I pictured a thief named Alfred wearing clogs and holding a loaf of bread, but I'm pretty certain he was just a figment of my imagination, not me 400 years ago.
I'm standing in a car park in Cheshire, waiting to have my first metaphysical experience. Clare, a certified hypnotherapist, is on her way to pick me up and drive me back to hers, where I'll supposedly witness some of the bodies my soul used to inhabit and ultimately understand what my purpose is here on Earth.
While this is all very exciting, I'm a little sceptical; if past-life tourism was actually legit, I'm pretty certain Derek Acorah would already be presenting a show in which Ben Fogle finds out he was once Emily Pankhurst, or Kirstie Allsop jets back 400 years to discover she used to regularly kill and eat dogs.
That said, Clare does have all the necessary credentials: she has completed training that makes her a member of the Newton Institute, an organisation of hypnotherapists who practice Past Life Regression (PLR) and Life Between Lives therapy (LBL). The former allows patients to re-experience key moments from previous lives, while the latter transports you to wherever it is souls hang out before being reincarnated.
The Newton Institute takes its name from Dr Michael Newton, a hypnotherapist who popularised these therapies with his two best-sellers Destiny of Souls and Journey of Souls. Newton's work – based on the hypnotherapies of over 7,000 patients – states that hypnosis puts you in a stage of meta-consciousness that allows the soul, and all the memories stored within it, to manifest itself.
Familiarising myself with Newton's writings, I found it hard not to look at the whole thing as a bit of a scam – a series of sessions where you actively part with money to be told something that sounds a lot like bullshit. Mind you, there was no way of knowing for sure without giving it go, which is why I figured it made sense to go through PLR and LBL with a professional practitioner.
When I meet her, Clare seems measured and instantly gives off an impression of warmth; unlike in normal shrink therapy, the patient-therapist relationship in the world of PLR and LBL is remarkably open.
It doesn't take long for me to share my doubts about Dr Newton's legitimacy. I describe his theories as dogmatic, but Clare is quick to explain she thinks of them more in terms of faith or belief, adding that she's not really into religion, but rather spirituality. It's the case studies she's personally taken part in, she tells me, that convinced her there really is an afterlife.
"There is no dogma; it is merely what you experience that matters," she says.
After a short drive we arrive at Clare's house and walk into a room decked out with a couple of sofas, some chairs, two teddy bears and a piano. To get the process rolling we start out by identifying the issues to work on, because, according to Clare, "the main goal of LBL therapy and PLR is not to experience the afterlife, but to understand our purpose in this life and resolve issues buried deep beneath, often linked to traumatic events that occurred during past lives".
Clare insists that psychosomatic ailments can often be cured this way.
I single-out a few of my emotional and physiological problems: unexplained dermatitis on my scalp, my general pessimistic attitude towards life and my tendency to panic when I lose control.
Clare then invites me to lie on a chair and tells me to remain motionless, before covering my body with a blanket so we can start. Aided by the kind of ambient music that wouldn't sound out of place during a Twin Peaks montage, I let myself go. I hear Clare's voice gently urging me to find inner peace, and a sensation of tranquility fills me up to the brim, a warmth rushing through my limbs: I am relaxed.
Most people associate hypnosis with a loss of control. Those people are wrong. Rather, senses are enhanced, consciousness and memory sharpened. Once I've reached something resembling this state, Clare's voice leads me – or, if you listen to LBL therapists, my soul – into a corridor. I am to picture doors in this corridor, one of which I'm supposed to enter. I can't help but think of The Matrix, which is quite off-putting.
Opening a door, I see a boundless white nothingness. This does not represent anything. Let's try another one, says Clare.
Through the next door I see a swarthy man standing in a pretty sparse landscape. Problem is, I'm acutely aware that he's just the product of my imagination. Clare decides to take me through another round of relaxation and start again.
After Clare once again lulls me into hypnosis, I picture a man wearing clogs, green trousers, a white shirt and a brown apron. His hair is shaggy, his beard rough. I don't know his name, but decide to call him Alfred. He's a thief and has to steal to survive. I know this because he's just stolen a loaf of bread and some silk clothes, which seem a bit redundant in the grand scheme of things, but there you go.
This is why, when I'm asked to imagine Alfred's last day, he's about to be executed by guillotine. Clare asks me, "What is Alfred thinking at that moment?"
"How do I know?" I reply. "I'm not him."
He seems scared, but there's no way to know what he really feels like, and I don't want to misrepresent this imaginary man's emotional state to Clare. Playing it safe, I go ahead and assume he's resentful of the situation because he's always had to steal to physically stay alive, so doesn't feel the punishment is fair.
When the blade falls I don't really know what happens – he just dies. I am not him; my brain created him. Clare tries to make me see the similarity in Alfred's lack of control over his destiny and my lust for it.
We then move on to another "life".
Clare tells me it's worth investigating what could have caused the dermatitis on my scalp. I focus, picturing myself being chased through a forest as a Native American. I imagine this has something to do with the word scalp, because I'm soon shot and scalped by whoever was chasing me.
So that's presumably my dermatitis cured.
Finally, I'm given the choice between exploring "the place we go when we die" or life on another planet. Despite feeling very much like I might now be on a hidden camera show, I choose the second option. However, it seems my mind has given up; even my subconscious can't be bothered to come up with descriptive answers to Clare's questions.
What do my feet look like? Small.
What do my legs look like? Small.
What do my arms look like? I haven't got any.
Maybe it's time to stop.
My soul, Clare tells me when we finish, was too reluctant to fully hand itself over to any one of my past lives – although I apparently did catch a glimpse of them. To me, it felt more like I was taking part in a very stationary improv class. Mind you, there was an element of digging into my subconscious and memory; when I was at my most relaxed it felt like I was almost lucid dreaming, in a semi-dormant state where pockets of information compartmentalised in my mind were able to reveal themselves.
It's vaguely close to what scientists call cryptomnesia, where a subject recalls a forgotten memory and believes it to be new and original – a lot of what I saw seemed to be influenced by things I'd previously learnt or watched.
I agree with some of what forms the core of Clare's work, in particular the importance of resolving personal issues in both the conscious and subconscious mind. I also genuinely believe that her form of therapy can help some people get better – that it could be a way to get at feelings that are otherwise suppressed. However, I don't believe in the afterlife in the way she'd like me to; the whole thing just seems too much like a way of coping with the inevitability of death by maintaining an illusion of control.
I almost forget that the therapy can purportedly enlighten you to the meaning of life until Clare suggests that the life I'm currently living is meant to put me to the test. I found out I had cancer at the age of 20, so the prospect of facing death so early on apparently represented a challenge. However, I can't get on board with this, either; in my opinion you can crowbar any meaning into a specific set of circumstances, and it's impossible to know whether or not that explanation is accurate.
I understand that some people are terrified of the unknown – the unknown is an inherently terrifying thing. I also understand that filling that existential void with religion or spirituality is a solution for many people, that faith is a bit like putting the bowling alley bumpers up on life, the idea – on a subconscious level, at least – surely being that it will shield you from the gutter of the strange and unexplained.
But I'm OK with living with that void. I'm OK with the idea that the world is absurd, that plenty of its mechanisms elude human reasoning. I'm OK with the idea that death could be the end of everything.
More stuff about this kind of stuff:
WATCH – Gay Conversion Therapy