Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D., is a psychologist who received his doctorate from Stanford University. He was a major student of Milton Erickson and has been elaborating this work for the past 35 years, while also developing Self-Relations Psychotherapy, and Generative Psychotherapy. In 2004, he received the rarely given Lifetime Achievement Award from the Erickson Foundation in honor of his many contributions. He is well-known throughout the world for his inspirational teaching He has published extensively, and his books include the Therapeutic Trances: The cooperation principle in Ericksonian hypnotherapy, The courage to love: Principles and practices of Self-relations psychotherapy, The Legacy of Erickson, Walking in two worlds, and The Hero’s Journey (w/ R. Dilts). His most recent book, Generative Trance: The experience of creative flow, proposes and explores a third generation approach to hypnotic work.
Interview with Stephen Gilligan by John Lentz
John Lentz: Stephen, you and your work are enormously popular around the world, yet you seem to be humble and able to connect with others. How do you spiritually to do that?
Stephen Gilligan: Well, I guess the answers depend on what is meant by “spirituality.” I consider myself spiritual but not religious, even though I was raised Irish Catholic and went to Catholic schools, including Jesuit high school. I think of “spirituality” in terms of what Arthur Koestler called “holons”: each part of a system has a self-organizing individuality, while simultaneously being only a fragment of a larger wholeness. We see the aesthetic creativity of this “part/whole” relationship in the best of life: a great sports team, a good meal, an ecosystem, a healthy intimacy, a musical orchestra, and so forth. I have as big an ego as the next person, but on my good days, it is tempered by this ethical and experiential sense of life as an interconnected system of unbroken wholeness.
JL: When you talk about generative change, you frequently say that all of us have brokenness, and you focus on the unbrokenness and the unwoundable part of people — and that is a powerful image. Do you believe it impacts your trance as you work with people, and if so, how?
SG: Well, I think that prolonged suffering reflects a disconnection of one part of a system from its larger whole—the lack of human connection with others, or the functional isolation of one ego state from others, or the disconnection of the cognitive social (“conscious”) mind from the somatic field (“creative unconscious”) mind. But at the same time, the deeper underlying connection is always there. So this makes for a “brokenness” embedded in an unbrokenness; a woundedness that’s part of an unwoundable being. When you resonantly connect those two levels, positive changes are much more likely.
JL: When you do trance work with someone in a teaching setting your trance appears to begin almost instantly and continues throughout the session. It seems as if you gather in the energy between you and the person you are working with, and help shape how they think in a positive way. Do you think of that as being spiritual?
SG: In therapy, that creative connection is between the therapist and client, and between the cognitive social mind and the somatic field mind….so I usually start from there, and see how those systemic connections can become the “generative trance” fields that guide the conversation. I’m not saying that the conscious mind or individual consciousness is unimportant — they are super important — but they only become generative when embedded in deeper contexts. And one thing I learned from Erickson: The therapist is a participant-observer who is deeply “a part of, while apart from” the client system.
JL: When you talk about the disconnection of one part of a system from its larger whole, your position seems to cover all types of brokenness; to provoke hope, and invite opportunity as part of the healing. Is that your intention?
SG: As Csikszentmihalyi found, the “creative flow” of the parts/whole experience brings “double happiness.” On one hand, your performance is enhanced and you do better work. On the other hand, it’s intrinsically rewarding; it feels so good that you just hope that people don’t realize that you’d probably do it even if they didn’t pay you.
What a “working trance” helps you to do is feel the resonant connection that potentiates this creative nonviolence. You’ll know when you find it, because everything quiets down and opens up. It’s a good balm for the increasingly hectic nature of everyday life that gives rise to disconnection and all of its attendant pathologies.
JL: How you treat creative trance seems to have a deeply connected, committed, and compassionate feel to it. Would you be willing to say a little more about that?
SG: Yes, definitely. The word “healing” comes from “to make whole.” Again, I think the unbroken wholeness of life is always there. We’re just looking to attune each expression — the thoughts, words, actions, feelings to that underlying wholeness. This is not as esoteric as it might seem. Again, this synchronizing of the parts within the deeper whole is the basis for all creative performance. So you are not trying to “fix” anything, you’re looking to create a resonant relational space where each “part” can be welcomed as a creative note within the melody of its larger systemic song. This is what I learned from my teachers — people like Erickson, Jung, Virginia Satir, Gregory Bateson: the systemic thinkers/therapists — and from aikido, and so forth. I think it became the underlying principle and challenge guiding my work over the years.
JL: Even on your website when you are discussing generative trance you appear to be in a trance so powerful that when watching, I find myself going into a trance with you. While this seems deeply spiritual, I wonder if you also think of it this way.
SG: One of my professors at Stanford was the great neuroscientist, Karl Pribram, who talked about how the brain simultaneously computes quantum and classical realities. I think of the creative unconscious as a sort of “quantum field of infinite possibilities,” with the conscious mind –through intention, attention, and tension– “collapsing the wave” into one specific reality. To make big changes, we need to let go of the specific cards we’re holding, and dip back into that great ocean of “infinite possibilities.” To me, that’s what creative trance does, and it starts with the therapist. Call this creative space what you will, but as the saying goes, please call it.
JL: Stephen, the reader deserves to know that your unrecorded interactions were all kind and helpful. Thank you so much.