Hypnosis and meditation seem similar, but let’s look at how the two practices differ.
As a hypnotherapist, I have heard many people ask “So, how are meditation and hypnosis different?” and it is a fair question, as there do seem to be a few similarities. Hypnosis and meditation both require a certain focus of mind, often – but not always – purposefully directed. My years of experience are more in using hypnosis than meditation, so the differences I discuss below are my personal opinions. I welcome and encourage anyone with meditation experience to please comment if you feel I’ve missed anything.
First, let’s set down a definition of hypnosis.
There’s more to hypnosis than relaxation
People – including hypnotherapists looking to reassure their clients – often sell hypnosis as just a state of deep relaxation. However, this doesn’t really make much sense. Hypnosis can be relaxed (this is often how it’s used therapeutically), but hypnosis is any state of mind that makes us more:
- focused, and
While experiencing a traumatic event, people become markedly more suggestible. I’ve worked with people so traumatized by even just a 30-second experience that years later they still respond to environmental ‘post-hypnotic suggestions’ that take them instantly back to the original trauma. For example, a war-weary veteran whose heart pounds at the sound of a car backfiring, or a driver who suddenly feels anxious while passing the corner where she had an accident. This is pure hypnotic phenomenon, but certainly not relaxing.
And what’s more…
All emotion is hypnosis
That’s right – all emotion is, to a greater or lesser extent, hypnotic. Just think about how focused and suggestible (and disassociated) you become while in lust. Or in love. Or in a rage.
Anger is very hypnotic – it focuses our attention right down and makes us suggestible. And, of course, depression is a trance-like focus. The fact that these states are hypnotic is why they are so amenable to treatment via hypnosis.
Anyone who makes you more emotional will also make you more suggestible. When cults (or politicians) want to influence their listeners’ belief systems, they will attempt to rouse their emotions. Such charismatic people are naturally more hypnotic.
Actually, all therapists use hypnosis in some measure, even if they aren’t aware of it. When a counsellor asks their client to direct attention to a recent break-up or childhood pain, they are encouraging disassociation from the here and now – which can be a feature of hypnotic trance. The state of flow, or being ‘in the zone’, is also very focusing and therefore shares similarities with relaxed therapeutic hypnosis.
As you can see, hypnosis is not just a state of relaxation as you might read on a million hypnotherapists’ advertising blurbs. It’s actually much more interesting than that!
As for meditation…
Meditation is to hypnosis as wine is to alcohol.
Meditation may have great benefits1, just like hypnosis, but I suspect there can also be a downside if it is used unwisely. I remember hearing of a woman who meditated up to 12 hours per day and began to find she couldn’t cope with some of life’s practicalities. More isn’t always better; sometimes more is just more and may even be harmful. Taking a hundred painkillers is most certainly not better than taking one.
Purposefully used hypnosis will normally have a very specific psychological (and therefore behavioural) aim. We hypnotize people to help them engage in the kinds of thoughts, feelings, and actions that will stop them being heavy drinkers, depressed, traumatized, or phobic. We use hypnosis to help them switch off pain or maximize their motivation in sports. Meditation may have the side-effect of making us calmer day-to-day, but it’s not usually used to stop someone smoking or to treat a specific phobia.
Similarly, clinical hypnosis can be wonderful for just relaxing, but it isn’t generally used with the sole intention of helping someone achieve an empty mind or objective mindfulness – although we can certainly use hypnosis for this effect very well.
So one difference between hypnosis and meditation is the purpose for which they are used.
Ultimately, asking what the difference is between hypnosis and meditation is something like asking what the difference is between alcohol and wine. Meditation may be a specialized use of a kind of hypnotic state, often as part of a wider spiritual system. The most famous meditator in history was, of course, Siddhārtha Gautama – also known as the awakened one or the Buddha. His followers believed he had attained enlightenment through meditation. However, the words meditation and hypnosis did not exist during the Buddha’s lifetime.
One aspect of the Buddha’s awakening was the ability to perceive the interconnectedness of all things beneath deceptive appearances. Meditation and hypnosis are simply words and might sometimes mean exactly the same thing. Some hypnotic states could be more like quiet meditative states, and I’m sure some people who meditate sometimes experience profoundly hypnotic imagery.
Both hypnosis and meditation can improve your wellbeing
I have experienced the judicious use of hypnosis changing lives by helping people rid themselves of unwanted thought patterns and chaotic emotions; and research has shown that regular meditation or self-hypnosis can make us happier1.
Hypnosis, used well, can help people detach from destructive emotions and begin to see greater potentials and happier possibilities (such as feeling calm around spiders!). One meditation technique, known as mindfulness, has a similar aim; the person meditating seeks to name his or her feelings whilst not disentangling from them. In this way, meditation can help people.
Therapeutic hypnosis will often focus on helping someone relax around past memories or prepare to feel better and act differently during future events. Meditation, as I understand it, is often an attempt at being absolutely in the present. Yet again, people in hypnosis will often report feeling totally focused in the now.
So the question “What is the difference between hypnosis and meditation?” is simple, but the answer is a bit more complicated.
1. One piece of research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record brain activity found that using mindfulness lowered arousal in the amygdala – the brain’s emotional alarm system. This part of your brain produces the stress response very rapidly; so calming it down (and thereby helping it to ‘go off’ only when it really needs to) will make people happier, as they’ll be generally much less stressed, according to research carried out by David Creswell, a research scientist with the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.