Tuesday, 9 September 2008

The Eternal Soul: Past-Life Regression Therapy In Malaysia

This set of related articles appeared in the Sunday Star on 7th September 2008. It looks like more of the same are coming to our shores. More will come to believe!

Sunday September 7, 2008
Looking to the past for healing

An alternative therapy maintains that our memories of previous lives can heal some deep seated problems in our present lives.

WHY do you have such a strong attraction or dislike to someone? Do you have irrational phobias? Dreams that seem too real? Why are you so interested in a particular country? Were you a child prodigy? Do you get strange feelings of deja vu when you go somewhere?

Well, maybe these are traits carried over from a previous life, says Selina Chew, a law graduate turned “past life regression therapist”:

“When you regress deeply back into your past lives under hypnosis, you will gain insight into why you have these kinds of strong feelings, such as phobias. Once you understand that, it is easier to heal.”

Past life regression therapy is, of course, associated with reincarnation, which is the idea/belief that our “souls” have “lived before”; this form of therapy is based on the idea that we can clear some of our psychological baggage by revisiting those past lives.

Western evidence

Before dismissing regression and reincarnation as some New Age “hocus-pocus”, it’s worth considering the numerous cases of people remembering past lives reported in the Western mainstream media.

For instance, there is Captain Robert Snow, a no-nonsense, sceptical police homicide captain in Indianapolis in the United States.

On a Sci-Fi channel show about past lives (youtube.com/watch?v=lB_j-chZvR0), he agreed to try regression “just to show how stupid it was”. While hypnotised, he “saw” himself as an artist painting a hunchbacked woman, how his mother had died of a blood clot, how his wife was barren, and many other details.

As he was disturbed by this, he decided to investigate the matter – like a police officer – and months later, saw the very same painting he had seen during regression in New Orleans, painted by someone called James Beckwith.

He then traced the artist’s personal diary to the National Academy of Design in New York. After reading through it (it took him a year to get through the 17,000 pages), all the details he had “seen” during regression were confirmed, and he became convinced that he was the reincarnation of James Beckwith.

Another amazing case was shown on American TV station ABC’s Primetime Thursday programme on April 15, 2004, about a boy called James Leininger who would play with nothing but toy air planes (youtube.com/watch?v=_EWwzFwUOxA). When he was two, he began having violent nightmares of “air plane crash, fire, little man can’t get out”.

His parents, Andrea and Bruce, said James was only watching shows like Barney and Teletubbies, not war documentaries. Nor did they talk about military history. The highly educated couple thought that the idea of reincarnation was “baloney” and looked for a “logical” explanation.

One day, Andrea bought her son a toy plane and said, “Look there’s a bomb underneath”. To which James correctly responded, “No, that’s a drop tank”. That’s when the parents took James to see past life therapist Carol Bowman, who has written books about children’s past lives.

The nightmares decreased but James started to recall even more details, such as the model of the plane he dreamt about (a Corsair), its technical problems, the name of the “boat” with planes (Natoma) and the name of a fellow pilot (Jack Larson). One day, when the father was looking through a new book about the battle of Iwo Jima (between the Japanese and Americans during World War II), James declared, “Dad, that’s where I was shot down.”

By this time Bruce had begun combing military records and soon discovered there indeed was an aircraft carrier called USS Natoma Bay – whose sole pilot casualty at Iwo Jima was someone called James M. Houston. He managed to track down survivors – including Jack Larson. Another survivor, Ralph Clarbour, was in a plane nearby and corroborated little James’ story of how he crashed: when anti-aircraft fire hit the front propeller.

“It was, like, holy mackerel,” Bruce said on the programme.

Bowman explains that Westerners often reject reincarnation as it’s not part of their Judeo-Christian beliefs. So, asked the programme, do we go with “hard facts” or “religious beliefs”?

For Andrea, she reconciled reincarnation with her Christian faith as evidence of the “eternal life of the human spirit” that God has promised. (The programme’s partial transcript is at http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/Technology/Story?id=894217&page=1.)

Malaysian experiences

Well, believe it or not? These and other reports are highlighted by Chew during her workshops on past life regression (see Backwards to birth on SM6).

Then again, do we Malaysians need validation from the Western (Christian) mindset for what are fundamental Eastern tenets found in Buddhism and Hinduism?

While reincarnation is alien to the Western worldview, a Discovery channel programme (on another amazing reincarnation story, found at youtube.com/watch?v=E_T5vNgusEw) shows that stories about people remembering past lives are quite commonly reported in the newspapers of Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country.

Chew, who has been doing past life regressions in Malaysia for the past four years, has a string of (Western) qualifications in various holistic therapies; she is, among others, a Certified Hypnotherapist (International Association of Counselors and Therapists, US) and a Certified Past Life Regression Therapist (American Hypnosis Association). She also holds a Masters of Metaphysical Science (M.MSc from the University of Metaphysics, US) and a PhD in Holistic Life Coaching (University of Sedona, US) on top of her more conventional qualifications of an MBA (Charles Sturt University, Australia) and a law degree (Universiti Malaya).

She has had many successful cases of people who have “gone back” and “healed” their problems.

For instance, one of her clients, S.K. Ong, a music teacher in her mid 30s, explains:

“My tears would just burst out whenever people talked of separation. Even when my sister got married. I didn’t know if regression would work but I was willing to try.”

Under hypnosis, she “saw” that she had lived in a mountainous country resembling Afghanistan: “I was a teenaged goatherd carrying a pail of milk to the market. Then men on horses with swords came and killed everybody,” she recounts. Ong then “floats” out of her body and “sees” her mother crying next to her dying body.

“I also saw another scene somewhere in Europe, where I was the mother and my child suddenly died. After the funeral, I soon died from great grief.

“After seeing these, I understand much better why I have such feelings about separation. I don’t cry so easily nowadays.”

Another one of Chew’s clients, a Ms Lim, was disturbed after a good friend abandoned her “without reason”.

“When I regressed back to another lifetime, I saw that he wanted to be my boyfriend. But I could not really accept him and just left without saying why. So in this life, he has done it to me,” says this former senior finance manager turned lecturer in her late 30s.

For her, the experience was healing. “It was very good. It helped me to release the negative energy. From now on, I want to handle all relationships very carefully and not hurt anyone. Even if people hurt me, I want to refrain from fighting back with the same ‘weapon’. Otherwise the negative energy will come back to me.”

Mere fantasy?

Then again, are these people really seeing “themselves”? Or are they merely imagining things?
Ong relates, “Even before the soldiers came (to the market in Afghanistan), I could already feel the (emotional) pain. If I was imagining things, I should see the picture first, and then only feel the pain. It was not a show. It was very real.”

The lecturer says, “It’s quite impossible that it’s just imagination. It just popped up spontaneously in my mind. Even though my friend had a different face in the past life, I just knew it was him. It’s the feeling.”

Shanthi, a 37-year-old telebanker, has had vivid recollections of various past lives including as a lady carrying a lace fan in Austria, and a Balinese priest who was stabbed by his own disciple. Was she just fantasising?

“I’d rather be fantasising about Denzel Washington than of those things, for heaven’s sake!” she laughs. “My experiences may sound surreal, but it all just seems to make sense to me.

“I just knew, I guess. I’ve never been to Austria or Bali. But I’ve always been instantly attracted to anything about Bali, like pictures of its architecture. Oddly enough, though, I don’t long to visit Bali. From my regression, I understand why.”

Then again, Dr Phang Cheng Kar, a medical doctor specialising in psychiatry at a Government hospital in Kuala Lumpur (see A Malaysian doctor’s view on SM4), says that some research has shown that a patient’s recollections can be “easily” influenced by the hypnotist-therapist’s suggestions.

“Nearly all such hypnotically evoked ‘previous personalities’ are entirely imaginary ... like most of our dreams,” he says, citing Dr Ian Stevenson (see Experts who believe below).

Furthermore, even the historical details “remembered” are usually derived from what the patient has seen on TV or read elsewhere.

Even dramatic improvements in the patient does not prove that a “real” previous life has been remembered, says Dr Phang, since people can also recover with the help of most psychological therapy generally due to factors such as a belief in a kind therapist or a soothing environment.

But regardless of whether one is “really” seeing a past life or not, the benefits – in this life – are often real enough.

The psychiatrist Dr Brian Weiss, after 21 years of experience in regressing thousands of patients and witnessing “many extraordinary and incredible phenomena” (see Experts who believe below), says that believing in reincarnation is not important in obtaining healing from regression therapy.

“Regardless of whether the material evoked is processed as metaphor or symbol, the knowledge and insights gained can lead to significant physical, emotional, and spiritual transformations,” he says in his book Mirrors of Time: Using Regression for Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Healing..

Pull towards a higher calling

Chew herself has had transformative experiences, she says.

“Ever since I was young, I was always interested in the spiritual side of things.

“When I was five, before taking our daily afternoon nap, I told my mother, ‘Lock the door, thieves are coming’. She slapped my face and said I was talking nonsense. That afternoon itself, thieves broke into our house.

“That incident sparked my interest in intuition, parapsychology, healing and human potential.”

When she was 10, she started searching for spiritual guidance, asking herself about the meaning of life.

“Perhaps this was also due to my birthdate, which revealed that I am strongly inclined towards spirituality and intuition,” she says. “In addition, my grandmother was a bomoh who healed many people. However, she passed on when I was just two years old.”

After getting her law degree, Chew did corporate training in several multinationals while pursuing her MBA.

“However, despite a financially sound future, I still felt something was missing. I read materials on spirituality. My life’s purpose began to unfold slowly after attending a past life regression facilitators’ workshop,” she remembers.

“I saw myself in several lifetimes as a healer and a spiritual person. After going through several regression sessions, I became more confident and had a greater understanding of my life.

“I spent many sessions in meditation asking myself whether I should go against the grain and follow my heart towards a higher calling. As (American author and philosopher) Ralph Waldo Emerson says, ‘Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail’.

“I decided to take a leap of faith and left the corporate world. So here I am now, doing my work and helping people in a special way. It is much more fulfilling and satisfying.”

For more information, go to life-inspirations.com.

Sunday September 7, 2008
Experts who believe

THESE are two well-known experts who believe that people can regress into and “see” their past lives.

Dr Brian Weiss

He is one of the most compelling cases, as he was chairman of the psychiatry department at the prestigious Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami, United States.

“I was an academic psychiatrist, utterly sceptical about what I considered ‘non-scientific areas’. I knew nothing about the concept of reincarnation, and didn’t have the slightest interest in it,” he says in his book, Mirrors of Time: Using Regression for Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Healing (Hay House, ISBN: 978-1561709298).

But his life changed forever when, 20 years back, he had a new patient, Catherine, who was suffering from panic attacks, phobias and nightmares.

A year of conventional psychiatric treatment saw little progress so Dr Weiss decided to try hypnosis, a therapy he’d used successfully before. Catherine was able to easily recall traumatic childhood memories. But when he asked her to go to the “source” of her pain, Dr Weiss was shaken to his core – because Catherine regressed back hundreds of years and started talking about living many “remarkably emotional” previous lives with “an extraordinary wealth of detail”.

“I thought it was imagination or fantasy,” says Dr Weiss. “I didn’t believe in any of this. And neither did she.”

Yet, as Catherine recalled more past lives, her symptoms vanished within a few months, without the use of any drugs.

But Dr Weiss was still stuck in his “left (analytical) brain” and didn’t believe it until Catherine told him she had “met” Dr Weiss’ own father and related intimate family details – like how his daughter shared his father’s Hebrew name, Avram – that nobody could have known.

Even then, fearing for his professional reputation, Dr Weiss waited five years and did more research before “going public”.

“I was clinical professor at the University of Miami. I had ... children ... a big mortgage,” he says. “I could lose all of that. But (Catherine’s experience) was so real and so detailed. You know how you get the feeling in your gut, in your bones? There was no trick to this.”

After treating thousands of patients, he says, “Now, there is no doubt in my mind that past-life regression therapy offers a rapid and effective way of treating physical and emotional symptoms, in addition to offering many other benefits.”

In May, Dr Weiss discussed past life regression on the Oprah show (oprah.about.com/od/oprahshowrecaps/p/pastliferegress.htm). His website is brianweiss.com.

Dr Ian Stevenson

He was a trained medical doctor and psychiatrist (who headed the University of Virginia’s Division of Personality Studies in the United States) who travelled around the world for over four decades to research possible reincarnation cases.

Among some 3,000 cases studies, Dr Stevenson (pic) found several hundred with “strong evidence”, according to the Psychiatric News magazine (December 2004) of the American Psychiatric Association.

For example, back in the 1970s, while under hypnosis, a woman called Delores Jay assumed the personality of a 19th century German named Gretchen Gottlieb who spoke fluent German – although Jay herself had apparently never learnt or even heard the language.

“I think most memories of previous lives recalled under hypnosis are fantasies,” Dr Stevenson said. “But this appears to be an exception because the subject was able to speak a foreign language.”

Then there was a Lebanese boy who spontaneously recalled that he was a man who had died in another village. The boy and his family had purportedly never had contact with the deceased.
Dr Stevenson took the boy to the other village. There, the deceased’s relatives asked the boy where, in his previous life, he had kept his dog. The boy pointed to the right place. What was the deceased’s sister’s name? Where had he lain while dying from tuberculosis? Where did he hide his gun? The boy answered everything correctly.

In interviewing witnesses and reviewing documents, Dr. Stevenson searched for alternate explanations: that the child knew through other means, that the witnesses were engaged in fraud or self-delusion, that there was sheer coincidence or misunderstanding. But in scores of cases, Dr. Stevenson concluded there was no “normal” explanation.

The Psychiatric News article quotes other professors of psychiatry, such as Dr Harold Lief (University of Pennsylvania) and Dr Paul Wender (University of Utah), praising Dr Stevenson’s “meticulous” and “detailed” research findings.

After 40 years of research, 12 books and dozens of scholarly articles, Dr Stevenson concluded that his detailed case studies provided more than ample room for, “a rational person, if he wants, to believe in reincarnation on the basis of evidence”.

Some of Dr Stevenson’s research can be accessed at healthsystem.virginia.edu/personalitystudies.

Sunday September 7, 2008
Back beyond birth

What happens during a past life regression workshop? Our writer braves a group session to find out.

TO start with, the logical mind is primed for past life experiences. Past life regression (PLR) therapist Selina Chew explains to our group that there are several ways in which people can “access” their past lives. It can happen spontaneously through vivid dreams or a sense of deja vu at certain places. Or one can undertake breathing exercises, psychic readings by mediums, intensive meditation, and, finally, hypnosis.

Chew uses hypnosis for her PLR therapy, and reassures us that it’s not about some magician with a handlebar moustache swinging a pendulum.

“That’s just Hollywood hypnosis,” Chew smiles. “Hypnosis is merely an altered state of mind, when we tune out other things.

“It can occur naturally when we daydream, when deeply engrossed in an exciting novel or when driving on (a monotonously straight) highway. Advertising is also a mild form of hypnosis, as branding is imprinted in the subconscious.”

Chew explains that we are using our conscious mind when we think, analyse, and criticise, “whereas the subconscious mind is where emotions and intuition come from”.

Far from being sinister, the American Medical Association has accepted hypnosis as a medical tool since 1958, she says. Nowadays, it is used to help people quit smoking, increase confidence, and to train top athletes.

“Hypnosis is not mind control. All hypnosis is ultimately self-hypnosis, and a therapist only acts as a guide to relax and focus the person,” she emphasises.

Before getting into hypnosis, our motley group – businessmen, salesmen, an engineer, a pilot, a yoga teacher and one sceptical journalist – do warm up exercises to “integrate” our left (analytical) and right (creative) brains.

We are asked to close our eyes and use our senses to visualise three specified items and, later, to draw pictures of those items and describe what we saw, smelt, tasted, touched, heard, and felt.

Next, we are asked to hold a piece of thread with a paper clip suspended from its end.

“Okay, I want you to move it in a left-right direction, without moving your hands. Use only your mind power,” she instructs.

No way, I think, is this some ESP thing? To my amazement, my clip starts moving left and right....

Thus suitably piqued, it’s time to regress – to our childhoods. We sit or lay down on the floor, lights are dimmed, and we are asked to imagine a pleasant early childhood experience. Easy enough. Then comes the crunch. With a soothing voice, we are asked to imagine descending a long flight of stairs and then opening the “door of our birth” and going beyond that into our previous lives.

When it’s time to get “back” and share our experiences, I can only say I had some blurry, dreamy sort of images. Then again, Chew had warned us beforehand that people who are “too analytical” would find it hard to “let go”. Okay, so that’s a problem right there for this journalist.

Two or three other people say they had seen more vivid images but they lacked that “I know it!” feeling that it really was their past selves. A woman who had earlier said she has momentous dreams (including of winning 4-Digit lottery numbers!) believes that she “glimpsed” herself getting killed. The yoga teacher “saw” her past life as a sumo wrestler with a demanding ring manager – who is her boss in her current life!

Chew clarifies that it’s more difficult to “see” past lives in a group session and recommends one-to-one therapy, where she can give more personalised guidance.

I may just try it one day.

Sunday September 7, 2008
A Malaysian doctor’s view

DR Phang Cheng Kar, a medical doctor specialising in psychiatry at a local Government hospital, says there is, “little scientific evidence” to support past life regression (PLR) therapy.

“There are plenty of personal opinions and case reports, but these are not considered strong scientific evidence,” he says, adding that many of the so-called memories of past lives are akin to fantasy-like dreams.

“False Memory Syndrome is a recognised phenomenon. And it may give rise to more conflicts, for example, what if you remember that your current spouse betrayed you or killed you in a previous life? Some people can’t take it and may end up more distressed,” he points out.

So far, he has only come across very few scientific studies on the outcome of PLR therapy, and for him, that’s not good enough.

“In talks, workshops, and books, of course only people who have benefited will be highlighted. I have seen some with no change or who became worse.”

Dr Phang is careful to distinguish between PLR therapy, which involves an “altered state of mind” (usually hypnosis) and spontaneous “past life experiences” (PLE), especially of children, which occur in “a relatively normal state of mind”.

He says that studies on children’s PLEs so far offer “the best scientific evidence” to support the idea of reincarnation and rebirth, whereas the PLEs of adults are relatively questionable because “memory can be easily conditioned, as shown in many scientific studies”.

Venerable Kumara, a Malaysian Buddhist monk at the Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary in Taiping, Perak, has discussed these issues with Dr Phang before and responds, “Is love evidence-based? Is it safe to love? Should we relate to others with more evidence-based methods first?”

Dr Phang is also concerned that some PLR therapists are not properly trained as mental health professionals, and may not be able to pick up neuro-psychiatric disorders that may mimic PLE. For example, temporal lobe epilepsy can cause feelings of deja vu.

However, he concedes that such misdiagnosis would be less likely with figures such as the psychiatrist Dr Brian Weiss (mentioned in Experts who believe, opposite).

While admitting that PLR therapy is gaining popularity in Malaysia lately, especially in local Buddhist circles, Dr Phang cautions that some people with psychological problems may “compulsively dwell on past life issues instead of working on the current life problem, which is the actual ‘diagnosis’.”

Dr Phang says that, as a mental health professional, he would give his patients other “better scientifically proven” options. Nevertheless, he does not want to discourage people from seeking PLR therapy, and admits that it “may be helpful for certain people”.

“It’s up to my patients to decide,” he says. “But we should not be deluded that PLR is a miraculous cure for all of life’s difficulties.

“A balanced perspective is important to avoid abuse of PLR therapy and to allow it to be scientifically studied for potential benefits.

“I’m still reading about and experimenting with it with an open-mind.”

Dr Phang Cheng Kar’s blog on past life experiences, positive psychology, Buddhism, and happiness is at pckar.blogspot.com. He, Venerable Kumara, and Selina Chew will be speaking at the Closer-to-Reality Buddhist Conference about ‘Understanding Death and Beyond’. The conference will be held on Dec 27-29 in Kuala Lumpur. For details, go to c2rc.org.


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