Richard Schissel sits across from his clients in his office on West Seneca Street and asks them to count backward. He tells them how every number is going to help them become more relaxed.
"You will begin to feel your arms relax," he says, while swinging a pendulum or pocket watch to focus their attention. "Your eyes will feel heavier."
Once their eyes close, his clients enter into what Schissel and other hypnotists call a trance. With his client in a trance, Schissel keeps their conscious mind busy with a visualization of being at a beach, or on a ride in a hot-air balloon, so that he can artfully persuade their subconscious mind to change.
He might suggest: "Every time you eat a doughnut it's going to taste like Crisco." Or: "You will find that a small plate with half portions is enough."
At its base, hypnosis is a state of focused attention, "much like we experience while being absorbed in a really good book," said Schissel, adding that the whole point is to move the critical, conscious mind out of the way to free the less picky subconscious mind.
Schissel moved to Ithaca in 1985, and opened his private practice in 1998. He specializes in pain and stress management, and occasionally on smoking cessation. "But they have to want to quit," he said. "It won't work otherwise." Schissel quit smoking in 2004 with the aid of self-hypnosis. "I even created a hypnosis CD which was played during my lung cancer surgery."
Schissel is also an associate professor at Ithaca College and chair of the graduate program in speech-language pathology and audiology.
Brian Apatoff, a New York City neurologist, explained hypnotism as a deep state of relaxation that does not alter brain wave activity. "It's akin to a meditative state," Apatoff said.
For Schissel, 63, who received his hypnosis certification from the National Guild of Hypnotists in New Hampshire, meditation was the catalyst that impelled his study of hypnosis. "That's when I saw the added value of positive suggestions during deep states of relaxation," he said.
Ellen Peterson is a hypnotherapist in Ithaca. She uses hypnosis for psychotherapeutic purposes. Her favorite guided visualization to put her clients in a trance is to take them on a walk down 10 levels of a hillside.
"Ninety percent of the mind is subconscious and 10 percent is conscious," said Peterson. "We only operate from 10 percent of our mind. When we're hypnotized, or even when we meditate, all of that changes."
Alternative Tompkins appears monthly in The Journal and looks at the non-traditional health, nutrition and lifestyle choices practiced by Tompkins County residents. If you have an idea for a future article, send your idea firstname.lastname@example.org