Scroll Top
19th Ave New York, NY 95822, USA

Imaginal Techniques in Past-Life Therapy – Roger Woolger (Is.1)

by Roger Woolger

The notion that physical and psychological illnesses may be derived from the psychic residues of events in previous lives is accepted in a great many non-western cultures. The opening lines of the classic Buddhist text, the Dhammapada, sums up this view succinctly: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” It hardly need be added that in the Buddhist world view, earlier thoughts can most certainly belong to earlier incarnations.

In the West, however, such an idea has never been seriously entertained by orthodox science or by the orthodox versions of Christianity and Judaism (McGregor, 1978 and Langley, 1967) in recent history. On the other hand fully articulated doctrines of karma and reincarnation are to be found among certain spiritualist groups (Kardec, 1972), in the Theosophist writings of H.P. Blavatsky and Alice P. Bailey, and more recently in the readings of trance medium, Edgar Cayce (Langley, 1967). Yet although these writers give us all manner of clear descriptions of how karmic conditions, physical and psychic, arise, none of them offer what today we would call a technique of psychotherapy to help heal them. The great Swiss psychiatrist, C.G. Jung, in spite of his monumental explorations of the greater realms of the unconscious in all its spiritual diversity, unfortunately remained hostile to Theosophy and only came to a tentative acceptance of reincarnation as a psychic datum in the very end of his life, June, 1961 (Van Waveren, 1978).

It has remained, therefore, for a small number of creative psychotherapists, hypnotherapists and psychic healers to build bridges between the insights of these unorthodox spiritual teachings and recent advances in therapeutic technique. One such piece of creative synthesis is Marcia Moore’s Hypersentience (1976), which describes a technique, evolved from her background of yoga, meditation, and guided fantasy. Another is Morris Netherton’s (1979) introduction of the Gestalt practice of repeating emotionally-laden key phrases into past life sessions.

Neither of these authors claims his method is a form of hypnosis. In fact, both deny that hypnosis is involved. This contrasts superficially with the work of several noted hypnotherapists who have combined their talents for inducing trance with a variety of imaginative styles for guiding what we now popularly call past-life regressions, (Grant and Kelsey, 1969, Fiore, 1978, Sutphen, 1978, Wambach, 1978). The question of what is or is not hypnosis remains controversial, and it seems largely a matter of professional background as to whether past-life therapy is presented as such. The researchers, Bandler and Grinder (1975), have maintained that all therapists (to say nothing of politicians, preachers, lawyers and salesmen) use some form of indirect suggestion that is trance-inducing.

In this paper my purpose is to offer a brief outline of the cross-fertilization of techniques that I have personally evolved over a number of years as a Jungian analyst as I have conducted and directed large numbers of past-life regressions in the course of individual therapy and public workshops. What follows is a threefold experimental synthesis derived from Jungian “active imagination,” Gestalt, and psychodrama practices and what I will loosely term a Reichian approach to body energetics. All examples are taken from my own cases and are naturally disguised for the purposes of this discussion.

Jungian “Active Imagination”

C.G. Jung developed a highly practical technique for working with his own dreams and visions (Jung, 1960, 1961; Hannah, 1981). He taught it to his own patients and trainees and it is commonly used in Jungian analysis today. It consists primarily in sitting, as in meditation, and simply observing a fragment of a dream or hypnagogic image without any attempt to guide, control, or interfere with it. The aim is to allow the image to come to life of its own autonomous psychic energy, the ego letting go of all expectations, presuppositions, or interpretations. After a certain period of practice and initial coaching by the therapist, this inner image will start to move in some way and the observing ego learns to participate in the story very much as the dream ego participates in normal dreaming. This waking dream ego is encouraged to encounter the imaginal situation as directly as possible, to avoid retreat, and to fully allow any emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, eros, etc. to arise during the inner psychodrama.

The term “imaginal” has been deliberately coined by the French scholar of Sufism, Henry Corbin (1969), to avoid the derogatory connotations of “imaginary.” Corbin and his post-Jungian admirer, James Hillman, have attempted to resuscitate the sacred realm of the imagination in modern depth psychology (Hillman, 1983).

Jung’s technique, which resembles other “waking dream” practices (Watkins, 1976), has the invaluable effect of stimulating, focusing and training the “inner senses,” so that dreaming and waking meditation upon images becomes enormously enriched. This practice allows the unconscious psyche to express itself fully in its own language, which is imagery, and, above all, to “dream the dream on,” as Jung put it on several occasions (Jung, 1960). If and when “past-life” images do arise (and there is no Jungian writing on this except Van Waveren, 1978) the practice would simply be to follow and participate in the imaginal story and in some instances dialogue with inner figures that emerge. The key instruction remains to “stay with the image.”

Powerful as this technique is, it proves inadequate for past-life regression for a number of reasons. It does not distinguish between embodied and disembodied images, or between “memories” and dream stories, nor does it allow for the compensatory role of disembodied fantasy in imaginal situations where the ego is in apparent peril. This can be illustrated by the following excerpt from an active imagination:

“I am walking through some dark woods. I see and hear some soldiers emerging from the trees. They are clearly planning to attack and rob me. They come closer. In terror I climb a tree. The tree turns into a stairway. I find myself in a childhood attic where I used to play with toy soldiers.”

Taken as a psychotherapeutic exercise, this story can easily be seen as fantasy. The tree transforming into a stairway is clearly a fantasy event, and since the subject has no memories of being attacked by soldiers in his lifetime, the conclusion is further reinforced. Most traditional Freudian therapists would most likely relate the story to childhood fantasies around toy soldiers, thus anchoring the origins of the story in actual events.
A Jungian would concur in this but might add that the woods and the tree symbols suggest a symbolic regression to the realm of mother archetype. Both would nevertheless treat the imagery as psychological data valuable in understanding and unraveling certain personal complexes derived from this lifetime.

There is, however, another approach to this piece of active imagination suggested by past-life therapy that refines it into a much richer therapeutic drama without losing any of Jung’s essential principle of staying with the image and imaginally living out the story.

The past-life approach entails using a guide or therapist to focus the story and ask questions “as if” it were a literal lifetime and not a fantasy, thus subjecting the story to the constraints of time, space, personal identity and history, acknowledging also the limitations of the death experience and treating this, too, as a literal, bodily event when it occurs. Much as these may sound like heavily weighted assumptions to use as the basis for leading questions, the finding of many thousands of regressions is that the psyche responds with great facility to the “as if” of such suggestions and frequently gives quite spontaneous and surprising historical data. Here is how the active imagination might typically be experienced as past-life memory.

Therapist:    What are you doing?

Subject:       I’m walking through the woods.

Therapist:    How are you dressed?

Subject:       Seems to be ragged clothes, a leather belt and pouch, a floppy hat, sort of medieval.

Therapist:    What kind of physique?

Subject:       I’m thickset, coarse, muscular, a peasant, about 30.

Therapist:    What happens in the woods?

Subject:       There are three soldiers coming out of the trees. Their swords are drawn.

Therapist:    What are they doing?

Subject:       They’re cutting my throat. Oh, I’m choking on my blood (coughs). I’m dying (convulses). I’m gone (body relaxes).

Therapist:    What are you aware of now?

Subject:       I’m quite detached now. It’s all over. I’m leaving.

Therapist:    Where do you go?

Subject:       I’m in a peaceful place above the earth. There are these beings with me. Very warm and comforting.

Therapist:    Are they human?

Subject:       No, not at all. They seem to be helpers. We communicate without talking. I don’t seem to have a body now.

This dialogue, a composite, typical of many hundreds conducted in past-life sessions, differs in several important respects from the piece of unguided active imagination from which it developed. First, the story is now much more vivid; the imagery comes alive and forms a more psychologically authentic narrative. Second, the therapist’s guiding assumptions of “as if” leads directly to a realistic death experience complete with choking and convulsions, which provides an emotional catharsis rather than a compensatory escape into a “safe” fantasy or memory. Third, the “as if” dialogue produces a distinction of two realities within the imaginal realm: the embodied “earthly” reality of the peasant and the disembodied “heavenly” reality of the after-death state where the subject easily distinguishes a different kind of presence from the soldiers. Whether these beings are called “spirit guides” or “archetypal figures” or “angels,” they clearly are not imaged as flesh and blood creatures.

This technique, then, expands the Jungian injunction to “stay with the image” by adding to it a metapsychological framework that allows of more than one reality in which the individual’s complexes can be played out imaginally. Moreover, it includes the crucial archetypal “rite of passage” experience of the death transition from one reality to another. (The other rite of passage between the two varieties is of course, birth; an example of this appears below).

We will now look at two further refinements of this basic technique in past-life therapy.

Dramatic Focusing

“The play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Shakespeare, Hamlet.

If we read the stage directions to any play we find that everything is written in the present tense, linguistically speaking (e.g. “It is night. The old barn has a small lamp shining dimly above the door. The farmer and his son enter downstage. They are arguing fiercely.”) In guiding a past-life session it is extremely helpful to follow this model by keeping the subject firmly in the present, having him recount the story as it happens, event by event, very much as if he or she were in the middle of a drama. Whenever the therapist poses a series of questions in any “past” tense, this acts as an unconscious trigger which can easily distance the subject from the events of the story so that imagery quickly loses its vividness.

Often during a past-life session when a subject is being moved forward in time he or she wilt overshoot large sections of the story and will spontaneously begin describing the events in the past as over and finished. More often than not this indicates a strong resistance to re-living the painful core of the event. To counter this, the therapist simply needs to re-focus in the present. For example:

Therapist:    Go forward to the next significant event.

Subject:       I’m living alone in the woods. The village it’s all been destroyed. They came and killed everyone. (Sadness in voice).

Therapist:    Go back to when you first find the village destroyed.

Subject:       I see smoldering ruins…bodies…ugh! Its awful…Oh no, no…(sobs) It’s my wife! (deep sobbing).

Sometimes the opposite resistance occurs: the subject does not want to go forward in time at all because the unconscious is already anticipating painful scenes. Here it is common for an earlier scene to be dragged out moment by moment almost in slow motion so that the subject appears frozen in time. To counter this kind of blocking it is helpful to use connectors with the present tense. Examples:

Therapist:    What do you find when you do go up the stairs?

Therapist:    What happens when you do go into battle?

An even more subtle linguistic way of dissolving this kind of block is used by Morris Netherton: this is the use of a conditional tense.

Therapist:    What happens now?

Subject:       I don’t know. I don’t want to go to the door.

Therapist:    What would happen if you did?

Subject:       There would be men there.

Therapist:    And what would they do?

Subject:       (trembling) They would beat me up and drag me off for interrogation.

Therapist:    So how do they drag you off?

Subject:       I’m kicking and struggling. They’ve hit me over the head. It’s a black van. They’re Gestapo. Oh, no, no!

“How?” questions are among the most valuable for bringing the zoom lens right in close to the traumatic event, so much so that I have noticed that therapists in training will sometimes avoid it themselves if a particularly gruesome scene of torture or mutilation is involved (usually the avoidance is because some past-life of their own is unresolved on these issues). Nevertheless, in order for a trauma of this nature to be fully released at a psychosomatic level, the details of exactly how they will have to be elicited by the therapist with all the precision of a surgeon removing shrapnel from the tissue of a bomb victim.

To illustrate this difficult aspect of the work, I will cite a case from my practice where a young woman did actually remember dying in a bomb explosion. The physical feature that was most prominent in her current life when she came for therapy was that she was suffering from that phase of the disease lupus that gave her arthritis-like pains in the joints of her arms and legs. In the past-life session she re-lived the life of a young anarchist in Czarist Russia at the turn of the century. The crucial scene was as follows:

Therapist:    What are you doing now?

Subject:       We’re carrying bombs. They’re for those bastards (soldiers) who killed my father.

Therapist:    Go forward and tell me what happens.

Subject:       It’s all black. I’m not in my body.

Therapist:    Go back and describe to me how you die.

Subject:       I’m looking down from outside my body. Oh my God! It has no arms and legs. There’s been an explosion. It’s still moving.

Therapist:    Go back inside your body and tell me exactly how it feels.

Subject:       I’m dying, lying here on the street. The pain is terrible. No arms, no legs…(cries)…Now I’m dead. No more movement. I’m leaving that body.

Therapist:    As you leave, be aware that you don’t have to carry that pain anymore.

Like most victims of explosions, the young anarchist had gone out of his body, even though he was not yet dead. The death agony was unfinished and was recorded in the imaginal body memory of the anarchist life which had, so it would seem, been imprinted on the young woman’s body in this lifetime as part of her lupus symptoms of pain in her joints. Letting go of the physical memories also entailed for her letting go of the vengeful feelings she (he) had carried as the young anarchist, which had symbolically turned against her as “explosive” rage. What is remarkable is that after this one session all the arthritis-like symptoms disappeared. Her doctor, who was present at the session, attests that the symptoms have not returned—over two years later.

Working With the Imaginal Body

The examples we have just cited illustrate vividly the third basic principle that is essential, in my experience, for effective cathartic working through in past-life therapy: namely that the subject must fully re-experience the bodily sensations of the past-life trauma for emotional release to be complete.

If these bodily sensations and their concomitant emotions are not fully experienced, the complex seeking to express itself will remain lodged in the body, as it were. No amount of methodical understanding of the meaning, the symbolic content of the “karmic” ramifications of the experience, will help unless this bodily imagery is allowed to surface as well.

The reverse is also true: if the physical and emotional levels of the trauma are released without a full understanding of their meaning, in whatever framework the subject is open to (psychological, karmic, spiritual), then the subject will tend to remain stuck in a meaningless repetition of the emotions of the past-life scenario and the recurrence of whatever psychosomatic symptoms existed. In the case of the lupus sufferer just cited, it was just as essential for her to understand the symbolic meaning of the explosion as rage that had backfired against her in that lifetime as to re-experience the death. But both were necessary for healing to occur.

Being aware of one’s previous life through the imaginal body is thus a further extension of the Jungian precept to “stay with the image.” Only now it may be expressed as “stay in your body,” with the dual meaning of (1) staying in the imaginal body of the other lifetime and (2) being aware of this lifetime’s body sensations as you remember the other life.

In other words, therapy has to be sensitive to this overlay, since it is the cause of psychosomatic symptoms. Bringing the body image into a past-life scenario de-concretizes the unconscious imprinting of the imaginal body and frees up libido (or orgone energy, or chi, or prana) for creative and spiritual purposes. Thus in our sessions we move from the literal to the symbolic to release. Backache becomes a “broken back” becomes a discovery of new impetus for life. Migraine becomes a “head injury” becomes a freeing from burdensome and painful thoughts.

Not being in the body is another version of the schizoid defense we described earlier as the temporal distancing a subject will perform to avoid painful emotions. Just as in the examples given, the subject had to be gently brought back or forward to the crucial existential moment of the trauma, so with certain experiences the subject must be brought fully into the body, even to the extent of exaggerating the imaginal psychodrama by urging deep breathing or applying massage or some kind of physical pressure.

Gas Chambers in Auschwitz

As an example of this, we may cite the case of a young woman who described a previous life when, as a twelve year old girl, she had been killed in a Nazi gas chamber. Her account in her first session of her deportation to a concentration camp and subsequent death, though detailed was extremely flat, detached, without catharsis. Painful as it was, we decided to re-run the memory, this time refocusing both dramatically and physically:

Therapist:    Where are you now?

Subject:       We’re in a line outside this building. I’m no longer with my mother.

Therapist:    What exactly are you doing?

Subject:       I’m holding the hand of this older woman.

Therapist:    How do you feel?

Subject:       Terrible!

Therapist:    Do you cry?

Subject:       No, I can’t.

Therapist:    All right. Then breathe very deeply and let any feelings you may be holding back come to the surface (coaches breathing).

Subject:       (Breathing deeply) I don’t want to go in there (trembles, heaves).

Therapist:    Say that louder.

Subject:       I DON’T WANT TO GO IN THERE! (sobs loudly).

From then on a flood of emotion emerged and she described in detail the gassing: how it tasted, smelled, and which parts of her body it affected.

For several minutes she went through the convulsions of choking, vomiting, and doubling up as she re-lived her death. By the end of the session she had released so much fear, grief, and despair, as well as physical pain, that her chest had opened up to a much fuller pattern of breathing, similar to the releases experienced in Reichian therapy and re-birthing. Later she reported that a deep-seated depression, seemingly with her most of her life, was gone and that her breathing was permanently changed.

In her case there were no particular indications of the bodily blocks. Her breathing had been shallow it was true, but not exceptionally so, so the clue to the block was the lack of affect. In other cases the body image advertises trauma much more loudly, so to speak and then more direct intervention may be appropriate.

This was true of a woman of thirty-four, a professional painter, who sought out therapy, reciting a confused bag of complaints about her marriage, about the bad feelings she had about her mother from whom she had moved and the notion that it was all connected to a past-life fragment she had glimpsed as a painter in Holland. As she told her story, I was struck by how rigid and tense her shoulders were. It was as though they were held two or three inches higher than necessary.

During the relaxation part of my induction procedure she had great difficulty in letting go, so I offered to massage her neck and shoulders. When she agreed I worked a little on her very tight trapezius muscle and her neck. Very soon she slipped into a male life as an impoverished Dutch painter during the 17th century. The painter had a wife and a very young baby, whom he could barely support. In his obsession with finishing a certain painting he severely neglected both wife and baby, even when the baby became sick. To his horror the baby grew worse and died and his embittered wife deserted him. The key scene in our work was as follows:

Therapist:    Where are you now?

Subject:       I’m wandering along the canals. I can’t find my wife. She’s left me for good.

Therapist:    Where do you go now?

Subject:       I think, back to the house. Oh, no! I don’t want to go back there. (Her shoulders begin to tense up very noticeably).

Therapist:    Breath deeply and go back to the house and see what happens. (At this point the young woman shot up from lying on the couch to a sitting position, grabbed her neck and began to scream).

Therapist:    What has happened?

Subject:       Oh God! I hung myself. (Sobs deeply)

For a short while we worked on letting go of the death experience and the emotions connected with the loss of wife and child. But this was not all. When asked to move forward, she spontaneously found herself re-experiencing her birth in this life—with the cord wrapped around her neck! Full understanding came moments later when, as a baby, she looked up at her mother, having survived this second trauma.

Subject:       I know why I’m here.

Therapist:    Why are you here?

Subject:       To be close to my mother (sobs). I know who she is now.

Therapist:    Tell me who she is.

Subject:       She’s the baby who died. I see that I’ve been trying to make it up to her all these years.

What is remarkable about this exceptionally condensed session is the way in which all the guilt about the neglect and the death of the baby had been lodged, as an imaginal imprint, at the moment of the Dutch painter’s remorseful suicide. All her feelings about first the baby and then her mother were reinforced in the birth trauma and carried in the young woman’s body language to the present day. They had remained locked in her neck and shoulders. She had continued to punish herself unconsciously and had not been able to let go of feeling responsible for her mother. In subsequent sessions she could release this. She felt enormous pressure taken off her marriage; to say nothing of her shoulders that had by then noticeably dropped a couple of inches!


Not every client’s body language speaks so loudly or so urgently of course, but almost any part of the body where there is chronic or recurrent pain may harbor the image of a past-life trauma that can be effectively worked with. The well-known movement therapist, Anna Halpern, says that “every part of the body has a story to tell,” perfectly summarizing the principle we have been illustrating.

How the therapist reaches the story, buried as it is in the body’s unconscious fantasies, will vary according to what tools and training he or she brings to a past-life session. We have seen how verbal cues can elicit the story, as can breathing and massage. It is noticeable, too, how more and more people sensitive to the past-life dimension of the psyche are reporting fragments of past lives during Rolfing, massage, primal therapy, and other forms of bodywork.

Yet it must be stated clearly that any bodywork of this sort is only a means to eliciting a story—a story which belongs to imaginal body. Altering body tissues cannot be an end in itself from the perspective of past-life therapy and moreover is doomed to only limited success if the psyche is ignored. When a person complains of persistent back pain, the aim of a massage would be to allow a clear image of that pain to emerge as a key to an imaginal drama involving that location of the body in another lifetime, The therapist’s task is to pursue the story in the understanding, confirmed by more and more reports, that it is the reliving of the story in all its physical details, psychological drama, and human pathos that really heals.



Avens, Robert. Imaginal Body. Washington, D.C.: Univ. Press of America, 1982.

Bandler, R. & Grinder, T. The Structure of Magic. 2 Vols. Palo Alto: Science and Behavior, 1975.

Corbin, Henry. Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn’Aribi, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Fiore, Edith. You Have Been Here Before. New York: Ballantine Books, 1969.

Grant, Joan and Kelsey, Denys. Many Lifetimes. New York: Picket Books, 1969.

Hannah, Barbara. Active Imagination. Boston: Sigo Press, 1981.

Hillman, James. Archetypal Psychology. Dallas: Spring Books, 1983.

Jung, C. G. The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Coll. Works, 8, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960.

Jung, C. G. The Practice of Psychotherapy, Coll. Works, 16, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Jung, C. G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Ed. Jaffe, New York: Random House, 1961.

Kardec, A. The Spirit’s Book. Sao Paolo: Lake, 1972.

Langley, Noel. Edgar Cayce on Reincarnation. New York: Warner, 1967.

McGregor, Geddes. Reincarnation in Christianity. Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Pub., 1978.

Moore, Marcia. Hypersentience. New York: Crown, 1976.

Netherton, Morris, and Shiffrin, Nancy. Past Lives Therapy. New York: Ace, 1979.

Sutphen, Dick. You Were Born Again to be Together. New York: Pocket Books, 1978.

Wambach, Helen. Reliving Past Lives. New York: Bantam, 1978.

Watkins, Mary. Waking Dreams. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1976.

Waveren, Erlo van. Pilgrimage to the Rebirth. New York: Weiser, 1978.