Article: EXPERIENCES. Past-Life Therapy: A Personal Perspective – Thomas G. Shafer (Is.15)

In this article, Thomas G. Shafer describes the confusing mixture of dreams, memory distortion, and past lives he encountered in his search for the truth.

Thomas G. Shafer, M.D.

I began individual therapy with Mrs. Peggy Moore-Osteen after the death of my father in early 1985. My initial complaints were depression, panic-like episodes, and nightmares. I had suffered from recurrent bouts of depression since my late teens; these had no clear precipitants and lasted a few weeks to about a month. I tolerated antidepressant medication poorly due to cardiac arrhythmias. This was felt by my internist to be related to mild Mitral Valve Prolapse. Additionally, I had suffered since my mid-teens from prolonged sieges of recurrent panic episodes characterized mainly by tachycardia, shortness of breath and an intense fear of suddenly dying. These episodes could occur spontaneously but were also reliably precipitated by being completely by myself or driving down rural highways.

At the time I began therapy, I had been working with Viet Nam veterans for over two years, but for five years I had been suffering from nightmares of being involved in combat, despite the fact that my military service had involved no overseas or combat duty whatsoever. The nightmares were frequent, vivid with strong emotional content, and recurrent. There were three major dreams.

In the first dream, I was a combat Medical Corpsman crawling through rain toward a screaming soldier in a shell crater. He was severely wounded in the abdomen to the point of evisceration. Panicked, I desperately tried to replace the soldier’s intestines in his abdomen and then stared helplessly as the man died. I felt unable to say anything or even offer a prayer upon his death.

In the second dream, I was a military nurse in Viet Nam. I did volunteer work at a Catholic orphanage in a compound, working with an older obese European nun and a young nun of Asian extraction. One day the compound came under heavy attack and the infant nursery building was set on fire by an incendiary device. I watched the flames quickly engulf the roof of the building including the wooden cross on top. I had to do something and made multiple trips through intense enemy fire to rescue the trapped infants, receiving multiple wounds in the legs, buttocks and upper back in the process. Finally, unable to drag myself any further, I placed my body as a human shield over the infant I was carrying and watched helplessly as the building, which still contained one small child, exploded.

The third dream found me lying in a military hospital surrounded by severely wounded soldiers. In this dream I was transferred to a private room and made friends with a roommate who later died suddenly of an apparent embolus from leg wounds.

Therapy began with typical grief work relating to my father’s death. This was complicated by the fact that my father, who was a retired Army Warrant Officer, had been physically abusive and an active alcoholic most of his adult life, eventually dying from alcohol-related liver disease. Mrs. Moore-Osteen had me discuss my ambivalent feelings, learn to appropriately mobilize anger, and learn relaxation techniques with “inner child” imaging. No hypnotherapy, analytic technique or other memory recovery techniques were used at any time, it being the belief of Mrs. Moore-Osteen that the safest and most valid way to recall and deal with childhood trauma was simply to provide a “safe place” where her clients would eventually process the material they needed to deal with to recover spontaneously. She was also quite insistent that any “recovered memories” be followed by attempts to substantiate factual details.

My religious background was that I had been a member of the Episcopal Church for 30 years but was in the process of converting to Reform Judaism. I had no real explanation for this except feeling a strong spiritual pull toward the Jewish faith accompanied by an odd feeling of familiarity with things I was actually doing and learning for the first time in preparation for my conversion. Mrs. Moore-Osteen is a mainstream Christian. Neither she nor I initially had any belief in reincarnation, and in fact, we had both been raised in conservative Fundamental Christian denominations where speculation about such things was strongly discouraged.

As time passed, the dreams began turning from symbolic substitutions to real memories. The dream regarding the wounded soldier began one night but changed into myself at about age six sitting alone in my father’s car while my father and one of my uncles went to an illegal dog fight. Interestingly, I was wearing a “soldier suit,” a small set of Army fatigues given to me by my father.

I heard screaming and left the car to go through heavy rain to investigate. In the pit there was a still-living dog which had been eviscerated in a fight. Just as I had done with the soldier in my nightmare, I tried frantically to place the dog’s intestines back into its abdomen and then watched silently as the dog died. Phone calls to older cousins and local law enforcement authorities confirmed that illegal dog fighting was quite common in the early 1950s in those parts and that my father had attended many. I found an old photograph in which I was wearing the soldier suit.

The hospital dream changed into a recollection of being hospitalized at age five in an Army Hospital in Japan due to a severe ear infection. The Korean War was going on at that time and most of the children on the ward were Korean children recovering from severe combat wounds including amputations and severe burns. I made friends with a Japanese girl with a broken leg who died of an apparent embolus the day before my discharge. Interestingly there were two Catholic nuns on the ward working primarily with the Korean children, an elderly obese woman and a young Asian novice.

There were no records available to directly confirm this hospitalization but I recalled my mother had told me I had been hospitalized in Japan and nearly died from a serve ear infection and an allergic reaction to Sulfa drugs. I was able to obtain further confirmation of the details of the hospital layout from a Korean War veteran who had been hospitalized in the same military hospital during the same period. My recall of the physical layout of the ward and building matched his almost exactly. Additionally, I was able to confirm from other Medical Corps veterans of the Korean and Viet Nam conflicts that US Military hospitals commonly provided care for severely wounded children, often in cooperation with Catholic Nursing Orders and other civilian charitable groups. These recollections caused but little mitigation of symptoms, however. The recurrent dream regarding the burning building and the children actually grew in intensity and frequency. Finally, a breakthrough occurred.

In a therapy session, I began having flashback-like recollections of hooded figures in white sheets; a cross was burning. I sensed that something terrible had happened but I wasn’t able to pinpoint what. As usual, Mrs. Moore-Osteen advised me not to try to force any memories and be patient with my ability to recall what I needed when I needed. I was driving home from the session when a favorite “oldies” song from the early 1960s played on the radio. This time, though, the song led to a strong feeling of impending doom. I pulled off the road in a quiet spot and remembered for the first time in years how I, as a teenager, had seen the movie “Captain Newman, M.D.” (an excellent Gregory Peck film about a World War II Army Psychiatrist) and had completely frozen in a fearful, almost catatonic state after the movie to the point that I required emergency medical attention and a heavy sedative.

Sitting by the roadside, this time I replayed in my mind a particularly intense scene in the film where a character became argumentative and called the doctor a “Jew-boy.” The word kept repeating over and over in my head as I totally recalled an incident when I, at age eight, had been taken to a Ku Klux Klan meeting by some uncles. A cross was being burned. Some “out of town” boys showed up unexpectedly with a young Jewish child.

I was separated from my uncles, who had been drinking heavily. I ended up on a hillside where I tried to protect the child by throwing my body across his. I was kicked and struck repeatedly in the upper back with a rifle, then dragged off for a “switching” by three men. My pants were pulled down and it was discovered that I was circumcised. This lead to repeated calls of “Jew-boy” by the men and a gang rape which was only interrupted when a shot was heard, the shot which ended the life of the young Jewish boy.

A quick follow-up session was scheduled but this experience just didn’t assimilate like the others. Hoping something this extreme hadn’t really happened, Mrs. Moore-Osteen recommended a quick search for confirmatory details. Phone calls soon revealed that the county in which I had lived at age eight had been a hotbed of KKK activity at that time. A conversation with one of my brothers turned up details of a deathbed confession by my father in which he tearfully described involvement with KKK as well as the pre-World War II German-American Bund, and his extensive involvement as an Army Military Intelligence Officer with former high ranking Nazis who worked with the Allied intelligence community after the war. Attempts to confirm the disappearance of a small Jewish boy in 1955 led to a dead end. A local newspaper editor made it clear to me that such a story would definitely not have been run in that period by any reporter who valued his health.

However, some additional confirmation came from a doctor’s review of his old medical records. These quickly turned up evidence that I had had a fracture of the fifth thoracic vertebral body, a displaced right kidney, and a peri-anal scar consistent with some sort of surgical repair or procedure. These all confirmed extremely painful injuries, the source of which had previously been a mystery. Additionally, the location of the injuries corresponded exactly with the injuries I recalled during the beating and abuse.

Given the growing volume of confirmatory detail, the recovered memory had to be dealt with as real. However, little progress was made for several weeks. The previous panic attacks became actual flashbacks to this incident. Phobias were explained but nightmares worsened as they centered on actual details. The therapy process nearly ground to a halt. Mrs. Moore-Osteen suggested for the first time that some imaging techniques be used, specifically the image of my adult self comforting and holding my eight-year-old self. The first time I tried this, I was in for a surprise. I visualized myself sitting on my aunt’s steps after the KKK experience and expected my adult self to walk up. Instead I saw an elderly gentlemen in old style Orthodox Jewish attire walk toward the young me.

“The Rabbi” led my young self to a meadow and set me on a tree stump and talked to me. He told me my attempt to save the life of the young boy was an action “Kiddush HaShem,” sanctifying the Name of God. He explained to me in simple terms old Jewish traditions that one who saves one life saves the whole world, and even saving this life for a few minutes saves all lives for all time. He explained that the murdered boy was now in the House of Study in Gan Eden (The Garden of Eden, a Jewish term for the Next World) where he studied scriptures with famous scholars and martyrs all day. At night, the people would doze while they smelled blossoms form on the Tree of Life and mature into fruits of Love, Wisdom, Understanding, etc. Each morning the people would choose a fruit to eat of and, the Rabbi said, “The boy always gets first pick.”

Now these obviously were not things I had learned from my childhood, given my father’s Anti-Semitism and my strict Christian upbringing. Nor was I learning them in my studies to convert to Reform Judaism: This branch of Judaism does not typically study obscure older Jewish traditions and laws to any great extent.

However, discussion with my Rabbi and with other Rabbis on the Internet led to confirmation of this story as a longstanding Orthodox Jewish conception of the next World. But things didn’t end there. Odd things began to happen. Stories just popped into my head fully formed, stories consistent with old Jewish legends I had never learned. (In fact I e-mailed one of these stories about Noah and the Flood to a Canadian “cyber friend” who wondered where I had heard it because her grandmother had told her the same tale as a child almost word for word.)

Stranger things began to happen as I noted dramatic changes in my studies. Suddenly, though my knowledge of Hebrew consisted only of halting sight reading and a few phrases from the prayer book, I found myself stopping reading in the middle of a passage from my English translation just “knowing” I had to check the original Hebrew text. I found some mistranslations and, even more often, translating with the help of my dictionary led to the discovery of subtle puns and hidden double meanings. I communicated with various Jewish scholars on the Internet who were often surprised at receiving such insights from a recent convert.

Finally, I told one friend, a Rabbinical student named Mike Lotker, about “The Rabbi.” He is of Conservative Jewish persuasion and was frankly skeptical, especially in light of the “Spirit Guide” connotations which he felt were inconsistent with mainline Judaism. But research led him quickly to old Jewish legends about the “Maggidim,” or story tellers. These are deceased Rabbis who return to communicate with living Jews who are suffering severe distress or badly in need of guidance. He also found tales of individuals who had such insights into Jewish scriptures as I had. This was referred to as “Dreaming the Torah.”

Imprint depicting Haninah’s martyrdom,by Ephraim Moses Lilien

Soon after, I had a “dream time” conversation with The Rabbi in which he described himself as being burned by the Romans for continuing to teach the Torah to young people. I wrote Mike after this, describing The Rabbi’s account with its many details about Jewish theology, laws, and beliefs regarding the afterlife in this Roman period. There was even a reference by The Rabbi, who was burned to death wrapped in a Torah scroll, of seeing the letters leap off the flaming parchment and swirl up to heaven, surrounding his ascending soul with “black fire on white fire.”

Mike Lotker was able to identify The Rabbi as Rabbi Chananiah Ben Teradyon, one of the ten martyrs of the traditional Orthodox Yom Kippur liturgy. All the details checked out even though this was the first that I, as a new Reform Jew, had heard of his story. Mike was a bit perplexed by the reference to “black fire on white fire” but I have since found from a new Internet friend, Rabbi Yonassen Gershom, that this is an image used in longstanding traditional Orthodox/Hasidic Jewish teachings about the Divine origin of the first five books of the Bible.

These nocturnal visits, stories, and insights have continued to this day. I’ve come to enjoy them. Actually, my initial contacts with my Maggid started the final process of my healing. I began to process the fact that I had been a success, not a failure at the most critical moment of my life and the idea of my pain Sanctifying the Name of God still brings much comfort. But there was more to come.

I discussed all this with Mrs. Moore-Osteen, who was, to put in mildly, more than a bit amazed and perplexed. We applied the same standards of verifiable details to this experience that we had to all the others and everything checked out. By coincidence (if one believes in coincidence, that is) she had been reading a book given to her by a friend about prophesies from a spirit named Emmanuel. We both puzzled over how these new things we were learning related to our goal, my healing. It was all out of both of our experience as individuals and therapists.

Then I met Bernie. First in dreams and then in daytime flashbacks and reveries I began “remembering” the life of an individual nicknamed “Bernie,” an Army Air Corps pilot who had been captured and murdered by the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge. Bernie was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in the early 1920s. He was Jewish and his father was in and out of a veteran’s hospital for lung damage from gas injuries in World War I and, later, tuberculosis. Bernie lived with his mother, sister, and grandfather, who was a traditional European Rabbi who earned his living repairing watches.

There were numerous memories of traditional Jewish practices I had never been aware of, and of legal discussions between Bernie’s grandfather and his friends, details of his mother struggling to keep a kosher home, etc. There was one particular vignette in a dream in which the grandfather was not able to afford kosher meat so he bought a live chicken to slaughter in the traditional kosher style for Passover. He quickly slit the bird’s throat but it proceeded to run around anyway. Distressed that he had botched the ritual and caused the bird pain, he was about to discard the family’s Passover meat when a Gentile neighbor with a farm background assured him that chickens often did this and the action was just simple reflex, not a response to pain. He inspected the now immobile bird to make sure the knife cut had gone all the way into the esophagus, as the law required, and then began to pluck it.

Again, these details gradually proved out. But I was sure the bit about the chicken was a definite miss. Everybody knows Jews eat lamb for Passover, right? Wrong. Some Jews do this but the traditional European Ashkenazic Jew won’t eat Lamb for Passover until the Messiah rebuilds the Temple in Jerusalem. In the meantime he and his family eat chicken and, if he can’t locate a kosher butcher, he buys a live bird and slaughters it in the traditional way.

More details flooded in about Bernie’s life, about his building model airplanes and his college life in the early 1940s. I remembered Bernie cracking up his advanced trainer and being consigned to flying light observation aircraft, instead of the P-38 fighter he dreamed about. Things began making sense, especially my previously mentioned “pull” toward Judaism and the strange feelings of déja vu I had as I entered my Jewish life, as well as my lifelong fascination with aviation and my hobby of building flying models.

But Bernie and I were different in some ways, too. I’ve personally always been weak in mathematics and electronics, but Bernie, a university trained engineer, was brilliant in these areas. One evening I clearly recalled an argument he had had with one of his basic flight theory instructors about the nature of the sound barrier. The discussions ranged from differential equations through conversion to natural logarithms and trigonometric functions. Now, I had managed to get a B in the required premed calculus course by memorizing the book, doing all the problems in the back of each chapter, and not really understanding a thing. But when I got a calculus review book and checked it out, these types of calculations existed though they are typically only mastered by particularly bright students in schools of mathematics, physics and engineering. (I would have found that premed calculus course a lot easier if I had had the foresight to carry Bernie’s abilities into this life with me!)

Dreams and meditations continued. Bernie as a pilot. Bernie being shot down attempting a trip in his light plane to evacuate wounded GIs during the Battle of the Bulge. Bernie being captured by Luftwaffe anti-aircraft gunners and then the SS. Finally, Bernie’s death, being shot in the back of the head after witnessing a truckload of American enlisted men he was with being machine gunned. And as he lay there briefly seeing but unable to speak or move, Bernie’s last earthly emotion was regret at not sanctifying his death by dying with the traditional Jewish Sh’ma prayer on his lips and his regret at having “Catholic” stamped on his dog tags out of fear of persecution if captured. Then Bernie was in a place without sight or sound, only thought. He was determined to go back and do it right this time, to Sanctify the Name. Numerous other Jews who had died in the Holocaust called out with their thoughts telling him to forgive himself, it was okay to lie to save one’s life. But his guilt at abandoning his grandfather’s teachings was so overwhelming he didn’t listen.

So here I sit with that old area in my thoracic spine getting a little sore from hunching over my keyboard. The displaced kidney is doing well; no stones so far this year. The physical scars remain but how about the other scars?

Mrs. Moore-Osteen wisely allowed me to make my own associations to my nightmares at my own pace, and they turned out to be symbolic masks for experiences that I had blocked from conscious memory because of their traumatic nature. But my experience with The Rabbi, my memories of Bernie, and my sense of familiarity with Judaism came from somewhere else. Am I Bernie? Did my conversion to Judaism complete his dying wish for Teshuvah, a return to Jewish observance? Did that night of horror on that flame-lit hillside complete his mission to Sanctify the Name of God in another life? I have no proof that all this isn’t just some elaborate Jungian unconscious fantasy but it comforts me to believe it is all true. And the nightmares have gone.

I have had a request from Dr. Russell Davis of the Journal to discuss how this experience has affected my clinical practice. I’d like to be able to say that my professional life had taken a quantum leap and I now heal everyone I see in five sessions or less. That’s not quite the situation, though. I have begun using past-life regression hypnosis on volunteers in the hopes of learning more about this modality and integrating it into my clinical practice. But “proceed with caution” seems to be the motto with any type of new technique in Government-associated medicine, so my professional experience as a past-life therapist has been limited to a few private cases in progress and a few veterans with spontaneous past-life recall.

There have been some interesting times, though. One came with a Vietnam veteran I am still working with who began having vivid dreams of being a Confederate soldier dying on the battlefield at Shiloh after reading a Civil War book. In this case, his fundamentalist Christian background made it difficult to process this recurring dream as a possible past-life memory but he was still able to process the emotions he felt. This has led to his having a much greater sense of the suffering all combat soldiers go through, leading to a much lessened sense of isolation from being a veteran of Vietnam. He has found a lot of perspective and comfort in realizing that all wars are essentially the same when you are the one doing the fighting and the dying.

Another private client experienced significant reduction in episodes of binge eating after a hypnosis-aided recall of being a young and hungry girl on a Polish farm during World War II. She recalled her death in the midst of an SS massacre of all her village, apparently for the “crime” of hiding an escaped Jew. This hypnosis session included a description of a rather rare German assault vehicle used during the period from a woman who had no knowledge of or interest in things military.

Finally, there is new work in progress with a fellow convert to Judaism who has been haunted since childhood by dreams of being a young Jewish woman in World War II who was part of a resistance operation and was captured. She recalls being killed after informing on her friends under torture and she has chronic feelings of guilt and failure in this present life. Interestingly, she comes from a family that was fairly hostile to Judaism but she was always interested in Jewish practice and has the same déja vu feelings toward the new Jewish things she is learning that I have experienced. And she has had a fascinating dream after which she was able to recall the first four digits of her tattooed I.D. number. This may lead to more confirming details in time.

So, a beginning at least.


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