In 1986 psychotherapist Joel Whitton and author Joe Fisher published Life Between Life, a book recounting Whitton's experiments in hypnotic past-life regression. Actually "past-life" is something of a misnomer, because while Whitton did explore his patients' alleged past lives, he was primarily interested in what he called the "interlife," the timeless and spaceless period between incarnations.
The first half of the book consists mainly of a general overview of the subject of reincarnation. Here, I think the authors are sometimes too eager to push the view that belief in reincarnation is nearly universal. For instance, there seems to be some conflation of two distinct beliefs: that the soul preexists its earthly incarnation, and that the soul is repeatedly incarnated. Cicero is quoted as saying that young children's facility for learning is "a strong proof of man knowing most things before birth." But Cicero was not maintaining that the soul undergoes multiple incarnations, merely that it exists on the spiritual plane before taking on a physical body. The church father Origen held essentially the same view, which is misrepresented in Life Between Life as an advocacy of reincarnation.
In the second half of the book, we get into the real meat of the subject: Whitton's hypnotic regressions. Unfortunately his database is rather small, consisting of only 30 clients. He explains that the extremely deep level of hypnotic trance necessary to access the interlife can be achieved by only a small segment of the population. Moreover, although he says he has made some efforts to verify the factual details of specific past lives, none of these verifying investigations are described (with one exception, to be discussed later).
Perhaps a bigger stumbling block to accepting Whitton's results is the melodramatic nature of many of the past lives he uncovered. In one case, the previous personality was a virtuoso musician, a woman who had a torrid love affair that ended in tragedy when the car carrying her lover and herself plunged off a cliff; the man died, and the woman, horribly scarred and unable to play the piano because she had lost the use of her hands, lived in isolation and eventually drowned herself by walking into the sea. I'm not saying this couldn't happen, but it does contain a lot of elements of Hollywood melodrama; the tragic denouement is right out of the classic soaper A Star Is Born.
Another case involved a previous personality who lived in the Wild West -- the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, who became the target of an equally familiar stereotype, the firebreathing fundamentalist preacher. When the evil preacher tries to take custody of the prostitute's newborn baby, the desperate woman accidentally fires a shotgun that kills the infant. She is then handed over to the not-so-tender mercies of a vigilante band of cowboys, who rape and torture her before skinning her alive.
Now, it's true that the people who sought out Whitton's services were suffering from severe psychological (and sometimes physical) problems, so perhaps it's not surprising that they should have especially traumatic memories. And the book makes the point that these patients have experienced dozens of lives, some of which were quite prosaic; for therapeutic purposes, the focus of the sessions was on the most dramatic lives, the ones that left them emotionally scarred in their present incarnation. Still, the Harlequin Romance/Hollywood melodrama aspects of some of these tales make me uneasy.
Like other past-life therapists, Whitton claims significant success in curing longstanding problems that had defied more conventional treatment. It does seem as if past-life therapy can sometimes resolve painful, even crippling emotional disturbances in a relatively short time. This alone makes the therapy valuable, whether or not the purported past lives are genuine.
Interestingly, the patients' accounts of the dying process are quite similar to near-death experiences, typically including an out-of-body experience, a passage through a tunnel into a bright light, and a life review. But unlike most NDEs, the life review is usually supervised by a trio of sages, and is often accompanied by an in-depth interview.
As Whitton's patients describe it, the interlife involves grasping the mistakes that one has made in one's most recent incarnation, seeing where one has fallen short of one's goals, and then -- in cooperation with a more advanced guide -- designing the plan for one's next life. Occasionally a particularly impatient or reckless subject will reincarnate without a plan, a policy that is strongly discouraged by the powers that be.
Karma plays a large role in all this, but instead of being seen as a strictly mechanical process of cause and effect or action and reaction, it seems to be understood more as choosing the life circumstances that are most likely to teach the required lessons.
One interesting case involved apparent psychokinetic manifestations that began with the unexplained appearance of blood on the wall of the patient's home. The symbolic blood was eventually traced to past-life traumas, but I couldn't help thinking that if the mind is able to materialize blood out of thin air in order to spotlight a person's psychological problems, it might be capable of creating a convincing simulation of a previous persona.
The one instance in which we are told of efforts to verify the patient's claims was a case of xenoglossy -- i.e., speaking a language that should be unknown to the speaker. Actually, there were two languages -- Old Norse and an ancient Mesopotamian tongue. The authors write,
When Harold was reexperiencing his life as Thor (a Viking), Dr. Whitton instructed him to write down, phonetically, the vocal exchanges that were taking place. Harold responded by writing twenty-two words and phrases, none of which he understood. Working independently, linguistic authorities who spoke Icelandic and Norwegian subsequently identified and translated ten of these words as being Old Norse, the language of the Vikings and the precursor of modern Icelandic. Several other words seemed to have Russian, Serbian, or Slavic derivation and these were also identified. Most of the words relate to the sea -- precisely the type of verbal communication that could be expected from a Viking warrior.
Doctor Thor Jakobsson, a research scientist with Canada's Department of the Environment and an expert on the Icelandic language, studied the transcripts produced by Harold and concluded that many of the words -- including those for "storm," "heart," and "iceberg" -- were "definitely of Icelandic origin." That some of the words had their origins in other languages only added to the authenticity of the script, said Dr. Jakobsson, because the restless, warlike Vikings roamed to the far corners of Europe.
In recalling Harold's purported life in Mesopotamia, Whitton asked him to write down the words for common concepts, such as "brother," "house," and "clothing." The authors continue:
Holding the pencil very lightly, Harold carefully created a mysterious, Arabic-style script in a spidery, childlike hand....
Unsuccessful in matching his patient's supposed calligraphy with ancient scripts in library books, [Whitton] eventually submitted the pencil markings to Dr. Ibrahim Pourhadi, an expert in ancient Persian and Iranian languages at the Near Eastern Section of Washington's Library of Congress. After close examination of the samples, Dr. Pourhadi maintained that [they] were an authentic representation of the long-extinct language called Sassanid Pahlavi, which was used in Mesopotamia between A.D 226 and 651 and bears no relation to modern Iranian. [pp. 154-156]
I've quoted these excerpts at some length because they are the book's only report of an attempt to verify the accuracy of a patient's past-life recollections. As Whitton says in his Introduction,
In this book we do not review the evidence. That is worth a book in itself and has been done before. Instead, we proceed from the assumption that reincarnation is true. We do not assume, however, that every report of a past-life memory obtained under hypnosis, or claim of a spontaneously remembered past life, is what it purports to be. The issue of proof is not simple. There are important hidden assumptions in the theory of reincarnation as well as complex psychological issues in a memory of a past life. We do not articulate these issues in this book, but believe we have addressed them and have included only those cases wherein the hypothesis of past lives is the only valid one.
In the end, I don't know for sure if Whitton's cases establish reincarnation or not. Certainly his work provides much food for thought. The view of multiple rebirths, with each new life designed to resolve a specific problem and advance spiritual development by one more step, is intriguing and makes a certain amount of sense. But the melodramatic stories and general lack of verification provide grounds for doubt.
What the book does demonstrate is the incredible power of the mind. Whether the mind is seen as cooperating with other intelligences to design myriad lifetimes, or as confabulating these things in order to effect emotional and physical healing, it's still a powerful force. Add PK for physical manifestations and some kind of cryptomnesia or super-psi to explain the xenoglossy, and the mind becomes a much greater thing than we ordinarily realize.
Perhaps this insight is the real takeaway of Life Between Life.