Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Psychology of Reincarnation and Past Life Memories

In Eastern philosophy, reincarnation is a concept as old as time. According to spiritual/religious beliefs such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, the soul returns to the physical plane over many lifetimes. It is a necessary part of learning the ancient wisdom and making old wrongs right.

In Western culture, Edgar Cayce was one of the first people to introduce this concept back in the 1950s. Throughout several of his readings, he says that the main purpose of the soul is to learn and grow. Thus doing, it earns its rightful place next to Creator.

Much research has and is being carried out globally to find evidence for and against reincarnation. Popular culture is flooded with books that debate both the believers’ and the sceptics’ points of view. Believers rely on their faith and trust their intuition. Sceptics demand tangible scientific proof.

Regardless of opinion, though, some questions receive little attention. For example: What, if anything, is there to be gained by having memories from previous lives? How can these memories affect a current life and the people in it? What are the psychological repercussions of remembering being someone else in another place and time?

Whether we choose to believe or not, there is a group of people for whom memories of past lives are very real. They are known as the Druze (or Druse); followers of the spiritual faith of El-Mowahideen El-Druze. There is speculation that the Druse faith originated in Egypt about 1000 years ago.

According to the Druze organisation there are almost one million followers worldwide. Many live in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, certain parts of India and Egypt. Many others now live in Western societies. (

Although the basic religious beliefs of the Druze find their origins in Islam, their faith is very different. In fact, these differences have been the cause of religious wars in regions such as the Gaza strip. They also played a part in the civil war in Lebanon.

The Druze believe their spiritual leader, El-Mowahideen El-Druze, was the reincarnation of God. They also believe strongly in the efforts of man and his actions. Their core philosophy is that a soul will return to earth many lifetimes in order to grow. They believe it has done so since the beginning of time and it will carry on doing so until the end of time. It is no wonder that most reported cases of reincarnation are Druze.

During his (almost) 40 year career, investigating reincarnation, Dr Ian Stevenson travelled throughout Lebanon and India documenting cases of past life memories. He interviewed thousands of Druze children, their family members, friends and neighbours. He also carried out follow-up interviews to see how memories of past lives affected adult life. However, there is not enough research on the current psychological effects of past life memories.

Over twenty cases from his 1998 trip to Lebanon and India are documented in Tom Shroder’s book Old Souls. There is also mention of a few cases investigated in parts of the United States of America.

The first person to bring public awareness to the effects of past lives, on the current life psyche, was Dr. Brian Weiss. In 1988 he published: Many Lives, Many Masters, which spoke of his patient Catherine. She comes to him because she is seeking a cure for her fears of water and choking, dieing and airplanes.

Initially, he believes these fears come from somewhere in Catherine’s childhood. So, they both agree that hypnotherapy (or hypnotic regression) is the best method for her to remember.

During regressive hypnotherapy a person is guided into a deep state of relaxation and/or trance by way of hypnosis. In theory by entering this state, the conscious mind, which is responsible for processing information, can be by-passed. Thus, the sub-conscious mind can be accessed. This is the part of our mind where information is stored that we are not fully aware of; including memories. Sometimes, we choose to block them out because they are too painful. Dealing with them openly could cause trauma and great amounts of discomfort. So, this process is really a mechanism for our own self-defence.

The general idea behind hypnotherapy is to bring painful events from the past into awareness. Thus, a person becomes free to face them, deal with them and let go of them. Inner healing begins by acknowledging a problem and finding the root of its cause.

Catherine undergoes several hypnotherapy sessions with Dr. Weiss. He tries to get her to remember anything from her childhood that may shed light on her fears. Nothing comes to the surface. They are no further forward. Then one day, Weiss gives her a different type of hypnotic suggestion. He asks her to remember the first ever memory that she feels is the cause. Thus, Catherine starts to talk about her previous lives.

As the memories unfold, Weiss discovers that her fear of water comes from drowning in another life. Her fear of airplanes comes from being a male soldier in the Second World War. Over a period of time, he finds that every current fear of hers is rooted in an event from a former lifetime.

They begin to see progress. The more hypnotherapy sessions she has, the more Catherine begins to let go of her fears. One by one they disappear completely from her current state of being. However, she becomes a little disturbed by the fact that she is talking about past lives. Reincarnation is not a word that is in her vocabulary since it challenges her beliefs. Dr. Weiss has to convince her, a great deal, to continue the sessions.

As far as I am aware, there is no follow-up research available to say how Catherine’s psyche was affected by her experience. Her fears were cured but has her life changed as a result? Has she suffered any form of identity crisis? Has she replaced one psychological challenge with another? These are all questions that remain unanswered.

What about other people who remember past lives? Is everyone affected the same way? Not according to Stevenson’s Druze cases presented by Shroder. In fact, there is a mixture of reactions. Each individual deals with their experience in a different way. Some live as if they have lost everything and never quite recover. Some are indifferent to their past life and some gain more than they had before.

The latter is the case with Daniel. As a child, he remembered being in a fatal car accident when he lived as a young man called Rashid. At a very early age, he started speaking of this unfortunate event.

He remembered names, faces, his previous mother, his family members and so on. He accused his current mother of not being his mother; his family of not being his real family. He would insist on being taken back to his family.

Even if reincarnation is part of everyday life for the Druze, the child’s frustration and the family’s hurt is obvious. A mother is always a mother. It is natural that she would be hurt when her own flesh and blood rejects her.

In Western society such claims would be dismissed and the child considered hurtful or a little strange. This was the case with an acquaintance of Shroder in the United States. Since reincarnation is not readily accepted among Westerners, only a few cases are reported and followed up. When they are, it is generally because the family keep an open mind. In some cases, what the child says is too coincidental to ignore.

His mother says that, as a child, Daniel didn’t like getting in the car. Also, that he would scream and cry every time they drove past the scene of the accident.

As a man, Daniel tells us that he likes cars but he still has a fear of fast driving. He, also, still has a fear of the place where the accident happened. Thus, it is apparent that simply talking about traumas, from past lives, is not enough to make fears disappear. At least not in every case as Weiss would have us believe.

With Daniel, nothing begins to heal the situation until his family meet Rashid’s. From that point on life improves for all the people involved. Both families find support and friendship in one another. Everyone is happy especially Rashid’s parents. Their grief is eased because they have a part of their son back. Daniel finds himself with two support systems he can turn to. He has two families that love him very much. He has his friends from the past and his friends from the present.

In the next two cases, presented here, about Suzanne and Itidal, things are quite the opposite. The one thing they all share in common is the conviction of who they were before. For better or for worse, the feelings and emotions of their past lives are very real to them.

It is not a question of having a vague memory of being someone else. Nor is it about having residual fears that come from somewhere unknown as with Catherine. It is about being born as the same person in a different body, a different environment and in a different family.

Psychiatrist Jim Tucker, among many, explains this as a transfer of one person’s personality into another. However, nobody knows exactly what a personality is. Just as nobody knows what a soul is. Thus, it is not possible to explain how either one can go from one body to another.

As a child, Suzanne always said she was Hanan, wife of Farouk and mother of three. Like Daniel, she accuses her parents of not being her real parents. She keeps saying she needs to be with her husband and children. As young as six months of age, she tried phoning Hanan’s daughter Leila. It was later discovered that she had one digit wrong in the number.

When she meets with her previous family, she is still very much in love with her husband. She speaks to her daughters as a mother would even though she is a child herself. When she discovers her husband has remarried, her emotions and feelings become those of a jealous woman. Growing up, these feelings do not change nor do they disappear.

There is distress all round. Hanan’s daughters refuse to speak to her anymore because they cannot accept the return of their mother in a little girl. Her husband breaks all ties with Suzanne because of feelings of pain and, to an extent, guilt. Suzanne’s life is not moving forward because she is living in Hanan’s past. Even now, as a young woman, she cries for her daughters and her husband. Having everything, losing it all, re-finding it and not being able to have it (or be close to it) has grave psychological effects.

In contrast to Daniel, all Suzanne has gained from her experience is a life of sadness. Her family worry about her welfare. Aside from supporting her, there is little more anyone can do to help her through it.

Another point worth noting is, at six months, Suzanne/Hanan clearly shows no concept of her physical and psychological age. Her behaviour is similar to a conscious adult held back by the limiting abilities of her physical age.

This is not the first case where this appears. Another infant called Joseph insisted his mother buy him size 8 shoes. She tells him they will be too big but he refuses to believe it until he tries them on. In another case, Robert can speak and string whole sentences together by the age of 6 months.

These factors challenge conventional psychological thinking. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was the first to propose that infants, as young as six months, are only capable of satisfying their biological needs. They have no consciousness comparable to adults, who develop a personality while growing up.

Carl Jung proposed that infants are born with instinctual patterns of behaviour and perception, which come from a collective unconscious. Thus, a baby instinctively knows how to get attention, when and how to cry for food etc. because we all have it in us.

Jean Piaget proposed that infants only begin to put together purposeful actions by the age of 2 years. Up until that time, he believes they only understand the world through their perception of it. They learn by way of trial and error of their actions.

These children are clearly outside what is considered a normal child development model. Unfortunately, I could not find any model for them or any further psychological research about their development. Future investigation in this area would prove to be beneficial. Not just for the children who claim to be reincarnated. It would help us come closer to understanding why some children develop quicker than others. Another unanswered question is: Could undetected cases of reincarnation be responsible for the child geniuses in the world?

In Itidal’s case, she claims she was Salma, a woman shot by her drunken husband. She remembers working very hard to support her several children. Some memories are a little unclear but the emotions are very real. She comes across as fearful, melancholic and resigned.

In her current life, she is mother to one son and divorced. Her husband forcefully took custody of their son. Contrary to tradition, he also denies her motherly visiting rights. She blames her previous life for her current life events. Throughout her interview, she constantly compares Salma’s life to her own. She shows no hope for the future. It is as if she believes she is pre-destined to have this life so she cannot expect anything better.

As with Suzanne, it is evident that support systems alone are not enough to help Itidal recover from her experience. Edgar Cayce claims that faith in the Creator is enough to overcome anything and everything. In these cases faith is obviously not enough.

Science refuses to accept that reincarnation is real. Thus, there are no professional conventional support models available to these children/adults. Transpersonal and Holistic psychology allows an individual the safety to talk about memories of past lives. Yet, it fails to offer cross-cultural healing models. Even though each individual is taken as a unique case there are no real guidelines available.

Transpersonal Psychology is still a relatively new realm in Europe, let alone the Middle East. Having travelled extensively throughout Arabic regions, and worked with many Druze, I know that among the majority it is still unheard of.

It is hard enough in Western culture to break through traditional beliefs that only conventional science is right. In areas of political sensitivity, it is even harder still to break through the barriers of prejudice. Religious/spiritual, geographical socio-economical and cultural factors play a big part in communication and understanding.

Globally, when we learn, as Edgar Cayce says, that we are all essentially the same essence; When we put aside our differences and work together; When we stop seeking to only answer the question: Does reincarnation exist or not?; and when egos stop getting in the way; Only then will we find a way to help these children through their experiences.


Anonymous said...

This is good work, and it would have been wonderful to have at a young age. You've touched on everything I went through but one aspect. One always misses the people as they used to be, not necessarily as they are now. Trust unearned is misplaced, but if you remember them, you want to give them the same trust as they once earned, even if they don't remember you.

Anonymous said...

Good one and it helps a lot.Thank you for your great post.

Karim - Positive thinking