PERSPECTIVES ON
EXPLORING PAST LIVES

Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.

Also see my Opening Reincarnation Page
as well as:
FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions
What Is a Past Life?
and Letter to a Child

 
There are many ways to begin an essay on reincarnation.  I could write about ancient burials in Siberia, where, as Joseph Campbell documents, the body was colored with red ochre as a sign of life's blood and then buried in a fetal posture, facing east -- an indication of a belief that the dead would live again like the sun, rising again in the east.  I could also write about the males of Aboriginal tribes in Australia who sing the spirit of an ancestor back into a woman's womb.  Or I could mention that the ancient Celts accepted reincarnation as such a normal part of life that loans were made based upon repayment in a later embodiment. We frequently come across reincarnation mentioned in ancient historical documents, shamanic accounts, and anthropological records. Such beliefs, of course, are considered a primitive, simplistic way of viewing life and death. The red ochre, for example, is mentioned briefly, and then we move on.  Rarely do scholars take the implications seriously.

Many poets, artists, and mystics do, of course.  As Rilke expressed it:

I live my life in growing orbits,
which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
but that will be my attempt.

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years.
And I still don't know if I am a falcon,
or a storm, or a great song.

Belief in rebirth is also taken seriously by many of earth's non-monotheistic peoples.  Gandhi, for example, wrote eloquently:
If for mastering the physical sciences you have to devote a whole lifetime, how many lifetimes may be needed for mastering the greatest spiritual force that mankind has ever known? 1
India, of course, is well known for such acceptance.  The very word karma, which could be loosely translated, "as you sow, so you shall reap," comes from India.  What is less known is that the concept of reincarnation was also openly embraced by one of the framers of the American Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).  When he was twenty-two, he wrote his own epitaph.  It was never used on his gravestone but it reflects a viewpoint he held the rest of his life:

The Body of B. Franklin,
Printer,
Like the Cover of an Old Book,
Its Contents Torn Out
And
Stripped of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies Here
Food for Worms,
But the Work shall not be Lost,
For it Will as He Believed
Appear Once More
In a New and more Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.  2

When Franklin was eighty, he wrote a friend, "I look upon death to be as necessary to the constitution as sleep.  We shall rise refreshed in the morning."  Between Gandhi and Franklin lie vast numbers of Western philosophers, poets, authors, artists, and thinkers from all walks of life who have shared these beliefs.

People who are in touch with their own creativity are especially likely to resonate with concepts of reincarnation because their very creativity is a mystery of unknown origins.  Thus, seeking those origins in one's own memories of earlier lives has its own logic.  Pythagoras advised souls returning to rebirth to beseech the Goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne, to let them keep their memories by allowing them to drink of her spring waters.  Mnemosyne is the mother of the Muses -- in other words, she, as the Goddess of Memory, is the font of all art.  She can give us knowledge of beginnings, origins, and earlier times because she remembers all the winding, interconnecting stories.

According to Plato, when we die, we drink of the waters of the river Lethe, which washes away our memories of the life just lived.  "The dead," Mircea Eliade writes, "are those who have lost their memories." 3  But in another sense, the dead are in the midst of experiencing celestial realms and garnering even more memories.  When they return to life, they first leave the underworld by way of the left-hand road which goes to the spring of Lethe and, "gorged with forgetfulness and vice," according to Plato, they drink the waters and their celestial memories are lost.  So the living are also those who have lost their memories.

Pythagoras advised his followers not to take the left-hand road to Lethe, but to go to the right instead, and find the road leading to "the spring that comes from the lake of Mnemosyne. 'Quickly give me the fresh water that flows from the lake of Memory,' the soul is told to ask the guardians of the spring."   That soul, its memories intact, is then reborn as a great master.

The Buddha is said to have argued that "Gods fall from Heaven when their 'memory fails and they are of confused memory'."5 Gods who don't forget remain eternal and unchanging.  From this perspective, to forget is to fall from heaven, which gives an interesting nuance to the myth of Lucifer in the West -- and to the "Lucifer" within us.  Some people say, "the devil made me do it."  From this Fall-equals-loss-of-memory perspective, that's exactly right.  The loss of memory, the loss of awareness of other choices and repercussions, pushes us into repeating similar mistakes over and over.  We fall.

Eliade comments:

...Knowledge of one's own former lives -- that is, of one's personal history -- bestows...a soteriological knowledge and mastery over one's destiny....That is why 'absolute memory' -- such as the Buddha's, for example -- is equivalent to omniscience.... 6
That's a very male way of looking at it, of course, in terms of mastering one's destiny, getting untangled from karmic burdens, and returning to the celestial heavens.  That may indeed be what it's about for many, but I'm not sure that's all there is to it.  Having a body is a precious gift, one to be valued and lived in tenderly, anointing it, allowing quiet joy to be flowing in cell-deep pools, filled with their own memories.  The body is a companion, not a servant, and, in my view, each body we inhabit leaves an indelible imprint upon the soul.  How could it be otherwise, when both are so interconnected, when matter itself is understood as a different vibration of spirit?

So in exploring past lives, we go into the Place of Memory, to her lake, her springs, her fountain, and drink of those waters and ask for gift of being able to remember.

Over thirty years ago, my personal experience in a pastlife regression session facilitated by the late Marcia Moore convinced me of the value of exploring what seemed to be memories from ancient times.  I began facilitating past life work shortly thereafter, and have continued to do it all these years, because I believe that by healing one's personal past we contribute to a wiser, saner present.  British playwright Christopher Fry wrote in his The Dark is Light Enough:

There is an angle of experience where the dark is distilled into light: either here or hereafter, in or out of time: where our tragic fate finds itself with perfect pitch, and goes straight to the key which creation was composed in.... Groaning as we may be, we move in the figure of a dance, and so moving, we trace the outline of the mystery.
Exploring past lives is a way of tracing "the outline of the mystery."  It can be seen as a ritual of time-travel, a journey into imaginal space, or a journey into the personal unconscious.  It is through such underworld experiences that we explore what Christine Downing calls "the times of real soul-making." 7 The work can be called past life regression, story therapy, far-memory exploration, active imagination, or guided meditation.  The exploration can be viewed as a literal exploration of an earlier lifetime, but it can also be interpreted in terms of metaphor, an "as if" adventure, a theatre-of-the-mind, a tapping into Jung's "collective unconscious."  Jean Houston calls such a process, simply, an "intellectual focusing technique."  Regardless, it's a way of letting yourself be drawn back into an ancient life or "story" that is especially rich in personal relevance for you.

No matter what we call it, the memories are there and most people can access them in light trance states with full conscious awareness of the process.  Belief is not important, nor is one's personal philosophy.  Despite one's intellectual belief system, we hold within us many worlds, many ages -- some tranquil, others full of drama and passion.  Whether we call it soul-work or nonsense, the memories and emotions are there, influencing us not far below the surface.  We feel them like a fleeting joy -- or like the pain of a phantom limb.  In a sense, it's like childbirth muscles: all women have them but they're rarely used more than three or four times in an entire lifetime, and sometimes they're not used at all.  Yet they're still there.

So it is with the "muscles" of these memories, these stories.  If one chooses to explore them, it's important to set aside any bias in order to do "fieldwork" within one's own mind.  Specialists educated in specific disciplines are often the easiest to regress, for they are trained to bracket-out preconceptions in order to simply deal with a phenomenon as it presents itself.  But everyone has the natural ability to access these "muscles."  All one has to do is to stay open and see what emerges.  If the experience gives a new perspective to one's existence, or if it activates a renewed sense of wonder, or solves long-standing problems or questions by re-casting their context, the process will have been worthwhile.

This does not mean that everyone should rush out and find a past life facilitator.  There are many other ways of accessing the material -- dreams, active imagination, creative work, journaling, dialoguing aloud with oneself ---- and, the most common and miraculous way of all: falling in love.  As Tagore writes on the persistence of love from past lives:

I think I shall stop startled if ever we meet after our next birth,
walking in the light of a far-away world.

I shall know those dark eyes then as morning stars, and yet feel
that they have belonged to some unremembered evening sky of a former life.

I shall know that the magic of your face is not all its own, but has
stolen the passionate light that was in my eyes at some immemorial meeting,
and then gathered from my love a mystery that has now forgotten its origin.

Love then can be a guide to past lives.  And dreams, fantasies, musings, and strong likes and dislikes for foods, clothes, furniture, art, colors.  All these ingredients offer hints of where we have been before, with whom, and in what context.  It may be that we do not live many earlier lives, but rather that we live only one, always the same, but lived in different costumes and played out on many different stages, with many of the same supporting actors, over and over and again over, as we garner new insights and greater compassion each time.

Much more could be said, for the subject is complex and fascinating, but since I only wish to touch on a few perspectives concerning past lives, this must suffice.  For those who wish to pursue the matter further, please click on my FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions and What Is a Past Life? pages.  I also offer a selected bibliography below.

Footnotes:
1 Head & Cranston [see bibliography]:412.
2 Head & Cranston: 258.
3 Eliade, Mircea. Myth & Reality: 121.
4 Ibid.: 122.
5 Ibid.:116.
6 Ibid.:90.
7 Downing, Christine.  Gods in Our Midst.  New York: Crossroad, 1993:48.
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
Note: there are a huge number of books on these topics and I have certainly not read them all.  Of those I have (mostly from the days of my initial involvement in the field), these are among my favorites.  Many are classics and still in print.
[Added 8 February 2004]:  This is a fine review of a scholarly book that looks quite intriging -- Gananath Obeyesekere's Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society Series, vol. 14. Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2002.)  Here is the review: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=4601070867937

Cerminara, Gina.  Many Mansions.  New American Library/Signet, 1950.

Cranston, Sylvia, and Carey Williams.  Reincarnation: A New Horizon in Science, Religion, & Society.  Crown, 1984.

Head, Joseph, and S. L. Cranston, eds.  Reincarnation in World Thought.  Julian Press, 1967.

Lucas, Winafred Blake, Ph.D.  Regression Therapy: A Handbook for Professionals (in 2 volumes).   Deep Forest Press, 1993.

MacGregor, Geddes, Ph.D.  Reincarnation in Christianity. Quest Books, 1978.

Moody, Raymond A., Jr., M.D.  Life After Life.  Bantam, 1976.

Moore, Marcia. Hypersentience.  Crown, 1976. [Note: Marcia Moore was my guide and teacher in the very beginning of my past life experiences.]

Stearn, Jess.  The Search for a Soul: Taylor Caldwell's Psychic Lives.  Fawcett Crest, 1974.

For Children (but I also love this one too):

Gerstein, Mordicai.  The Mountains of Tibet. HarperCollins / Harper Trophy, 1989.

Explore your karmic roots

See my Opening Reincarnation Page
as well as:
FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions
Letter to a Child
and What Is a Past Life?

For information on telephone sessions,
arranging public workshops,
or for private sessions in southwest Michigan,
please contact Dr. Kathleen Jenks at:
jenks7ATfrontierDOTcom
[Please forgive the inconvenience of having to type out the e-mail address
but if I use a "hot" link, I get swamped with endless spam.]

For information on accommodations in my area,
see my page on Inns and Hotels.

Page designed and created 13 June 2003, 5am.  Text completed & launched 18 June 2003, 1-3:30am.
Revised & expanded 4 August 2003, 12:30-2:30am; & 5 August 2003, 12:30-2am: then re-launched.
Re-designed, rvised, and added new FAQ link: 12 October 2003.  Added hotels & inns 9 December 2003.
Added brief Downing quote: 2 September 2004.
Added links to new "What Is a Past Life" page: 20 January 2006.
Added new "Opening Reincarnation Page" link 24 August 2006; "Letter to a Child" link 28 August 2006.
Updated e-mail address 6 December 2006.
Updated e-mail 19 August 2010.

31 October 2010: retored parts of my original opening, including Rilke's poem.  Then removed Nedstat counter.  (A reader wrote me that annoying popups were still being generated on 2 other pages.  In checking, I found that it was happening on this one too.  I have now removed all 3 remaining counters on my reincarnation-focused pages.)
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Text © 2003-2010 Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.

Opening art, "Decline of Atlantis," courtesy of Tradestone International.
Tree/Roots logo: source unknown.