The Theosophical Forum – November 1948

CAN HYPNOTISM HELP? — Madeline Clark

What is man's most precious possession if it is not his power of free will and choice? This inborn and inalienable right is the very touchstone of his responsibility for his own spiritual progress. In the ultimate, each man has to perfect himself in the exercise of this divine faculty of self-dependence, before he can come into his own, spiritually. Mediators and teachers he may have to help him, but the final choice must be within himself.

We like to think of this faculty as residing inviolate in the inner citadel of man's being, but, at least as regards his psychological nature, it can be tampered with to his very great injury. And hypnotism is one means by which this is done.

It would be useless to dogmatize on this matter, because the subject has wide ramifications and many aspects. But this much is obvious: that to gain access to the inner consciousness of another, where will and choice abide, to set aside his sovereign power and substitute it with your own, is a violation of moral law. It is not going too far, in fact, to call it a form of sorcery.

In a current book (1) the subject of hypnotism is placed in its most unobjectionable light. The author, a dentist, tells how, discovering the hypnotic power in himself, he not only used it for inducing anaesthesia in his patients, but pursued it as a hobby, curing various cases of illness, usually based in neuroses, by means of hypnotic suggestion. Each chapter gives a case-history, with its difficulties and its progress under the stimulation of salutary ideas instilled into the mind of the patient in a condition of light hypnotic sleep. Cases of failure are cited as well as the successes; and the author is careful to point out that in pathological conditions the hypnotic process cannot take the place of regular medical attention. He never asked any fee for his services in the field of suggestion: and this is of apiece with the apparent fact that all of his work was that of a purely disinterested person, whose suggestions were invariably based on sound common sense and a normal attitude toward life and its obligations. His advice is throughout entirely sound and wholesome, and we are made to feel that the entire proceeding was altogether praiseworthy.

But there is one hindrance to our complete satisfaction. It is the will of the practitioner that is accomplishing the (apparent) reform in the patient. The patient's will is more than passive: it is suspended, for the time being, though it may be claimed that it has been set beforehand to cooperate with that of the practitioner. There is the instinctive feeling — especially when the "treatment" is to enable the patient to withstand some common temptation such as the pleasures of the table — that one day there will come a reckoning, when the same failing must be met in person and transcended. It becomes obvious that the evil day has only been put off: the weakness has been dammed back, only to come forth at some future time.

Taking for granted the author's complete good faith, we can only surmise that he is in ignorance of the dread possibilities that are always present when hypnotism is practised. Dr. Shaw asserts that "the hypnotist never gains control over the subject; that [the subject] can always refuse to go to sleep, no matter how many times [he] had previously been hypnotized; that the subject can, and does, wake up if any suggestion is given in opposition to what the conscience and protective instincts allow. . . ."

That may be the experience of a practitioner of decent instincts who is actuated solely by a desire to help others; but records of cases other than those cited by Dr. Shaw tell a far different story. It is known, for example, that in the hands of an individual who has the stronger will and the knowledge of how to manipulate the hidden forces that bear on the hypnotic subject, a man of lesser will can be overpowered, and that without his knowledge. As for the claim that a hypnotized person cannot be forced to do something that is against his moral principles, a recent comment by a well-known newspaper columnist states that this has been proven a fallacy by a Danish hypnotist, and he calls attention to the fact that a contemporary English practitioner is able to put persons into a hypnotic state without their cooperation. There are well-attested accounts of persons who have actually died because it was impossible to bring them out of hypnotically-induced trance.

Dr. Shaw does insist that hypnotism should not be indulged in for entertainment purposes, but solely in the practice of therapeutics, and by an operator with medical knowledge.

It is expositions like the present book, which put hypnotism in its most innocuous and favorable light, that need to be reviewed with a warning. Other more lurid accounts would repel by their very nature. The most innocent of amateurs in the practice are handling forces the extent and possibilities of which are unknown to them: individuals less scrupulous are capable of taking criminal advantage of their fellow-beings through the use of these powers, which in hands such as theirs become more and more closely allied to sorcery.

While an extended discussion of the rationale of hypnotism in its many and various forms cannot be made here, it appears to be a duty to point a general warning against the invading of the inner citadel of another human being, or in any way to interfere with his spiritual power of choice and free will. And the more is this necessary in view of the widely-spreading interest and experimentation in hypnotism prevailing today. The present writer, in the cursory reading of a single daily paper, has collected half a dozen clippings in as many weeks, all dealing with instances of hypnotization, some of them involving revolting crimes.

The question remains with us then: what safeguards have we against the obvious evils that hypnotism brings in its train? It is inevitable that in this day and age, when cyclic evolution is bringing humanity into touch with planes and powers as yet unfamiliar to it, all sorts of phenomena, among them the phenomena of hypnotism and related practices, will attract more and more attention. Here is where Theosophy is going to prove a saving power, for its teachings give the explanation of man's inner constitution, and therefore of what happens when the will is abrogated, when the psychic nature is flooded with influences from without that threaten its inner integrity. It is for those who have some knowledge of the Theosophical philosophy to sound warnings, to promote right understanding of the true role of the human entity. In the end we shall find that there are ways of arousing and developing the higher faculties: optimism, courage, the right attitude to life: all attributes of the spiritual will — for the amelioration of humanity's ills. Once aroused and brought into activity, these faculties prove to be the most potent medicine and magic for producing physical and spiritual health.

In a brief Appendix, Dr. Shaw traces the development of hypnotism from the "animal magnetism" of Franz Anton Mesmer, to the "sleeping trance" of Puysegur, and thence to the "hypnosis" of Braid and the work of Liebeault, Charcot, and others up to the present time. Names and careers so easily told off, and yet — the "inside story," if it could be told, would show how greatly various were the insights of these explorers of the unknown. The great and wise Mesmer — a giant compared to his "successors" — who understood and was guided by the spiritual laws that govern human welfare and into whose healing work no influence of a personal nature was allowed to enter: the lesser men guided perhaps by reasoning, or blind experimentation — blind, as regards the fundamental laws behind the phenomena they were investigating. For those who are interested, many enlightening ideas are given along these lines in the writings of H. P. Blavatsky, especially in her Studies in Occultism, (2) and also in the writings of William Q. Judge and G. de Purucker. (3) These studies show that modern hypnotism is no true successor to mesmerism, for mesmerism never enslaved the will, as do many if not all forms of modern hypnotism.

It will of course be asked: Then, is hypnotism always wrong? The answer could be: It is always fraught with danger. There are certain keys to the right understanding of all such practices: and chief among these is the law that it is wrong to interfere with the inner processes of will and choice of any of our fellow-beings. If we move over the line onto the side of the higher psychology, which is altruistic, full of light, wholesome and rich in inspiration, hypnotism will be seen in its true character, and our perplexity is at an end.


1. Hypnotism Can Help. By S. Irwin Shaw. Philadelphia: David McKay Co, 1948. 213pp. $3.00. (return to text)

2. Theosophical University Press, Covina, California. (return to text)

3. Studies in Occult Philosophy, et al. (return to text)

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