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PAST LIFE MEMORY: FANTASY OR REALITY?by Janice Stensrude
published in Uptown Express March 1991
Despite his very traditional Oxford University education, Jungian psychotherapist Roger J. Woolger practices a not-at-all-traditional form of transpersonal psychotherapy termed regression therapy. The term derives from the therapist's practice of regressing the client back to early childhood and beyond. It is the "beyond" that raises the establishment's eyebrows. Beyond childhood lies pre-natal experience, even pre-womb experience (i.e., past lives, the big R -- REINCARNATION). Through visions, dreams, and fragments of "past life memory," Dr. Woolger's clients work out phobias, traumas, neuroses, and even physical ailments.
One of the fascinating aspects of Woolger's work is his observation on violence. He recounts the story of a woman who experienced a series of lives as exploitative and cruel men. In this lifetime she had given up her power, a trait she saw as male. Her unconscious purportedly felt she had abused her right to be male, to be powerful. In Freudian terms, she suffered from "wounded animus." A male patient, on the other hand, explored past lives as women and learned that he needed to honor the inner woman of his past lives. Woolger's clients have revealed innumerable lives of violence, both as victim and as perpetrator. There is, he says, the shadow of the rapist in us all.
Have you ever felt that your hectic, painful relationship with someone has been going on forever? According to Woolger, that may be literally the case. He states that, to the unconscious, all lives are perpetually present:
Almost invariably a victim's thoughts like "How could he do this to me?" or "I'll get back at him" produce violent images of causing pain to another. Or else the torturer becomes deeply identified with his victim's agonies to the extent of secretly imagining how it hurts. So in the play of lives the victim-turned-persecutor, in his constant infliction of pain, needs to suffer the very things he inflicts. A profound and disquieting identity of opposites exists in all complexes of violence and oppression; the master in one life becomes a slave in the next; the revolutionary becomes the new tyrant.
Current Interest in Regression Therapy
Current interest in regression therapy began with reports published by psychiatrist Denys Kelsey and his wife, psychic Joan Grant, detailing Kelsey's therapeutic use of past life and prenatal regression. Kelsey was not the pioneer of the method, however. In the early 1900s, French psychotherapist Colonel Albert de Rochas hypnotized his patients, guiding them into their past to times of trauma that left lasting marks in their lives. He began by taking them to their earliest childhood memories and found that his patients could regress to fetal memories, and beyond to previous lives.
De Rochas's methods did not become entrenched in the infant science of psychology as did Freud's and Jung's. Indeed little was heard of past life regression until 1956 when hypnotist Morey Bernstein conducted his experiments with Virginia Tighe. The resulting book, The Search for Bridey Murphy was a sensation when it was published in the 60s. Bernstein was not a therapist. His primary interest was to present material that apparently verified the ancient doctrine of reincarnation.
The usual western view of reincarnation is linear: We live one life, die and are reborn into another, repeatedly, until our cosmic checklist of errors is complete, and we finally choose enlightenment, making us fit to return to God from whence we came. It is an upward spiral, getting better and better as we progress through life after life. It's an appealing notion -- beats the hell out of a one-shot choice between heavenly music or hellfire and brimstone.
Hindu teaching, however, portrays a wheel of life, with the soul traveling in an indefinite circle. Woolger states, "For the Hindu, reincarnation represents the prison of eternal return, from which the wise man seeks moksha: escape, deliverance ... The moment of enlightenment may come at any point in the endless cycle."
Popular among the Shirley Maclaine school is that we are living all our lives simultaneously and that our "present" existence is simply our "current" focus. Attempting to discuss this philosophy is an exercise in mirroring our dependence on linear time. We cannot even think about it without using words that have only linear meaning: now, current, present, past. These are meaningless terms in the context of nonlinearity, but they're all we've got.
Einstein believed that linear time was our illusion (a useful illusion when you're trying to find Friday so you can get your paycheck in the bank). to grasp this concept, we have to let our current (there's that linear word again) notion of illusion and reality swap places—illusion becomes reality and reality, illusion. Subscribing to the theory of nonlinear time has the advantage of at long last abandoning the dilemma of "Which came first—the chicken or the egg?"; the question is moot.
Reincarnation and the Karmic Connection
An integral component of reincarnation teachings is the doctrine of karma. Karma is the purpose behind reincarnation, the cosmic balance sheet debiting the evil men (and women) do against our good-deed credits. In the western, linear tradition of karma, we keep coming back coping with the same problems and character defects until we recognize our behavior and make the decision to change.
It is supposed that each soul chooses its parents to create the scenario that will assist in cleaning up unfinished karmic business. It would seem that we are all volunteers (however reluctant) and have chosen the people with whom we are to spend this lifetime.
Traditionally the villains in psychotherapy, mothers have a champion in Woolger. Citing the work of Thomas Verney and John Kelly, authors of The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, Woolger contends that how a man feels about his wife and unborn child is one of the single most important factors in determining the success of a pregnancy. Mothers rejoice! It's not all your fault. Even the relative difficulty or ease of birth, according to Woolger, is karmic and thus chosen by the soul.
How can a technique that apparently integrates reincarnation philosophy help those who don't believe in it? The key is regression therapy's use of psychodrama, the widely accepted technique of acting out real or devised scenarios for the purpose of working through emotional states. Dr. Woolger and his colleagues use various methods -- including breathing exercises, repetition of key phrases, and hypnosis -- to induce the client to visualize a situation that gets to the root of their current difficulties. The result may be visions of scenes suggesting memories of other lives. The client is asked to act as if the situation is true and relive it in the same way one would invoke memories of childhood. Whether these "past life memories" are true memories or simply symbolic references to present feelings and emotions has no influence on their power as a catalyst in healing.
Past Life and Future Health
Many physical disturbances, according to Woolger, turn out to have past life origins. He tells of a man with compulsive handwashing behavior who visualized himself as an eighteenth-century surgeon who realized that many of his patients had died from unsterile conditions. A woman's chronic migraine disappeared after reliving the agony of a seven year old dying from the head wounds inflicted with an iron bar wielded by her father.
Woolger refers to these physical manifestations of apparent past life experiences as inherited structures. A weak stomach may carry past life memories of poisoning, starvation, or dysentery. Strong traces of guilt associated with specific parts of the body are harder to dislodge, says Woolger, and may entail what D. H. Lawrence called "long difficult repentance."
To understand how our bodies can carry into this lifetime physical ailments suffered by a long-dead body, Woolger quotes Heinrich Zimmer's summary of Yoga teaching regarding the origin of inherited structures:
Within the gross body which suffers dissolution after death, every living being possesses an inner subtle body, which is formed of sense faculties, vital breaths, and inner organs. This is the body that goes on and on, from birth to birth, as the basis and vehicle for the reincarnated personality. It departs from the sheath of the gross body at the time of death, and then determines the nature of the new existence; for within it are left the traces -- like the furrows and scars -- of all the perceptions, acts, desires, and movements of will of the past, all the propensities and trends, the heritages of habits and inclinations, and the particular readiness to react this way or that, or not at all.
"Where there are several lives of alternating victimization and revenge" writes Woolger, "the psyche may often unconsciously be inviting repeated self-punishment to a certain area of the body. Hunched shoulders may contain several layers of past life stories where there were repeated beatings and brutality to others, the same soul apparently having been both slave-master and slave, persecutor and victim several times over."
In conjunction with regression therapy, Woolger suggests bodywork with a competent professional (traditional massage, Rolfing, Hellerwork, etc.) as a means of releasing past memories from the body tissues.
Woolger does not conform to the current school of metaphysical thought that is the New Age grandchild of Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking. "While there are some psychotherapists who believe that the summoning of beautiful and transcendent imagery—spirit guide figures, gurus, angels, the Higher Self, etc.—is sufficient to alleviate psychological distress," Woolger writes, "I must confess I am not among them. It is too like sending in the spiritual cavalry to rescue the beleaguered ego. Sometimes the death of the old ego is precisely what is required, so that a new one can be born."
Woolger quotes Carl Jung, who said, "We do not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious."
What is apparent from the work of Woolger, Kelsey, and others is that karmic agonies, real or imagined, are markers of areas where self-forgiveness is necessary. The bad things that happen to us in this life are not God's punishment but our own revenge upon ourselves. And we have thus committed the ultimate sin, the sin of unforgiveness, against ourselves. "Escape from the spiral of self-recrimination is not always easy," writes Woolger.
Regression therapy aims to guide us to a kinder view of ourselves. Rather than viewing illness and unhappiness as God's punishment for our sins, it is viewed as our subtle body's memories of traumatic past events. "Not just the victim, but the bully and the rapist in all of us also are in need of healing and forgiveness. Men are not the only ones who must deal with this particularly pernicious shadow."