by David Edwards, Ph.D.
David Edwards is a newcomer to our pages, and a welcome one. He documents a process of intensive altered states psychotherapy as he works through the difficulties his client, “Marian,” encounters on her road to growth. Using breathing and bodywork interventions, he accesses and processes past lives related to the spiritual crises Marian was facing in her life. Dr. Edwards examines some ideas from psychoanalytic theory as they may relate to past-life therapy and spiritual emergence.
I am indebted to “Marian” for giving permission for the use of the material of her psychotherapy as the substance of this paper.
Stanislav and Christina Grof use the concept of spiritual emergence to refer to intensive processes of personal transformation such as psychic opening, Kundalini awakening, or shamanic initiation which are characterized by a series of powerful and often disorienting experiences (Bragdon, 1990; Grof, 1988; C. Grof & S. Grof, 1990; S. Grof & C. Grof, 1989; Edwards, 1991a). In the process of psychic opening, the individual may experience telepathy, clairvoyance, and psychokinetic phenomena, which are often a prelude to the development of skill in giving clairvoyant readings or exercising gifts of spiritual healing. In Kundalini awakening, a powerful energy is experienced surging through the body, especially up the spine. The energy surges can be physically painful and can be accompanied by a range of phenomena including emotional lability and the spontaneous experiencing of past-life scenes or spiritual visions. In shamanic initiation in traditional cultural settings, physical illness, dreams, or waking visionary states introduce a process of deep transformation. Many of the dimensions of consciousness and symbols of transformation that are accessed in spiritual emergence have parallels with the symbols and processes of alchemical transformation described by Jung.
Spiritual emergence may erupt spontaneously, or may be activated by intensive psychotherapy or spiritual practices such as meditation. During the process, individuals may spontaneously enter altered states of consciousness and experience traumatic memories from present and past lives, mythic journeys, encounters with spirit guides, powerful energies surging through their bodies, and the development of paranormal perception and healing ability. When such experiences are not understood by the individuals or their friends or families they are likely to be frightening, to disrupt work plans, domestic routines and relationships, and can result in the person being medicated or hospitalized by medical personnel. Grof (1988) provides an extensive cartography that applies to the full range of altered state experiences, whether spontaneous, induced by psychedelic drugs, trance dancing, hyperventilation, hypnosis, or other psychotherapeutic techniques. These include states familiar to regression therapists such as past-life memories and experiences of the world of spirits. Regular psychotherapy may provide a context in which these experiences can be safely contained, guided, and integrated, but many of the techniques of regression therapy are ideally suited to working therapeutically with them.
In what follows, “Marian” (the client) and “Mike” (the author/therapist) are pseudonyms. Marian’s psychotherapy began when she was 52, in 1991, and lasted for three years. The process can be understood as a process of spiritual emergence. After two abusive marriages, she was divorced and living alone. She had three adult children and was completing her B.A. degree and preparing for postgraduate study. During the first year of her therapy there were 36 bodywork/regression sessions of the type to be documented here, and twenty sessions of verbal exploration and integration. In the following two years there were a further 28 bodywork/regression sessions, and sessions of guided imagery and art work were introduced in order to facilitate the integration of the material. Most of her therapy has been audio taped and some is on videotape. An earlier paper (Edwards, 1991b) discusses material from the first twenty sessions and future papers will examine the development of specific themes over the course of the therapy. The present paper provides a detailed documentation of the bodywork/regression sessions and illustrates the spiritual themes Marian was wrestling with, by focusing on the last two sessions of 1991, sessions 55 and 56.
In a typical session, Marian and the therapist (“Mike”) would first discuss her current feelings in relation to material from the previous session or to recent events. She would then lie down, close her eyes, and spontaneously enter an altered state of consciousness. No specific induction was given, except some general suggestions to relax, to focus her attention on her breathing and her body, and to follow and express whatever she experienced. Soon her breathing would deepen and she would start to struggle for breath, moan, or sigh, and there would be trembling, often at the solar plexus. She would avoid breathing deeply as a way of blocking off emotional pain and the suggestion to breathe into the pain and some bodywork interventions helped her to connect with occluded experiences.
Mike would be able to see where the flow of energy seemed to be blocked in her body and would use simple bodywork techniques to release it. These included: 1) placing a finger or hand over the affected area with light pressure and giving the suggestion to breathe into that place; 2) giving suggestions to express freely with sound; and 3) pressing or massaging specific points on the body where there was pain or severe blocking (e.g. at the throat, neck, around the mouth, or at the center of the brow).
These interventions served four purposes: 1) to focus attention on the part of the body where the block was; 2) to release tension in blocked musculature (what Reich called “body armouring”); 3) to activate energetic processes in one of the seven chakras (Grof, 1988); and 4) to communicate emotional support.
Mike was guided by principles outlined by Grof (1988) in his account of holotropic breathwork, a technique whereby an altered state is induced through hyperventilation and powerful music. The individual is encouraged to surrender to the emerging flow of experience, and during a single session, which can last for three hours, a series of diverse experiences typically unfolds. This is in marked contrast, therefore, to directive forms of regression work where the therapist seeks to activate memories related to specific issues that are being explored. Grof believes that the psyche knows how to heal itself and that the breathwork acts as a non-specific activator of the unconscious. If this occurs under contained and wholesome conditions, a healing process will take place without conscious planning. Another feature of Grof’s approach is the use of bodywork towards the end of the session to release blocks that are not cleared by the breathwork.
Marian’s therapy sessions were unlike holotropic breathwork in that no music was used and although, at certain times, Marian’s breathing rate would increase so that she was effectively hyperventilating; no specific suggestion was given that she should do so. In addition, Mike worked more actively with the emerging material with both verbal and bodywork interventions than happens in holotropic breathwork. Using this method, Marian quickly accessed painful childhood memories, and although she had not requested past-life therapy, and Mike did not advertise himself as a past-life therapist, she spontaneously accessed past-life scenes starting with the seventh session. As her experiences became more intense, sessions were lengthened from one to two and a half hours.
This paper presents session 56, and a thematically linked past-life scene from session 55. These were the last sessions before she was to take a two month trip overseas to visit her family. It would not be a happy trip. Her beloved brother-in-law was terminally ill and she knew he would probably die during her visit. So during these sessions Marian was dealing with difficult emotional and spiritual issues. The session content is summarized from transcripts of audio tapes, some excerpts of which have been included. The interpretations of the material have largely arisen out of the therapeutic interaction. Marian has read this paper and everything here accords with her experience and reflections. She has supported the writing of this paper because she believes that others going through a similar process will be strengthened through reading about it.
Synopsis of the material of the sessions
Session 55 began with a twenty-minute discussion in which Marian reported an intense but amorphous feeling that something terrible had happened or was about to happen. She could not relate it to any specific past event or future foreboding, not even her brother-in-law’s illness. However, at one point it seemed to relate to Mike, her therapist, whom she would not be seeing for about two months once she left in ten days time, and to Trish, a close friend who was leaving for her summer vacation before Marian left. Asked if the feeling could relate to these separations, she replied:
“It doesn’t seem to feel like that. I mean, I have a different kind of feeling about parting with people. It’s not that feeling. That’s often strong too because that affects me quite a lot, but it doesn’t seem to be that.”
Marian lay down, and focused on her breath and body. Almost at once she began to tremble slightly. Mike encouraged her to breathe regularly into the source of the trembling in the solar plexus and facilitated the expression and release of blocked emotions by bodywork.
Marian: (whimpering) I don’t know what…I can’t (gasping, trembling breaths, sobs).
Mike: OK, just let this right up past the shoulders…OK. Breathe right into it, that’s it, let those sounds out…OK, that’s it. Just release it at the shoulders…Take a big breath. Try and take a big breath into it and then push it out…OK, that’s it.
It was only after 16 minutes that a connection with a past-life scene emerged. She experienced herself as Melissa, aged 26, who lived in Sangford House in the English West Country in 1781 with her husband, Anthony, who ran the estates, and their daughter, Andrea. Returning from an outing in a carriage, she saw smoke and as she drew closer she saw that the house was burning to the ground. Soon the house was an empty shell and Anthony and Andrea had burned to death with it. There was a memorial service and a stone was put in the churchyard, but there were no bodies to bury. Mike worked with her on this scene for 25 minutes, mostly facilitating her mourning for Anthony and Andrea. Later she recognized Anthony as Mike and Andrea as her friend Trish.
The remaining experiences of this session, which included another past-life scene, will not be described here. Rather the whole of the next session, session 56, will be described. This began with a twenty minute discussion, during which she expressed concern about how she would cope with the demands that would be made on her when she stayed with her sister and dying brother-in-law. After twelve minutes of bodywork a past-life scene came into focus, set about 800 or 900 years ago. At the end of the summer an Inuit group was splitting up. The women and children would go to a winter camp while the men set off separately to hunt. As Alet, a mother in her twenties with a seven-month-old baby, she was frightened of the dangers to the men from such hazards as bears and cracks in the ice. But she had difficulty expressing her pain at the impending separation from her husband, Tarook. There was little empathy from the others, since the other women did not seem to feel the pain of the separation as deeply, and it was impossible to weep outside because the tears turned to ice on her face.
After 19 minutes in this scene, she had an image of a pool, a familiar symbol that represented to Marian a seemingly bottomless reservoir of sorrow and anguish that she feared she would never find her way out of. Mike encouraged her to stay in the pool and to keep breathing into the pain. After five minutes, a new past-life scene emerged: She was Tailoon, a sixteen-year-old Chinese girl whose lover Tang Chong had just left for a year of military service. When he returned they would be betrothed. People were sitting around cross-legged. Tailoon had her forehead on the floor and was weeping silently, hating the thought of her lover going to fight. Hurting deeply inside, but trained to be polite and to “walk with small steps,” she was not allowed to even show the tears, let alone sob or scream.
“They tell me I must take a brush and paints, and I must express it that way. Those long paintings they hang on the walls, and I’ll feel better they say…They tell me to write poems for him for when he comes back and that will help. I do that, but I’m hurting so inside.”
After working with this scene for 12 minutes, Marian reported discomfort at the brow chakra and within a minute she felt as if she had to bow down and press her brow on to a stone floor. Tailoon had also had her brow pressed to the ground, but this was a new scene: part of a ceremony of initiation into deeper seeing through the opening of the brow chakra. She now experienced herself as Ignas, a nineteen-year-old young man whom the priests had watched from a boy and chosen for this special training and initiation. At one point a purply blue powder was put on his brow, and she mentioned that a red powder would be put there later. As Ignas was led away between two priests for the next part of the ceremony, Marian felt excruciating pain as the brow chakra seemed to be being forced open. Mike applied pressure and massage to facilitate the opening of energy channels there. She described the pain at the brow as excruciating, like a dentist’s drill hitting a nerve. Mike encouraged her to keep breathing through it.
Mike: Breathe into the pain while it opens up. Don’t fight the pain. Don’t tense up against the pain.
Marian: It’s so hard not to.
Mike: It’s really hard not to. I want you to keep breathing gently into the pain. OK…You can make the sound. Make the sound…Open the throat and make the sound.
Eleven minutes after the start of the Ignas scene, she began to feel a current of energy rising at the base of her spine. She moved her body and arched her back to allow it to flow freely. Mike assisted by supporting her back and applying pressure at blocking points. Then she felt that as Ignas she was required to kneel with her brow pressed to the stone slabs of the temple floor, in a special way. She knelt and bent forward on the mattress. Suddenly she was Ignas no more, but a woman priestess required to bow down in exactly the same manner. “By the time I was doing it I was someone else,” she explained later. She emitted a high wailing note that turned to sobbing and back to wailing again. Then she began a chant: “Mana, mana, aena mana, ah manat, eesta mahina,” punctuated by sobs and wails, pleading for mercy on the pitiful plight of women and the abuses they suffer.
After ten minutes of this energy flow and chanting, she lay on her back, still sobbing, and continued to experience a “whirlpool of suffering and pain.” After four minutes a new scene came into focus in which she was being forced to have sexual intercourse against her will:
Marian: (trembling breaths, whimpering sounds, deep sobbing) No, no, no (sobs wildly). Leave me. Leave me (sobs deeply).
Mike: Breathe into that. That’s it. Now let that out. Let it into your body. OK. Bring it right up from here. That’s it. That’s good.
Marian: (screams and sobs) No, oh no. Oh no (sobs wildly).
The scene, which lasted for only three minutes, did not crystallize in clear images. She knew that it was forced sexual intercourse with a known past-life family member such as a cousin or uncle. “I couldn’t get a picture of him. It just drove me mad and I just wanted to fight him off.” It was not a present life memory. Nor did she link the past-life abuser to anyone in her present life.
At this point, the intense catharsis suddenly gave way to a nineteen minute phase of deep tranquility and peace. At first she was aware of the power and beauty of the energies of her two lower chakras (at the base of the spine and below the navel). She felt them spinning, and connecting up with her brow chakra.
“Those centers are just spinning, they’re spinning with energy. So much of it…I feel it connecting up, coming right up to here…like something I’m looking at and really seeing with this eye (brow chakra)…”
Then all seven chakras seemed to be joined together, emanating from a single center about 30 centimeters above her solar plexus. This center was connected by a cord to “the energy fields,” a huge reservoir of transformative and creative force which she had experienced in previous sessions. Her personal identity dissolved and she felt herself merging with those energies.
“My skin isn’t a barrier any more…I feel that place of joining, that place beyond, where they all join up, and go out on that cord to the energy fields. It feels like tremendously strong focusing on the place just here (above the solar plexus). Like they’re all merging just here. Being drawn out into those energies.”
Next, she experienced strength and support from spirit beings who said, “Just remember where your strength is. It is with us now in these sacred fields of dancing energy. It is strong enough to withstand any test. Those tests will come when you return. Do not fear. We are with you. We are always protecting you, guiding you.”
Marian then saw herself and a few close friends and associates standing in a circle around a sacred flame. The energy of the heart of each was part of a greater universal heart energy, being drawn out into the energy fields. Her brother-in-law’s dying would mean a severing of the personal connection, but in the dimension of these energy fields all hearts are joined and she and her friends would guide and uphold him as he journeyed beyond time.
Next she felt energy tingling in her hands:
“…as if it’s part of that pulsating force. It’s like it’s throbbing in my hands again and it’s like there’s far less difference between me, inside me, and what’s out there. It’s like it’s merging so much that it’s…there’s hardly any difference now.”
Finally she lay in silence for many minutes exploring and enjoying the security and beauty of this world of rich interconnected energies which she recognized she belonged to and was part of. She felt a profound sense of Spirit, of the timeless, of truths beyond speaking.
“The Spirit of creation. The Spirit of renewal. The Spirit of life. The Spirit of death. The cycle continues. There is no beginning. There is no end. Spirit is. Spirit always has been. Spirit always will be.”
For Hillman, images are “the basic givens of psychic life…the privileged mode of access to knowledge of the soul” (Hillman, 1991, p. 22). And the life of the soul, as disclosed in sessions like these, is not tidy and linear, but a complex interweaving of separate but interdependent themes. Because Marian’s therapy involved a series of such sessions it is possible to identify a number of parallel therapeutic processes, several of which would be worked with in a single session. The important themes from Sessions 55 and 56 will be identified below.
The pain of separation
The Melissa, Alet, and Tailoon scenes each dramatize aspects of the complex web of feelings evoked by the impending separation from Mike and Trish and articulate Marian’s unformed apprehension and foreboding. Mike has become far more than a therapist facilitating and supporting her deep transformative process. At a deeper level he has become the beloved partner, lover, or husband, Melissa’s Anthony, Alet’s Tarook, Tailoon’s Tang Chong. And what is, on the surface, a two month break in therapy, is constellated at a deeper level by the pain of Melissa’s bereavement, and of the unspoken but acknowledged fear and anguish in the hearts of Alet and Tailoon. The extent of Marian’s fear for the safety of Trish and Mike reflect the unresolved grief at the death of Anthony and Andrea and the real dangers facing Tarook as a hunter and Tang Chong in his military service.
Marian had been aware for some time of her growing feeling for Mike, of intuitions that she had a special relationship with him and of a longing to share more than just the therapy relationship. This was part of the painful and confusing process of opening up the energies of the heart, bringing into focus ancient longings, unexpressed and unmet, mourning forgotten losses, and feeling the depth of her disappointment that potentials within herself for loving partnership had never been actualized in her life as Marian. There had been no safe place within her family to express tender and vulnerable feelings, and this expectation had carried itself into therapy, where she also had believed that it would be impossible to own and express the feelings of her heart. But the acknowledgement of the depth of such feelings can be a central part of the work of therapy and was just beginning in the interpersonal process with Mike. With the separation, this process in the therapy would be interrupted. Expression of feelings would be further curtailed once she was back with her family because of the demands of nursing her dying brother-in-law. Mike had suggested that she write to him as a means of continuing the opening up of these feelings. But like Alet whose tears froze on her face and Tailoon, confined to painting and poetry, she was anticipating the absence of adequate expression of her pain.
She later wrote:
“In the Tailoon episode I seemed to be reliving the frustration of not being able to show my feelings and the depth of my love. Only through painting and writing could I express it and that wasn’t anywhere near enough. I have written reams of poetry in this lifetime and that hasn’t been enough. I think I am just getting to really expressing it now—6 months later—in really trying to work with and explore and express my feelings for you.”
These scenes open up a transpersonal and karmic dimension to the biographical understanding of the idea of transference found in psychoanalytic theory. At a literal level one may be curious as to whether Mike really is Melissa’s Anthony returned. But doing the therapeutic work does not depend on knowing the answer, or even on adopting a literal understanding of reincarnation. The task in Marian’s therapy was the expression and working through of an incomplete mourning and the reclaiming of her wholeness in her separateness, for Mike was as unavailable as a life partner to Marian as Anthony was to Melissa after the disastrous fire at Sangford House. Mike’s task was to empathically acknowledge the potentials and the pain of the emergent imagery while keeping clear the nature and the limits of the present day relationship of Marian and Mike, her therapist.
A sacred initiation
The Ignas scene was one of a series of initiation scenes, each involving ceremonial opening of the brow chakra, usually accompanied by great physical pain. Ignas’ pain seemed to be due to a literal physical blocking that must be broken through. In other scenes she experienced resistance to opening to intuitive and psychic abilities because of the responsibility this carried, the misunderstanding and persecution it attracted, and the depth of the pain that she would have to face within herself and in others. In later sessions she would also experience light flooding into her head with overwhelming force. The brow chakra is associated with the ability to look intuitively into the deeper causes of human pain and suffering. As this process continued she experienced an enhanced capacity to look into the sources of her own pain, and a deepening of her intuitive response to others. This process seemed to be part of a recovery of spiritual understandings and healing practices long forgotten.
The rush of energy that began at this point was a familiar experience which she had been having for several months. It seemed to be what is called Kundalini in the Hindu tradition, an experience which is becoming increasingly common in the West (Greyson, 1993; Grof, 1988; Sannella, 1989). For Marian, its effect seemed to be a non-specific potentiation of the purification process, at times producing a kind of flushing out of a series of traumatic memories linked to one of the chakras, at others allowing the flow of subtle transformative energies through her which gave her access to sublime altered states. In this session the Kundalini prepared her to re-experience a key point in Ignas’ initiation. But she never experienced whatever sublime state Ignas’ bowing down was intended to induce.
Identification with the suffering of women
Instead there was an associative shift and Marian became a priestess, also bowed down with her forehead on the ground, chanting in plaintive supplication. The reverent gesture of bowing down is tragically reframed. In response to initiation into higher vision, it would be an authentic expression of awe and humility before the divine. But for this unnamed priestess it was a gesture of helpless supplication. The universal suffering of women had engendered such overwhelming pain that it had become too much for a human soul to bear, and only some sort of divine intervention seemed to offer hope of relief. The profound impact of this transformation of the basis of religious sensibility from authentic awe and reverence to helpless supplication would only be fully recognized and explored nearly eighteen months later.
The sexual abuse scene was a brief crystallization of this theme in a specific memory. The rage and helplessness of the molested woman were part of a bigger picture of the violation of the integrity of woman’s spirit within the archetypes of patriarchy. This too was a major theme in the therapy, touched on directly or indirectly in many sessions. These episodes formed part of a wider process of reclaiming her power and spiritual dignity as a woman, which involved re-experiencing past lives as abused women, identifying with the universal suffering of women, and freeing herself from this identification as she envisioned and learned to embody the radiance and healing power of the feminine spirit.
Experiences of subtle energy and the spirit world
During the abuse scene she felt the activation of the second chakra. But the Kundalini had energized all her chakras; so that once it subsided she experienced them vividly as centers of spinning energy. She became conscious of the energetic channels that connect them and experienced an energy center outside her body that seemed to be activating them all. She was discovering that the opening of the brow chakra would lead to a deeper intuitive vision through an active connection and working with the energies of the other chakras in a manner that she still had to learn about. This was one of a series of experiences through which Marian directly experienced and learned to work consciously with the energy forms of her subtle body.
She experienced these energy centers as drawing on a transpersonal source, a limitless dynamic field of creative, loving power. As she focused on the power point above the solar plexus, and as she followed the cord that connected this to its source, she felt a deep tranquility and safety and her identity dissolved into a no-boundary experience. She received reassurance that despite the immense pain that she had had to face, and would continue to face, there would be strength here to see her through. She was shown that the impending death of her brother-in-law, which at the personal level would be an ending, was part of a deeper process that would not end. The energizing of her hands taught her that the source of the healing which could flow through her was way beyond her, an inexhaustible reservoir of power which she was being called to channel and transmit into the realm of physical existence. Finally, she enjoyed a profound communion with the timeless, and felt the counterpoint between the impermanence of everyday human existence with its rhythms of joining and separating, beginning and ending, birthing and dying, and the reality of a changeless existence that upholds the changing, gives it significance, and provides rest and hope for those whose identities are embedded in and journeying through it.
The themes identified here were revisited again and again through the bodywork/regression sessions, guided imagery, and art work. Marian’s work with the pain of separation and the relationship with Mike, and with her experiences as a helpless and abused woman, are part of a process of personal strengthening and purification. At the transpersonal level the process has been a kind of shamanic awakening. Traditionally the shaman is a person who, following an intensive initiation and training, can live in and mediate between the human world and the world of spirit (Kalweit, 1989). In Marian’s two sessions above this aspect is illustrated in the Ignas initiation scene, her experiences of the chakras and subtle healing energies, and her communion with supportive spirit beings.
Reflecting on her therapy, Marian found the bodywork particularly helpful because she believes she would never have reached the buried pain and been able to release it in any other way. But the process was often overwhelmingly painful both in and out of therapy sessions and she often lived from day to day at a level of vulnerability that required that she work with her feelings all the time. Although she still has no clear idea as to how her future will unfold, she has a sense of direction and vision for her life and that have arisen spontaneously from within her own psyche through working with the powerful therapeutic methods described here. Nearly a year after concluding therapy, she is a very different woman from the one who entered therapy at the beginning of 1991 or from the confused and struggling person she was at the end of 1991 when the sessions described here took place.
At the end of therapy in July 1993 she left to spend several months with a sister who runs a spiritual healing center on an island off the coast of Scotland. The process of transformation never slowed down while she was there but was grounded by the practical work of helping to run the center. She felt at home on the island and in the healing work and her sister invited her to join her permanently, although she has not yet decided whether to do this. She found that she had easy access to the “other world” in a beautiful place where it is widely reputed that “the veils are thin.” On the island she had visions of ancient rituals taking place, perhaps from long forgotten spiritual practices. These experiences develop an important theme in her therapy, the recovery of forgotten practices of spiritual healing.
She also found a little cove on the ocean which she had seen in a past-life scene right at the start of her therapy in early 1991, in which a youth at the time of the Vikings had arrived with a band of settlers after a journey in a tiny, frail boat over rough seas. Perhaps this was a remarkable foreshadowing of her own life process, for her therapy must have seemed every bit as perilous as the voyage of this early settler in his fragile craft, while her arrival on the island seemed like a homecoming that offered the possibilities of a new and very different future.
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Hillman, J. A blue fire: Selected writings of James Hillman. T. Moore, Ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1991.
Kalweit, H. When insanity is a blessing: The message of shamanism. In S. Grof & C. Grof (Eds.). Spiritual emergency: When personal transformation becomes a crisis (99-108). Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1989.
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Supported by grants from The Rhodes University Council, The Centre for Research Methodology of the Human Sciences Research Council, and the Centre for Science Development. This material was presented as a video film, “Working with spiritual emergence,” at the 1992 Conference of the International Transpersonal Association, Prague, Czechoslovakia.