What is a Past Life

by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.

I remember a former nun who came to me in southern California for a past life session back in the 1980's. We sat talking at first, getting to know one another, and she told me about an experience she had had just before leaving Los Angeles to drive up to my place.

"I invited a priest-friend of mine over for breakfast this morning," she said. "He was making himself a cup of coffee and I said, 'Guess what I'm doing today.'"

"'I have no idea,' he said, and he poured boiling water into his cup of instant coffee."

"I'm driving up to Oxnard to be regressed to a past life. Do you believe in past lives, Father Jim?"

"'No,' he said, calmly stirring his coffee. 'But then,' he added, looking me straight in the eye, 'I didn't believe in them my last lifetime either.'"

A past life is simply a life you lived before your current life. You lived it in a different body, often a different gender, a different race, with different parents and friends, different dreams and beliefs, different priorities, different skills, different loves, hates, and fears. Were you to meet that earlier "you," you might not recognize yourself. Nevertheless, some of the physical and psychological makeup of that earlier "you" remains subconsciously influencing you today, for good or ill, just as you will influence your future lives.

Some people can tune into their own past lives unaided. They might experience them in dreams, meditation, or through travels that suddenly stimulate past life memories. If you have never had such experiences and do not know someone who can act as a facilitator in unearthing past lives, you can still find many hints about your earlier lives through things that fascinate you. A love for certain kinds of ethnic music, for example, is a strong indicator of the peoples you once lived among. Your taste in clothing and jewelry is another indicator. A love of silks might suggest lives of wealth in China or India. A preference for simple styles and fabrics could indicate that you have lived happy lives close to the earth. If you often dress in severe, unattractive, dark clothing, a past life as a nun or monk might be guiding such choices because of the safety and protection they once provided. Flamboyant clothing, bright colors, gypsy flair, tinkling jewelry, all point to more dramatic lives, enriching society through the arts but often lived on the fringes. The possibilities are endless.

If you have unexplained fears without a current life basis, these fears are another source for tuning into past lives. Fear of drowning, burning, starving, or being buried alive are among the most common fears but there are many others. Wounds can be indicators too: if you died of a specific wound in an earlier life, your current body might be marked by illness or an increased sensitivity at the site of that earlier death-wound.

All such experiences from a past life, whether positive or negative, have the potential to influence a current life. Tuning into the root cause in a past life might not disconnect the influence -- sometimes it is too deeply embedded in body and psyche for that. But at least it may help you to understand where it comes from and this, in turn, may gradually soften any discomfort.

Why Would We Live More Than One Life?

It is said that we need all these varied experiences and roles to be whole. Another way to approach this is to say that we only live one life, but in many different bodies and circumstances. We might say that we are like a kaleidoscope filled with thousands of different pieces of colored glass, all coming together to create an endless array of beautiful patterns. Or we could compare our past lives to beads on a necklace; each bead is handmade, unique in its own right, but also part of a larger whole.

According to the theory of reincarnation, we live many lives in order to accumulate wisdom and compassion in multiple layers of experience. Answering the needs of others as well as honoring our own, for example, takes many lifetimes of trial and error. In some of those lifetimes, you might be a healer, a nun, a loving parent, or a spiritual leader, learning to put the needs of others before your own. But sometimes you learn to do that so well that you become totally one-sided, so self-sacrificing that you completely neglect your own needs, feeling selfish even if you think about them.

The soul cannot tolerate such one-sidedness for long and eventually you will find yourself in lives where you might be consumed by the arts, driven to put the expression of your own creative soul above more practical considerations. Or you might find yourself born as a disabled child, forced to be vulnerable and to let others care for you, as you once cared for them. Finding a balance between living out of one's egotistical drives and expressing one's genuine soul-yearnings is a delicate and often excruciating process. If you have been self-effacing for too many lives, you may no longer be able to tell the difference between being selfish or not. Then you may need to deliberately do what feels like being "selfish" in order to re-set the inner balance-wheel.

Another difficult area involves courage, for there are many kinds of courage. In one life, you might be a warrior learning about courage in battle. In another life, you might be a farmer's wife, equally learning about courage in the face of unpredictable weather, poor crops, an exhausted husband, and sickly children. In yet another life you might learn about courage by fighting political corruption and oppression. A child knows courage, so does a homeless person, a refugee, a terminally ill person. If we are not to get stuck in a one-sided "hero" definition of courage, we have to understand all its many and complex dimensions, not by reading books about it, but by living it.

Learning to love, to be compassionate, to genuinely desire that all beings, all life forms, be shown kindness -- this take countless lifetimes -- and yet mastering these energies are the most important of all, for they are what makes us truly human. As Gandhi wrote about love:

If for mastering the physical sciences you have to devote a whole lifetime, how many lifetimes may be needed for mastering the greatest spiritual force that mankind has ever known?

Getting Stuck in Archetypal Roles

We rarely know that archetypes exist unless something happens to activate one. Even then, most people do not understand what has been activated or what it means. An "archetype" can perhaps best be understood as an energy-field within the psyche. It is a "field" with no content -- in other words, it comes without any images or emotions. It is a very powerful energy-pattern, however, and if a specific image or emotion enters its range and adequately matches its abstract structure, the archetypal field will grab onto that content and "fix" it into place as an expression of that archetype.

Sometimes this process is culturally specific -- in India, for example, Kali might represent the Divine Mother archetype, while in the West the Virgin Mary might embody that same role. But archetypal and karmic patterns are often intricately interwoven, which means that some of the archetypes in an individual psyche may carry an intense karmic "charge." Thus the Divine Mother archetype for some individuals might be embodied by a living woman known to them from earlier lives -- a spiritual teacher, perhaps, or a loving relative.

There are countless archetypes within the psyche. Greek and Roman deities are the most familiar representations of them in the West. This does not mean that these deities are archetypes in and of themselves. It only means that they carry a power or energy that allows them to function as "content" to otherwise contentless archetypes. The Roman war god Mars, in other words, is not an archetype, but he represents what the warrior archetype is all about. Unfortunately, for several thousand years, this archetype has been attracting highly addictive contents. Once this archetype is activated within the psyche, the warrior's path may exert such an intense fascination that everything else pales around it. We no longer worship Mars, of course, but the reincarnations of many of Rome's finest are with us still and any sufficiently charismatic general might easily carry an archetypal "charge" strong enough to persuade his troops to follow him even into the most hopeless of battles. Such warriors die, tend to be swiftly re-born, and fifteen to twenty years later they are likely to be serving as warriors all over again -- unless circumstances allow for the intervention of a more benign archetype.

Venus also is not an archetype but she shows us what the Lover archetype is all about -- if a Venus-like beautiful woman activates this archetype within us, we may experience the heights of bliss but also the depths of folly. Her relationship with Mars creates special psychological difficulties.

Hera and Zeus are not archetypes either but we can understand the Royal Leadership archetype by studying how they use and abuse power; if something activates this archetype within our psyches, we may find ourselves playing out their mistakes before we realize what is happening.

The Greek myth of Persephone models for us the anguish of the Raped Maiden archetype just as her mother Demeter reveals the depths of the Sorrowing Mother archetype. Many women who have experienced firsthand either or both of these realms find profound consolation in the stories surrounding these two goddesses, for they offer a way through horror to the promise of a mysterious healing source within the psyche.

The twenty-two cards of the Tarot's Greater Arcana are another source that provides examples of what goes on behind the scenes in the underlying archetypes we recognize in the images of the Magician, the High Priestess, the Emperor, the Empress, the Hermit, Death, the Devil, the Hierophant, the Lovers, and so forth. Like all contentless archetypes, they are value-neutral: they can nurture us and give us great gifts of wisdom and insight, but if we identify too strongly with any of them, we can also wind up being possessed. Honoring one to the exclusion of the others is unwise.

Similarly, a careless dishonoring of any of them is unwise. The patterns each of them represents are hard-wired into our psyches and can no more be dislodged than our blood vessels or neural nets.

As mentioned in the above section, "one-sidedness" is the clearest sign that one has been gripped by an archetypal energy, or role, with which one was probably over-identified in the past. We all know insecure comedians who are always "on"; cloyingly charming Southern Belles; smug fundamentalists who are unrelentingly "right"; and males who are defined solely by their arrogant machismo. These people are so one-sided that they seem like caricatures. They are so caught up in a single role that it is difficult to relate to them on a human level.

Here are a few other examples of what getting caught in archetypal energy might look like...

A male who refuses to mature is called a Peter Pan, or puer (an Eternal Boy). Part of this refusal to mature is cultural, for the West worships youth, but when such a trait manifests in an individual male, it could come from a life in which he died young and never had a chance to grow up. In later lives, he might cut off his psychological maturation at that same point. This becomes his way of holding onto a life he never got to live. Unfortunately, the aging Peter Pan (or what I call a "wrinkled puer"), does not get to live either -- his life becomes a stale mockery of youth.

Imperious types, whether male or female, express the Emperor/Empress role, which could stem either from wishful thinking or from an actual royal life that needs to be released in order for them to more gracefully rejoin the human race. These are the people who say, "You're either with me or against me." They expect their relatives and other minions always to agree with them, praise them, and flutter around them. They become quite unpleasant, even dangerous, when this does not happen. The "charge" of the archetypal energy they carry is often quite capable of constellating a disaster or crisis designed to keep them in power. Along the way, they often retreat into psychological "bubbles" and disown disobedient family and friends.

The "saintly" archetypes such as teacher, healer, and priest-minister-rabbi-guru are notoriously easy to get caught in. These can be beautiful, nurturing, and necessary roles, but if we get so trapped in them that we have no life of our own -- and our mates (like C.G. Jung's wife) are forced to manifest our own unexplored shadow sides by becoming increasingly bitter and bitchy -- then we need to look at those earlier lifetimes where we first got trapped, and, again, as with Emperor/Empress, find ways to rejoin the human race.

If thinking of archetypes as force fields seems too abstract, another analogy would be to think of the psyche, first, as a vast, interdimensional ocean mysteriously held within the "leather bag" of the brain (actually, psyche isn't limited to the brain -- it's throughout the body, but it's simpler to think of it as living in the brain). Within that ocean are archetypes -- think of them as a patterned potential for "riptides." That potential may only rarely be activated.

Let's use the example of a riptide for the Hermit archetype. This is a very valuable and healing archetype but it isn't currently functioning in as widespread a manner as the Warrior or Lover archetypes. If you read the luminous writings of Thoreau or the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, you may be deeply impressed with the value of living in a solitary hermitage and communing with nature or a chosen deity. This may lead you to respect the Hermit archetype but it doesn't necessarily mean it will be activated in your own life.

The riptide potential of this archetype will only be activated if the archetype is interwoven with your own karmic patterns. This might involve a deep longing for such a life born in a past life. More likely, it will emerge from your actual experiences lived as a hermit in earlier lives. Then, it is as if a riptide reaches out of nowhere, capturing the emotions, memories, and images, and gripping you so strongly that you leave everything behind and go off to live in the wilderness. Being gripped by an archetype can be exhilarating and blissful. One can be a hermit and reach immense psychological depth and maturity. In this case, the karmic activation of that riptide was your destiny and highest good.

But this can be very tricky. If you, in your earlier hermit lives, already fully experienced the demands, challenges, and rewards of that life, then to return to being a hermit would be at best, nostalgia, and at worst, an escape. If the choice is not born from a genuine desire for growth, the archetypal energies become destructive. You then lose your footing, your sense of humor, and your psychological flexibility. Although you may hide this from others, even from yourself, you will become increasingly rigid, cold, and misanthropic.

Bottom line: any time we are caught up in an outgrown archetype, no matter how compassionate and caring it might seem on the surface, it makes us one-sided and our lives become obsessive. When this happens, the root of the problem probably lies in an earlier lifetime where we identified too strongly with the archetypal energy of a given role.

In such circumstances, exploring our own past lives, not only to find the obsessive root, but also to explore the wide range of alternate roles belonging to our own karmic palette, is highly recommended. Other options include reaching out to alternate archetypal energies and "wooing" them by taking up new interests and widening our circle of friends to include those who have already mastered "roles" we need for our own completion.

For psychic health, one needs to dance with, or at least be on speaking terms with, a wide variety of archetypes. To overly identify with one is a clue that one is stuck and unable to grow except in that one direction, until ultimately one topples over. Just as the human heart rate is healthiest when it is flexible and variable (it is locked into a rigid, steady beat only when death nears), so too the body and psyche need to embrace many flexible, variable roles.

Why Bother to Explore Past Lives?

If we have had past lives, we have also obviously had past deaths. This fact is a major reason why people are interested in exploring their past lives -- it places the inevitability of death in a much larger context and makes it far less fearsome. It also gives us the hope that when those we love die -- whether a family member, a close friend, or a beloved pet -- we will meet them again and once more share the joys and sorrows of life. We will continue growing together, laughing, being kind to one another, fighting, making up – exploring all the nuances of possible relationships.

People may also wish to explore past lives to re-discover skills they once had, for these can often be reactivated and become a new line of work, or a cherished hobby. Looking into the past for root causes of illness or unexplained fears is another important reason for past life work.

Next to reducing the terror of death, however, the most frequent reason people desire to explore past lives is to understand relationships better. Close, loving relationships never happen by accident -- they emerge out of centuries of experience with that other soul. The same can be said of difficult, painful relationships -- these too always have a long history. Knowing that history can help us to better understand the deeper issues, allowing either for a long overdue truce or for a permanent "divorce" if the relationship is too toxic to be salvaged, at least in this current lifetime. Knowing the history of the animosity gives us the clarity and distance to see the wisest course of action. That deeper context allows our choices to come from wisdom, not anger or despair.

Perhaps the greatest benefit to be derived from exploring past lives comes from a growing sense of serenity and trust in the process. There is often great pain and confusion in our lives and we may often feel our lives are meaningless. But when one explores the complex and often wondrous patterns in the past, things begin to fall into place and one slowly understands that a larger mystery is unfolding. As British playwright Christopher Fry wrote in his The Dark is Light Enough:

There is an angle of experience where the dark is distilled into light:
either here or hereafter, in or out of time:
where our tragic fate finds itself with perfect pitch,
and goes straight to the key which creation was composed in....
Groaning as we may be, we move in the figure of a dance,
and so moving, we trace the outline of the mystery.

Perspectives on Exploring Past Lives

also by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.

There are many ways to begin an essay on reincarnation. I could write about ancient burials in Siberia, where, as Joseph Campbell documents, the body was colored with red ochre as a sign of life's blood and then buried in a fetal posture, facing east -- an indication of a belief that the dead would live again like the sun, rising again in the east. I could also write about the males of Aboriginal tribes in Australia who sing the spirit of an ancestor back into a woman's womb. Or I could mention that the ancient Celts accepted reincarnation as such a normal part of life that loans were made based upon repayment in a later embodiment. Such beliefs in rebirth are common, and the majority of earth's non-monotheistic peoples take them seriously. Gandhi, for example, wrote eloquently:

If for mastering the physical sciences you have to devote a whole lifetime, how many lifetimes may be needed for mastering the greatest spiritual force that mankind has ever known? 1

India, of course, is well known for accepting reincarnation. The very word karma, which could be loosely translated, "as you sow, so you shall reap," comes from India. What is less known is that the concept of reincarnation was also openly embraced by one of the framers of the American Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). When he was twenty-two, he wrote his own epitaph. It was never used on his gravestone but it reflects a viewpoint he held the rest of his life:

The Body of B. Franklin,
Like the Cover of an Old Book,
Its Contents Torn Out
Stripped of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies Here
Food for Worms,
But the Work shall not be Lost,
For it Will as He Believed
Appear Once More
In a New and more Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author. 2

When Franklin was eighty, he wrote a friend, "I look upon death to be as necessary to the constitution as sleep. We shall rise refreshed in the morning." Between Gandhi and Franklin lie vast numbers of Western philosophers, poets, authors, artists, and thinkers from all walks of life who have shared these beliefs.

People who are in touch with their own creativity are especially likely to resonate with concepts of reincarnation because their very creativity is a mystery of unknown origins. Thus, seeking those origins in one's own memories of earlier lives has its own logic. Pythagoras advised souls returning to rebirth to beseech the Goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne, to let them keep their memories by allowing them to drink of her spring waters. Mnemosyne is the mother of the Muses -- in other words, she, as the Goddess of Memory, is the font of all art. She can give us knowledge of beginnings, origins, and earlier times because she remembers all the winding, interconnecting stories.

According to Plato, when we die, we drink of the waters of the river Lethe, which washes away our memories of the life just lived. "The dead," Mircea Eliade writes, "are those who have lost their memories." 3 But in another sense, the dead are in the midst of experiencing celestial realms and garnering even more memories. When they return to life, they first leave the underworld by way of the left-hand road that goes to the spring of Lethe and, "gorged with forgetfulness and vice," according to Plato, they drink the waters and their celestial memories are lost. So the living are also those who have lost their memories.

Pythagoras advised his followers not to take the left-hand road to Lethe, but to go to the right instead, and find the road leading to "the spring that comes from the lake of Mnemosyne. 'Quickly give me the fresh water that flows from the lake of Memory,' the soul is told to ask the guardians of the spring." 4 That soul, its memories intact, is then reborn as a great master.

The Buddha is said to have argued that "Gods fall from Heaven when their 'memory fails and they are of confused memory'."5 Gods who don't forget remain eternal and unchanging. From this perspective, to forget is to fall from heaven, which gives an interesting nuance to the myth of Lucifer in the West -- and to the "Lucifer" within us. Some people say, "the devil made me do it." From this Fall-equals-loss-of-memory perspective, that's exactly right. The loss of memory, the loss of awareness of other choices and repercussions, pushes us into repeating similar mistakes over and over. We fall.

Eliade comments:

...Knowledge of one's own former lives -- that is, of one's personal history --
bestows...a soteriological knowledge and mastery over one's destiny....
That is why 'absolute memory' -- such as the Buddha's, for example --
is equivalent to omniscience.... 6

That's a very male way of looking at it, of course, in terms of mastering one's destiny, getting untangled from karmic burdens, and returning to the celestial heavens. That may indeed be what it's about for many, but I'm not sure that's all there is to it. Having a body is a precious gift, one to be valued and lived in tenderly, anointing it, allowing quiet joy to be flowing in cell-deep pools, filled with their own memories. The body is a companion, not a servant, and, in my view, each body we inhabit leaves an indelible imprint upon the soul. How could it be otherwise, when both are so interconnected, when matter itself is understood as a different vibration of spirit?

So in exploring past lives, we go into the Place of Memory, to her lake, her springs, her fountain, and drink of those waters and ask for gift of being able to remember.

Over thirty years ago, my personal experience in a past life regression session facilitated by the late Marcia Moore convinced me of the value of exploring what seemed to be memories from ancient times. I began facilitating past life work shortly thereafter, and have continued to do it all these years, because I believe that by healing one's personal past we contribute to a wiser, saner present. British playwright Christopher Fry wrote in his The Dark is Light Enough:

There is an angle of experience where the dark is distilled into light:
either here or hereafter, in or out of time:
where our tragic fate finds itself with perfect pitch,
and goes straight to the key which creation was composed in....
Groaning as we may be, we move in the figure of a dance,
and so moving, we trace the outline of the mystery.

Exploring past lives is a way of tracing "the outline of the mystery." It can be seen as a ritual of time-travel, a journey into imaginal space, or a journey into the personal unconscious. It is through such underworld experiences that we explore what Christine Downing calls "the times of real soul-making." 7 The work can be called past life regression, story therapy, far-memory exploration, active imagination, or guided meditation. The exploration can be viewed as a literal exploration of an earlier lifetime, but it can also be interpreted in terms of metaphor, an "as if" adventure, a theatre-of-the-mind, a tapping into Jung's "collective unconscious." Jean Houston calls such a process, simply, an "intellectual focusing technique." Regardless, it's a way of letting yourself be drawn back into an ancient life or "story" that is especially rich in personal relevance for you.

No matter what we call it, the memories are there and most people can access them in light trance states with full conscious awareness of the process. Belief is not important, nor is one's personal philosophy. Despite one's intellectual belief system, we hold within us many worlds, many ages -- some tranquil, others full of drama and passion. Whether we call it soul-work or nonsense, the memories and emotions are there, influencing us not far below the surface. We feel them like a fleeting joy -- or like the pain of a phantom limb. In a sense, it's like childbirth muscles: all women have them but they're rarely used more than three or four times in an entire lifetime, and sometimes they're not used at all. Yet they're still there.

So it is with the "muscles" of these memories, these stories. If one chooses to explore them, it's important to set aside any bias in order to do "fieldwork" within one's own mind. Specialists educated in specific disciplines are often the easiest to regress, for they are trained to bracket-out preconceptions in order to simply deal with a phenomenon as it presents itself. But everyone has the natural ability to access these "muscles." All one has to do is to stay open and see what emerges. If the experience gives a new perspective to one's existence, or if it activates a renewed sense of wonder, or solves long-standing problems or questions by re-casting their context, the process will have been worthwhile.

This does not mean that everyone should rush out and find a past life facilitator. There are many other ways of accessing the material -- dreams, active imagination, creative work, journaling, dialoguing aloud with oneself ---- and, the most common and miraculous way of all: falling in love. As Tagore writes on the persistence of love from past lives:

"I think I shall stop startled if ever we meet after our next birth, walking in the light of a far-away world. I shall know those dark eyes then as morning stars, and yet feel that they have belonged to some unremembered evening sky of a former life. I shall know that the magic of your face is not all its own, but has stolen the passionate light that was in my eyes at some immemorial meeting, and then gathered from my love a mystery that has now forgotten its origin. Love then can be a guide to past lives. And dreams, fantasies, musings, and strong likes and dislikes for foods, clothes, furniture, art, colors. All these ingredients offer hints of where we have been before, with whom, and in what context. It may be that we do not live many earlier lives, but rather that we live only one, always the same, but lived in different costumes and played out on many different stages, with many of the same supporting actors, over and over and again over, as we garner new insights and greater compassion each time."

Much more could be said, for the subject is complex and fascinating, but since I only wish to touch on a few perspectives concerning past lives, this must suffice. For those who wish to pursue the matter further, I offer a selected bibliography below.

1 Head & Cranston [see bibliography]:412.
2 Head & Cranston: 258.
3 Eliade, Mircea. Myth & Reality: 121.
4 Ibid.: 122.
5 Ibid.:116.
6 Ibid.:90.
7 Downing, Christine. Gods in Our Midst. New York: Crossroad, 1993:48.

Note: there are a huge number of books on these topics and I have certainly not read them all. Of those I have (mostly from the days of my initial involvement in the field), these are among my favorites. Many are classics and still in print.
[Added 8 February 2004]: This is a fine review of a scholarly book that looks quite intriguing -- Gananath Obeyesekere's Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society Series, vol. 14. Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2002.)
Here is the review: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=4601070867937
Cerminara, Gina. Many Mansions. New American Library/Signet, 1950.
Cranston, Sylvia, and Carey Williams. Reincarnation: A New Horizon in Science, Religion, & Society. Crown, 1984.
Head, Joseph, and S. L. Cranston, eds. Reincarnation in World Thought. Julian Press, 1967.
Lucas, Winafred Blake, Ph.D. Regression Therapy: A Handbook for Professionals (in 2 volumes). Deep Forest Press, 1993.
MacGregor, Geddes, Ph.D. Reincarnation in Christianity. Quest Books, 1978.
Moody, Raymond A., Jr., M.D. Life After Life. Bantam, 1976.
Moore, Marcia. Hypersentience. Crown, 1976. [Note: Marcia Moore was my guide and teacher in the very beginning of my past life experiences.]
Stearn, Jess. The Search for a Soul: Taylor Caldwell's Psychic Lives. Fawcett Crest, 1974.
For Children (but I also love this one too):
Gerstein, Mordicai. The Mountains of Tibet. HarperCollins / Harper Trophy, 1989.

Source for both articles:
Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
The author is a former professor of mythology at California's Pacifica Graduate Institute who has now returned to private practice as a past life facilitator in southwest Michigan.