Did Hypnotism Originate as a Form of Meditation?

Did Hypnotism Originate as a Form of Meditation?

Ramakrishna (1836-1886), a contemporary Indian mystic

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2009.  All rights reserved.  www.UKhypnosis.com

For more information see my longer article on this subject,

James Braid on Hypnotic Meditation

Most scholars assume that hypnotism originated in 1841, in the work of James Braid, as a psychological and physiological system contrasted with the more “occult” or supernatural theories of Franz Mesmer and his followers, the “animal mangetists”.  Braid originally saw Mesmerism as the predecessor and closest analogy to his method of hypnotism.  However, within three years of his discovery, the similarities between hypnotism and various Oriental meditation practices was brought to Braid’s attention.  At this time, in the 1840s, knowledge of Oriental meditation was very limited in England.  However, Victorian soldiers and officials of the East India company sent word back from the further reaches of the empire.  Braid explains, in his final essay, On Hypnotism (1860), written as a summary of his life’s work for the French Academy of Sciences,

I had already worked for three years to define hypnotism, the process which consists in fixing the eyes on a point and concentrating the attention, and I had demonstrated that it was an influence of a subjective nature which caused the sleep, when, in 1844, by carrying out research for a history of magic and witchcraft, as well as Mesmerism and hypnotism, I discovered in The History of Hindoos by [William] Ward and in the Dubistan (History of the religious sects in India) [Dabistān-i Mazāhib, a 17th century Persian religious text] developments which, through the practices of Fakirs and Yogins [Sufi and Hindu mystics], wholly confirmed my subjective theory.

Braid contrasted his “subjective” theory of hypnotism with the older “objective” theory of the Mesmerists.  By this he simply meant that whereas the Mesmerists believed that they were putting their subjects into a trance by channeling an invisible force, “animal magnetism”, into their bodies, Braid and other sceptics disputed the objective reality of this force and argued instead that hypnotism was mainly the result of the psychological (subjective) activity of the hypnotic subject themselves.  In other words, as many hypnotists put it today, “All hypnosis is self-hypnosis.”

Indeed, it is notable that there was no such concept or even expression as “self-magnetism” or “self-mesmerism”.  Braid, as well as introducing the concept of hypnotism, also coined the term “self-hypnotism” to refer to the fact that one could hypnotise oneself, and he recounts, in a memorable passage, how he used self-hypnotism to manage his own severe attacks of rheumatic pain.  Indeed, as Braid defined hypnotism as a state of focused attention upon a single dominant idea or mental image, accompanied by expectation of a response, hypnotism and self-hypnotism were never really two distinct activities.  Hypnotism was seen by Braid as a process whereby someone, the hypnotist, assists someone else, the hypnotic subject, to focus their attention for a prolonged period on a single train of thought with a sense of growing confidence in some response occuring.  Hypnotism is really just assisted or guided self-hypnosis according to this, the original theory.  The analogy with yogic meditation soon became obvious to Braid,

The Fakirs and Yogins have caused ecstatic trance in themselves for 2,400 years, for religious purpose, by a process quite similar to that which I taught my patients so they could hypnotise themselves using, i.e., continual fixation upon the end of the nose or another part of the body or an imaginary object, and with intense attention and while holding or slowing down their breath.

Indeed, Braid usually helped people to focus their attention, inducing hypnotism, by asking them to stare patiently at a single point, e.g., the tip of his silver lancet case, or the top of a bottle, or a chandalier in one case.  However, he felt the object of concentration, in this initial (induction) stage, was irrelevant, so long as it was relatively “unexciting”, simple and bland enough for one to focus upon without distraction, to the exclusion of other things.  Braid observed that when this was done for a few minutes, the eyes would close and people would often report very vivid and spontaneous bodily sensations of an unusual nature, especially if their attention was drawn to their body and their awareness and expectation heightened.  However, he also observed that this “diamond glare” of attention, as one of his followers put it, could be transposed onto some positively therapeutic idea suggested by the hypnotist, or chosen by the subject, such as the idea or image of the body healing some disease or simply a general sense of confidence and wellbeing.

Moreover, even in his earliest writings, Braid refers to hypnotism being induced by means of focusing the gaze on the tip of one’s own finger, or some other part of the body, including the centre of the forehead.  He was struck by the similarity between this method and the Oriental practice of focusing attention upon the tip of one’s nose or the centre of the forehead in meditation that he soon came to see Oriental meditation as the true precursor of hypnotism, and a closer analogy to it than Mesmerism.  Both hypnotism and meditation could be practised by oneself, and were understood as psychological and physiological activities inter-acting, mind-body techniques, whereas animal magnetism was (falsely) assumed to require the presence of a skilled Mesmerist.  Hence, the analogy with meditation provided Braid with unlikely support for his debunking of Mesmerism.

I did not know of the practices of Fakirs and Yogins, when I published my method of hypnotising; they confirm, in the most satisfactory manner, my subjective theory, at the expense of the objective theory of the magnetisers. 

From the point at which he discovered these books on meditation and began writing articles about them, Braid was undoubtedly encouraged to define hypnotism more and more as a form of “mental abstraction” or “monoideism”, as he later called it, meaning focused attention upon a single idea, image, or train of thought.

Many hypnotherapists today, and their clients, have been exposed to yogic or Buddhist meditation techniques, etc., and immediately intuit some similarity between the theory and practice of hypnotism and those of meditation.  It should further reinforce that observation for them to realise that the founder of hypnotherapy, almost from the outset, was aware of this connection and that hypnotism itself evolved, in part, under the influence of Oriental meditation techniques.

About the author

Donald is a writer and trainer, with over twenty years’ experience. He’s a specialist in teaching evidence-based psychological skills, and known as an expert on the relationship between modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and and classical Greek and Roman philosophy. Donald is the original founder of The UK College of Hypnosis & Hypnotherapy, setting up in 2003 under the name Hypnosynthesis. Donald developed the evidence-based hypnotherapy approach taught in the College. He also has been instrumental in the further integration of hypnosis with CBT - both via the training courses of the College and his publication: The Practice of Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy. He passed the College along to Mark Davis in 2013. He now lives in Canada

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  • As someone who has meditated regularly with the Bruma Kumaris, I can understand the similarity to hypnotherapy. They (BKs) gave us guided meditation throughout their lectures and retreats, where we became relaxed and peaceful within. This would equate to being guided under hypnotherapy towards feelings of wellbeing and self healing.
    I had attended one hypnotherapy session before taking regular meditational retreats, but I felt this was unsuccessful as I did not close my eyes, yet I reached a trance-like state, looking at the pattern on the door curtain saw sectiond of the pattern turning in different directions. When the hypnotherapist spoke to me, I felt incredibly irritated that he was interrupting my reverie.
    I know feel that this session helped me to go into a much deeper meditative state, where I experienced visual ‘disturbances’ – all were pleasant, but infinately varied.

    I hope this is of interest to you.

    Sousa Hari