by Hazel Denning, Ph.D.
A sense of guilt underlies a large percentage of life’s problems. Guilt is the emotional feeling one has when any act has been committed which leaves a sense that the individual has done something “wrong” or “bad.” This feeling is accompanied by a conscious or unconscious belief that some kind of punishment is deserved and inevitable. In conformity with the law of attraction, the guilty person consistently attracts experiences that serve as a form of punishment, seldom recognizing, however, that the painful events are of his own making.
In any analysis of guilt, it is important to recognize that it contains both positive and negative aspects. The importance of balance in all of the life processes is well understood, but it is not common knowledge that the law of balance, being an integral part of all our experiences, suggests that guilt, usually seen as unconstructive, can have constructive aspects. Maslow (Ard, 1975) specifically deals with this when he says:
Intrinsic guilt is the consequence of betrayal of one’s own inner nature or self, a turning off the path to self-actualization, and is essentially justified self disapproval. Seen in this way it is good, even necessary for a person’s development, to have intrinsic guilt when he deserves it. It is not a symptom to be avoided at any cost but rather an inner guide for growth toward actualization of the real self and of its potentialities.
There are two specific kinds of guilt, and though the manifestations of both may appear to be the same, the treatment of them is different. The first type, usually called “state” guilt, is the result of the culture and environment of the individual. The second is a deep-seated pervasive type which has been termed “trait” guilt. The former includes the “oughts” and “shoulds” laid down by the family, and which result, for example, in a woman feeling guilty if she leaves her house with dishes unwashed and beds unmade. Any good psychotherapist can free clients from this type of guilt.
Trait guilt, however, often leaves the individual feeling worthless, undependable, unlovable, and sinful, in spite of case history that reveals nothing to warrant such deep feelings of self-rejection. Current therapists are impotent in solving this very common problem. McKenzie (1962) writes: “Psychiatrists, especially in America…are realizing that they have no psychiatric techniques whereby they dispel real guilt.” It is the purpose of this article to propose a therapeutic modality that has proven to be effective with “trait” guilt.
First let us examine the etiology. What is the nature of man that an act is evaluated by him as wrong or bad? On what grounds does he make that determination about himself?
The religious and philosophical teachings of all great cultures from time immemorial have stressed the spiritual nature of man and propounded the theory that all individuals are seeking to actualize their own highest potentialities. Therefore any act which harms or degrades the self or others is interpreted as a mistake, or “bad” behavior. Again quoting from Maslow (1955), who has written extensively on this subject, he says: “He (man) has within him a pressure toward unity of personality…he presses toward fuller and fuller being and this means pressing toward what most people would call good values, toward serenity, kindness, courage, honesty, love, unselfishness, and goodness.”
It would appear, then, that man moves forward on an irreversible path and his goal is the perfecting of his indestructible essence, call it his soul or his spirit. And the soul at some profound level seems to be conversant with behavior that is incongruent with this spiritual goal. Any behavior that falls short of meeting the spiritual criteria is interpreted by the soul as unacceptable and is retained in the consciousness through as many incarnations as are necessary for it to be balanced by behavior that will bring insight and understanding. Beyer (1977) states it simply when he writes: “The consciousness of guilt is lodged in that part of the brain that contains the unconscious record of the past thoughts and actions which the past judgment of the individual has judged wrong, evil, sinful.” Beyer probably did not intend to imply previous lifetimes by that statement, but if we supply the word “mind” for brain, this position is identical to that of many past-life therapists.
This process suggests the modus operandi of how guilt came to be such a powerful factor in everyone’s current life, for guilt has been escalating over many centuries until today mankind is, in many cases, incapacitated. Life has become a nightmare of repeated failures, frustrations, painful illnesses, and endless catastrophes. We might without exaggeration state that “trait” guilt is one of the most crippling emotions in our society today. It prevents good personal relationships, it thwarts the most industrious attempts to succeed, it attracts repeated failures, and it is the cause of accident-proneness as well as many terminal illnesses. The list is endless. Perseverant guilt then, may be regarded as a severely limiting response to life.
Over the past 30 to 40 years an increasing body of evidence has emerged to support the claim that if guilt from a purported past life is dealt with through the use of past-life regression techniques, it can in many cases be resolved within the current life experience. The long-range implications of this statement will now be addressed in greater detail through the presentation of four major assumptions.
First Assumption: The first and most obvious assumption, in light of the evidence which presents itself, is that guilt escalates, and all acts committed by the individual and considered by that individual to be “bad” or “evil” contribute to an energy pattern or “blueprint” of self-punishment which carries over from one life to the next. This energy pattern appears to lock the individual into modes of behavior consistent with the experiences required to resolve the particular problem, whatever that problem might be.
The implications of this concept are revolutionary, and if they can be substantiated, will provide an unprecedented step toward advancing our understanding of the dynamics of human behavior, and dramatically increase the efficacy of psychotherapy. If guilt does originate in a past-life experience, our whole approach to this crippling problem of trait guilt requires re-examination. As Dr. Roger Woolger (1987) states: “…whole new dimensions of therapy were hinted at here and with them a complete revisioning of the origins of mental illness and the very nature of personality.”
This first assumption can be incorporated into almost any psychological discipline. At the present time, for example, it is used by rolfers, rebirthers, psychoanalysts, clinical psychologists, and so on. A recognition of this single factor has the potential for significantly increasing the success rate with clients who suffer “trait” guilt.
Second Assumption: The second assumption follows logically from the first: childhood traumas may be the extension or continuation of a pattern which originated in some past experience. Current conventional therapies often provide marked relief temporarily but frequently the symptoms return. It would appear that the psyche clings tenaciously to the guilt pattern until its original cause is uncovered and reconciled or integrated.
A mounting body of case histories points to the need for a revision of our understanding of the underlying causes of juvenile problems, both physical and emotional. The inclusion of this one component—a previous life drama—markedly alters both the analysis of any problem, and the method applied for alleviating it. When this second assumption is considered, the present propensity to place the blame on parents will no longer be common practice. In addition, the perennial question of why one child responds positively to life’s traumas, while the same harsh treatment crushes another child, would be resolved through an understanding of the uncompleted energy patterns which each individual brings with him at birth.
Third Assumption: Individuals purposefully select events and relationships in a current life in order to gain the experiences which are necessary for their own growth and development. It would appear from case histories that at some prior time a troubled client suffered an initial major trauma. This trauma often consisted of a number of acts, and if the individual has not dealt with them at the time of the original events, he or she automatically creates a syndrome of negative emotions such as fear, guilt, rage, and so on, and thus a destructive negative cycle begins. Apparently it is only when the individual decides to deal with that destructive pattern at its inception, that it can be eradicated. Many case histories indicate that it may take a number of lifetimes for an individual to reach that understanding.
As startling and unorthodox as the concept may be, case histories support the idea that there is soul awareness prior to conception, and that an individual chooses parents and a life purpose. The evidence indicates that souls will place themselves in situations, personalities, and environments that will provide the obstacles and challenges which they must meet and overcome in the process of developing the ensuing personality.
During the regression experience, individuals are able to trace their own destiny patterns and thereby realize that they are responsible for a particular learning experience. This insight changes their attitude toward their current life situation, and they no longer blame God or their parents for their problems. Generally such insight provides them with a totally new orientation toward life, and they are then able to release negative patterns such as guilt, and “take charge” of their lives in a new and more constructive way.
This third assumption does not imply that everyone who encounters a past life which seems to explain the present problem is automatically free of that problem. While some cases can be totally resolved in one to five sessions, many individuals require long periods of time to integrate new patterns into their lives. However, insights gained from the regression provide a supportive framework, as well as a sense of “where you are going and why,” even though you are not there yet.
Fourth Assumption: At the moment of physical death, the last conscious thought carries a profound impact on the ensuing life experience. The last conscious thought, that which is present just before the life force leaves the physical body, functions as a pre-set alarm, and seems to be triggered into manifestation once again at birth. Doctors as well as parents are all too aware of children’s early behavior patterns of anger, withdrawal, aggression, fear, and physical symptoms such as asthma, digestive dysfunctions, etc. Many environmental factors are introduced as explanations of such symptoms, but often these explanations fall short of being adequate for the circumstances. All of these phenomena appear logical and consistent when analyzed within the framework of a re-birth hypothesis. As Dr. Woolger states (1987), “…it is abundantly clear that the psychic, emotional, and physical impressions laid down in one lifetime are in some way transmitted to future lives.”
Four brief case histories will graphically illustrate the foregoing assumptions and explain how past-life traumas always bear a specific and not a general relationship to the current problem, whether that problem is physical or emotional.
Case 1: Balancing Violence
Bruce arrived for his first session and appeared to be a mild mannered, gentle, sensitive individual. He had a wife and two children and had become successful in business. However, at home he could be a tyrant, though his behavior confined itself mostly to destroying breakable objects. He often became verbally abusive and, while none of his family members feared him, all of them had grown unhappy living with the frequent outbursts of his unpredictable temper. He confessed that he did not want to do the things he did, but he could not seem to help himself. He explained in a puzzled way that somehow he felt he had to make his family angry toward him, or rejecting of him. These feelings did not make sense to him, and only with some difficulty did he verbalize them. Bruce insisted that he loved his wife and children and would like to have a better relationship with them, but he seemed impelled at times to do things which he knew would alienate them.
The past life that emerges during regression is one of brutal violence. Bruce describes himself as the leader of a group of horsemen who pillage, rape, and burn dwellings as they ride through the countryside. He holds the leadership role because he is the strongest and the most skilled horseman and swordsman. He brags that with one sweep of his sword he can cut a man in two while galloping at full speed on his horse, he can decapitate an individual in the same manner, and it is a source of great exhilaration to raid a village and destroy everyone in it.
One day he swoops down and severs a child’s head from its body, and the look in the child’s eyes remains like an image imprinted in his brain. He cannot rid himself of the feelings that this image arouses in him, and one night as he sits with his men around a campfire, he finally feels compelled to leave the group and walk alone into the desert. He continues to walk until he grows exhausted. It is as if he is trying to get away from the image of the child’s face, but that image will not leave him. Eventually, out in the desert, he dies of dehydration but with the impression fixed firmly in his mind that he will have to pay for the pain and misery he has caused to so many people.
Following that incarnation he lives two lives as beggars, attracting the rejection of other individuals. He is killed violently in a war and in two incidents of fighting. He lives one life as an abused child who does not survive to adulthood. In all of these lives as he reviews them, he remains painfully aware that he does not feel worthy of anyone loving him or caring about him. And in this life he really wants to love and be loved, but he does not feel worthy of his family’s affection.
As Bruce sat contemplating this past drama of his own making, he said: “I do not have to continue this any longer. I have paid my debt—I have more than paid my debt.” There was a sense of relief and release in his voice and manner as he evaluated his chronicle.
He did not feel the need to pursue this experience through any further sessions, though he might have benefited from a more complete understanding of himself. Follow-up almost a year later confirmed that he had released the guilt. No longer did he throw objects in his house, and he seldom became verbally unpleasant, but he grew more withdrawn than his wife would have liked and at times seemed to retreat into quiet contemplation.
Case 2: Three Steps to the Original Guilt
A common explanation for therapists who do not wish to accept the multiple birth philosophy is to call the phenomenon of recall “extra-cerebral” memory by recourse to genetic inheritance. Another explanation for its success is that the individual adapts any source to fit his problem. In other words, he calls on material from an old movie, from a novel, or from something that he has heard. According to this hypothesis, the success resulting from past-life regression therapy is simply a matter of his faith in the explanation he conjures up to fit his problem.
The case of Marcia questions this hypothesis, while at the same time illustrating three aspects of past-life therapy. This case deals first with a childhood trauma that would logically be diagnosed as the cause of her problem. Second, it clearly demonstrates that the past-life experience is directly connected with the present problem; and third, it is an excellent example of how the unconscious or “soul consciousness” refuses to accept any explanation that is not the true cause of the manifesting problem.
Marcia was 52 and had suffered pain in her hands all of her life. Often she had to get up at night and pace the floor, rubbing her hands to relieve the pain. Her discomfort was almost constant but periodically grew more intense. She had visited physicians and clinics through the years but with no relief. She achieved an altered state and moved into an episode from her childhood.
At the age of three she is left with a baby-sitter, who tips over an oil lamp. The kerosene spills on her hands and they become badly burned and very painful. When the mother returns, the baby-sitter blames Marcia for the broken lamp. Unable to defend herself, and in pain, she is traumatized.
We were both pleased with this session and completely convinced that the cause of the pain in her hands had been discovered and she would now be well. However, by the next week there had been no improvement. Again she achieved an altered state easily and began to moan and wring her hands.
She describes herself as a psychic in a nomadic tribe. She has warned the people that they should move because of an impending natural catastrophe. The wife of the leader grows angry, does not want to move, and declares that Marcia is a witch and should be killed. She is burned at the stake.
I asked her why she still carried this pain into the present, and she replied that God had told her to warn the people and she had failed. We worked at an integration of this, and she seemed to feel much better and able to forgive herself. When she left we both were certain that the burning experience was the cause of her pain, and that she would now be free of it.
When she returned the following week there was still no improvement in her hands. At this point I became certain that she carried a heavy guilt for some obscure reason. Her resistance to facing that guilt was so strong that we had weekly sessions for almost three months before she finally said one day: “I might as well face it. When I was dying I pointed my fingers at that woman and swore I would get even with her no matter how many centuries it took.”
We discussed the spiritual implications of this curse, and the importance of realizing that it was not the incident—the burning—that had held the pain in her hands, but the rage and then the guilt, which she had carried throughout the centuries. She did a very successful integration, with powerful feelings of joy and relief, forgiving both herself and the woman responsible for her death, and within 48 hours the pain had left. A number of years later a follow-up found her still free of the pain.
The dynamics of this case are dramatically clear. The childhood accident to her hands was directly connected to the burning, since her hands had been the instruments of her expressing the curse in the past episode. Our certainty that the source of the problem had been uncovered had no effect on her hands, so it was not our belief that had brought about the cure. Not until her own “inner all-knowing self” became satisfied that she had acknowledged her error and released the guilt, did her body reflect her changed attitude.
Case 3: Child Abuse as a Choice
Hypothesis three states that individuals purposefully select events and relationships in a life in order to gain the experiences which are necessary for further growth and development. The following provides an example of a purposeful choice.
Diane had only two sessions. The first was successful in establishing the cause of the problem, and the second helped her integrate her findings at the emotional level. In this life she had been angry at her father, and at the time of his death she had not forgiven him. The mother was still living. Diane was struggling with her feelings, wanting to forgive them both, and especially wanting to change her attitude toward her mother before she died. Diane was a sensitive, caring, middle-aged woman who had studied metaphysics for many years and sincerely wanted to practice her beliefs. As she related her problem there was no evidence of anger, only a sadness and disappointment with herself that she had not been able to bring her feelings in line with her spiritual beliefs.
For ten years as a small child, she had been the victim of incest practiced by both her mother and father. During the regression session her abreaction was very real and painful, as she begged her father not to hurt her any more, and her mother to “please not do that.” When she had completed the story I suggested that we look at why she had chosen those two people to be her parents. What, in other words, had been her previous history that she would make such a painful choice?
She at once finds herself in Germany as a very poor and ragged beggar, the object of ridicule and persecution by groups of street children, who not only laugh and call “him” names but throw rocks and sticks at him. As a result he hates children, and one day, in a rage, he kills a child. A hand grasps him by the shoulder and leads him to the prison, where he is then ordered to plunge a knife into the breasts of babies as they move on a conveyor belt from the gas chambers. At first he feels satisfaction in getting even, but he soon sickens at what he is doing and tries to escape. He is shot and killed.
After describing this experience the client was deeply moved and remorseful, and expressed the feeling that she would have to pay for that. Moving her forward to the beginning of her present life I asked her again to tell me why she had chosen her parents. She said she wanted to pay off her karma in one lifetime and have it done so she could move on in her spiritual development, so she had chosen to suffer that difficult experience.
When she sat up from her session she looked at me and said: “I should thank my parents for being the instruments through which I could pay off my karma.” At the moment of that insight she felt quite whole and clear about the entire experience, but she called me a few weeks later and asked for a session to help her integrate this understanding at the emotional level. That integration seemed to be successful.
Few cases would respond so positively and quickly, but Diane had a number of years of studying, reading, meditating and attempting to practice what she “felt” about life. She undoubtedly came into this lifetime with well-developed soul knowledge of who she was. Her very reason for selecting her parents was to pay off her own karma with their help, so while she reacted as a normal human being to abuse, an inner knowledge sustained her as she sought to understand rather than capitulate to anger and hate. When individuals do not manifest this soul knowledge it takes many sessions for them to reach an understanding of where they are in their own evolutionary process, but past-life therapy is often successful in accomplishing this.
Case 4: The Power in a Dying Thought
After a few years of using past-life therapy, I observed certain clear patterns beginning to emerge. One of the most significant, because of its impact on the entire subsequent life of the individual, was the discovery that the last conscious thought before the life essence left a physical body was somehow carried over into the next incarnation. Such thoughts as “life is not fair,” “I’ll get even with the bastard,” “I am no good, I’ll never make it,” “I will have to pay for this,” and so on, seemed to be carried in the memory, although not on a conscious level, and are acted out in the ensuing life.
The case of Albert illustrates this pattern. He arrived seeking therapy for a simple problem. Unless he won at tennis or any other game, he was upset for the rest of the day. In the therapy session he achieved an altered state within a few minutes. He finds himself in an oven.
Therapist: Please tell me why you are there.
Client: My mother put me there so they would not find me.
Therapist: So who would not find you?
Client: The soldiers. They are looking for boys for the army.
Therapist: How old are you?
Client: I am ten and I am afraid, but they find me anyway and I have to go.
Therapist: Where are you, what country is this?
Client: I live in Russia.
Therapist: Tell me what happens next; move ahead in time.
Client: Well, I am trying to be a good soldier, but I am not big like the others and I am afraid. Then the war comes and I have to go to fight.
Therapist: How old are you now?
Client: I am 15 but I am not very big and it is hard to be like the others—they are not afraid. I try not to show it. I try to be brave like they are.
Therapist: Go on please, tell me what happens next.
Client: When we get to the front and they start shooting at us I jump into a hole and something explodes and blows my leg off.
Therapist: Then what do you do?
Client: I can’t do anything. I just lie there and I am getting weak. I think I am going to die. (Shows considerable distress in voice and manner).
Therapist: Do you die?
Therapist: Before you die, please get into your thoughts and tell me your last conscious thought before your spirit leaves your body.
Client: I am a coward. I lost.
Albert had come to California from another state, and two weeks later he called to report that he was entirely free of the symptoms. He had played tennis with a friend that morning, lost the game, and felt all right about it.
Transformational techniques for dealing with guilt have been incorporated in the above case histories. However, a few additional statements may be helpful in understanding this process.
It is probably safe to say that guilt will be a factor in the majority of clients who seek any kind of therapy. Frequently the client is unaware of the guilt, and has never recognized that his behavior is motivated by this emotion. An example of this unawareness is the individual who cries frequently and grieves excessively following the loss of a loved one. She may feel responsible in some way for the death, or may feel guilt because she is glad to be free of the relationship. Often children suffer deeply from such guilt, believing that they are somehow responsible for the death.
Any single case may take many sessions, or it may be resolved in two or three sessions, but the underlying purpose must always be kept in mind as the therapist leads the client through the interrogative process, constantly directing the questions toward an insight into the purpose of the experience the client is reliving.
An imperative in this process is to assist the client in recognizing that none of his physical experiences is the major factor, but the important consideration in every event is the client’s attitude, or the manner in which the problem is handled.
An analogy that can be used when a client is feeling that all of his lives have been one failure after another is the scientist or the inventor who tries an endless number of times to solve a problem and seems to be making no progress. Each of those failures has taught him what will not work, and after many trials he succeeds. So in life, we may seem to be failing, but as long as we are trying we are making progress. A few carefully chosen questions will lead the client into a recognition of his own progress.
Out of his own creativity every therapist will develop analogies and imagery that assist clients to their own insights. One which I have recently been employing to facilitate the exploration of as few past lives as possible is to ask the client to imagine a long row of dominoes standing upright. Each one represents a past life. Everyone knows what happens when you push over the first domino. So I suggest we go back to the first life that is significant and directly connected with the current problem, and by-pass the intervening lives. I may even suggest that perhaps it was a life in which the client had considerable power or influence, and misused it. When this technique is successful it not only saves time, but provides considerable insight into the responsibility the client must assume for his experiences. Often he will touch quickly on two or three intervening lives which give insight for the current one.
An example of this is a young woman who saw in this process how she was totally responsible for the three lives in which she had been so badly treated. After exploring each one briefly she said: “If I had not been so rebellious and angry, they would not have treated me so harshly. It was my own fault.” This insight opened the way to an exploration of where she is now, and the importance of letting go of the guilt she is carrying because of her former anger and her refusal to forgive and love.
Another objective for the therapist in dealing with guilt is to help the client to understand the real meaning of love, first by loving himself. In order to do this, the client must first be able to forgive himself, and often this can be done only through the use of questions that will reveal to him the purpose of the act which is causing his guilt. This is particularly difficult when the client discovers an act of brutality or violence in his past history. But even in such cases the long-range purpose of a negative past act can be discovered through carefully selected questions.
There are certain principles which can serve as guidelines in working with all clients once the therapist has incorporated these into his own philosophy and become acquainted with the range of transformational techniques.
The first principle is the law of cause and effect. An understanding of the power of this law in the spiritual as well as the physical world is imperative for the past-life therapist.
The second principle or axiom states that every individual is responsible only for himself, and he literally creates his own environment, consciously or unconsciously. It is the obligation of the past-life therapist to assist the client in assuming this responsibility and programming his life on a conscious level.
The third axiom deals with relationships, and when rightly understood it provides an invaluable tool in counseling married couples. It states that no one has a right to try to control or coerce another individual. Everyone’s destiny path is unique for that person only, and freedom to express in that path is everyone’s right.
The fourth axiom is one of the most difficult to accept, yet it carries profound meaning and is one of the most powerful tools for helping the guilt-ridden client. It states that nothing is bad or good, that all events are relative, and they are also relevant. With this insight the client is able to put his past deeds in perspective and recognize them as part of his own spiritual education.
Understanding of the fifth axiom is mandatory for an objective approach to the illnesses and emotional pains of all clients. It is the recognition that all pain, emotional or physical, is a clear message from the body or the mind that something is wrong and requires our attention. Unfortunately we dash off to the doctor and accept shots, drugs, and surgery to mend our bodies. There is no longer any question about the power of the mind to make the body ill, or to restore it to health. Using the techniques of past-life therapy, a client is often able to diagnose his own problem, and with that insight change whatever attitude is causing the physical dysfunction.
Finally, past-life therapy centers on the ultimate purpose of life, which is spiritual evolvement, and the most powerful force available for achieving that goal is the expression of love and service. This is every person’s goal and it has been recognized and taught since the beginning of time. It exists in the literature of all literate cultures, yet it has never been widely practiced. The past-life therapist, with regression techniques which can reveal the limitless capacities of the mind, holds a remarkable opportunity to introduce man to him and open the door to an expanded awareness which will lift the consciousness of all humanity.
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