. They did and came back with tales that stirred something deep within me. When they returned several months later (in late 1974), they invited me along with them. At the end of this five-day meeting, I asked Erickson if I could come back and study with him. He agreed, and thus began a five-year process where I would periodically fly to Phoenix for 2-10 day stays. He often put me up at his house and never charged me a cent, which was great since I was a penniless student during those years!

I was deeply moved by his generosity and asked a number of times how I could ever repay him. He said that if anything I learned from him was helpful, I could repay him by passing it on to others. What a bargain on both ends for me!

4. What were your first impressions of Milton Erickson?

He was an incredible wizard, an amazing healer, and a funny old man. His hypnotic presence was really very strong, like an old shaman. I was of course nervous around him, but this was easily resolved by going into a deep trance! That was pretty much standard procedure around Milton. If you were near him, you would go into trance!

5. What are your lasting impressions of Milton Erickson?

It has now been 25 years since I first met Milton Erickson. Rarely a day goes by that I don't value something he passed on to me. But my relationship to him is quite different from when I started. I see him most as a very courageous, very outrageous, very kind, very creative human being. I think he was a true revolutionary in the field of psychotherapy. At the same time, I also see him now as a human being, with strengths as well as flaws. The latter is important, because my unwillingness to recognize his flaws led me for many years to not accept my own shortcomings. And without this humility, I don't think much real growth is possible.

I think his most enduring gift was what he called the idea of utilization. That anything could be used for positive growth, no matter how sick, crazy, anaesthetic it might appear. For example, Erickson worked for his 20 professional years in locked wards of mental hospitals. One guy insisted he was Jesus Christ, despite the many efforts by staff to convince him otherwise. Erickson introduced himself to 'Jesus', let him know that there was a new ward being built on hospital grounds that needed some carpenters, and got 'Jesus' to work as a carpenter. His work led him to become involved with other folks, which eventually led him back into common reality.

Another patient was a very depressed and suicidal woman who was convinced that no man would ever be attracted to her given the large gap between her front teeth. Erickson had her practice spitting water between her teeth until she could hit a target at twenty feet. He then got her to hide out near her office water cooler until a certain young man happened by. Per Erickson's instructions, she jumped out, nailed him with a squirt of water, and then ran away. He caught up to her and asked her for a date. As in all good Erickson stories, they were married shortly thereafter and had six little water-squirters for children. So many examples like this illustrate this basic principle that Erickson contributed: find a way to accept and utilize whatever is there, especially that which continues to be there (that is, repeats itself).

6. How is Ericksonian Hypnosis different from conventional hypnosis?

You can read my first book, 'Therapeutic trances; The co-operation principle in Ericksonian Hypnotherapy', for an extensive discussion of the differences. What I would emphasize here are two main differences. The first is that conventional hypnosis sees trance as an artefact stemming from hypnotic suggestions, whereas Ericksonian hypnosis sees trance as a natural psychobiological state that arises from life events. That is, traditional hypnosis sees trance as the result of the hypnotists suggestions, pure and simple. Thus, trance doesn't occur until and unless there is a situation defined as 'hypnosis' and someone called the 'hypnotist' performs something called 'hypnotic technique' with someone called the 'subject'.

In contrast, Erickson emphasized that trance occurs with or without hypnotists. (It is coming to get you, like it or not.) My best understanding is that trance is a special learning state that occurs whenever identity is threatened, disrupted, or needs to reorganize. This could happen in many situations: trauma, times of change in a person's life (a birth, death, illness, graduation, marriage, divorce, etc.), contexts of uncertainty. At such times, a person's normal identity is not equipped to respond adequately to the situation. For example, if you had an identity as a single person and then get married, your old identity can't quite meet the new challenge. So some process is needed for letting go of your old identity and moving into a state where a new identity can be generated. Trance is the natural resource state that accesses at precisely those times. Hypnosis is one of the social traditions that can provide a ritual space and process to receive and positively guide the trance process in helpful ways. So you see, an Ericksonian hypnotist is looking for how and where the trance is already occurring, rather than creating one artificially.

The second difference, related to the first, is that traditional hypnosis generally thinks of trance in the singular, whereas Ericksonian hypnosis always emphasizes it in the plural. All trances are not created equal. Erickson emphasized how each person is radically unique, something that really becomes apparent in trance. I like to emphasize to my clients (with an Irish twinkle) my "diagnosis" that they are incurable deviants, and it's just getting worse by the day!! That is, the way they do it, know it, experience it, and express it is unlike anything the world has ever seen. Their attempts to fit into someone else's definition of "success" or "normalcy" or whatever have failed miserably, and rightfully so!! (Again, this is said only when the Irish twinkle or its equivalent has been established.)

This uniqueness is so apparent in trance experience. Everybody experiences it differently. For example, it is very common that a person comes out of trance in my office and says something like, "Wow! The most incredible thing just happened." They will then describe what happened and usually ask, "Does that happen to everybody in trance?". I am usually forced to say that in my 25 years of working with trance, I have never heard anyone else having that experience. To me, it is one of the great values of trance. You are setting aside the conscious mind that is basically a conservative social construction and exploring the experiential/archetypal mind, which is much more artistic and unique.

7. What is Deep Trance Identification and how did you learn to do it?

Deep trance identification is a hypnotic process wherein a person develops a deep trance, goes into a safe place, sets aside their regular personality, and assumes another personality for 30 minutes or so. The identification personality could be a person you know; your mate, a client, a mentor, or someone you don't know; a famous person or a historical figure, for example. At my last workshop, some of the characters selected included Milton Erickson, the Buddha, a famous poet, a classical piano player, and a person's wife. Once you enter into the identification trance, you can interact and talk with others in the ritual space as that character.

Some of the effects can be pretty amazing. A first is the freedom that one can achieve by letting go of your normal identity, the habitual, unconscious ways we think, hold our body, talk, react, etc. When you step out of your normal identity, your whole sense of self can drop to a much deeper level, one not so cluttered by idiosyncratic identity content. I think it allows a whole other level of identity consciousness, where what Bateson called "learning level III" or learning to learn to learn is now a variable.

A second effect regards the identification character you step into. You can model from both an interior and exterior space, and perhaps even a deeper dimension, something I call "field-based modeling". You can sense patterns with a different way of sensing patterns, if that makes any sense. It's a pretty amazing experience.

I learned deep trance identification while initially studying with Erickson. It was during my Bandler-Grinder days, and we were trying all sorts of far-out experiments in consciousness. We read about these experiments conducted by a fellow named Raikov in Russia, who was having hypnotized subjects do deep trance identification with painters such as Rembrandt, then do some painting. When rated by judges, the identification subjects did much better work than those not hypnotized and those merely hypnotized (without the identification process). We thought it might be interesting for me to try it with Erickson. Interestingly, Bateson walked in the first time I was doing it. As I said, he was a good friend of Erickson; he was also my teacher. It turns out that while I was talking with him as "Erickson", I shared with him some information that really kind of spooked him. Something that he said was private between him and Erickson. I don't know what to make of it, but I can say the process is an interesting and rewarding one.

These days I use identification processes when I feel really stuck with a client or with a personal relationship. It finally becomes clear to me that I don't have a deep understanding of the other person's space, so I do an identification process when I'm alone. Entering into that person's space and experiencing their way of knowing, it becomes easier to find ways to connect.

8. You used Deep Trance Identification to model Milton Erickson. What was it like?

When I first opened my eyes while identifying as "Erickson", it was a pretty profound experience. Somehow I could feel so strongly that everybody in the room had an unconscious mind and everyone was longing to connect with it, and therefore everyone was just a moment away from trance. It was not a matter of some great technique on my part, but a willingness to touch the place in them that was longing for self-connection. I think in that state I was so connected to the unconscious that I could feel its presence not only within me but also within others with equal ease. From that space, the words just seemed to flow out on their own. Something more basic than words was absorbing me. It's hard to say what it was, a basic rhythm or beat of something. It was so clear that each person could and would develop a trance, and reality bore that out. Pretty amazing experience. Somehow it was a process where my ego was out of the way. It wasn't me doing something to them, but rather a deeper connection to the spirit of life. That may sound a little vague, but that's kind of how I experienced it. It really changed my perception of how to do trance.

9. What advice would you offer someone who wants to become fluent in Ericksonian Hypnosis?

Learn to locate your mind within your body and within the living field of relational connection. Trust that you have multiple brains. Not just the one in your head, but also your whole body as well as your heart and your gut. Embodied relationality, I call it. Unfortunately, most of us are trained very early to disconnect our mind from our body and from the world around us. We therefore associate our mind with our disembodied intellectual self. Not a good place to do hypnosis from. Ericksonian hypnosis involves being willing and able to accept and work with whatever is in the present moment. The problem is the solution, we say: Whatever a person is struggling with is what will allow them not only to go into trance but also develop new ways of knowing and acting. This is the basic Ericksonian principle: welcome whatever is in each moment, harmonize your bodymind with it, and become curious as to how it will continue to unfold in a positive way. To do that, you must move your mind into the field of the present moment.

Gregory Bateson referred to this shift when he was discussing Erickson in an interview with Brad Keeney, one of his students. The interview took place in 1976, when Erickson's work was just getting known to a wider audience. Erickson's name came up during the interview, and Keeney asked if Bateson had been in touch with him recently. Bateson said he hadn't, only through some of the many students that Bateson had sent to Erickson. Keeney asked what he thought of the books that were coming out about Erickson, and Bateson harrumphed his archetypal British aristocratic harrumph. He said he hated the work, regretted sending people to Erickson, and would do it no more. When Keeney asked him to elaborate, Bateson said that Erickson had a way of entering a system so thoroughly before he acted that he was not an ego separate from the system but part of the "weave of the total complex". Therefore his techniques arose from within the weave and harmonized with them.

Bateson said that people were studying Erickson with the traditional Western epistemological view of the outside observer operating on a system. They were thus "seeing" Erickson's work in terms of an ego applying a bag of tricks onto a system from the outside. This created a sort of power game and misunderstanding of the work that Bateson loathed.

I tend to agree with Bateson's somewhat severe assessment. This is why in the workshops we spend a lot of time working with how to reorganize attention into what I call field-based identity; something that allows one to perceive from within a field that is bigger than the first position of the "I" or the second position of the "you". For example, we work to develop skilfullness in five principles of attention: dropping it down (into your center), softening (relaxing the body), widening (expanding your perceptual field), connecting (letting your mind feel a connection with other minds), and erasing (clearing out any fixed images, thoughts, submodalities in your field of consciousness). When you can do that, you are ready for creative "field-based" responsiveness.

10. Naturally your own work has moved on from where Erickson's left off. We live in a different social world now. Can you describe your current work?

About eight years ago, my dad died and my daughter was born. This produced a major death-and-rebirth process in me. Suddenly I was no one's son and some one's father. I figured it was time for me to let go of using Erickson as kind surrogate father. It was time to start speaking in my own voice, and not blame everything on him! So the last eight years I have been developing what I call the self-relations approach. It is described in my latest book, 'The courage to love: Principles and practices of self-relations psychotherapy'.

Self-relations work is different from Erickson's legacy in at least three ways. The first is the incorporation of what we call the 'Erickson function' within the client. Erickson used to say that the unconscious is very intelligent, but he never explained why a person was acting so stupidly before Erickson came onto the scene. It seems that Erickson committed the typical Western error of not including the observer (himself) in the observed: that is, it wasn't so much the "client's unconscious alone" that was intelligent, it was "the client's unconscious in relation to Erickson" that was the winning ticket. If that was indeed the case, the question is whether whatever Erickson was doing; what we might call the "Erickson function", could be learned by others, especially by the client himself. That is, couldn't the client learn to relate with his "unconscious" the same way that Erickson did? And if so, whose voice do you want running around with you in your head? Some dead guy's or your own? With all due respect to Milton (and much is due), it's nice to know that a person can locate and develop the Erickson function within themselves. We try to do this formally in self-relations.

A second difference is the embodiment of the unconscious. In Erickson's work, the unconscious sounds a bit ethereal at times. It just kind of hangs around in the air. Self relations explicitly emphasizes life as a performance art, and looks at how performance artists; dancers, athletes, artists etc. experience and organize their "creative unconscious". We see how important embodiment is, and so emphasize the somatic experience in relation to the unconscious much more than Erickson did. For example, in examining states of well being that we hope to reproduce in other contexts, we ask, "When you experience that sense of well-being and effectiveness, where in your body do you sense your center of self"? We then examine how reconnecting with that center can be accomplished in challenging situations.

In exploring problems a basic question we ask in self-relations is, "When you experience the problem, where do you feel the center of disturbance in your body?" Most people point to their heart, solar plexus, or belly. We work with it, discovering how tuning to it reveals the creative unconscious in action. It just needs what we call a little "sponsorship" to reveal its positive contribution.

A third difference has to do with the creative field. In Erickson's work, people go into a trance that is generally away from the world. That is, you have to close your eyes, not move, and zone out. A lot of interesting and helpful things can happen in that state, but it has limitations in terms of performance. That is, it is not a very helpful resource when you have to respond quickly in a challenging social situation; for example, someone attacking you or criticizing you, or asking you to solve some problem immediately. So we've moved trance from a field away from the here and now to a field that is here and now.

A lot of this comes from aikido training, which I'm very much into. In aikido, if you go into accessing cues, or close your eyes, or otherwise think while you're being attacked, you end up on the floor. You've just gotten whacked! So instead of going inside, you allow your mind to spread into the field that holds both you and your partner, as well as many other presences. People know this field when they're experiencing deep well-being. Just think of experiences when you feel most connected to yourself and note where your self "ends" in such experiences. Self-relations looks to train folks to access and work within this field. In a sense, it is the place where Erickson worked. He didn't go into trance, he came "out into trance", wider and wider awake, as we say. We really emphasize this in self-relations in a way that I don't think Erickson really did.

11. You have kindly agreed to lead a five day training seminar in Ericksonian Hypnosis in Sydney in August 1999 for health care professionals and NLP practitioners. From both a professional and personal development point of view, what would you like participants to walk away with at the end of the five days?

Well, I hope that what I've said so far gives a flavor for what the work is up to. I would hope that folks can tune into how creative death and rebirth is going on all the time in the field of consciousness. And how it needs human presence to 'sponsor' it, to bring awareness to it, so it can awaken into an even more profound state. The work in Ericksonian hypnosis and self-relations are methods for how to do that.

I will be asking folks to come in with specific goal states in mind. Places that they really would like to make improvement in, both personally and professionally. Stuff that will really provide a test of the ideas and practices of the approach. So that when you leave you have a sense that as a theory this may or may not be interesting, but as a practice it really is something.

My intention is that people walk away from the course with some practical ways to deal creatively with difficult situations. Some workable ways to transform the negative experiences in their lives. Some effective methods for approaching challenging new situations.

To make it work, we will work on how to make the learning environment both safe and passionate. Safe enough to let go and passionate enough to touch and awaken the soul. Each condition is equally important: one without the other is useless.

Most of all, I hope we can have some good fun in the process.

© 1999 Stephen Gilligan, Chris & Jules Collingwood

Feedback from Ericksonian Hypnosis and the Generative Self with Dr Stephen Gilligan, 1999 seminar.

Books by Stephen Gilligan

cover Therapeutic Trances: The cooperation principle in Ericksonian hypnotherapy
by Stephen G. Gilligan

1987 New York: Brunner Mazel Inc

ISBN 0876304420

Therapeutic Trances is the best text I have read for students of Ericksonian Hypnosis. Gilligan covers the history of therapeutic hypnosis and explores the differences between various models of Hypnosis and the Ericksonian model. The book covers's all the necessary and sufficient patterns to create a solid foundation for students wanting to develop their skills in the application of Ericksonian patterns. Gilligan is well qualified as a leading exponent of Ericksonian Hypnosis having apprenticed to Erickson for 5 years, through modelling Erickson and receiving a PhD in Psychology from Stanford University. I understand Gilligan's thesis was on Hypnosis.

cover The Courage to Love; Principles and practices of self relations psychotherapy
by Stephen Gilligan.

1997 New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

ISBN 0393702472

Steve Gilligan modeled and studied with Dr. Milton Erickson. He has further developed his own work as a psychotherapist to create Self Relations therapy. The Courage to Love is an excellent text on the how of self relations therapy. Recommended for psychotherapists and anyone involved in assisting others to create change in their lives.


Practitioner of Ericksonian Hypnosis seminar with Chris and Jules Collingwood

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