The transpersonal perspective of human consciousness has evolved rapidly over the years to embrace the colourful albeit intellectually sidelined children of spiritism and the occult. These experiences, perceived as spiritual emergencies by a general public starved from the esoteric and psychospiritual depth that is their natural birth right, are as variegated as they are comprehensive: from kundalini energy awakenings, channellings, UFO encounters, and voluntary possessions to psychic openings that include out-of-body experiences and astral travelling, shamanic journeying, near-death experiences, peak experiences, and past-life memories. Of the just mentioned, psychologists and psychotherapists working in the field today are still somewhat untrusting and uncertain of the last of these, a phenomenon which involves working with whole or fragmented memories perceived to derive from a prior incarnation of the present, self-conscious personality.
At the rudimentary and literal level, any banter about ‘past lives’ evokes reincarnation, an oriental doctrine that also goes by the name of metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls. The conviction holds that the vital life force or ‘soul’ is an everlasting entity that passes through a series of corporeal incarnations in its bid to purge itself of inner psychic impurities and reacquire it’s pure, receptive state of virginity. Once this interdimensional mission is accomplished it ceases earthbound manifestation and returns to the anima mundi, the Platonic world soul that binds the realm of created physical matter to the imaginative planes and to the transcendental One. In this way, one’s cosmic journey to and fro the earth might resemble a pearl necklace with each individual translucent bead denoting a specific incarnation. Some necklaces are longer and others shorter, depending of course on the karmic debt incurred over the trajectory of its cosmic conduit and on the time taken to transcend detrimental formative patterns that inhabit psychospiritual growth and keep one bound to the same destructive behaviours and habits.
Many mystics and metaphysical philosophers who adopt reincarnation as a core belief and adhere to it dogmatically profess that past lives resemble the individual pages of a book and that each page can be reread simply by orientated one’s conscious with the subconscious layer in which a continuum of thoughts, sentiments, and memories of prior personalities are stored. Employing a Jungian approach, we could say that the collective unconscious allows other selves or aspects of other selves to bubble up to the conscious surface when negative projections, neuroses, shadowy and repressed aspects of the individual psyche, as well as phobias, fixations, and other complexes of the present personality align impeccably with the corresponding latent shadows of past personalities by manner of the karmic wheel.
An appropriate analogy would be to compare the bundle of biological and psychospiritual impulses recognized as your present personality with the cosmic animal of Planet Earth and your prior incarnations with the geological strata beneath its surface. Rotating on your tilted axis from day to day, your self-awareness is restricted by the existing bionetwork of organic life to be found on the crust. In your mind, the fertile humus of your soil could not possibly produce something other than the topmost strata of consciousness that currently pervades your mountains, rainforests, oceans, deserts, and grasslands. But once every so often existing complexes, behavioural problems, violence, abuses, and chronic illnesses sends an irritation coursing down into your subterranean depths. This causes an earthquake of considerable proportions, unearthing the deepest layers of geological strata which contain fossilized footprints of your other long-forgotten incarnations. The naked and unembellished fossils shed ample light on the evolutionary history of your consciousness; they go so far as to explain why you are the way you are and why you’ve incarnated into the world with certain psychospiritual virtues and vices. In confronting these other prior selves head-on it becomes possible to interpret the disenfranchised subpersonalities of your own fragmented psyche within a more comprehensive context and subsequently utilize the appropriate therapeutic channels to reintegrate and assimilate them into the present personality.
Naturally, I feel that the disposition to view past-life memories as actual fragments indigenous to the ego-mind of an extinct personality and the process of embodiment as a “sleeping and a forgetting” of this prior incarnation is somewhat difficult to swallow even for the most open-minded of metaphysicians. It’s just too antithetical and antagonistic to what contemporary science decrees to be true about the nature of the microcosm and seems to nourish the defunct archaic standpoint that mind and body are mutually exclusive entities. Reincarnation is exotic and dissimilar enough from all other philosophical threads as to warrant the continual conscientious scepticism of Western empiricism. Although indigenous to Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions, it has cropped up only occasionally and implicitly with respect to the three primary tributaries of the Western esoteric tradition (i.e. Neo-platonism, Hermeticism, and Gnosticism) that poured themselves into the literature and art of Renaissance Neoplatonism and later into Madame Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophical movement. Further, its fleeting appearance at times when the scientific rationalism and rigid exoteric doctrines of the Christian dispensation have warranted equipoise by more esoteric and holistic disciplines like spiritualism and occultism has never met with a niche audience who possessed an unconscious need for such beliefs as to propel it to the topmost echelon of cosmopolitan popularity.
But no doubt the greatest glitch of this approach rests in a key facet of its philosophical underpinnings; the accumulation of karmic merit or demerit generated by any one self-conscious personality on the grounds of actions performed or not performed during its lifetime. This conviction poses a great many problems, namely because there seems to be a major discrepancy in opinion regarding the nature of the reincarnating entity. What is it exactly that reincarnates from one lifecycle to the next? Is it the personal ego or ego self, the vital life force or ‘soul’, both, or something else completely? Another monumental problem that detracts from the viability of reincarnation is the necessary amnesia that always befalls an incarnating entity; the universal law of cause and effect only makes sense when the incarnating psyche can bring the collective sum of prior experiences into the illumined sphere of self-awareness for the sake of descrying its karmic situation and progressing. If this holds true, then how is one supposed to pay back karmic debt when the process of coming into being is foreshadowed by a hereditary condition of forgetfulness? How is one supposed to reverse vices and sow favourable seeds to aid in the expunging of spiritual impurities when the vast majority of their lives is bound to be wasted in meandering aimlessly about and trying to remember who or what they were in previous incarnations? For me, the aforementioned hitches dint the viability of literal reincarnation considerably.
There are two other approaches when it comes to interpreting past-life memories. The first is a flexible and progressive position typically branded “far memory” or “Great Memory” and involves a conscious and objective discernment of actual past lives without needing to resort to a full-fledged belief in reincarnation. According to this philosophy, everything that has every transpired in the ambient history of the cosmos–including all unique fields of influence, experience, sentiments, and thoughts having originated from past and present personalities–are recorded onto an electromagnetic-like background of fields often referred to as the Akashic ether. When the requisite psychospiritual conditions are met, an individual can retrieve information pertaining to these prior incarnations through hypnotic or mesmeric trance states, meditation, dreams, and hypnagogic imagery. Thus it is more than possible to tune into cosmic stations that belong to tributaries of human consciousness that have experienced other times and other places. On the whole, it’s a much more satisfying and feasible conclusion for a rebellious intellectual for he can preserve the enchantment and creative vortices of the formative powers we call God in his transpersonal cosmogony without having to abandon reductionist paradigms of consciousness put forth by cognitive and behavioural science. Personally, I feel most comfortable with this approach though I have, on the odd occasion, entertained sacrilegious thoughts of climbing onto the radical belvedere established by the oriental doctrine of reincarnation and blowing my summertime trumpet from up there.
The third and last attitude to past-life memories is a reductionist and disenchanting persona that shies away from metaphysics at all costs and appeals to the orthodox schools of psychological science like Behaviourism, modern psychiatry, and Freudian ego psychology. This view, tentatively titled positivism, corresponds somewhat to the epiphenomenalism and eliminative materialism of lower-order scientific determinism in that it has clearly defined constructs for what is an objective and experimentally verifiable fact and what is merely a fantastical by-product of an intellectual’s hyperactive imagination. Fundamental to this view is that the complexes, neuroses, psychoses, and other destabilizations of the core personality that come up as stumbling blocks through one’s life have their etiological reasons in the evolutionary development of the ego-driven mind. There is nothing occult or metaphysical about these stumbling blocks. They are simply elaborate and comprehensive confabulations and images collected from hardcopy and electronic multimedia sources, activities, festivities and other events throughout one’s life and stored in deeper layers of the personal unconscious until a multidimensional channel between the former and the conscious is opened up through hypnotic regression or some other therapeutic technique. When this happens the fantasy content is conferred form in the imaginal plane, mixed with fragments of real memory, (making them paremnesias) and transposed to the conscious where it appears as a fully-formed, polygonal identity. Positivist thought decrees that the ability to fabricate identities in such obscure and unconscious ways is intrinsic to the human condition. Adults, children, infants, and even unborn babies do it. The psychological terminology used to define the ability is cryptoamnesia.
Accompanying these three positions that attempt to define the causation of past-life memories is a fourfold methodology focused explicitly on purpose and practical use: the religious method which vindicates reincarnation from a historical and religious stance; the parapsychological method, an avenue of inquiry that attempts to apply the principles of experimental science to the past-life question; the psychotherapeutic method with its emphasis on healing through the obliteration of psychological disturbances caused by past-life trauma; and the psychic method where a medium channels past-life information through voluntary possession by a discarnate entity or by entering an altered state of consciousness. The four branches together represent the totality of phenomenological approaches through which one might encounter and explore past-life memories and provide an interdisciplinary bridge of communication for religion, history, science, psychotherapy, and parapsychology to meet, greet, and forge alliances and symbiotic or co-dependent affiliations with one another. Moreover the golden thread of reincarnation linking the philosophical attitudes and practices represented by the fourfold methodology hampers the birth and unbridled propagation of any one dogma which might claim ecclesiastical-like monopoly on objective truth. Using this multifaceted body of interdisciplinary knowledge a priest can embark upon a historiographical analysis of reincarnation, the radical scientist can formulate hypothesis and experimental controls to conduct an experiment which aims to test the authenticity of past life recollection in children, the medium can descry past-life memories belonging to one’s prior incarnation through the discreet use of psychic powers, and the transpersonal psychotherapist or hypnotherapist attempts to unearth psychological disturbances and spiritual emergencies in past personalities for the sake of bringing closure to and healing a present one.
Those who believe in the reality of past-life memories place them in a specific psychoanalytic context. Just like other repressed memories relating to teenagehood, early childhood, or any other period in one’s present life, past-life memories are also land-mines of present psychological dysfunctions veiling entrenched traumas, duplicities, idiosyncrasies, negative projections, and neuroses. The only difference with the former is that the particular exigencies of circumstance which lead to their formation are experienced by the ego self in a prior incarnation and remain consciously unresolved. Whenever an inharmonious event analogous to one experienced in a past life unravels, the repressed dysfunction explodes into being and is subsequently re-enacted within the prevailing milieu of one’s present life. In hindsight any one, two, or a particular configuration of the following behavioural and psychological anomalies can betray the presence of issues that have their roots in past-life territory: chronic psychogenic or psychosomatic illnesses and harrowing injuries ; family melodramas and vendettas that dart across many generations; marital complications involving themes of betrayal and dishonesty; sexual dysfunction like aloofness and impotence in both men and women; unfounded and inexplicable phobias relating to animals, elements, insects, and particular circumstances; doggedly persistent and unwavering insecurities about self and personal worth; recurring and prolonged states of melancholy and depression; complexes relating to personal temperament; sadomasochistic activities like being tied up and flogged; eating disorders like overindulging, bulimia and anorexia; and bouts of domestic anger and violence. Once these multifarious contents, past-life or otherwise, are brought out of the darkness and into the light, the therapist-client synergy can begin the process of psychologically reintegrating these disenfranchised psychic shadows back into the client’s self-conscious ego personality and rendering it whole again.
A typical session in past-life therapy will usually commence with a short interview wherein the therapist will gather as much information about the client’s personal history as possible. The primary purpose of this inaugural procedure is to identify psychogenic and chronic illnesses and any other emotional disturbances that conceal underlying past-life memories waiting to be exhumed and worked on. At the conclusion of the interview the mediating therapist will ask the client to assume a comfortable position on the floor, couch, or a chair; to let the tension drain out of the body completely; and then to cogitate on what is foremost in the mind. This section of the psychotherapeutic process mimics the Jungian technique of active imagination where the mind is cleared like a blank slate to allow for a conscious upsurge of images, symbols, memories and other unconscious content by means of the imaginal plane. Usually a client will be asked to focus all attention on one particular image, symbol, word, symptom, or feeling and develop it into a story. At this point in the process the therapist’s job is to guide the amplification of the chosen sentiment passively without thwarting or shifting the uncoiling avenue of thought which pours forth liberally from the personal unconscious.
Depending on the client’s prevailing level of complacency and comfort, the therapist may interpolate words of genuine support like, “Don’t start doubting the authenticity of your past-life experience as it unravels in your mind’s eye but instead trust the evolving story as your objective truth for the entire period of the session.” Save for calming and reassuring the client, such positive affirmations usually deter the materialization of detached observation and encourage full participation with one’s kinaesthetic and emotional armoury. The latter is vital to the operation for healing cannot transpire if the obstructed energy is not experienced dynamically on all levels–intellectual, psychic or emotional, and physical–of one’s being. Once the ball starts rolling the client may find himself recounting the melodramas and emotional turmoils of a different self, often one that belongs to a different time and era. It’s as if he’s just opened up the rusty-red iron gates leading to the sacred chambers of his own soul, jettisoned his ego-self from the gilded throne, and established a prior personality as the ruling entity of his earthbound body. The psychodrama takes on a much more authentic and credible guise when it involves the voluntary expression of gesticulations, double signals, spasms, and physiognomies otherwise completely foreign to the temperament, behaviours, and mannerisms of that specific individual. In such an event, it becomes increasingly difficult to decry and dismiss the past-life experience as a fantastical confabulation or paremnesia of the mind because it fulfils a salutary need for the one experiencing it. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that epistemological and practical underpinnings matter very little when it comes to psychotherapy; what matters most is its rate of success in healing an ailing individual. As a consequence, any therapeutic process that continually meets and satisfies its intended goals is, to all intents and purposes, an authentic and valid article.
A session of past-life exploration will usually conclude with the death of the assumed incarnation. During this time the client will scry the memory bank of that personality, weed out the neurotic dysfunctional behaviours that hampered its psychospiritual development, and exorcise them for good. There serve no constructive purpose and must be banished from the psyche. Valuable insight into one’s karmic cycle is also gained by contrasting amplified symptoms, turning points, and tragic events with the inimitable fields of influence presently being cleaved onto the Akashic ether by the bundle of animated matter we identify as our present ego self. To hermetically seal the session, the therapist will take a more active stance, informing the client that habitual repetition of these mental and behavioural configurations is detrimental to the creative and numinous trajectories of self-actualization and should be laid permanently to rest. When closure is finally grasped, the client emerges from his abstract descent into the primordial matrix of incarnational mudpools feeling renewed, refreshed, spirited, hopeful, and optimistic. It’s as though a mushrooming vampiric entity has been permanently removed from his lithe-bodied, exquisite, and delicate interior; the sanctuary of personal mentation, consciousness, and of the soul.
While philosophical disputes about objective truth in an area of applied psychology such as transpersonal psychotherapy are somewhat counterproductive and shift the focus away from the therapeutic process, they do provide much sought after food-for-thought for a metaphysical philosopher with more than his fair share of time to kill. When you think long and hard about it, time is about the only thing we have left so we might as well make the most of it by thinking it away. So, in having reflected about the nature of past-life memories for some time, I’m always tempted to ask why the conscious emergence of other selves is foreshadowed by pre-existing negative, inharmonious, and unpleasant conditions of anguish, confusion, trauma, and neurosis; things that Jung described in the context of a repressed shadow. Why can we never remember moments of blissful titillation and transcendence experienced by our former selves? If spiritual emergencies of a past life can be effectively channelled through hypnosis, dreams, active imagination, guided visualization and other right-brain procedures, then the same ease of channelling should also apply to positive experiences. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with anyone. Perhaps this answer is faithfully entrenched in practicability. Unearthing scintillating shards of exuberance and success belonging to an extinct personality is a waste of time and energy for a present, self-conscious personality wishing to learn and attain constructive criticism for its ailing and failing interactions with the immediate environment. What’s the point in re-membering moments that are bound to amplify emotional turmoil and make one feel worse for what they don’t currently have?
In the final analysis it all comes down to belief, and in a great many cases the creative and inventive power of belief. Belief, it appears, can move mountains, cleave canyons and chasms, and cause lush fertile islands to rise anew from the abyssal depths of the ocean. Here I speak both literally and metaphorically. It can also disentangle one from the invisible thorns of a prior incarnation…