Thursday, December 10, 2009

There were times.

There was a night when I was 6 years old that I was certain I would die in my sleep. We were at my grandparent’s home on Long Island, back when they lived in the tall pink Victorian house, a house which was definitely haunted. That night I was in what had once been my Uncle Mark’s room-- my parents were sleeping in a bedroom far away on the other side of the house. To get to their room I had to walk by a big hollow bathroom, through a foamy green colored bedroom with crocheted stuffed animals and white wicker furniture, past the drone of late-night television through the door of my grandparents room, down a long wooden floored hallway, around a corner and by the huge front staircase where the stained-glass windows seemed to undress you when you stood in front of them at night. Will had been born and was a year old which meant he got to sleep with my parents and I did not. My mother put me to bed and I cried in the dark, panicking that I might fall asleep. Eventually I turned the light on and looked at the comics in a big stack of Reader’s Digests in the closet. The carpet was shag and a strange combination of orange, lime green and mustard yellow.

In his book, Many Lives, Many Masters, psychiatrist Brian L. Weiss writes, “How powerful the fear of death is. People go to such great lengths to avoid the fear: mid-life crises, affairs with younger people, cosmetic surgeries, exercise obsessions, accumulating material possessions, procreating o carry on a name, striving to be more and more youthful, and so on. We are frightfully concerned with our own deaths, sometimes so much so that we forget the real purpose of our lives (59).” I may have been a mere six years old, but that night alone in my uncle’s old bedroom in my grandparents house on Long Island, I was acutely aware of my own mortality. It was a strange experience to sleep in either of my grandparents’ homes when I was small and perhaps even still— I was existentially disturbed by the idea of my parents having once been children and having once slept in the same bed I was expected to.

There was a night when I was 10 years old that I found a copy of Anne Frank’s diary on the bookshelf in the old bedroom of another uncle at my grandparent’s home in Indianapolis. I read it in a single night with my brother Will sleeping in the bed next to mine. The fake candles flickered in the windows. Historical prints of soldiers and ships hung in couplets on the walls. A dark leather armchair slumped in between the closets and the ticking of a manually-wound alarm clock counted out the passing seconds. That night I experienced my second mortal revelation—whereas when I was six and in Long Island I realized that I might die, when I was ten and in the mid-west I realized that I definitely would. At some point in the night I realized Anne Frank was like me, followed by the realization that I could have been Anne Frank, and then by the time it was morning, that I was Anne Frank.

The main narrative of Weiss’ book chronicles his first experience with a patient who regresses to previous lives while under hypnosis. The patient, whom he calls Catherine, had been experiencing severe anxiety attacks, recurring nightmares and chronic depression. After months of unsuccessful therapy Weiss and Catherine decide to use hypnosis in their sessions in an attempt to reveal subconscious memories of traumatic events. Hypnosis is explained by Weiss as a useful therapeutic tool in which the therapist helps distract the patient from external stimuli and focus on memory retrieval. In their first session Catherine recalls a traumatic experience at the dentist at age 6, a memory of nearly drowning at age 5, and then one of being molested her father at age 3. Over the next week her symptoms fail to improve so they continue with hypnosis to see if other traumatic memories can be revealed. In her next session, to Weiss’s surprise, she regresses past her childhood to a previous lifetime, the first of many. In later sessions she speaks from these previous incarnations and the space between lives, having conversations with a cast of superior spirits whom Weiss refers to as “the masters” who say that she has lived 86 times before.

There was a time when I was young that my grandmother sat down with me on her plaid couch and showed me pictures of my father as a child and herself as a young woman and pointed out that I had her fingernails, but that I had my mother’s nose. My father as a baby in a black and white photograph had a lumpy head, which my grandmother told me was because he was pulled out of her birth canal with forceps. My father and uncle playing in front of an unrecognizable house. My father with other girlfriends who were not my mother. My father with long hair. My father with no facial hair. My third mortal revelation: my father was a stranger, perhaps many strangers. My grandmother also showed me pictures of a baby with blonde hair and asked me if I knew who it was. I recognized her implication and correctly guessed that they were myself—though the child in those photographs bore no resemblance to anyone I had ever met before.

Through Weiss’ mediation and resolution of traumatic events in her previous lives Catherine experiences relief from her contemporary symptoms, although she has no recollection of her hypnotized revelations. Weiss continually references his classical and scientific academic training and expresses his doubts and fears of ruining his career by going public with these revelations: “But were there other explanations for Catherine’s past-life memories? Could the memories be carried in her genes?... What about Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, a reservoir of all human memory and experience that could somehow be tapped into? Divergent cultures often contain similar symbols, even in dreams. According to Jung, the collective unconscious was not personally acquired but “inherited” somehow in the brain structure… [but] Jung’s ideas seemed too vague… All in all, reincarnation made the most sense (105-106).”

There was a Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist church in Princeton, New Jersey that my father tried to entertain the waning interest of our 3rd-5th grade Sunday school class with a videotape about reincarnation. We sat on the putty-colored linoleum floor. There was snow outside. The week before we had learned about Egyptian mummification. As I recall, the majority of the video featured characters who waited in a white room with lots of doors and windows while they learned about their past lives and the ones they were about to be born into. The cast was multi-racial and comprised of a range of represented ages and personalities. I remember being vaguely interested but was distracted by the rarity and significance of the fact that we were watching television at church. This was a different kind of movie because it lacked the linearity that I was used to—it didn’t show a single story told from start to finish, the seed of my forth mortal revelation that there was a non-linear alternative to the birth/life/death story. I remember not being able to determine if it was boring.

But once the movie is recontextualized from a church basement in Princeton, New Jersey and understood at a global level it becomes much more interesting. Reincarnation is, essentially, a global equalizer—it equates all of us by the basis of the value of soul, stripped of the social inequity of body value. Reincarnation is generally anthroposophical, based on the principle that life is for learning, that learning gets us closer to gods/a God and that it takes most of us more than one life to get there. Whether or not one relates to the tenets of reincarnation one can certainly relate to its ideas and apply them to contemporary life and our shared (political, Jungian) histories. An environmentalist would say that each of us leaves a footprint, an ecologist that we each displace energy, a biologist that we are genetically programmed, a sociologist that we are raised by the people around us—in all of these models we inherit and we leave behind.

There was a time when I was 21, just before my grandmother died, that I went to my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving and we both recognized that she had shrunk and I had grown and that her old clothes fit me perfectly. We were in her room and sitting on her twin size bed in front of the closet as she prepared to get rid of things. It’s strange now to think of this memory and realize that there are people in the worlds who are wearing my grandmother’s old clothing who are not my grandmother, that I could walk by her navy jacket with tacky gold buttons or tweed high-waisted pants and not recognize her. My fifth revelation was my entrance into a global understanding of inheritance.

Collective consciousness is essentially a globalization of experience. I think this is important because it holds us accountable for all life experiences occurring in and before our lifetimes. In the case of Weiss’ patient Catherine the trauma sustained in her own life was impossible to resolve and offered no alleviation from her day-to-day trauma. Whether or not her vocalization of past lives is rooted in true experiences of reincarnation the process seemed to have resolved her symptoms—Weiss reports that after a relatively short period of time she was experiencing a much more positive quality of life having overcome her anxieties, fear of death, reoccurring nightmares and depression without the aid of medication. Weiss muses “…Even if these remarkably explicit visualizations were fantasies, and I was unsure of this, what she believed of thought could still underlie her symptoms. After all, I had seen people traumatized by their dreams. Some could not remember whether a childhood trauma actually happened or occurred in a dream, yet the memory of that trauma still haunted their adult lives (42).”

There have been times that my memory has altered the course of the way I tell stories—in fact, many of the stories I tell about family memories are completely different from the ways other members of my family would tell them, simultaneous and different experiences of the same event. My mother denies any memory of me being forced to sleep alone in my uncle’s bedroom when I was 6—my father swears that he would never have considered letting us watch television in church. Nearing the conclusion of his book Weiss writes, “I wondered how many of our childhood “myths” were actually rooted in a dimly remembered past (161).”

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