by David Hammerman, Ed.D.
Practitioners of PLT, like all therapists, must be constantly mindful that clients who seek our services may not be aware of what they actually need. In other cases, they may know but are unwilling to acknowledge or express this openly. In the case of a request for a past-life regression, one needs to be aware that it may be a cover against exploring painful present life issues and concerns. Dr. Hammerman has conducted research in this area with his clientele and presents a case study which addresses this issue, illustrating the multifaceted nature of a request for a past-life regression. It also focuses on how hypnosis, as a clinical tool, facilitates the process.
Discussions of past-life regression often focus on unearthed dramatic stories and on techniques to resolve physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds. However, the more mundane therapeutic relationship is both a rich source of understanding and an agent for change, as practitioners of more traditional therapies know. Recognizing and utilizing the complicated dynamics of the therapeutic relationship is a complex and challenging task that begins with initial contact with the therapist and continues throughout therapy. For instance, the request for past-life regression is sometimes both a cover against looking at present life issues and concerns and an entrance into them through an understanding of the dynamics of the therapeutic relationship. The following case illustrates this point and some possible ways to both recognize and deal with this common situation.
Gary, forty-two years old, came to therapy wanting to understand his spiritual side. A close friend of his had been in past-life therapy with the therapist, and Gary had listened to tapes of his friend’s sessions and wanted a similar experience. His friend’s course of therapy was intense and dramatic, and Gary hoped to have a similar dramatic experience, although he knew that might not occur. He had been in conventional therapy for a number of years ten years earlier, and specifically stated at the beginning that he wanted the focus to be on past-life work.
Gary, a gay man, had lost a number of friends to AIDS, and has several friends who are HIV-infected. In addition, there were a number of other stresses with which he was dealing. His father’s secretary, who had become a family friend, had died recently, and he had taken on the task of running his father’s business. He had ended a two year relationship the previous winter, and a roommate of his had moved out. His work as a financial officer in a public institution had been difficult, and he went through a rough period when a project he was in charge of failed to materialize, and he had been blamed. He tends to be overly responsible in his life; at work, in his family, and in voluntary organizations.
The first few sessions were slow and disappointing for Gary. He had good trance ability and was able to regress to several past lives, but only in a fragmentary way. In each session, his ability to regress increased, and he recognized this as characteristic of his approach to exploring and trying new things by proceeding step by step, rather than by leaps and bounds. He questioned whether his impressions were real or not. I encouraged him to maintain his skepticism, but allow himself to experience whatever emerged in his sessions.
The fourth session he was able to relive parts of a life as a colonial girl, but could not maintain the impressions in a clear way, and the life did not appear to have much of an emotional charge. As we talked about the process of therapy, he stated that in trance his mind was wandering to other issues. He was angry at his father for moving to Florida and leaving him with the real estate business, and angry at his father’s secretary for dying. In addition, he wanted to do a good job, to please his father. The theme of trying to please his father had guided much of his life.
We took the theme of trying to please his father as the jumping off point for our next session of past-life work. He got in touch with two past lives, one as a plains Indian woman tied to a stake with a fire burning, and another as a man arguing with a woman in Victorian times. In both situations, he was not able to move past the initial scene to go backward or forward in time. He described the process as feeling like he was going through sludge to go hunting for old pictures. Gary was discouraged, feeling that he was trying hard, but somehow not succeeding. He was emotionally disconnected to the past-life work. In addition, he had a sense that he was not doing a good enough job, and blamed the lack of progress on himself.
It seemed clear at this point that transference issues were getting played out in his relationship with me. He felt that he wasn’t doing a good enough job as a client, and that somehow he was lacking, and doing it wrong, despite his best efforts, which included practicing self-hypnosis in between sessions. I wondered if what was getting played out in the therapeutic relationship was a dynamic that belonged to the past, with aspects of his problematic relationship with his father.
In the sixth session we decided to focus on present life issues, and the feeling that he hadn’t done a good enough job as a jumping off point, a bridge, to earlier experiences in this life. I had Gary focus his attention on the thought that he hadn’t done a good enough job and locate his feelings of frustration in his physical body. Then he was asked to amplify the feelings and take them back to a recent time when he felt frustrated, and thought that he was failing to please someone in authority. He immediately began reliving a drama that he had been engaged in a year ago, just before Christmas. His boss was angry at him for the failure of a large project that Gary had been directing. His boss “didn’t understand what it took” and relied on him to make it work without giving him the appropriate resources. “I was sweating…felt I was panicking…had to calm him.” His boss was furious with him. Gary felt betrayed by his boss. In all their previous encounters, his boss had been supportive. Now he didn’t appreciate him. Gary felt angry and sad.
In previous therapy, Gary’s anger had been hidden from himself and others. Now it was emerging in a very vivid recall of a recent scene that replayed all the elements that he had been struggling with in the therapeutic relationship. In addition, all of his sensorium was involved in the recall, along with his feelings, behavior, and cognitive knowledge of the event.
I next suggested that he use the feelings of anger and sadness as a vehicle to go further back in time to the earlier sources of his thought that he had not done a good enough job. He went back to the end of his relationship with his lover, when the relationship was ending but they still lived together. He re-experienced several scenes in which his lover was clearly cruel and sadistic in the way he treated Gary. As with the more recent scenes, he experienced this vividly and completely. Much of the therapeutic work here involved processing and understanding the relationship with his ex -lover when we processed it out of trance. In addition to remembering the experiences, Gary needed to get an intellectual perspective on the nature of the relationship at the end, in particular the sadomasochistic elements, and see that his feeling of not being good enough led him to accept punishment from his ex-partner that was sadistic and cruel.
“I tried to be so nice, he yelled…I tried so hard to help him, please him, I spent the whole time trying to support him and take care of him when he was ill… He brought other men back to our apartment, and I would be in another room.”
Then Gary took the feelings evoked in scenes with his ex-lover back in time to the source in this life. Gary vividly recalled and re-experienced several incidents with his father when he was five, when nothing he did seemed to please his father, and his father was always upset with him. As a five year old, he felt angry, sad, bad about himself, that something was wrong with him. These are natural feelings and conclusions for a child to make given a five year old child’s emotions and cognitive development. His father, the son of an immigrant, felt that he had to work hard to survive and was chronically overworked and frustrated. He valued hard work over everything, and had little patience and time for Gary. As a child, Gary had no understanding of his father’s background or pressures, and no perspective from which to understand his father’s displeasure with him. Contacting the five year old child, I asked if he would be interested in having the adult Gary talk to him and help him. After the five year old part agreed, the adult Gary talked to the five year old, while in trance. The adult Gary offered the five year old some reassurance and perspective, and the five year old offered the adult part access to the capacity for play, which the five year old had in abundance. Each aspect of Gary had something to offer to the other.
In between sessions, Gary was moved by what had happened in therapy, but did not think much about it, which surprised him. Clearly, exploring present life issues was the key for him in therapy. What worked best for him was exploring issues where there was an emotional charge. We continued to explore, in trance, the issue of trying to please his father and others in authority, and Gary returned to his early childhood, remembering a number of events from the ages of two and three, both positive and problematic. He remembered a scene in which his father wanted him to do something that was impossible for a young child to do, and with his new emotional and intellectual understanding he was able to recognize this and comfort himself. In addition, he recalled some warm scenes between his father and himself, including one where he stayed up late to see his parents come home, and his father’s warm welcome and embrace. In this session, after establishing ideomotor finger signals with his unconscious and super conscious, his unconscious indicated that he didn’t need to do any past-life work on these issues.
The eighth session Gary wanted to make his last session, for the moment. Clearly, he had gotten much out of therapy, although it wasn’t what he had imagined would happen when he first came to see me. The previous year had been extremely stressful, with a failed project, insecurity about losing his job, loss of his father’s secretary and worry about AIDS. Therapy had ultimately focused on a core issue that was underlying his life, his relationship with his father, and dealing with it in the present life helped him. A lump in his neck which he had feared might be a symptom of HIV infection disappeared after the first intense present life session. He also openly requested the therapist’s opinion about present life issues, a marked change from his guarded initial approach to therapy. He was clearer about how he had cut himself off from aspects of his emotional life and needs as a way to defend himself from being hurt, the way he had been with his boss, ex-lover, and father, and there was a sense that he was more open to the idea of play. He had become aware how he protected himself from being involved in any serious romantic relationships. Therapy ended on an upbeat note. Gary seemed more relaxed, freer, and physically less tense. Only time will tell the ultimate effectiveness of this short but intense work.
Often the boundary between past-life regression, past-life therapy, and more traditional therapy is not clear, nor should it necessarily be. Some clients’ request for past-life regression is motivated primarily by intellectual curiosity, at least on the conscious level. They may have read a book or an article about it, or heard about it on radio or television, and decided that it would be interesting to explore who they were in a past life without having a particular problem or issue that they want to explore. They may be interested in understanding spiritual issues, as Gary indicated, or on a spiritual search to understand the meaning of their lives and, on a more metaphysical level, to try to understand the meaning of life. Past-life work, with its emphasis on lessons to learn, between life states, re-experiencing of deaths, and dramatic stories, seems tailor-made for people on an intellectual and spiritual quest who want to know more about the big picture.
Other clients come to past-life therapy with the hope of dealing with problems they are experiencing in their present life. They may have been in more traditional therapy that they felt was unsuccessful, or because of their own spiritual orientation want to use past-life therapy as a vehicle for dealing with present life issues. They may also have avoided more traditional avenues because of their own anti-establishment bent, feeling alienated from the mainstream of our Western culture.
In addition, the line between past-life regression and past-life therapy is not necessarily clear in practice. Someone looking for a past-life regression may have an intense emotional experience and decide to continue to explore in therapy the implications of what they learned or went through. As a therapist, one must be prepared to follow the course of therapy wherever it goes, and some of the places may be unexpected for both the therapist and client.
Hypnosis as a treatment tool tends to intensify the relationship between therapist and client. Many so-called non-hypnotic techniques such as guided imagery and visualization are, in fact, promoting altered states of consciousness and intensify the therapeutic relationship in the same way that formal hypnosis does. Transference reactions, which are the re-experiencing of patterns of relationships and feelings that the client had towards important people from earlier in their life, or perhaps past lives, happen much more rapidly in therapies in which trance is actively promoted as a technique. Reactions that might take months to develop in traditional psychotherapy may occur after as few as one or two sessions. These transference reactions get played out in the therapy between therapist and client and can be one of the main foci of attention.
Since Gary came in requesting past-life regression without clear-cut present life issues that he wanted to work on, after an evaluation consisting of a history and a sense of his present life situation the initial work focused on past-life regressions using hypnosis as a tool. However, it soon became clear that there was no real emotional charge or ease of access to his past lives. Most salient in our contact were the transference issues experienced as part of the process of trying to do past-life work. He blamed himself for the difficulties in therapy, and felt he wasn’t doing a good enough job. Once this issue was identified and tied into his earlier relationship with his father, therapy became emotionally alive and a much richer experience for him.
As the therapy relationship issues were addressed, it became clear that present life issues were at the core of his difficulties at work, in his love life, and at play. Continuing to try to explore past lives would have avoided looking at present life problems that were staring us in the face. In a sense, his request for past-life work was partially a mask for present life worries and concerns. Indeed, his amorphous request for past-life work was not concretely grounded in present struggles, and as a result, the past-life work lacked any real emotional power and usefulness.
His guarded initial approach to the therapist reflected his stance of protecting himself emotionally from involvement, disappointment, self-blame, anger, and sadness. His previous experiences with his boss, ex-lover, and father predisposed him to try to keep himself protected. However, he must have been aware of pain and confusion on some level, or he would not have sought out past-life regression.
The therapist’s job is to use all the information that is available when someone comes in for therapy, including information from the therapeutic relationship and the clinician’s own evaluation. Not all requests for past-life regression end up being primarily past-life work, as this case illustrates. It is important to see where a request for past-life therapy or past-life regression is covering over other, more present issues. In addition, therapeutic work must have some emotional focus; otherwise it is primarily an intellectual exercise. In this situation following the path of the emotions in the relationship and in the regression work was key.
The initial past-life work was both a cover for present life issues and a doorway into them. Without understanding the dynamics of the relationship between therapist and client, Gary’s present life issues would not have emerged so clearly and succinctly. The use of trance facilitated the unfolding of transference reactions, which formed the basis of the work that Gary needed to do. Perhaps at some point in the future, past-life issues will be more salient for this client. Right now, working through present life issues seems to be sufficient and the target of choice.