What are the differences between Self Hypnosis, Meditation and Mindfulness?
Self hypnosis, meditation and mindfulness are growing in popularity. It’s not surprising when these self-help disciplines can be used to reduce stress and anxiety, and even help you achieve your goals. When you have mastered one or all of them, you can be in charge of easing the symptoms of some serious underlying health issues.
When teaching self hypnosis to my hypnotherapy clients, I have often been asked if there is a difference between self hypnosis, meditation and mindfulness. Purists may not agree, but I believe that each discipline can take similar paths but they do have some distinct differences too.
If you want to take “de-stressing” matters into your own hands, which one should you develop? Let’s compare and contrast each discipline so that you can decide which one to take on your self-help journey.
Let’s discuss hypnosis first
It is a fairly common misconception that “hypnosis” is something that can only occur with the help of some external or professional guidance using a hypnotic induction. It may be hard to believe, but you cannot be hypnotised unless you want to be hypnotised, even though it might look like mind control in those hypnosis films. You ultimately choose which suggestions to accept or reject; the “power” exists within you and not the person hypnotising you. Externally guided hypnosis happens then, because you allow someone else to guide your “self hypnosis”. And during a state of hypnosis you are more receptive to a hypnotherapist’s suggestions that you have agreed are part of your treatment goals.
Hypnosis, in its broadest definition (no, not the one used by authoritarian styles), is a state of altered awareness and you are constantly drifting in and out of hypnosis throughout your day. It happens nearly always by accident, when a person is doing some routine and repetitive task, such as doing the dishes or walking the dog. One moment you’ll be at the park with your dog, and next you’ll be at front of your house door without having any conscious recollection of how you got there. Your mind decided to take a stroll down memory lane while your legs carried you home.
This is an example of hypnosis when your mind is “zoning out”; it goes into subspace and retreats into some peaceful place within itself. This state of awareness is similar to daydreaming. Everyone has done this as some time in their lives. Can you remember doing this in school?
Depending on your priorities, your subconscious mind may want to put aside a calming daydream and solve a problem or anxiety, something that is open-ended and needs to be closed for you to then feel relaxed again. You might do this on the commuting to work, preparing and prioritising your working day ahead of you.
The process of altered awareness can also happen when you “zone in” and concentrate on something so intensely that you shut out external distractions. An example is when reading a good book; you block out those house noises that you may otherwise hear and disturb you (the ones that irritate you when you are struggling to get to sleep). You can also “zone in” when you attend a live performance of your favourite artist and are so taken by the show that you lose track of time and forget about your worries. In this situation your subconscious mind is prioritising the external situation over other “internal” issues, allowing you to be fully absorbed in the show.
What is self hypnosis?
The situations above describe how hypnotic and self hypnotic states can happen incidentally. In a formal context, self hypnosis can be defined as using a process, usually involving relaxation techniques, to intentionally induce yourself into a state of concentrated, heightened suggestibility. Affirmations, your imagination and visualisation may then be used to access a present or future desirable state. It may also be used to reframe the meaning and the emotions of a past event.
How do you perform Self Hypnosis?
First identify some affirmations that are the positive form of your negative state that you wish to change. For example, if you are anxious about giving a presentation, your affirmation could be “I am feeling more relaxed and confident with my presentation as I rehearse my content”.
- Find a comfortable location away from irritating noises (it takes a well-practised self-hypnotist to work with these!) Find a supportive posture such as sitting down in a comfortable chair or lying down on a bed in a slightly inclined position (so you don’t fall asleep too easily).
- Relax by using breathing techniques and then focus on parts of your body feeling heavy in sequence e.g. from head to toe. You can keep your eyes open or closed. Focus on a few words that assists your mind to drift down into a pleasant state of heaviness e.g. with each out breath let your inner voice say “relax deeper”.
- State and repeat your affirmations (internally/silently or externally out loud). Visualise the positive situation and the positive feelings more intensely with each repeat of the suggestion for a period of time e.g. ten minutes.
- Exit your hypnotic state by counting upwards, feeling more alert with each count until you feel alert. Gradually open your eyes if you closed them. Your session of self hypnosis is complete.
In the simplest terms, meditation can be explained as a participative activity in which you silence your thoughts, tune in to your inner self and find peace and tranquillity. Meditation itself is a wholesome activity in which you induce a mode of consciousness; it is not meant to lead to anything else.
How is meditation done?
There are certain steps that you can follow in order to meditate successfully. In its most basic form, these steps include:
- Finding a nice, quiet place in which to settle down in and feel comfortable.
- Then, you close your eyes and begin a basic breathing exercise that involves slow, full and deep diaphragmatic breathing.
- After this, you focus on nothing but the sound and pattern of your own steady breathing. Cleanse your thoughts and empty your mind of any other thought. You can continue for as long as you like staying focused on your breath.
- When you have achieved this for a period of time, you can open your eyes. Stand and stretch your limbs and then carry on your day as planned.
How is self hypnosis different from meditation?
By following these stages in self hypnosis and meditation, it can be easy to mistake one for the other since the first few steps in each discipline are very similar. You will notice that in order to be able to focus into your affirmation more intensely the first three stages of meditation can be used. Both self hypnosis and meditation also involve an end process or awakening.
Self hypnosis and meditation are clearly not the same disciplines however. There is no phase of ‘directed positive change’ in meditation, unless you consider the shift from an active state to a passive quietened state sufficiently directed. Meditation is an activity with no ulterior purpose other than to find inner peace and tranquillity. Some styles of meditation achieve this by visualisation, contemplation, chanting a mantra or focusing on something external or on an energy point (chakra) during the third stage. Some styles of meditation also incorporate movement such as walking meditation or during the practice of martial arts.
Self hypnosis is different in this regard. During self hypnosis there is a goal in mind; an end purpose of transformation. Hypnosis and self hypnosis is nearly always induced in order to make some sort of change so that the person being hypnotised can achieve something*. The goal can be relaxation, but most self hypnosis usually goes beyond this. For example, one might want to use self hypnosis to break a bad habit, quit smoking, dig up an old half forgotten memory to reframe it, boost self confidence, control pain, lift depression, overcome insomnia, reduce anxiety, and so on.
*I say ”nearly always” because on rare occasions, I have had some clients who just wanted to experience what “directed hypnosis” felt like. I asked them if they wanted to change any aspect of their lives and they said no. The hypnosis session ended up being a relaxation session (sometimes called “relaxatherapy”). Instinctively, I integrated suggestions of confidence and ego boosting into their consultation. At the end of the session they were relaxed and appreciative of the experience. They were able to tell the world that they had been “hypnotised” today! So was this relaxation session a “directed meditation” or “guided visualisation” sometimes used in Yoga? I think that this type of session was common to all of these processes.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be described as a state of non-judgemental, heightened awareness in which you consciously and deliberately pay attention to something in the present. What you pay close attention to can be internal processes like your current thoughts, emotions or sensations in your body. You can also pay close attention to external processes that are occurring in your surrounding environment.
Through the practice of mindfulness and focusing on the present experience, you can access an enhanced state of calmness, concentration and clarity. Mindfulness helps to temporarily create distance from the default functioning of the mind that can be overwhelming. The mind is constantly connecting with the past in order to anticipate the future, but it may not always connect with it in a way that benefits you. It can easily exaggerate the emotional learning of past events, predicting catastrophes that rarely happen. Mindfulness sidelines these distractions, capturing the essence of just being, feeling, thinking, sensing and existing in the present.
As a perceptual style of processing then, mindfulness can be therapeutic. The (physical) past is put to rest from a perspective that it cannot be changed, so why ruminate over it? Whilst anxiety about the future can be threatening and remains uncertain, so why try to control it? The only time to exist is “in the now”. Mindfulness enables you to take heed from this philosophy and channel your attention, your energy and your desires on to what is happening to you “right there and then”.
How is mindfulness done?
Mindfulness can be practised in many situations and during various activities. You can be mindful when walking, gardening, painting, eating, travelling on a bus, whilst sitting in the park observing nature around you etc. You can also practise mindfulness during more passive activities. Here’s one mindfulness activity, focusing on breathing:
- Choose a peaceful place in your house away from any distractions. Get comfortable in a chair with your body supported and your eyes closed.
- Imagine your breath being visible. As you inhale with your abdomen, follow the flow of your breath as it gets inhaled through your nose, past your windpipe and down into your lungs. Notice the changing sensations in your abdomen, diaphragm and ribcage.
- As you pause before exhaling, observe the air resting at the bottom of your lungs, circulating for a few moments. Then as you exhale follow the air being breathed up through your chest and out through your nose. Notice the air circulating just outside of your face as you pause, before inhaling the air again.
- Repeat this process with several breaths.
- Then allow your mind to roam, observing your thoughts at a distance. Accept these thoughts as they fade in and then fade out, being replaced with the flow of your breath once again.
- Your mindfulness session is complete. You can open your eyes to return to your day.
How does mindfulness compare to self hypnosis?
Whilst relaxation may be experienced at some point during or after having practised mindfulness, it is far from being a technique in which you “relax” the mind. Instead, during mindfulness, you are aiming to arouse your senses, being more aware of those subtle processes that mostly tend to happen in the background. In other words, you are “zoning in” to whatever is happening in this moment, such as your tuning in to emotions or feelings. This might involve examining the tension within a part of your body right now and having felt it, you can now readily release it. This is a different approach to pushing something aside, even suppressing it, for it to come knocking at your door at a later time.
So how does mindfulness compare to self hypnosis? In many ways, they complement each other and by developing one technique, you may find that it helps the other one.
They both help you to “zone in”: Mindfulness’s perceptual style of focusing your attention is very similar to the “zoning in” state of altered awareness used in self hypnosis (mentioned above in the description of hypnosis). Zoning in would benefit you in areas if your life such as increasing your concentration levels at work and helping your listening abilities during conversations.
They both improve your mind-body connection: Thoughts and emotions create physical changes in your body and you may not always appreciate at the time of which thought is causing which sensation. Generally speaking, positive thoughts can create relaxed sensations, whilst negative thoughts can create sensations of tension. By zoning into these negative thoughts and emotions, mindfulness can be used as a diagnostic tool to establish which unconscious thought is triggering this physical tension. The tension in your shoulders might relate to you being anxious about giving a presentation next week and is the source of keeping you tense, irritable and awake at night. Having established this, you now have a goal for the self hypnosis. Using self hypnosis you can then create affirmations to help you visualise confidence in your presentation, reducing your anxiety-related tension in your shoulders and helping you to sleep better at night.
How does mindfulness compare to meditation?
When you consider the mindfulness breathing practice above, parts of it could be used as a lead into meditation (and self hypnosis). In this specific context, it has many similarities. Some people advocate that “breathing mindfulness” is a type of meditation activity.
This is perhaps one of the main general differences. Mindfulness is a state of mind or quality of awareness that can be applied anywhere. However, meditation is an activity or action; something that you do whilst sitting, focusing, chanting or walking etc.
Now consider a mindfulness practice when you drink a cup of tea. How you are holding the cup, the weight of the cup, the movement of your arm and hand as you bring the cup closer to your lips, the look of the tea, the steam rising from the tea, the initial smell of the tea as you bring it closer, the increased salivation, the slight inhalation of breath to sip some tea, the feeling of the tea (liquid) in your mouth, sensing the temperature in your mouth, the taste of the tea, where you taste it, the changing smell, the feelings as you swallow the tea, the changing taste and aroma in your mouth after you have swallowed it.
There are lots of sensory experiences to be aware of in this mindfulness activity of tea drinking!
Mindfulness tea drinking would not be considered a formal meditation for the purists however. But some informal styles of meditation state that you can meditate during absolutely anything – if you insist that you are meditating when knitting for example; then you are meditating!
Self hypnosis, Meditation and Mindfulness
In this attempt to explore differences between self hypnosis, meditation and mindfulness, it can be recognised that each discipline has features that overlap with another discipline. The practice of one discipline is likely to benefit the practice of another, if only from the awareness and practise of breathing techniques and postural changes.
The individual experience or benefit derived from each discipline however can be varied. Your definition of each discipline will ultimately determine how you approach and participate in each activity. Societies (whether Eastern or Western, secular or religious) have different cultural and philosophical values that can emphasise how to approach each discipline and the potential gains to be achieved from it.
In hypnotherapy as a treatment, the hypnotherapist can integrate many approaches that can still be classified as hypnotherapy. For example, some hypnotherapists will actively promote that they teach self hypnosis. Or the way that suggestions are formed may teach aspects of meditation or mindfulness whilst in a hypnotic state. There can be many benefits of incorporating a broad treatment approach as this evidence suggests when treating stress and anxiety.
From the discussion, I would summarise the following benefits:
Self Hypnosis: helps you to achieve a change or personal goal through the internalisation of suggestions.
Meditation: helps you to still your mind to bring you inner peace.
Mindfulness: helps you to heighten your senses and makes you more aware of everything inside of you and around you.