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Reincarnation therapy? Why some think accessing past lives may heal your present

Past-life regression therapy—revisiting previous lives with the help of a hypnotist—is growing in popularity. But what does it involve?

By Anne Bokma

Birgitta MacLeod says she was born again. And again. And again. The 53-year-old art gallery owner from Port Perry, Ont., believes she was once a Druid in ancient Britain who died with many children around her. Then she was a West African woman killed in a massacre by a neighbouring tribe. Next, an aristocratic French woman who died in childbirth. She was also a male farmer in Germany in the early 1800s who died of a heart condition.

She uncovered these supposed past lives more than a decade ago when she was the subject of a CBC documentary exploring past-life regression (PLR), which involves re-experiencing previous lives with the help of a hypnotist. Her recollections were so specific — MacLeod said she had lived in a German town where the tax laws had recently been changed to favour farmers, was married to a woman named Christina, had a daughter named Anna and a father named Heinz — that the CBC flew her to Germany to verify the accuracy of her memories.

Entering a house in the German town, MacLeod was “overwhelmed by a feeling of homesickness.” The local Lutheran church had marriage and baptismal records with the names of family members that MacLeod had correctly identified. A local historian confirmed the tax change had indeed occurred.

The experience was “profoundly spiritual,” enough to convince her that the soul is eternal, says MacLeod, who was raised Anglican and is now Unitarian. “I believe our souls wear our bodies like clothing. When we don’t need the clothes anymore, we discard them and get new clothing.” MacLeod’s tale sounds like a fantastic confabulation of the mind, yet PLR therapy has been growing in popularity as more people seek out alternative healing methods. It’s used to treat everything from anxiety disorders to unexplained pain. Access past-life experiences via hypnosis, and you can resolve current problems, the thinking goes. Skeptics, however, say PLR is unethical: reincarnation is unproven, they argue, and this type of therapy carries the risk of implanting false memories, since hypnotized clients are highly suggestible and may be influenced by leading questions.

More than a billion people, mostly Hindus and Buddhists, believe their souls travel through many lifetimes. Perhaps surprisingly, 22 percent of U.S. Christians also believe in reincarnation, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center. Some equate the resurrection of Christ with reincarnation and point to karmic concepts of rebirth in the Bible: “Whatever a man sows, he will reap in return” (Galatians 6:7). Many believe déjà vu, vivid dreams and the feeling of instant connection to someone point to the possibility of past lives.

22 percent of U.S. Christians also believe in reincarnation, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center.

Dr. Brian Weiss, an Oprah-endorsed, Yale-educated psychiatrist who has sold millions of books with titles such as Same Soul, Many Bodies, is considered America’s pre-eminent PLR proselytizer. He claims it offers almost instant results.

Georgina Cannon, founder of the Ontario Hypnosis Centre, says she was healed from chronic migraines in one session after she discovered she was a midwife in a past life who was killed by a drunk would-be father after his baby died in childbirth. “He was angry that his son died and picked up a big rock and smashed my head in,” says Cannon matter-of-factly. “After that session, I waited for my next migraine. It never came.”

Not only are Cannon’s headaches gone, but so too is her fear of death. “I’m not scared of dying,” she says, “because I know we just go into another room.”

Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.

This story first appeared in The Observer's October 2018 edition with the title "Reincarnation Therapy."

Author's photo
Anne Bokma is a Hamilton-based journalist. Her column, "Spiritual But Secular," appears monthly in The Observer.
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