In 1971 I was sent a book called The Cathars and Reincarnation to review for the prestigious Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in London. I had been a member of this long established society - the first ever to scientifically investigate mediumship, telepathy, apparitions, etc. - since college days, and Renée Haynes, the Journal's editor, knew that I tempered my interest in such matters with a healthy skepticism.
As it happened, The Cathars and Reincarnation, by Arthur Guirdham, proved to be an event which Jungians call "synchronistic" because it anticipated a path I was later to take. (A synchronicity for Jung is, among other things, a coincidence that has a personal meaning beyond the immediate facts of the situation.
By way of explanation of the title of this unusual book, I should say that the Cathars, also called the Albigensians, were a heretical medieval sect that flourished in Italy and southern France in the thirteenth century. The Cathar heresy became so widespread that eventually the Church had to mount a full-scale crusade to exterminate it. It was during this crusade, incidentally, in which upward of a half million people were burned or otherwise massacred, that the so-called Holy Inquisition was set up.
Dr. Guirdham, a practicing psychiatrist, recounts in his book how a certain woman patient came to him with a series of dreams of thirteenth-century France. The dreams had very precise historical details in them which were later verified by French experts on Cathar history. Guirdham himself began to get parallel dreams and concluded eventually that he and his patient had been lovers in the horrible milieu of the Cathar persecution and had died fiery deaths together.
To a psychoanalyst in training it all sounded like what we call in the trade "transference" and "countertransference." Transference is the patient's unconscious emotional involvement with the therapist, and countertransference is the therapist's reciprocal feelings, if they exist. In a good analysis, the therapist's job is to spot when this is happening in both himself and the client. If the therapist misses it, they both get sucked into an elaborate folie à deux - a shared delusion.
This is pretty much what I said in the review of Guirdham's book, and Renée Haynes agreed with my conclusions. Guirdham went on to write several more books about other reincarnated Cathar friends, and the whole thing began to sound like a reincarnational soap opera.
A Very Unglamorous Past Life
This was in the early 1970s. More and more absorbed in the psychology of Jung, I forgot all about Guirdham, Cathars and reincarnation. By 1976 1 had settled in America, Vermont, to be precise. I had been attracted to that area during a temporary teaching post at the University of Vermont in Burlington and decided to work in the same area as a psychotherapist.
The next time the subject of past lives came up was when a colleague of mine suggested experimenting with a technique for regressing oneself to a past life. I was skeptical, but agreed to the experiment. Jungian training had taught me much about working with visualization and dream imagery in a relaxed, meditative state. So why not?
Imagine my surprise, now eight years after that review, lying on a sofa in a remote farmhouse in Vermont, when images, at first dimly, then very vividly began to form, and I not only found myself in southern France, but in the thick of the Albigensian crusade! Here I was, now a practicing Jungian analyst, having visions that my own training had told me were not possible. Had the visions resembled the stories in Guirdham's book, my skepticism would immediately have been alerted. But my story, as it unfolded, was not at all focused on the persecuted minor lords and ladies of Languedoc. Quite the reverse. I found myself almost grunting out the story of a very crude peasant-turned-mercenary soldier of that same period. This rough-and-ready character I seemed to have assumed was originally from the south of Naples and ended up in the papal army raised by the King of France to exterminate the heresy in the South. As this highly unsavory individual, I found myself in the thick of some of the most hideous massacres, in which the inhabitants of whole French cities were hacked to pieces and burnt in huge pyres in the name of the Church.
Images from that first remembrance haunted me for years, and it took three more two-hour regressions to complete a story I was, and still am, loathe to look at. Yet, amazingly, it started to explain to me disturbing fragments of torture and killing that had come in dreams, meditation, and unbidden fantasy over the years, images that no amount of psychotherapy had ever really touched. Also, the way the story ended seemed to explain a phobia, a fear of fire I have had all my life. After one of the sieges, the mercenary I seem to have been, deserted and joined the heretics, eventually only to be caught and burned at the stake himself.
As I reflected on the story more and more, other pieces of my personal history in this life started to fall into place. Since adolescence I had developed a very cynical attitude to almost all orthodox religion, especially Christianity. I found it hard to see any Church as anything but authoritarian and dogmatic, denying people the freedom of personal inquiry and experiment. But even more adamant had been my early rejection of all forms of militarism and a strong inclination toward pacifism. I even refused to join the Boy Scouts for reasons I could scarcely articulate as a teenager. Could it be that from early on I had unconsciously been reminded of parts of that soldier's brutal experience?
The most painful recognition of how that soldier still lived in me was remembering one fight I had gotten into at around twelve years of age. In a classroom one day I had become so wild with rage at a boy I considered a hypocrite that four other boys had to drag me off of him. I had been ready to kill. I vowed never to lose my temper again; a part of me recognized how easily I could kill.
Why did such a painful "past life" memory come to me and not something more edifying, glamorous, or reassuring?
Part of the answer lies in the experience of self-examination I had learned from my training as a Jungian analyst in Zürich and from my years of meditation. Jung insisted that all would-be analysts undergo analysis themselves, so that they would not project their less acceptable qualities onto future patients. "Physician, heal thyself" remains the first maxim of all psychoanalysis, Freudian or Jungian. Jung once put it even more radically: "We do not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious."
In my own personal analysis in England and Zürich, I had begun to own many pieces of my less sociable, violent, angry, brutal self, the opposite, or shadow, of my nice, amenable, sociable self or persona. So I had already had glimpses of my brutal mercenary in dreams over the years, but never until this "memory" were the glimpses so disturbing. I was reminded, too, that the work of analysis and self-analysis, in whatever form is a life's work and that just getting a certificate or a Ph.D. from a prestigious school or institute is by no means a guarantee of psychological maturity. To this day I continue to struggle with that soldier and his unfinished guilt. As a shadow, he is to me, as Jung again put it so wisely, "a moral problem that challenges the whole personality."
I was later to learn that most people, when they first have past life regressions, rarely get such violent or horrible memories. As a rule, the unconscious mind - which I now believe to carry past life memories, as well as forgotten childhood events and archetypes - will, in its wisdom, only send us past life memories that we are ready to deal with and are able to integrate into our conscious personality structure. Those who have little experience of therapy or meditation more often start gently. The first past life memories that come tend to be more benign. Beginners not subject to pressure or neurosis are usually shown other selves from the past, that can be more easily assimilated and dealt with. This is as it should be...
Unfinished Dramas of the Soul
From nearly a decade of taking clients and colleagues through past life experiences and continuing my own personal explorations, I have come to regard this technique as one of the most concentrated and powerful tools available to psychotherapy short of psychedelic drugs.
Not every client goes directly to dramas like that relived by this businessman - he had an extensive background in other therapies - but almost everyone I have worked with can easily identify two major ways in which past lives seem to be influencing current behavior. The first is a recognition that these characters from previous eras are recognizable as other selves, that we dimly know have always been there in the background of our consciousness. Often in the rap part of our session, I will say: "Do you know that character?" And be he or she rebellious slave, depressed scullery maid, arrogant overlord, obsequious courtier, or likable charlatan, my client will inevitably reply with a sigh or an embarrassed smile, "Oh know him (or her)!"
The second feature that stands out almost universally is an inescapable feeling that this character's past life story is somehow being reenacted in this life and that it still remains unfinished:
-A woman client still cannot have children because of guilt about abandoning an infant during a famine.
-A man remembers being sexually humiliated as a young servant by older women to whom he is indentured and withdraws into the company of men, a pattern today repeated in homosexual relations.
-A woman who has successfully had three children in her current life suffers from severe premenstrual cramps which lead her into a past life memory of her painful death in childbirth in a tribal life.
Each other life that comes to us, however brief or fragmentary, is a piece of another self. The personality is not single, it is multiple - not in the psychiatric sense of multiple personality, but in that there are many levels to the self like many skins to an onion. We peel off these selves as we look into our past lives or as we look into our own dreams.
Jung's approach was through the dream. There are many selves running around in our dreams, many secondary personalities. Jung believed, as Fritz Perls (originator of Gestalt Therapy) did, that, most of the time, every personality in the dream is me. I may be dreaming about my mother or my father, my grandfather, my boss, but they are all me. I have a mother in me - I can "mother" my little girl. I can "boss" people around. I can feel like a lord executioner when I want to kill someone, or I may get a man with a gun running around in my dreams wanting to kill me. Each is another self, another part of me, and all these selves are present in us.
I had studied and practiced dream work for many years. Dream work is not easy to learn, nor is it easily taught, because just as we all have different handwriting so we all have different dream styles. I spent many years leading dream groups, and I found it very hard work. I had to interpret and learn every single person's dream style in the group to help each person get a handle on their own dreams. When I stumbled upon past lives, I found they contained similar material, we can learn to interpret ourselves without an expert on symbolism. When they surface, our past lives are immediately obvious to us
because they are stories. It is not hard to understand a story. It is harder to understand a dream. That takes training. So, what I describe in the following chapters is a different approach to Jung's idea of the multiplicity of the unconscious. My approach is through stories rather than dreams. And it is through the stories that come through our "other lives" that we learn to accept the many selves that compose our common humanity.
To give the reader some idea of the remarkable range of human problems that have responded to past life regression in my psychotherapy practice, here is a list of some of the more common psychological issues I have treated. Many of these will be elaborated in later chapters.
Insecurity and fear of abandonment. Often related to past life memories of literal abandonment as a child, separation during a crisis or a war, being orphaned, sold into slavery, being left out to die in times of famine, etc.
Depression and low energy. Past life memories of loss of a loved one or parent, unfinished grieving, suicide memories, despair as a result of war, massacre, deportation, etc.
Phobias and irrational fears. Every kind of trauma in a past life: death by fire, water, suffocation, animals, knives, insects, natural disasters, etc.
Sadomasochistic behavior problems. Usually related to a past life memory of torture, often with loss of consciousness, usually with sexual overtones; the pain and rage seem to perpetuate hatred and a desire to revenge oneself in the same way.
Guilt and martyr complexes. Commonly stem from past life memories of having directly killed loved ones or from feeling responsible for the deaths of others (e.g., in a fire): human sacrifice of one's child, having ordered the deaths of others unnecessarily, etc. The entrenched thought is most often, "It's all my fault. I deserve this."
Material insecurity and eating disorders. Often the rerunning of past life memories of starvation, economic collapse, or inescapable poverty; manifests as anorexia, bulimia, or obesity.
Accidents, violence, physical brutality. Repetition of old battlefield memories from warrior lives; unfulfilled quests for power, love of adventure cut off; common in adolescence, the time historically when many soldiers met their deaths.
Family struggles. Usually there are old past life scores to settle with parents, children, or siblings: betrayal, abuse of power, inheritance injustices, rivalry, etc.; includes most Freudian Oedipal dynamics.
Sexual difficulties and abuse. Frequently problems of frigidity, impotence, and genital infections have past life stories of rape, abuse, or torture behind them. Many incest and child abuse stories turn out to be reruns of old patterns where emotional release was blocked.
Marital difficulties. These often derive from past lives with the same mate in a different power, class, or sexual constellation: e.g., as mistress, slave, prostitute, concubine, where the sex roles were reversed.
Chronic physical ailments. Past life reliving of traumatic injuries or deaths to the head, the limbs, the back, etc. Therapy often relieves chronic pain in these areas; headaches may relate to intolerable mental choices in other lives; throat ailments to verbal denunciations or unspoken thoughts; ulcers to memories of terror, necks to hanging or strangling.
From this list, which is far from exhaustive, it is clear that one person may have several themes and related past stories that will need to be worked through in the course of therapy. Exactly how this is done I shall describe more detail in later chapters...