Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

The Sound of One Hand Catalepsy: The Zen of Milton Erickson

by Richard Bolstad.

Erickson and Ikkyusan

Most people would agree that merely visiting a church is not the best way to understand what the teachings of Jesus are about. In the same way, the particular form that Zen Buddhism takes in Japan or North America today may not convey the full meaning that the developers of Zen intended. So as you read this article about Zen, you may like to keep an open mind about what Zen actually is (after all what is Zen without an open mind?)

Although he never formally taught Zen I think in some ways that Milton Erickson was the closest western psychotherapy has produced to a Zen master. The following Zen story sheds some light on this claim.

One day, about four hundred years ago in Japan, a rich merchant invited a group of Buddhist abbots and priests to a huge vegetarian feast. The Zen teacher Ikkyu turned up wearing his usual tattered robe and straw hat. Mistaken for a beggar, he was given a copper coin by the guards, and ordered to leave. A while later the merchant held another feast, and Ikkyu attended in ceremonial robes. He was invited into the dining room, where he promptly took off his clothes and placed them by the table. Then he turned to leave. The merchant was shocked. "What are you doing?" he asked, stunned - inviting precisely the lesson that Ikkyu intended. (1).

The use of such surprise tactics was not a simple denial of rationality by the Zen masters. It was designed to rapidly induce a heightened state of awareness, in much the same way as Milton Erickson's famous handshake induction. The original Zen teachings offer us a fresh new perspective on what trance is, and on the nature of the unconscious mind.

The Unconscious Mind Is The Normal Mind

Zen approaches the understanding of the unconscious from the opposite direction to most westerners. To the Zen teacher, unconscious action is normal; and the state of thinking about what one is doing is abnormal and unbalanced. In the 17th century, Yagyu Munenori explained:

"When you are writing, if you are conscious of writing, your pen will be unsteady. Even when you play the harp, if you are conscious of playing, the tune will be off. When an archer forgets consciousness of shooting, and shoots in a normal frame of mind, as if unoccupied, the bow will be steady. When using a sword or riding a horse as well, you don't "wield a sword" or "ride a horse". And you don't "write", you don't "play music". When you do everything in the normal state of mind, as it is when totally unoccupied, then everything goes smoothly and easily ... When you are not consciously mindful, you'll succeed every time. However, not being consciously mindful does not mean total mindlessness, it just means a normal mind." (2).

The conscious, thinking mind can only pay attention to a few (7 plus or minus 2) chunks of information, whereas the unconscious can respond to the whole situation. Conscious thinking may be useful to identify specific changes you want to make, but unconscious action is the final aim. The 16th century Zen teacher Takuan explains the shift from unconscious incompetence, through conscious incompetence and conscious competence, to unconscious competence:

"Let me explain in terms of the martial arts. As a beginner you know nothing of stance or sword position, so you have nothing in yourself to dwell on mentally. If someone strikes at you, you just fight, without thinking of anything. Then when you learn various things like stance, how to wield a sword, where to place the attention, and so on, your mind lingers on various points, so you find yourself all tangled up when you try to strike. But if you practise day after day and month after month, eventually stance and swordplay don't hang on your mind any more, and you are like a beginner who knows nothing ... . The cogitating side of your brain will vanish and you will come to rest in a state where there is no concern." (3).

If You Had Erickson's Unconscious Mind ...

Milton Erickson explained his own response as a therapist in similar terms, as Richard Simon recalls in the book "One on One".

"What seemed to delight Erickson about doing therapy was the unpredictable, moment-by-moment aliveness of it. This is what he emphasised to his students, advising a stance of heightened receptivity uncontaminated by formulaic preconceptions. "Too many psychotherapists try to plan what thinking they will do, instead of waiting to see what the stimulus they receive is and then letting their unconscious mind respond to the stimulus" he once said." (4)

Erickson understood the hypnotic trance that both he and his client operated in as a state of non-conscious awareness, emphasising like Yagyu Munenori that this was not a mindlessness, but a different type of mindfulness.

"Hypnosis is the ceasing to use your conscious awareness; in hypnosis you begin to use your unconscious awareness. Because unconsciously you know as much and a lot more than you do consciously." (5)

The multitude of techniques which Erickson used to invite people into this state all have at their core the client giving their full attention to their own internal process.

"There are many ways of inducing a trance. What you do is to ask patients primarily to give their attention to one particular idea. You get them to center their attention on their own experiential learning ... to direct their attention to processes which are taking place within them. Thus you can induce a trance by directing patients' attention to processes, to memories, to ideas, to concepts that belong to them. All you do is direct the patients' attention to those processes within themselves."

Meditation and Higher Awareness

This process of inner attention is known in Buddhism as meditation. There is a mistaken belief in the west that Zen meditation involves trying to stop one's thoughts. Shindai Sekiguchi explains why this doesn't work.

"The common idea is that in order to reach this state one must empty the mind of all thoughts and ideas. This is in fact true, but the desired end cannot be achieved by consciously attempting to think about nothing ... Similarly, if I tell a friend not to think of a red monkey or a yellow hippopotamus, that animal immediately leaps into his mind to prove my point." (6)

Instead, the mind becomes naturally quiet, or enters a trance (to use Erickson's terminology) when you simply observe attentively your internal processes of thought and sensation. In that state of natural quietness, extra-ordinary states of awareness occur. Erickson describes personal experiences where the external world simply "ceased to be". In 1967 he explained to a friend:

"I was in the backyard a year ago in the summertime. I was wondering what far-out experiences I'd like to have. As I puzzled over that, I noticed that I was sitting out in the middle of nowhere ... I was just an object in space. Of all the buildings I couldn't see an outline. I couldn't see the chair in which I was sitting; in fact, I couldn't feel it ... It was one of the most pleasing experiences. What is this? Tremendous comfort. I knew that I was doing something far out. And I was really doing it! And what greater joy is there than doing what you want to do? Inside the stars, the planets, the beaches." (7)

Notice that Erickson did not direct his unconscious mind to create the experience. It simply happened. He says, in a conversation with Ernest Rossi:

"E: No way you can consciously instruct the unconscious ... Everytime you go into trance you go prepared for all other possibilities.

R: The conscious ego cannot tell the unconscious what to do?

E: That's right ... When you have a problem with a patient, you think it over. You work out in your unconscious mind how you're going to deal with it. Then two weeks later when the patient comes in, you say the right thing at the right moment. But you have no business knowing it ahead of time because as surely as you know it consciously, you start to improve on it and ruin it.

R: You really believe in a creative unconscious!

E: I believe in a different level of awareness.

R: So we could say the unconscious is a metaphor for another level of awareness, a metalevel?

E: I can walk down the street and not have to pay attention to the stoplight or the curb. I can climb Squaw Peak and I don't have to figure out each step." (7)

Trust You're Unconscious, Mind

I'm very much in favour of learning the detailed language patterns of Milton Erickson, and modelling the strategies of his therapy. The above quotes remind us, though, that these patterns are no more the actual experience of trance, than Zen koans (those inexplicable questions such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?") are the experience of satori (Zen awakening).

The real message Erickson seeks to convey is the same as the message of Yagyu Munenori and Takuan. It is to remind us of the extraordinary power of the normal (unconscious) mind. This mind is our whole existence, and the conscious mind is but foam on the surface of its oceanic vastness. Zen master Dogen says "To study Buddhism is to study self. To study the self is to forget oneself. To forget oneself means to seek the true self in all other things in the world." (8)

Put in western terms, to observe the processes of the conscious mind is to let go of conscious thought. To let go of conscious thought is to discover unconscious and complete awareness of all the sensory information in ones neurology.

When Ikkyu was asked "What are you doing?" he replied "The food belongs to the ceremonial robes, not to me". And he walked out the door. Such a story has more levels of meaning than your conscious mind can even think about now. Think about that, as you consider who your life really belongs to!


In the Japanese Zen model of the world, the ability to act with unconscious fluency is called the normal mind. Milton Erickson considered the hypnotic trance a state of unconscious attention into which someone could be invited by having them develop awareness of their thinking and sensations. In the natural state of relaxation which results, extra-ordinary skills and experiences reveal themselves. Trusting this process is the essence of Erickson's message, as it is the essence of Zen.

Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer who has worked with clients individually and as a trainer of groups since 1990. He can be contacted at PO Box 35111, Browns Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, Phone/Fax: +64-9-478-4895 E-mail: learn@transformations.net.nz Website: http://www.transformations.net.nz


  1. John Stevens, Three Zen Masters: Ikkyu, Hakuin, Ryokan, Kodansha, 1993, p. 29.
  2. Thomas Cleary, The Japanese Art of War, Shamballa, 1992, p. 28.
  3. Thomas Cleary, The Japanese Art of War, Shamballa, 1992, p. 29.
  4. Richard Simon, One on One, The Family Therapy Network, 1992, p. 40.
  5. Jeffery Zeig, A Teaching Seminar With Milton H. Erickson, Brunner/Mazel, 1980, p. 39.
  6. Shindai Sekiguchi, Zen: A Manual For Westerners, Japan Publications, 1974, p. 6.
  7. Ed. Ernest Rossi, The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson on Hypnosis. Volume 1, Irvington, 1980, p. 129-30, p. 119-120.
  8. Ed. Donald Swearer, Secrets of the Lotus, Studies in Buddhist Meditation, Macmillan, 1971, p. 133.