Some say we've all been on this planet before.
There's an artist in the Netherlands who claims he's the reincarnation of Paul Gauguin. A Jewish housewife in Brooklyn says she used to be the consort of Tehuti, the 20-foot-tall ruler of Atlantis; she wore a breastplate and headpiece made of electrum and traveled between dimensions in a spacecraft. A Chicago nurse believes that thousands of years ago she was King Tutankhamen. If it's all true and the dead return in fresh bodies, then perhaps some lucky three-year-old is the current incarnation of Dean Martin.
A few weeks ago I attended a "Past Life Regression" class at the Discovery Center to find out whether I once lived a life more exciting than the one I'm trapped in. I could have been anyone who died before 1967: Chico Marx, Monty Woolley, Shemp Howard, George Washington Carver, Eleanor Roosevelt. Whoever I was, I wanted to become my predecessor, for just a few moments. Wouldn't it be fun, I thought, to be Eleanor Roosevelt for 15 minutes, as long as they weren't part of her wedding night with Franklin? At the very least I wanted to be transported back to a time when people didn't have call waiting.
Let me set the scene for you. Twenty of us sit on folding chairs in a room with a greasy carpet. Our guide, a clinical hypnotherapist, asks us to contemplate the Three Metaphysical Questions: Is there a God? Is there immortality? Is there a soul? "The same arguments for God can be used for past lives," the tall, curly-haired doctor informs us. "How many people here are believers in past lives?" Most hands shoot up. I lift my arm halfway, the agnostic at the tent revival.
To convince the doubters the doctor gives his own witness. In this life he's a therapist, an MBA, a macrobiotic chef. But one day while walking down the street he felt himself called to enter a jewelry store. Then he felt called to browse a case that contained a wooden ring. He bought the ring, put it on his finger, and discovered an ancient existence.
"In my past life, I remember I was on a wooden ship," the doctor says, holding up his left hand to show us the memento of a life gone by. "I've taken this ring to wood-carvers, and they said it was the kind of wood that can be used on a ship. So I'm a believer, based on experience."
The doctor has since used past-life regression to cure physical ailments. Recently he healed a man with bowel problems. "He had to push his intestine back in. He was facing a colostomy bag." The man's physicians warned him that the doctor was a quack. "But we found out that 90 percent of what he recalled in his past life related to his intestine. Now he's doing much better, and his doctors are saying, 'Maybe that guy's not so bad.'"
The doctor reads a letter by a nurse from Uptown who will also be regressing this evening. Many years ago, while reading a book about the Civil War, she saw a photograph of Major John Pelham, a Confederate artillerist. Her blood "ran absolutely cold" at the resemblance. Like her, Pelham was tall and slender, with gray eyes and brown hair. She was "99 percent sure" she'd been Pelham in a past life.
Pelham was killed when a shell exploded near his head, leaving his soul with medical problems it's carried from body to body. The nurse has suffered migraines, sinusitis, hardness of hearing, and a cowlick on the spot where Pelham was struck. Once in a hypnosis session she felt the fatal explosion, and her headache vanished. But later it returned, leaving her convinced that her ailments originated in more than one of her past vessels. "There's another underlying life," she says, "and King Tut is one of them. I saw his death mask at the Field Museum, and my blood ran absolutely cold."
After the doctor finishes reading her letter the nurse shows us a photo of Pelham. We're awestruck: she's the twin sister of the Confederate officer. The lips, the eyes are exactly the same.
The doctor goes around the room, asking why we want to peel away our current existence and find out what's underneath. A mailman says he feels "chills, goosebumps" whenever he passes a certain tree on his route. "I get a feeling something evil happened there."
A mother tells of her infant son, who has birthmarks corresponding to the entry and exit wounds of a bullet. The doctor quotes Edgar Cayce, the great psychic: "You have inherited most from yourself, not from your family. The family is only a river through which your soul flows."
I begin to wonder if my phobias and neuroses stem from a past life. When I was four I screamed in terror at my first swimming lesson, and I've disliked water ever since. Perhaps a past life ended in a boating accident. Maybe I was Edward Smith, captain of the Titanic. Or Bill Clinton's dad, who drowned in a ditch. People always claim they were someone famous in a past life. "I was Joan of Arc." "I was Scatman Crothers." "I was Judy Garland." The Hindus believe that the reward of a life well lived is promotion to a better existence, and I can't imagine that I'd be a step up for any of the great figures of history. But I'm about to find out.
We light candles. The doctor turns out the lights and puts on some New Age music, a men's chorus chanting ommmm...ommmm... Before we can enter our past lives we have to achieve inner peace, which is tricky. The doctor asks us to imagine our breath descending through our bodies, from our throat to our lungs to our diaphragm back to its source. "Now," he says, "imagine yourself traveling downward in an elevator...into... your...past...life."
In no time at all I begin to experience visions of my past life. I see a ship with many sails...a red cross on one of the topsails...a storm!...a bearded man in a yellow slicker standing behind a ship's wheel, pelted by spindrift. It's a terrifying montage, like the freak-out scene from Vertigo. No! I think. I don't want to know more! I don't want to relive this! The storm disappears...I'm drawn deeper into my past life...deeper...I'm in Spain...there's an olive tree . . . someone calls me "Juan"...then I'm flung forward in time...I've been shipwrecked...in Ireland. Apparently the storm was severe enough to frighten me away from swimming pools for the rest of my lives.
The lights come up, and the doctor asks us to describe what we saw in our past lives. The mailman is the first to speak. "I saw a pepper-colored dog," he says. "I was an Indian freezing to death. I saw the tree."
"Indians, they did a lot of walking," observes the doctor, "and in your career you do a lot of walking."
"I remember, as I froze to death, feeling unprepared," the mailman continues.
"And how are you in this life in planning and preparation?" the doctor asks.
"On a scale of one to ten, a negative four."
A woman sitting next to me saw a wizened elevator operator who warned, "Don't get off on this floor." Instead she got off on another floor, where she heard music and "experienced complete and utter joy. Later on, someone gave me joy. It made me realize my purpose in life: to bring joy to others."
The doctor looks pleased. "Do you believe in angels?" She does. "I think you've just found yourself an angel!" The woman mentions that the elevator operator looked like the old hermit on the tarot card. "Get it, frame it. Put it on your desk."
The nurse found herself back in the Civil War, as Major Pelham. "I got off the elevator all right, and I found myself in the middle of battle, and I thought, 'Oh, no, here we go again.'"
We attempt a second trip to our past lives. The doctor noticed I was "uncomfortable" sitting on my folding chair the first time and encourages me to sit on the floor. Most of my fellow time travelers are stretched out on the carpet, some in stocking feet. I may have been a Latin Catholic in my past life, but in this one I'm an Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and I don't feel like taking off my shoes and lying down in a roomful of strangers. I sit back against the chair, which is even more uncomfortable. The soothing sound of ocean waves sighs from the boom box, yet inner peace eludes me. Scenes from The Godfather run through my head, and I experience a craving for Cheetos. I open my eyes and check out the room: it looks like a scene from Jonestown.
After the class is over students linger, waiting to have their palms read by the doctor. "Have a nice life," says the woman next to me, the one who found the angel.
"Have a lot of nice lives," I reply.
For days I think about how my past life as Juan has influenced my current life. Juan spoke Spanish; I took Spanish in high school, even though my mother wanted me to take French. Juan was shipwrecked in Ireland; the night after the class, I went to the movies with a friend who grew up in Ireland. Juan lived in Spain; my sister's been to Spain. The parallels are uncanny.