Hypnos, Vol. 27, No. 1, 2000, 23-28
Past-Life Regression – Fact or Fiction?
Artikel af Kaare Claudewitz
Recently, a new form of psychotherapy has become increasingly popular among new age therapists. This type of therapy not only deals with present life problems, but also with memories from so-called ”past lives”.
The therapy usually is called ”past-life therapy” (PLT), ”reincarnation therapy” or sometimes just ”regression therapy”. The term ”multi-incarnation therapy” has emerged in Europe within the last couple of years and refers to a method where the therapist by pressing on some special acupuncture
points on the head enables the patient to enter an altered state of consciousness and in this way he should be able to recall events from a previous life.
The acupuncture points are called ”windows to the sky” and their positions are shown in the book by Felix Mann Treatment of Disease by Acupuncture (1963). More likely, the therapist are using some kind of hypnosis during this kind of therapy. The patient must go to therapy three hours every day for a period of four days in succession. This method of past life therapy was developed by the american healer Chris Criscom, who also founded ”The Light Institute” situated in New Mexico. The famous American actress Shirley MacLaine has among others promoted Criscom´s ideas, and according to her we ourselves choose our parents before we reincarnate into this world. Such a philosophy certainly could cause a lot of unneccessary worry in a patient who for instance has had an abusive father. For example he could speculate: ”Was my traumatic childhood a punishment for something bad I did in a previous life?” or ”Is this due to my karma?”. Indeed, not a very productive way of thinking.
It is not clear what code of ethics these ”multi-incarnation therapists” abide to; apparently no one is member of professional societies such as for example the EAP (European Association of Psychotherapy) or any other recognized organization.
It has become prevalent among these and other new age therapists to work with something called ”the higher self”. During the regression the patient must meet his ”higher self” and ”inner child” (however, not the wellknown ”wounded inner child”, but the ”higher self” in the present incarnation). What is the ”higher self” really? Apparently, there are many definitions; some claim it is the ”true self”, others that it is ”the divine core” or ”the eternal self”. The higher self is ”all-loving, omniscient, and the best adviser in all situations”. If the therapist runs into problems during the regression, he will immediately address the higher self directly and ask what and how and why and when and what to do about it. In some way this resembles asking permission from the subconsciousness during traditional hypnosis, but in my opinion there is a significant difference. If the patient has a hidden ”higher self”, who is he then? The term ”higher self” implies that his normal, conscious self is the lower self. Frequent higher self consultations inevitably has to violate the trust between the patient and the therapist, because they imply that the ordinary self of the patient and the skills of the therapist, do not suffice. There is always a reason if, for example the patient gets stuck and cannot see anything during the regression. Instead of respecting the resistance or asking ”What prevents you from seeing?” these new age therapist will switch to the higher self (or in some cases a ”spirit guide”) that does see. However, the worst of all is perhaps that many of these therapists try to make their patients believe that if only they get in touch with their ”higher self” or ”spirit guide”, then all their problems will quickly be resolved.
Past-life therapy can actually be a very powerful therapeutic technique and obviously it is not suitable for all sorts of patients. For example, we know, that hypnotic suggestions which dissociates the ego never should be applied to psychotic patients. This is one of the reasons why professional hypnotherapists should see with growing concern on this new fashion with past-life regression done by new age therapists with a more or less dubious education. In some cases patients actually have developed serious psychosis where they feel ”possesed” by their former personalities after being treated by such therapists.
Today, it is possible to buy self-hypnosis tapes, where you are guided back to a previous life. Mello (1997) describes how she developed serious depressions and heart problems after listening to such tapes (in one of the three lives she regressed to she apparently died from a heart attack). So, even if self-hypnosis tapes normally are considered as something relatively harmless, a warning of the dangers of experimenting with tapes with past-life regressions should be issued. Such regressions must be guided by capable, trained professionals.
In the USA The Association for Past-Life Research and Therapy was founded in 1980, and today they organize training programs and workshops for therapists and counsellors who has chosen to incorporate past-life techniques into their therapeutic model.
In Europe the Dutch psychologist Hans TenDam in 1984 organized a special training program in past-life therapy for hypnotherapists and psychotherapists. The course was so tough that less than 25 % of the students passed both the theoretical and practical tests and graduated.
It should be emphasized that hypnotic regression to past life is not a new phenomena since it has been known in Europe since 1862. In USA ”past-life hypnosis” became very popular after the amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein in 1956 published the book The Search for Bridey Murphy. The book sold over a million copies. In 1952 Bernstein regressed a young woman to an earlier life. In deep hypnotic trance she told him that her name was Bridey (Bridget) Murphy and that she was born in the Irish town Cork in 1798 as a daughter of a protestant barrister. During the trance she also gave very specific information about her family and her school etc. She even mentioned the name of the local priest. Also, during trance she spoke with an Irish accent.
However, it has not been possible to verify these statements since vital statistics in Ireland do not go back beyond 1864. However, Bridey mentioned two Belfast grocers where she went shopping – Farr´s and Carrigan. After considerable search by the Belfast Chief Librarian, these two grocers were found in a Belfast city directory from 1865 (Ducasse, 1961). Bernstein also asked Bridey about her address in Cork and she answered: ”The Meadows…just the Meadows.” Later, a map from 1801 was found showing an area named Mardike Meadows where some houses were indicated. However, this could be a mere coincidence and later in this article I will mention some of the numerous theories proposed to explain cases of this type.
Jeffrey Iverson published in 1976 a book called More Lives than One about the British hypnotist Arnold Bloxham´s experiments with past-life hypnosis. Bloxham had taped more than 400 subjects´ experiences under past-life regressions. The most famous case was probably with a 40 years old woman, Jane, who in trance told him that her name was Rebecca and that she was a Jewess living in the 12 century in the city of York. Filled with fear in her voice she also told Bloxham that she and her children had been killed by some soldiers in a crypt under a church in the city. It was asserted that the church was positively identified as St. Mary´s Church, especially after a crypt was discovered in this church during a renovation some time after Jane´s regression (no other church in York had a crypt). This discovery caused quite a fuss in the media at the time - apparently here was a genuine proof of reincarnation.
In 1982 I travelled to York to investigate this case further. It turned out that there were three churches with the above-mentioned name and the local priest told me that the TV-team who had made a program about the case together with Bloxham had chosen the church St. Mary´s Castlegate simply because it was the most convenient. Besides, the workmen did not find an early medieval crypt, but a post-medieval vault.
Rebecca also told that the Jews in York wore yellow badges – circles over the hearts. But the yellow circle was first worn in France and Germany after 1215, and in England the Jews did not wear yellow badges but two oblong white strips of cloth, representing the tablets of Moses. Rebecca did also mention that the Jews lived in a ghetto in York, but this statement cannot possible be true, since the first Jewish ghetto was established in Venice in 1516.
If this case offers no proof of reincarnation, why does the woman tell Bloxham such a horrifying story during hypnosis? Unfortunately, Bloxham seem to have payed very little attention to his subjects´ mental problems (he is neither a psychologist or a physician). He is much more concerned with proving the existence of reincarnation (already from childhood he was convinced that he had lived before). Therefore, we can only speculate whether for example traumatic childhood experiences can be the cause of the woman´s gruesome story under hypnosis. Her experiences as ”Rebecca” had in fact been so shocking for her that she collapsed shortly after leaving Bloxham´s office and she was sick some time after (Cranston, 1984).
In 1958 Zolik studied the psychodynamic implications of hypnotic ”previous existence” experiences. Zolik called these experiences ”progignomatic fantasies”.
The Finnish psychiatrist Reima Kampman is amongst the few researchers who have conducted an extensive empirical study of the phenomena of past-life regression (Kampman, 1973). About 450 high school pupils participated in the study, and a total of 78 could enter a deep hypnotic trance. Prior to the experiment the subjects underwent a psychiatric interview. Pupils with previous psychotic episodes or borderline features were excluded from the study. 32 subjects were able to create one or more multiple personalities in trance after they repeatedly were given the following suggestion: ”Go back in time to before you were born, you are somebody else, somewhere else. Tell me what you see”. In deep hypnotic trance the subjects then told that they were living in another time, that they had another name, a different family than in their present life etc., sometimes in very specific details. However, Kampman did not set out to prove some paranormal hypothesis about reincarnation (as for example the Canadian psychiatrist Ian Stevenson has done), his experiment is solely a psychological study of multiple personalities. Still, in one case the subject gave such specific informations about a previous life in a Finnish town, that he could not help himself from checking up on whether there were any truth in the story. Therefore, he travelled to the place the subject had mentioned in hypnosis to inquire whether there had lived a person with the name the subject had given. However, it turned out that the city register was insufficient, and Kampman abandoned any further research into this area.
Kampman found that the subjects who were capable of producing secondary personalities generally were clinically healthier and more adaptive than the group without multiple personalities. The emotional life of the subjects without subidentities was less organized and autistic features were more common in this group. Also, the group of nonmultiple personalities were more repressed and less self-confident than the group with secondary personalities. Kampman claims that if a subject is neurotically disturbed then his ego defenses will be so tied to maintaining the internal balance and the self-control image that the suggestive demands of the hypnotist will be inhibited.
According to Kampman the secondary personalities reflects the features rejected by the present personality, and the suggestion to regress to a time preceding birth allows the subject to project feelings which previously has been suppressed into the past-life story in a creative way. Thus the method can be used with advantage as a therapeutic tool. Kampman regressed a patient with a phobia for open places to a previous life. The patient told in trance that he had been killed during a duel in a plain outside Leningrad. Kampman´s research revealed that the patient´s agoraphobia and the story of his brutal dead was associated with a violent sexual experience the patient long age had repressed.
Kampman mentions that it is vital that the therapist during the regression shows patience and respects possible resistances occurring during the patient´s time travel. He also urges therapists to be careful using this method and he emphasizes that it should not be used by unskilled persons.
Cladder (1986) has in a study shown that past-life regression was an efficient method of treatment for phobics who had received previous unsuccessful treatment by more conventional forms of psychotherapy. Freedman (1997) also found past-life therapy to be effective in the treatment of simple and social phobias and agoraphobia. Often the connections were quite simple, for example, a fear of height was caused by a death by falling in a remote past life or a fear of cats was caused by an attack by a lion in another lifetime. Maesen (1995) reported in a study that past life therapy was efficient in the treatment of Gilles de la Tourette´s syndrom.
Venn (1988) reported that he regressed a young man, Matthew, who was suffering from cardiac neurosis or hypochondriacal chest pain, to a previous life. Matthew then told that his name was Jacques Trecaulte and that he was a French pilot during World War I. In August 1914 he was shot through the chest. Re-experiencing his death in hypnosis gave Matthew the most complete abreaction and his chest pains disappeared. In hypnosis he spoke with a French accent and on some occasions he also spoke a fragmented French. He gave a lot of historical details from this period of time. However, after a closer scrutiny it turned out that 1) all his true statements (for example that Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914) were common knowledge, and 2) that all his other statements, which only after extensive examination of French military archives could be checked, were false (for example that the air force had an airfield named ”Du Pleur”). Venn believes that Matthew´s problem stemmed from a strict upbringing by a very stern father. Conventional psychotherapy, including hypnotic regression to early childhood experiences, did not have much effect on his symptoms. Only when he was regressed to a previous life he was able to show emotions. Past-life therapy provides sufficient distance from reality and allow the expression of taboo thoughts and emotions in a symbolic form.
Past-life therapy in many ways reminds of Leuner´s guided affective imagery (GAI). However, in GAI the patient´s imagination is much more focused on five themes in a scenery (i.e. the meadow, the brook, the mountain, the forest and the house). Still, Leuner also worked with associated imagery where he encouraged the patient to allow the free and spontaneous development of a series of inner pictures, but he points out that this method requires that the patient has a vivid imagination. Puyn (1998) reports that past-lives memories in hypnosis are produced according to suggestions and have significant relations with both imaginative involvement og fantasy proneness. His experiments showed no relationship between the production of past-lives memories and previous beliefs about reincarnation. Spanos (1987) also reported a significant correlation between fantasy proneness and subjects´ ability to recall memories from previous lives. An important distinction between PLT and GAI is that in reincarnation therapy the patient imagine himself as a completely different person or perhaps even as having a different sex, i.e. the sensation of dissociation is considerably stronger.
In the USA it is possible to buy so-called ”past-life discovery cards” with different pictures of people from foreign countries, cities, things og landscapes. The patient is asked to select a picture which in some way affects him and then focus his mind on this picture (the method bears a faint resemblance to C. G. Jung´s technique of active imagination). Then the therapist suggests the patient to go back to the time and place associated with the picture and usually a vivid inner drama takes place. The picture gives ”body” to emotions otherwise difficult to express, and the psychic energy associated with it gets an discharged.
One of my own patients experienced in hypnosis that somebody threw her out of a ship and she started making swimming movements with her arms for several minutes until she ”died” in the water. She exhibited the full range of behaviors occurring in the most dramatic abreactions.
How shall we as therapists relate to such experiences? I personally think that it is important to respect the patient´s faith. If the therapist for example tries to convince a patient who strongly believes in reincarnation that his experience in hypnosis is only a fantasy then there is a great risk of violating the trust between the patient and the therapist. Ask instead whether the experience can have some relations to his present life. On the other hand, if the therapist himself believes in reincarnation, it is of course crucial that he remain as neutral as possible and not tries to ascribe his own opinion to the patient. Spanos (1987) was able to show that if subjects prehypnotically were informed that it is not uncommen for people to have been of different sexes or to have lived in exotic cultures in past lives, then this information significantly influenced the contents of their story.
We have to conclude that nearly all accounts of past lives in hypnosis are fantasy-constructions. Only a few reports, which cannot easily be dismissed as mere fantasy, remains. Stevenson (1974) describes a case, where a subject regressed to a ”previous life” could speak in a language (Swedish) unknown to her in the waking state. This phenomena is known as xenoglossy. Another case was reported by Tarazi (1990). Her patient, a 60-years old woman, had undergone past-life hypnotic regressions in a group of amateur hypnotist and this resulted in her having nightmares and unpleasant daytime flashbacks to a life as a Spanish woman called ”Antonia”. In hypnosis she told Tarazi that ”Antonia” was born in 1555. She mentioned the names of members of her family and gave a lot of historical informations from the time. She told that she was arrested in 1584 by the Spanish Inquisition because her uncle had been a heretic. However, she submitted completely to whatever the Inquisitors demanded of her and was released after having paid a heavy fine. Contrary to the previous mentioned cases Tarazi did not find any false historical statements in ”Antonia´s” story. Much of her information could only be found in old, obscure Spanish sources (as for example the names of a couple of her friends arrested by the Inquisition in 1585), and some were located in Spanish archives. Tarazi visited dozens of libraries and universities, travelled to Spain, North Africa and the Caribbean and verified well over a hundred facts. Tarazi concludes that the evidences suggest that the subject could only have obtained all her knowledge in some kind of paranormal way.
If these two cases cannot be dismissed as a result of mere fantasy production, how can we then explain them? First of all reincarnation is only one of several possible theories to explain such cases. However, I will not go into a specific discussion of other plausible theories, but just summarize some of them here: 1) Cryptomnesia, 2) Genetic memory, 3) Role playing, 4) Coincidences 5) ESP (telepathy or clairvoyance). Controlled experimental studies have shown that hypnotic suggestions significantly improves ESP performance, i.e. hypnosis may very well be a psi-conducive state (Fahler & Cadoret, 1958; Casler, 1962; Van De Castle, 1969; Sargent, 1978).
Hopefully, further research into the subject will unravel some of the many unanswared questions of ”past-life hypnosis”, but at this point it seems that past-life therapy can be incorporated as a usefull tool in a clinical practice.
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