I was hypnotized on a queen size bed at the Hilton New York Grand Central. There, I lay with my back positioned against the headboard. I wore jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers, and my eyes were covered with a sleep mask. My hands were crossed neatly on my lap. Every party of my body felt numb as I slowly and heavily sank deeper into the mattress. Suddenly, memories from my unconscious mind began to paint a scene not from 2017 Manhattan, but instead from 1800s India.
Ann C. Barham and I had just met 30 minutes ago in the lobby. As a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified regression therapist, Barham was tasked with unearthing my past life in hopes of helping me take home life lessons applicable to my current life. I've never been to conventional therapy, and this was my first step toward nursing my mental health.
Barham was warm and intelligent, and within minutes of meeting, I felt comfortable enough to begin our session. I had casually flipped through her book, The Past Life Perspective ($14; amazon.com), so I understood the basic definition of past life regression: to unlock unconscious memories through hypnosis and guided imagery to see how the results can explain underlying problems today. Essentially, I agreed to go back in time.
In the weeks leading up to our session, Barham asked that I come prepared with a burning issue I'd like to address. I arrived with a laundry list. Mainly, I referenced my constant, often burdening anxiety, my father's alcoholism, and a negative obsession with my own body image. We agreed that a distorted self-perception was the most pressing problem to tackle.
I fell into a state of hypnosis easily. Barham's voice was soothing and familiar. Relaxing on the bed, she directed me to focus on my breath, to imagine my idea of bliss (I pictured the beach). Using a series of repetitive countdown techniques, she was able to strip away my conscious fodder and push my unconscious thoughts forward. There I was, lying on the bed at the Hilton, one foot in New York, the other in a place I hadn't yet recognized. Barham asked me to describe my feet, and from there, my journey officially began.
I was a 37-year-old man with a dark, tan complexion and a life in 1800s India. My wavy brown hair fell at my shoulders. My face was narrow, with sharply pronounced cheekbones and a half-grown beard. My brown leather sandals were dusty from years spent walking above sandy terrain.
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I wore a long white tunic with sleeves. In my left hand, I carried a taupe wicker basket with a top handle. It was hot, my thirst quenched, and that man, my former self, began to walk toward the market. It suddenly felt routine. This market illustrated itself beautifully in my mind. It was mid-morning, and children ran beneath a canopy of cloth-covered outdoor hallways, each lined with stands of fresh fruit and vegetables. I felt at peace. Picture a scene out of Aladdin; that's where I was.
How accurate was this depiction of life in 1800s India, I wondered? As Barham writes in her book, whether or not the details of my story are actually true is beside the point. "When I approach the past life memories of a client, I'm looking for the emotional impact of the event," she writes. "What meaning did that past life personally attach to it? What thoughts or decisions arose as a result? How are these events, thoughts, and decisions impacting the client now in his/her current life? What insights can we integrate so the client can move forward more freely?"
I had to find out myself.
Of course, I did question the validity of my own thoughts. Even while unlocking unconscious memories, I was still aware of my surroundings in that hotel room. I still felt anxious, still wondered what Barham thought of me. I second-guessed myself several times. India? I vocalized the name of the country, but later in the session, realized my location felt more akin to Egypt. The small, potential discrepancies in time, place, and age, however, felt irrelevant to my journey.
Luckily, I was able to see my life come full-circle. As a young adult, I watched my younger sister get kidnapped at the market I walked into daily. I felt tremendously guilty but didn't have the courage to run and find her. Explaining this to Barham, she replied with questions that brought forward key character traits. "So actually dealing with conflict or difficulties is not part of your skill set?" she asked. Correct.
Later in that life, I became a governor, confidently signing important legislature into place. I proudly married a woman and had a child with her. I watched as I lost all my wealth, appearing to look happier with less as I aged. My adult daughter and her husband took care of me in my final days. I peacefully passed away, moving on to a higher place with more understanding and a richer sense of self.
It may sound too good to be true, but that's exactly what I envisioned, as Barham guided me through the process, asking a series of questions that only I answered. Then, we connected the dots. Barham directed me to acknowledge the evolution of that lifetime, to recognize my strengths, my weaknesses, and begin to discover what key events from that life potentially shape my current life.
With a sense of relief, I explained all that I learned to Barham. In my past life, I learned to focus more on familial relationships and less on power and wealth. I learned that happiness isn't always what you'd thought it would look like. I learned that being too critical of yourself can be dangerous; comparison to others is harmful. My body and my mind felt the need to remind me that the key to a better life begins with health. I told Barham I craved more water, more fruit, and more vegetables. I told myself to run more often as a form of meditation. I told myself to drink alcohol less often.
In her book, Barham repeatedly addresses the elephant in the room—What if, regardless of how cathartic I felt this was, I made it all up? "In the scheme of things, that isn't particularly important," she writes. "We can treat the past life stories as illustrative metaphors for the issues and influencers in a person's current life. It gives us rich material to work with."
There's a reason why I found myself wearing sandals, living in 1800s India, and walking toward the market.
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I wasn't able to pinpoint the origin of my obsession with body image in my session. But I left with a greater understanding of what to value and how to make tomorrow better. The issues I listed as problematic appeared lighter, less important. I took deep breaths and, truthfully, felt at peace.
After leaving her hotel room, I wanted to reconnect with my family. I wanted to slow down, focus on my breath. I craved vegetables, and tomatoes in particular (I picked them up at the market in India). Outside, on 42nd street, I knew everything was going to be OK. I experienced a sense of calm I hadn't in years. For once, walking underground, pushing past crowds of New Yorkers, and riding the train home felt easy.