A young man stands in the front row of a crowded stadium, arms reaching above his shoulders and the palms of his hands turned upwards. He's casually but neatly dressed, well-groomed and wears polished shoes. The ambiance in the noisy venue is electrifying — it's loud and emotionally overwhelming. Tears stream down his face. Everyone repeats the blessings delivered by one man on the stage dressed only in white. He is the only person on the stage who dresses this way. He's flanked by a contingent of large men dressed in dark suits. They look like bodyguards but in fact, they are his helpers. A large orchestra fills the back of the stage, providing dramatic, emotive music and a choir bellows out the hymns to their accompaniment. The man tells his disciples what to expect, "the Lord works through me, he exclaims, "when I wave my hand like this," he sweeps his hand in front of his body in a large, slow ark, "when I do this, you will feel the presence of the Holy Spirit." Thus primed, he walks along the front of the stage, from one side, all the way to the other, waving his hand, as if dispensing abundant Holy Spirit to the faithful followers. With each sweep of his hand, members of the audience directly in front of him, collapse backwards, a cascade of falling people that propagate outwards, like a Mexican Wave at a sports event.

One of the burley men lead this young man onto the stage and, with fake tears of sadness, introduces him to the preacher:

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Benny Hinn (born Toufik Benedictus Hinn, in 1952 in Jaffa, Israel), calls the young man's name, "Steven," and the grief-stricken fellow, his sin thus exposed in front of the congregation and before God, is overwhelmed and cries out loud:

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The final word unleashes what appears to be a shockwave of energy, knocking the young man to the ground where he then lies motionless. Hinn proceeds to cleanse him while thousands gasp in awe at this mighty display of Holy Spirit.

There is no doubt about the importance of religion in the lives of the majority of South Africans. Generally speaking, religious freedom is respected in South Africa, and the relationship between religion and the state is healthy and mutually constructive.

The South African Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, better known as the CRL Commission, has arranged a dialogue with others to seek understanding of this phenomenon. The Council has a three-pronged mandate that covers the cultural, religious and language rights of all South Africans. Its operating creed reads, "to promote respect for and further the protection of the rights of cultural, religious and linguistic communities; [to] promote and develop peace, friendship, humanity, tolerance, national unity among and within cultural, religious and linguistic communities on the basis of equality, non-discrimination and free association; to promote the right of communities to develop their historically diminished heritage and to recognise community councils."

The CRL Commission contacted me, asking if I would participate in their dialogue on the 15th of March. The meeting has some very specific aims. To understand: (a) the phenomena of prophecy, healing, miracles, magic and deliverance; (b) what affect it might have on religious followers; (c) whether it might be used as a means of capturing people; (d) is it the workings of the Holy Spirit or just states of trance; (e) to understand what trance is and how it is induced; (f) why people are more likely to subject themselves to this phenomenon, either in religious settings or elsewhere; (g) whether this phenomenon is religious practice or cult; and (h) to determine the extent to which this phenomenon occurs.

I chose to do this show on this theme because the research used here would form part of the preparation I needed to do for my appearance before the Commission. I trust that it edifies you.

While certain parts of Christianity claim this phenomenon to be the workings of the Holy Spirit, the spectacle forms part of other religions and cultural rites too. Many ancient shamanic, tribal and Celtic dance rituals overloaded the cognitive experience, forcing the participants into trance. This was sometimes enhanced through the ingestion of certain trance-inducing chemical preparations, like magic mushrooms, herbal preparations and inhalants. Subjects are dissociated from reality, they commonly regress into some altered state of awareness, they are deeply motivated by the social context, they enter a permissive state by surrendering to the experience and they readily assume the role expected of them. Coleen Ward (in her research paper, Thaipusam in Malaysia, a psycho-anthropological Analysis of Ritual Trance, Ceremonial Possession and Self-Mortification Processes) studied the Hindu rituals practised by the devotees of Lord Murugan. They carry their offerings to the deity while in ecstatic trance, allowing their bodies to be pierced and decorated with needles, hooks and skewers in an expression of faith and loyalty. Despite extensive piercing, devotees rely on ritual trance to control pain and bleeding.

A key aspect of the Commission's enquiry is whether these phenomena are really the workings of the Holy Spirit or other deities or whether they can be explained in hypnotic terms. Derren Brown, a well-known British mentalist, uses psychology, magic, misdirection, suggestion and hypnosis in his popular BBC shows, as tools to achieve some spectacular outcomes. He, with brutal honesty, categorically states that none of his acts use any form of spiritual mysticism. One of his shows aims to debunk Faith Healing:

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Apparently mystical phenomena aren't limited to hypnosis and religious rituals only, the world of trance is broad and its induction occurs in many ways: through trauma, as a side-effect of drugs, as entry into and out of sleep, and also by suggestion.

I find it intriguing that the CRL Commission are interested in the link between religious practices, purporting to be the workings of the Holy Spirit, and hypnosis. They are asking for comment on the following questions: (1) Does hypnotherapy exist? (2) How is it manifested? (3) Is there a logical explanation between religion and hypnotherapy? (4) Are the incidents or cases reported that we see religious or just mere hypnotism? And, (5) Is there any magic in all this? Starting with their last question, "Is there any magic in all this?" I guess that they are asking whether hypnotically induced trance is a mystical phenomenon. Well, the simple answer is, "No, it's not." But to properly understand hypnosis, we must step back a bit to get a sense of what trance is.

Trance is an induced psychological state of mind in which consciousness is fragile and voluntary action is poor or missing; it is a state resembling deep sleep; the body is often in a state of catalepsy; there is detachment from one's physical surroundings; there is hyper or enhanced suggestibility; extreme dissociation often to the point of appearing unconscious. With this definition, meditation, hypnosis, addictions and charisma are seen as being trance states. Wier, in his 2007 book, "The Way of Trance," adds ecstasy as an additional form and discusses the ethical implications of his model, including magic and government misuse, which he terms "trance abuse."

Dr. Michael D. Yapko (Essentials of Hypnosis) is a clinical psychologist and well-researched authority on hypnosis. He writes about the difficulties of finding a unified definition for hypnosis both as a transitive verb, meaning the process of 'inducing trance' and as a noun describing the resultant 'trancelike state' of hypnosis.

Does Dissociation adequately describe the hypnosis phenomenon? Dr. Michael D. Yapko (Essentials of Hypnosis) describes dissociation as one theory of trance. Dr. Arnold M. Ludwig (The Psychobiological Functions of Dissociation) says, "Dissociation represents the fundamental psychobiological mechanism underlying a wide variety of altered forms of consciousness, including […] hypnotic trance" Ludwig explains that there is great individual and species survival value in dissociation. It is the lack of normal integration of thoughts, feelings, and experiences into consciousness and memory. Traumatic experiences may automatically cause dissociative symptoms. Some of the cognitive phenomena associated with dissociation appear to be dependent on the person's emotional or attentional context.

Does Psychological Regression describe the hypnosis phenomenon? Yapko also speaks of hypnosis as a special form of psychological regression characterised by a shift to more primitive primary-process thinking and increased transference to the hypnotist as an almost archetypal authority.

Is hypnosis really just a form of Relaxation? Although Yapko says that relaxation is considered the source from which all hypnotic phenomena are derived but, I'm not entirely convinced because, in 2007, I induced 'anaesthesia' under hypnotic trance, for a tonsillectomy that was carried out on a woman at the Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg. Dr. Dyal conducted the operation in just over half-an-hour and did so entirely without chemical anaesthetics of any kind. The subject couldn't have been further away from a state of relaxation.

Does Socio-cognitive Phenomenon describe hypnosis? Yapko mentions this phenomenon as another possible explanation of what hypnosis is: "Socio-cognitive perspectives hold that hypnosis is not a particular or unique experience, but is defined only by the social context in which it is evident and through the manner in which responses are deemed hypnotic by participants who label it as such."

Is a hypnotised person merely in a Permissive State? Subjects permit the hypnotist to direct their experiences, expressing little or no will of their own. "The client is expected to respond as completely as possible to the guidance of the clinician, thus operating in a secondary, reactive role in the relationship. In essence, the client has been viewed as a passive receptacle for the authoritarian clinician's suggestions. An inability of the client to respond to the clinician's direct suggestions to the clinician's satisfaction is the basis for what has been deemed 'resistance' in this model," says Yapko.

Is hypnosis merely Role Playing? Writing many years ago, Yapko said, "There is a considerable amount of confusion and speculation over whether there really is a condition of human experience that can be called 'hypnosis.' Graphs of brain waves, measurements of biochemical changes in the body, and objective readings on the activity of the nervous system are ambiguous at best in helping to define the phenomenon. The nature of hypnosis is extremely subjective and, to date, has been resistant to objective measurements. Thus, there are some theorists who have adopted a particular socio-cognitive perspective suggesting that hypnosis as a separate and unique entity of consciousness does not really exist at all. In their view, there is hypnosis only when someone is willing to role-play it."

Is hypnosis an Altered State of Consciousness? Turning to Yapko again as the expert, he says, "The experience of hypnosis has also been conceptualised as an altered state of consciousness. In this perspective, the hypnotic state is considered to be a unique and separate state of consciousness relative to one's 'normal' state of consciousness. In this view, hypnosis is a state that is artificially created by the induction process, which alters the person's phenomenological experience through the narrowing of attention to the offered suggestions."

It's all a bit of a mouthful, I know but scientists struggle to find a unified definition of hypnosis. My personal favourite is: "Hypnosis is an altered state of mind where conscious criticism is bypassed, leaving the subject more susceptible to suggestion." This one-sentence definition embraces the notions of fragile consciousness, poor voluntary action, sleep-like states, catalepsy, heightened suggestibility, detachment from surroundings and extreme dissociation. Hypnosis can be induced by oneself (called autosuggestion) or by a hypnotist (another person who has the skill to hypnotise).

So, to answer the CRL Commission's question, "Does hypnotherapy exist?" one can easily reply that trance exists and, as far back in our history as we can go, has always been a part of the human experience. Whether hypnosis exists or not is an answer that's a tad more complicated to give. Firstly, it does exist as the transitive verb, 'to hypnotise.' Hypnotising a subject puts the person into a trance state (examples and demonstrations are plentiful) but there is a subtle difference between being 'under Hypnosis' and being 'in trance.' Under hypnosis, subjects have heightened susceptibility to suggestion and readily take cues from the hypnotist, carrying out the commands more readily than the subject might otherwise have done in a fully-wakened state of consciousness. In short, "Does hypnosis exist?" and the answer is "Yes, it does…" although it is difficult to define. However, the CRL Commission's question isn't, "Does hypnosis exist?" but rather, "Does hypnotherapy exist?" Whenever a hypnotist makes positive suggestions to a hypnotised subject, expressly aiming to alleviate a condition, improve a pattern of behaviour and/or change the body's response to thoughts, one defines this kind of therapy as 'hypnotherapy.' The South African Health Professions Act, act 56 of 1974, Ss. 2(g) mentions 'hypnosis' and 'hypnotherapy' but the act does not provide any legal definition of these terms.

Sorry about the cliff-hanger in this show — it's not my usual style to end abruptly — but it can't be helped as there is so much that needs to be said about hypnosis before I can help you unpack what happened in the Benny Hinn example I gave you in the early part of this show. There's no choice! You'll have to listen to the conclusion of this topic in Part 2 — broadcast next week at the same time on this radio station.