Rabia Lynn Clark, Ph.D.
Rabia Clark briefly discusses cultural and religious reincarnation beliefs and examines what past-life therapists say they have found in past-life therapy as well as what Stevenson has found in his researches into the spontaneous past-life memories of children.
Reincarnation is a belief found in many cultures and religions: Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Sufi, Huna, and others. But recent past-life memories have brought us to a new understanding about reincarnation. The work of Ian Stevenson, M.D., and the relatively new field of past-life therapy have both made contributions in confirming some old beliefs while adding new insights.
Concepts about an afterlife and reincarnation are very diverse in different religions and cultures. They offer models to deal with the eternal questions of death, grief at the loss of a loved one, and the meaningfulness and purpose of life. Millions of people base their everyday lives on their understanding of reincarnation and karma (the law of cause and effect). These beliefs impact many cultures and religions. What new model is available which verifies the old reincarnation beliefs or moves those beliefs to be more in accord with present times? Past-life recall, either spontaneously or with guidance, may offer new insights about reincarnation and the role it plays in our lives.
Models of Reincarnation in the Past
Humans seem to be theory-makers. The earliest peoples used teaching stories and myths to express their understanding of the purpose of life, death, and life after death. They created elaborate paintings and pictographs in caves and on mountains; these depict magic hunting scenes and spirit beings, and document important events.
Native peoples from both East and West believe in the unbroken unity of life, and in oneness with all creation. The very ancient tribes in Australia had a firm belief in the reincarnation of ancestors, as did many Native American groups.
Early pre-Christian cultures in Europe believed that the spirit of a deceased ancestor would be reborn in the body of a descendant. In parts of Africa there is a similar belief about rebirth. When a child is born, a wise man is called to tell the family which ancestor has reincarnated. There is a belief in the mutation of humans into other kinds of existence, such as angels or light beings in a progression from one new birth to another, and finally going to a new heaven and a new Earth. Ancient Egyptian beliefs in rebirth were so strong that the dead were mummified (including cats and other animals), and objects were placed in their tombs which they would need when they were reborn.
There are also ideas of the evolution of life from rocks and water, through the plant kingdom to insects, birds, animals, and humans, and on to a yet more evolved birth in other planes or dimensions. The Huna belief system in Hawaii is one example of this. Another is the philosophy of the Sufis, dating back to at least 630 AD. Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273), the revered Sufi poet and founder of the Mevlevi dervish order of mystics, wrote about this evolutionary process.
Hindu beliefs about reincarnation are very old. The Upanishads tells of the search for the real Self, rebirth through many lives, guided by the doctrine of karma arising from one’s actions, the oneness of all created things, and the eventual return to Brahma, essence of all. Mythical stories, like the Mahabharata, vividly illustrate the cycle of births and deaths, of the duties and goal of life (dharma), and that death is really an illusion. Beyond desires, and the consequences of those desires (which bring us back into life again), there is an unchanging reality.
Gotama Buddha emphasized a way of living which would release suffering. This is exemplified by his teachings in the Dhammapada and in many other Buddhist texts. Buddhism has many beliefs about reincarnation and transcending the wheel of rebirth. The present Dali Lama, for example, remembers his past lives. He also recognized his favorite teacher, who died in 1983 at the age of 81. The Ling Rinpoche reborn in his new body was a boy of 21 months of age who was found in a Tibetan orphanage. Tibetan lamas are also believed to be reincarnating in the West. One of them, a Spanish boy, Osel Hita Torres, was discovered at 14 months of age by the Dali Lama to be the reincarnation of an important Tibetan lama who died in California in 1984 (Mackenzie, 1996).
Reincarnation is addressed by many early Christians, including St. Clement of Alexandria, Origin, St. Gregory, Arnobius, St. Jerome and St. Augustine. It is mentioned in the Bible: Matthew 16:13-14 and 17:9-13, Mark 9:11-13, John: 1:21, and in the Apocrypha in the Wisdom of Solomon 8:19, 20, among others (Head & Cranston, 1961). A learned and original thinker among the early Christian bishops, Origin, believed in a pre-existent soul with free will, which becomes imprisoned in a human body, and evolves through various lives to finally grow beyond the human form and become an angel or demon (MacGregor, 1978). Origin’s teachings were condemned by the Catholic church in the sixth century. During the last century, reincarnation beliefs have been fostered in the West by the Spiritualists, Theosophists, the growing interest in Eastern spiritual paths and non-Christian religions, and by the work of Edgar Cayce. In treating his patients, Cayce gave many instances of the effects of a past life on present health problems.
Recent past-life memories
Past-life recall seems to have become more frequent in our times. Much excitement was aroused in the 1950s by the case of a woman who remembered her life as a 19th-century Irish woman, Bridey Murphy, while under hypnosis. Some of her memories were discounted as being from childhood, but others were shown to be accurate (Bernstein, 1978).
A number of articles and books have been written by Ian Stevenson, MD, about the spontaneous past-life memories of young children. He has visited many children in diverse cultures who claim to remember their most recent life before the present one. He has traveled with them to the place where they remember living in the past life, and found that they could often remember the way to their former home, and once there, they also remembered many of the people who had lived with them in their recent previous life. They also remember how they had died in that life. Stevenson has now published an exciting new book dealing with birth marks and birth defects which occur in the location and have the configuration of mortal wounds in the past life. (Ed. note: See Clark’s review of Stevenson’s new book in this issue of the Journal; also in this issue, see Denning’s review of Bowman’s book on children’s past lives.) Stevenson has attempted to analyze children’s spontaneous past-life memories in a scientific manner, but he believes that guided past-life memories are not as likely to be verified as are spontaneous memories (Stevenson, 1997).
The basic premise of past-life therapy is that past-life memories may affect the present life. Once a memory is recovered and re-lived, the association with the present can be broken, and the problem may disappear. According to the author’s research, only about half of past-life therapists are interested in proving reincarnation when doing regressions. Nevertheless, 93% believe in reincarnation. Past-life therapy generally does not present specific memories which are verifiable. Its purpose is to use the past influences of this or previous lives to change the present. For therapeutic purposes it doesn’t seem to matter whether therapist or client believes that the lives are real or not (Clark, 1995).
A group of 136 past-life therapists, all members of APRT, answered a detailed questionnaire about their practices. When asked, “What are the main contributions of past-life therapy?” some answered (Clark, 1995):
Expansion of the mind into wider, higher realms toward enlightenment;
Cleansing the soul to function more fully and with purpose in the present life;
Advancing spiritual growth and soul evolution;
Opening up the spiritual dimension of life;
Comprehension of the self as a spiritual being;
Creating spiritual awareness;
Working with the client’s soul;
Helping clients understand the purpose of life.
Very few other therapy methods elicit this kind of response. These answers convey the spiritual nature of past-life therapy for many therapists. These therapists also reported that many client problems and physical illnesses are changed for the better by past-life therapy. Some therapists say that their clients go to what may be called a “vertical rebirth” into other dimensions, other states of consciousness, transpersonal experiences and future lives. These are not found in children’s spontaneous memories.
Are reincarnation memories true? Ian Stevenson, MD, believes that hypnosis has much in common with dreams. It seems surprising to him that people who attach no importance to their dreams then uncritically accept hypnotic past-life memories as true (Stevenson, 1987). Scientific truth is not the same as religious or experiential truth, and it may be difficult to “prove” reincarnation by the case studies found in the past-life literature and in Stevenson’s work. Descriptive methods, which use case histories, are not often acceptable to scientists today. However, science has only recently opened a crack in the door to this kind of research.
Problems with Past-Life Therapy
When doing past-life regressions or therapy, some therapists ask the client a series of questions and offer images for the client to use while relaxing. The therapist’s questions and philosophical stance may influence what the client then experiences and says. This may create therapist-induced memories (Clark, 1996), and some of the therapists’ beliefs about past-life therapy listed above may be the result of such factors.
- R. Martin (1942) may be the earliest American author who discusses past-life retrieval (Schwimmer, 1993). Martin used many of the same techniques that are common today, and he was very aware of the therapist’s influence on the client. Martin says: “Great care was taken to ask no leading questions, thereby eliminating the possibility of implanting ideas in the mind of the reviewer, thus making certain to bring out only that which was recorded in the reviewer’s subconscious mind” (p. 8). It seems safer for therapists to be alert about influencing their clients’ experiences, or imposing their theoretical points of view upon clients. When past-life therapists guide their clients to imagine themselves in a past-life body, and activate all the senses, the client often believes these memories are true. We get emotional in movies, but the movie is not real. The same applies here. A healthy dose of skepticism is called for. Past-life therapists should not only be extremely aware how their questions and assumptions affect the client’s responses, but also show respect for the client’s philosophical belief system. (Ed. Note: For a discussion of this problem, see Magyar’s article in this issue of the Journal).
One example of this is given in Weiss (1988) about a client, “Catherine,” who spontaneously went back to a past-life scene. Although this was a surprise to Weiss, he did not discourage her from continuing. This client continued her past-life work with him, and eventually became very psychic, telling him about facts in his life that he had not disclosed before. She went to the interworld after death in one of those lives, and got in touch with her spirit guides. Weiss courageously did not hold her to his psychoanalytic paradigm. On the contrary, his own beliefs were transformed by the experience of his client, and the client was healed.
What Past-Life Memories Show about Reincarnation
We now can access what may be past-life memories with ease, using imagery or hypnotic techniques in past-life regressions. Also, more spontaneous memories, outside of therapy, have been chronicled. Therapists report various phenomena in past-life therapy; some of them may add to our understanding of reincarnation, but some may be the result of therapists’ inadvertent suggestions. According to therapists’ experience as past-life therapists:
- We may choose to come back into life because we have work to do which requires a body and personal ego. This decision is made by the soul alone, or with a “committee.”
- We may choose our parents and the conditions of the next life in order to fulfill our life purpose. This purpose can be discovered in past-life therapy.
- There may be influences from past lives which affect our lives in the present time. Dysfunctional influences and some psychological and physical problems can be alleviated by returning to the past life where they began, and releasing them from the present through therapy. Present-day positive traits and interests may also come from a past life. The possibility of releasing past-life karma which affects the present life is not found in the religious beliefs about reincarnation.
- There may be people we know now who were with us in a past life, perhaps in a different relationship than the present (a mother in a past life may the daughter in the present, for example). We may have chosen to reincarnate together again to work on unresolved problems from the past life.
- The memory of a violent death in a previous life may persist and cause fear in the present. Fear of death may be removed by experiencing that death in a past life. This involves techniques in therapy for dying in the past life and moving on to the interworld between lives. In this disembodied state, the client may discover the meaning and purpose of previous lives, as well as for the present one.
- Clients also may go to another kind of life, in the spiritual realms (which I call “vertical rebirth”). Spiritual past lives can have a positive effect on the client. The spiritual vantage-point is, of course, more frequent in past-life therapy than in other therapies. These are often transforming experiences. Some people go to a life that is like this one, but not in a physical body; instead, they find themselves in a body of light. Or, they may become angels, or have memories of unity states, similar to Nirvana and Samadhi in meditation. Healing of the present body may also occur in those states.
- We may have memories of past lives when we visit a particular place, as if we had been there before (déja vu), or we may feel that a person we meet in this life had some past-life connection with us.
- We seem to repeat themes from one life to the next. For example, we may experience sadness, fear, abandonment, or progressive spiritual attainment from life to life. Finding this pattern in a regression state can be very beneficial to the client, who then knows what pattern needs to be completed or released in this life in order for the old dysfunctional pattern to stop. Forgiveness is often an important factor in releasing these patterns.
- Memories of living in the bodies of animals or plants are uncommon in present-day past-life memories. They may be seen as symbolic. For instance, viewing oneself as a tiger may be a metaphor for experiencing a powerful life. A Brazilian therapist takes his clients back to a memory of being in cellular life forms.
- People occasionally remember languages which they never learned in the present life (xenoglossy). Past-life therapy clients do this sometimes, but it is rare.
- Guides, angels, totem animals, “the masters,” and the higher self may be “recalled” if the therapist asks the client for this information, but they do not usually appear without prompting.
- Some therapists ask all their clients if they are possessed by a spirit (of a person who died, for example), before even starting the therapy. If so, they do a spirit releasement on the client. But if the client had not been asked that question, it seems unlikely that the client would have brought it up spontaneously, and this question may be creating false memories. Many past-life therapists are incorporating Spirit Releasement Therapy in their repertoire (Ed. Note: See the report of Whitmore’s dissertation research in “Three Research Studies” in this issue of the Journal).
- Future lives can also appear, but it is harder to access them. They don’t seem to be as emotional or realistic as past lives. These too may be the result of therapist suggestion.
- Groups of people may claim to remember past lives in the same situation. For example, a group of Janet Cunningham’s clients (1994) claimed to remember their life together as a Native American tribe which was massacred. In another case, a group of Marge Rieder’s clients (1993) claimed to remember living together in the small town of Millboro in the 1800s, where they were active in the underground railway. Some of their data has been shown to be accurate. Both of these authors found themselves becoming participants in these past lives with their clients, which rarely happens in past-life therapy. Were these clients’ memories real or were they caused by the therapists’ belief system or questions, or had they heard about it from other clients? (Ed. Note: See Steiger’s article on these questions in this issue of the Journal.)
- The idea that previous lives affect the present is common, and is the main premise of past-life therapy. In the past there was no remedy for “bad” karma. In past-life therapy there are many ways to release these connections.
- Spontaneous dreams or flashbacks of past lives seem to have fewer details than those reached during therapy. This may be because spontaneous memories are often accessed in a deeper state of consciousness, where the person then lapses into sleep. In therapy, clients can stay in deep states of trance longer, as the therapist’s presence may affect the clients and keep them awake. The regression is usually reviewed at the end of a therapy session, which also aids in remembering details of what happened.
Recollections of past lives, either through spontaneous memories or through therapy, have added to our understanding of reincarnation. The list above indicates that past-life memories seem to affect the person’s present life. Remembering them often involves a spiritual awakening, similar to near-death experiences. Releasing stuck emotions by reliving the situation in a past life may cause healing, both physical and emotional. Past-life memories may restore relationships. They often bring about realizations which remove blocks in the journey of life.
Past-life memories have become much more common now than in the 1950s, as we have created many techniques for accessing past lives quickly, and processing these lives in a therapeutic manner. We can also access death, future lives, the in-between life state, and other dimensions of consciousness.
We may have both horizontal and vertical rebirths. The horizontal rebirth moves us in time, either past, present, or future. The vertical rebirth includes the interworld state after death, other dimensions and states of consciousness, near-death type experiences and progression to higher spiritual states. If both kinds of rebirth are included, with the physical and the spiritual rebirths seen as evolutionary states, then many religious beliefs can be understood. Religions have included many different beliefs about heaven and hell, the upper world, the underworld, and many spiritual dimensions.
Examples of spiritual vertical rebirth would be the resurrection of Jesus and the ascension of the Prophet Mohammed to heaven in a vision. The cases Stevenson discovered would be the horizontal memories of previous lives in specific times and places. Past-life therapy cases are both, though the horizontal memories are more common. Both kinds of rebirth are useful concepts to give meaning and purpose to life, to explain the cause and relief of suffering and to bring comfort to those whose loved ones have died.
Weiss (1988), who has been very influential in popularizing past-life therapy through his books, says “I believe strongly that therapists must have open minds. Just as more scientific work is necessary to document death-and-dying experiences…so is more experimental work necessary in the field. Therapists need to consider the possibility of life after death and integrate it into their counseling. They do not have to use hypnotic regressions, but they should keep their minds open, share their knowledge with their patients, and not discount their patients’ experiences” (p. 164). One can only concur.
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——— The Influence of the Therapist in Past-life Therapy. Journal of Regression Therapy, X (1), 23-29, 1996.
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Martin, A. R. Researches in Reincarnation and Beyond. Sharon, PA: A. R. Martin, 1942 (reissued by Bolton, 1952).
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MacGregor, G. Reincarnation and Christianity. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1978.
Mackenzie, V. Reincarnation: The Boy Lama. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1996.
Rieder, M. Mission to Millboro. Nevada City, CA: Blue Dolphin, 1993.
Schwimmer, G. A. R. Martin: Pioneer in Past-Life Regression. Journal of Regression Therapy, VII (1), 16-28, 1993.
Stevenson, I. Cases of the Reincarnation Type: Twelve Cases in Thailand and Burma. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1983.
——— Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. (over 400 cases). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishing Co. (two volumes, 2268 pages), 1997.
——— Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect. A synopsis of the previous book, 600 pages, 1997.
Weiss, B. Many Lives, Many Masters. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.