Life is so marvelous; I have always been fascinated by healing. There are different levels of healing, from the physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual to the social. Healing is a process of incessant chang and attaining equilibrium, similar to striving for “Yin ping Yang mi”  (陰平陽秘, or the state where “Yin is tranquil and Yang is preserved”)  in Chinese Medicine, which is a perspective on life based upon maintaining balance within a state of flux.
Many years ago when I first read about Milton Erickson’s therapeutic methods, I was amazed to discover that they can bridge the gap between contemporary Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the real, classical Chinese Medicine  Dr. Milton H. Erickson (1901-1980) was a special physician; he was like an old physician of Chinese Medicine who had an ability to perceive what was wrong with his patients and predict their outcomes. He had an extraordinary sensitivity to the interactions and changes of the environment both inside and outside one’s body and the physiological factors behind a person’s behaviors. My interest in Erickson’s hypnotherapy was in tune with my commitment to a holistic perspective of healing using Chinese Medicine. It stems from a curiosity towards and respect of people, a passion for life (attitude and quality of living), and a subtle observation and profound self-experience of the living world. Humans live through various experiences both within and without ourselves and we learn from them. Through the accumulation of our experiences, we cultivate our ability to solve problems and our intuition. This is the important intersection between Chinese Medicine and Ericksonian hypnotherapy: using experience as the basis for healing.
Erickson grew up in the countryside. One day, the young Erickson saw his father pushing with all his might a stubborn cow into the shed without avail. He went up to the cow and pulled it’s tail and the animal immediately moved in the opposite direction into the shed. Later in his life Erickson never forced his patients in any direction but guided them according to their habitual impetus to a more suitable place. He used his patients’ language to communicate with them and personalized each one’s therapy because each individual has her own inner mode of connection with the external world and particular differences are reflected upon disparate reactions and operations.
Chinese Medicine treats each person individually (that is, it provides customized treatment), according to the patient’s constitution and in agreement with the season. Thus the same disease may be treated differently in different patients, while people with various maladies may be given the same remedy. For example, with regard to influenza, a person whose body constitution is “Yin xu huo wang” (陰虛火旺, meaning that the Yin is deficient and leads to internal heat)  may experience a swollen and sore throat and productive cough with yellowish phlegm, but a person with “Yang xu” (陽虛 or deficient in Yang) who is under attack by a “wai xie” (外邪, “exogenous evil” or environmental pathogen) will often exhibit “cold symptoms” and suffer from generalized soreness of the body and runny nose with clear, watery secretions. Therefore, the former requires cooling-relieving medicines that are pungent in flavor and cool in property while the latter needs to be treated with pungent, warm herbs that are diaphoretic, even though both of them may be infected by the same pathogenic source at the same time. This therapeutic orientation results from an unceasing exploration of the uniqueness and potential resources of different individuals in order to assist patients in recovering their instinctive abilities to adapt to their subjective internal and external environments. It is not based on so-called “scientific criteria” that can be applied collectively and in a standard manner.
Erickson noticed his patients’ words and minute changes in their bodies with an acute sense of observation so that he was able to predict their problems and outcome with precision and depth. This is also what traditional Chinese Medicine seeks to attain: to observe the person’s mind-body, internal-external phenomena through various levels of senses and of perception. The cultivation of the “Taoist physician” (道醫) in ancient Chinese tradition emphasized the individual’s realization of the Tao (道, path or way). The teacher did not give his disciples loads of information that had been cognitively analyzed and organized but rather allowed them to gain experience on their own so that they truly understood and progressed in both their minds and bodies.
More than two thousand years ago, there was a prince of the Kingdom of Chu who was ill and lethargic. He was seen by a “guest from Wu” who conducted a lengthy interview which elicited detailed descriptions of the prince’s condition and eventually brought him from a state of absentmindedness and trance to recovery. Erickson also used long and tedious stories to conceal and enfold the myriad information he provided in multiple layers for patients to decipher and comprehend on their own so that they could change “by themselves”.
Eight hundred years ago, there was a famous physician by the name of Zhu Danxi (朱丹溪)  who visited a scholar bedridden from over the death of his newly-wed wife. After taking the patient’s pulse, Zhu muttered to himself, “Loss of appetite, general malaise… very likely to be pregnant…” and proceeded solemnly to write out a prescription to safeguard the fetus. The scholar laughed loudly and was cured.
Erickson had a young patient who suffered from bed-wetting for many years due to repeated cystoscopy to diagnose a chronic urinary tract infection. Erickson asked her what she would do if, when she was relieving herself, a stranger looked in. The girl answered that she would freeze. So the patient already knew what to do in order to stop urinating.
Illnesses may be caused by various reasons. In the realm of psychotherapy, if the therapist focuses too much on exploring the cause of the illness, it may result in the misplacement of responsibility and impeding of the possibility for change. Chinese Medicine and Ericksonian hypnotherapy both focus on solving the problem and not on looking for the culprit.
Erickson had a student who was once cheerful and positive but had became introverted and gloomy after an accident left him handicapped. One morning, Erickson got anther student to hold the elevator on the top floor and, after waiting in vain for it on the ground floor with the rest of the class, invited the crippled student to climb the stairs with him (Erickson walked with the help of a cane during that time). The student regained his cheerful disposition afterwards. Erickson suffered from polio and post-polio syndrome and his muscles were atrophied, causing him to walk with difficulty. When Erickson contracted poliomyelitis at seventeen years-old, he nearly died and could only move his eye muscles. Through rehabilitation and self-hypnosis, he recovered well enough to be able to canoe down the Mississippi River, traversing America from north to south. He continued to train his body, obtained a medical degree, and became a clinical doctor.
Like healing in Chinese Medicine which focuses very much on the patient’s emotions, diet, work, rest, and daily routine, Erickson paid careful attention to his patients’ childhood background and living condition. He helped a policeman who retired for medical reasons to reduce weight successfully and to cut down on smoking and drinking simply by changing the places where he bought his food, cigarettes, and alcohol and increasing his opportunities of walking. Erickson also cured a single, middle-aged woman of depression in that manner. She was a submissive Christian who led a very reclusive life. After being given a tour of her house, Erickson told the woman to grow even more African violets; then, when there was a wedding, death, birth or celebration at her church, she should give away a pot of the flower to the person or family. The woman later made a lot of friends and was known as the African Violet Queen.
Out of the long history of Chinese Medicine, we can uncover even more ancient records of similar stories. This wisdom from remote ages shines even more brightly through the understanding and verification of Erickson’s methods of hypnotherapy. The famous physician of the Ming Dynasty, Wan Mizhai (萬密齋)  , once prescribed a single herb to a pregnant woman to assist her delivery but requested that the woman to collect the plant in the mountains herself. In fact the herb was fake and his actual purpose was for the woman to build up her body. A renowned doctor of the Qing Dynasty,  Qin Mingzhang (秦明章), was well-versed in poetry and music, and for his treatment of a local official by the surname of Fang who had fallen ill from depressed mood, arranged for people to play for the patient a pipa (琵琶, Chinese lute) melody and perform an act of an opera which featured a drunken ghost. The official laughed out loud and belched, and was cured soon afterwards. Also during the Qing Dynasty, there was a one-year-old baby in the Wang family who suddenly would not eat and wasted away. The well-known pediatrician of that time, Xue Dongming (薛東明), who thought that the patient was suffering from lovesickness, was scoffed at. He ordered all of the baby’s toys to be brought out and placed before him. The baby, upon seeing a wooden toy in the shape of a fish, laughed and was healed.
In Chinese Medicine, the etiology of illnesses is classified into internal and external factors. The latter consist of six “evils” (六淫): wind, cold, summer heat, dampness, dryness, and fire . These are related to the season, weather, and living conditions. The former comprise seven emotions: joy, anger, anxiety, pensiveness, grief, fear, and fright . These energies that may cause emotional upsets are viewed as “virtual evils” (虛邪, pathogens that cause illnesses when the body is in a deficient state). Unfortunately, the development of modern TCM ventures too much into materialism and has veered off from the practice of classical Chinese Medicine. There are abundant clinical case studies on Erickson’s hypnotherapy and Erickson developed many therapeutic methods in collaboration with his students. These may compensate for the neglect of endogenous factors by contemporary TCM so that physicians can be more holistically attentive to patients.
Translated by Yan-Di Chang, M.D., Ph.D.
1. I use the Hanyu Pinyin system for the romanization of Chinese terms and names.
2. The English rendering is taken from Ilza Veith’s (1949) translation of Huang Ti Nei Ching (黃帝內經, Huangdi Neijing) or The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, Part I, “Su Wen,” Chapter 3,“Treatise on the Communication of the Force of Life with Heaven.” Retrieved March 31, 2020, from this post.
3. In this article I distinguish between Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as practiced today and Chinese Medicine as related in the ancient texts. I feel that the former has lost some of the core thinking and principles of the latter in its pursuit to emulate biomedicine and become “scientific.”
4. I consulted the following website for the English translations of terms in Chinese Medicine: [Retrieved March 31, 2020]
5. Throughout this article I adopt the Chinese convention of placing the surname before the given name. Zhu Danxi’s original name was Zhu Zhenheng (朱震亨), 1281-1358.
6. Original name Wan Quan (萬全), 1499-1582.
7. The Qing Dynasty was established in 1636 and ruled China from 1644 to 1911.
8. Information about the “six evils” is available from this post.:
9. Readers can consult the following webpage for more information about the “seven emotions”: