I have nothing to complain about. This is as close to a mantra as I’ve gotten during the weeks many of us have been staying home. My family and loved ones are healthy, and will hopefully remain so. I have my own health, for now. I have a calm, safe place to live. I don’t have a job that requires me to put myself at risk, like so many other, more heroic people. I have nothing to complain about.
But it’s hard to reason with a brain that occasionally feels like a carpet full of fire ants, and I have been aware, in recent days, of a certain loss of concentration, an unusual level of scatteredness, and, at times, a sudden, extreme impatience and irritability with the world. It can take a minute to realize that all of these can be symptoms of anxiety, and that some amount of anxiety is a reasonable response to a world that’s been shaken violently sideways.
I have vaguely tried the things that one tries in these circumstances—journaling, meditation, acts of service—and they work, sort of. They would probably work better if I did them with more focused attention, but, as I just said, I don’t have any. And so, a few weeks ago, when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to try hypnosis instead. To my surprise, the experience was far more vivid, more surreal, and more puzzling than I could have ever imagined. What I saw came as a complete surprise, and the process of trying to figure it out took me further into science, myth, and meaning than I ever intended.
“I haven't seen much in the way of COVID-19 clients so far,” John Brown, a hypnotherapist on Los Angeles’ Westside, told me. (Full disclosure: Brown is a friendly acquaintance, and offered to perform a phone session for me at no charge.) “I think people are either going to their psychotherapists, or saving up the extra money and cutting back on non-urgent expenses.”
Hypnosis is a recognized therapeutic technique. The American Psychological Association says it can be used to create “a highly relaxed state of inner concentration and focused attention,” which in turn can be useful as part of one tool to help treat “pain, depression, anxiety and phobias.” Much of what Brown does in normal times is work with clients who see him multiple times for deep-seated issues like smoking or problems with self-confidence.
“It’s basically about helping people use the power of the subconscious mind to get out of their own way,” he told me. “If making changes in our lives was easy, we’d all be PhD supermodels. But it’s not that easy. There are blocks. And so hypnotherapy offers the opportunity to to get the subconscious mind on board with the conscious mind.”
But Brown also offers past life regression, a more controversial technique that, as the APA puts it, is viewed with skepticism even by some members of the profession. “Most hypnotherapists are skeptical of the practice and do not recognize it as a legitimate therapeutic tool,” it writes. “They claim that individuals’ memories of past lives are the product of fantasy, imaginative role playing, the expectations and suggestions implicitly conveyed to them by the hypnotist, or unconsciously produced confabulations constructed from personal knowledge, familiar places, events, television shows, novels, and other sources.”
Some critics argue that past life regression is fundamentally unethical, and there’s concern that it could be used by unscrupulous therapists to implant false memories in vulnerable patients. False memories imposed by mental health professionals aren’t a hypothetical issue; they played a major role in the creation of the Satanic Panic, where children were induced to remember lurid, and entirely false, visions of ritualized sexual abuse.
George Kappas, the clinical director of the Hypnosis Motivation Institute, says this assumption relies on a fundamental, and incorrect, conflation of past life regression and age regression. HMI says it is the first accredited hypnotherapy institution in the country—it’s located in Los Angeles, in case there was the slightest doubt in your mind—and Kappas has 30 years of hypnotherapy experience. He argues that “many if not most hypnotherapists” have past life regression therapy as “a tool in their toolbox,” but that age regression therapy—which purports to uncover memories of earlier in this lifetime—is flatly and entirely off the table.
“Any therapist who uses age regression as a tool is pretty much operating unethically,” he told me. “There’s no way to avoid false memory syndrome. You never recover accurate memories. And why are you using hypnosis to recover the memory to begin with?” The assumption that such a thing is possible, he said, “is based on the client having repression as a defense mechanism. That’s a very rare thing, that someone is so traumatized that they repress the memory as a defense mechanism. But if someone is that traumatized, maybe we don’t want to remove that repression, that defense mechanism, while they’re in a highly suggestible state.”
Past life regression therapy, meanwhile, “has a legitimate therapeutic purpose,” according to Kappas. For some clients, he said, it’s based fundamentally in “a spiritual or religious assumption of reincarnation,” a literal belief in past lives. For others, they’re more past-life curious. “It’s not our job to prove that right or wrong,” Kappas said. “Our purpose is to say, ‘What's the therapeutic value of this story?’"
True to that ethical code, Brown doesn’t claim definitively that he’s showing clients a glimpse into their literal past lives. Instead, he remains politely agnostic about what clients are seeing, while arguing for the symbolic and therapeutic value of the experience.
“I have found that regardless of the objective reality of those experiences, they can be helpful in terms of helping people understand what’s really going on with them or being able to see their life and current situation in a new perspective,” he told me. “When you do a past life regression, it allows people to put whatever they might be dealing with in a distance of space and time from their current reality. It becomes easier for them to deal with.”
I do not—this probably doesn’t need saying—have any reason to believe in past lives, or that they can be accessed through hypnosis. But I also didn’t see any particular reason not to try past life regression with someone I knew and trusted. I was also spending a lot of time at home and eager for a change of view, which Brown told me, laughing, is a legitimate reason in itself.
“The best thing hypnotherapy and past life regression offer is the chance to be in another time and place,” Brown said. “If nothing else it’s extraordinarily relaxing. So if you have the chance to take an hour, lie down in a comfy chair and let yourself relax, that’s a win. The fact you might get substantial personal benefit from that is a bonus as well.”
With that understood, I settled on my bed with some pillows behind me and told Brown what I was hoping to get out of the session, and what’s been weighing on me: the loss of concentration, a constant worry for my loved ones, and a certain amount of purposelessness. Brown then did what’s called a suggestibility test, a series of questions designed to infer how hypnotizable I am. (The specific questionnaire he used is available here.) He told me later that I appear to be a mixed bag. “I thought you might be tricky, given your skepticism, and then when I did the suggestibility test that came back as fairly inferential," he said. "But then, as we began the process, it became pretty clear you were open to the process, which was pretty interesting.”
“The process” began with Brown asking me to count backwards aloud from 10 several times, focusing on deepening and slowing my breathing each time. He then asked me to imagine standing at the top of a well-made staircase, with a railing on the side to steady myself, and to picture stepping down it slowly, “each step taking you deeper into a sense of relaxation and calm,” and going deeper into my subconscious. He asked me to picture arriving in a hallway full of doors, and to go through one of them, into a large storeroom like you’d find in a warehouse. In that room, he said, I was welcome to leave any baggage I was carrying, “anything you’d like to be rid of for now,” stowing it safely on a shelf, and to go forward unencumbered. Occasionally, during the following exercises, he repeated the phrase “deep sleep,” which he explained was a permission to go “calmly and effortlessly” into a state of relaxation, one in which my mind was “open to positive suggestion.”
Brown asked me to picture myself walking out onto another balcony, and following an outdoor staircase down. He asked where I ended up; I said I saw myself on a forest floor in late afternoon, underneath a ponderosa pine and next to a small river I used to visit often as a child.
Listening to the audio recording I made of this was deeply strange; there were a lot of descriptions I didn’t remember giving, and my voice was slower and calmer than usual. I followed another staircase down, at Brown’s suggestion, and found myself in another long hallway filled with doors. I picked one that seemed meaningful to me, telling Brown it was “a carved wood door, like I had in my house as a kid, with four carved panels and a doorknob painted gold with flaking paint."
Here’s where things got weird. When I stepped through the door, Brown asked me to look down and describe the shoes I was wearing, followed by what clothing I had on. I told him I was wearing black boots and a purple prairie dress with a ruffled hem. I had a sense, I told him, that it was sometime in the 1800s, and that I was in a field with high yellow grass, just as it was getting dark. I was about 18, I said, and I felt a “sense of anxiety and anticipation,” like I was stealing a moment away from my family. “The wind is blowing, there's a fenceline, an old barbed wire fence. It's about to rain."
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.
With Brown guiding me, I moved, a few years at a time, through the life cycle of this person, switching continually through the pronouns “I” and “she.” Listening to the recording, I was struck by the wealth of detail I provided that I didn’t remember later: I had a sense of washing an endless cycle of baby clothes in a wooden wash basin, of feeling exhausted and claustrophobic inside a wooden cabin. A few years later, I saw (or, more like, felt) this personage in a rocking chair outside a cabin, watching older children come up a path as they came home from school. This woman, I told Brown, “was interested in reading, but she only sort of learned how.” The woman wished she’d been able to attend school herself, I told him.
After a few moments, Brown asked, gently, how the woman “left this life.” I saw her, I told him, in a wooden bed, on a hand-stuffed mattress, in front of a fire. She was alone, with no one around, no one to help her. She died in that bed as the fire went out. By the time the sun came up, I told him, she was gone.
After her passing, I told Brown, I found “her” back in that same tall grass field, but the grass was now “full of things,” something I have no conscious memory of telling him. I saw indistinct faces in the grass and the outlines of black bears, moving somewhere beyond them. I heard whispering. The grass began to flatten out into a path, and the woman of my vision started to glide along it, moving faster and faster, towards a light shaped like a doorway. When I stepped through it, I told Brown, I found myself in “a stark white room, a formless space, like a waiting room antechamber.”
Brown guided me back into the hallway I’d seen before, lined with doors. I chose one that I told him was “bright yellow” and glowing around the hinges with light coming through it. When I stepped through the door, I told him, I found myself in a room entirely lined with aquariums, in which large, spotted, neon-colored fish were floating. It felt peaceful, I told Brown. “There's some purpose here. I’m not worried about the fish, they're being taken care of." There was, I said, “some kind of architecture to this place. Someone put the fish here.” (Nobody said hypnotic insights are particularly smart.)
“There's some purpose here. I’m not worried about the fish, they're being taken care of."
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.
“The images can be surprising,” Brown told me, a few days later. “You're basically opening the door into your subconscious."
That is, indeed, the main word for what I experienced. The woman in the prairie dress, the whispering field full of faces, the room full of neon fish: All of them were surprising and somewhat uncanny, imagery that I wasn’t aware was floating around anywhere in my brain. (Some of it is also not that exotic: I grew up in the Southwest, spent some of my childhood on a ranch, and am the child of two historians focused on that region, meaning that if I was going to see anything at all, it would probably be a vaguely Western scene with an elaborate attention to fences.)
The experience was still weighing on me a week later, so I called Lisa Machenberg, who trained Brown in past life regression therapy. Machenberg has taught at the Hypnosis Motivation Institute for the last 27 years, and teaches a past life regression therapy course for the American Hypnosis Association. “I’ve been practicing past life regression for over 700 years,” she told me, beaming at me over a Zoom call, a painting of owls looming politely over her shoulder. (“Oh!” I think I replied.)
Machenberg both believes in past life regression therapy as a valuable therapeutic tool, like Kappas and Brown, but also believes she has been able to literally access her own past lives through years of practice. (Her first one was as an “early hominid,” she said, and she’s been doing variations on past life regression work since around the 1300s, “beginning in my life as an Inuit.”) She told me that, with time, she believes people can hone in more clearly on what actual past lives looked like.
“When people first start doing past life regression it’s very difficult to tell the difference between memory, fantasy, metaphor, imagination,” she said, with these distinctions becoming clearer over time.
But Machenberg, too, says age regression is “totally unethical.” As she puts it, “If you believe you were living in 1400 as a monk with ADD, that can’t hurt you whether it’s true or not. But if you believe that people who are still alive or people that you love hurt you, not only can you tear your family apart, but you can awaken believing something to be true that feels so real nothing on planet earth can dissuade you.”
By contrast, Machenberg said, “I have a lot of fun with past life regression, because it’s perfectly safe.” And future lives too, she added: “Everybody has an infinite amount of past lives and future lives. I can see future lives too, of course. If we transcend the fifth dimension, which is time, we realize time is only linear because of our perception.” She likened it to a hiking trail on a vast mountain range: “Our perception is we’re going forward on a trail. In reality, the entire trail exists all at once.”
Machenberg said that my humble past life experience as a stressed-out mom on a lonely prairie tracks with what she’s seen both in herself and her many, many, many clients.
“I’ve done thousands or millions of these over the course of 700 years. Nobody is anybody famous. Nobody’s princes and princesses and queens," she said. "If you were going to pull from your imagination, wouldn’t you rather be a goddess or the Oracle of Delphi, or the woman at the well if you’re a Christian, or Miriam singing with her timbrels if you were a Jew? 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? Nobody chooses that.”
"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?"
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.
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