Paul, Sherman Oaks, California, Spring 1996
I couldn’t help feeling kind of silly.
I was sitting in a darkened office, about to undergo a hypnotic past-life regression. The hypnotist, an attractive, smiling woman named Janeen Weiss, asked if I was comfortable.
I was an East Coast transplant who’d moved to Southern California nearly a decade earlier to pursue my dream of making movies. But the plan of becoming the next Steven Spielberg had quickly gone belly up—after I was forced to acknowledge a couple Hollywood truths: one, you have to eat; and two, there are far more paying jobs in television.
Since I enjoyed watching documentary-style programs, I didn’t say no when a producer offered me an entry-level position to work on one. My job title was researcher. Right away, I discovered I had a knack for this line of work. I found it fun digging up information, talking to interesting people, and writing about the things I’d learned.
I eventually worked my way up to “Director of Research,” which meant I supervised a small staff of researchers who were tasked with coming up with content for shows. And although I wasn’t technically a producer—my team’s research files were eventually turned over to more senior people—I had little to complain about. I was 33, a former small-town boy who was making a decent living in one of the world’s toughest businesses, and overall, I was grateful.
But even so, the show I was working on at that moment—Put to the Test—was particularly stressful.
Its premise was straightforward. We took people’s claims of paranormal phenomenon and/or abilities and tested them. For instance, if someone said, “I can speak to the dead,” or “I have a ghost in my house,” or “I can locate underground sources of water with my divining rod,” we’d say, “That’s great, that’s wonderful, but if you don’t mind, we’d like you to prove it....”
As you can imagine, it was a difficult show to book. Claimants of the paranormal don’t exactly grow on trees—at least, the relatively sane ones—and most of those we did find (many of whom were already household names) balked at the program’s skeptical nature. Their attitude was, “I’m famous for doing what I do, so why should I have to prove anything to you?”
Of course, they were right. The potential benefit of the national publicity we were offering (on the ABC Network) was more than offset by the potential embarrassment of failing our “test” in such a public forum.
Consequently, many subjects we approached declined to participate. And each pass was like a dagger to my heart, since production was scheduled to begin shortly, and we hadn’t locked in all of our stories.
My boss, the show’s Executive Producer, had even called an emergency meeting to vent his frustration over our lack of progress.
After spending a couple minutes glancing at our “Story Board”—which consisted of dozens of handwritten index cards—the E.P. said, “What about reincarnation?”
Several of the researchers responded, “Yeah, reincarnation, that’s a good one.” But I wasn’t convinced.
As a life-long reader, I’d been exposed to the subject back in high school, after devouring the popular novels Audrey Rose and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud. And although the "romantic notion" of reincarnation interested me on a personal level, I didn’t think it was something that could be actually proven.
One of the reasons I felt this way was because I’d already spent a great deal of time researching the subject. A few years earlier, when I was working on another paranormal show called encounters: the hidden truth, I’d learned of a school of thought that claimed ordinary people could be “hypnotized” to remember their past lives.
From what I understood, this form of hypnotic regression had come about as a by-product of ordinary hypnotic regression—a controversial psychiatric technique used by Freud and others to allow patients to relive their earliest memories. For example, a person could be brought back in time to talk about things he or she had experienced as a child. Therapists apparently found this technique useful in helping their patients remember blocked memories of traumatic events.
The “past-life” part came about when patients—or their hypnotists—went too far, and the regressed subject started talking about things they’d supposedly experienced in a previous lifetime. In the 1950s, a Colorado housewife named Virginia Tighe underwent hypnosis and described the life of a 19th-century Irish woman named Bridey Murphy.
The details Tighe revealed while in trance were investigated, and—in at least a couple of instances—found to have checked out. For instance, the local Belfast grocery stores where “Bridey” claimed to have shopped had once existed, but had been out of business for more than fifty years.
Despite such impressive hits, however, the “Bridey Murphy” case, to my mind, illustrated the main flaw with the idea that reincarnation and/or past-life regression could be tested in any meaningful way. If the information about a supposed “past life” existed for the purpose of validation, how could it be proven the “regressed” person hadn’t been inadvertently exposed to it beforehand…or worse, hadn’t actually researched it up front?
And for the purposes of our TV show, there was another problem to consider: the amount of time required to corroborate a past-life story. As I knew well, Tighe’s amateur hypnotist had spent almost a year investigating “Bridey’s” tale—which was time we certainly didn’t have…since the show had to be delivered in just a few months. (The network had already announced an airdate.)
Given these problems, I thought the subject would be a waste of time to pursue, and summoning up the nerve, I told this to the Executive Producer.
“Nice try,” he said, before ordering me to research the subject.
Going back to my office, I dug through my Rolodex and found the home phone number for Janeen Weiss, a woman whom I’d worked with on a talk-show pilot a couple of years before.
I remembered Janeen had recently sent me a card announcing she’d become a past-life hypnotherapist. At the time I’d thought, hey, novel career change, but who was I to criticize? Janeen had been fun to work with, and she always seemed quite levelheaded. She wasn’t someone I’d consider a “wacko” in the least.
I gave her a call and we talked for almost an hour. Janeen's views on past-life regression were interesting. She said it was frankly amazing the diverse stories people came up with while under hypnosis—especially those with phobias or other unusual obsessions. For example, someone deathly afraid of flying would often talk about dying in a plane crash in a past life. In many of these cases, according to Janeen, simply talking about the experience gave the person insight into their phobia and cured them. And whether these stories were real—or dream-like fabrications of the subconscious mind—was beside the point.
“I tend to take a practical view of the matter,” she said. “Who cares if it's real, as long as it works? And for some strange reason, past-life regression hypnotherapy does work. It really does.”
For the record, Janeen wasn’t in the reincarnation camp. She believed patients' past-life stories were probably mind creations. But one thing she was certain of: anyone could be regressed to his or her “past lives.”
“Even you, Paul,” she said matter-of-factly. Although she shared my belief the subject wasn’t testable per se, she offered me a free session so I could see for myself what hypnotic past-life regression was like. I took her up on it right away. I figured it couldn’t hurt—it would actually be kind of fun—and at least I’d get out of the office for a little while.
However, I knew I wouldn’t be able to devote a lot of time to this “field trip.” I had the sneaking suspicion that—despite the Executive Producer’s opinion—reincarnation via past-life regression wouldn’t prove suitable for Put to the Test, and, in the end, it would still be my job to find produce-able stories for the show.
Thus, when the day of my regression came, I was focused on finding substitute claimants. Given my preoccupation, I was glad that, shortly after arriving at Janeen’s office, she got down to business right away.
She closed the drapes and sat me in an overstuffed armchair. I took out the mini-tape recorder I’d brought—being the perennial Boy Scout, I knew it never hurt to be prepared. Pressing the record button, I placed it on the table next to me, as Janeen took a seat a couple feet away.
She took me through the process. First, she’d hypnotize me with a series of relaxation exercises. Then, when I was fully “under,” the actual regression would begin.
I was disappointed to learn the induction wouldn’t include having me watch a swinging pendulum. Janeen explained this was just a Hollywood cliché and not the most effective way of inducing trance. Her technique required only listening to her voice.
I don’t recall much of the induction. I just remember hearing her flat monotone, which had an almost musical cadence. She was saying things like, “Your arms are getting heavier. Feel how heavy your arms are. See how good it feels to relax,” etc. Naturally, I began to relax.
I remember thinking that, pretty soon, I’d be so relaxed I’d fall asleep and start snoring. But, as comfortable as my body was becoming, my mind remained alert. I was completely aware of where I was…and what I was doing. I didn’t know what being hypnotized was supposed to “feel like,” but I was pretty sure what I was feeling at that moment wasn’t it.
When Janeen started telling me to go back, way back in my mind to a time before I was born, I panicked and spoke up: “But I’m not under yet.”
Janeen paused for a moment. “Yes, you are,” she said. Then, in that same pleasant voice, she asked me to try and lift my arm. I tried my hardest, but it felt as if my hand had been glued to the chair.
“You’re hypnotized, all right,” she said, matter-of-factly. Then she began again, asking my mind to go back to a time when I had lived before. I remember being disappointed she hadn’t tried to ease the passage by regressing me to memories of my own childhood first. But perhaps, I thought, since this was a freebie, I wouldn’t be getting all the bells and whistles.
I realized I should try to focus. How could I expect results if I was wisecracking the entire time? I tried to put distracting thoughts out of my head and concentrate on what she was saying.
But unfortunately, it didn’t help. The only thing that “came to me” was the sound of the wall clock, the whir of my mini-recorder, and the distant rumble of traffic on Ventura Boulevard. To her credit, though, Janeen kept at it for several minutes; however, my mind—hypnotized or not—refused to cooperate.
Finally, she changed her approach. “Sometimes,” she said in that patient voice, “a person has physical marks on their body that connect in some way to a past-life experience. Think about your body,” she said. “Think about any imperfections you have…think about your birthmarks. If you have any scars, think about them.”
“What about the big gut hanging over my belt?” I thought darkly. “Will that work?” I decided not to go there. I had no interest in learning I’d been Henry the 8th in a past life.
Trying to silence the annoying play-by-play in my mind, I began to picture my body. At one point, I started thinking about my right calf. A few years earlier, I’d developed a large wine-colored scar there. When it first appeared, I’d gone to the doctor in alarm. But the doc assured me it wasn’t life threatening. Apparently, a blood vessel in my leg had ruptured, staining the underside of my skin in the process. The doctor told me my varicose veins had caused the rupture. As he well knew, I’d been afflicted by this old lady disease—particularly on the inside of my right calf—since I was a teen.
Figuring this was as good a bodily imperfection as I’d be able to come up with, I began to picture, in my mind’s eye, my wine-stained calf, hidden—as it was—beneath my khaki pants.
Then something weird happened.
Suddenly, I was somewhere else.
I was outside, in terrifically bright sunshine.
I was on the beach—or more accurately—I was running through shallow water just off the beach of what looked like a tropical island. But I wasn’t running along the beach…I was running out to sea.
It was obviously some sort of a bay or harbor—I could see a landmass to my right protruding into the ocean. The water was a brilliant blue, and the sand beneath my feet an unnatural white. Although I sensed I was several yards from shore, the water remained shallow.
Looking around, I saw there were others alongside me; people who—like me—were also running away from the shore. I couldn’t help but notice these people were brown-skinned and wearing minimal “native” clothing. I held up my own arm and looked at it. It was bony and very brown.
“Wow,” I thought, “this is weird!”
I saw the others and I were making for boats that were scrambling to the open ocean. The boats—a type of outrigger canoe—were already partially occupied. I grabbed a hold of one and began to run with it.
At that moment, I became aware that other “natives” in the water were following us. Correct that—were chasing us!
Too late, I turned, and found that one of these natives was bearing down upon me. This unknown person raised a spear, and in a flash, I felt it bury itself on the inside of my right calf. I doubled over in pain, falling down into the knee-deep water. I was dimly aware that the canoe I’d been attempting to push along was continuing out to sea.
I was abandoned—and surrounded by enemies.
Then, just as quickly as it had come, the scene vanished. I was back, sitting in Janeen’s darkened office.
She asked me to describe what I’d seen, but I struggled to find the words. I was struck by how quick—and matter-of-fact—it had all been. Despite the violent act I had just witnessed, I didn’t have a strong emotional attachment to the experience. I had merely watched it, clinically, as if I’d been watching a movie.
Janeen asked if I wanted to return to that particular life to experience more of it. I shook my head. Looking back, it’s possible I hadn’t actually wanted to learn what happened next. Given that my attacker could just as easily have speared me through the heart, it’s possible that wounding—at least temporarily—had been his main objective. What subsequent horrors were inflicted upon this luckless native, I didn’t—and still don’t—want to guess.
For some reason, though, I found myself saying, “No, there’s something else.”
Janeen was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “Okay, apparently your subconscious has something it wants to show you. I want you to relax…just go with it…and allow your mind to show you what it needs for you to see.”
Her words had barely died out when I was somewhere else. Again.
I was in the water, but this time, it was night...