The “Turning Phrase” of Zen

A teacher of neigong said:

For the neigong we do, brain activity approaches zero and yes, we can do that almost instantly and I have proven this in a sleep lab, but natural awareness increases.

Milton Erickson also described an increase of awareness in trance:

I go into trances so that I will be more sensitive to the intonations and inflections of my patients’ speech. And to enable me to hear better, see better.

(Wikipedia, “Milton Erickson”)

Both statements assert that the senses are heightened with the induction of a trance.

One of Erickson’s approaches to trance induction bears remarkable resemblance to one of the methods of teaching employed by the Zen masters. Erickson sometimes used a “confusion” technique to allow for the induction of trance:

Confusion might be created by ambiguous words, complex or endless sentences, pattern interruption or a myriad of other techniques to incite transderivational searches.


Transderivational searches are described on Wikipedia as:

…search(es) for a possible meaning or possible match as part of communication, and without which an incoming communication cannot be made any sense of whatsoever.

The “turning phrase” of a Zen teacher is the result of a spontaneous pivot in the teacher’s frame of reference, perhaps in response to a question or a situation; the phrase or word that expresses the pivot can invoke a transderivational search in the listener, and allow for the induction of trance.

Induction with the confusion technique is sudden, as with Milton Erickson’s famous “handshake induction”:

‘Erickson’s best-known innovations is the hypnotic handshake induction, which is a type of confusion technique. …This induction works because shaking hands is one of the actions learned and operated as a single “chunk” of behavior; tying shoelaces is another classic example. If the behavior is diverted or frozen midway, the person literally has no mental space for this – he is stopped in the middle of unconsciously executing a behavior that hasn’t got a “middle”. The mind responds by suspending itself in trance until either something happens to give a new direction, or it “snaps out”.

(Wikipedia, “Milton Erickson”)

With the “turning phrase”, the Zen master leaves any listener “stopped in the middle”, which allows the induction of trance and a heightened awareness of the function of the senses that provide the experience of self.

That the senses are involved in the experience of self is the conclusion of scientists Olaf Blanke and Christine Mohr. In their research, they have found that the tactil-proprioceptive-kinesthetic, visual, and vestibular senses are crucial: these senses appear to give rise not just to sensations connected with the physical body, but to an actual feeling of the existence of a self. Blanke and Moore made their conclusion through the study of a particular kind of out-of-body experience called heautoscopy (or HAS):

It might thus be argued that, HAS is not only an experience characterized by the reduplification of one’s body, but also by a reduplification of one’s self. As strikingly reported by Brugger et al. the high risk of suicide during this terrifying experience cannot be overstated as some of these HAS-patients try by all means to reestablish their unitary self.

(“Out-of-body experience, heautoscopy, and autoscopic hallucination of neurological origin: Implications for neurocognitive mechanisms of corporeal awareness and self consciousness”, Brain Research Reviews 5 (2 5) 184-199)

The tactil-proprioceptive-kinesthetic and vestibular senses are closely involved with the perception of a person’s physical location in space; the visual sense is tightly connected to both of these senses, and can reset the perception of location.

The sense of location is emphasized in many of the classic teachings of Zen:

Be aware of where you really are 24 hours a day. You must be most attentive.

(“Zen Letters: the Teachings of Yuanwu”, trans. T. Cleary, pg 53)

When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point.

(“Genjo Koan”, Dogen, trans. by Aitken and Tanahashi)

A peculiar feeling with regard to posture is also emphasized in the classic Zen teachings, a feeling perhaps produced through the interplay of the tactil-proprioceptive-kinesthetic and vestibular senses with the sense of gravity:

When you arrive at last at towering up like a wall miles high, you will finally know that there aren’t so many things.

(“Zen Letters: the Teachings of Yuanwu”, trans. T. Cleary, pg 83)

Sometimes the reference to the influence of the tactil-proprioceptive-kinesthetic, vestibular, and visual senses in posture is unmistakable in the classics:

To unfurl the red flag of victory over your head, whirl the twin swords behind your ears– if not for a discriminating eye and a familiar hand, how could anyone be able to succeed?

(Blue Cliff Record trans. T. Cleary, 37th case)

It is possible to train to recognize the function of the tactil-proprioceptive-kinesthetic sense, the vestibular sense, and the sense of gravity independent of the visual sense, and perhaps even necessary in order to take up the postures recommended for the practice of Zen meditation, yet allowance for the induction of trance opens a gateway to awareness in the particular senses that underlie the feeling of self in everyday life:

Erickson maintained that trance is a common, everyday occurrence. For example, when waiting for buses and trains, reading or listening, or even being involved in strenuous physical exercise, it’s quite normal to become immersed in the activity and go into a trance state, removed from any other irrelevant stimuli. These states are so common and familiar that most people do not consciously recognize them as hypnotic phenomena.

(Wikipedia, “Milton Erickson”)

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