I had a sense that it was sometime in the 1800s, and that I was in a field with high yellow grass, just as it was getting dark.
Back out in the hallway, however, I looked down at the row of doors, and told Brown I was frightened and disoriented. “It bends on and on. There’s an endless number of doors.” Brown asked if I wanted to continue exploring or return to a waking state, and I told him I’d like to wake up. He counted “back up into the waking state,” and told me to feel a sense of “calm and well-being” as I emerged. I opened my eyes, feeling a heaviness in my limbs and a sense of calm and exhaustion. Soon after, I got up, opened my bedroom door, and stepped out in a slight daze to find that my house was sunny and bright and that my partner was tending to his plants. I was quietly struck by how colorful and warm my house felt, compared with the lonely scenes I’d just envisioned.
“There's some purpose here. I’m not worried about the fish, they're being taken care of."
The question of why people seem to have consistent past life experiences—why people seem to see their past selves as human beings in humble circumstances, as opposed to, say, aliens on space ships, caterpillars, contented house cats or microbes—seems worthy of further scientific study. That’s in short supply, however; the most in-depth related research being done at any mainstream institution is at the University of Virginia’s Department of Perceptual Studies, which focuses on children who spontaneously report memories of previous lives. But the children aren't undergoing past life regression therapy to solicit these images, and the department doesn't suggest that they do so.The department’s founder, Dr. Ian Stevenson, was somewhat dismissive of “hypnotic regression,” as he called it, writing, “nearly all such hypnotically evoked “previous personalities” are entirely imaginary just as are the contents of most dreams. They may include some accurate historical details, but these are usually derived from information the subject has acquired normally through reading, radio and television programs, or other sources.” The process was “not without hazards,” he added: “Instances have occurred in which the ‘previous personality’ has not ‘gone away’ when instructed to do so and the subject in such cases has been left in an altered state of personality for several days or more before restoration of his normal personality.”Stevenson, too, acknowledged that such “entirely imaginary” visions could still have a therapeutic purpose, but argued that some of that could be attributed to patients receiving any “psychotherapeutic measure” at all, rather than past life regression being specifically helpful: “Improvement may be due exclusively to these and have nothing to do with the special technique, whether hypnotic regression, psychoanalysis, or whatever, of the psychotherapist.”Machenberg told me she believes I only have one obligation from the experience. “You have to use it to make meaning,” she said. “You have to use your experience as a housewife on the prairie in the 1800s to make your life as Anna the journalist in 2020 more joyous, more intentional. You have to use it to make this life better for you and your handsome man and your lighting.” (Machenberg had seen my partner in the background of my Zoom call, messing with a light switch, and approved, murmuring, “He has good energy.”)“That,” she said, beaming at me again, ”is your job.”Hypnosis was the first time in my life that I’ve seen any obvious glimpse at my subconscious, or at least the portion of it where the image files are kept. The experience didn’t “cure” me in any way, didn’t make me less prone to the existential anxiety that occasionally overwhelms me as a result of living through a pandemic. (HMI is, for what it’s worth, is offering free, COVID-19-oriented Zoom hypnotherapy that it promises will “provide you instant relief from stress, fear, self-doubt, overload, and much more.”) Instead, the experience gave me some sense of the mountain of thoughts, feelings, images and impulses that I live atop all the time, the writhing mass of things working constantly beneath the soil I walk on every day.I’m still puzzling through the precise meaning of the woman I saw, trying to figure out what I can learn from her. But knowing she’s apparently living in a wooden cabin, somewhere in the folds of my brain, is a first step.Hypnotherapy, Brown told me at the outset of our session, ultimately lies at the intersection of two, perhaps competing things: “It’s its own mix between science and what we might call shamanic or magical or religious tradition.” While that crossroads isn’t one I’m particularly comfortable standing at, there’s no question it’s a place full of uncanny—and perhaps, one day, useful—new selves to meet.Follow Anna Merlan on Twitter.
"Who would want to be a housewife on a prairie who died of consumption because she inhaled a microbe because she was giving soup to a neighbor?"