saturn return ii: brokeness & hypnosis
As the song plowed into its bridge — “They gave me a useless education / And a subprime loan / On a craftsman home!” — laughter filled the room. Canned, of course: How could anyone laugh at someone so miserable, and about such shallow, middle-class problems? The audience took a second to decide whether or not they should clap.
i headed home for the holidays earlier than usual this year. once my bags were packed, i called United Cab, whom all of new orleans implicitly and warily trusts, for a ride to the airport. the line was mysteriously and continuously busy. with mounting panic, i rang their main competitor, n’awlins where y’at cab company, and paced in front of my house for thirty minutes, waiting. cabs usually took five to ten. i was in a state another fifteen minutes later, when my landlords, morgan and debby, pulled up. i thought i was doomed to miss my flight, and was already explaining the situation to my other crazy neighbor, denise.
“aw, get in. i’ll bring you,” morgan said, wearily waving a jumbo styrofoam cup containing the last slushy third of a white russian daiquiri. after guiltily hesitating for a moment, i climbed in the truck. “shucks, man. thanks. i owe you one,” i said with gravity and genuine sincerity. “fuck you, mother fucker! you owe me three!” as we swerved onto magazine street, his truck was nearly side-swiped by a black minivan bearing the dancing crawfish emblem of n’awlins where y’at cab co.
it was nearly five and traffic was starting to congest. morgan took a route whose logistic expediency i immediately questioned, but only in silence. he is thirty years my senior, has lived here some five times longer, and was slurry and edified by the daiquiri. besides, he’s one of the dastardliest scoundrels i have ever met, and i was hoping there was a miraculous trick up his sleeve. three improbable and entertaining shortcuts were attempted, but they were desperate improvisations. i believe we ultimately broke even — when i leapt from his car at the terminal, my flight was to depart in twenty minutes. acting as though i’d been in a car accident enroute, i cut to the front of TSA without provoking a riot. after sprinting to the gate with my shoes in one hand and belt in the other, i caught my breath in the 747’s last available seat.
in chicago, i waited twenty nervous minutes at the baggage claim for the conveyor belt to spit out my bedraggled suitcase. i’d discovered a shockingly large tear at its bottom while waiting for the cab and hastily covered it with layers of duct tape, but it almost immediately started peeling off en masse. were my camera and dopp kit spilling into the bowels of the airplane? worse, the rolling handle had gotten stuck from overloading on my previous trip and never came back out. to pull it along i had to take off my belt, loop it through a another handle, and drag it behind me, muttering.
it was that time of year. generally speaking, i’m a scrooge about the holidays. i’d just turned 29. none of my own friends made it to my joint birthday party, and a week later i’d spent thanksgiving alone, binge-eating fruit snacks. this was fitting: 28 had been the most ridiculous year of my life. a month prior i’d been kicked out of my First Real Art & Music Studio after a single weekend. this felt like a spectacular and elaborate curse, but was mostly a harsh blessing: i wasn’t making enough money to afford one in the first place, even provided a miracle deal. had i kept it, i’d be stuck in a house with no furniture, unable to afford supplies.
i’d come home early to photograph my kind-of high school ex-girlfriend’s wedding. weddings inevitably entail fielding repeated inquires about what you’ve been up to. this one included a contingent of people from the past who expected Great Things of me. when they asked, “breakin’ hearts” was my answer, but a more honest reply would’ve been “unrelenting, tragicomic picaresques.” my studio weekend and drunken airport chauffeur were but the most recent.
the wedding festivities went on for four days straight. i drank liberally, smoked peace pipes, and stayed out till the wee hours of the morning with estranged friends from grade school. the usual wedding cocktail — blasts from the past + inebriated + major life changes — tripped me out like they would anyone. at the wedding itself, i felt half-welcome and second-fiddle to a surprise second photographer (“she’s the boss,” the bride said as an introduction). two hours into the reception, i finally hit a wall and called my dad to pick me up, too exhaustedly drunk to hang around any longer. it felt like being spit out of a vortex.
for the next week i went into full-on hibernation mode. my hometown is freezing and dark. one suddenly has lots of idle time at home. i’m reading end-of-year critics’ polls, going on torrent sites, stockpiling new music, movies, books. meanwhile, the christmas atmosphere is colliding with the anticipation of the new year. i’m predisposed to making resolutions, so i’m getting back on those same torrent sites to download self-help books and even apps that might help, too.
my parents love to call one resolution-worthy item to my attention: stop incessantly playing with my hair. i’m no slouch when it comes to nervous habits. i also frenetically jiggle my feet in rhythm, bite my knuckles, and though it’s not necessarily nervous, walk like a duck. for at least a few years, hypnosis has seemed like a useful tool in surmounting these and other minor compulsions. my parents and two uncles, lifelong smokers all, effortlessly quit cold-turkey after a treatment of laser acupuncture hypnosis. (it sounds comically futuristic, but was relatively simple and inexpensive). plus, i love victorian magician posters. hey! many of those guys were hypnotists!
since i was already there, i looked up hypnosis on the pirate bay. i found that a guy named paul mckenna had a bit of a monopoly going. i googled him and read an article, then another, and another, and another.i loved that most mentioned how the gucci suits he wore never seemed to do much for him. he’s big in britain: simon cowell’s best man, pals with with richard branson and sting. he’d teamed up with richard bandler, the inventor of NLP, to create his programs. i already had a cursory familiarity with from reading about pick-up artists. most of mckenna’s programs approach the most common and lucrative human maladies with an “i can make you” formula: *i can make you rich*, *sleep*, *thin*, etc. though i’m essentially comfortable with my paunch — i feel it’s justified by my ability to cook from most girls i know — i downloaded everything.
i wasn’t, however, immediately in the mood to be hypnotized. i didn’t know if the guy was going to have me walking around the house like a zombie, knocking over the christmas tree, upsetting my mom. so i looked for a program that included an ebook to skim first. *i can make you rich* had one. as we’ve established, i’m broke. bingo! i skimmed the first few chapters. typical tony robbins-esque stuff, including charts and self-surveys like this:
i’m skimming, so i’m answering these in my head. fairly routine, as far as liberal arts graduates go:
1 people with money live on a different plane of existence.
2 money makes people want even more money.
3 i’d have more money if i were more focused, a specialist.
4 my parents always thought money would inoculate us from life’s tempests. #lol
5 money causes the bulk of society’s problems.
6 i’m afraid that if i had more money i would lose touch with what deeply matters to me.
7 money is a royal pain in the ass.
8 to have more money, i would need to make a really concerted effort.
10 if i were really rich, i would figure out if the point of diminishing returns in terms of happiness and income was and write about how there should be a quasi-socialistic cutoff for even richer motherfuckers.
11 my biggest fear about money is never having any more than i have now.
12 money is hard to come by if you don’t relinquish half of your waking hours to its pursuit.
my studio disaster was instructive. it’d made me realize that the best thing i could do for myself creatively, of all things, was make some goddamn money. and as much as i was loath to admit it, there was something about this silly book that had me thinking in a new way. so, the following night, i waited till the rest of my family was asleep — i mean, this is a pretty weird thing to do, and one doesn’t want to be interrupted and explain oneself — got on the couch, put on some headphones, and…had to download an app to play a windows media file on the iphone. *then* i started the 25-minute hypnosis.
the hypnosis begins with a warning to not hypnotize yourself “whilst driving or operating heavy machinery.” i was immediately struck by the robin leach tinge to mckenna’s voice, which, to put it mildly, lends an extra piquancy to a program about getting *riiich*. he then properly commences with a run-on sentence: “welcome to the hypnosis CD to program your mind to make you rich.” at this early juncture, i’m going into this bemused. i realize that what i’m doing is ridiculous. but i’m also generally more open-minded than most when it comes to kooky shit like this. if, in twenty-five minutes, hypnosis turns out to be a bunch of baloney, i’ll throw it away and look back only when telling the story over beers. so for now, i’m game. i’m, like, really trying to go along with this.
first, you get relaxed and focus on your breathing. oh! so this is like — and perhaps a bridge to — guided meditation, another item on my list of resolutions. “all *you* have to do…*is relax.*” how refreshing, after the self-flagellation that accompanies new years resolutions! some hypnotist bedside manner follows: “you’ll remain fully alert — but there *will* be changes.” hypnosis is most fun, and mckenna’s at his best, when vague in manner of a magician: “you don’t need to listen to this consciously. your unconscious will hear *all you need to hear*.” mckenna worked as a radio host before turning to hypnosis full-time. both his voice and the funny, soothing music behind it call to mind ads for caribbean cruises and chocolate commercials. it’s the voice that’s normally trying to manipulate us into buying luxury products. i loathe that voice with such vitriol that i’m amazed to be giving it the benefit of the doubt.
once you’re good and relaxed, mckenna’s voice slows down to “go with your breathing.” after a few seconds of silence, from nowhere, in your left ear: “…and your mind has become *very sensitive* to my suggestions that help you most.” after more pregnant silence, he’s reciting money mantras in one ear, and telling a fable in the other. instantly, all kinds of red — or at least yellow — flags started flying. i mean, unless you’re an investment banker or something, a hypnotist-robin leach intoning “money is *goooood*” in your ear feels creepy. it got worse before it got better. my favorite part of relating this episode to friends is when i get to imitate mckenna’s voice. this is when you “go into the control room in your mind, find the dial marked financial thermometer…and turn it up” — twice. you’re permitted the brief indulgence of imagining what your life would be like if you were spectacularly wealthy, before turning back down to something reasonable, higher than wherever you presently are.
for a significant portion of the program, he has you re-imagine your childhood as one where money was no object, surrounded by “people who believed in you.” then you meditate on your skills that people could pay for, search new ways of making money “effortlessly flow to you,” and tell your mind to notice these opportunities in daily life. you imagine your ideal self, living out your ideal day. then, the oldest NLP tricks in the books: envisioning what good things big and bright, and what bad things dim and tiny, putting yourself in the body of someone wealthy you admire and seeing life through their eyes, etc.
but from this came something unexpected and, to me, somewhat profound.
i really had to think hard to come up with wealthy people i admired. i thought back to that earlier fill-in-the-blank question from mckenna’s book: “people with money _____.” when i think of “people with money,” the first image that comes to mind is the cover of *sgt. pepper’s*, but comprised of rich assholes. the richest ones are at the back. among them, a third are truly evil — rupert murdoch, bernie madoff, and a butt-buddy of the hypnotist himself, simon cowell. in the next row: kanye west, joel osteen, billie joe from green day. the more benign among them third lurk on the periphery: richard branson, bill gates, warren buffet. they might actually be okay people, but they practically inhibit another entirely unfathomable universe.
never mind all them, though. the front two rows are the important ones. those are comprised of familiar archetypes to whom, until this little hypnosis sesh, i hadn’t given much thought. they’re people from my hometown. their ranks include mostly harmless, silent-majority upper-middle-class midwesterners. they live in suburban mcmansions, hang thomas kinkades in the living room, work long hours in cubicles, drive BMWs, etc. their younger counterparts filled the middle row. they’re people i met in college. lots of pastel shirts with polo logos, more BMWs.
the revelatory aspect of this was: i’ve been sprinting in the opposite direction of everyone in this picture since i was twelve years old. so the *real* answer to that fill-in-the-blank question was probably more something like “people with money have no taste and spend their lives working soul-sucking jobs.” from here, it didn’t take a giant leap to consider that, you know, *maybe* part of the reason i was on the cusp of thirty and still deeply broke was a fairly deep mistrust of *the very thing required for survival in western civilization*.
this was the seed of a minor epiphany. of course, i already ”unconsciously” knew all of this, but had never saw it in this light. during mckenna’s hypnosis, my understanding of the unconscious bifurcated. mckenna’s unconscious is different from the dark, ineffable unconscious of jung or freud. mckenna — and perhaps, hypnosis — works more with what’s *semi-*conscious. you’re noticing things you think about or say to yourself, especially habitually, but might only rarely acknowledge or discuss. this strata is far more accessible, and thus, i imagine, easier to work with.
the hypnosis’ concluding act turns back towards a guided meditation on abundance. you’re to notice where “you’re already rich” in ways that have nothing to do with money. partly because it contrasts so sharply with the aforementioned wolf of wall street-esque “financial thermometer” scene, i felt shockingly receptive to it. standing alone, it reads like new-agey mumbo jumbo, but in context, and in state, read by two voices in simultaneity, it sounds almost beautiful:
*“each moment is filled with the energy of life, and each moment is an opportunity to appreciate the uniqueness it offers. the endless flow of life can be a great comfort to us. you are grateful for all the wealth and prosperity in your life. creating money becomes effortless, a natural outcome of the way you think and act. you are the source of your own abundance. you focus on what you love and attract it to you. your thoughts are loving and positive. each breath is a work of art unfolding.”*
to conclude, mckenna tells the familiar fable of the wealthy businessmen who charters a fishing boat and patronizingly shares with the happy fisherman his “secret to success:” “double your prices, hire more boats, command a fleet, and pay others to do your work for you.” when the fisherman sagely asks why he’d want to go through all the trouble, the businessman invalidates himself by saying, “so you can spend your days fishing and relaxing in the sun.” this, of course, is what the fisherman had been doing all along.
from there, mckenna makes some concluding remarks, then counts down from ten to have you wake up, relaxed, alert, and energized. and the first time i woke up, it did feel amazing. but would it last?