The Trapdoor: Moving Beyond the Limitations of the Conscious Mind
As I’ve been studying hypnotherapy with the ever-inspiring Kristin Prevallet, I have found myself attracted to the metaphor of a trapdoor to describe how we access the subconscious mind and the totality of the unconscious. We know that all sorts of images, ideas, memories, repressed emotions, and autonomous body responses are contained within the patterns in our subconscious/unconscious. However, these things are not always able to be accessed or understood on the conscious level. It’s almost as if there is a little door between the conscious and subconscious.
When we proceed to fall sleep, the brain waves first slow to the alpha level, the door opens up, and the subconscious emerges through dreams. In the deepest sleep, the brain waves actually slow down to the delta level. In the trance state of hypnosis, the brain waves change from the waking beta state into the alpha state, and often reach an alpha-theta level. This is a different state than sleep, since rather than going into the completely unconscious delta state, you go into a sort of hypnagogic in-between state, and this is a highly beneficial state of super-learning. When the trapdoor is opened, suggestions given by the therapist can more effectively be understood by the unconscious, which is more malleable during this state and able to make positive changes. It is important to remember that in hypnotherapy, the hypnotherapist cannot "program" you in any way, but instead, the suggestions given serve to stimulate that person’s own unconscious processes so that limiting beliefs can be removed and self-healing can occur.
Because I understand the usefulness of opening the “trapdoor,” I have become interested in observing how precisely that door is opened. As a hypnotherapist, this is crucial in order to facilitate the development of trance states in the patient, but I have also noticed the process in realms other than hypnotherapy. The broad method of opening the trapdoor is by concentrating the conscious mind very intently on a specific task. This is a bit of a paradox: the more we focus the conscious mind on one thing, the more other altered states are allowed to expand. As Butoh teacher Vangeline puts is, we have to “travel through the eye of the needle.”
I find that in my weekly Butoh class, Vangeline incorporates several different specific methods of opening the trap door. Often, the method is firstly physical: we may focus on a rhythmic pattern of muscular engagement and surrender for an extended period of time, focusing all of our intention on this physical process. It is usually an arduous task, but eventually with concentration and commitment, we go through the “eye of the needle—“ meaning we go through that trapdoor into the subconscious. Sometimes, Vangeline uses more of a breath-based initiation into the dance (see #1 below). Whatever the case, the pattern at work is that heightened concentration and commitment to the task allows us to move through an important doorway.
There really are all sorts of specific task-based methods to open the door, but here are just a few that I’ve explored recently:
1. Eye fixation and/or breath control
Both of these methods are useful in meditation, hypnosis, as well as dance forms such as Butoh and other artistic crafts. Perhaps you have experienced a meditative process in which you focused on one point between the eyebrows (sometimes called the third eye). Similarly, you may have experienced a variety of breath-control exercises whether in a yoga class, meditation, or otherwise. Sometimes that process involves manipulation of the breath based on counting or simply following the breath as it travels in, around, and out of your body. In all of these cases, you are consciously focusing your awareness, and with some duration I believe these practices open the doorway into other states of consciousness.
2. Meisner exercises for the actor
Most actors are familiar with the teachings of Sanford Meisner. A popular exercise involves “completing a task with one hundred percent of concentration.” As William Esper states in the book "The Actors Art and Craft," “the activity becomes a real workout in the reality of doing, and the actor becomes emotional in spite of himself…she was not trying to be emotional, she was trying to get her work done. That’s what makes all the difference…choose an activity with real difficulty in the object, in the doing!” In short, with your conscious mind subsumed in a single task, your responses to whatever is happening in the scene are more authentic because that doorway into the subconscious truth has been opened.
3. Puzzles, puns, wordplay, questions
Milton Erickson, pioneer in the field of hypnotherapy, often used folk language infused with puns and wordplay in his therapy sessions. Utilizing language structure that has layers of interpretation takes lots of focus from the conscious mind in an effort to decode the message: the trickier the word puzzle, the more effort the conscious mind exerts trying to figure out this specific problem. In this case, the idea is to try to overload the conscious mind so much that the doorway is surreptitiously opened, and the only way to solve the puzzle is for the unconscious to take over. Questions have a similar effect: any time a question is used in place of a direct command in conversation, the unconscious mind is stimulated and engaged.
Whether someone says something surprising to you, or whether you see a surprising image, or hear a loud sound, any form of subversion of expectation that confuses the conscious mind unlocks the unconscious mind so that it can go on a rapid search to discover a new frame of reference to understand whatever experience you just had. Embrace that surprise!
This is related to automatic writing (see #7), but I felt it deserved its own number. For me, the focus can be either on the doodling or on something else. Sometimes I focus intently on a conversation while also doodling, and later take note of the interesting artworks I created which are suffused with the hidden processes of the unconscious. Other times, I place the focus on doodling the little picture, so that whatever I’m listening to will be absorbed on the unconscious level more effectively. Forget whatever your teachers may have said in high school about doodling being bad. Use it as a positive tool.
6. Repetition (with slow change)
Minimalist music is a wonderful example of concentration, trance, and the trapdoor experience. If you’ve ever listened to a Phillip Glass or Steve Reich piece, you already experientially understand how musical repetition can be hypnotic and eventually open a trapdoor into the unconscious. I have heard some people criticize minimalist music as being “boring,” but Reich explains that repetitive structure, perhaps with change over time, is an extremely gradual musical process that actually facilitates “closely detailed listening.” In other words, the hypnotizing effect actually comes from more focusing on details, not a zombie-like zoning out or a real boredom. In this interview, Phillip Glass explains how while he was watching a Beckett play in rehearsal several times in a row, he noticed minute changes in the play each time, and these tiny differences created a different psychological impact each time. Unlike some classical forms of theatre in which there is a clearly defined “epiphany,” Glass notes that in minimalist structures, “the epiphany is in the interaction between [your] perception and the piece itself.” Thus, the repetitive structure with hyper-gradual change actually invites us to heighten our concentration, easily bringing us into more of a trance-state, in which the trapdoor to the subconscious is opened, and authentic epiphany occurs.
7. Automatic Writing
This is one of my favorite task-based ways to tap into the unconscious. Inspired by Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way,” I committed myself for several months to free-write journaling every morning, for at least 3 full pages. The morning pages involve the specific task that you must write without stopping until those pages are filled. You must keep your writing implement moving on that piece of paper. The idea is that you bypass the limitations of your conscious mind by allowing anything and everything to flow through you onto the paper. At first, you will probably just ramble about all the problems in your life and maybe write some silly things like “I have to poop am I allowed to take a bathroom break from morning pages?” (Or maybe that’s just me? I’ve never been allowed to read anyone else’s morning pages…). But eventually, important things buried in your subconscious will come out, perhaps including some beautiful poetic writing, and you can even start to ask yourself important questions (Where do I go from here in my career? How do I really feel about my relationship with so-and-so?) and you’ll find that you have the inner wisdom to provide answers to those questions, once you’ve slipped through that trapdoor into a more expansive realm. FYI, April 6-May 3 Kristin Prevallet will be leading a writing workshop that incorporates trance and hypnosis—check here for more info. I highly recommend working with Kristin in whatever capacity you can!
These 7 observations are just a few of the ways in which I have noticed how a process of conscious concentration can allow the trapdoor into the unconscious realm to be opened. Why should that matter? As I have mentioned, entering into a state in which the unconscious is accessible and malleable can lead to accelerated learning and healing. By opening the doorway into the unconscious, we begin to understand previously hidden aspects of ourselves, we tune into our most authentic selves, and we ultimately raise self-awareness. It’s all about integration: we travel through the doorway in order to return enriched in some way.