by Thelma B. Freedman, M.A.
In this article, Thelma Freedman speculates on ways in which past-life narratives, if real reincarnation memories, might fit within already established models of the world. Her interest is to stimulate conservative model-making based on what we really know.
Past-life therapy is at a decisive moment in history, both its own history and the history of humanity. Past-life therapy is not about to move into the mainstream: It is already on the march, as we see more therapists every day discovering this magical approach to healing. That is all to the good. We also see that more and more people are accepting reincarnation as their personal belief system, and that is probably a good thing, too. In the next century, reincarnation may well become as common a Western belief as it is today in other cultures, and it can be a freeing one for humanity itself if it is used in freeing, non-hierarchical ways. But precisely because of these developments, we, as a community of past-life therapists and researchers, have a special obligation. Can we ground this therapy and our ideas about reincarnation in more than airy fantasy?
I think we can. In surveying all of the anecdotal literature and the varied forms of research that have been done, I see that the evidence is very strongly in favor of the reality of reincarnation. This is not a belief: It is a conclusion based upon evidence. Some of that evidence is circumstantial, but there is a lot of it. Our situation reminds me of Thoreau’s comment that circumstantial evidence can be very compelling, as when one finds a trout in the milk. A century of anecdotal cases, plus three decades of research of many different designs by many different people, all this mass of material points to a very big trout in the milk. The trout is reincarnation, and many of the research findings are not circumstantial at all, they are statistical.
Dr. Helen Wambach (1978) compared past-life reports to fish, too. Three decades ago she said that finding a past-life report was like fishing for some common, ordinary fish and suddenly reeling in some beautiful, unknown fish instead. What is it? Where did it come from? Well, perhaps we can answer her questions with some assurance at last. And most fittingly, she herself bequeathed us some of the evidence we can use to answer them.
As past-life therapists and researchers in the Western world today, we are in a peculiar position. Although many more conventional therapists are beginning to use past-life reports in therapy, and the mass of people may be swinging to reincarnation as a belief, the power structures of what is called the “scientific community” are often resistant and even hostile. These power structures have the ability, by definition, to make the rules, and some are trying to make rules that outlaw us and our therapy. There are also powerful religious groups that are equally resistant and hostile to us, and they sometimes also influence the rules, although not as much as the scientific power structure. I do not think we can do much to change the pre-existing beliefs of religious groups, but I think we can hold our own with the scientific groups.
Perhaps we should anoint the 17th-century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno as our patron saint. As Head and Cranston (1977) point out, he not only believed with Copernicus that the earth was only one of many planets circling the sun, he also believed in reincarnation. The first of these beliefs alone would have got him imprisoned, but not burned for heresy; by his time there were many others who shared this belief. But the second belief was true heresy and the combination was insupportable, so he was burned at the stake in 1600. In his day in Rome, the church was also science and state and he had annoyed them all.
Now we today, in most Western countries, have been crafty enough to choose to be born into a time and place that separates church and science and state. Perhaps some of us decided that we didn’t need to be burned at any stakes again, that we have done that once and that’s enough. But we are not completely protected from those who make the rules.
Given this situation, I think we must be careful in the assertions we make about our field. Not the care of the coward, but the care of the scientist who does not make theories too far beyond the evidence. At this point, we can point to our evidence and assert that reincarnation probably really happens, but after that we should realize that we are building theories about how it might work. It is time to do that, but only as far as we are sure we can go, based on our evidence.
We often hear that the idea of reincarnation moves us into a new paradigm, a new way of looking at reality, and of course in some ways it does. By way of conservatism, however, I want to suggest two notions that are not part of any new paradigm at all, but that anchor us solidly, if boringly, in the here and now. These notions will probably enrage some and please others, but then, what’s a notion for? If notions don’t do those things, what’s the point in suggesting them?
The first notion was proposed back in the seventies by Dr. Ian Stevenson (1977), not a big fan of ours but a man who fishes the same waters we do. While acknowledging the powers of the gene and of the environment over human characteristics, he also considers the explanatory value of a third factor, reincarnation, discussing the many human attributes that we may bring into this life with us. Within this context he suggests an evolutionary model for reincarnation.
Now, I like this. For one thing, there are excellent grounds to believe that evolution really happens, and we can place reincarnation snugly within it. Stated simply (and simplistically), the scientifically approved belief today is that the brain created the mind and that between them the brain and the mind created language; all we have to postulate is that they also created the ability to reincarnate, and for the usual reason things evolve: It has great survival value.
We can seriously entertain this notion because of the findings of parapsychology and of modern physics, which, despite the considerable arguments in those fields, suggest that the mind has powers we know not of. Yet. The ability to reincarnate may well be one of them. If it is, and our own evidence tells us that it may well be, then as Dr. Stevenson surmised, we must add the reincarnation factor to the old nature/nurture debate, and evolution is the most likely way in which this ability developed.
As I said, this ability would have great survival value. It would have helped us adapt to new conditions and, especially, create them. People would begin to be born with dim clues that things could be done differently. Hunches. Vague questions: “Somewhere sometime else, was it just a dream? Did we really bang rocks together to make a fire when we wanted one? Did we really plant seeds by a riverside and grow some grain?” From those questions comes an ancient answer, “Well, I’ll try it and see what happens,” and the next thing you know civilization is born. It grows fast because of those very “hunches.” As we know, it did grow fast, phenomenally so, and that speed has been one of the mysteries of humankind. Reincarnation may be the answer to this mystery.
Now the reason this notion may enrage some readers is that it makes some cherished other notions totally unnecessary and therefore unlikely. We may have to scratch our ideas of spiritual connections with divinities, of spiritual guides from other planets, of great guiding oversouls, of unfathomable grand plans. We may just be just us, on our own and slogging along through the centuries, as always. If that is true we had better accept it fast and start to really work on the mess we have made of our no-longer-civil civilizations and of our good green earth itself. If the evolution model is correct, this planet is our only home and the only one we’re ever likely to have. We will not fly away from it into some other dimension. We’re stuck here, whatever we may make of it.
Related to this dull and boring notion is my other notion, and that’s even more dull and boring. This notion comes from my own experience with past-life reports of clients and also from all the anecdotal literature. It’s even obvious, if you think about it, and some others have noted it. Basically, what happens with reincarnation looks like behaviorism, only extended over many lives rather than only one. Conditioning, and it’s a pure model, too. I’m sure behaviorists will just love this idea! But like it or not, that seems to be the way we learn over all our accumulating lives. And one should notice that past-life therapy itself is very similar to systematic desensitization, a good old behavioral therapy technique. Just the same, and despite this element of mechanical behavioral learning or perhaps because of it, we are more than animals with conditioned behavior patterns, and we know it. Our minds are truly magical, and we can dream and create as well as kill.
A big chunk of wisdom came to me the other day from an unexpected source, a TV commercial for the Serta Mattress Company. One takes one’s wisdom where one finds it, and I took this: “We spin between Venus and Mars.” Not exactly a new idea, but that’s exactly where we are, and not just the planet. Thanks to reincarnation, we all spin between opposites: Female and male, love and hate, creativity and destruction, peace and war, kindness and cruelty. Yin and yang. We’ve been and seen them all.
Furthermore, the first time we said “Well, I’ll try it and see what happens” we learned that we could make choices, and I suppose that after awhile we learned that we had to make choices. We still do, we always have to choose among the many varied elements of our long conditioning. At our best we have chosen Venus, and at our worst, Mars. But we always have to choose. One could say it is our fate, handed to us by reincarnation and all our past experiences.
In fact, given the population explosion and the fact that people report that they have lived varying numbers of past lives, one might surmise that there are a lot of people living their first life now. If one asks “Who are they? What are they like?” it may be tragically easy to spot these people, because they would have no choices from past lives. They would merely react to their genes and to what their environment has taught them. Are some of them the violent ones? Have the world’s societies taught them that Mars and its violence are their only salvation? If that’s true, we need to start building new societies that will help them notice Venus. We may save ourselves as well.
All of this is not mere fancy. As past-life therapists and researchers, we have an obligation to our society to contribute in ways that the society will find useful, and to our credit, we have always tried to do so. But at this point, when we are moving into a time of general public belief in reincarnation coupled with scientific and religious hostility to it, we need to be able to support what we claim. We can support what we claim if we don’t go too far with those claims.
Fortunately, as happens with many other real truths, we can support our claims by using old, well-established paradigms that are not new to our critics and that are even accepted by them. We are not changing those paradigms, or challenging them, or ignoring them: We are merely extending them to include our newly recognized truth, reincarnation.
The two notions above, that reincarnation developed through natural evolution as a powerful survival and growth mechanism and that our processes of learning through reincarnation are behavioral conditioning processes, are based upon evidence and fit well within two already-existing paradigms, evolution and behavioral conditioning, which we have good reason to believe are accurate. That these paradigms now appear limited and in need of extension is a frequent fate of paradigms: According to Thomas Kuhn (1962), as long as paradigms work they tend to get extended, one way or the other. In this case, our addition of reincarnation enhances them both and brings reincarnation truly into the mainstream.
There is one other, very broad and much-debated, paradigm that we find ourselves part of, willy-nilly. That is the ancient but newly reborn way of thinking that is today called postmodern humanism. Here we find concepts of global identification, of the “self” as fluid and with infinite possibilities and choice, of the fundamental humanness of us all, of psychological androgyny, and of our common task, today, to create well. All of these concepts are familiar to us as past-life therapists. Our own clients have shown us the reality of ourselves as “spiritual nomads,” as Judy Bertrand and Jim Charleston (1995) aptly call us all. Although some postmodern humanists might not approve of us because of what they might call our “magical thinking,” they may have to accept us, rag-tag and disreputable though we may look to them.
These are notions. I think we should all be making notions now, serious notions about the possible processes of reincarnation, and like the two notions above, they should as far as possible be based on some kind of reasonable evidence and fit within whatever we already accept as probably accurate. And yes, we should also spin off into pure speculation sometimes. In a field like ours, that’s where our grandest ideas come from. But when we do spin off like that, we should admit it, admit that we are speculating, going beyond our evidence, even though we think there may be a germ of truth in our crazy ideas anyway.
Bertrand, J., and Charleston, J. Spiritual nomads; Research into past lives. Journal of Regression Therapy, IX, 30-35, 1995.
Head, J., and Cranston, S. L. Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery. New York: Julian Press/Crown, 1977.
Kuhn, T.S. The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.
Stevenson, I. The explanatory value of the idea of reincarnation. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 164 (5), 305- 326, 1977.
Wambach, H. Reliving past lives: The evidence under hypnosis. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.