I smoked habitually for approximately 20 years. I began as a teenager, smoking with friends when I could, mostly because it was something my family and church frowned upon and I enjoyed the thrill of the forbidden. Then in my 20’s and 30’s, free of restraint, I smoked regularly because it had become a habit and an addiction to nicotine. Like most smokers I particularly enjoyed cigarettes with alcoholic beverages and with my morning coffee and found the habit enjoyable. But knowing that the habit was unhealthy for me and unpleasant for some of my friends, I occasionally tried to quit and was sometimes successful….for short periods of time. Always, it seemed, something would sap my will power and weaken my resolve. I would yield to having “just one” and quickly be right back to my full time habit.
Although my smoking habit never took me beyond about one pack of cigarettes a day, efforts to improve my health by running in my 30’s made a smoking habit particularly incongruous. I remember when I was doing my year of full time doctoral study at Arizona State University that I would run four miles in the early morning and then after drinking a quart or so of water, would enjoy my morning coffee and the day’s first cigarette. Having thought long and hard about the folly of coupling the healthy habit of running with the unhealthy habit of smoking, I again resolved to quit. But this time, I was advised by a friend to visit a certain doctor in Phoenix, whose special skills might help. So I made an appointment with Robert Stark, M.D. whose practice included weight control through self-hypnotism, to obtain help for quitting smoking.
I still remember clearly when I entered the building containing Dr. Stark’s office that I finished smoking a cigarette and put it out in a large receptacle in the lobby. But I kept the half-finished pack in my shirt pocket, thinking, well, maybe this won’t work. But that cigarette was the last one I ever smoked.
Dr. Stark’s office contained a large space adjacent to the waiting room that featured a number of reclining armchairs. Upon asking his receptionist about this curious arrangement, I was told that he often worked with law students studying for the bar exam. So I waited and was finally ushered in to Dr. Stark’s office where I introduced myself and was invited to sit in a comfortable recliner near his desk. Dr. Stark then told me a bit about self hypnotism. He himself was a regular general practice M.D. and had learned self-hypnotism from the famous psychologist, Milton Erickson, who had moved to Phoenix in his later professional years. While in Phoenix, Dr. Erickson had conducted training seminars for medical and counseling professionals and Dr. Stark had been one of his students. Dr. Stark then began to employ self-hypnotism in various areas of his practice, particularly to help obese patients lose weight, and had extended his instruction in self-hypnotism to patients wishing to improve their health in other ways, like controlling tobacco and alcohol consumption. In addition, he had extended it to patients desiring instruction in how to improve self discipline and concentration for other purposes, e.g. the afore-mentioned law students.
Dr. Stark then described self-hypnotism and how the power of suggestion in a relaxed and receptive state can give one the necessary strength to change unproductive behavior. He explained that the notions he would help me internalize to help me stop smoking were positively phrased. He had learned through experience that negatively phrased statements or those using the words “no” or “not” such as “smoking is not good for me”, or “smoking is a nasty habit” or “I will not smoke anymore”, were ineffective. So after I was invited to settle comfortably in the recliner and relax he had me begin with what he described as the “eye roll” – looking up with my eyes and then slowly closing them, very much like what all of us do when we go to sleep. So I closed my eyes in the way he described and then was asked to visualize and feel the most relaxing situation I could. For me, the ultimate relaxation had been reclining in a truck tube in the hot Arizona sunshine rocking gently up and down on the waves of the Salt River, so this is what I visualized and imagined experiencing again. Dr. Stark helped me by describing the warmth of the sun, the pleasant breezes and the rocking up and down motion on the gentle waves of the Salt and very quickly I found myself feeling very relaxed and half asleep. He then asked me to internalize three important notions about smoking, through first listening to him, then repeating again silently in my mind. I remember these notions verbatim to this day: “Smoking poisons my body….I need my body to live….I owe my body respect and protection”. So I listened carefully to his sonorous and authoritative voice state the above three principles and then said them to myself. I was in a very peculiar state at that time – half asleep, very relaxed yet fully conscious, what Dr. Stark had called a “suggestible” or “trance-like” state, actually a state all of us experience right before we fall asleep and when we first wake up in the morning. Dr. Stark then said that he would count backward from ten and when he got to zero, I would awaken, refreshed and feeling very good. He was right – I awoke from the half-sleep state I was in and felt energized and refreshed.
From that time, I never smoked again. To keep up my strength and resolve, which did waver occasionally, I adopted the habit of putting myself into this suggestible state daily and repeating the three smoking principles to myself. While in this state I could hear noises around me – some traffic noise, people’s voices outside from time to time, a horn honking or a plane flying overhead. But while in that half-sleep state the noise did not interfere with the process because my relaxation and concentration were so complete. And at the end, I would tell myself as Dr. Stark had, that I would count backward from ten and I would awaken refreshed. And I did – every time.
I have to say that I have always had a skepticism about hypnotism or anything that had to do with altering or enhancing the mind in any way. In my 20’s and 30’s I had had some brushes with Transcendental Meditation and EST, but had always been skeptical and resisted learning or training in these areas. So when I at last gave in and tried self-hypnotism, a la Milton Erickson and Robert Stark, for a reason as important as banishing tobacco smoke from my lungs, I was very pleased with the experience and became a believer in the great power of the mind.
Later that year, I visited Dr. Stark a couple more times, once for assistance in improving my study habits and another time to build confidence and reduce anxiety prior to my doctoral comprehensive examinations. I learned during these visits that I had to be careful to absorb principles and notions that were possible: I could not say to myself with regard to studying, “I will remember everything I read”, for that of course would be impossible and trying to internalize a notion like that would produce extreme tension and anxiety. I learned from Dr. Stark that instead I should say, “When studying, I will remember everything I need to remember”, quite different from the other notion and certainly possible. Since all my life I have had difficulty concentrating, he also helped me concentrate by internalizing statements like, “For the next hour I will be able to concentrate and focus fully on this text (or paper or article)”. Again, I should not say anything like, “I will not be bothered by external noises” because I was to avoid the use of negatives.
When the time for my comprehensive exams (two days of written exams and one day of oral) arrived, Dr. Stark had me visualize relaxing, having confidence and sleeping well the night before my exams began, then visualizing myself having a good breakfast, carrying my portable typewriter (yes, this was 1980!) into the examination room, and again telling myself that “I would remember everything I needed to remember” and responding to the written questions calmly and confidently. Prior to the oral exams, I again put myself into the relaxed state and visualized myself eloquently and authoritatively responding to the verbal questions from my doctoral committee. And yes, my newly acquired skills served me well for I was invited back into the examination room after my orals and was greeted by my chairman, Dr. Harold Hunnicutt with, “Congratulations Doctor Friedly….”
Since that time over 30 years ago in Arizona, I have largely neglected my self-hypnotism skills. However, from time to time I have attempted to revive them to help me sleep more soundly or to handle professional stressors like job interviews or school board meetings, or to help me through some other kind of personal or professional crisis. Since my memories of tubing on the Salt River have faded I have since substituted another vision of relaxation, older but much more prominent – a vivid summer childhood memory of sitting in a special seat I had constructed with baling twine high in a maple tree, above and removed from the noise and confusion of my family, supplied with a book and a sack of tomato sandwiches, feeling and listening to a warm breeze rustling the maple leaves. And for the times I have attempted to revive and apply this skill over the last several decades, visualizing and feeling this time in my childhood has worked very well.
So although they now lie dormant for the most part, learning these powerful skills, using them to stop smoking and later to successfully improve my study habits, get through my exams successfully, and occasionally deal with other needs, remains a very significant and meaningful part of my life. When thinking back on self-hypnotism and what it did for me, I am compelled to consider the power of the mind in other of its expansive and transformative manifestations as well, which surely would include meditation, yoga, Zen, religious conversion and prayer. I am thankful that my experience with self hypnotism gave me some firsthand insight into the incredible power of the mind.