Study: Spiritual Epiphanies During Hypnosis

by Gérard V. Sunnen, M.D.


© 2008 by Gérard V. Sunnen, M.D.

Gérard V. Sunnen, MD, a hypnotherapist practising in New York, reports on his study of levels of spiritual experience in patients undergoing hypnosis to treat various psychological conditions. The study is a preliminary initiative to categorise and define “higher” levels or states of consciousness during hypnosis.

The following article was published in Middle East Health in its January/February 2009 edition.


Most, if not all, religions contain intrinsic notions about higher states of knowledge and perception. Whether this represents a prescient intuition about the ultimate pathway for humanity’s mental evolution, the fact remains that, for many, the quest for enlightenment reflects a powerful motive for growth.

This (preliminary) study touches on some features of these other states of knowledge and perception, obtained from the context of hypnotic explorations. Hypnosis, in this regard, offers unique possibilities for pushing the limits of knowledge far into the intersections of body and mind, and into the porous boundaries of mind with greater mind.

Hypnosis embodies special conditions of perception, data processing, and configurations of conscious experience. Some of these configurations, by way of their ineffable qualities, intuitively belong to domains that may be called ultraconscious consciousness. Hypnosis, as is suggested in this study, may open gateways to perspectives capable of illuminating dimensions of the self hitherto unknown.

The study

This study is essentially a review of records of subjects who sought hypnosis for a variety of reasons, whose common goal was a desire for some measure of self-change. Reasons for seeking hypnosis can be grouped in several large categories, including the following:

  1. A desire to master tension, anxiety, fear, anger, or stress reactions.
  2. A desire to uncover and overcome difficult memories, or to discover psychological mechanisms responsible for obstacles in daily life; in short, a desire for clarity.
  3. A desire to experience positive mood states, in contrast to usually-felt dysphoric symptoms.
  4. A motive to enhance oneself in some way, subjectively--as in bolstering self-esteem--or objectively, as in behavioural self-mastery (e.g., the development of performance skills such as public speaking, acting, and sports).
  5. A concern about choosing a right path for the future, through insight and good decision-making.
  6. A desire to conquer habit patterns or the dependency on substances.
  7. A request to prepare for a medical procedures or operations, or for coping with illness.
  8. Miscellaneous reasons.

The hypnotic sessions were not deliberately skewed to favour spiritual experiences. In other words, their mission was to centre on the problems at hand. Immediately following hypnotic sessions, as is routine, subjects were asked about their experiences. Their reports were noted. For inclusion in this study, these experiences had to fulfil the following criteria:

Inclusion criteria

  1. Both the subject and the author agreed that the hypnotic experience clearly stood apart from ordinary waking consciousness. Importantly, the experience had to have qualities that best were described in terms of showing, in some manner, transcendent, otherworldly, spiritual, mystical, and/or religious features.
  2. The experiences embodied a salient emotional component. The affective feature of the experience had to stand out beyond the perception of a novel thought, an insight, or a creative solution.
  3. The experience assumed a lasting impact so that weeks, months or even years afterward, it could be re-kindled, to some degree, by volitional retrieval.
  4. The experience had a perceptibly positive influence on the individual. In other words, a beneficial change occurred, outwardly, usually manifested in an enhanced quality of interpersonal communications, and subjectively, as an evolution of the sense of self.

Describing spiritual experiences has its share of difficulties. Words to convey their nuances are typically hard to come by, in large part because they do not (yet) exist. Attempts by experiencers to communicate their feelings after such hypnotic sessions are characteristically flustered by the limitations of verbal constraints. Indeed, all too often, linguistic obstacles stymie the excitement surrounding these epiphanies.

About consciousness

Consciousness is a phenomenon that can be approached from various perspectives. Western philosophy has traditionally treated consciousness as the exclusive property of humans. Persisting remarkably well to this day, nature becomes a robotic servant to humans, and animals behave by instinct without sentience. Our ecological garden, from this Cartesian angle, is strictly a playground for Homo sapiens.

The mental prism through which the fantastic richness of our world is seen can dramatically change during hypnotic epiphanies.

There are few really fundamental questions that confront science today. The top two include the genesis of the universe, and consciousness.

The study of consciousness suffers from entanglement, namely the conceptual quagmire that fails to separate consciousness content from consciousness nature. Contents of consciousness include perceptions, sensations, lone thoughts, complex thoughts, feelings of all manner, thought-feeling combinations, emotions, imagery, memories, and so on.

Consciousness nature has to do with the common denominator to consciousness content. The direct perception that one’s mind beholds such a unifying factor can be a momentous source of inspiration. This principle, in the interest of scientific appellation, may be called life force, or life energy.

Life energy is always positive. It is only the influence of genetically shaped character traits and the vagaries of unfortunate life experiences that contribute to its perceived negativities, which all belong to the dimension of consciousness content. In psychotherapy, when this notion is grasped and negativities are seen as not belonging to the intrinsic self, many obstacles to understanding and direct perception begin to wane.

Experiencing hypnosis

The experience of hypnosis is different for each experiencer. The “state” of hypnosis, in itself, may involve physiological changes, changes in the perception of bodily configuration, time flow, thought stream, and memory. Yet, hypnosis, among its other properties, also has the capacity to sidestep not only the sensory signals to the brain, but also inputs from the mind itself, notably thoughts. In this sense, by hypnotically shifting the locus of experiencing, the thinking process can come to be seen as a product of yet another organ, the nervous system.

Thinking is an output of the brain. It is content, but not nature, of self.

Hypnosis, in its capacity to uncouple the content of consciousness from the nature of consciousness can provide a fertile milieu for self-discovery.

Spiritual experiences

The experiences described below are, above all, feeling experiences. Feelings, neurologically-speaking, involve much greater areas of the nervous system than do thoughts. Indeed, feelings implicate, among other structures, the thalamus, the hypothalamus, the limbic system, and all their corresponding ramifications, including the vast autonomic nervous networks’ connections to bodily organs. Feelings resonate with all systems including the heart, the lungs, the digestive tract, the musculature, and the immune system.

It is their capacity to touch multiple organ systems that gives feelings their massive transformational capacity. Invariably, a subject who has had an emotionally-laden spiritual experience during hypnosis will marvel at its impact. Wonderment is a feeling that often accompanies the gift of such epiphanies.

This is not to say that thoughts, in themselves, are devoid of transformational power. Insights in psychotherapy, for example, are actively sought after to better reposition the mind toward itself. But, reliably, it is those insights that are coupled with emotions that have the highest capacity to promote change.

Spiritual epiphanies

The following experiences are by no means exhaustive compilations of hypnosisdriven spiritual phenomena. In this study, however, they assumed a certain frequency of occurrence that selected them for inclusion.

It seems that spiritual epiphanies, as they appear in hypnotic experiences, do so in the context of a progression. Indeed, if one dissects these experiences as they unfold, stages or levels are noticed. Four general stages are suggested:

  1. In a Level One experience, sensory changes are prominent, usually in the experience of how the body is subjectively perceived. There may be a sensation of more direct prehension of the interior milieu, as if one’s insides had somehow moved closer to the usual head-centric position. Feelings of lightness or buoyancy may be admixed with sensations of warmth strangely devoid of heat. There may be volumetric changes in how the body occupies space.
  2. A Level Two experience comes to coexist with, or to supersede the changes in the feeling configuration of the physical body. Within this level, psychological dimensions of self become highlighted and novel perspectives on one’s persona emerge. The sense of “I" takes on fresh forms as it sees itself through different vantage points.
  3. In a Level Three experience, the sense of “I” is gradually bypassed, yielding configurations of feelings that are unconfined by their usual psychological structures. The sense of “I” itself reorganises as life energy is experienced in progressively unaltered form. These experiences are more difficult to convey than in levels One and Two, and are likely to be described as “cosmic” in nature.
  4. In a Level Four experience, the perception of life energy is in its most distilled configuration. Words to describe this type of experience are essentially unavailable.

Level One experiences

The interior opens. During this experience, eyes closed, the feeling of the interior of the body assumes a quality of closer approximation and greater intensity. The spaces of the lungs, the heart and the abdomen come nearer to the field of internal perception. Neurologically-speaking, it is as if awareness flows into the networks of the autonomic nervous system, yielding a more intense melding of mind and body.

Sensory discoveries. Various sensory phenomena begin to manifest themselves as the process continues. Feelings of lightness and buoyancy may emanate from the internal body space; or feelings of comfortable heaviness; or even, paradoxically, elements of both mixing together. The same for sensations of warmth, characteristically unrelated to usual feelings of temperature, for pleasing coolness.

Body travelling. The mind’s ability to explore organ systems is highlighted in this phenomenon. The lungs, for example, can be vividly visualised, when inspired air imbued with awareness courses through the intricate tunnels of its bronchiolar networks. The same applies to the heart, when awareness approaches the normally distant resonance of its rhythms.

Ownership of the body. As mind/body communications are vivified, the body begins to feel so comfortable that it truly can be called home, as never before. In body travelling, the deepest sources of visceral tension are identified and deconstructed. Global stillness, in a context of profoundly peaceful internal rhythms, is a feeling constellation commonly described.

The Sphere. During this experience, the usual internal configuration of the body loses its usual shape: no mental representation of arms, nor legs. A different architecture, not based on shape, but on energy, comes to the fore. Then, no specific perception of the torso, nor the head. Eyes closed, the interior milieu of the body is perceived as an energy field, usually a sphere. As the experience unfolds, the sphere expands, usually synchronised with each inspiration. It may go on to fill the room, then, at times, move beyond it, sometimes very far.

Level Two experiences

Thought flow. An essential feature of this Second Level experience is a modified relationship to the progression of one’s own thoughts. Thoughts begin to feel as if they are happening in a different location within the field of awareness. With distancing to an increasingly peripheral position within this field, thinking is observed to be emanating, not from the centre of the self, but rather from an auxiliary position to the self. Thought flow begins to fluctuate, usually with output reduction. In the further stages of this phenomenon, thoughts stop for variable periods of time when thinking disconnects from core awareness.

Thinking and identity. This experience goes a step further as the process of thinking clearly separates from the process of experiencing. Self-definitions, as architects of personality, are based on thoughts. Synchronously with thought separation, personality factors feel less relevant. In this experience, personality is understood to be, not the self, but an auxiliary to the self.

Time stream. During this experience, the feeling of time passing is stretched. There is a revelation that time, a distinct quasi-physical dimension in itself, is not the same as the feeling of time, a product of the senses. In its extreme manifestation, time feels as if it is standing still. When this occurs, core consciousness is approached, because core consciousness has the property of being immobile.

Level Three experiences

Perception of dimensions. In this experience, there is a comprehension that life energy’s fundamental quality belongs to a distinct dimension. Distinct, yet inseparable from the physical world, life energy is emotionally understood as a force unto itself, with an identity unique from the energies that form part of the observable universe.

A universe of consciousness. In this experience, there is a perception that life energy is part of all things. In its most extreme manifestation, the dividing line between living organisms and non-living forms becomes blurred.

Gratuitous happiness. In this experience, a wave--sometimes a tsunami--of happiness engulfs the experiencer. Its quality, however, is different from the everyday happiness that is based on reward systems. It is a kind of joy that bears no relation to time-accepted reasons for happiness. It may be that this expansive experience is connected to a primal creative component inherent in life energy.

Gratuitous love. As is the case for joy, Third Level experiences often contain feelings that contain elements of “love”. The quotation marks denote a distinction between the love feelings in this experience and the varieties of love seen in the context of human interactions. The feeling of love in this experience has a quality of vast universality that gives it its epiphanous distinction.

Infinities. In this experience, there is a natural acceptance that the cosmos had no beginning, and will have no end. This perception breaks through the mind’s logic, which mandates a sequential order for all events.

Immortality. The body, in this experience, is poignantly felt to be finite, an immutable fact: no denial, no defences. But instead of this experience being anxiety-provoking, as it often is in some psychedelic situations, this hypnotic epiphany is accepted with welcome surprise. Moreover, the experience represents a liberation of sorts: it is fully appreciated that the body will be jettisoned, allowing core consciousness to persist forever.

Level Four experiences

Level Four epiphanies, somewhat by necessity, are experiences of exclusion because they have no definable shape, nor description. They belong to the very essence of core consciousness, are without describable configuration, and cannot be charted by interviews, tests, or questionnaires.

Study observations

In all, 57 hypnosis records were examined for this study. Gathered within a period of approximately 15 years, these records were selected because the subjective experiences of the participants satisfied certain criteria described in the section “Inclusion criteria”.

Experiences were classified into four levels according to their salient features. Level One experiences embody alterations in subjective bodily configurations, while Level Two feature shifts in the sense of selfhood. Level Three has to do with experiential phenomena that accompany approaching direct contact with life energies. Level Four relates to phenomena beyond the scope of this study.

All 57 participants reported Level One and some element of Level Two experiences, an inclusion criterion. Indeed, Level One experiences are quite common in hypnosis, and if featured alone, were not included herewith.

39 participants reported Level Two experiences. All described profound time slowdown. Disconnection of thinking flow from core identity, a characteristic of Level Two, was described to varying degree and intensity by these participants. A scale to measure these changes has not (yet) been created.

17 subjects experienced all level changes, One, Two, and Three. The number of people having Level Four experiences could not be estimated.


With 57 reports of hypnosis-associated spiritual phenomena, how to place them in some kind of coherent and meaningful order?

The answer to this conundrum became clearer as the gathered experiences were examined with reference to their individual progressions. Noted, in most cases, was an evolution of experiential events unfolding, not via sudden appearance, but rather by gradual processes.

Experiential sequence analysis, paired with a tabulation of experience frequency, yielded groupings of experiences fitting into constellations. All participants, for example, first experienced some opening of the internal milieu and noted an increased ability for mental travel to hitherto inaccessible organ systems (e.g., the lungs, the heart, the solar plexus). These early features had a common denominator: the appearance of transitional states of body image configuration.

The symptoms of buoyancy/lightness, of heaviness, of warmth/coolness and body volume alterations, appear to represent shifts toward more acute perception of the nervous system’s finest ramifications.

Body image, the body’s map in the mind, forms a major component of global self-image. In adulthood, body image solidifies: eyes closed, the position of the limbs, major muscle groups and joints can be located in inner space. But further forays into the distant boundaries of the nervous system are usually denied access.

This can change appreciably during hypnotic experiences. As a capacity bestowed to areas of the nervous system according to laws that are still unclear, awareness seems to be apportioned to pathways that are both heavily travelled, and most in need of sensitivity to the acquisition of learning. The motor system, for example, requires constant upgrading for adaptation. Digestion, on the other hand, can afford to be robotically unconscious.

The first constellation in the progression of hypnotically-associated spiritual experiences suggest a push of awareness’ territory deeper into bodily networks. This represents a relaxation of body image boundaries and a willingness to embrace new perceptions of oneself. The second and third constellations (Levels One and Two), represent progressive approach to core consciousness. The concept of core consciousness, or primal life energy, embodies a mixture of ancient and modern thought. Despite centuries of exploration in the anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and imagery of the nervous system, no locus of consciousness, and no clue to its nature have ever been found.

This study’s philosophy gravitates toward the concept of core life energy as a model capable of explaining the spiritual phenomena observed in hypnosis.


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