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My So-Called (Past) Life

by Jody Jaffe(more info)

listed in psychospiritual, originally published in issue 108 - February 2005

I wanted to be Cleopatra or at least Catherine the Great, but it turned out I was just another little Jewish girl in my past life. I was also a teenage boy in knickers and a cave-dwelling holy man.

Still, I'm hopeful. I've only made three trips back to my past; maybe next time I'll find the diva. Apparently I've got a whole eternity of lifetimes to explore. The basic premise of reincarnation is that you keep coming back until you get it right – a sort of cosmic entrance exam.

My last two trips were conducted by Dr Rick Levy, psychologist from Gaithersburg Maryland, suburb of Washington DC. He's been taking people back to their past lives for 27 years. Dr Levy is the founder of The Levy Center for The Healing Arts and one of the pioneers of Past Life Regression Therapy, a part of the growing mind/body approach to medicine which uses psychological techniques to treat physical problems.

Past Life Regression takes patients back to memories – either real or imagined – of previous lives. The theory is that by re-experiencing the original source of pain – again, either real or imagined – you can get rid of if it.

Growing Popularity

Past life regression started becoming popular in the 1970s through the efforts of psychologists Helen Wambauch, Edith Fiore and Hazel Denning. Now, a Google search for 'past life regression' will pull up 67,500 hits for everything from past life regression software to on-line classes with the biggest names in the field. There's a Journal of Regression Therapy and an International Association for Regression Research and Therapies. There are more than 100 such therapists listed in California, America's mecca for anything alternative and two listed in England: Morris Berg of Cornwall and Michael Millett of London.

According to a 2003 Harris poll, 27 per cent of Americans believe in reincarnation; that number jumps to 40 per cent of those aged 25-29. I can't claim allegiance to either group. I'm more in the wouldn't-it-be-great-if-it-were-true-but-get-real category. I can't even completely align myself with the 84 per cent of Americans who believe in survival of the soul after death. I want to believe – who wouldn't? – that some part of me will continue after my body stops. But there's always the rational, skeptical voice inside that says: prove it.

Surprisingly, you don't have to believe in reincarnation for the therapy to work. You can even be an atheist and still get rid of your sinusitis by taking a mind trip back to the Crusades or the War of the Roses or wherever it was you got that real 'or imagined' spear through your cheek.

"It must be said that it is in no way necessary to believe in past lives to undergo a regression process," said Michael Millett, a London Past Life Regression therapist. "Some people regard it as working through metaphor, or symbolic expressions of their inner psyche or 'soul drama'. What matters with regression experiences is not whether they come from past lives, but what sort of improvement they can bring to your present."

While Millett said about 85 per cent of his patients believe in reincarnation, many of Dr Levy's patients regard their regression stories as brain-induced metaphors and yet have the same success as his patients who believe they've actually lived those lives before.

"One woman," says Dr Levy, "went back to a life where she was killed with three blows to the head at exactly the spot where her migraines started". After a few regression sessions, her migraines stopped.

Case Studies

I spoke with several of Dr Levy's patients who had similar experiences. Jo Pitcher, a 58 year-old retired editor from Virginia, credits a combination of mind/body techniques including past life regression, with curing a malignant melanoma on her face. During one session, she says she regressed back to a time when she saw herself as a Middle Eastern man whose family had just been brutally slain.

"He was totally grief-stricken and I sobbed and sobbed under hypnosis," Pitcher says. "I can't say that releasing that grief healed me. It might have been a combination of all the energy healing work and the acupuncture. But by the time surgery day came to remove the melanoma, the biopsy came back negative." The first biopsy had been positive. "The doctor was astonished."

Millett told of a patient who had an extreme skin condition, worse than dermatitis, all over her body. She could find no relief through traditional medicine. Through Past Life Regression, she saw herself burnt alive in a previous life and her skin cleared up afterwards.

Robert Hedaya is a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and the founder of the National Center for Whole Psychiatry. As a doctor who incorporates a panoply of fields into his practice, it's not much of a stretch for him to see the benefits of past life regression therapy. In fact, he says it can have 'life altering affects'.

"You could believe it either metaphorically or as a real past life thing," Hedaya says. "Either one can be useful because it taps into something very deep inside a person. And it's experiential. Experiential learning is always more powerful than theoretical learning. I've checked it out myself."

Under hypnosis, Hedaya says he found himself in ancient times, a librarian guarding holy tablets. "That experience transformed my approach to life. It was about leadership, about allowing myself to be a leader in my life and my family."

But does he believe he actually lived back then? Maybe yes, maybe no. It's not relevant to the success of the therapy. "It only matters in that it would be nice to think we come back again."

Into the Mainstream?

"The attitude (about Past Life Regression Therapy) in the UK is one of extreme interest, which is growing," said Millett, who trained at the London School of Transpersonal Hypnosis and Healing, "however, the clinical therapy and medical world are very skeptical and totally non-supportive".

In the United States, according to Dr Levy, the mind/body connection also has been slow to catch on in the mainstream medical community, though it's starting.

Lars Thestrup is a 27 year-old graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth School of Medicine. He plans to go into emergency medicine – not a field commonly associated with hypnosis, meditation or other mind/body techniques. Yet, he chose to do his off-campus clerkship with Dr Levy. He watched many hypnotherapy sessions in which patients told of 'past life' experiences.

"I don't know if they regressed anywhere," says Thestrup. "What I do know is that it was helpful in their understanding of who they were as people today. I have no evidence to corroborate that any of it was a past life regression. The real relevance is whether it's healing to you at this point in your life. It can be extremely healing in a much shorter time than standard therapy. It was remarkable to see how quickly his patients turned around."

Jim Robinson, the 49 year-old president and general manager of the Washington, DC, pop radio station, Mix 107.3, started going to Dr Levy three years ago to work out some parenting issues. Along the way, not only did he quit smoking – "I smoked for over 20 years and stopped in a single session" – but he encountered his deceased parents during several hypnotic regressions.

"It totally doesn't matter to me if it was real or imagined," he says. "I'm not sure I regressed anywhere. It's kind of like you go into the Smithsonian Library storage room and you see miles and miles of things. That's like your brain. You take in miles and miles of storage. The intensity of relaxation (through hypnosis) permits grand sorting."

It was his wife's death, not a grand sorting through the fields of his brain, that brought, Mark, a 60 year-old board chairman of a Washington-area computer company (who asked his real name not be used), to Dr Levy. He thought he was adjusting well, a friend of his thought otherwise and suggested he get help.

"I realized my real struggle was to come to terms with my wife's betrayal of leaving me here, leaving me early, rather than the other way around. I did not become, and I am still not, a regression junkie. But it was the start of an extraordinary journey of healing for me."

Mark says he regressed many times to many lives and all of them provided lessons for this life. Once, he was an adviser to a 16th century French Count who didn't have the courage to tell the Count the truth.

"I have a tendency to tell people what they want to hear," Mark says. "That's something I have to work on all the time."

My Past Life

Like Mark, it was a death that brought me to Dr Levy. I was very close to my stepfather, Arthur Isaac. When he died suddenly in a shopping mall, right in the middle of Hanukah shopping, it hit me hard. Grief can make you do strange things. I dragged a friend to a spiritualist church service, hoping Arthur would tap the minister on the shoulder during the messages-from-the-departed segment. Arthur was mum. I went to a local psychic. He gave me an earful of career advice – "don't expect writing mysteries to be the last step in your fiction career" – but not a word from Arthur. I even interviewed the well-known psychic/author George Anderson for a mystery novel I was writing, hoping Arthur would bully his way into things and ask Anderson to deliver a message to me. Still nothing from the beyond.

Then I found Dr Brian Weiss' book, Many Lives, Many Masters, the international bestseller with more than two million copies in print. The book presents a compelling case for reincarnation, if you want to believe.

Weiss is the pedigreed poster boy for Past Life Regression: Columbia, Yale, former Chairman of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami. He didn't begin as a believer, he was just a shrink using hypnotherapy. Then during a hypnosis session with a patient suffering from anxiety attacks and recurring nightmares, he told her to go back to her earliest memory. He meant when she was a baby, but she started talking about a past life. At another session she told him she was 'in the space between lives' with Weiss' deceased baby and father. Only his close family knew he had lost a baby. The woman was eventually cured of her anxiety attacks and Weiss became a believer. He went on to write Many Lives, Many Masters, and six other books.

I was intrigued by Weiss' notion that you could meet the departed during past life regressions. I hadn't had any luck with psychics, so I called Weiss' office in Miami, looking for a practitioner in the Washington DC area. I was referred to Rick Levy.

I'd already been age regressed in 1978. At the time, I was a feature writer for a small newspaper in New York State and I heard about a priest-turned-psychologist who took patients back to their past lives. He age regressed me for the story.

I was going to be an easy subject to hypnotize, he said, because I'd been a sleep walker as a kid. He was right. After just a few droning sentences, I was in deep hypnosis. He asked me to go to my earliest childhood memory. I saw an image of a blue linoleum floor with yellow swirls. My mother later told me that was the kitchen floor of our house in Havertown, Pennsylvania, where we lived when I was an infant.

Then he told me to go back earlier, before I was born. I saw an image of an apartment and a seven year-old girl. Under hypnosis I made a silly joke in a little girl's voice, which I heard later when I played back the tape of the session: "You know why they call it a walk-up?" I giggled. "Because you walk up." He asked me my address, I saw a street sign from the slanted perspective of a small child. Then he told me to go to the time of my death. I was looking down on a funeral scene, everyone was wearing 1940s clothes and driving 1940s cars. It was 1947. He asked me my name and my parents' names. I heard myself saying, "I'm Marsha Gold. My parents are Rita and Charles Gold". Then I started crying and he quickly brought me out of hypnosis because he'd never had anyone cry before. "Usually people are dancing a jig by the time they die, happy to get rid of their bodies" he said. I wrote the article for the paper, had a good laugh with my friends and put the experience aside.

So I was familiar with the process when I walked into Dr Levy's office eight years ago. I lay down on an old lumpy couch and he led me through a series of relaxation techniques, starting with a body scan where you relax your toes then move up through your body to your head. Again I hypnotized easily. Soon I was seeing images in response to Dr Levy's questions. What kind of shoes I was wearing? Sandals. What kind of clothes? A rough gray wool robe, a metal Ankh hanging from a leather string around my neck. Where did I live? A bare cave with some sacks of flour stacked against the wall.

Real or Imagined?

Whether I was imagining things or reporting from a past life is a matter of belief. What remains irrefutable was the utter contentment I found from the simplicity of the cave I pictured in my mind. I felt no need for ornamentation of any kind – which couldn't be any more opposite of my life now. My house is an explosion of bright colours and patterns. Every horizontal surface is covered with family photos and even my light switches wear fancy covers.

Though I'd found the holy man inside me, I still hadn't heard a word from Arthur. The funny thing was, it didn't matter anymore. I can't explain what happened when I was hypnotized, but something about it was so soothing and settling, that I left Dr Levy's office happy – something I hadn't felt much since that horrible December 7th night when my step-father collapsed and died in my mother's arms.

Of course I still miss him. I get teary eyed even as I type this. But what's stuck with me for eight years was that feeling of peace that filled me during the regression. In times of stress, I find myself sometimes recreating that image of the cave, trying to remember how it felt to be so content with so little.

The Suit and Tie Guy in a Tie-Dye Field

I went to see Dr Levy again to revisit my 'past' for this article. His office isn't the only thing that's new. The threadbare, lumpy couch is gone. In its place, a spiffy faux-leather model that turns into a kind of Barca Lounger, deeply cushioned in all the right places. Leaning back into its soft curves was almost enough to get me hypnotized.

Rick Levy doesn't look like the kind of guy who'd be volleying around terms like 'aura,' 'karma' and 'spirit self.' He's a balding, middle-aged man with the start of a gut who wears polyester pants and breaks into a bad Southern accent to tell corny jokes. Yet, he's comforting and welcoming; within five minutes I felt like telling him my deepest worries.

"Visually, it wasn't an auspicious beginning," says Mark of his first session with Dr Levy. Mark is the man Dr Levy helped come to terms with his wife's death. "Here's this guy who looked like he's spent too much time in the library. But he's an extraordinary spiritual person."

Dr Levy was raised Jewish and has incorporated the theologies of many religions into his beliefs. But he believes in science as much as anything. He uses mind/body medicine, he says, not only because it works, but also because the research is there to prove it works. He comes from a strong scientific background. His father, Hilton Levy, was a cancer researcher at the National Institutes of Health and Dr Levy, who holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Duquesne University, is Board certified in five different fields: Clinical Psychology, Psychotherapy, Hypnosis, Forensic Medicine and Forensic Examination. He calls himself, 'the suit and tie guy in a tie-dyed field.'

Before Dr Levy will hypnotize a patient, he requires a 90-minute training session which he calls his 'driver's ed class'. It's mostly to quell any fears that you'll be the one person he can't hypnotize ("won't happen," he says, and demonstrates by doing a quick relaxation procedure that leaves my eyelids frozen shut) or that he'll make you bark like dog or something equally embarrassing. "You are always in control," he says, over and over and over. He wants to make sure you're certain there's a vast difference between him and Harry the Hypnotist in Las Vegas.

"We don't like that nightclub stuff," Dr Levy says.

He's updated his hypnosis techniques along with his furniture. Last time he used 'Progressive Relaxation and Guided Imagery Induction,' which involved a lot of relaxation exercises. Now he's switched to something called the 'Rapid Induction Depth Technique Method'.

"This lets us get awfully darn close to getting 100 per cent of the patients into deep hypnosis," Dr Levy says.

Another Trip Back

This time, instead of scanning my body for tension, he had me opening and closing my eyes periodically and counting backwards. I dove down deep fast. Soon I was seeing images: Knickers. Heavy shoes. White shirt. Beautiful mountains. A teenage boy walking on a trail, alone and happy, in awe of the beauty around him.

"What is it about this boy that draws you to him?" Dr Levy asks me while I'm under hypnosis. I'm a little irritated, I want to follow the joyful boy and not think about my life.

"His sense of wonder," I say. "His happiness with nothing but the world around him." I see a theme starting to form here.

"Right," Dr Levy says. "I don't know if this is a past life or not. What I do know is there's a lesson there for you in this life. You've got to get back to this kid. He's already there inside you."

Not everyone sees Dr Levy for physical or emotional issues. A third of his patients go for spiritual growth. Like Julia Meek, a 59 year-old Chevy Chase novelist and humour writer. It was also a Brian Weiss' book that got her interested in past life regression.

"But if you ask me if I believe in reincarnation," Meek says, "I would have to say I don't know. Was I really that Roman soldier in my past life? I don't know. The story appeared in my mind and it felt like it was real. But there's no way to prove it and frankly I'm not interested in proving if I went to a past life."

Meek sees Levy once a month. She considers it 'her church'. Sometimes they talk, sometimes they meditate and sometimes he age regresses her. But it's always with the same goal, to find answers to big questions: "What we're meant to do here on earth? Why am I still here and what's left for me to do?"

"What an indulgence," she says, "what a spiritual indulgence".

As for me and my search for the diva. Who knows, maybe this is the lifetime for that.


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About Jody Jaffe

Jody Jaffe has a strong interest in alternative healing. She often covered the subject as a feature writer for The Charlotte Observer, a newspaper in North Carolina. Now living in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington DC, she co-writes novels with her husband, John Muncie, under the pen name, John Jaffe. Their new book, Shenandoah Summer, was released by Warner Books last August. Set in an arts colony in Virginia, it's about a woman who must choose between the farm she loves and a happier life. Their previous novel, Thief of Words, is about a man who rewrites a woman's troubled past through a series of romantic emails – which is how Muncie courted her. Jaffe is also the author of three equine-themed mysteries and teaches journalism at Georgetown University in Washington DC. She can be contacted on

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