Past Lives

I had an experience that I’d really like to share.

I. Overture

A number of years ago, when I was living in Mumbai, I briefly fell in with a group of creative Indians and expats. This group held an even twice a month called “stone soup”, in which attendees would share songs, stories, and pieces of themselves (essentially an open mic night). While there, I became acquainted with a charming Indian woman named Ritika, who gave me a book, Only Love is Real, by psychiatrist Brian L. Weiss.

The book, subtitled A Story of Soulmates Reunited , is a stirring work, simultaneously a love story and a description of a mystical style of hypnotic therapy, the “past life regression”. In Weiss’s view, we are spiritual beings who travel through time, incarnating in this body or that. We travel in a kind of “soul tribe”, entities who rediscover each other in each lifetime, and are bound to helping, supporting, and influencing each other. In one lifetime, they might be mother and daughter. In another, two close friends. In a third, romantic partners. In a fourth, they may not meet, and feel an absence.

It is a captivating idea, and strikes a similar chord to that of Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s 2004 novel adapted by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and Tom Tykwer into an excellent 2012 film by the same name.  Cloud Atlas tells the story of various of these “families”, constantly rediscovering each other and dramatically shaping each other’s lives, encouraging each other forward into ever greater personal and spiritual growth toward balance and harmony and away from destruction and fear.

Cloud Atlas is a magnificent dramatization of the more general concepts of  reincarnation (such as Hinduism’s samsara and Kabbalistic Judaism’s gilgul), and communicates powerfully the idea that we are spiritual beings constantly tugged between the dark and the light. There is yet another work which plays with this theme: The Celestine Prophecy, self-published by James Redfield in 1993. Subtitled An Adventure, it is a new-agey tale where a protagonist discovers an ancient manuscript, meets interesting and exotic characters, and evades dangerous secret societies, all while developing his inner eye and ability to tap into the essential mystical power of the universe.

Although silly at times, Prophecy introduces one particularly useful idea: that each one of us struggles with some neuroses, which are forms of trauma we inherit from our parents. In our lifetime, either we ourselves pass these neuroses onto our own children, or we can overcome and heal them and pass on a more balanced, resilient, stable emotional tapestry to our children. We exist as an unbroken chain of trauma and healing strength, and in every lifetime we have the choice to either slump down towards the darkness or stretch up towards the light.

All of this fits together. The mystical family helping itself get through the struggle of constantly being alive. To be pulled in strange directions. To fail and fail, but still have a chance to get it right. In a world where we’ve discarded all shared sources of meaning, and given ourselves reign to make meaning for ourselves, there are worse ways to go. I know meaning is meaningless, but this means a lot to me.

As you can probably guess, I made an appointment for a past life regression. It was May 1, just a few days before I fled New York City and moved to Tel Aviv. My therapist’s name was Dr. Laurie Greenberg, and she was more or less what I expected. We chatted for a few minutes and she put me on the table. The hypnotic induction involved taking myself back to a calm and peaceful place from my past, to feel the wind and the sun, and to open my heart for cosmic guidance. So far so good. She asks me to close my eyes (in my imagination) and to “find myself somewhere”.

II. The Shepard

I open my eyes. I don’t know where (or who) I am. Slowly, I manage to fill the scene. A field, with a tree. I look at myself: sandals, a blue tunic. I think I’m just channeling The Legend of Zelda, but I continue. I walk along the road; I have sheep. I’m a shepard. In England or Wales maybe? There are sheep and fields and tunics there.

I’m looking around for a while; Laurie invites me to “fast forward”, perhaps to a gathering or a meal. The scene shifts. I’m approaching a house: a two-story wood-and-stone domicile with a thatched roof. Coming up the road, the house is to the right. To the left, there is a pen for the sheep. To the right and behind the house is a forest. I enter the house and look around. I am in the kitchen, there is a round wooden table which looks like a cable spool. I continue looking around, but nothing strikes me as particularly noteworthy.

After a few moments, I hear someone descending the stairs. I immediately know who it is. In this life, it is my wife. More than that, I know who this person is. It is someone I know in this one. Someone I loved passionately, and with whom I fought constantly, and whom I no longer see. She reaches the bottom of the stairs. We need firewood. We go outside and into the woods, and gather fallen branches. We are playing, joking, laughing.

In that pastoral life, we are together.

The image fades. Laurie invites me to find myself someplace new.

III. The Scientist

I open my eyes. I am on a sailing ship, in what must be the 19th century. I am wearing a white shirt and brown slacks, and I am helping to sail the ship. But I am not a professional sailor — I am a scientist, traveling for research. I am a hobbyist sailor, however, and the ship’s crew has let me participate in the voyage.

We are approaching the port, and I am pulling in one of the sheets. I watch the water play against the hull of the ship. I look up at our destination, coming into view through a light fog. I can’t quite tell where we are arriving — I see vague shapes of buildings set into what looks like a large hill. I am unable to remember my specific purpose, but I know that I have people to meet and things to investigate. I am excited.

The image fades. Laurie invites me to continue to a new life. No images appear. I am stuck in a void in between these visualizations. What feels like several minute pass by.

IV. The Astronomer

Eventually, images being to appear. It is night, and I am on a rooftop of what appears to be a large building. A palace? A university? The stars are shining brightly, and I am surrounded by various large metal-and-wood apparatus. I am wearing a dark blue robe — this is the Islamic golden age, I am an astronomer, and these are my instruments.

The night is cool, and I take breathe in deeply. I am content with my place in the world. I spend my days and nights studying the movements of the stars, helping to construct calendars so that our leaders can plan our agriculture and administer our cities. I enjoy my work and understand its impact.

After a few more moments in this night, the image fades. It is time to awaken.

V. Outro

Laurie conducts me back to this world. I rise from the table and thank her, and make my way out.

What am I feeling? Do I think this is real? On that front, I’ll concede a cool 50/50. Perhaps I simply constructed a handful of new memories under guided hypnosis, using whatever images my subconscious felt like throwing up. Perhaps those same subconscious images were shaped by an even more basic, more mystical vibration. I doubt I’ll ever be able to answer that question. Nor, particularly, do I want to.

By far my strongest reaction is to the first life, the pastoral existence I shared with the woman. In this life, we were together for nearly two tumultuous years, and I have never loved someone more. Two years of chemistry, magic, humor, cinema, bike rides, bars in brooklyn, travel and adventure, catching Pokémon, incredible passion, and tender caring. It was also two years of fighting, disappointment, aggravation, breaking up and making up, misaligned expectations, mutual hurt, and fundamental differences.

She is one of the loves of my life, and frankly I’m not sure that I’m going to get another.

Experiencing a life in which we end up together ever-so-slightly eased the pain of thinking that in this life, we do not. If it is true that we travel in soul tribes, and that in each life we appear for a purpose, perhaps in this life she appeared to help heal some of my traumas (and I to help heal some of hers), so that we part ways more whole than when we met. But I like the idea that in at least one life (but hopefully in many), we lasted the whole time.

In my other two lives, I was some flavor of scientist. My role was to advance knowledge to the benefit of all, and this work allowed me to live a life of satisfaction and meaning. I then found myself thinking a sad thought: perhaps in each life I had to make a choice? I could either have love, and sacrifice the work, or have the work, and sacrifice the love. I found myself thinking an even sadder thought: what if in this life, I am making that choice right now?

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