person dancing with fire, sparks shooting out
PHOTO: JD Weiher

We all space out. We all daydream. When we immerse ourselves in a great novel or a gripping Netflix stream, we are entering a mildly altered state of consciousness.

Whether we realize it or not, we’re all capable of slipping into altered consciousness, also known as the non-ordinary state, or the deep now.

Businesses are still in the pioneering stages of integrating training for these practices into the workplace. Yet huge blocks of unstructured time are already allotted at many tech companies with foosball tables, onsite yoga classes, mindfulness offerings and more.

It’s not on the curriculum at business schools either, yet several high-profile companies have focused resources on new strategic initiatives in this area. Goldman Sachs provides meditation training to employees. Salesforce has installed a meditation room on each floor of one of its San Francisco office buildings. Google gives employees a program called Search Inside Yourself that combines mindfulness meditation with neuroscience research so Googlers can develop “mindful leadership and emotional intelligence tools.”

Other established companies are curious about this trend due to their urgent need for innovative growth strategies, but executive buy-in can be tough. Critics will often point to these programs as being counterintuitive, too New Agey, too risky, or just not serious enough to command budget and resources.

Yet achieving an altered state is something we all do at some point every day. The ability to make this shift is ingrained in our physiological wiring as human beings. In turn, helping teams harness the non-ordinary state can be a powerful enabler for creativity, one that ultimately increases employee satisfaction and effectiveness, while driving innovations for the business.

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Tapping Hidden Powers of the Non-Ordinary State

There are many different paths to achieve non-ordinary states. These include yoga, breathwork, hypnotherapy, biofeedback, isolation tanks and meditation. There is no single technique for achieving a productive state of altered consciousness, just the path that works best for each person, which might include a variety of techniques.  

Deep training in hypnotherapy has taught me, in a very clinical way, how to guide people into a trance state and what they can do once in that state. This training —combined with a background in public health program planning and as a user experience design researcher — has allowed me to develop successful methods for accessing imagination at work.

In UX Design Research we often are engaging research participants in some imagination because many times we are testing low fidelity designs. At PARC we use what we call Probes to test concepts at a very early stage in the design process. We have included a technique we call the Imaginative Visualization Interview that enables participants to access their imaginations to introduce a playful quality into our participatory research design processes. While this technique is not hypnosis, it leverages similar tools that tap into anyone’s natural ability to daydream.

Imaginative visualization involves a marked difference over the direct-interview format. Asking questions engages directly the part of the brain that is logical. Asking participants to imagine scenarios engages the part of the brain that is open and exploratory. While I occupy a research participant with playful visualization, their "thinking" part of the brain is less accessible. Taking participants into their imaginative world soon becomes natural for them.

This technique is not the same thing as meditation, but it has some similarities in form and function. If you've ever experience meditation or hypnosis, you already have some idea of what type of mental state they promote. And, of course, you've certainly daydreamed.

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Accessing Trance States to Enhance Intuition

Kids regularly operate in these trance states. Whatever their parents tell them gets lodged in their subconscious, either by programming a positive pathway to success or by embedding a negative self-image which can persist through adulthood.

Before launching into the imaginative visualization process for business teams, I work with the project manager, team leader or principal investigator — and with the team members themselves — to understand the project’s technical goals and milestones as well as any pertinent information. I then lay out a visualization map and identify critical points with the group where visualization might be most helpful.

imagination through visualization
Figure 1: Process for enabling teams to access increased imagination through guided visualization techniques, including targeted suggestions during heightened states of altered consciousness.

In such a relaxed state, each participant can create a pathway to an imaginative space within his or her own mind’s eye. This is the hypnotic suggestions phase, in which project goals are reinforced in vivid technicolor to chart a positive course for their realization. In this deepened state, the subconscious mind kicks in, opening participants to positive suggestions and mental concepts that support enthusiastic attitudes toward individual creativity and project outcomes.

Finally, imaginative visualizations are promoted to help participants navigate to their intuitive imagination space, where they can explore different solutions to whatever problems on which they're working. The significant breakthrough from this process occurs when the subconscious mind presents each participant with his or her way of "seeing." Participants are completely awake and alert during this period, so they can understand and later integrate their a-ha moments into their workday efforts.

Solutions often emerge from our most relaxed state. Harnessing this state with specific consciousness-altering practices enhances our ability to use it for good in the workplace. By applying such methods, we can shift our attention away from what we are observing at the moment to alternative viewpoints on a given situation until the hidden solution suddenly becomes apparent.