Hypnotherapy enjoys greater public acceptance today than ever before. Yet even as we move forward into the new millennium, people still debate over various techniques. One of the most controversial techniques can be summarized in three words: past life regressions.
It is a known fact that clients in hypnosis may be intentionally guided into a past life regression (often referred to simply as a "PLR"). Stranger yet is the fact that some clients who do not believe in former lives may also, on rare occasions, trip out spontaneously into an alleged past life during what was intended to be a regression back to childhood. Why does this happen? Skeptics often claim that a PLR is the result of false memories, while believers claim that past life regressions provide evidence of reincarnation.
Some highly educated people believe that the concept of living more than once is totally unscientific; yet others with medical degrees and other advanced degrees do believe that we live more than once. Also, while most theologians argue vehemently against the concept on Biblical grounds, there are ordained Christian ministers who believe in reincarnation!
Most available information regarding the PLR phenomenon either attempts to promote the theory of reincarnation, or attempts to discredit PLR's altogether. Believe it or not, there are enough possible explanations available to justify being undecided on this issue. This article is written to provide some food for thought, regardless of your own views on this controversial topic.
There are several popular theories to explain what may be taking place during a past life regression. You are free to choose the theory (or theories) which fit comfortably into your own personal and/or professional beliefs. Let us consider some possible explanations of the phenomenon, beginning with the two most common ones.
Fantasy or metaphor
Any competent hypnotherapist knows that hypnosis enhances one's own ability to imagine or fantasize; and this most certainly is a logical explanation for many of the supposed past life regressions. Such fantasy could result from a number of causes: curiosity, fascination for a particular period in history, and/or identifying with a certain historical person, or it could be the result of inappropriate leading. In the best-case scenario, such fantasy could easily be a subconscious metaphor that may facilitate change in your client. There could be other reasons for the fantasy, such as a movie, a TV program, or a dream or event that made a subconscious impact during one's present life even if forgotten consciously.
Actual soul memories (reincarnation)
There are people from all walks of life who believe that past life regressions prove reincarnation, as is evidenced by the many books written on the subject. Even some Christians claim that the family of Jesus belonged to the Essenes, who believed in reincarnation.
A Methodist minister of many years, the late Arthur Winkler, PhD, was once a past life skeptic. After a Jewish client had a spontaneous past life regression into a former life as a Christian, Dr. Winkler decided to conduct his own research. He facilitated thousands of past life regressions and eventually came to believe that many of them were valid. (Of course, there are millions of Christians who believe that reincarnation is in total conflict with Christianity; and this is not the place to debate it.)
Soul tapping or channeling
One theory believed by many proposes that the person in hypnosis may "tap into" the actual memories of another soul who lived in the past, finding those memories from the Universal Book of Life or the Akashic records, or even directly from the soul of the person who actually lived that life.
The subconscious and/or super conscious finds something relevant for the client at the time for the person's soul growth, and we "play" the memories much like a VCR playing a videocassette, or by telepathically reading or "channeling" thought patterns from the departed soul of another who is in spirit form. Some who object to the idea of reincarnation on religious grounds may find this a very acceptable explanation for past life regressions.
This theory is similar to the one above. The belief is that we are all interconnected through the spirit of God or Universal consciousness, and therefore all memories of all lives ever lived, both past and present, are instantly available through hypnosis if needed for one's own personal or spiritual growth. This theory differs slightly from the first in that it proposes that past lives, present lives, and future lives are all happening simultaneously in another plane of existence. (If you think this theory is difficult to understand, try explaining it to someone!)
Some people believe that memories may be passed on through heredity, through the genes and chromosomes. This theory does not hold water with regressions where one remembers his/her death, as those memories for a particular life would seemingly expire after one's last child was conceived, nor would it explain a Japanese client of mine regressing into an apparent former life as an American Indian. Nonetheless, I have discussed this theory with at least one scientist who firmly believes it, and can explain the two concerns mentioned above.
You are free to consider still other possible explanations besides these; but perhaps this gives you a starting point for opening your mind to possible explanations for those regressions that seem to be more than just fantasy. However, even if you do not wish to choose an explanation, there remains the mystery of the occasional spontaneous past life regression.
Spontaneous Past Life Regression
Whether or not you believe in past lives, on rare occasions a client who is regressed may spontaneously "trip out" into a real or imagined past life even when that was not the intention of the hypnotherapist. The spontaneous PLR is more common with the "affect bridge" technique than with any other regression technique. One of my former students, a licensed physician, witnessed this while facilitating her very first regression, even though both she and her patient expected the cause to originate during childhood of the current life.
If this happens to one of your clients, stay calm. Take a deep breath and say "relax" to yourself (and to your client) if you need to calm any of your own anxiety, since this can be picked up by the client's subconscious. If you are comfortable dealing with what emerges, guide the client through the experience. Remember to ask open-ended questions and avoid inappropriate leading. Handle the spontaneous PLR much the same as a present life regression, making sure to suggest a total return to the present day before awakening. Remember to allow (but not force) abreactions, and know how to deal with them! That last phrase is important, because anyone who is not prepared to help a client handle abreactions should never initiate a regression in the first place-whether to a present life or a past life.
If you are not comfortable handling the situation, bring your client back to the present life quickly but gently, but do NOT awaken from hypnosis just yet. You might take him/her to a safe place and use the verbalizing technique to discover possible relevancy to the present life, etc.; or you could just give some soothing post hypnotic suggestions for peace and well being if you do not know what else to do. Then, after awakening, ask the client to tell you how he/she feels about what happened during hypnosis.
What do we tell the client?
After a spontaneous PLR, it is best to keep quiet about your own opinions regarding PLR's.
Under absolutely no circumstances should you criticize any client for regressing back too far in time. If he or she believes in former lives and you are a PLR skeptic, then you would serve him/her better with a referral to an ethical hypnotherapist who is comfortable working with past life therapy. Also, you have no obligation to accommodate a client's request for past life therapy, as long as you decline with courtesy and sensitivity to the client; however, with a little experience, you just might find yourself able to facilitate a PLR upon request.
A devout Lutheran who saw me to deal with the fear of flying regressed back to a former alleged death experience. She did not believe in past lives, yet she vividly described suffocating to death. With the verbalizing technique, she said that it was not being in the sky that she feared while flying, it was the fear of running out of oxygen and dying again like before! When I awakened her, she exclaimed, "That seemed pretty real! Did I really live before this life?
My response was that it was not my place to say whether her experience was real. I briefly summarized the possible explanations. She could have seen a movie or heard a story as a small child, or her subconscious could simply have produced this story as a metaphor to help her. I finished by saying, "Whether or not you really lived that life isn't nearly as important as your release from the phobia, is it?"
To invalidate her experience might have neutralized the therapy. To validate it might have caused anxiety over her religious convictions. The most considerate response from me was to offer several possible explanations and allow her to explore her own conclusions! By the way, her release from the phobia was permanent.
Now let us explore ethical considerations...
I always encourage my students to do for the client what you would want done if the roles (and beliefs) were reversed. Let us explore the ethics of three possible situations...
If you are a PLR believer
In my professional opinion it is unethical to initiate a past life regression intentionally unless your client requests it. Even if you believe his/her problem originated in a real or imagined "former lifetime," you risk the credibility of hypnotherapy by taking it upon yourself to force the person back into some real or imagined past life unless that is what the client, of his or her own free will, desires.
Furthermore, some people may feel it is an infringement on their own beliefs even if you solicit their consent prior to the hypnotic session. The client should bring up the topic of past lives rather than the therapist. To do otherwise could be construed as bordering on diagnosing.
If you are a PLR skeptic
The flip side of the coin is that you may appear as being cold and insensitive if you try to convince a client that it is stupid or unethical to believe in past life therapy just because of your scientific or religious views, etc.
All of us are entitled to our own belief systems, and that includes our clients! In my professional opinion, our job is to assist, not to meddle. We as hypnotherapists have a responsibility to do our best to work with our clients as much as possible within the framework of their own spiritual beliefs. Yet I have heard complaints from several clients who experienced criticism from a psychotherapist or a hypnotherapist after expressing a belief in reincarnation and/or requesting a PLR.
Worse yet, several clients have complained to me over the years about another therapist claiming it is unethical for any hypnotist to do past life regressions. This is easy for me to believe, because I personally heard a well known figure in the hypnosis profession publicly denounce past life therapy as unethical in 1990! This type of criticism hurts our profession and creates more division.
The ethical thing for the past life skeptic to do is to give the clients who request past life regressions the courtesy of tactfully referring them elsewhere without putting them or their beliefs down! Remember that we are here to serve the client, NOT to convert clients to our own spiritual, mental, medical, philosophical or other beliefs. The client's need is more important than our own religious beliefs or ego.
We want the public to be open minded about hypnosis; so we owe it to our clients, ourselves, and our entire profession to keep an open mind about ideas some of us choose to use in our own practice! Asking others to be open minded about hypnosis while remaining close-minded about the benefits of past life therapy has a rather strange ring of hypocrisy in the ears of many of us.
If you are undecided
The late Charles Tebbetts sometimes facilitated past life regressions in his class, but avoided saying whether or not he believed in them. He did not feel that a past life regression would harm a client who requested it, as long as the therapist avoided projecting his or her opinions into the client; but whenever a student asked him about his personal beliefs regarding past lives, Charlie kept us guessing.
If you are in this group, it is easy and relatively safe to be honest about your undecided opinions with some of your clients. It would be totally acceptable and professional to admit to a client that you do not know whether the experience was real or metaphoric, and the client will most likely respect your honesty, especially if you provide brief summaries of the possible explanations. Perhaps both the believer and the skeptic might consider a similar statement as well, because when everything is said and done, do you REALLY know with ABSOLUTELY CERTAINTY whether or not we live only once?
My goal is to empower my clients to achieve their desired goals, and that can be accomplished without the client knowing my own spiritual beliefs.
To sum it up, honoring a client's request to facilitate a PLR can sometimes be profoundly interesting. Before doing so, you must first be competently trained in hypnotic regressions, and understand the importance difference between guiding and leading. In addition, it is important to know how to facilitate abreactions, otherwise avoid facilitating any type of regression until you receive competent training in hypnotic regression therapy (HRT).