The first year, the question in play was What is this mental state am I experiencing every day?
I was all interested in neuro-linguistic programming from Milton Erickson through Bandler and Grinder to the self-help guy Tony Whateveritis. That was all about suggestibility and the idea that there was a sub-conscious mind. (Side note: the first day I practiced with my teacher and he said “just establishing rapport…” I knew he was hip to the NLP and probably an eclectic like myself… which of course turned out to be exactly right.)
In that line were yoga nidra of course, the intriguing Edgar Cayce, a lot of dimestore self-hypnosis New Age nonsense and cheap evolutionary theory á la Robert Anton Wilson, and finally a mysterious, ancient cassette tape I had mailed in from a distant archive like a character in Umberto Eco. On it a woman called Jasmine Riddle intoned the most potent yoga nidra sequence I’ve ever found, but I can’t tell you what’s in it because I never got past the second minute without my mind shutting off. It would return 50 minutes later, Ms. Riddle whispering to me to wake up. I guess I could try to crack her code but I don’t want to re-request the thing through ILL because my reputation with the university library is already sketchy (seriously).
At the same time, that first year, I was starting to explore Vipassana. Which, at first (shamatha practice) was all about concentration and operated on a simpler idea of the mind than the hypnosis people. For Vipassana, for a practical purposes the mind was just the house of “attachments” and “suffering.”
Together, the NLP and the Vipassana led to a relational question (usually the best kind question): what is the relationship of meditation and hypnosis? (And: which framework is better for mapping my experience, or do I need both?)
The Vipassana people will tell you meditation is not the same as hypnosis. Not the same! Of course they will say that: if it were the same, you could get the method without the metaphysics (the metaphysics being the belief system anchored in the Four Noble Truths, though they will also tell you that this is not a theory but a fact revealed by looking inside, like Socrates supposedly revealed geometry to the boy in the Meno). Over time I found a few very good answers from Buddhist scholars for why meditation and hypnosis are different (along with a lot of answers that made me suspicious), but none of the answers were so good that I remember them.
So now I am concluding the fourth year, and I am still not sure—experientially—what is the relationship of meditation to hypnosis. But what is different now is that I trust myself more as a first-order experiencer and when applicable a second-order witness of that experience. And, I’m a lot more interested in the tones, textures, and subtleties of altered states, and in the meaningfulness that seems to arise out of them after the fact. Also, there is the whole phenomenon of other minds (not the so-called "problem of other minds," thank you), and the ways groups actually share and collectively deepen altered states.
Outside/objective approaches would just quantify things: measure brain activity and be done with it. What if they found that the elecrtromagnetic map of asana (which I experience as meditation ranging from light to deep) is the same as chanting (which I experience as full-on hypnosis)? Would having it quantified externally as 1=1 answer the question?
Actually, yes. And no.
The problem with the subjective side is that once I’m in an altered state I’m not much fit to gather data. And since I love altered states my reflections on them are colored with the emotions of wonderment and joy that I associate with them after the fact.
Is there some kind of meditative-hypnotic spectrum that cannot be reduced to an electroencephalograph readout? Inside, there are other spectra in play:
Just to mix it up, I practiced this morning with the Gayatri Mantra droning over and over in the background. Swaying right out of my body just standing up, but sharp and focused for the rest of it. It was pretty strange and delicious. Chocolate with chili powder.