Brenda Hillman

(I mentioned to Kristin Prevalet I had been working for a while on an essay about my long experience with self-hypnosis technique & trance. Here are three sections from the beginning of the essay—there may be a few other parts interspersed between these sections; they are still in draft form.  For over three decades, my poetry has engaged with trance methods and transpersonal therapy. To my mind, poetic language and investigation can act as a shuttle between an intense inner psycho-spiritual work & certain more political and environmental concerns.  I’ve sometimes been dismayed at the way these things are isolated if writers insist on a disconnection between the intensely subjective work we do as artists, and the outer work of our social & political lives. These things cannot be separated. I hope for a radical practice of the everyday. Inner work, art-as-link, outer workthat is the triangle. Too many writers drown in the belief that their theoretical systems are self-sufficient; too many “spiritual leaders” espouse only the mysterious unconscious realm that is unsullied by active life; & too many activists get stalled in disabling & polemical clichés. The mysterious force of poetry brings this geometry into alignment. In this tripartite practice, the figure can be balanced on any of its points. )

Part %%


I’ve been asked several times to write about trance and how it’s been of use in my life as a writer.

In the early 1980s with the help of two people, I began a trance method.  I hoped it would help my imaginative life, and I hoped to find relief from a particular form of suffering I had in relation to writing and to other people. At the very least, I thought the method might temporarily give a context for an unusual experience of the world; I had made most of my decisions in life intuitively.


Many of the world's spiritual systems have some version of trance, having to do with leaving one’s physical body to accomplish a task on behalf of another. In some cultures, the person engaging in trance sends the soul out to a helper— the body is filled with other substances, the soul is sent back.  This method involves vast and collective experience.


Trance as a technique is both calm and wild. I had been drawn to the use of trance when I studied surrealism in the late sixties, and when studying the work of Yeats, Blake and Jung.  I had been interested in trance and hypnosis, in alchemy and Gnosticism, and in forms of shamanic healing. Though I read Jung and William James, most of the practical aspects of trance had remained an intellectual interest until I set aside the time to engage in it. Since then, all of my poetry has been impacted by my work with trance therapy.


My helpers, two kind and brilliant people named John and Linda, worked as a couple with their clients via methods they had developed in Jungian training; Linda was also an intuition healer, interested in psychic studies and visionary techniques; she had immersed herself in Theosophy. Both had become members of a Hindu spiritual community in India and worked closely with their teacher.


A curtained exchange takes place in a triangle: nature, culture (including language) and the unknowable. The individual ego exists as a small fragment of what is. What seems to be a self—the physical body and all of its acts—is a small part of a great store of circulating energies. 


From early childhood, I had a mistaken sense that a person’s works— and in fact, a person’s traits— can move toward perfectibility. I thought this about all enterprises I was engaged in— studying language, raising a family, teaching, writing poetry and so on.  The possibility that something is never finished or perfectible, that a circumscribed identity might never be attained, didn’t cross my mind until the mid-eighties. Like many women of my generation, I was caught in a search for identity and perfection, trying to satisfy certain goals while living a fraught life— full of engaged insight but also overwhelmed by anxiety.


In bodies with experiences linked to the five senses, in the bodies to which we give names, in bodies that last only a few decades, we serve whatever we serve, and then we are returned to the unknown. Our existence is much bigger than our experience.  


Much of the early work with John and Linda was done at their home; they lived in a house at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais, near the Pacific Ocean.  We felt the mountain as a force, and believed that it threw energy down, not only in a metaphoric sense.


The 1980s — a strange decade but not any stranger than usual. It was the twilight of democracy in America but it had always been the twilight of democracy.  Everyone hopes some form of context will modify the disaster.  In the galleries of the soul, you could ask, what is a soul? Light is its bachelor.


Lucretius writes: What pleases the senses is smooth. Reality is the multi-directional other term of an infinite metaphor.


After eight years of our work together, Linda died in her 40s of a pre-existing illness. After her death, I wrote a book called Death Tractates, which brought into poetry a feminist experiment in the pastoral elegy. I had come to understand that we learn by investigation, that there are more senses and materials than the ones we habitually use. I continued to work with John until I had come through the first stage in my trance work. Perhaps it can be said that one remains in the first stage unless one is an adept.  Or perhaps “stages” are illusions, but in any case, I have a sense that a deepening is always possible.


When I started doing trance, I thought perhaps nothing would come of it.  As with anything to do with the imagination, what I knew at the beginning was what I knew at the end.


Part %%

layers of panic


When I close my eyes, I see an image of the Ouroboros, the snake eating its tail—only, instead of eating its tail, the snake keeps losing it.


I grew up tramping around a desert.  Desert religions demonstrate that trying to address solitary suffering in relation to the unknown is most useful if it leads us to what connects us to others, that the plight of others matters as much as our own. 


In crowds, cities and countryside, I thought of adulthood as layers of panic and continue to think that the metaphor of layers is applicable.


The unspeakably difficult conditions for humans are caused by systems and institutions set up by the powerful to rule over the powerless; insufficient resources are poorly distributed among the weaker humans and less powerful living things. This is caused by human greed and fear as well as by disasters of an inhuman kind. Institutions and monetary systems reinforce the greed of a few and the fear felt by many. The anguish passes inexorably into the young of our species well as to other species.  Trying to measure our suffering against that of another, we realize the forms of suffering are incommensurate, yet we are mostly isolated in our suffering, and suffer throughout time, in all systems of government and social circumstances. Systemic institutional changes that are effected by revolutions are not sustained because the institutions are recreated again and again by injustice and scarcity of resources that are physical and spiritual.  



Something in the adult human brain keeps early formations of suffering intact and unmodified from childhood, with — as in evolution— creative variation in the code.


When I started doing hypnotherapy it was in response to a suffering I thought was quite particular to my own life, but also with the interest in expanding perceptions. What I found was that, the deeper I went into particular images, the more my experience seemed collective. I had not been helped much by conventional forms of psychotherapy.  Freudian models and the metaphors for relationships seemed brilliantly interesting but partial, and for me, the metaphors of Freudian therapy produced only one framework.  I had read Jung and was interested in his models as the next step, since they addressed myth and spiritual states other than the psychological. I wanted to enter images of a collective mental nature rather than only following anecdotes of my individual ego struggles and those of my family heritage.  Rather than hoping for what they call a “healthy ego,” I sought other paradigms of the “impure journey,” including Gnostic models, metaphors and chaos theory, a kind of flexible predicate in the sentence. And I looked to the non-human world, with its ceaseless animating force.


I came to understand that, because the soul is fluid, the ego project is doomed to fail. 


The hope that an individual human life might create things of beauty for the culture, or that we will revise institutions—families, schools, systems of law and government—to modify the suffering for  human and inhuman species—that hope is constant and sustains energy for the individual search, and even for the general or metaphysical search. That search could be as purely anarchic as art itself:  a human life might be conscious in its own terms and might have an utterly strange field of meaning, so that a wise but wild mental act might add to the store of available reality.


To attend to social ills meant attending to the unconscious in images and sense perceptions outside the rational.  The benefits of such a search would radiate outward into social and political realms. Stepping into the large pool of images in which the particular imagination interacts unpredictably with a collective experience is mostly what interests me about the trance method.


Part %% --

In the desert near our house in the fifties and early sixties, I wandered with our dog; often I had a sense of floating between physical states. All children are shamans, floating between other people's sentences. This period was akin to what I’ve read about the lost wax process in sculpture. The form is made, and the shaping substance is removed. Light drags color along. I felt the great love of my family and yet also an odd anxiety that was both allayed and not: I had a sense that the interior and external deserts were soothing worlds but that the ominous forces could modify their beauty. This seems now a Cold War anxiety, mingled with an odd resin of anticipation and bodiless comfort.


The sense of uncertainty children experience about their mental processes—and the underlying fear—derives from the fact that everything in a child’s experience is unbearably fresh and new. Children cannot compare their lives to anything except to those of other children; they are surrounded by unnamed and inexact expressions of feeling in cultural images.


Every feeling— but especially every feeling of every child— is more nuanced, far more alloyed with other half-feelings, than most adults are able to allow for, with their rushed categories and efficiency. To take the child seriously, to know the complexity of what she is really experiencing, would slow adult life to a halt, and would make many activities meaningless. All of us know this at some level, but  certain psychologists (Winnicott) and certain poets (Blake, Dickinson, Rilke) know it best. We learn to repress complexity in order to survive.


Thus, when children catch glimpses of this original complexity of emotional life in literature or in art, they remember a most mysterious otherness.


Like every child, I had the anxious desire to express myself and to be understood. But I experienced myself as odd in relation to other children. In the middle of forming my sentences, the mental directions might shift as I would scramble to make up words, and would drift off like a dragonfly taking flight. When this occurred, sometimes it seemed best to begin a new sentence in hopes that one part of the sentence would connect with the other. The task of making the parts connect became very daunting. The pathways were constantly making new pathways. I began to write poetry at age nine in part because emphasis there was placed on lines and white space, and I hoped something  affirmative might come from the new pathways. After that, nothing was quite as satisfactory as poetry.


When I learned to read, I stared at the right-hand page first, at the right hand edge of the letters. I recalled the placement of words on the page but not always the information, although I could recall numbers with great certainty; sometimes numbers glowed with rings and in color. Consciousness had to do with directing the main traffic of this sense impression and emotion; consciousness was not the traffic, it was the effort.


By the time I was eleven or so, I was drawn to art that had a strong relationship to the unknown, an agitated excitement about the unknown and an eagerness to join it. This excitement had to do with nothing at all, or rather with a full nothingness.  I became excited and joyful at the idea of excitement itself, the sense that excitement is about itself, not about anything in particular. The thought of pure nothingness gave me a profound sense of relief. I was aware that there is a secret, vast storage chamber for the unknown—as certain woodpeckers store their long tongues in the back of their eyes. Over time, reality became lively with voices in an animated world that had ceaseless energy from which one could draw at any time.


It was the middle of the Cold War; the fear of an impending advancement of a system that would overwhelm and overcome safety was a very solid merciless constant. It produced the abstract sense of an enemy very early on.


There are now pharmaceuticals prescribed nearly automatically for the types of dissociation and superimposition I experienced as a child, but I had the sense that the struggle was a gift (and, in the metaphor from my fiercely Protestant family, it was “from God” somehow); I felt it could be a tool in a way I could not understand yet. The combination of the Cold War fifties, the set of inherited odd ideas from a spiritually elaborate family, and a propensity to be extremely sensitive intensified this turbulence, which felt like @#@#@##@@. A pattern with its variations had been set on top of something I felt I had no access to. Yet to participate in the pattern gave a nearly electrical pleasure.


Sorting out the anxiety of these lifelong states without solving them was something I found immediately instructive about the trance method as soon as I began that work. For a long time, a sense of disconnectedness had seemed the norm.  As time passed, the miracle of having survived to be entwined with the world, to make art, to know love of family and friends, to be involved with political life, to know plants and animals and elements, grew to seem both more and less unusual.


Brenda Hillman
Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman has published chapbooks with Penumbra Press, a+bend press, and EmPress; she is the author of eight full-length collections from Wesleyan University Press, the most recent of which are Cascadia (2001), Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), and Practical Water (2009). With Patricia Dienstfrey, she edited The Grand PermissionNew Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (Wesleyan, 2003).  Hillman teaches at St. Mary’s College of California where she is the Olivia C. Filippi Professor of Poetry; she is an activist for social and environmental justice and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, Robert Hass.