Hypnotherapist Jon Atkinson works at the serious end of the hypnosis spectrum. At his practice in Surrey he gives one-to-one hypnotic cures for addictions, personality disorders and medical problems. But he also runs intensive, weekend-long courses in self-hypnosis, because he believes that hypnosis should be about "enhancing your life rather than just putting things right". He also thinks that hypnosis should be fun - or is that just because he sounds like Eddie Izzard with an agenda?
"I'm going to teach you how to go into self-hypnosis safely, and then I'll give you two programmes; input them into your subconscious; one for instant deep relaxation, and another that allows you to "load" your own hypnotic 'suggestions'. They'll work in your everyday life." Jon was addressing 16 of us on a Friday evening at the start of his course at London's Imperial College.
"Firstly, I don't need to know why any of you are on this course, or what you want to do with self-hypnosis. I'm just going to give you a set of tools that you can then use for whatever you want." But if we didn't have to actually confess what aspect of our lives we wanted to change, it was easy to make some educated guesses as to the motivations of a few of us. The trio disappearing for regular fags in the corridor, the guy whose foot tapped a soft but regular 120 beats per minute, the two visibly pregnant women. Giving up cigarettes, relaxing and painless childbirth were high on the group's wish-list.
And me? Well, a chronically late, forgetful and disorganised acquaintance had taken a similar course. Meeting me some weeks afterwards (on time and remembering my name) she likened self-hypnosis to obedience training for the mind, turning one's subconscious from a good-natured but romping puppy into a house-trained, fetch-on-command best friend. Optimistically, I hoped that some neural switch might be thrown to let me learn languages with a single read-through of advanced course textbooks.
Jon's introduction was full of promise. "You can use self-hypnosis to improve every aspect of your lives. Throw away your alarm clocks and just jump out of bed at the right time, and feeling great as well. If you play a sport you can really improve your performance and co-ordination. And it can be fantastic for your sex life." Around the group people were mentally upping their ambitions from merely losing weight or giving up cigarettes. Jon was ticking off ideas on his fingers: "You can distort time - make it go faster or slower - which is great for travelling, no more jet lag - and you can stop pain, even bleeding, instantly. And you'll be able to remember things." Jon had known each of our names from the very start and never got them wrong.
But enough of the travelogue. It was time to take the trip. We lay down, the lights were doused and pleasant music treacled over us. Jon moved around the room while his voice conjured images suggesting the sensations of going down and deeper. It was relaxing, but I still felt disturbingly conscious and rudely analytical. So I clearly heard Jon commanding us to come in well before the 10am start the next morning. I gave a wry, relaxed smile at this simplistic manipulation, confident that my five- minutes-late-for-everything-in-life record would remain unbroken. After five or six minutes we were counted back from our first experience of hypnotic trance. But the clock showed that more than 20 minutes had passed. And the next morning I was back in the room at 9.40am, wearing a puzzled expression. The last straggler arrived a minute before 10.
This kind of thing was helping me believe that hypnosis might work. Saturday was a 12-hour session. There were more low lights, more tinkly tunes, and deeper levels of relaxation, less foot tapping and fewer cigarette breaks. We also had to learn the lengthy formulae we needed for accessing self-hypnosis safely, ensuring we were immune from outside influences while in deep trance, and bringing ourselves out of the trance at any time.
There was more group hypnosis with its weird distortion of time. And then the essential, "hypnotic suggestion" writing lessons. This was what we needed to know to be able to put our own programmes - better tennis, better sex, a better memory for Spanish verbs - into the right words to be loaded into our hypnotic software. "You have to be careful - this is very literal, so be exact about what you want and vague about how you make it happen. Lots of positive words, nothing negative."
By the Sunday, nearly everybody else had advanced, while in deep hypnosis, to allowing their subconscious to lift their arms "as if tied to balloons". The darkened room became a forest of gently swaying arms stretching skywards from recumbent bodies. Mine remained firmly earthbound. Then I suddenly felt the slightest tug at my arm - as soon as I thought about it the feeling stopped, then a minute or two later another little tug. It seemed when I dipped down into my subconscious, the arm was free to rise; conscious thought stopped it. My rising arm became a depth gauge, charting my dives into the depths of my own mind. I was ready for my first "solo dive", using what I'd learnt to take myself into hypnosis.
By now we had all fixed on our chosen "deepening" image - swimming fish and soaring birds were popular. Pete, a down-to-earth Londoner, described his flying sheep in bizarre detail. I had gone the lying-in-summer-grass- with-bird-song route. Without Jon's voice to guide and control us, dependent on our internal flight checks and psychological spells, we all managed to take ourselves into deep hypnosis, but I still felt my deep trances were basically fake. And so, in my first act of self-induced hypnosis I floundered like a travel writer; observing, taking notes and waiting to be amazed.
Hypnosis is all about belief in hypnosis. Jon knew that we still needed tangible proof that we had entered some new and powerful state. He handed each of us a sterilised, nappy-sized safety pin. We soared, swam or lazed our way back into deep hypnosis, and programmed ourselves to neither feel pain nor bleed, to enjoy the coming experience. Which was Jon coming around and with a fair bit of force pushing each person's pin through a hefty pinch of flesh. I watched my arm being pierced in a happy, disengaged sort of way. This was my conversion - whatever hypnosis was, I could do it.
And since the course? Well, I've programmed suggestions for all kinds of things. A memory for names, (worked); an ability to meet deadlines, (sort of worked); the annihilation of an incipient cold, (two days of snivelling, but how long without hypnosis?); a number of purely personal ambitions, (nobody but me will ever know how they worked). And the instant relaxation programme has become an addiction. Like a spell, the "access phrase" can give me a flopped-out trance as cool and refreshing as an ocean swim off a tropical beach. It sure beats acting like a ukulele-playing chicken.
Jonathan Atkinson D.Hyp. C.Hyp. CMH runs self-hypnosis courses at London's Imperial College. Courses include 25 hours of tuition (Friday 7pm to 10pm, Saturday 10am to 10pm, Sunday 10am to 8pm). Upcoming course dates: 26- 28 February, 23-25 April, 28-30 May. Course fee pounds 293.75, including manual, course hand-outs, post-course support network, free refresher courses. Details from Jonathan Atkinson Life Force Courses, 15 Lower Haslemere Street, Surrey GU27 2NY (tel: 01428 644712).