11 July 2008

Past Lives Regression

Portrait of the Artist as a Previous Young Man.
I was a handsome devil, wasn’t I?

Since I spent much of this week wallowing in memories of my college years, this is perhaps the right moment to reveal that I’ve had practice in this sort of thing. Many years ago, when I was a student in high school, I underwent “past lives regression,” a procedure in which the subject is hypnotized and then speaks of all the people she or he used to be.

It was an interesting experience, although speaking with other people who have been hypnotized, I learned soon enough that I never actually “went under.” Given the Maginot Line of my psychological defenses at the age of 17, my resistance to hypnosis is perhaps unsurprising. (Surrender control? Are you mad? Who knows what might have come out!) But without ever believing in reincarnation, I retained an interest in past lives regression, and it’s clear that, even among those who do not retain consciousness during regression, “past lives” reveal more about present realities than about history. I have noted, for example, that roughly 89 percent of all those undergoing regression were either Leonardo da Vinci or Elizabeth I during the Renaissance, and an additional 94.8 percent of female subjects were Cleopatra, too. The former Marie Antoinettes of this world are legion. My own former identities were considerably more modest.

I was inspired by an account in The Dallas Morning News of a local psychotherapist, whose name I won’t cite now. I’ll call him Dr. Proust. Displaying the sort of bold initiative typical of high-school newspaper editors, I determined to do precisely what the Morning News reporter had done: call up the good doctor and undergo a regression.

Dr. Proust turned out to be a kind fellow who agreed at once to my proposal, and who didn’t charge me a cent. We gave him a cover story in the Pony Express, yet he can’t seriously have thought that publicity in a school paper was going to do him any material good. However, I often found in my early journalistic career that some grownups understood the value of helping kids to learn, and Dr. Proust struck me as one such adult, cooperating for all the best reasons. All the greater pity, then, that the experiment didn’t turn out better.

We conducted the more formal part of the interview first, with the Pony Express photographer (I believe it was Chris Burnley) snapping a few pictures. Then I stretched out on Dr. Proust’s sofa and closed my eyes, while in a soothing voice he repeatedly invited me to “fall into a deep, easy sleep.” (Long E sounds seem to be necessary to induce the trance state.) Throughout the ensuing conversation, I remained aware of my surroundings, including the hum of the air-conditioner: I’m told this is an excellent indicator that one is not actually unconscious.

In middle age, I still cut a dashing figure.

What followed then was a stream-of-full-consciousness series of responses to Dr. Proust’s questions. When two of my past identities began to speak in foreign languages, he became audibly excited: he may have thought he’d discovered a Bridey Murphy for the new era. After all, the chances of stumbling across a high-school senior who spoke both French and Italian in suburban Dallas were impossibly remote; Dr. Proust couldn’t know that I’d studied one and taught myself a little of the other through the constant playing of opera records. And he didn’t know these things — until I sent him a copy of the article. I never had the heart to speak to him again.

Each of my past lives contained more than a kernel of my present interests. In approximately the order in which they emerged, they were:

1. An Italian Renaissance sculptor
No, not anybody you ever heard of. My name was “Bellosandro,” and I did consult the Britannica to see whether any such person existed. Nope. At least, as I say, I had the modesty not to be Leonardo. I was, however, extremely good-looking (see my “portraits”), and I spoke Italian beautifully, as I always do when there is no one listening who knows anything about the language.

2. A valet in the court of Versailles
Again, a modest choice: I was not Louis XIV, I was just some guy who kept house for him. Naturally, I spoke French. Dr. Proust inquired about my death, and I recalled my spirit floating above a very handsome bed while my wife grieved over my lifeless body. Dr. Proust liked this a lot, too.

3. A shepherd in Ancient Greece
I died falling over a cliff as I tried to save a stray lamb. I’d already taken two bad tumbles into the Atlantic, in consecutive summers on opposite coasts (Nova Scotia, St-Jean-de-Luz), and I’d been hit by a car when I was 15: presumably these experiences informed my recollection of the nameless shepherd’s fatal accident. Asked by Dr. Proust whether I could speak any Greek, I demurred. “It is too long ago,” I said. Was this a premonition? A short time later, in my real life, I studied Ancient Greek in college, and failed miserably in the attempt.

4. An Egyptian who helped to build the Pyramids
We didn’t linger long over this character, probably because I know nothing about Ancient Egypt. I would have been unable to give myself an authentic Egyptian name, for example, and would have resorted to something like “Cheetochipandip.” (Sounds plausible, right?) My girlfriend at the time was Egypt-mad, however, and my subconscious was probably hoping to impress her.

5. A newspaper editor in Concord, Massachusetts, 1848
And 130 years later, I was a newspaper editor in Richardson, Texas! Quelle coïncidence! Why Concord? I’d visited the town, I’d read a little Emerson, and I was applying to Harvard in the fall. Dr. Proust asked what I thought of the fledgling State of Texas. “Not much,” I replied, already on my way to being a snobby Northeasterner.

6. A noble Englishman, late-18th century
At last I had money! And about time, too. I saw myself seated at a desk in a beautiful private library, and I was writing something, with the vague impression that it was a longish work of fiction. In my present life, I was already through the umpteenth draft of an exquisitely bad 600-page novel.

Still handsome: The silver fox.

This was enough regression for anybody, I should think, and Dr. Proust revived me, or thought he did. How much of the procedure was, in normal circumstances, quackery, I don’t know, but I’m confident that Dr. Proust sincerely believed that he’d hit the jackpot this time. You could practically see him writing up a lecture and delivering it to the next conference of his professional colleagues, or possibly 60 Minutes. Tellingly, however, he didn’t ask about my present life, an inquiry that might have caused his enthusiasm to wane considerably.

And yet in talking with other people who’ve undergone past lives regression, and who really were unconscious, I find that the process invariably reflects the present. One friend recalled being a minor rajah in Ancient India who was strangled to death by rivals, while one devoted courtier tried to rescue him. The friend is a woman, by the way, and today she can’t stand to wear scarves or anything around her neck, and the devoted courtier, she says, corresponds precisely to another close friend; for a while she lived with a man from Bombay who treated her less than gently. Go figure.

I’m all in favor of anything that makes our present lives more comprehensible, and if past lives regression can serve as a tool in that worthy effort, I make no objection. Ya gotta start somewhere. And thus I offer Dr. Proust my remerciements. I wonder who he is now.

Eventually, I lost my looks.

(All of the portraits here are of Bindo Altoviti, not an artist but a Florentine banker who patronized many of the best artists of his time, and thus a thoroughly wonderful man whom we should all strive to emulate. The first portrait is by Raphael, the second by Girolamo da Carpi, the third by Jacopino del Conte, and the bust is by Benvenuto Cellini.)