“Through our meditation we first learn to deal with the results of our past lives. Then, eventually, we eliminate these results. Meditate well; go deep within. Ultimately you will be able to see with your third eye. When your third eye is opened up, you can destroy your past karma. It is through vision and through sincere effort that one can nullify his past.”
– Sri Chinmoy1
Of course, one would naturally expect that a spiritual Master like Sri Chinmoy, who grew up in a Hindu background, would say that we have past lives. He also says that these lives influence our present life; that we can learn to deal with this influence; and that we can eventually nullify the karma that we have accumulated in past lives. But what would a modern-day psychiatrist have to say about past lives and karma?
In Many Lives, Many Masters Dr. Brian Weiss answers this question. This is an important, moving and well-written book. It describes the author’s experiences in treating a patient who came to see him with deeply disturbing fears.
“Catherine,” a woman in her late twenties, who is attractive but seriously handicapped by fears of the dark, of choking, of water, and of many other things, comes to see Dr. Weiss. He is the head of the Department of Psychiatry in a university-affiliated hospital in the United States. The time is the early 1980s. Catherine, who works in the hospital as a lab technician, has been referred to this particular psychiatrist by two doctors on the hospital staff. Both have noticed how distressed and unhappy Catherine has appeared in recent months, and both feel that Dr. Weiss will be able to help her. He treats her with conventional talk-therapy for a year and a half. Although she is cooperative and intelligent, she fails to make any progress.
Because she has difficulty in remembering her childhood years, the psychiatrist decides to try hypnotherapy in order to uncover memories which may be important to her illness, but are repressed. In the first session, Catherine remembers a traumatic experience that happened when she was three years old. It seems that that might be the key, but when she returns the following week, her fears have not decreased.
In the second hypnotherapy session, the doctor instructs her to go back to the time when her symptoms started. Catherine, who believes in the Catholicism of her upbringing, starts to talk as if she were another person altogether, one who lived in a time much earlier than our own. She speaks as if she were this other person, and then comes to her death by drowning. After this single session, Catherine’s fear of water disappears, and she starts to look more relaxed. The psychiatrist, who does not believe in reincarnation, is quite surprised by what has happened. He is inclined to be very skeptical, but cannot deny the clinical evidence of Catherine’s relief, and so he continues the sessions.
In the course of these further hypnotherapy sessions, Catherine experiences, and speaks from within the lives of, several other past lifetimes. In each of the lives to which she returned, she suffered deep injuries or death. All are quite directly related to her present-day fears.
This almost sounds more like fiction than reality. The doctor, like the reader, wonders whether Catherine is somehow making up stories, or has some psychiatric condition, like “split personality,” that would account for what she has told him. However, because of his training, he is able to rule out any condition like that. Besides, her fears continue to diminish and then disappear. She is also visibly happier. She continues to eat in the hospital cafeteria where she had always taken her meals; but now, people often come to her, asking to join her, or saying they just wanted to tell her how beautiful she looks. She also starts to develop, or reveal, psychic powers, taking her father to the race-track and correctly predicting which horse will win each race.
During her sessions, when Catherine comes to the end of a past lifetime, she often enters a resting state, in which she speaks in a different tone of voice from either her everyday self or her past-lives selves. The content, also, is different from what she is usually interested in talking about. A lot of these messages have a spiritual aspect. The doctor thinks that she seems to be channeling information that she receives from wise spirits, or Masters. He becomes more and more convinced that what she is saying is of real value. One turning point comes for him when, in one of her resting states, she starts telling him things about his dead father, and his son who died when less than a month old. Very few people, and certainly none of his patients, knew anything about these matters.
As time goes on, the doctor starts to change as much as the patient. He comes to accept the reality of reincarnation. He thinks that, if we have had many lives in the past, and will have many more in the future, then there is no need to regard death in our current lifetime as the end; it is just one part of a very long journey. He thinks many people would find this helpful, as fear of death is so pervasive here in the West. He finds himself becoming more relaxed and less rigid when he is at home with his family, dropping some of the over-seriousness that had been one of his lifelong characteristics, and becoming more able to trust his intuition when he is treating patients. He starts to meditate, taking himself somewhat by surprise.
Even though I believed in reincarnation before, I must say that reading this book made the idea of past lives much more real to me. The day I finished it, I was riding on the subway from Queens to Manhattan, looking at my fellow passengers, and thinking with affection that each of us had existed in many different places and times before now. When I returned home later that day, I found that someone had removed a lovely new candy-tuft plant that I had bought from the plant nursery and planted just two days earlier. I was a little sad, but not unduly upset. I said to my roommate, “I guess it’s a pretty small tragedy in the larger scheme of things.” She looked surprised and laughed.
A lot of people have already found this book valuable, and many who have not yet read it will also. I know this review will not convince die-hard doubters of the existence of the soul or of reincarnation. I can hear some of my former scientific colleagues saying, “Probably Brian Weiss is the one who made all this up!” Personally, I don’t think the man flipped out. He says he waited a few years, after his treatment of Catherine, before he wrote it. He was afraid that his scientific colleagues would be doubtful about his veracity or his sanity. However, they did not fire him, so I guess he continued to do his job well. To me, the book has the ring of truth.
- Sri Chinmoy, The Soul’s Evolution, New York: Agni Press, 1976. The book was reprinted in 1999 by Perfection-Glory-Press, Augsburg Germany. The passage quoted is on page 15 of the Augsberg edition. [↩]