by Rabia Lynn Clark, Ph.D.
Rabia Clark recommends that past-life therapists question some of their fondest assumptions about past-life therapy. Like David Ritchey in this issue of the Journal, she discusses the “false memory syndrome” controversy as it may relate to our methods of practice. Clark suggests self-examination and a further dialogue on the subject.
The “false memory syndrome” is a controversial issue right now, and one very relevant to us, as past-life therapists may encounter serious repercussions if they create false memories in their clients. Perhaps they should re-examine their techniques to avoid being thought unethical.
A Doonesbury cartoon puts the issue in a nutshell. A therapist is interviewing Mark on the radio. The therapist says:
“It’s many years ago – you’re in your own bed – it’s late at night – Someone quietly steps from the shadows – Do you see him, Mark?”
Mark replies, “I do – I see him in the moonlight!”
“And who is it, Mark? Who’s standing beside you?”
“It’s – it’s Lyndon Johnson!”
“No, no, it’s your father. What’s he wearing?”
Mark says, “It’s Johnson, I tell you! He’s come to – to draft me!”
The issue of the therapist’s influence upon clients is an ethical dilemma which past-life therapists would do well to consider. Every instruction given by the therapist to the client is full of possible danger to the integrity of the session. How can we keep our own beliefs and prejudices out of our therapy?
For example, most past-life therapists begin their sessions with some form of relaxation. This may include hypnotic progressive relaxation and then a guided meditation to open up the client’s imaging ability. I often use going down a hallway and opening a door to another life. Another is going up stairs and opening a door, or going into a garden with flowers the colors of the chakras, used to “clear” the client before beginning. The effects of these images on the client have not been studied. Are they prefiguring what the client finds? In Europe, Oneirotherapy techniques have been developed to encourage clients to reveal their impressions of various types of scenes, such as going into a cave where a dragon dwells, or a man going into the castle of Sleeping Beauty. The client is asked to enter an imaginary body, called the Imaginary Corporal Ego (ICE) (Clark, 1995, pp. 66-69). This is very similar to what we are doing in past-life therapy (PLT), except that we are asking the client to go to a past-life body, instead of an imaginary one. Both approaches use imagery to reach into the subconscious and bring out meaningful images which can be used to help clients resolve their problems.
The dilemma for past-life therapists arises when they assume that the scenes which are revealed are literally true. How careful are we to avoid imposing belief systems about reincarnation and karma upon our clients? Is that really possible in past-life therapy?
To give some examples from my own experience as a client, I have been subjected to regressions where I was very uncomfortable with the therapist’s vantage point, but didn’t tell them. How much more difficult is it for our clients, not really knowing what is going on, to tell us that they have a different viewpoint? When I was with a therapist who said, “Go to a scene of pain and suffering,” I got one scene after the other of being hit on the head and killed (I was trying to relieve migraines), which did nothing to affect the pain, but was really upsetting to me. Another time, the therapist gave such a rapid-fire of questions that I never had time to let my subconscious images bubble up to the top of my awareness. Another therapist had a very Christian and Theosophical background, which she supposed I shared. My defenses dried up the creative images which had been arising. Needless to say, I never went back to these therapists for more sessions.
I first experienced past-life sessions as a client of a Colonel Horace Jackson, from the Texas Parapsychology Association. He charged me four dollars for an hour’s session (this was in 1976). At that point no one in my area knew much about past-life therapy, or even how to access past lives. Col. Jackson would slowly count to 200, as I let my body relax. When I could no longer hear his coughing and shuffling, my images began to arise. He said nothing more during the session. I remember one time during a regression where I had gone to some kind of upper dimension, when I suddenly fell back into my body. I said, “Col. Jackson, what happened?” He replied, “Oh, I was thinking of a phone call I had to make.”
This made it clear to me that although he was silent, something was happening between us as he sat there. I did sessions each week for four months with him. My images became more and more meaningful, and were very spiritual. By the end of that time, I could enter a trance which was so deep that I couldn’t hear myself talking, and the tape recorder couldn’t function correctly. When I played it back, it sounded like Chinese! Then I decided that it was time for me to start doing regressions with others.
I had discovered in my own sessions that a person would come up to me as I was imaging another life, throw their arms around me, and then I’d be looking out of their eyes. I found I needed to be in a body similar to those in the various planes or dimensions. To be in a place with angels, I had to be one too. I found myself entering the images of light beings, pine trees, animals, and past-life figures.
I have always been grateful to Col. Jackson for his non-interference. It allowed me to evolve at my own pace; it brought out a spiritual awareness which I couldn’t even imagine before. I found I was being trained by and through the regressions, in a school in another dimension, for leadership in the Sufi Order, where I eventually became a teacher. At least that was my interpretation, and not Col. Jackson’s.
I have recently tried various approaches to doing regressions, to be efficient with the time allowed (2 hours), but also be as empty a mirror as possible for my clients to reflect their images in. I usually tell them that I don’t believe that the images we see in PLT are real, but more like dreams or symbols for their present situation. I point out that they are welcome to believe anything they want about it. At least I’ve put my vantage point out in the open. I fear that our creating a situation where the client has to believe in the reality of the past lives they experience will create a great danger to us and them.
What happens if the client is encouraged to believe the past lives reflect an actual life, and it is influencing the present? This is a hard one, as past-life therapy is usually focused on evaluating the influence of the past life on the present life. The danger here is that we may have created a false memory, and the client may act on it in ways which are destructive to themselves or others. I was horrified to read that a past-life therapist encouraged the client to believe that the client was being abused in this life because they were the abuser in the past life. Karma, balancing out? Well, a variation of this theme would be that the person in the past life killed the client, and the client now must take revenge. The therapist’s belief may put a present-day person in danger.
One reason why this is so dangerous is the current controversy about False Memory Syndrome in the field of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) (formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder, MPD). People who have developed alter personalities because of extreme abuse (usually as infants and children) think that these personalities are real. They may be unaware that they are losing time, to later discover another alter has taken over, and they have amnesia for the event. Some have over 100 alters, each being in charge of particular aspects of the personality: One alter deals with the abuse, others manage school and work, a persecutor alter may try to kill the body, and various child selves are common. Clients and their families often just assume they are moody, when actually the self of the person has been shattered, with little communication between parts.
A rising number of therapists are being sued for causing false memories in their clients. In a recent conference on DID, one therapist said that it had cost her malpractice insurance company over a million dollars to defend her, and there were still several more accusations by some of her other clients to settle. Most such situations occur when the client, under hypnosis, “remembers” being abused, often by family members. The therapist, using hypnosis, encourages the client to recall what happened. But the questions the therapist asks may change what the client “remembers.” The alleged perpetrators of the abuse are accused, families are disrupted, parents may divorce and refuse to speak to the client, and the client may end by going to a mental hospital, as has happened in at least one case.
A new group has been founded by accused abusers, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. With considerable financial backing, they have brought numerous cases against therapists. The therapists find the publicity damages their lives irreparably, affects their practice, and costs them hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend themselves, in addition to the malpractice insurance assistance.
Are past-life therapists in danger of going down this same road? If our clients, because of our encouragement, think their past lives are real, that sets the stage for lawsuits similar to the DID ones. If a therapist encourages a client to change their life on the basis of a past-life session, are they creating danger for themselves? We know that these images seem real, and that they stay in the memory as if they were real. A strong emotional component exaggerates the effect. The so-called “affect bridge” technique may be a problem here.
Possible Dangers of the Affect Bridge Technique
Therapists who retrieve past lives through the affect bridge technique (asking the client to repeat a phrase, remember a feeling, or see an image, and then follow it to a relevant past life) may be in particular danger. This technique encourages catharsis, experiencing strong emotions about what is observed. These strong emotions seem very real precisely because of their intensity. “Going back to a time of pain and suffering” will trigger off images limited to that theme. The therapist is creating a situation for potential trouble. This kind of instruction to the client is definitely leading the client where the therapist wants to go. The client doesn’t have a chance to develop her or his own model, and explore the uniqueness of his or her own inner world. It’s a fast technique for inductions, and so it is often used when a client only comes for one session. But it takes a while for most clients to develop their own archetypes and methods of moving in their own inner space.
Morris Netherton’s work (1978) using the affect bridge technique has been very influential in promoting the technique in our field. Roger Woolger (1987) elaborated on Netherton’s technique, which he now believes leads to a kind of psychodrama, where the client is acting out the crisis in the past life. Many other American and Canadian therapists use the technique, and the Dutch therapists TenDam, Noordegraaf, and Bontembal have extended the use of the technique even further, to France, Brazil, and Holland.
Affect bridge techniques are very efficient time-savers, and encourage the client to re-enact scenes with exaggerated emotions. The technique is often billed as being non-hypnotic. TenDam (1996) assumes that PLT will be more acceptable if it doesn’t involve hypnotic procedures, and that the affect bridge technique is non-hypnotic. Milton Erickson’s work contradicts this assumption. He put a man into a trance by merely talking slowly about growing tomatoes, using that as a metaphor for healing. The suggestion that images will be created is, to my mind, hypnosis. TenDam (1995) has done an analysis of his clients and their responses to treatment, which is a good beginning for evaluating his techniques. However, he didn’t have a comparison group which used another technique to make his study more valid. Has anyone else done follow-ups to find out what effect these assumptions have? We need to examine our techniques to find out which are most effective, with which clients, and with least stress to them.
We need to ask ourselves, “Is this the best technique for this client?” I can’t help but think that the affect bridge technique may have the opposite effect from what is intended. It may create, at the least, frightening memories which the client assumes are real. The client is encouraged to release the past life through emotionally re-experiencing it. The theory is that past-life emotions are still bothering the client, and if they can be re-lived, the trauma from that past life will be resolved, and the problem in the present will disappear. Do therapists realize that they are imposing this “flush it away” vantage point, without it having ever been validated? Does going through such a traumatic regression abuse the client? There is controversy going on about the very existence of DID, about whether or not false memories can be created (for an overview, see Alpert et. al, undated). We must remember that the veracity of past-life regression reports has not been proven and may never be proven: they may be another example of “false memory syndrome.” There are so few cases which have been studied scientifically that we can say it is very rare to have validation of these reports.
Very little has been published on the effectiveness of non-cathartic PLT. Thelma Freedman (in an undated, unpublished paper), says: “Is strong affect necessary? I have never found it so. In fact, I always tell my clients to remain calm and comfortable throughout the experience, and they do so, reasonably well. And yet they get better…
The whole idea of the necessity for strong affect may come from the psychoanalytic idea of catharsis, but in working with past-life reports it seems unnecessary. It may even be counterproductive, if the past-life report experience is so frightening that the client does not want to continue the therapy.” In her study of people with phobias, Freedman gave the hypnotic direction to all the participants that they would remain “calm and comfortable throughout the experience” and deliberately prevented strong catharsis, and yet her therapeutic results were statistically significant (Freedman, 1995). Fiore, too, in a re-assessment of PLT, calls the “high affect” approach “a waste of precious time” (Fiore, 1986).
One group of past-life therapists focuses on spiritual or metaphysical regressions. While I think they are probably in less danger of lawsuits than therapists who use cathartic methods, they would be wise to observe carefully whether they are imposing their vantage point on the client. If client and therapist’s vantage points diverge, and the therapist, as an authority figure, imposes their values on the client, is this what we really want to do? Do we ask the client first what they believe, and also hang our philosophy out in the open air for the client to be aware of? If we don’t question our assumptions about past-life therapy, our techniques, and the imposition of our beliefs on the client, are we being ethically responsible?
The issue is like a pink elephant in a dark closet. In the dark each person grabs a part of the elephant and thinks the whole elephant is like a tree trunk, or a rope. We need to see the elephant out in the light.
I have found it very interesting to change my techniques to be less intrusive and allow clients to devise their own way. I do encourage them to be curious, asking themselves questions about what is happening in the past life, in order to keep the images coming: “Where am I?” “Who else is here?” “What happens next?” “What does it look (or feel) like here?” When they can do that (which may take a session or two), I can get out of their way, and they can ask the questions which are meaningful for them. I also suggest they may find it more interesting to imagine themselves looking out of the past-life body, discovering what they are wearing, and where they are. If they prefer to just watch the action, I assume that they are resistant to something I have done, or are frightened, instead of blaming the resistance on them.
I also teach them to move in time by themselves, by counting to five and saying to themselves, “Now I am going to the next important scene.” I give them a few examples of this, and many clients find it enjoyable, as I am not rushing them on my time schedule. Those clients who are more dependent are not good at this “do it yourself” process, and I do escort them through the regression with more directive input. Obviously, this is not a 15-minute process!
I challenge our Journal readers to question their techniques, to closely examine them for possible harm to their clients or danger to themselves, and to develop an array of techniques, instead of sticking to old assumptions. That’s why APRT has conferences: to network with each other, to share new ideas, and to learn from the experiences of others. We must be aware of the possibility that we are creating false memories, and stop whatever we are doing that may put our clients or ourselves in danger.
We choose the techniques we use in therapy because they fit our temperament, but soon they seem like the only way to go. Question your assumptions! I would welcome other points of view, or agreements, perhaps in the APRT Newsletter. My main intent is to get this elephant out of the closet and examine it, before it turns upon us.
Alpert, J. L; Brown, L. S; Ceci, S. J.; Courtois, C. A.; Loftus, E. F.; Ornstein, P. A. Working Group on Investigation of Memories of Childhood Abuse, Final Report. Washington, DC: American Psychological Assn., 1994.
Clark, R. Past Life Therapy, the State of the Art. Austin, TX: Rising Star Press, 1995.
Fiore, E. Past-Life Therapy Reexamined. Journal of Regression Therapy, I, (1), 59-63, 1986.
Freedman, T. (undated, unpublished). What is Past Life Report Therapy? Looking for the Necessary and Sufficient Conditions.
Freedman, T. Past Life Therapy for Phobias: Patterns and Outcome. Journal of Regression Therapy, IX, (1), 20-29, 1995.
Netherton, M. Past Lives Therapy. New York: William Morrow, 1978.
TenDam, H. Deep Healing: The Methodology of Past-Life Therapy. Amsterdam: Tasso, 1996.
TenDam, H. Analysis of a Past Life Therapy Practice. Journal of Regression Therapy, IX, (1), 36-41, 1995.
Woolger, R. Other Lives, Other Selves: a Jungian Therapist Discovers Past Lives. New York: Doubleday, 1987.