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The Mind And Auto-Suggestion

( Originally Published 1908 )



WE have seen how powerfully suggestion operates when administered in the waking state or in a hypnotic sleep. Let us now consider a third form of suggestion in which the idea presented to the mind takes its origin, not, as in the other two forms, from without, but from within, is produced by the activity of one's own brain. To this process has been given the name Auto-Suggestion, a barbaric but convenient term, of Greek and Latin origin, meaning a hint offered by the self to the self. It differs from suggestion only in this, that the point of departure of the hint is within the individual, whereas in the case of suggestion it is without. At bottom, suggestion and auto-suggestion are the same. The mechanism of the brain which carries into effect the suggestion offered in a hypnotic or in a waking state carries into effect also auto-suggestion; in the one as in the other there is the same mental state of heightened suggestibility; and common to both are the same morbid and healing effects. Auto-suggestion may be defined, then, as a self-imposed narrowing of the field of consciousness to one idea, by holding a given thought in the mental focus, to the exclusion of all other thoughts. This statement, of course, does not solve the problem of auto-suggestion: it is intended simply to express what is meant by the word. The thing itself, the psychical process covered by the word, remains and is likely to remain for a long time the standing riddle of psychology. What it is in its ultimate nature, how it operates, and what are its physiological or nervous concomitants, no man knows. That it is a reality, however, and a reality of the highest psychical and ethical significance, no man may doubt.

To be convinced of its reality one has but to take a glance at the history of ideas and especially of religious ideas. The amulets and charms of savage men owed what efficacy they possessed to the fact that they were the symbols of an inner mental state, the objects to which the desire or yearning could attach itself — in a word, they were auto-suggestions done into wood or stone. With the rise of polytheism, auto-suggestion takes the form of dreams or even of self-induced hallucinations in which the god appears and says the redeeming and saving word to the suppliant. And when we rise still higher, what is the goal of the ancient Vedantist philosophy of India, the union of the individual ego or soul with Brahman, the cosmic Divine essence, what is the Neo-platonic ecstasy in which the soul flees from earth and time and becomes a citizen of the eternal world, what are the transcendental visions of Swedenborg, his angels and demons, heavens and hells — what are these but elaborate and profound auto-suggestions? Nor has the Christian religion left this element in the psychical organism unaffected. Some of the phenomena of the Apostolic age, such as "the speaking with tongues," are to be thus psychologically explained.

So too in a measure may we account for the intrepidity the more than human endurance with which old men and children, young men and maidens, faced death in the Roman amphitheatre in a form so terrible that its mere description turns cold our blood today. Auto-hypnotism may well have been the means by which the Divine mercy spared them the worst agonies of their fate. And when we come later to the mystics and monks of the Middle Ages, much in their experience which has been rejected by the scientific mind as incredible, and accepted by the religious mind as miraculous, is now seen to be neither one nor other, but a reality to be explained in terms of psychical processes. Perhaps the most striking of these phenomena is that of stigmatization which has, however, been paralleled in our own time in the case of some hysterical patients. From St. Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena to the famous case of Louise Lateau there has been a succession of susceptible souls who by intense mental concentration on the sufferings of the Saviour, on the wounds in his hands and feet and side, have in some way, inexplicable to physiology, so affected the bodily organism as to reproduce in it the sorrows of the Crucified. And thus in a very real sense they may be said to have borne "branded on their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus."

"There will be effective therapeutical or ethical self-suggestion when-ever by any artifice subliminal attention to a bodily function or to a moral purpose is carried to some unknown pitch of intensity which draws energy from the metetherial world." Ibid., vol. i, p. 218.

Actual observation and experiment in our own time have confirmed the testimony of history as to the reality of auto-suggestion. We know, for example, that the hypnotist with a few words whispered to his subject can induce in him a headache or colic or an attack of indigestion, nay, that the same pathological states can be induced by waking suggestion in the case of specially suggestible people. Why then should not an idea arising internally — an auto-suggestion — bring about the same effects? And as a matter of fact we find this to be the case. The psychical disorder called hypochondria is really the fruit of vicious auto-suggestion. "Feelings of uneasiness or even pain originate in the mind a suspicion of disease existing in particular parts of the body, it may be the lungs, stomach, heart, brain, liver, or kidneys. Slight irregularities and functional disturbances in the action of these organs being noticed, are at once suggestive, to those hypochondriacally disposed, of serious and fatal disease progressing in the part to which the attention is conveyed. This deviation from a natural state of certain functions frequently lapses into actual structural disease, as the effect of the attention being for a lengthened period morbidly concentrated on their action."

Take two typical illustrations. A youth is struck by the fact that the majority of the members of his family die of heart disease at a given period of life, and he is forced to believe that a like fate awaits him. But the day is as yet distant : he is young, and the idea does not unduly worry him. Still it exists in the subconscious region of his mind : and occasionally it reappears as the years pass by. But the time approaches when his family weakness is accustomed to disclose itself: the auto-suggestion gathers strength unless the healthy elements in consciousness can suppress it. Often the imagination creates nervous cardiac pain, and the sufferer feels palpitations and flutterings and these will give a basis, a point of support for the auto-suggestion, and at once a conviction that the disease is real, and the fatal hour has struck, seizes the mind with overpowering force. And this conviction reacts on the physical organ, giving rise to all kinds of nervous complications. The man sinks into chronic invalidism — the victim of an auto-suggestion. The other illustration is afforded by a sufferer known to us whose trouble is to be traced to the reading of a medical work — a practice which the non-medical person would do well to avoid. Nowhere is the adage so much to the point as here: "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Our lady friend, while feeling, from some accidental and temporary cause, depressed and melancholy, happened to read that slow and difficult speech is a sign of approaching paresis or paralysis. She at once felt that such a fate would be hers, and sure enough, soon afterwards she developed a slow, drawling utterance which of course tended to confirm the original self-suggestion. The experts were agreed that there was no organic disease present and convinced the patient of that fact : nevertheless, the self-suggestion had done its work and the speech defect persisted. The remedy was found in reversing the psychical process that brought about the mischief, in substituting a true for a false auto-suggestion. Illustrations of this order may be found among all sufferers from nervous disorders. Indeed hysteria has been de-fined as "a form of unconscious auto-hypnotism." And the miseries of neurasthenia are immensely increased by the same morbid cause. Dubois has given abundant illustrations of this fact in his interesting work, "Psychic Treatment of Nervous Disorders." And his great success in dealing with these disorders has been due to his singular skill in leading his patient to substitute good auto-suggestions for bad ones.

But the power of auto-suggestion is seen in normal as in abnormal humanity. Many of the little mannerisms and habits from which we seem unable to shake ourselves free are to be explained in this way. One person can not sleep except when lying on his right side, another can eat mutton but regards veal with aversion, and a third, if he is to be comfortable while traveling, must sit with his back to the engine. Such are some of the tricks we play upon ourselves. Unhappily the force of auto-suggestion is operative in more important concerns. The fanatic whether in politics or in theology is the bond-slave of his self-suggestion: the whole universe is for him concentrated into a single red-hot spot — his consciousness is narrowed to this point and for him everything else is not. The heresy hunter, the dietetic "crank" who would reconstruct the order of human life on the basis of "predigested" cereals, the temperance or teetotal "faddist" who believes that the utter abolition of alcohol would mean the dawn of millennial glory —these familiar figures in English and American life are all intelligible in the light of the psychological principle which we are now discussing. What these men are suffering from is a dissociation of consciousness, more or less, and they become normal men once consciousness is unified and they see life steadily and as a whole.

So far we have noted the mischievous effects that auto-suggestion can work. But it is also a power for good. As a therapeutic agency and uplifting ethical force, its value can hardly be exaggerated. The various troubles, physical and mental, which are amenable to its influence make a long list. A few may be named: the milder neurasthenic and hypochondriacal states, functional disturbances of the digestive apparatus, constipation not dependent on organic disease, mild insomnia, certain forms of neuralgic headaches, the milder types of melancholia, irritability of temper, lack of self-confidence, constitutional nervousness, swearing, perverse self-will, vicious habits, stage-fright, and various types of lesser obsessions. In these and other troubles the patient can, as Shakespeare says, "minister to himself." What a gospel of hope is here for the depressed and unhappy! What a chance of redemption for those who are the slaves of circumstance or of their own folly! In saying this we are not giving rein to an airy optimism: we are keeping well within the limits of sober reasoning and scientific fact. All functions of the bodily organism are controlled by the nerves, which end in the brain mechanism which in turn is de-pendent on ideas. If, then, mischievous ideas set in action the automatism of the brain and thus create a morbid state, does it not follow that good ideas, opposing auto-suggestions, will neutralize these. first and thereby dissipate the nervous or mental trouble ? In other words, if one state of mind can produce a disease another state of mind can effect a cure.

In a remarkable essay, Dr. Coste de Lagrave, a French physician, describes a number of experiments which he made upon himself during several years — experiments by which he was able to cure himself of certain physical weaknesses and to evoke latent qualities of soul and intellect. For example, following on an attack of dysentery he developed neurasthenia. Prominent among the symptoms was an extraordinary sense of fatigue: he could with difficulty walk a mile a day; the fatigue obstacle was insurmountable. One evening he suggested to himself that he would be able to walk without fatigue. On the following day he walked about seven miles with ease — a journey broken only by one hour's rest. On another occasion when riding with the regiment to which he was attached he suffered greatly from cold feet. Disposing himself as comfortably as possible on his horse's back, he closed his eyes, induced a somnolent state and then suggested to himself that his feet should be warm. In about half an hour he felt a distinct sensation of warmth in them. This lasted for ten minutes : unhappily, his mind called away to other things, his poor feet at the end of that brief respite returned to their original state of frigidity. He aid not resume the effort at auto-suggestion owning to the accompanying mental fatigue. "I preferred," he says, "to have cold feet." In the intellectual sphere he found auto-suggestion of the highest value. It was his duty to entertain a certain great lady, but his efforts at doing so proved a miserable failure : he was tongue-tied in her presence, and his first visit was very short. Thanks to auto-suggestion, however, on the second occasion he burst forth into conversational eloquence that lasted an hour and a quarter! But perhaps his most striking experiment was his self-suggestion that he should have abundance of ideas, and that he should have ease in putting them on paper. He found that the amount of literary work he was able to accomplish was in proportion to the duration of the auto-suggestion. On the other hand, he noticed that when he failed to make his auto-suggestions he could not write ten lines and was compelled to turn to something else. So powerful did his act of auto-suggestion become that he was able to produce dreams and even hallucinations. "I no longer lived," he says, "among the living but in another world — a world that thought and reasoned quite differently from this one." This last experience so frightened him that he ceased his experiments in the region of dreams and fancies. Our observation, so far as it has gone, con-firms the testimony of this scientific witness.

Many have come to us suffering from disagreeable habits of various kinds, from fears and inhibitions such as stage-fright, from nervous weakness and lack of vital energy, and they have been put in the path of self-cure by being taught how to practice auto-suggestion. It is hardly necessary to remark at this point that auto-suggestion no more than any other form of suggestion is an omnipotent power. It has its limitations. In the first place, the organs by which the auto-suggestion is realized must be themselves in a healthy state organically. The hypnotist may call upon his subject to move his arm or leg, but if the motor zone of the patient's brain is destroyed, the command will remain unfulfilled. The same thing holds good in the case of the auto-hypnotist. Hence the importance of examination by a competent medical authority, before undertaking the work of self-cure. Otherwise, failure and despair may attend the effort. In the second place, we must note the limitations in the mental realm. The auto-suggestionist must have the intellectual acquisitions in connection with the idea which he seeks to realize. Otherwise he is addressing a vacuum — the most hopeless of all tasks.

If an illiterate man is put into a hypnotic sleep and is ordered to preach a sermon before a large congregation, he will probably misquote a few half-forgotten scraps from the Bible, his exegesis will be loose, his arguments will be painful platitudes, and his illustrations, to say the least, will be racy of the soil from which the preacher sprang. So too with the auto-suggestionist: he must have the prior intellectual accomplishments which fit him to play the wished for role. We cannot say with Dr. Johnson that a man can become anything he chooses, a great musician, a great mathematician or a great poet. Nevertheless it is equally true that a man can if he will approximate to greatness along lines in harmony with his nature. "If he will" — "Ay, there's the rub," the reader may say. "My misery is that I cannot will. I am blown this way and that. I seem incapable of gathering up my forces and directing them to some tolerable end. From my birth I have been a weakling, a moral and physical failure. To bid me will is merely to mock me." What answer can be made to this cry of wretchedness? What but this: "You are a moral being, endowed with reason and conscience, and these insist that you ought to have self-control, that you ought to organize your nature on a moral basis. But if you ought, you can, otherwise the Creator has put us to permanent confusion. Appeal, then, to yourself: rouse the capacity to will that lies dormant within you: rise up and obey the behests of your better self." The power to will comes by willing just as the power to think comes by thinking.

"The education of the will," says Emerson, "is the object of our existence." And there is no better aid in this education than the practice of auto-suggestion. For what, after all, is the will? It is simply the effort to concentrate our attention on and thus select one idea rather than another. Now in auto-suggestion the predominant element is the concentration of thought on, or the narrowing of consciousness to, a single idea. So that in a sense we might say that auto-suggestion is simply the will in action. It is a roundabout way of getting the will to work. And the blessed path which auto-suggestion takes is that of the removal of inhibitions or checks on the activity of the will. Here is to be found the secret of that new sense of power which has come into so many lives to-day through the medium of Christian Science, Faith-healing, Meta-physical Healing, the Raja Yoga of Indian theosophy and other forms of mental gymnastics. These systems are so many aids to the training of the will by auto-suggestion so that the reserves of mental and moral energy within us may be made available for physical and spiritual health. Within all of us are these reservoirs of power, but ordinarily we cannot release their current, they are inhibited by various psychical influences. "Most of us feel," says Professor James, "as if we lived habitually with a sort of cloud weighing upon us, below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning or firmness in deciding . . . We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources. In some persons this sense of being cut off from their rightful resources is extreme and we then get the formidable neurasthenic and psychasthenic conditions, with life grown into one tissue of impossibilities." This distinguished writer goes on to show how "levels of new energy" which have remained unutilized may be tapped by the will set to work by various suggestive methods. Thus modern psychology puts its imprimatur on a very ancient doctrine, though in doing so it strips it of its occult and mysterious atmosphere. From this point of view, auto-suggestion may be described as a means by which the pent-up energies within us may be released to innervate afresh the whole man, or, to use psychological language, as the method by which the inhibitions may be lessened and the threshold may be lowered so that the stored-up energy may be made available for the restoration of mental and physical equilibrium.

The reader may ask: What of the dangers attending auto-suggestion? Do not the newspapers print stories from time to time of persons who by self-hypnotism have done themselves irreparable injury, have even died in the act? Doubtless: but have not newspaper stories come to be synonymous with "fairy tales" ? Take the following as a safe rule especially as regards psychological matters: Read newspapers with the utmost scepticism, suspending your judgment until after the closest investigation. An excellent illustration of the need for this rule has been made public recently. A story was widely published to the effect that a certain gentleman had hypnotized him-self and could not awaken from his sleep, and finally that he died from the effects of self-hypnosis. Such a statement was calculated to impress the popular mind and to create all sorts of absurd fears much to the detriment of the general weal. An investigation was made. It turned out, on the authority of the attending physician, that the gentleman died of tumor of the brain and the story referred to was pronounced to be a concoction, "pure and simple, the finished product of Yellow Journalism, published again after repeated denials of its truthfulness."' The average man regards all psychical phenomena with suspicion as uncanny and other-worldly, and the average editor supplies the sensational pabulum that a superstitious credulity demands.

A few practical hints may be added : —

I. Some forms of acute pain are amenable to auto-suggestion. Li้beault tells how he cured himself by auto-hypnotism of such a painful disorder as facial neuralgia. As a rule, where there is pain the curative suggestion must be made by another.

2. Assuming the absence of acute pain and of any organic disease, auto-suggestion may be entered on with confidence. The best condition for its induction is that of somnolence, whether preceding sleep or accompanying awaking. At night, then, and in the morning, immediately before sleeping and immediately after beginning to awake, the half-sleeping and half-waking or "hypnagogic" state is most favorable to success. By practice one can induce this state at other times.

3. Lying in bed or in a comfortable arm-chair, with the eyes closed and the limbs relaxed, formulate and re-peat mentally the thought that contradicts the unhealthy state of consciousness or that expresses the virtue or quality you desire to possess. The auto-suggestion must be made over and over again, not with a sense of stress or strain, but calmly and with quiet assurance. Suppose you are a victim to mental sluggishness; you desire to read and study, to realize worthy ambitions, but when the time comes for work your brain refuses to act and thoughts will not come. What are you to do ?

Choose a time when the brain is most suggestible and that is generally when you feel an inclination to sleep, then calmly formulate in your mind some such proposition as this: "I am organically sound: the nervous system is intact; the bodily organs are discharging their proper functions, therefore I ought to have a mind clear and alert, able to grasp ideas and to relate them logically: therefore, such a mind can be mine. Henceforth I will think easily and correctly: study will be a delight and work a joy." Your trouble will yield to repeated suggestions of this order, which create, as it were, a psychic line of least resistance. That is, it will become easier for you to think well and quickly, than to think with difficulty or not at all.

4. Auto-suggestion must be persistent and systematic. This is an indispensable prerequisite to the best results.

5. Some degree of belief in the reality and efficacy of the suggestive principle is necessary. The subject must admit into his mind the thought that he can be helped so as to prevent the inhibition of the auto-suggestion by the higher faculties: the thought admitted puts in motion the cerebral mechanism.

6. Finally, the success attending auto-suggestion varies with the mental constitution and the degree of suggestibility of the subject and the nature of the trouble to cure which the suggestion is made.



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