by Bruce Wilson
On a previous post, I was asked why I neglect “past lives” in my discussions of primal therapy. The short answer is that I am not convinced that past lives or past life memories are real. If someone were to produce convincing evidence for this, I might change my tune, but the evidence would have to be extremely powerful and incontrovertible.
In scientific terms, the claim for past lives is extraordinary, and as Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I’m not saying I am certain that past lives don’t exist, only that the current evidence doesn’t support the idea. In fact, psychiatrists highly dedicated to the scientific method have produced suggestive evidence to support past life phenomena, but its relevance to psychotherapy is questionable. I explain why below.
Primal therapy arose during the 60s, amid the Eastern religious zeitgeist of California, so it’s not surprising that some therapists tried to blend their reincarnation beliefs with primal therapy. The 60s also saw the emergence of transpersonal psychology, which deals with altered states of consciousness, transcendence, and the spiritual side of human experience. A leading figure in transpersonal psychology is Stanislav Grof, pioneer of LSD therapy and explorer of what he calls “non-ordinary states of consciousness” for therapeutic purposes. Grof’s Holotrophic Breathwork is a deep feeling process that resembles primal therapy, but it goes further to embrace transpersonal states, including past life memories.
In other words, primal therapy lies within the constraints of biology – the theory is in line with scientific materialism which views human experience (mind, psyche, etc.) as a phenomenon (or epiphenomenon) of brain function and nothing more. Transpersonal psychology challenges the materialist worldview and argues for an extended consciousness that goes beyond biology.
Grof has written extensively on this topic and his many books develop the notion that our “ordinary” human consciousness is but a small component of a primordial consciousness that pervades the universe. As William James said, “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”
Some therapists who have trained in Janovian-style primal therapy have adopted this view. The person I’m most familiar with is Graham Farrant, who was a therapist at the Denver Primal Center when I was there in the mid-70s. Farrant developed the notion that people should be encouraged to regress to very early states, down to the embryo and even zygote level. By accessing this “cellular consciousness” he believed that one could actually re-experience conception or even the struggles of the sperm as it tried to penetrate the ovum. (I know of one person who was almost certainly experiencing birth feelings but was persuaded by his therapist that he was having “sperm primals” because of the back-and-forth, fish-like movements that accompanied the feelings.) Beyond cellular consciousness lies the misty realm of transpersonal consciousness where one can experience past lives, Jungian archetypes, or even identify with plant and animal consciousness.
To those with a scientific bent, it’s easy to make fun of this stuff, but some people who’ve done primal therapy swear by it. Perhaps they’ve been influenced by a therapist who’s bought into the views of transpersonal psychology or who has experienced these non-ordinary states themselves, or they’ve read the books of Grof and others. I haven’t met one person who hasn’t been persuaded of these ideas without significant exposure to them. None of them has been subjected to any serious scientific scrutiny that I’m aware of, so it seems that people adopt them on faith or entirely out of their own experiences or the reported experiences of others. Given the almost unlimited capacity for the mind to confabulate, are we to trust that these experiences are real without resorting to objective evidence?
Despite the temptation to ridicule those who believe in past lives, I try to adopt Spinoza’s position. He said, “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” In my view, understanding entails evidence and so far I see no convincing evidence for past lives and definitely no rationale for past life therapy.
Again, the purpose of this blog is to examine primal and other deep feeling therapies from a scientific point of view, not necessarily from a scientific materialist point of view. If people claim that experiencing past lives has permanently resolved their illnesses, which many do, I only ask, “Are those past life memories real? Where’s the hard evidence? Could something else associated with your experience have led to that resolution? Could it have been the placebo effect, perchance?”
Past life therapy relies on hypnosis or altered states of consciousness induced by psychedelics, extreme spiritual practices, or hyperventilation, such as that used in Holotrophic Breathwork. The memories may be vivid, complete with colors, sounds, and remembrance of events, but as yet, no one has produced incontrovertible, objective evidence that the past lives being remembered are real, or if they are real, did the person experiencing them truly have no way of knowing about them through some other means. Ian Stephenson and Jim Tucker have conducted high quality research of children who remember previous lives. Their work cannot be discarded as flaky pseudoscience because their methology is so strong. Indeed, they have produced evidence that seemingly cannot be explained by any other means other than the hypothesis that the children were actually remembering the experiences of people who had died before they were born. They don’t even go so far as to say these children have reincarnated. But the data hangs there, awaiting a convincing explanation that fits our current scientific materialistic worldview. Attempts to explain it away are either unconvincing or ideologically biased.
But past life therapy is something else. People working in this area have abandoned sound scientific methodology and the scientific attitude, which I wrote about here and is described here. In their view, if the person experiencing past life memories says it’s real, then it must be real, especially if symptoms vanish. (The placebo effect can also make symptoms vanish). Those working in regression therapy uncritically embrace a range of new age concepts such as karma, soul, chakras, “subtle energy bodies,” spiritual possession, homeopathy, and of course, quantum consciousness. (Quantum physicist Murray Gell-Mann calls this “quantum flapdoodle” – the stringing together a series of terms and phrases from quantum physics and asserting that they explain something in our daily experience.)
I consider myself an open-minded skeptic, but not so open-minded that my brain falls out. Certainly, the research by Stevenson and Tucker deserves a serious look, but it is far too early to make conclusions about the veracity of past lives. It is certainly far beyond the evidence to suggest that past life memories have a role in psychotherapy. If one has tendencies toward these beliefs, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be considered scientific, and it is certainly not primal therapy.
Primal therapy deserves research with the best scientific methodology we have, and it must be high quality research. Claims for birth and womb memories are astonishing enough without making grand and unjustified leaps to claims of cellular consciousness and past lives to explain the effects of trauma. Perhaps psychology will move in this direction, as Grof predicts in Psychology of the Future, or perhaps it will be explained as the sophisticated imagination of the human mind. Only the evidence will tell.
The Why Past Life Therapy is Not Primal Therapy by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.