Illustrations by Micky Walls
Christopher Benjamin was imprisoned in Ancient Egypt, alone, barefoot and cold. The stone wall he leaned against felt frigid and bone dry. Through a small cutout in the high ceiling of his cell, a single beam of sunlight taunted him. Gazing up at the peephole, he sensed that the world on the opposite side was far warmer — but certainly not more welcoming.
“I felt like I had really screwed up because I told these people in charge what they were doing wrong,” Benjamin says. “I kind of shot my mouth off. … They did not like what I told them, and so they put me in this dungeon.”
Not a single soul was around to save him. “I’m screwed,” Benjamin thought to himself. “There’s no way out.”
Fortunately, in a version of reality more adherent to its traditional definition, there was an exit: his therapist’s office door.
The unsettling visions and sensations Benjamin experienced while imprisoned thousands of years ago were part of what he thinks may have been a past life. His mind traveled to that time and place during a session of past-life regression, a practice in which a person, under hypnosis or in a meditative state, experiences a memory that they believe is from a time when their soul inhabited another body.
Some who engage in past-life regression do so simply out of curiosity about their former selves, perhaps discovering they were a knight in shining armor — or the town wench who waited on one. But others hope to treat a range of mental health issues, including phobias, addictions, anxiety and depression, which they believe could have sprung from a past-life trauma. By reliving their trauma’s origin story, they hope to better understand, and possibly ameliorate, the emotional damage lingering in their current life.
The American Psychological Association is deeply skeptical of past-life regression’s viability, and there are serious questions about the ethics of using it as a treatment. But the practice’s most steadfast backers contend that its impact can be immediate, and far less time-consuming and costly than traditional forms of psychotherapy.
Eli Bliliuos, a Manhattan-based hypnotist who often employs past-life regression in client sessions, says that “just the shift in perspective” about a traumatic event, which can materialize instantaneously with past-life regression, “can be profound.”
In psychoanalysis, an analyst will explore their patient’s life events, particularly those from childhood, in order to bring unconscious material into the conscious mind. Then they work to restructure the personality adversely affected by those repressed, emotionally damaging experiences. This process can take months or even years.
But, Bliliuos says, “In hypnosis, you go always to the most important memory you’ve experienced,” whether that’s in this life or perhaps a previous one. Thus, in past-life regression, a reckoning can begin right away.
Christopher Benjamin — a 58-year-old Milwaukee resident who asked that his real name not be used here — started psychotherapy in 2012, seeking relief from lifelong anxiety, as well as depression that had more recently developed from what amounted to a midlife crisis. Though his therapist engaged him in typical talk therapy, she also employed some out-of-the-ordinary approaches. She did not hypnotize Benjamin, but instead focused his mind through brainspotting, a type of exposure therapy. Brainspotting administrators guide the patient’s eyes across their field of vision as they recall an upsetting event. Eventually, their eyes locate a position that activates feelings associated with the memory.
“All of a sudden, it’s sort of like magic, you’re blabbing out something that was completely hidden,” Benjamin says.
After a few moments of the patient’s eyes fixing on that point, their discomfort slowly fades — not unlike how someone with a fear of heights might grow more at ease the longer they remain atop a ladder.
In the brainspotting sessions, Benjamin recounted memories from his present life, like his uncle’s suicide 30 years earlier. He’d never truly grieved the loss, and he had an unexpectedly emotional response to the memory in his therapist’s office. He was, as he puts it, “a complete mess.” But reliving the memory helped him recognize for the first time that his family has a history of mental illness, which proved oddly comforting. It wasn’t his fault that sadness seemed to consistently find him; it was genetics. He realized he just needs to work harder than most to live a more emotionally healthy, content life, and he’d already taken that upon himself by seeking therapy.
When Benjamin visited Ancient Egypt during another round of brainspotting, he was focused on one particular manifestation of his anxiety.
“I can’t speak up,” Benjamin says. “I am deathly afraid of saying anything to offend people.”
His therapist asked him to think of an instance in which he felt betrayed by something he’d once said. Soon, his thoughts drifted from present-life memories down into the dungeon. Benjamin says it became “sort of self-evident” that he’d tapped into a past-life memory. He emerged from the past-life regression “more mindful” of the root of his anxiety, and determined to conquer the fear of speaking up that haunts him in this life.
Belief in reincarnation dates back to at least the oldest scriptural texts of Hinduism, written nearly 3,000 years ago in India. Greek philosophers like Socrates and Plato also entertained the idea, as did some Gnostic Christian groups from the turn of the first millennium, as well as 17th-century Jews who practiced Kabbalah. Today, 33 percent of American adults believe in reincarnation. (American women subscribe to the belief at a 12 percent higher rate — 39 percent overall — than men do.)
Notions of reincarnation are diverse and nuanced, but for past-life regression advocates like Eli Bliliuos, the New York hypnotist, “The basic belief is that we are souls; we choose to incarnate these bodies for purposes of learning from experience, growing from experience.”
In another past-life regression session, Christopher Benjamin found himself canoeing in wide-open waters, enjoying a day out with a person who he understood intuitively to be his younger brother. As the elder sibling, Benjamin naturally accepted the responsibility of caring for him, of protecting him from danger.
“It was really, really blue and wavy, choppy water,” Benjamin says, “and I don’t specifically remember how it happened, but he went overboard.”
His little brother disappeared, into the void of the water.
“And I’m freaking out, and then I can’t find him,” Benjamin continues. “And the rest of [the memory] is the dread of having to tell everybody what happened. That was hideous.”
Before this particular past-life regression, Benjamin was talking with his therapist about a strange preoccupation he’d developed with a co-worker, whom he found himself always trying to protect. In the canoe that day, Benjamin sensed that his past-life brother was a previous incarnation of the co-worker. The past-life version of Benjamin blamed himself for the man’s untimely death, but experiencing the memory altered Benjamin’s perspective about why he obsessed over his co-worker in this life. On some core level, Benjamin wanted to look out for him, to protect him. Going back to his past life, he says, helped him move on.
“After the session, I’m like, Oh, OK. Well that happened way back in the past, and I don’t have to worry about that anymore,” Benjamin remembers.
Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of regression in the 1890s, utilizing it in psychoanalysis, at first via hypnosis and then in talk therapy. Through regression, his patients could confront childhood events and traumas that continued to create emotional stress in their adult lives.
The Search for Bridey Murphy, a book written by Bernstein and published by Doubleday, became a best seller in 1956 and was adapted into a movie. The 1995 New York Times obituary for Virginia Tighe — later Virginia Mae Morrow — said, “Bridey Murphy became a 1950s phenomenon rivaling the Hula-Hoop. There were Bridey Murphy parties (‘come as you were’) and Bridey Murphy jokes (parents greeting newborns with ‘Welcome back’).” The Times also reported that The Search for Bridey Murphy “triggered an interest in reincarnation and the use of hypnosis to regress a subject to early childhood, and perhaps beyond.”
During the following two decades, Ian Stevenson, then chair of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, chronicled about 3,000 cases of people from around the world, mostly children, with past-life memories, and Morris Netherton wrote what he claimed to be the first book in the field of past-life regression therapy.
Dr. Brian L. Weiss has been perhaps the most prominent American figure in the practice since the 1980s, publishing 10 books on past-life regression and related subjects. Once a traditional psychotherapist, Weiss — who declined to be interviewed for this story due to his busy schedule — has written that he was a past-life regression skeptic at first. But a hypnotized patient of his, whom he called “Catherine” in one of his books, recounted past-life memories that were so precisely outlined and, as it turned out, historically accurate, that he felt it was impossible she could have invented them.
Weiss has led mass past-life regression sessions, and he conducts five-day training workshops for psychotherapists and others. In a New York Times article that chronicled one of his training workshops, Weiss drew more than 200 people into a meditative state and encouraged them to walk through doors labeled with years such as 1850, 1700 and 1500, where some past-life memories may have resided. Weiss was quoted in the piece as saying, “Any good therapist can use these techniques and you can learn them in a week.” There are also online past-life regression courses, open to anyone, some as short as a few hours long and costing only about $100.
Matthew Brownstein, founder of The Institute of Interpersonal Hypnotherapy, says these quickie training programs are “holding back a glorious profession.”
“I’m actually appalled by what’s out there,” he says. “We worked really hard, myself and other leaders in the field, to make hypnotherapy a federally and state-level acknowledged occupation, and it’s technically illegal to train somebody as a hypnotherapist if you’re not licensed to do so.”
Brownstein adds that if a person could become a medical doctor in four hours, “it wouldn’t make medicine look all that appealing.”
He says the hands-on training offered at a school like his is extremely important. Aspiring practitioners of hypnosis should know that “some very dark stuff can come up.”
“Even though you’re looking for, just say, past-life [memories],” he continues, “there are a lot of other … really out-of-this-world phenomena that occur in the altered state that someone needs to be trained to deal with.” Examples of these special instances, Brownstein says, range from remembrances of alien abductions to “channeling,” when a client acts as a conduit for the spirit of a deceased person and communicates their messages.
Stephanie Riseley rested one hand on her husband’s chest as he died in his hospital bed after a months-long battle with leukemia. Riseley says her husband’s “heart just stopped, and then I had this feeling that he flew through me.”
Perhaps sensing that she was having difficulty forgiving herself for not doing enough to save him, he added: “You must honor what we had together and forget the rest. … Please forgive me. And forgive yourself for not being superwoman.”
Soon thereafter, her husband “started chatting with me and having wild sex,” Riseley says. “I am not the only widow that this happens to, by the way.”
Once she opened herself up to the idea that her husband could interact with her from the beyond, she says, he began running his energy through her body, and orgasms were a regular occurrence. The encounters — sexual and conversational — went on for nearly a year, before he had to move on to his next life.
“He ultimately became a little African girl,” Riseley says.
Riseley, who lives in Los Angeles, wrote a book about these interactions called Love From Both Sides. She is now a hypnotist who trained under Brian Weiss, and began guiding her own clients through past-life regressions in 2004.
She says that over the past eight years she’s also been “dating the man who had me murdered in my direct past life.”
Riseley believes she was a male descendant of the Rothschilds, the famed family of bankers, in her most recent past life. She says she was a Jewish doctor who lived in Germany as the Nazis rose to power. Riseley was married, but cheating with a showgirl, who also slept around with Nazi SS officers. When the past-life version of Riseley told the showgirl he was fleeing Germany with his wife and daughter, the showgirl sold him out to the Nazis, and the whole family perished in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Riseley also says that she realized during her past-life regression into Nazi Germany that her wife from that past life had been reincarnated as her high school best friend in this life, while the showgirl returned as her current boyfriend.
“In that past life I was a complete narcissist: rich, entitled, totally self-involved,” Riseley says. “I wasn’t appreciative. … And in this lifetime? My lesson is to see what it feels like to be surrounded by complete narcissists.”
From exploring her past life, Riseley says, she is learning compassion and forgiveness. “You’re not supposed to die wanting to kill somebody, that’ll come and bite you in the butt,” she explains. “So I’m forgiving him.”
“Certainly, I can’t prove to anybody that past-life regression is real or not real,” says Eli Bliliuos, “but doing it as often as I do and having people have similar experiences, after a while it sort of proves itself.”
Bliliuos first sought out past-life regression himself in his late teens, after losing both of his parents within a year — his father died of cancer; his mother passed after a fall on icy subway stairs. He says that in his regressions into past lives, he has encountered his parents’ souls, which eased his anguish because he knew he’d come across them again in some future life. His subsequent journeys into other past lives — one sent him to 13th-century Italy, where he was a merchant with an unknown but debilitating illness — have continued to help him improve his outlook on this life.
Bliliuos and other advocates of past-life regression say that you don’t have to believe in reincarnation to benefit from the experience. He recalls one session with a client who told him that they thought their past-life regression was a figment of their imagination.
“That’s perfectly fine,” Bliliuos responded, but he asked them to at least consider whether the vision might be a message from their unconscious. If it had some relevance to their life now, then the important element of the experience was the lesson they took away from it.
“Who cares if it’s ‘real’?” he adds.
As effective as past-life regression may be for some, the practice has drawn plenty of criticism throughout the years. In a 1995 Chicago Tribune article, Dr. Mel Sabshin, who was the medical director for the American Psychiatric Association at the time, said that the organization regards past-life regression as “pure quackery.”
“[P]sychiatric diagnosis and treatment today is based on objective scientific evidence,” Sabshin explained. “There is no accepted scientific evidence to support the existence of past lives let alone the validity of past life regression therapy.”
The American Psychological Association (APA) calls past-life regression “highly controversial,” stating that most hypnotherapists are “skeptical of the practice and do not recognize it as a legitimate therapeutic tool.” The APA adds that “clinicians generally consider actual past-life enactments to be manifestations of psychopathology.”
Since the Bridey Murphy episode entered the zeitgeist in the 1950s, specialists have concluded that the hypnosis-induced interviews were the result of cryptomnesia, which the American Psychological Association defines as “people mistakenly believ[ing] that a current thought or idea is a product of their own creation when, in fact, they have encountered it previously and then forgotten it.” The APA likens cryptomnesia to “inadvertent” or “unconscious plagiarism.” It turns out that when Virginia Tighe — the woman who believed she was once Bridey Murphy — was growing up in Chicago, she lived across the street from a woman named Bridey. Tighe also had an Irish aunt who told her stories from the old country.
Gabriel Andrade, assistant professor of psychology at Ajman University in the United Arab Emirates, published a 2017 medical journal article titled “Is Past Life Regression Therapy Ethical?” He argued that “the reincarnation hypothesis … is not supported by evidence, and in fact, it faces some insurmountable conceptual problems.” He cites the world’s population growth as one example, asking, “Where did these additional souls come from?”
Past-life regression supporters, however, say that a subject will experience the past-life regression, even a ghastly death, only to recognize that their soul carried on, unabated, past the trauma, and they can take solace in that ultimate outcome.
“Nobody comes in [my office] and goes through a traumatic experience they can’t handle,” Bliliuos says. “It doesn’t work that way.”
But, as Andrade says in an email to me: “The client/patient may develop new phobias, and may have increased anxiety and depression, as a result of believing that he/she underwent traumatic experiences, even though these experiences may have never been real in the first place.”
In Andrade’s paper, he pointed to “the Satanic Ritual Abuse moral panic of the 1980s” in the United States as a far-reaching, stark example of the damage memory implantation can cause. Throughout the decade, hundreds of people underwent hypnosis to recover memories of sexual and ritual abuses, allegedly conducted against them during early childhood.
“A thorough FBI investigation was carried out, and no evidence whatsoever was found to support the allegations of sexual and ritual abuse,” Andrade wrote. Because their hypnotists had asked leading questions, “these false memories had come to be perceived as quite real by the subjects … who had to face the troubling consequences of having false memories of traumatic events that, in fact, had never happened to them.”
“My conclusion, then,” Andrade states, “is that it is better to play it safe.” He advocates that people seek out more evidence-based forms of treatment instead.
I am not a person of faith. I thank God for the gift of cookie dough ice cream as I savor the first spoonful out of a fresh pint, but for the most part, that’s about as spiritual as I get. The idea of reincarnation has never seemed plausible to me. I have had brushes with “the unexplained,” however. When I was about 3, and just learning to speak in sentences, I was sitting with my dad and his father, watching 30-year-old 8-millimeter home movies. The clips starred the two of them, great-grandparents and other deceased relatives of mine, as well as an uncle and some cousins, then in stages of toddlerhood and infancy. I’ve no memory of this, but my father says that, out of nowhere, I leaped from my seat, pointed at the screen, and yelled something to the effect of There she is that sunuvabitch!
“You went wild,” Dad tells me in a recent phone call. “And the way you talked was so clear, that was part of the shock of it.”
He has no idea who appeared on the TV that got me so riled up, and he says that my outburst was very out of character. A belief in past lives might suggest that I’d previously been one of my departed family members, or that I channeled someone else’s spirit and shouted out searing anger on their behalf. Personally, I’m pretty skeptical of either explanation.
So when I arrived at a past-life regression group workshop conducted by Johanna Derbolowsky, a Los Angeles–based spiritual healer, I maintained my robust skepticism. The event was held in Midtown Manhattan, at a community space geared toward mindful practices and performances. Derbolowsky, a German immigrant, speaks softly and has a calming presence. She characterized the workshop as a “past-life regression meditation,” devoid of hypnotism. She stood in front of a tightly quartered crowd of 38 attendees, almost all women.
I’ve been in talk therapy for nearly six years — treatment for a moderate panic disorder and depression — and I have experienced continuous progress throughout. In that, I’m a believer. But at the top of the past-life regression session, Derbolowsky mentioned that it didn’t matter if we regarded past lives as legitimate phenomena. She instructed us to close our eyes and focus on breathing deeply. As we relaxed, she told us each to think about something that we’ve frequently worried about. For me, that’s concern about my ability to financially sustain myself as a freelance writer. It often feels as though at any given moment I could be completely out of work. With the cost of living being what it is in New York City, I still have roommates at the age of 41 and no semblance of a retirement fund. The forecast for my future sometimes seems gloomy.
In the session, we each considered our fear, and then Derbolowsky said, “Now, I want you to throw it away.”
Just like that, I stopped worrying for a moment. My body relaxed even more deeply.
After engaging in some group sharing about giving our fears the mental boot, Derbolowsky again told us to close our eyes, breathe deeply and picture a vast closet, teeming with costumes. She then said something to the effect of “Find the costume you’re most drawn to, and try it on.”
I found myself fully engaged in the vision. I picked out an engulfing, furry animal skin shroud, dark trousers and high boots, like something Leonardo DiCaprio wore in The Revenant.
“Now, go out into the world with your costume on,” I recall Derbolowsky saying. “Look around, take in the sights, the sounds.”
I was in a deep wood. It was sunny, but water droplets falling from high above sporadically made the leaves around me flutter. A beautiful deer poked its head out from the foliage, eyeballed me briefly, and then disappeared. I felt at peace, but lonely.
After a few minutes, Derbolowsky told us to take ourselves into “the next scene,” and suddenly it was night. Still alone, I was eating meat cooked over a campfire. Still lonesome, I thought to myself, Look around for your family, but no figures emerged.
I took the vision as a reflection of my real-life loneliness and isolation, due in part to my career choice. (As a freelance writer who works from home, it’s not uncommon for me to go an entire day without having an in-person conversation with anyone.) I’m also currently single and, since childhood, I’ve always felt somewhat disconnected from my family, filling the “weird one” role nicely. The vision gave all of this new weight and immediacy, motivating me to address it somehow.
In a phone interview a few days later, Derbolowsky offers a different observation.
“You came up in the visualization as somebody that’s in the middle of nowhere, and his food and supply just appeared,” she says. “You didn’t have to worry.”
She told me that I am probably a pretty resourceful guy, and that because I’ve figured out how to take care of myself for this long, there’s no reason for it not to continue.
“Yeah, I just have to keep pluggin’ away,” I say.
“Obviously you have to act and look and do,” she adds, “but you also have to know that opportunities will show up.”
Though I took more than I expected away from Derbolowsky’s workshop, it did not reveal that I was once an influential philosopher, a warrior leader, a powerful sultan or any other figure of particular import. The most popular examples of past-life regression found on the internet feature such grandiose characters — like the actress Shirley MacLaine’s yarns of having sex with Charlemagne the Great, and her belief that her dog is the reincarnation of an Egyptian god. To that point, hypnotist Eli Bliliuos says, “If you say that you were Eisenhower, you’re gonna get more hits on your Facebook.”
While Derbolowsky says that one client of hers regressed not only to prehistoric times but also into the body of a saber-toothed tiger, she, like Bliliuos, confirms that most people who experience past-life regressions recount ordinary lives of fairly common folk.
She insists suggesting such fodder is “useless.” The value in past-life regression does not materialize from the status of the person you were, but rather from how the experiences are relevant to your current life.
Along with his visions in Ancient Egypt and of canoeing with his brother, Christopher Benjamin has also had a third notable past-life regression.
“I’m dancing in a group setting and, it sounds so cheesy, but as like a flamenco dancer,” Benjamin says. “It felt like Spain or Portugal — I don’t know. But I’m picturing it was the 1800s.”
Benjamin had told his therapist in session that day that he wanted to focus on the malaise and lack of joy that had settled into his life, compliments of his midlife crisis and his family’s history of mental health struggles. She instructed him to think of a time when he didn’t feel so disgruntled and numb — a time, instead, when he relished life.
“And I’m dancing with this woman, who is extremely beautiful, and I desired her with that, like, burst of passion when you first meet somebody,” Benjamin continues. “It represented being alive, with passion that I lacked.”
As the remembrance continued, he slowly understood that the soul of the woman he’d danced with a couple hundred years ago was that of someone still very close to him today.
“I realized that it was my daughter,” he says, “which is freaky when you think about it because you don’t want to think that way about your daughter, but I did.”
Putting the unwanted implication of incest aside, Benjamin says that the vision “was so refreshing because, when you feel so bad, to see a time when you did feel good is so important. And it made me feel so much better.”
Whatever he may or may not have actually experienced during that dance, Benjamin says he takes great comfort from the fact that he — his soul — is loved, has always been loved, and will always be loved.