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A trip to a hypnotherapist

Friday 20th June 2014

He said his website looked “like a woman”. After a while, like a magic eye picture, I could make it out.

What he meant was the list of desires (neon-orange text on white) you can successfully achieve with “HYPNOTIC PROGRAMMING” (his quotes, his caps) had an hour-glass shape to it, and a markedly top-heavy one at that.

He said it was accidental, but there was something in the glee he took in pointing it out that made me think that it was not.

The desires that make up the “woman” include (again, caps all his): Desire to find and keep a Loving Relationship, Desire Freedom from depression You, Desire a Magnetic Vibrant You and Desire to Permanently Stop Smoking.

That last one was why I was calling John Moynihan, Master Hypnotic Programmer to make an appointment, though a Magnetic Vibrant Me sounded appealing too.

Uther Dean in the hypnotherapist's chair.

Photo: Elle Hunt/The Wireless

I’d tried to email but he’d asked to talk on the phone first to make arrangements around recording part of the session. But we didn’t really talk about that. We talked about the woman-shaped site, and about how his process is copyrighted, and that we wouldn’t be able to include too many details of it.

Then, bluntly and suddenly, he asked me if I smoked marijuana.

That should be a pretty straightforward question to answer, but the aggression with which he asked it had thrown my judgement of what the tone of our conversation had been up to that point entirely out the window.

Maybe he thought he was being jovial; it felt like he was just shouting. He had that kind of energy, at least it seemed like it down the phone, where you suspected he could hug you or storm off at any moment.

Somewhat tentatively, I asked why he wanted to know. He wanted to know exactly what he was hypnotising me out of, he explained. We were back on firm ground – or, as firm as I came to expect of Moynihan.

I’d decided to try hypnotism to quit smoking. Over the past few months, I had become more open to the possibilities of such things working, or at least helping. This probably had a lot to do with my recent discovery that I was spiritually gifted.

Google Maps was optimistic as to how long it would take my cohort Elle and I to get to Moynihan’s office in Wallaceville, way of out of the way at the northern end of the Hutt Valley.

We drove past the psychic’s house in Upper Hutt, where I had if only for a moment totally believed in spirit guides, knowing that we still had quite a way to go. Before long we were on unsealed roads surrounded by fields.

Discovering that Moynihan was also a horse-breeder was almost enough reward for the trip to justify itself. I thought the juxtaposition of such a tactile job with such an abstract one was hilarious.

A picture of Uther Dean standing in front of a sign that identifies a horse breeder and a hypnotist
The hypnotherapist is also a horse breeder.

Photo: Elle Hunt/The Wireless

Gravel crunching under our tires, we drove up the long drive to “Classique Lodge”, Moynihan’s home and office. Orange and amber, surrounded by green space, it was the kind of expansive, one-storey, brick house that someone’s lovely grandparents should live in. As we drew closer, we could see him through the window, conspicuously, almost theatrically reading at his desk.

As soon as I entered the house, I heard the clock, and I never stopped hearing it. Its steadfast tick-tock seemed at best ironic, at worst cliché for a hypnotist’s office. There was also a fibreglass owl, a set of three glass heads, a plasma globe, a poster of Albert Einstein with the caption “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

There was even a black-and-white whirligig spinning board – which, funnily enough, was what convinced me that this was entirely in earnest. No art director would think so little of their audience to include one of those in the set for their film about a hypnotist (unless it was set in the 1950s, and there was no special effects budget).

In the office.

Photo: Elle Hunt/The Wireless

Besides, Moynihan was clearly a professional. Thank you cards from clients from all over the world were displayed in a glass cabinet, next to VHS tapes of his “NO 1. SMOKING CESSATION” interactive video, and on his enormous desk was an eftpos machine. 

His walls were lined with more diplomas and certificates than you could count, from hypnotic institutions the world over. “I’m a researcher,” he explained. “I’ve got a lot of skills.”

Moynihan was a striking figure. He had the swagger, confidence and the hair of a country music singer.

There were photos in the room of what could only be presumed to be his family, but they were very obviously old photos, and there didn’t seem to be anyone else living in the house.

Neither Elle nor I were in any hurry to start the hypnosis, so we paced the plush, patterned, wall-to-wall carpet of his office as though it were a museum.

Moynihan showed us portraits he had taken of people’s “energy fields”: a woman with a dirty, angry red energy field was hungover; a man with a pink one was gay; another woman in a patchy, bluish-pink haze was sad because her husband had left her for another man.

He said he’d bought the technology that permitted him to capture energy fields on film in San Francisco, and he was frustrated that others used similar devices to non-scientific ends.

“You’ll see a lot of people using them at fairgrounds to give psychic readings, but it’s not for that,” he told us. “They’re scientific instruments. They’re made for research.”

His voice was deep, rough, slow and rhythmic, as if he was explaining something to a child that was a little over their head. Listening back to my recording of the session, I notice it was contagious; that Elle and I slowed down our speech too. It began to feel a bit like a dream.

I sat in an armchair in front of his desk. Moynihan remained standing. We talked about why I smoke, which started with not wanting to go inside at parties but has escalated to feeling like I have to, like I’m going to die if I don’t, which I believe is called the maintaining stage of addiction. He made notes. Then he talked about how the mind works.

The robot represented the unconscious mind.

Photo: Elle Hunt/The Wireless

With repeated reference to a toy robot, he explained how we have two minds, our conscious mind and our unconscious mind. The unconscious mind was the robot, in that it simply did what it was told. He was going to put me in a hypnotic state in which he could speak directly to be unconscious mind, and de-programme my smoking habit.

But first, he was going to show me just how much smoking was controlling my life. He asked me to stand with my arm out, and say that I was not a smoker, which I did. He pushed on my arm, and it fell. Then he asked me to say that I was a smoker. When he pushed on my arm, it stood strong, like an iron bar – or a very strong arm, neither of which it is.

It was a real goosebumps moment. Something – beyond that which I could see and hear and gently ridicule in an article after the fact – was going on in this room. I thought I’d been open to the possibility on the way, but only at that moment did I actually start expecting it to work.

"When he pushed on my arm, it stood strong"

Photo: Elle Hunt/The Wireless

Then I lay back in the recliner, and he sat beside me in an upright chair. His speech grew more precise. He told me to shut my eyes and I did so without thinking. He said there was a large stone on my left hand, and suddenly I couldn’t move it. He said there was a balloon attached to my right that would float up until I touched myself on my face, and when that happened, I would be fully under hypnosis.

My right hand slowly, deliberately rose from my side to rest on my face.

I was conscious throughout all this, which is to say that my mind was working and I remember it, but I felt out of control. I was in my mind, but I was no longer in my body.

This was really happening.

Moynihan asked my unconscious mind to do or visualise certain things, and to nod after I did so, and I would. But it wasn’t me. I was sitting in my mind, passively watching his happen, which was bizarre and unsettling but also real. For 20-odd minutes, he seemed to talk past me to another bit of me, which it seemed had control in that moment, and unpicked the knots surrounding my addiction. We even assigned a colour – yellow, which I volunteered without hesitation – that would trigger resolution about my new status as an ex-smoker.

"My right hand rose slowly, deliberately rose from my side to rest on my face"

Elle Hunt / The Wireless

As he raised me up and out of the trance, it felt like all the yawn and stretch of waking from a dream without the tiredness of actually being roused from sleep. For a moment, it felt like I was falling back into my own body, and then I was back. But I hadn’t been gone.

Something had happened. But something big was really nagging at my mind, and I didn’t want to say it in front of him.

He asked me to say I was a smoker and stick out my arm, and it fell under pressure. I said I was an ex-smoker and my arm stood strong. He could now get me to shut my eyes automatically with just a move of his hand. I felt controlled, and I felt free. He gave me a card with my colour and a trigger phrase on it. He had a five-year guarantee, he said; if I started smoking, I could have up to four more “top-ups”.

Elle and I hung around, asking him questions, chasing the air and the high of What Just Happened for a bit too long. The office no longer seemed stifling, it seemed open with possibility. I paid by eftpos and as the hellish purgatory of transaction “PROCESSING” passed, I noticed how many of his framed certificates were on copy paper. How many had he printed himself? But that didn’t matter. Something had happened. Something actually inexplicable.

But there was also that one thing, that one big problem. I waited until we were sitting in the car before I told Elle: “I have never wanted to smoke more in my life.”

She protested that I should “let it work”, but an hour later, I sat alone in the courtyard of a café and lit up. I braced myself to vomit or see yellow or vomit yellow or to be, at least, terrible. But no. I felt calmer. Better. Normal. I was back to maintaining. 

Something had happened – but I didn’t expect to need a top-up so soon.

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