Changing Minds
Words by Sarah Kwong

I had forgotten that my dog had died. My husband and I were hiking through the hills and humidity of Hong Kong, and I had forgotten.

We were discussing our pending trip back to England, and I was fantasizing aloud about taking my family's sweet-natured Labrador to the river; how we'd watch her navigate the slippery pebbles and plonk herself down in the shallow end. A bloated pause hung in the air. We clambered up another rock. "We can't...she's not..." my husband said quietly, his face a tableau of kindness and sorrow. He had been gentle, but the realisation had not. It rammed into my chest like a sawn-off tree trunk. I realised, with glassy marbles for eyes, that no, we couldn't take her to the river. She had been dead for six months, and I had hidden that memory from myself, completely out of view.

I had spent the past few months testing the waters of spirituality. A friend of mine was fairly 'far' into her spiritual journey, and had inspired me to stop inspecting the crystal-clear surface and start peering at the choppy current beneath to find a state of equilibrium. I did the reading and the uncomfortable introspective investigating, and I realised that I had not been telling myself the whole truth about who I was. Instead of containing the thoughts or behaviours I felt embarrassed about the minute they rose up, as if to deny their existence and by turn their tacit implications about me, I let them lap back and forth. Once this became comfortable, I found myself admitting aloud and unabridged for the first time that I had control issues. I had taken my cautiously dipped toe and the rest of my body and plunged right in, drenched and all the better for it. This immersion brought unexpected revelations at unexpected times, including my beloved late dog who I hadn't grieved for at the time of her death but instead tucked away to save me from hurt. Discoveries, juicy and rewarding enough in their singleness, quickly propagated and I became hooked on catharsis.

Cue hypnotherapy. Based on the deep-sea diving I had done in my mind, I knew that the issues I was failing to get a hold on in my daily life - my unwieldy relationship with food and my anxiety in certain spaces, to name a few - were not caused by the obvious suspects I had wasted so much time grappling with. My tricky relationship with food was nothing to do with food, my anxiety not about the orientation of a room. Everything ran deeper.

In my first hypnotherapy session, the therapist explained the subconscious to me. Up until that point, I had understood the subconscious to be this thing vaguely related to dreaming, and a useful vehicle on which behaviour needing justification or a temporary cloak could hitch a ride. You know, 'maybe I dislike her because subconsciously I'm jealous'. We talk about the subconscious with a mix of caution and detachment, like it is some wild, omniscient creature that we can't take ownership of simply because we can’t see it. 'Subconsciously', we say. 'Underneath'. Underneath where? We don't know. We just know it’s something somewhere.

That something is neither mystical or mythical but solid and sound. From the age of seven, when we have developed analytical minds, we longer simply observe facts ('yesterday I ate ice cream'), but start to form beliefs and expectations around them ('ice cream is a treat'), shaped by people around us and our environment. Once facts pass through this critical filter and transform into beliefs, they are filed away in the endless records room that is our subconscious. Sometimes an event in our daily lives will pull a trigger, causing a record in the subconscious to queue itself up and play. The memory is replayed and we feel the way we did when the record was created, even if we're years older and wise to, or removed from, the initial situation. The power to open and change those records is ours, but sometimes we need a helping hand to do so.

Luckily, that hand does not belong to a severe-looking hypnotist snapping their fingers and sending you into a debilitating, involuntary trance as you sit on stage. That is, being in the state of hypnosis is not what mass media would have us believe. Comparable to the yogic shavasana, the state of hypnosis is that moment when you're on the brink of falling asleep but are subconsciously aware. Once you have reached this state (on a sofa, not a stage), your hypnotherapist invites you to participate - answer questions, make decisions, describe what you see or feel. Afterwards, you unpack it together.

For me, the contents are always immense. Although I originally lugged very specific issues onto the sofa, what we continue to deduce and distill are precious, weighty gems, relevant to all aspects of my life. Since I began therapy, I have consoled many of my former selves and members of my family, including a confused six-year-old me in a Minnie Mouse jumper and my parents wearing 1970s clothes, disappointment in their eyes. Like most people, the only other time I'd seen myself at former ages was in photographs. But it turns out, I'd never really seen myself. I know this now because I had never stood before the girl at ages 6, 10, 13, 18, looked into her eyes, and asked her what was wrong.

In connecting with these 'mes', I have come to understand things about myself I had never even considered before. Traits and behaviours that had caused me to screw up my nose, so foreign they seemed to me, had actually long been entombed under the skin I'd chosen for myself. Escapist, people-pleaser, weight-bearer. The links between my ‘daily’ issues and these deeper diagnoses were only obvious when I registered them honestly, knowingly, completely. Now, with the help of my subconscious - no longer an alien but a prized limb, a partner, a constant - and my therapist, I am focused on healing them. Every session, I let go of feelings (reluctantly and often with tears gathering at the corners of my closed eyes) that I have relied on for so long despite, or perhaps because of, their toxicity. I remove the uncomfortably comfortable labels I had willingly worn for years, no longer dogmatic in my sense of self.

That’s the power of the subconscious; truths can become untrue. Murakami once wrote of how he carried his ‘stubborn, uncooperative, often self-centered nature’ around like an ‘old suitcase’, not because he liked the contents, but because there was nothing else he was supposed to carry and he had grown attached to it. The first time I tapped into my subconscious, I stopped blindly lugging my old suitcase around and opened it up, let each record play no matter how painful. That’s how we change the record. That’s how we change our minds.

Dr. Sarah Kwong is a writer and copyeditor living in Hong Kong.
She writes about a variety of topics but is most passionate about language, culture, and identity.

Created by Duncan Woods & Seb Camilleri