A Case of a Spontaneous Past Life Regression: An Argument for the Use of Fantasy in Hypnosis
by Eleanor S. Field, Ph.D
This article presents a case of "accidental" or "past life" regression, whereby a patient in therapy for numerous years, "recovered the information" he needed to get well. It is the purpose of this paper to call attention to fantasy or non-factual material with the right patient in an approriate setting, when dealt with and integrated properly.
In contrast to previous age regressions, the patient seemed unable to respond to such questions as, "Are you old?" No finger movement occurred. I then asked if it would be alright if he responded verbally. Upon obtaining an affirmative response, I then asked "What year is this? He replied, much to my surprise, "It's 1916." Further questions elicited the information that he is fighting in Belgium and France in a trench and bleeding and in excruciating pain. "A German soldier just leaped over the top and bayoneted me right through the chest" he stated. His words were spoken with an Irish brogue distinctly different from his normal speech. "It's raining and windy, and I wonder if I shall die here. I feel like I'm passing out. I'm terrified," he screamed.
In that session, my patient had presented with chest pains. In response, I asked him to close his eyes and get in touch with the physical feelings he was experiencing. I call this approach 'Feeling Focus'. I urged him to stay with the physical feelings he was experienceing and to put aside the thoughts in his head. Then I asked him to put his hand on that part of his body where he was experiencing the feelings the most. He placed his hands on his chest and grimaced in pain. I then requested permisssion to touch him on that spot and also asked "Would it be alright to return to another time when you felt the same way?" As I utilized this effect bridge (Watkins 1971), along with my touch as an anchor to the present (Field 1990), the patient appeared to be in intense pain. He finally lifted his 'Yes' finger, as he was accustomed to do to let me know he was 'there' (Cheek, 1968).
Past life regressions have been discounted by many hypnotherapists, including this one. This case illustrates an unusual situation where regression led to a past life experience and the past life episodes became the essence of the resolution of the problem. Yet Stevenson (1994), claims that "... none (no therapists) has ever publihed a report of claimed beneficial results for this kind of therapy (past life) in a referred scientific journal." Perhaps he is referring to a controlled analytic study of many patients. It appears to me that, considering the complexity of situations and the myriad interventions utilized by this therapist to meet the needs of the individual patient, such a study would be difficult to authenticate. However, the "claimed beneficial results" for this individual patient were so significant, taken in the context of thirty-nine years of almost continous therapy for him, they merit publication.
"On December 23, 1993, while working with Dr. Field, I accidentally fell into a past-life experience" began the patient in a twenty five page documentary he wrote and entitled A Whole Other Life. The patient in this case is a fifty eight year old male who began his encounter with numerous therapeutic approaches at the age of nineteen. At that time he had a "psychotic break" which topped off a depressed state. He was hospitalized for two months during which his doctor used medications and numerous shock treatments. This treatment continued after his release. The psychiatrist used no psychotherapy. When the patient wanted to talk about his symptoms, the doctor replied that he should talk with his priest.
On a continuous basis over the years, this therapy was followed by psychoanalysis, behaviortherapy, Gestalt therapy, hypnosis and other approaches. The reason for his continued treatment was that, subsequent to his initial illness, he developed a "never-ending" phobic response to wind, rain, or any stormy weather. This was his presenting problem when he came into therapy with me. When the weather was bad, he would become severely depressed and had great difficulty in leaving his home or work. In fact he would become immobile and could barely function on many occasions. This was often accompanied by anxiety which sometimes resulted in a full blown panic attack. This phobic response was also accompanied by a fear of intimacy and relationships with the opposite sex. He stated that he "knew for sure" that if he married he would be abandoned by his wife. Among his physical complaints were constant backaches, atrial fibrillation, and penile warts.
The patient has been in therapy with me for a period of two years except for a six month "leave of absence." I have used behavioral therapy, psychoanalytically oriented therapy, transactional analysis, and ego state therapy with him. These methodologies have been sandwiched between hypnotic procedure signaling and age regression by way of cognitive (Cheek, 1998), and affective (Watkins, 1971) means. Other approaches included ego strenghtening techniques, imagery, pain management and metaphorical stories, integrated with the techniques of NLP (Field, 1990). All of this has been accomplished in a permissive 'Ericksonian' manner, with the patient taking the lead. This, this patient had been the subject of multiple treatment modalities prior to the regression where he 'accidentally fell' into what I call a 'spontaneous past-life experience.'
Previous regressions had revealed episodes from his childhood, many of which were validated by a niece, a psychologist. The result of these interventions was a marked decrease in the patients fear's, particularly after the presentation of a collaborative metaphor. He subsequently took a six month vacation from therapy. However, with the death of his mother, the symptomatology rose to a discomforting level and he thereafter returned to therapy.
On several visits subsequent to the spontaneous past life regression, the patient requested that we return to that period of time again. In one of the many events he was recovering from the bayonet wound in a hospital and did not want to return to the battlefield. He later attributed this to his present day difficulty in "finishing" things. Of another event, the patient wrote "I found myself marching through France in the mud and rain. I felt absolutely miserable. So cold I started to shiver, I could not get dry or warm. The sounds of war were all around me, it was horrible." On another occasion, he was in a tent tryig to sleep as the wind was howling and heavy rain beat down on the tent.
On still another occasion, he returned to his native England at the close of the war, only to find his wife had left him. He displaced his anger upon his mother-in-law who met him at the port and brought him the bad news. As he related this he angrily banged on the hassock in front of his chair and pushed it over on it's side.
In a later regression, he fell in love with a barmaid who took care of him when he got drunk. She wanted to get married but he declared that he could not because he still felt married to the who had abandoned him. He also stated that he could never get over this loss. In a later discussion, the patient declared that this explained his fear of intimate relationships and fear of abandonment. Part of my response was to ask the patient for permission to return to that point of time and 'bury the wife,' thus alleviating him of that burden. Upon his agreement, I role played the part of Molly, the barmaid, and with the patient constructed a scenario in which we took a cigar box and put the little doll, Molly used as a pincushion inside of it and buried it in her yard.
On the last occasion, the "past self, in a drunken state, fell and hit his head on a train rail. This resulted in his "death." The patient, on his next visit, determined that was exactly nine months before he was born into "this life". Some time later in the therapy, he returned to the death experience and went through the agony as he died in the hospital. When he completed this trauma, and after a short lapse of time, his hands went into a position resembled that of a fetus. "It is dark inside where I am," he said. "I am going from one life to the next."
The Los Angeles earthquake of January 17, 1994, occurred subsequent to the second of these regressions. At the time of the quake, the patient experienced atrial fibrillation which resulted in a one day hospitalization. Other than that occurrence, there have been no reactions by this patient to any of the environmental conditions which have plagued him over time. Considering that this man had since 19 years of age been so incapacitated by his fears of stormy weather, it appears that his spontaneous return to an "earlier life," the subsequent regressions, and the follow up work by way of cognitive discussions and integrations as well as the more deliberate dialogue involved with the "burying of his wife" in a hypnotic state, have resulted in the resolution of his presenting problem as well as subsidiary aspects. Both the patient and I found it amazing that this has occurred by way of the regressions, and particularly since no other treatment had such success.
In addition to the resolution of the presenting problem, in an effort to find the causative factor involved with his penile warts, we utilized the Seven Keys (Cheek and LeCron, 1968). The patient returned to an episode in his past lift where he had contracted gonorrhea from a female prostitute. He later found a need to punish himself ("masochism", one of the 7 Keys) for his behavior and developed the warts, which kept him from intimacy with the barmaid who had fallen in love with him, a secondary gain ('purpose' another of the 7 Keys). This, again was also connected with his fear of abandonment. By avoiding intimacy he avoided abandonment. Following this session, the patient joined'Great Expectaions' a dating service. In the past (this life), he was unable to make such a positive move to meet women.
I point out that I did not suggest a past life regression and up to this time have not promoted past life therapy or any related aspects. In fact, in the past when prospective client had phoned and asked if our office did past life therapy, we referred them to others who do. My personal views do not include reincarnation, nor does my Hebraic background give it any emphasis. Howevr, it is part of the teachings of the Kaballah mystics (Scholem, 1974). How can anyone know for sure what happens to the spirit after the body dies? Nevertheless, it is my belief that, fact or fantasy, it really does not matter when the uncovered material puts the patient on the path to recovery, and the results withstand the test of time. Supporting this view was a recent Public Broadcasting System presentation (Jarmon 1995). Relative to the subject of repressed memories, Dr Robert Jarmon presented an actual past life regression. When subsequently questioned by the interviewer, "Is this just some confabulation on the part of the person?", Dr. Jarmon stated, " I don't think it is. Fortunately, I don't have to know. People come here and I am here to help them heal and if they see that in a past life they abused that person... and I pick up that this is the resolution for them... Great! You have your peacefulness, you have your resolution."
Stevenson (1994) may be correct when he states and gives examples of patients who "had created a historical novel". It is interesting to note that the patient whose case I have presented is a screenwriter employed in a creative capacity for a major movie production company. This aspect indeed suggests a personality who is an expert at fantasy, which also makes for a good hypnotic subject (Lynn and Rhue, 1988). This further supports the hypothesis that the recovered material could be fantasy. Does it really matter? Can this be considered in any different light than the use of metaphorical stories in psychotherapy, or the anecdotal stories of which Milton Erickson was known to relate, even making up a story when he had no analagous real anecdote.
Indeed, one of Erickson's more famous tales, the February Man (Erickson and Rossi, 1989, p. 460), is one where Erickson utilized story telling to add the character of the "February Man" to his patient's life. Erickson assumes the identity of an old friend of the patient's father who visits in the month of February, the month of the patient's birthday. The patient reexperiences this time while Erickson adds positive experiences to the patient's memories. Erickson stated that he was "adding reality to a non-existent thing (p. 468)." In other words, Ericksonian fantasy, where Erickson's presence is a companion to the patient, changes the patient's perspective and aleviates the problem. This is a deliberate fantasy situation created for the purpose of reframing the problem at hand.
Stevenson also suggests that such techniques by hypnotherapists can "help their patients" and can have "efficacy," as indeed it appears to have done, at least to date, in this case. From a different perspective, Stevenson declares that "the psychotherapists confidence may counteract the ability of noxious stimuli." Relative to this case, I did not give any credence or "confidence" to the validity of the past life aspect. When the patient asked for my opinion, I responded, "I don't know." The material can hardly be referred to as "noxious" when it benefits the patient. Indeed, the patient himself "wonders" about the experiences, declaring that he is planning a future trip to London, his "birthplace of the past," to check the archives regarding the past life experience. Stevenson further states that without the "venal promotion of hypnotic regression to previous lives, I am (he is ) all in favor of more research in the subject." I concur with that proposal and at the same time point out, as I did before, that the difficulty of achieving a scientifically authenticated study, should not deter reporting results on an individual basis.
Lynn and Nash (1994) refer to a case of Wilson and Barber which is documented in their chapter, "The fantasy prone personality: Implications for understanding imagery, hypnosis and parapsychological phenomena." A.A. Sheikh (1986, pp 340-390) describes a case in which the patient confused reality with that of a dream experience. The significance of the dream or fantasy caused further therapeutic intervention which ultimatley led to an improved condition for the patient. I concur with Lynn and Nash's statement that "Whether the memory was inspired by fraud, fact or fantasy, it was important and had significance for the client." Their article points out that "memories can be shaped, moulded with fantasies, distorted, and even inadvertently created by the therapist." Yet, they continue, "clinical utility may have nothing to do with uncovering the truth..."
It is not all guided imagery fantasy? And what about such statements by the therapist with a patient in hypnosis as "there is a balloon full of helium attached to your wrist." Or, "I am placing a thick, heavy padded glove on your hand." Furthermore, examine the use of metaphorical stories in hypnotherapy and psychotherapy. In such stories a positive outcome can be suggested by the therapist, or the therapist and patient together (Field, 1990) may contact elements of a story for a collaborative metaphor. In either case, the resolution of the story is one fantasy form of an age progression for the patient. This is also a form of dissociation, whereby the patient is in the present and the future at the same time. Indeed, this is one of the many therapeutic interventions in which I had engaged the patient who is the subject of this paper.
Torem, as well as Phillips and Frederick have reported on the desirous effects of age progression for the patient. In this paper "Back from the Future: a Powerful Age Progression Technique," (1992) Torem refers to the powerful effects and applications of imagery. Influenced by Eriksson's "pseudo-orientation in time" procedures (1954) whereby the patient travels into the future when the problem has been resolved, Torem enacts an age progression technique utilising a voyage to a future time. Following the procedure, Torem has the patient write in his journal the "gifts" he has received from his voyage which has to do with his "healing and recovery." Torem points out that his patient's "helplessness" is replaced by "...new hope, strength, inner resourcefulness, self mastery, and belief in one's own recovery".
Similarly, my patient's "new found belief in his own recovery, was based on his voyage back to the past" which, for him, explained aspects of his illness.) Of his own volition, this patient took the time to write a 25 page documentary of his travels into the past, the resulting effects, and key Points to Check Out. Is not a voyage into the "future" as mystical as one into a "past life?" Are not both imagery of travel, each into a different time zone? The benefits for the patient can also be the same. Phillips and Frederick (1992) along with Torem, also view age progression as "integrating processes in which negative, abreactive material, negative self images from the past, and limited expectancies, as well as self-defeating behavioral patterns could become integrated...." Indeed, as illustrated by the specific scenarios which my patient experienced, the integrating processes are much the same, except they utilize "past possibilities" in lieu of "positive possibilities of the future" (Phillips and Frederick, 1992). Furthermore, Phillips and Frederick stated that "In our experience spontaneous age progression initiated by the patient appear to be equally, if not more valuable..." In reference to my patient, although an age regression was initated by me, the patient's return to a "past life" was spontaneous and self initiated.
The benefits for my patient were multi-fold, including ego strengthening, a willingness to pursue intimacy, and especially his gaining mastery and control over his environmental phobia. He put an end to his procrastination and his psychosomatic symptomatology including the chest pains and penile warts.
In a much later "anniversary session", the patient's previous self "reviewed" his crossing of the English Channel on his journey home from the front lines. He was intensely seasick and his heart pounded with fear. He also saw himself as a loser as a soldier, and he also believed he might find himself to be a loser with his wife, not having received any mail from her for months. He stated thereafter that his heart was about to go into fibrillation and he expressed such terror that I saw fit to bring him back. To date, he has had no further episodes of atrial fibrillation.
Although this paper presents a positive orientation for fantasy if it surfaces, or if even deliberately fashioned, there are instances where the use of pseudo-memories can be harmful, unethical, and should be avoided. The editorial "the Use of Recovered Memories Outside of Therapy" (January, 1994) provides an excellent example of this. The therapist needs to be especially careful where "potential misapplication" of childhood events can occur and particularly where sexual abuse is involved. Therapists need to avoid suggesting sexual abuse. However, if such memories do surface, the possibilities of accuracy vs. Pseudo-memory confabulation and partial or contaminated accuracy should be discussed. Caution needs to be exercised in questioning a patient, to assure that the words used by the therapist do not color the information which emerges. The therapist must also be cautious not to make suggestions which can foster patient confabulation and "The False Memory Syndrome".
Where forensic issues are a part of the therapy or where family members are to suffer the slings and arrows of the therapeutic findings, the therapist must be especially cautious and alert to dealing with only the factual. In any given situation however, it is also important that the therapist manage the material properly, including appropriate integration into the rest of the therapeutic results.
Any narrative by a patient is bound to be laced with distortions, confabulation is, and unreal perceptions. One need only listen to the different perspectives presented in marital therapy by a husband-and-wife concerning "what happened last night," to realise that the map is not the territory. Where a disassociative techniques such as hypnotherapeutic experience as part of the therapy session is utilized, the fantasy aspect is bound to be exaggerated. Where a highly hypnotizable, fantasy prone patient is the subject, more unreal and colorful involvements are to be expected.
What Disney has stated "if you can dream it, you can do it." If the dream, or for that matter, the past life experiences of a patient, cause him to let go of his phobic responses and so I allow him to live a healthy life, should be really consider that to be a "fallacy?" Does it really matter when the patient's life is turned around by way of his reaction to simple guided imagery, a metaphor, a hypnotic progression or a past life experience, especially when that experience is unsolicited by the therapist and unplanned by the patient.
Relative to past life therapy, a number of researchers have reported on the subject, (Zelling, 1993), Stevenson (1994), (Weiss, 1992), (Cranston & Williams, 1984). Further studies by experienced and authentic clinicians could enhance the clinician's arsenal of tools to lead to patient recovery. Brian Weiss also reports patients having "spontaneous" past life regressions. This further leads to the question of when a prospective patient directly requests past life therapy, should we deny him a possible road to health based on a procedure which has intrigued him or should we forge ahead and engage him in the process? Could he then be avoiding looking at aspects of his present life? And would those unresolved issues make a difference? As therapists and hypnotherapists, should we hold onto the belief that "Whatever works, go for it"?
This author advocates more research by openminded clinicians into this intriguing area of psychotherapy. This research needs to be oriented toward therapeutic results rather than toward the yea or nea of whether the cat really has nine lives.
Dr. Field is a Diplomate of the American Board of Medical Psychotherapists (ABMP), the American Academy of Pain Management, and an Approved Consultant of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH). She is the Founding President of the Los Angeles Academy of Clinical Hypnosis, a component society of ASCH and has presented at many conferences worldwide. She is a licensed psychologist, licensed marriage family therapist and hypnotherapist in private practice in Tarzana, California. In addition to presenting her own seminars and lectures around the world, Dr. Field has taught at UCLA and has developed and administered continuing education for health professionals at California Lutheran University. She is on staff at the AMI Encino Tarzana Regional Medical Center and co-author of The Good Girl Syndrome, published by Macmillan.