I went into the past-life regression session a sceptic – after watching an ex-con come out with tears in his eyes, I didn't know what to think.
Several years ago, while looking for ways to earn money, I got into writing true-crime memoirs for retired villains. It became one of the most interesting jobs I've ever done and provided me with a window into the lives of all manner of different criminals. From petty thieves to small-time gangsters, I became curious about why they do the things they do. So when I recently came across a YouTube video that claimed to show a hypnotised ex-con recalling the childhood roots of his law-breaking, my interest was immediately piqued.
I expecting to gain an insight into the ex-con's psyche, since hypnosis can supposedly surface deeply repressed emotions, but I was left underwhelmed. The video didn't reveal anything that couldn't have been uncovered during a normal conversation. The participant spoke about the jealousy he'd felt as a child towards people whose parents were still together. Hardly groundbreaking stuff.
What I did find interesting was the hypnotist introducing the session by saying that he was going to explore the subject's "present-life memories". Hang on, did he mean he sometimes probed events that he believed happeend before his clients were born? I checked his website out, and sure enough, there was a section dedicated to "past-life regression". There's my next story, I thought.
I imagined bringing together three cynical ex-cons for a past-life regression session would likely end with a good laugh, or that we'd learn some new some mumbo jumbo. I managed to persuade two men I'd spoken to for previous articles to sign up: reformed Glaswegian gangster Kevin Dooley, and Marcus "Paradise" Dawes, who served time in the US for firearms offences. Kevin's twin brother Brian was also up for it. He'd been involved in the Soho underworld before packing crime in to become an artist and clothing designer. With the session booked, we all just had to turn up at past-life regressionist Nicolas Ajula's house and let him take over. Here's what went down.
Marcus: "I had no control over my arms and legs"
Marcus told me that he was open to the idea of past lives, but didn't seem to hold high hopes for the regression. When I asked him whether he thought it would work, he smiled and said: "We'll see". The hypnosis mostly consisted of Nicolas talking in a calm, relaxing tone, instructing Marcus to breathe in and out while visualising different things.
After a while, Marcus went into a trance, and Nicolas asked if he could see himself. After a pause of at least 30 seconds, he murmured that he saw a tall male. He sounded as if he found it hard to speak, and had a strange tone to his voice, as if he was struggling to make himself heard from another world. I'm not going to lie, it was pretty odd stuff, and at this point, I began to consider the possibility that I'd underestimated all this past life shit.
Marcus went on to describe three scenarios from his former lives. The first was vague, and basically amounted to a man hanging about in some woods. There were no details about the time period, country or who the man was.
The second saw him as a teenager in a medieval town, with chickens running about the place. He told us he was planning on taking one of the chickens to give to a girl he liked.
His final past life saw him as a homeless 9-year-old, who was hiding from the townsfolk because he'd stolen something. He was vulnerable, and often needed to fight to protect himself. After describing this, Marcus started to become quite agitated, and asked Nicolas to stop the session. Nicolas told him to breathe in and out, and imagine himself walking up a staircase of 10 steps. Upon reaching the tenth step, Marcus burst back into consciousness with a sudden fit of laughter. He seemed ecstatic that it was all over. Whatever had taken place, it definitely felt convincing, even to a cynical journalist like myself.
"I was surprised that anything happened at all, to be honest," Marcus told me when I asked him about the experience. "Whilst the regression was taking place, I felt as if I had no control over my arms and legs, which was unnerving. Given the chance, I wouldn't choose to do it again!"
Kevin: "I could actually feel myself inside the people"
Kevin gave detailed accounts of several different past lives, including as a New York villain who was involved in gun-smuggling, and a child who witnessed his mum shoot his dad after finding out he'd been unfaithful. He became quite emotional when he described the shooting, and his eyes began to water. Nicolas identified the trauma caused by this incident as the root cause of Kevin's current-life criminal behaviour, and got him to undergo some exercises aimed at reducing its impact.
After he'd been brought back from the trance, Kevin revealed that his dad had died when he was young, and his mum had had a nervous breakdown as a result. He told us that he'd never fully understood why he'd been unable to get over the death of a parent when so many other people manage to cope with similar experiences. The idea that his grief had been compounded by apparently losing his dad in a previous life seemed to provide him with an explanation. He gave the impression that he'd gained some form of closure from the experience.
"That was intense," Kevin told me once he'd been brought out of the trance. "I could actually feel myself inside the people, and feel their shoulders as a solid object."
Brian: I'd have liked to have been a Dick Turpin-type guy
Brian didn't experience any past-life regressions, which was surprising, given his twin's vivid, emotional recollections. "I'd have liked to have been a Dick Turpin type guy, but wasn't going to lie and say I experienced something I didn't," he said. "I never went into a deep sleep. I noticed that Nicolas spent longer on the others, so maybe that was why." This was partly my fault, as I'd cocked up the timing, and Nicolas had had to cram Brian's regression into 50 minutes. He apparently usually allocates 2 hours to a session.
What did I make of it all?
If you stuck me in a room with an ex-con and told me to convince him that he was a homeless 9-year-olds or medieval villager, I'd probably end up making a tit of myself. With that in mind, I'm begrudgingly impressed. Irrespective of whether Marcus and Kevin genuinely regressed to a past life or simply explored previously untouched aspects of their subconscious, it was an intense, visceral experience that Kevin in particular seemed to gain a great deal from. Do I believe in past lives now? Who knows? All I can say is that it was a fucking weird day.
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