He fished by obstinate isles . . .
........................................Ezra Pound
From Behaviorism to Jung
When I graduated from Oxford University in the midsixties with a joint degree in behavioral psychology and analytic philosophy, my mind had been put into a carefully tailored straitjacket, though I hardly knew it at the time. If anyone had suggested something like remembering past lives to me then, I would have dismissed the very idea as self-contradictory. Remembering entails a rememberer, I would have said, and only one person has access to my memories, namely me. Logically "I" can no more remember the memories of another life than the memories of the man sitting opposite me on the bus.
With a few more linguistic cuts and logical thrusts, I would have had my reincarnationalist friend fumbling for a satisfactory definition that would stand up to my philosophical swordsmanship. Behind me stood the great voices of rationalism and empiricism. "Metaphysics is dead," Professor A. J. Ayer had said, and that was the end of it. Rest in peace, Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel.
As for psychology, Oxford was groping in the Dark Ages, if I had but known it. The word "consciousness" had been successfully banished from our vocabulary and there was strong resistance to the invasion of subversive American neologisms like "cognitive" in those days. Experimentalism. and sterile statistics reigned supreme. The only candidates who might have shown the remotest interest in reincarnation were probably the rats. Better the cosmic maze than a wire mesh one!
Like many a disillusioned psychology major, I was unable to face more of this intellectual wasteland in graduate school. After all, what had statistics to do with the heart and the soul? with the supreme spiritual achievements of mankind: the mystics, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky? Instead, I spent a few years as a teacher in West Africa and then went back to graduate school at London University to study comparative religion. Here at last I could breathe more freely and immerse myself in the scholarly study of Hinduism and Christian mysticism. I had meditated since I was a teenager, finding it a mental hygiene as self-evident as brushing my teeth. So here was a chance to broaden my background.
Perhaps I should say I have never had a guru nor been attracted to finding one. My pursuit of other religions has always been a mixture of the scholarly and the down-to-earth. In texts, I always looked for the originals without commentaries, whether the Bhagavad Gita or the Gospels. In meditation, I only use what is practical and useful to me regardless of tradition. Some might see this as rather arrogant, but I like to think I have always been guided by the words of the Buddha when he said, "Be ye a light unto yourselves."
The subject of reincarnation, however, never really arose during my graduate studies. Classical Hinduism seemed to assume the doctrine without making a fuss about it. After all, it is the higher self, the "atman," "not the ego," that keeps coming back, in the Hindu perspective.
Even in the classical methods of yoga and meditation, I never came across any mention of the necessity to meditate on our past lives. The idea of karma, that every man reaps what he sows, seemed mainly to belong to a philosophical vision of our place in the universe and to have little practical application. I was struck, as many are, by a distinct "fatalism" in much of the popular Hindu thought.
No doubt it was this same need for practical applications, which had originally led me to meditate some years earlier, that now led me to Zürich, Switzerland, where I was to immerse myself in a type of psychology that I was temperamentally most suited to. This was the school of depth psychology founded by Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who had originally collaborated with Freud. Jung later broke away from Freud to form his own school, based on a broader conception of the unconscious mind. Where Freud's unconscious had been entirely peopled by complexes, mainly derived from early childhood experiences, Jung added another layer common to all mankind, inhabited by the archetypes or universal symbol patterns common to myth, religion, and art.
That part of the unconscious mind containing Freud's repressed childhood memories Jung referred to as the personal unconscious, the place where all psychotherapy must begin, but the underlying layer of the archetypes he termed the collective unconscious, a pool of transforming symbols available to us all. Here, for me, was the explanation for why great works of drama and literature like Oedipus Rex and King Lear and The Brothers Karamazov move us so deeply. Our personal tragedies of abandonment and loss, bitterness and rage are magnified and potentially transformed in the greater struggles of these superhuman characters because a part of us can identify with the transpersonal power of the archetypes. All great art is psychotherapy if experienced the right way; and all good psychotherapy must engage our artistic and creative selves at some level.
Finally I had found in Jung a psychology that respected and nourished both my intellectual and my creative and intuitive being - the two parts later to be identified as the left and right brain functions. Without both sides we cannot be truly whole, complete persons. I began to understand why academic psychology had seemed so arid to me. A young German romantic poet, Novalis, had anticipated this problem in 1800 and had, amazingly, foreseen the very way that Jung and others were to take a century later:
When pure statistics and measured features
Are no more keys to living creatures,
When dancing and bursting into song
Proves our most learned scholars wrong,
When all the world is fresh and new
And once more Nature to herself is true,
When light and darkness merge their love,
Into a higher unity above
When fairy tales and legends old
Tell the true history of the world
Then, but a single, secret phrase
Shall put to flight our mixed up ways.
The more I immersed myself in Jung's writings and in my own analysis and dreamwork, the greater the effect he had on my thinking and my personal and professional development. He seemed to offer a bridge - and a very broad one - that allowed the different traffic of psychology, religion, literature, and science all to pass over and do productive business with each other. He is one of the great synthesizers and visionaries of this century.
Jung himself had remained skeptical about reincarnation for most of his life. When in 1938 he wrote a commentary to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a text saturated with the doctrine of karma, he maintained bluntly that "there is no inheritance of prenatal or pre-uterine memories," adding instead his own theory that "there are undoubtedly inherited archetypes which are, however, devoid of content."
Jung was writing long before Dr. Ian Stevenson's rigorously researched cases of children who spontaneously remembered detailed facts from the lives of deceased individuals they claimed to have been. It was also long before Dr. Thomas Verney collected an impressive amount of scientific evidence for in utero memory in his bestseller, The Secret Life of the Unborn Child.
But back in the 1970s, knowing nothing of this, I preferred to follow Jung's considered position that reincarnation was in principle unprovable but was nevertheless one of the most widespread of all religious beliefs and must in itself be accorded the status of an archetype, a universal psychic structure.
This was still how I thought in 1971, when 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 countertransence 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 state 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 come 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.
In the workshops my wife Jennifer and I give [no longer given in this format, ed.], we often remind our students of the oriental image of the guardian of the threshold, a frightening monster depicted at the gates of a temple or bordering a sacred mandala, or meditation picture. These guardians are images of our own fear and are there to prevent us entering realms of the psyche we are not ready for. Whether we are aware of them or not, each of us has our own inner guardians of the threshold to prevent us from going too deep, too fast. There is a subtle inner economy of psychic and spiritual unfoldment in which every individual proceeds at his or her own pace, governed by these inner guardians and guides. These inner figures become very clear when we learn to understand our dreams.
I tell my story of my first past life encounter as both a warning to the unwary and a stimulus for those who are ready to explore. Any psychological work that goes into the deeper layers of the unconscious mind is likely to bring up powerful emotions, disturbing memories, and fantasy material. Such often overwhelming psychic contents may seem to the uninitiated and even to experts to belong to the realms of classical madness. Past life exploration can be like taking the lid off Pandora's Box; it can unleash potent forces over which we may have little control. For this reason, it is my firm belief that guiding regressions and research into Past lives should only be undertaken by those fully trained in psychotherapy. This is not a parlor game, simple as the procedures many seem when first witnessed.
At the same time, there is powerful learning to be had from this extraordinary process. It is no exaggeration to say that there are among my clients those whose whole life orientation has been changed by only one or two past life sessions. The opportunity to confront one's true self, naked and unadorned, to see the essence of one's "stuckness" in even a single story, is unparalleled in any other psychological discipline that I know.
For example, a very successful businessman me once consulted me and described himself as a Type A personality, one of those who is driven in everything he does. This man felt constantly inadequate, that he was not strong or assertive enough, and described how, despite more success than most men ever achieve, he punished himself by overwork. In addition, he had a history of physical accidents in which he had broken his ankles, hip, shoulder, and wrist at one time or another. One accident to his shoulder seemed to bring out inexplicable feelings of injustice in which he found himself thinking, "Why me?" When directed into a past life connected in some way with this, his body became tense, he clenched his fists and jaw, and uttered the following words:
It's no use. I can't do anything. I'm not strong enough. I won't let go. I won't let go. I can't hold on anymore. I don't want to die. I'm falling ...
What he was reliving were the last agonizing moments of a soldier on the edge of a cliff, unable to muster the strength to climb to the top. Another sadistic soldier was taunting him with the words, "You're weak. You're no good. If you were really strong, you'd make it." When he failed, the soldier hit him on the head with a rifle butt and he fell to his death, shattered on the rocks below.
In the last agonizing moments before letting go, he has the following thoughts:
It's a test ... I've failed. I wasn't strong enough. I was weak and helpless. I'm ashamed. I could have done better. I didn't deserve to die. I'll never do that again. I'll never give up again. Anything but failure. I'm gonna hold on...
The death, as he relived it, was over in an instant, and after the titanic struggle his body suddenly became limp. A flood of insight came as he saw that his whole life had been a constant repetition of the soldier's dying thoughts: "I'll never give up again. Anything but failure. I'm gonna hold on." It was obvious to him that these thoughts had been governing his life metaphorically, and that he could now choose to change them, and was no longer doomed to relive an old story that was no longer his.
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, 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 chapiers.
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. For the moment this list suffice to give some idea of what past life regression entails and how it is not something for idle amusement. ...

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