REMEMBRANCE OF TRAUMAS PAST
Discovering past lives through hypnosis
If Jan’s eyes were open, she would see an overcast Miami sky. But her sharp blue eyes are shut tight, and the soothing voice of psychiatrist and hypnotist Brian Weiss guides her through a different sort of scene. Travelling down a deep, dark set of stairs, Jan enters a wondrous garden full of flowers and shade trees. Weiss tells Jan to look down at her feet. Is she wearing sandals? Animal skins? Clearly, he is not referring to the professionally dressed woman sitting zoned out in trousers, a white blouse, and red patent-leather pumps. Jan opens her mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. Then, slowly, haltingly, she begins to recount a story of life as a man in ancient Greece.
“I see columns,” she says her voice almost a whisper. A faint smile crosses her face as she recognizes the woman she knows in this lifetime as Lydia: “Her name is Claudia and we have a son… We’re married. I want to say my son’s name is Cyrus… I’m a soldier. I die in battle. I mean, I don’t live my life out with her….”
Impatient, Weiss instructs her to fast forward to the time of death. “I’m stabbed in battle,” Jan blurts out. “It’s hand-to-hand. He’s so close, the soldier who kills me! I can see him. I’m looking in his eyes.”
Whoa! Is this the next step in the evolution of psychoanalysis? Sigmund Freud taught us to look back to early childhood; Otto Rank returned us to the womb. And now a small but growing number of therapists are taking us back even farther. Through hypnosis and guided meditations, they regress their patients to past lives and death experiences whose traumas, they claim, live on as “memories of the soul.” It works like this: A man with persistent neck pains sees himself guillotined in eighteenth-century France. And voila! His neck pain disappears. Dismissed by critics as a gross misuse of hypnosis, past-life therapy is being hailed by some as a fast and effective treatment for migraines, arthritis, phobias, asthma, insomnia, anxiety, and other problems. Its practitioners claim they can accomplish in hours what often takes years to uncover in traditional psychoanalysis.
And their assertions, right or wrong, are grounded in the millennia-old art of hypnosis. Credited with helping patients tap their own healing powers, hypnosis can, according to advocates, aid in the release of endorphins (neurochemicals that relieve pain), fight infection, and widen blood vessels. According to another theory, it alters awareness so that the brain no longer reacts to pain or nausea. There is even speculation that hypnosis may open a direct line to the limbic system, the brain’s repository of emotion and memory.
Past-life therapists say hypnosis is so penetrating, it can even peel away lives like the layers of an onion, revealing levels of existence of which patients are not generally aware. While past lives “revealed” through hypnosis would seem to presupppose a belief in reincarnation , however, some of past-life therapy’s strongest advocates stop short of conversion. Instead, say many past-life therapists, their patients’ so-called past lives are generated through the special power of hypnosis; the past-life memories themselves are powerful metaphors of the unconscious, helpful to past-life therapy in the same way that traditional dreams shed light on buried thoughts and psychosis during traditional psychotherapy and analysis.
“It’s valuable material, which is what I point out to patients when they ask me, ‘Is it real, or did I imagine it?’ ” says Garrett Oppenheim, a certified psychotherapist in Tappan, New York. “The material is just as valuable in therapy either way. You can take it literally or metaphorically. It comes from their unconscious. It has a certain reality for them, and it has a reality therapeutically because it expresses their problems and needs.”
The most famous hypnotic regression case of all time, of course, had nothing to do with therapy. It was about reincarnation, plain and simple. Bridey Murphy was the nineteenth-century Irish woman who emerged whenever a Denver housewife named Virginia Tighe was hypnotized by candlelight back in the early 1950s. Tighe’s descriptions of life in early-nineteenth-century Cork, Ireland, were hailed for their vivid and seemingly accurate details. When Morey Bernstein, Tighe’s neighbor and amateur hypnotist, wrote an account of their sessions, his famous book, The Search for Bridey Murphy, provoked a worldwide debate about reincarnation.
It also attracted some of past-life therapy’s first practitioners. Those early therapists went on to form the California-based Association for Past-Life Research and Therapies (APRT), an international organization with some 700 members. The field, as represented by APRT is not particularly strong on “quality control,” according to some of its critics. After all, hypnotherapy does not require a license in California—the state that many past-life therapists call home. And APRT’s membership roster includes several astrologers, New Age channelers, and one doorman.
But Brian Weiss’s credentials are impeccable. A magna cum laude graduate of Columbia University and Yale Medical School, he is as traditionally trained and left-brained as any medical doctor in the United States. Until July 1990, he was chairman of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami, where he enjoyed a national reputation as a psychopharmacologist.
But that’s Weiss’s past life.
Once, he would have found such testimony as Jan’s hard to swallow. Like the story about her past life as a frail servant girl in a long-ago Middle Eastern country. Doomed to a hopeless existence, Jan saw herself riding in a wagon filled with wet straw. It overturned and she died, trapped and suffocating beneath the straw. After “reliving” this episode on Weiss’s white leather sofa, her chronic asthma dissipated. For the first time in years, she can sleep through the night without waking up, gasping for air.
Weiss, 48, recounts this story and others like it without batting an eye. Indeed, he says that his own wife, Carole, was once a medieval European man fatally clubbed in the left temple. This insight, garnered during hypnosis, delivered instant relief from premenstrual migraine headaches that have plagued her for years.
Weiss’s transformation began one day in 1980 when a young woman walked into his office on the referral of another physician. “Catherine” suffered from a host of fears and phobias that left her sleepless, always on guard against the next panic attack. Eighteen months of intensive and traditional psychotherapy failed to bring any significant results. Though Catherine seemed to understand the roots of her anxieties, she showed no improvement. In frustration, Weiss finally decided to hypnotize her. Regressed to the age of 5, she recalled having nearly drowned in a swimming pool. Regressed to age 3, she recalled a long-forgotten night in a darkened bedroom when she was sexually molested by her drunken father. Regressed to age 2, she remembered nothing. And then, Weiss asked her to “go back to the time from which your symptoms arise.” Suddenly, the floodgate to 86 different past lives opened.
Catherine remembered drowning in a flood in 1863 B.C., having her throat slashed as a young boy in the Netherlands in 1473, and dying from a waterborne epidemic in eighteenth-century Spain. Her therapy, described in Weiss’s much-publicized book, Many Lives, Many Masters, amazed the psychiatrist. Especially after one session, when she announced that her lifelong fear of drowning had disappeared. And with each subsequent session, with each new “memory,” another anxiety bit the dust.
But it was the “message” delivered by this patient, says Weiss, that changed his life. After a while, he notes, she began speaking to him in a husky voice which he later identified as that of a Master or highly evolved soul. “Your father is here, and your son, who is a small child,” the husky-voiced Catherine told Weiss, issuing forth, he insists, on topics she could never have known on her own. “Your father says you will know him because his name is Avrom, and your daughter is named after him. Also, his death was due to his heart. Your son’s heart was also important, for it was backward, like a chicken’s. He made a great sacrifice for you out of his love. He wanted to show you that medicine could only go so far, that its scope is very limited.”
Catherine had zeroed in on a couple of remarkable aspects of Weiss’s family history. Yes, his father, Alvin, was a religious Jew who, as Weiss writes, was far better suited to his Hebrew name of Avrom. And yes, Alvin had died of heart disease, and Weiss’s daughter, Amy, had been named for him. But even more significantly, Catherine had identified the single greatest tragedy of Weiss’s life: the death of his first-born son, Adam, 11 years earlier. The baby’s heart had, indeed, been turned around, backward like a chicken’s. And when open-heart surgery failed to save his child’s life, Weiss reacted by deciding against a career in internal medicine in favor of psychiatry. As Catherine said, he had become convinced that modern medicine, with all its advanced technology, could “only go so far.”
To this specialist in brain chemistry, the information offered by his patient, a mere layperson, was earth-shattering. “A hand had reached down and irreversibly altered the course of my life,” he says. “My mind was indeed now open to the possibility, even the probability, that Catherine’s utterances were real.”
REMEMBRANCE OF TRAUMAS PAST (continued)
Discovering past lives through hypnosis
Today, Weiss talks before conventions of Japanese businessmen, hospital nurses, past-life therapists. He has a waiting list of 1,000 patients from around the world, all of them eager to be hypnotized by this latest hero of the New Age. In 1991, he organized a four-day workshop on past-life therapy that drew cardiologists, internists, psychiatrists, and other medical professionals from up and down the East Coast to Miami. Ever since the publication of his book in 1988, Weiss has been bombarded with calls and letters from doctors admitting that they, too, have been experimenting in this field, secretly, behind their closed doors.
Weiss wants to throw open those closed doors.
Last year, with Weiss’s encouragement, another credentialed colleague—Spring Lake, New Jersey, psychiatrist Robert Jarmon—stepped out of the closet to take some heat. One of Jarmon’s patients, an otherwise rational and successful businessman, habitually became psychotic and paranoid around the time of the full moon. Under hypnosis, the man spoke, in the first person, as an American Army officer during World War II. Caught behind enemy lines, he was interrogated and taken to a river by German soldiers. With the full moon reflecting in the water, he was shot in the head and killed. During an EEG workup, the patient was shown to have a scar-like lesion in the area of his left brain—the same area, according to Jarmon, where the Army officer was supposedly shot in 1944, four years before the businessman was even born.
And there was more. Under hypnosis, the patient recalled the name of the soldier and the small Minnesota town where he had grown up and attended college. Armed with this information, the patient’s wife called the school’s alumni office. She told a secretary that she was trying to look up an old relative. And, after some searching, the secretary confirmed that yes, the man had graduated college in 1939.
“Just because somebody says something or imagines something.doesn’t mean it really happened,” says Jarmon. “But what I always fall back to is this: Is the patient getting better?” In this case, he says, the answer is a definite yes. After more than 20 years of anguish and paranoid behavior during the full phase of the moon, the problem suddenly stopped; two follow-up EEGS were both read as normal.
Jarmon’s first past-life patient, described for his peers in the Medical Hypnoanalysis Journal, was a thirtyish woman who sought him out for help in losing weight. “Two months into the sessions,” Jarmon reports, “she developed painful swelling and tenderness in the region of her right ovary. (‘Anna’ had stopped menstruating, and, though she insisted she could not possibly be pregnant, her gynecologist suspected an ectopic pregnancy. As it turned out, Anna wasn’t pregnant. Instead, under hypnosis, she claimed to be Elizabeth, a 19-year-old woman in medieval Europe whose baby was “out of place.”
“The priest in attendance at her bedside would not permit the physician to perform an abortion to save the woman’s life,” Jarmon explains, “and Elizabeth finally weakened and died.” The patient, Anna, meanwhile, described Elizabeth’s soul floating out of her body. As she did so, notes Jarmon, “her pulse and breathing became extremely faint, and I immediately brought her out of hypnosis. Anna, who never remembers what goes on in trance, said, ‘Well, you finally did it. Thank you. My pain is all gone.’ Later that night she called me to say that her menses had returned.”
Another therapist who regularly taps the techniques of past-life regression therapy is Springfield, Missouri, neurosurgeon and psychologist C. Norman Shealy. Though Shealy views past-life memories as little more than “mirror images” of real life, he calls the technique “the single most effective psychotherapy tool I know.” It is the job of the psychotherapist, Shealy believes, to “trick” the subconscious into behaving. And past-life therapy does just that. “As symbolic stories created by the subconscious, past lives help patients gain insight into problems,” Shealy says. “It is a lot easier to say, ‘John Doe in 1600 did so and so,’ than, ‘I did it in 1969.’ It takes blame and guilt away.”
To make the point, Shealy cites one of his earliest cases, involving a woman with a spinal cord injury that had paralyzed her. The woman had come to Shealy seeking relief from the intense pain that seemed to follow her so-called “accident.” The woman, it turned out, had no memory of the event that crippled her and believed she had accidentally shot herself while cleaning her husband’s gun. Under hypnosis, however, she gave an entirely different explanation. She said she had been Anne Boleyn. And her story was convincing—right up to its historical denouement of her beheading under the order of her husband, Henry VIII.
As soon as he brought her out of hypnosis, Shealy confronted the patient with his interpretation of her “memory.” He told her that her husband had shot her or, at the very least, that was what she believed. She immediately recalled a violent argument with her husband before everything went black. The pain subsequently subsided and the woman ultimately obtained a divorce, though no legal charges were ever brought.
That makes sense, since information garnered during hypnosis has generally been ruled inadmissible as legal evidence in most courtrooms throughout the country. This reflects mounting evidence that hypnosis cannot be relied upon to enhance memory. In fact, some studies have suggested that hypnosis may actually make memory more susceptible to distortion.
“Hypnosis can put people in a very suggestible state,” says Elizabeth Loftus, a University of Washington psychologist who specializes in memory distortion. “I don’t think there’s anything particularly mystical about this.” In fact, several studies have found that patients who say they recall past lives are more easily hypnotizable than subjects who fail to report past lives. One implication, explains Loftus, is that anyone capable of remembering a past life may be highly suggestible. And it is well-accepted knowledge that the power of suggestion is often sufficient for people who want to get well.
“The rationale is not important as long as the patient has faith in the therapist,” adds Nicholas Spanos, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. “That holds true whether you’re talking about a witch doctor or a Freudian psychiatrist. If the therapist is a psychoanalyst, the patient will say, ‘Now I know it’s because I wanted to sleep with my mother.’ It doesn’t matter what the explanation is. Every person requires meaning in their life, and past-life therapy is one kind of explanation.”
Writing recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Spanos says that past-life memories are really “expectation-induced fantasies.” In other words, he explains, past-life regressions are directly influenced by the hypnotist’s bias and the subject’s own interests and concerns. Spano’s explanation goes a long way toward accounting for why a person with an interest in Florentine art is likely to construct, under hypnosis, a minutely detailed life in Renaissance Italy.
But Spanos’ study goes further, revealing gross inaccuracies in the historical veracity of past-life memories. “For instance,” he notes, in one case, a patient who relived life as Julius Caesar “stated that it was A.D. 50 and that he was emperor of Rome. Caesar, however, died in 44 B.C. and was never crowned emperor. Moreover, the convention of dating years as either B.C. or A.D. did not begin until several centuries after A.D. 50. Similarly, one past-life reporter claimed to live in the state of Mississippi in 1780, long before Mississippi became a state. Another claimed to live in Germany in 1866, before Germany became a country.”
According to Spanos, even the supposedly air-tight story of Bridey Murphy comes apart under the careful investigative eye. Murphy supposedly walked the streets of Ireland back in 1806. Yet soon after Tighe’s revelations were published, it was found that Tighe had once lived with an aunt of Scottish-Irish descent who often regaled her niece with stories about the Old Country. Further investigation found that a certain Bridie Murphy Corkell had once lived across the street from Tighe in Chicago.
Had Tighe deliberately misled Bernstein? Nobody suggests any such thing. Rather, the consensus is that Bridey Murphy provides a classic case of cryptoamnesia, a phenomenon first described by the nineteenth-century Swiss psychologist-philosopher-physician, Theodore Flournoy. According to his theory, the human mind is like a library filled with years and years worth of overheard conversations, pictures, newspaper stories, television shows, books, and songs. Nothing is ever lost; everything seen or heard remains on file. Though consciously forgotten, these bits and pieces of information and experience can later form the basis of fully blown fantasies that emerge, under hypnosis, as personal “memories.”
“I think the memories are real,” says Weiss, “but it doesn’t really matter because people get better. To me, it ties in with a lot of the mind-body work going on now. It’s related to the new field of psychoneuroimmunology, in which patients can marshal the immune system to fight cancers and other types of disease with the mind. When the mind changes and the mood changes, physical illnesses often get better, too.”
Weiss now relies on hypnosis for almost all of his patients, even those not involved in past-life regression. “I like doing memory work in that state,” he explains. “It’s much faster; it goes deeper; it bypasses the usual filters. Things have the intensity of the emotion. Memories are enhanced.”
“This isn’t a court of law,” Weiss adds. “We don’t have to prove that every single detail is correct. If there’s a degree of accuracy, that’s what’s important. It’s like, if you went back and remembered a trip to the zoo. What difference would it make if there were three polar bears there and you only saw two in your memory?”
So maybe Jan’s wife in Ancient Greece wasn’t named Claudia. And maybe Jan didn’t die in hand-to-hand combat. Maybe the only time she’s seen Greece is in the pages of National Geographic. But upon her return to modern Miami one recent gray morning, she brought back a lesson that, ultimately, had little to do with reincarnation. In all her past lives, Weiss pointed out, she was the one who always died first, leaving her mate behind. This time, she told the psychiatrist, she was committed to the new relationship she had begun. She wasn’t going to repeat the pattern of a lifetime—and maybe many lifetimes—by running away (or dying) when things got sticky. This time, she was going to stick around.
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