“and then you had to bring up reincarnation over a couple of beers the other night… and now I’m serving time for mistakes made by another in another lifetime” – Indigo Girls, Galileo

This post is the first in a series of four about past lives.  This first one will be an introduction to Past Life regression and it’s relation to the Spiritual path.  There will be two that are narratives about a particular past-life regression experience of mine.  The other will explore the concept of the nature and reliability of memories in both this life and past lives and how that might impact a past-life regression experience (and, of course, our current lives)

Past life regression and the spiritual path

In other places on the blog I have referred to psychic development or energy work  as auxiliary skills that are helpful, but not necessary to actively walk the spiritual path.[1]  I feel differently about past life regression.  Our souls have much more to work through than can be experienced in one liftetime[2].  The unfortunate truth is that, if you have lived before – which frankly is likely – you are probably carrying some past-life emotional baggage.

I realize that most of us have plenty of emotional baggage from this lifetime, and the most significant pieces of that should be worked through first on the spiritual path.  However, sooner or later, if you are walking the spiritual path (and even if you are not) you are going to bump into some past life influence.  How do you know when this happens?  Past life influence often shows up as a more extreme liking or aversion to people, places, activities, or things than is warranted.  Some influences are remarkably subtle and only reveal themselves after a past-life regression session.  However, often it is something you do notice that prompts desperate people (of which I have been one) to seek out past life regression in hopes of finding some answers.   Like everything else, your particular feelings on the matter (of reincarnation or past lives) will influence how quickly you recognize a potential past life influence and do something about it.

Obviously these feelings can be ignored or treated as unimportant, but if they affect your life in a meaningful and distracting way – is there really any harm in checking for some past life influence?  I have sat for two past-life regression sessions a number of years apart related to two different issues and they initiated some of the most meaningful self-work I have done in this lifetime.  Some troublesome symptoms may disappear immediately, as happened in my case.  If the past life influence is very deeply entrenched, time may be required to process the full value of the session before the individual can begin working towards recovery and acceptance.  Of course, you should make your own choices about whether or not past life regression is a part of your spiritual path journey, but I believe that working through detrimental and inhibiting past life influences in the current life is critical to avoid the continuance  of karmic debt carrying that needs to be resolved in future lives.

Some of the things that have come up in my own regression sessions have been quite extraordinary – I will share the narrative of one of those experiences in this series.  It’s only natural that I would question the ‘reality’ of these memories.  Did I just make this story up?  I do believe it’s possible that the subconscious could invent stories to help us work through personal issues that we may not want to face as-they-are (much like Campbell or Bettelheim would argue that myths and fairytales allow the psyche to work through issues).  I think of the story “Life of Pii” as an example of this[3].  After much rumination, I have come to the conclusion that my past-life experiences have been authentic.  However, it’s important to hold any particular outcome with a Tai-Chi fist (see the post ‘Sink or Swim’ if you don’t know what I’m talking about here) and recognize the possibility that a ‘past-life memory’ may simply be a spontaneously generated subconscious narrative that helps resolve inner conflict.  Regardless, If going into a deeply meditative state allows your subconscious to weave a tale that explains and offers resolution to some deeply embedded issues in your psyche, it still seems like a worthwhile activity to explore.   And if you believe (as I do) that we have lived before and that the regression experience is authentic, delving into your past lives could help resolve internal fears and angers you have been holding onto for centuries.  How amazing and refreshing would that be?


[1] this is in no way to diminish the work of people in these disciplines

[2] If I were going to wildly speculate (meaning – take this with a grain of salt) maybe a long time ago we used to live really long lives in order to experience more within them, but perhaps we moved towards more and shorter lifetimes so that more experience could be obtained.  For example, even in one very long lifetime as, say, a man, important karmic lessons about carrying a child, giving birth, etc cannot be learned.

[3] <spoiler alert> at the end of the story in the epilogue it becomes clear that the bulk of the book is really an allegory for a much more gruesome reality.

I don’t talk a lot about prayer on this blog.  That is not because I don’t pray or I don’t believe in prayer.  Rather, I think prayer is a concept that most people have already developed an attitude or approach to.  Also, I feel that prayer is a very personal activity and I’m not really interested in trying to get between people and their prayers.   Meditation and spiritual path work, in contrast, are ideas that may be newer to many and are areas where I may be able to bring some value by sharing my own experiences.  It could be said that prayer is a type of meditation or that meditation is a type of prayer.  However, prayer and meditation are not the same thing.  There are some fundamental differences between the two, but there is room for both practices in every person’s life.

Prayer is mostly a ‘push’ communication; meaning that with prayer we are putting our intentions out there to God or the Universe or whatever divine source you believe in.  We are asking for what we wish and our heart’s desire through prayer.  Now, I understand that this is not always true – but it is mostly the case.  Those who are familiar with ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ (also known as the ‘Our Father’) can think it through and see what I mean.  After a brief introduction, it is basically a list of wishes / wants.   There is nothing wrong with sending our wishes and wants out into the universe (or up to God, if you prefer), it is an integral part of creating the life that we want[1] and there is definitely a place for it on the spiritual path.  That being said, sometimes our prayers are a reflection of our fears and our attachments.  Looking at the types of things we ask for / wish for can give us some real insight into ourselves and who we are, point in time.  Prayer, also, is mediated by language (this statement will make a little more sense by the end of this post).  Even if we are not asking for things during prayer – maybe we are thanking God for something, for example – typically prayer is about ‘talking’ to God / the Universe / the Divine.

If prayer is about talking, meditation is mostly about listening.  There are many different types of meditation so it is hard to generalize for all. However, meditation is mostly about being with the self; listening to the body, letting the mind quiet, and just being in the moment.  This is not to say that we can’t work through a particular problem or mull something over during a meditation session.  However, the focus of meditation usually is not to ask or to ‘talk,’but rather to open and let your subconscious, your higher self, and / or the universe come to you.  Most powerful realizations about the self come after or outside of a meditation session, when your brain has had time to process what has come.  I realize there is mantra meditation and chanting meditation, etc. and these may seem a lot like ‘talking’ meditations.  However, I think the function of this type of meditation is largely to present a focal point to the mind; hence the reliance on repetitive words or phrases.  Especially when starting a meditation practice, people often need help quieting their minds and giving the mind something to do while setting a meditation practice in place can be very helpful in beginning to train the mind to settle.[2]  Once the mind is quiet the inner world unfolds before you and you merely absorb what you find in that space.

When a person becomes somewhat advanced with their meditation, there is space for meditation and prayer to merge a bit.  During meditation, we are communicating with our higher selves, the universe, etc.  In that communication your heart is sending your deepest wishes through the connection without the intermediary of your mind or language.  However, in this space, it is the wishes of your heart that are being communicated – which may not be the same as what you would typically ‘ask’ for in a prayer session.   I have felt this happen within myself during some meditation sessions, but I am not yet in a place where I am ready to abandon the comfort and assurance of ‘active’ prayer.  I think for many of us (including myself) it is difficult to give up the ‘authority’ of deliberately formulating our communication with the divine source.  Luckily, there is no real need to ‘give up’ authoring our own prayers in order to continue to grow and pursue the spiritual path.

[1] Of course, there are some caveats to this – there are always caveats.  However, that is not the subject of this post and will rather be the subject of an upcoming post.

[2] I certainly have benefitted from this kind of meditation, especially early on when it seemed like my mind would not ‘shut off’

Does the sun do more than light up our lives?

I have sometimes wondered if we (and by that I mean human beings in general) can absorb different types of energy for use.  Typically we think of getting “energy” (and by energy here I mean that feeling that gets us going / keeps us moving) from food.  But is food really our only means of picking up energy?  Some studies have shown that prolonged separation from sunlight has a negative impact on the mood and I wonder if these are pointing at a more fundamental influence that sunlight has on our energy levels.  On a personal note, I remember that when I was meditating multiple times a day in direct sunlight, I had tons of energy even though I was barely eating and I wasn’t losing any weight.    I know there are some groups out there, such as Inedia (see wikipedia for more), who maintain they can live on sunlight and water alone.  Even if it is possible to absorb energy from the sun, I don’t think sunlight is a replacement for food.  The body needs the nutrients we absorb from food to function, and although we get some vitamins from the sun, certainly not enough to sustain a healthy, active lifestyle.  Even plants, which we know get a substantial amount of life energy from the sun, cannot live on sunlight alone and require nutrients from soil or water to thrive.

Why does music make us want to dance?

Returning to the idea of absorbing alternative forms of energy (ie – not just food energy), when I listen to dance music I also feel an ‘energy boost’.  Is this just a perceived increase in energy or are my energy levels really rising?  I have read somewhere that listening to high energy / upbeat music makes the heart speed up and this is what causes the burst of energy.  That makes some sense, however – if this is the case, I would think that I would feel tired after listening to music; the way I do after a hard workout.  Conversely, though, I feel much more energized.  Perhaps my workout just isn’t getting the heartbeat thing right – but let’s look at the flipside of this argument.  How exactly is the music making my heart speed up if I’m not absorbing the energy from it to do so?  Is my body expending food energy to do this?  If that’s the case – listening to music should cause us to lose weight?  Have we ever wondered why music makes us want to dance?  Dancing is a very high energy expenditure for the body.  I don’t want to dance when I’m on the phone, or when a teacher is lecturing at me in class, nor when I sit at my corporate desk at work.  Those types of sound do not trigger the desire to dance.  So why does music do so?  I also believe there are studies out there about music affecting mood – I don’t think the idea of music affecting mood would surprise anyone.  But like sunlight, does this hint to an effect on a more fundamental, energetic level.

How can sunlight and music tangibly affect?  By which I mean, what is the `by which one thing has an effect on something else?  Usually for that to happen there needs to be some connection between the two things by which the change can be effected.   I would argue that, in this case, energy is passing from the one medium (sunlight / music) to the other (us).  And if that is the case – then is it possible that we are actually able to use or expend some of that energy?  I charge my ipod with energy from the wall outlet, the ipod uses that energy to ‘play’ my music, the music and sound waves go directly into my ears – is it impossible for me to be converting those sound waves into expendable energy?  I mean – the energy has to go somewhere right?  Is it just turning to ‘heat’ in my eardrums?

How could we test this hypothesis?

So let’s pretend you agree that the above is fairly logical and interesting.  How could we go about measuring this type of energy in the body?  It seems like you would have to start with finding a way to measure ‘usable’ energy before you can determine whether we can convert other types of energy besides food into a usable form.   I guess one way to experiment with this concept – informally – would be to have a few groups of people who all eat the same exact meals let say for breakfast and lunch (maybe you have them fast for 12 hours before then?  I don’t know how far you’d have to go back… but, this is a thought experiment, not detailed lab instructions) and after lunch then you have one group lay out in the sun for let’s say 30 minutes, another group sit and listen to high energy music for 30 minutes, and the control group can do whatever they want for 30 minutes as long as they’re not expending much energy and aren’t performing the other two activites (read a book? sit quietly? watch tv?) then you have all three groups hop on an exercise machine; treadmill? elliptical? Gazelle freestyle?  I imagine you might be able to tell if there is some differentiation in the energy output of the individuals on these machines over a period of time (high-school science project, anyone?).   Along those lines – it would also be interesting to study the energy output (by effort exerted on machine or maybe endurance) of people who are watching TV while exercising, listening to high energy music while exercising, exercising in direct sunlight (?) or doing none of these supplementary activities and just working out.  One experiment we could all try at home is measuring how long we can sustain the energy to dance without music vs. how long we can sustain the energy to dance with music.  Is there a notable difference?

I don’t mean to suggest that this is only a factor for sunlight and / or music – their could certainly be other sources of energy we might be able to ‘convert’ and use.  Obviously even if there were some studies out there that suggested this was possible there would still be lots of unanswered questions.   For example, does everyone have the ability to do this – or just some people?  Also, I would imagine lower-energy music (like ballads, etc.) requires just as much energy to play on a device for a minute as high-energy music.  However, low energy music does not have the same perceived, positive, ‘energizing’ effect on our mood or energy levels. (So there goes my wall-outlet argument, right?).   I recognize that there would need to be a scientific approach taken to this question in order to determine whether it is possible for humans to absorb and convert / use energy from sources other than food.  However, there is so much we don’t understand about even our own energy levels that I think it is a question worth exploring.

Since the birth of my daughter a couple of years ago, I have struggled with finding a time and place to meditate at home.  A staple daily practice for most of the last seventeen years suddenly became a major challenge to accommodate in our new life and I found myself needing to find new ways and places to fit meditation into my day.

When I first started down the spiritual path, I was pretty unconcerned about sitting out in the open and meditating for all the world to see.  Now that I have been working in the corporate world for almost fifteen years, I’m less inclined to be found cross-legged in the crowded outdoor venue at my work chanting “Ohm.”  It’s not that I’m ashamed of my beliefs or my practice, it’s more that I’m really not interested in being a focal point for curious onlookers or engaging with co-workers in a debate on my worldview.  I’ve done that before at previous workplaces, actually, and it wasn’t very satisfying. (Not to mention that being branded ‘the weird one’ now meant I must be interested in everyone’s alien / ghost / paranormal story.  I literally had one co-worker say to me, “Oh – this is weird, it made me think of you.” Gee, Thanks.)  For the most part, I don’t really care, but work has it’s own challenges; why create unnecessary friction for myself?

I have tried meditating on the train to and from work with some success, but I just don’t enjoy it the way I usually enjoy sitting meditation sessions.  The periodic blaring announcements are sometimes louder than my head-phones and the sudden, screeching halts of the train at stops aren’t super conducive to maintaining a relaxed body and mind.  Meditating at my desk is out of the question as people stop by at all times and passersby are just likely to think I’m sleeping on the job. Downtown Chicago is large and anonymous enough you’d think it would be easy to find someplace to meditate quasi-privately over lunch. And on a case-by-case basis, if the stars are aligned, it’s possible.  I mean, if I can get to the 311 lawn early enough to snag a chair (this, of course, depends on my meeting schedule) or if I can spare the time to walk twenty minutes to a site and back – plus meditation time – then I usually can have a decent meditation session and just quickly eat while I work at my desk in the afternoon. The problem is that it’s impossible to predict how that’s going to work out and it’s not a very sustainable practice.  Being in Chicago, the weather is also a factor – even in the summer, meditating outside is not always possible.  It may sound like I’m being overly picky, and perhaps there is some truth to that, but one of the first lessons when beginning a meditation practice is that you should find a quiet place where you are unlikely to be disturbed and where you can set up a routine.  It’s not that I can’t meditate in any of these places, it’s just not a relaxing way to have my regular meditation sessions; the ones I depend on to maintain sanity in this crazy world. 🙂

So, Finally, I turned my eye back to work and I confess I was a little sad and indignant that this was such a challenge.  Our modern, corporate world is supposed to be somewhat accommodating of all faiths – why can’t we have a “worship” type space set up for any person of faith to use if they feel a need to practice devotion during the day?  I know the Muslims pray multiple times a day – I certainly don’t mind sharing space with them and using off-prayer time for my own meditative reflection.  I don’t even mind simultaneously sharing the space with others provided their worship practice is relatively quiet (as mine is).

Since my current workplace does not have anything like that, I started reserving small, private conference rooms over  lunch and meditating there.  This was the best accommodation I had found so far, except that I felt slightly guilty to be hogging a whole conference room to myself so that I could sit quietly in the dark with my headphones.  In order to resolve this final hindrance, I decided to come out of the closet a little bit.  I’ve been at my current workplace for a few years now and I knew of a few co-workers who also periodically meditate.  None of us are very public about it – but sometimes you can tell by demeanor who is likely to be open to the idea.  I approached a couple of people and asked if they knew anyone else interested – stressing the idea of keeping the group small in the beginning (especially since the conference room I found only seats six comfortably).  I’m delighted to say that we now have a little meditation group that meets daily for thirty minutes over lunch.  Of course, so far the only daily attendee is me – but people are entitled to make their own decisions about how this fits into their lives and work schedule.  I’m lucky enough that right now I can find the time daily to do this – but like all things that is subject to change.

Have you encountered a challenge like this?  I’d love to hear how you handled it…

 “What is the difference between a psychotic or LSD experience and a yogic, or a mystical?  The plunges are all into the same deep inward sea; of that there can be no doubt.  The symbolic figures encountered are in many instances identical…But there is an important difference. The difference –to put it sharply – is equivalent simply to that between a diver who can swim and one who cannot.  The mystic, endowed with native talents for this sort of thing and following, stage by stage, the instruction of a master, enters the waters and finds he can swim; whereas the schizophrenic, unprepared, unguided, and ungifted, has fallen or has intentionally plunged, and is drowning.” – Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By

“There is no such thing as pure experience, raw and undigested.  It is always mixed up with layers of interpretation.  The alleged immediate datum is psychologically mediated.” – Sarvapelli Radakrishnan, Religious Experience and its Affirmations

Navigating the Dark Night of the Soul

My most recent meditation teacher emphasized the light side of spiritual development, referring to the work we did in class as “play.” I appreciate her perspective; if you are currently enthralled with the blissful aspects of meditation and spiritual development, by all means enjoy them!  After all, if the Path were fraught with danger at every turn what is the incentive to pursue it?  However, there is a balance to all things, and spiritual development is by no means exempt.  Powerful forces of both creation and destruction play a vital role in the universe.  When we begin connecting more deeply to our subconscious, our higher self, and the world around us, we find ourselves face-to-face with both of these influences.

Unfortunately, the field of spiritual development lacks much open-minded, scientific study and when the student encounters destructive influences, she must often navigate treacherous and murky waters alone.  For Ron Lafferty, a devout Mormon, a dogmatic belief that God was communicating directly to him ended in the brutal murder of his sister-in-law and niece[1].  The dark rivers of the self, once undammed, can flood, seep, and splatter across all aspects of our lives.  As another example, a Central American church which practiced ecstatic communion with the divine claimed to be possessed by the Holy Spirit.  Joyous celebrations initiated with innocent bliss grew more and more uninhibited.  When an ecclesiastical representative arrived to investigate the claim, he found the parishioners engaging in sexual activity on the altar and burning bibles in the church.  Disgusted, he pronounced the congregation to be, not under the influence of the Holy Spirit, but under the influence of the Devil and condemned the church to closure.  Although absolute moral judgment of the congregation’s actions is subject to debate, beyond doubt, for the ecstatic devotees, things had not gone according to plan.  Somewhere along the way they ran afoul of their ultimate goal and ended up in completely unfamiliar territory.  Reflecting on these examples, perhaps the closest I can come to describing the underlying danger with this work is to point, not to the participant’s actions, but to their steadfast conviction that they were acting on behalf of a higher power. Instead, they were constructing a delusional framework to allow physical outlet for their own subconscious desires.

Of course, the cases referenced above are extreme and high-profile examples of the shadow influence of the self; most students never need fear falling so far into delusion that they would carry out heinous acts of destruction and violence.  Yet, all students wading into their innermost depths have reason to be wary and attentive. Greater and more fearsome beasts lurk in our subconscious than can be found in any zoo.  Anger we thought we let go, desires long kept under tight control, fears we’ve repressed or “talked” ourselves out of, even past life influences our conscious mind is completely unaware of,  are down there waiting to come to light.  All energetic information obtained via connection is translated by the self into usable material.  In the acts of translation and interpretation hides the risk that our own subconscious mind silently adds its own spin, or worse, masquerades as guidance from the divine.

When the Going Gets Tough

Fortunately, we are not completely lacking in tools to help navigate these risks.  The most important first step is to take them seriously.  Recognize that no matter how skeptical you may have been starting out, when you delve into inner work you are likely to experience things beyond your ken.  The most dangerous thing you can do is let your ego or rational mind tell you “I’ve got this under control” or “I can stop myself before this gets too far.”  We are at our most vulnerable when we think we are at our least.

Once you’ve acknowledged the risk and are prepared to take some life-jacket type precautions, start by recognizing what you are connecting to – and what you are not.  When you open the channel of communication; it’s not always easy to discern where input is coming from.  Most inputs are likely to be coming from your own subconscious. There is absolutely no reason to believe you are on a special mission from God to cause harm to others.  Neither God nor the Universe needs help creating harm or misery for individuals or communities if that is warranted. Carefully evaluate both the direct and ripple effects of taking action on guidance received.  Does making this move satisfy your anger, fear, or desire?   If so, this is probably not the right direction.  Reflect on the quality of your meditation at this juncture – has it been held hostage by emotion and indecision about the current test or problem?  If the latter, try to create a space in your life to meditate in a focused, grounded way.  The aim of meditation is to bring about more clarity, not less.  If you are at all emotional about something, it’s not time to take action on it.  Put the problem to the side and allow your meditation to normalize; return to structured, guided meditation if needed.

Another strategy (and it’s best to use multiple strategies) is to use the concept of ‘Data Points.’ Most of us have at least some familiarity with plotting points on a graph and drawing a connecting line.  The key is to avoid putting too much credence in any one data point or incidence of perceived guidance.  Let the data points accumulate and try to understand the larger pattern from them before letting your mind draw a particular conclusion.  Give yourself some time to mull over the signals and signs before taking any dramatic action. Remember that, with relationships, it can take only moments to destroy what took a lifetime to build.  Another helpful metaphor along these same lines is the “Tai Chi fist.”  When I first started Tai Chi, our instructor taught us to form the Tai Chi fist by imagining that we were holding a bird in our hand.  If we held the bird too loosely, it would fly away.  If we clenched our fist, we would crush it.  I often think about this metaphor when I become too attached to a particular outcome for a situation.  Although it may be impossible to completely let go of your hopes for a particular outcome, it can be helpful to remind yourself not to clench your “fist” too tightly around it.

When All Else Fails

When you find yourself really in a rut, it’s time to seek outside counsel – real outside counsel.  Avoid relying on only your tarot cards or your circle of friends for direction as these may be (unintentionally) influenced by your own hopes and desires.  I recommend seeking help from a Past Life Regressionist, a trusted Psychic (ie. as in someone you or your family can vouch for as an ethical individual), or a trusted resource outside your particular mystical tradition (if you belong to one) who understands the spiritual path.  There are mainstream psychologists out there who do past life or Jung-type work – it may be worth seeking out one of those if you feel you need help from someone with professional psychology or psychiatry training.  Outside counsel may be expensive, but it can be worth it when you need a point of view from someone who has no emotional investment in your situation.  I have sought help from Past Life Regressionists and trusted Psychics when in ruts and found their help invaluable in directing me back to my path (the very existence of this blog, in fact, is due to such counsel).  Don’t be afraid to ask specifically about your problem, even though it may be embarrassing – after all that’s why you’re there.  If they don’t have much to say about it – it could be a signal that the problem looms larger in your mind than it does on your spiritual path.

When all else fails, walk away from the path for awhile.  Immerse yourself in activities that keep you anchored in a safe and healthy reality.  Retreat to friends, family, and take a few months off.  Don’t ignore new data points – record them dispassionately in a journal, but return to your work only when you feel ready.  Avoid completely forsaking meditation at this point.  Rather, focus on short, guided meditations specifically grounding, breath, or metta-type meditations.   If you find your meditation or prayer devolving into mental anguish about the situation – stop immediately and do something else.

Actively walking the Spiritual Path is an amazing journey of transformation; a worthy and necessary cause for everyone.  It may seem like the above essay is intended to convince you that the spiritual experience is not ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ but nothing could be further from the truth.  All communication – even that with the self is real.  It will be necessary at times to deal with revelations about yourself that may be deeply disturbing; desires and secret wishes that you may want to project onto others or that you may want to believe are coming from ‘somewhere’ or ‘someone’ else.  Navigating these steps on the path is necessary for progress – but doing so “alone” can be quite a challenge. Understanding the risks, taking them seriously, and developing strategies for dealing with these types of concerns (if they arise), can ensure your journey is as smooth as possible.

[1] Krakauer, Jon Under the Banner of Heaven, Anchor c:2004 / Random House