by Joshua Hennen
"First you will experience progressive relaxation " the past life regression therapist explained to our small group. Her tone was calming as she described what our bodily responses would likely be to hypnosis. She continued "There will be changes in your breathing it will become more shallow. You may have dryness of mouth and your lips and eyes will have a tendency to quiver." Her maternal instincts and assurances that she would guarantee our safety while in the hypnotic state were most comforting.
There followed these admonitions: "Don’t force it [the descent into hypnosis]; trust what thoughts come to you; put aside any preconceived notions …."
Again, the manner of her speech was smooth, deliberate, and soothing.
Continuing further, our mentor gave us the itinerary for our journey to the past. It consisted of:
Entering a meditative state
A deepening trance by counting
The journey to the past using guided imagery
Integration [of those past observations]
Coming back to the present
Finally, our experience was set to begin. With parting words, she told us to "think about what you want to happen, honor your experiences, and pray for protection to any god that is dear to your heart."
All of the assemblants bowed their heads on cue and spent 30 seconds or so praying. Now we would experience that which we were seeking, a journey to a previous life. First however, let’s explore the background of this modern cultural phenomenon.
The History of Past Life Regression Therapy
Since the 19th-century, elements of metaphysics—the branch of philosophy that examines the relationship between mind and matter—have found a happy home in the New Age movement. This modern manifestation of self-help, spiritualism, astrology, and alternative medicine is the product of 1960s youth rebellion and continues to enjoy life from its aged adherents. Undoubtedly, this development was propelled in part by the 1950s book, The Search for Bridey Murphy. The author, Morey Bernstein, was both a businessman and amateur hypnotist who made the sensational claim that a Colorado housewife had revealed a past life as a 19th-century Irishwoman while under a hypnotic state.
The book was an overnight bestseller and revealed a large American appetite for belief systems that embraced the concept of "transmigration of the soul," or reincarnation. Being a staple belief for most eastern religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, it rarely focuses on traveling back in time to before one’s birth. This modern technique is usually performed under hypnosis and done for psychotherapeutic or spiritual reasons.
Why would a person desire to return to past lives, even if only in the mind? Many people have utilized past life regression as a means to discover the sources of behaviors, fears, or other harmful elements in their lives. Why do some people have an abnormal fear of water? Is it because some of them may have drowned in a past life and their phobia continues into the present?
So the questions that I had were these: Does PLR (past life regression) uncover clues about a previous life as forwarded by proponents, or does the hypnotic state merely open the mind to fantasies and dreams that a skillful hypnotist can manipulate? And finally, is there any harm to the human subject of this activity if either one of the two cases previously mentioned is correct?
To determine the answers to these questions for myself and for Hennen’s Observer, I decided to undergo hypnosis and regress to a previous life.
From the Beginning
In order to paint a lasting and complete picture of my investigation, I think it would be appropriate to detail my observations starting from the beginning.
I took ample time to study the small, interior room of a New Age bookstore where the event was to be held. There were no windows and the décor was as plain as any modern building; commercial grade carpeting, flat, off-white paint on the drywall, and a suspended ceiling with fluorescent lights. I was there because I had responded to an advertisement for a group past life regression workshop, and because there is a seeming shortage of comfortable seats in the world, the participants were provided with mol-ded plastic ones. About fifteen eager patients attended that day and apart from myself, were all women.
The therapist gave her real name but preferred her "spiritual name," Prima. Our instructor and the woman to whom we would entrust our hypnotized personalities was rail thin, had long, dark hair, and was of Eastern European extraction. Her attire was old fashioned and eclectic, but I hadn’t gone there to see high fashion.
With quiet confidence, she introduced herself to the group and explained that it is necessary to get "control of the mind to obtain spiritual growth." But as a way of warming up her patients, Prima gave the account of her first group PLR session as a patient. She smiled warmly as she explained how at the first sight of her previous life, she was astonished to learn that she had had hairy feet! In actuality, she was a male hunter wearing animal hide boots in some forest. Imagine that, I chuckled to myself. How fitting that the soul of a brutish hunter from long ago found its way into Prima, our bespectacled therapist!
Proceeding into her introductory remarks, we were told that every person has to answer the fundamental question, "Who am I?" She then asked the group, "Who believes in reincarnation?" Everyone raised her hand except me, because I didn’t. And so she addressed some of the common objections that nonbelievers have to the thought of reincarnation. For instance, Prima attacked the notion that because one can’t see the soul, that means that there is no soul. "Not believing is like saying to a doctor that you don’t have any kidneys because you have never seen your kidneys," she said tri-umphantly. Other examples were given to drive home the point.
She next gave some of the philosophical underpinnings to reincarnation, the various aspects of the human condition as they relate to past lives, and so forth. But rather than dwell on these more intricate and involved discussions of weightier matters, I will proceed to the details of the hypnosis and regression to before my birth.
Most of the occupants of the small room were anxious about their upcoming adventure, so our soon-to-be guide during the experience gave us some pointers as to what to expect. These were detailed in the introduction to this story.
The process of going into a hypnotic state is very similar to the way that it is portrayed in the movies. The patient acclimates himself to his surroundings, clears his mind, and keeps his eyes closed.
I was able to maintain a relatively "clear mind," my objectivity and the uncomfortable plastic chair notwithstanding. But as for repose, we were all given the opportunity to find some place in the room to relax apart from the seats. Some actually chose to lay on the floor.
So while we were "clearing the decks" of mental activity, Prima began whispering suggestions that we become calm, peaceful, and relaxed. She repeated these sayings over and over for about ten minutes. Eventually, she told us that we were calm and relaxed. Accompanying our transition to a more pliable mindset was a low, nondescript form of meditation music that was supplied by our host with the aid of a small CD player.
We were (or at least I was) finally relaxed. Next, we were encouraged to hold our arms out in front of our bodies, hands open and palms facing each other.
We were not hypnotized at this point, merely relaxed. But as we held our arms out, she said repeatedly, "You feel your hands wanting to come together. You feel your hands slowly coming together." And as one might expect, my hands were together in short order. That was visual proof that her subjects were able to receive her directions.
From there, our therapist informed us that she would begin counting from one to ten. On the number ten, we would be in a deep sleep, or hypnosis.
Many have wondered what it is like to be hypnotized. In my instance, it was neither a state of full awareness and neither was it a state of unconscious sleep. While I was aware of my surroundings and could have conceivably awakened myself at any time, I lacked the desire to do so. But that is not to say that I had no conscious thoughts. The entire time I was rational, though highly susceptible to suggestion.
Prima, having no doubt performed this exercise hundreds of times, began skillfully taking us through a series of carefully staged questions and instructions.
Initially, we were told to imagine ourselves floating from our bodies in that room and to imagine ourselves looking down upon the scene. Then, we should float skyward to the clouds and up into outer space until we could see the planet Earth.
We were talked back to Earth, but not told exactly where or when we would return to solid ground. It was understood from her instructions that this would be dictated by our previous lives.
My Former Life
As I descended my heavenly vantage point to rejoin mere land dwellers, I returned, not to where I had began, but to the country of England. It was there that my feet were planted on terra firma and it was there that Prima asked us to begin our exploration of our former selves. We began by observing our feet. Mine were clad with tan, leather shoes that laced from the top. They were old fashioned and plain, meant for lots of walking, but nimble enough for dancing. They looked well worn, and I began understanding why as I continued looking up my legs to realize that I was wearing black and red checkered stockings. But that was not all.
I was walking through a sparse forest, the kind that grows in narrow strips between cultivated fields. Following a well-worn path and loosely trailing a wagon train pulled by draft animals, it was clear who I was.
My former life was as a solitary, two-bit, traveling clown in 19th-century England and at the time, I was following my troupe.
Upon the urging of our guide during this excursion, who was always present to ask us questions and give directions, I assessed the thoughts and memories of my life as a traveling clown.
They were, to say a word, pathetic. I recollected performing with little enthusiasm for thinly populated and darkly lit taverns in the countryside. Most of the bar goers didn’t even take note of my existence, let alone my efforts at mirth making. But that didn’t matter. I had resolved long ago that that was my mode of life and that I could do nothing else. Ultimately, it was a life of quiet and resigned desperation.
Soon enough, our therapist asked us to go to our individual homes in our past lives, in order to determine more about who we were.
My home was in a relatively large city, entombed far back into the crooked bowls of those narrow secondary streets of In-dustrial England in the 1800s. To be more precise, my quarters were down a few steps from ground level into a small apartment that was half underground, almost like a basement. It was part of a much taller building and surrounded by the same. It was most likely that that street from which it was accessed never saw the sun.
"Take a look around. What is your furniture like," our unseen goddess queried.
My accommodations were simple and crude, with a long, wooden table, two benches on either side of that, and a few mismatched and beat up pieces of furniture. The kitchen, dining room, and living room shared the same space.
I learned that my only companion was a golden retriever. He pretty much tagged along wherever I went and shared the home with me. Prima asked about a family, but I had none, save the dog. I had no wife or children and my parents were dead.
inally, we would explore what I later believed to be the most interesting step in our journey: our deaths.
From Prima’s leading questions, I learned that I died at a young age, approximately forty-nine, although that may not have been so young then.
I lay in a bed, suffering some illness that would be my demise. What was the illness? I don’t know. Whatever it was, it was not terribly painful. There was only one friend in the room with me, and he stood in the corner watching with his hat in his hand. He was another traveling performer and was more of an associate than a friend. My dog had already died by that time.
Finally, we progressed to the time of our births and brought safely to the present.
My ordeal as a 19th-century traveling clown followed my current life in some of its broadest outlines. I found it very useful in identifying insecurities and motivations behind my thoughts and actions. My rebirth also gave me an opportunity to assess how I could change the script of my life. So from that vantage point, it was a useful and empowering exercise.
Was it truly a past life? I did not and do not believe that it was. There was no memory that I could not easily trace to my own conscious thoughts. Those thoughts were, however, imaginatively reconstructed with the help of my mind and the suggestive nature of my therapist’s questions.
While I did not believe that it was a past life, some in that group believed that they had experienced one of their own. One large woman was sobbing when we came out of hypnosis and explained that in her former life, she had been starved to death in a Nazi concentration camp. This, in her mind, was the perfect rationalization for her compulsive need to eat, i.e., for fear that she would starve again.
So is it harmful to the patient to believe something that may not be true, even if it helps him?