“The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. Discuss.”
—Linda Richman from Coffee Talk on Saturday Night Live quoting Voltaire
In this piece I want to explore the process of past life regressions in relationship to a more weird naturalist, ontologically flooded, trauma-cognizant lens that is at the core of my writing on this site.
I’ve been exploring that larger frame of reference in numerous pieces on the site. If you haven’t already I’d recommend checking them out first.
--This one on the core concept of ontological flooding (as opposed to ontological bracketing), as well as the key notion from Charles Fort of intermediatism.
--This one on the relationship between ontological flooding and trauma
--This one on the value of a weird naturalist epistemology and ontology.
--For extra credit, this one on a physics of information which questions the very notion of past, present, and future as ontological realities.
Those pieces create the necessary conceptual framework for how to (re)approach a topic like past life regressions. In so doing I’ll argue that there is something potentially very interesting going on with the practice of past life regressions but I don’t think it’s actually past life regressions—at least not in the way it’s typically conceived.
If you haven’t read those pieces (you really should!) then here are the briefest of summary explanations of those key concepts before we move on.
Intermediatism: Charles Fort’s premise that things exist along a spectrum of real & unreal simultaneously. Every experience is partly real and partly not. This view is particularly helpful in responding to highly strange/anomalous types of experiences like those claimed in past life regression.
Ontological Flooding: A process that involves two aspects:
a) Bringing together a multiplicity of perspectives around an experience in an integrative fashion, particularly but not limited to, anomalous experience. Those perspectives can be political, aesthetic, conspiratorial/“alternative”, spiritual, philosophical, ethical, cultural, etc.
b) Being willing to move directly into the arena of high strangeness/weirdness, actually opening (“flooding”) to those types of experiences and seeing if they're real. That includes being willing to take on practices that might lead to such experiences like a past life regression technique.
Weird Naturalism/Super Naturalism/Paranormality:
This view, closely related to intermediatism and ontological flooding, is that what we call the paranormal is not in fact “paranormal” but rather simply normal. Psi phenomena, visionary experiences, time slips, contact with beings of another realm, are all within the realm of “normality” however that is conceived. These experiences may be “super” natural, that is to say on the rarer side, as well as be super intense experiences. Nevertheless they are within the bounds of the natural.
Trauma: Defined here most simply as any experience that takes place too quickly for the human nervous system to assimilate in that moment. High strange, mystical, and other non-ordinary experiences tend to be extremely fast and highly intense experiences and therefore lend themselves to being of a traumatic nature—even let it be noted, if the experience is of the “positive” variety. Trauma resolution then consists, in short, of the ability to slow down and assimilate unassimilated experience.
Time: In this viewpoint linear past, present, and future are cultural constructs but not necessarily fully real ontological realities. Time may be far more fluid, synchronous, and omni-directional.
With all those covered we can now dive in on past life regression.
Past life regression typically take place through light hypnotic trance or shamanic journeying (or possibly through entheogens/psychedelics). In the process the person has a memory (or series of memories) surface that are understood, from within the parameters of this work, to be memories of past lives.
The contemporary practice of past life regression grows out the Spiritualism movement of the 19th century, moving through the Theosophical era in the early 20th century, and then becoming more popular in post WWII era, particularly in North America.
Hypnosis, at least in its modern form, traces its lineage back to Franz Mesmer and Mesmerism, which had many links to the panoply of 19th century movements like New Thought, Spiritualism, and later movements of Theosophy and the wider New Age movement, particularly channeling. It’s also worth noting that Mesmerist-derived hypnotic practice was a major influence on Freud and through him psychotherapy (hence hypnotic-based therapy practice).
That historical background is really important because the practice of past life regression is typically taught within a strong metaphysical framework, one largely culled from Spiritualism, Theosophy, and New Age traditions. In that metaphysics there is a substantial soul, a kind of Platonic entity, that resides in the human body and as the body dies this soul-composite leaves the body to travel to worlds between life and death only then to reincarnate to Earth. From this mix of 19th century Spiritualism, New Thought/New Age, Swedenborgianism, and Theosophy we also get the notion that souls reincarnate to “learn lessons”, with life being seen as a kind of metaphysical school.
In other words past life regression is much more intimately connected with practices like mediumship (speaking with those living beyond the veil) and channeling (speaking to and with spiritual teachers or angels or guides from the higher realms) than most realize. As proof of this, we have Dr. Brian Weiss who is one of the most famous contemporary past life repression practitioners and has a channeled text as well as mediumship type work.
The soul, in this model, is a contained whole unit that transmigrates from life to life. It retains memory throughout it’s entire journey and while that memory is not normally accessible under typical waking consciousness, adherents of this school maintain that the hypnosis process allows that information that is otherwise submerged by the rational mind to surface into self-aware consciousness.
The Spiritualist/New Age metaphysical influence on past life regression can not be overstated. That metaphysical framework is a thoroughly modernist one. It’s metaphors are those of 19th century thought and those metaphors are still, on the whole, being disseminated in this work without any awareness of that influence.
For example, the notion of life as a metaphysical school and souls having “lessons” to learn is a reflection of the 18th and 19th century Western Enlightenment obsession with “Laws of Nature”, with slow, gradual, regular ordered processes. New Thought arose as a theology (and metaphysical philosophy) trying to locate the “Laws of Spirit” to parallel Newton’s Laws of Gravity. This is how we get pop spiritual ideas like The Law of Attraction. The God of this metaphysical view is a Deist Clockwork God, setting up the Laws of Karma, The Law of Reincarnation, The Law of Attraction, etc. and then simply watching from afar.
Within this worldview, there is only the individual (soul) and the large structural objective order (Law of Karma). In other words, the social influence of Western (especially Anglo-American) 19th century individualism is all over the field of past life regression without it ever really being self-consciously addressed. Note that is a failure of the philosophy that underlies and frames the practice of past life regression not necessarily the practice of experience itself.
In particular for our purposes here the modernist epistemology and metaphysics of past life regression leaves out the great postmodern insight of the formative fundamental nature of linguistics and language to all experience. It leaves out metaphor, grammar, meaning-making, interpretation, communication, and miscommunication. It leaves out relationality, inter-related existence. It leaves out cultural construction.
Past life regression is taught as if it’s as simple as a “scientific” experiment (hypnotic trance) that when undertaken reveals reliable “data” (past life memories) which are then uncritically to be received as if they are truly “objective” sightings and memories of past life.
It does so leaving out the entire literature on the slippery nature and construction of memory—that is of all kinds of memory, this lifetime or any others.
It's an important point to consider though my main concern here more has to do with the philosophical metaphysical overlay. Past life regression work typically exhibits the most naive modernist epistemology of subjects (souls) and objects (past life memories) and leaves out entirely the realm of intersubjective cultural and linguistic construction of both memory and self-identity. To put it bluntly even if you can talk with the dead, with angels, with Spiritual Masters you still have to translate their words and they still have to communicate in some linguistic formation.
Same goes for any (so-called) past life memories. They have to be interpreted in order to be made meaningful. The New Thought/New Age metaphysical framework seeks to impose it’s system of interpretation onto the person being regressed. But that framework has its own lineage, history, and construction, including it’s inherent flaws, as I’ve mentioned.
Which means that any past life regression process that wishes to have value going forward needs a radical overhaul philosophically. I submit that ontological flooding, intermediatism, and weird naturalism would provide that necessary overhaul.
Why is that? Because essentially a person never encounters directly and transparently the process of past life regression. What they're really encountering is an entire edifice of assumed metaphysical principles that may or may not be valid, which is framing the entire past life process itself. As I’m arguing those principles are open to a number of serious critiques.
First, as mentioned, the concept of past is very slippery in an ontological flood. In fact linear time, as such, is really an open question for me. If there’s no past and everything is happening simultaneously in a higher order informational grid (as Vallee hypothesizes), then how does the concept of a past life make sense?
Second, who is to say that past life regressions automatically bring up “your” past lives? When one regresses I believe it is very possible to be open to multi-causal and hyper-dimensional layers of influence. In other words, past life regressions may bring up psychic content that is part of the larger collective unconscious (a la Jung)—which could explain why everybody and their sister seems to have regressions telling them they were Cleopatra in a former life. Or the past life regression might be surfacing ancestral memory relayed through epigenetics.
Third, as Eric Wargo has shown, perhaps some of these memories are not of the past at all but rather the future. Or perhaps they are memories of parallel lifetimes in the Multiverse.
Fourth, typically past life regressions come with a built in metaphor of life on Earth as a school and souls (re)incarnating in order to learn lessons. As stated, past life regressions borrowed that frame from the wider metaphysical New Thought/New Age world. That view of life as school where we have to “learn lessons” and reincarnation as basically having to re-do 3rd grade karmically is not one I subscribe to. That framework however shapes and molds almost the entire edifice of interpretation in this world.
Fifth, the idea of the soul as a unitary entity is itself open to question. For example in Tibetan Buddhism there is the concept of reincarnation but equally important (in fact far more importantly) there is the teaching of no-self (anatta). Hence what reincarnates in a Tibetan Buddhist system is not a substantial, identical soul-entity, as no such thing is real in that system. Rather what reincarnates are tendencies, patterns of thought and behaviour and emotion, karmic impulses, and yes even memory. But not “your” memory since there is no you to have a “your” in this system.
Sixth, from a trauma lens, too much emphasis gets put in past life regressions (and hypnosis generally) on returning “to the scene of the crime”. This tendency is especially pronounced and dangerous when it comes to potentially activated or traumatic past life time memories. Reliving traumatic experiences is not the way to heal trauma. It only reinforces trauma. Hypnotic regression techniques too often place people back into the scene of memories and this can be seriously damaging, wherever and whenever these memories come from.
All those points indicate that what seems on the surface fairly straightforward actually has become very complicated very quickly.
If however we take a more weird naturalist and high strangeness lens, what we can say is this: the technique deployed in so-called past life regressions can and does bring up strange often uncanny, psychic experience but the information comes through in riddle and enigma. The experience is one often of ambiguity and tricksterism, not unlike a journey on mushrooms.
The difficulty becomes in interpreting those experiences. This is where the past-life regression model is (in my mind) manifestly counterproductive. It forecloses multiple possibilities of interpretation and too quickly tries to wash away the weirdness and strangeness rather than letting those stay on their own terms. The dominant past life regression framework has a prefabricated model of interpretation—past lives, your individual soul, life as karmic school, etc.
Debunker and skeptic types love to critique the metaphysical New Age framework of past life regression as a means of criticizing the method itself. Furthermore debunkers love to point out historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies as a means of invalidating past life process. Promoters of past life regression don’t do themselves a favor insofar as they too often attempt to naively and uncritically assert that people are getting perfectly transparent accurate insight into past lives. Both the adherents and skeptics hold in common a naive pre-critical modernist Western epistemology. They simply argue different sides of whether it’s reliable or not rather than bringing awareness to the shoddy philosophical edifice they’re both adhering to.
(Note: Skeptics also correctly point out that under hypnosis a person is much more highly susceptible to false memory implantation. This is why I would argue shamanic journeying techniques are, on the whole, more valuable than hypnotic ones because in journeying one learns to journey for oneself rather than being asked questions and therefore potentially being led by a hypnotist, intentionally or unintentionally.)
Debunkers too easily dismiss the process as potentially bringing up some genuine psychic content, if not actually of “your past life”. Past life regression advocates are too wedded to their outmoded metaphysical assumptions. Again the high strange/super naturalist position offers us a middle way between this failed binary.
In sum there are three elements in play: 1. the actual process of regression (or as I prefer journeying); 2. the core of psychic content revealed in the regression/journey; 3. the interpretive overlay of past life regressions.
If we imagine extracting the process + the experience (1 & 2) out from the interpretive overlay (3) then the value of the high strange as an alternative framework for interpreting such experience and practice comes into being. What might these experiences mean or be if we remove the heavy metaphysical 19th century baggage of past life-ism?
Let’s take an example. An individual undergoes a regression and encounters what they are told and what they believe to be a past life memory. The scene involves violence against a family member. They are witnessing the violence being undertaken by another but are unable to intervene. The individual finds that they are frozen within the regression scene, unable to respond. As noted earlier this can be a problem with regressions if they take people back into traumatic scenarios—whatever we think ontologically is or isn’t going on with that memory as a potential historical actuality.
Now the pro-past life regression school takes this as proof of some past life trauma and will look to contemporary challenges or illnesses as evidence of the karmic influence of this past life event in the present. It will (often) tend to too easily claim that the experience is neutralized or erased because it’s been brought into awareness through the regression process. The reaction of the client in this case would tell otherwise as they could very show signs of (re)traumatization from the encounter.
The debunkers would then look to “prove” the ways in which this pseudo-scientific (so it is claimed) process has surfaced false memories.
But what would a super/weird naturalist ontological flooding approach offer? First to take the story as real (enough) by the principle of Fortean intermediatism. The conscious experience of the memory is real as accessed through the technique. At this point we’re uninterested if it’s “really” a past life encounter or not and simply take it as psychic data in need of resolution. Note that this data could well be highly constructed. It could be very symbolic of a certain way of being in life. It could even be a projected dream-like sequence of violence in the past which is actually the brain interpreting present life trauma in which case we don’t have a past life regression but a present life progression from the past (again note how time is so potentially fluid in this domain).
In such a case the key point is not whether the memory is a “real” one historically or not. It’s real psychically if nothing else. And that psychic reality is plenty. What is most important actually is being frozen within the scene. It’s the unresolved trauma reflected in the frozen status (as in flight, fight, & freeze.)
In this case the individual could return to the scene in the present through an easy process that does not require regression/trance. They do not return directly into the scene as that could only reinforce the helpless/frozen posture. Rather than place themselves “nearby”, close but not too close as it were (psychically). And they locate within their being the possibility of a choice. Perhaps to fight to protect their family member (“fight”). Or rescuing the family member and running away from the violence (“flight”). Doing so they reach a sense of deep release as they have unhooked from the frozenness, acted in a positive manner, and “rewritten history”. The nervous system responds as if such a thing “really” objectively took place and moves back into a state of proper regulation. In this case the process has been very healing even though we have no idea (and very possibly little to no interest) in determining whether that event “really happened” or not. Again it could have been an ancestral memory, a symbolic memory of trauma as such, a collective human memory, or some combination thereof.
The interpretation is left much more open. There is simply psychic content (“a memory”) looking for resolution and ways to bring that closure/completeness. If we take off all the metaphysical baggage typically assumed with past life regressions we wouldn’t necessarily have to interpret such a scene as “my past life time” or part of “my soul lessons” or look for the present impacts in “my life” as the scene may not be mine and yet somehow I’m connected into it.
There is a wise saying which goes: “All stories are true. Some are based in fact.”
An ontologically flooded, intermediatistic, super naturalistic view offers us the possibility of taking these stories as true and working with them as potentially valuable truthful content without needing to necessarily believe (or disbelieve for that matter) that they are historically rooted actual facts. In other words we can have past life regressions without the past, the life, or the regression.