Scam or hype

In all other respects, Shoshana Noble* is a calm and easy-going person, highly functioning in her personal and social life, a successful businesswoman with a “takecharge” personality, and an intrepid traveler. Possessing both moral and physical courage in abundance, Shoshana has been to South Africa on a kosher safari, gone tubing down the Esopus River, and flown in a helicopter over the raging waters spilling from Niagara Falls. No one would ever characterize her as a “fearful” personality and she actually elicits awe for embarking upon the daredevil adventures that her more timid friends shun. In fact, everyone who knows her would agree that Shoshana is a strong woman who radiates power. So why then does she utterly collapse into an explosion of hysterical shrieks whenever a full-grown cat—or even the tiniest kitten— comes into her view? It could be sitting yards away on the sidewalk in innocent repose— or curled up on a patch of grass in a neighbor’s front yard basking in the sunlight—but the moment Shoshana spots one, she’ll dash up a stranger’s steps or bolt into the nearest store to hide. And if by chance the cat happens to be in her immediate vicinity— inches away instead of yards—this fearless woman of 55 will actually clamber up onto a chair or even a table—any high spot out of the animal’s range—and screech for help, until some kind soul takes pity on her and shoos away the miscreant.

After the episode is over, Shoshana will either crumple in relief or cry in great, heaving sobs, having been completely traumatized by the mere sight of a (usually) innocent cat with really no predatory designs on her person. All of Shoshana’s friends and family members are baffled by the paralyzing fear of cats which has stalked her over her lifetime and exacted strong emotional tolls. “It’s just a cat,” they try to reason. Shoshana doesn’t know anyone who’s ever been bitten or even scratched by the animal, nor has she herself ever had a terrifying encounter with one. But to this day, she is unable to shake off the dread and terror that pervades the fiber of her being every single time her path and a cat’s intersect. Shoshana knows that her overpowering fear of cats is irrational. (Although a lot of frum women do dislike cats and they inspire trepidation, Shoshana’s reaction is extreme.) To her knowledge, she has never experienced an ordeal of any kind with a cat, neither as an adult nor when she was a young child. She has asked her parents and older siblings if they can recall any episode in her childhood in which a cat either threatened, frightened or attacked her, but none of them has any recollection whatsoever of such an event.

Since her fear of cats is so crippling, Shoshana has gone to several therapists in an attempt to delve into the past and explore the basis of her phobia. She has tried Freudian therapy, which emphasizes exploration of the experiences and traumas of one’s early years; exposure therapy which employs the technique of exposing the patient to the feared object or context without any danger, in order to overcome anxiety; and cognitive therapy which works to change people’s thoughts and, consequently, the outcome of those thoughts. But none of these legitimate modalities have worked for Shoshana, who remains debilitated by her everyday encounters with felines. Recently, a friend who wanted to help Shoshana asked if she had ever considered past lives regression therapy” (a relatively new form of therapy) as another possible way for finding the source of her anxiety and finally eradicating it.  Past lives regression therapy?” Shoshana repeated in puzzlement. “What in the world is that?” For all those chasidim, mystics and kabbalists to whom the concept of “gilgul neshamos” (reincarnation of souls) is a longentrenched and accepted concept or fact in their lives but thought it was confined to the frum world only, welcome to America— which manages to make a business out of everything, even a belief system as esoteric as reincarnation.

While the Freudians believe that traumas in infancy or childhood can inflict life-long damage, “past lives regression therapists” go still further back—all the way back to previous lifetimes via hypnosis—to plumb the reasons for the dysfunction suffered by their clients. After the origins of the problem are uncovered, and the patient faces the demons of his or her (very distant) past and exorcises them with the therapist, the reverberations of that (historic) event no longer intrude into the person’s present life. The friend who told Shoshana about the new “therapy” had watched a documentary on the subject, and had found it persuasive. But after Shoshana good-naturedly listened to her friend’s enthusiastic description of the process, she patted her hand in a somewhat patronizing and dismissive, albeit loving manner, and demanded in mame loshen requisite for specific occasions like these: Vos meinst di, ich bin in ganzen meshugah? (You think I’m totally nuts)?” And then she rolled her eyes, all the way to the top of her head, for emphasis. Shoshana may think the concept is bizarre, and will never explore past lives regression therapy as a possible resolution for her difficulties, but there are millions of her counterparts throughout the world— people stricken by debilitating phobias and other problems that haunt them—who totally disagree.

Past lives regression therapy has in fact become big business in America, and while most professionals don’t consider it a genuinely legitimate treatment option and are highly skeptical about its possibilities for healing and cure, there are laypeople who believe strongly in it. They don’t think it’s a scam perpetrated upon desperate and vulnerable individuals by charlatans as many eminent “establishment” people claim, and as proof they point to the fact that myriad Ivy-League trained psychologists and psychiatrists who are considered quite repu table do incorporate hypnosis (including past lives hypnosis) into their own practice when all other methods fail. And despite its highly controversial nature, the “masses” are ignoring the caveats of their more traditionallygrounded therapists and are flocking to these practitioners—most of whom are trained hypnotists (in addition to those who hold other advanced degrees as well). One such enthusiast is 32-year-old computer programmer Ron Taylor, who suffered an absolutely incapacitating phobia—much more debilitating than Shoshana’s—and was only healed after sessions with a past-lives regression therapist named Kali Cathi.

Until then, his life (his current one) had been a complete nightmare. “I was completely unable to drink any liquid whatsoever—coffee, milk, water— nothing,” he explains. “I had to be forced to drink and actually had to be placed on water-retention medicine which helped keep me alive.” Ron never felt thirsty—not even on the hottest days or after eating meals saturated with salt; that everyday need present in all of our lives was completely absent from his. No one—neither his parents, doctors, nor therapists—knew what to make of Ron’s weird and very unique phobia. Needless to say, Ron also shunned swimming and other water activities. But not engaging in recreational pursuits is not life-threatening, while the inability to consume liquid is. “Under hypnosis,” Ms. Cathi told producers of the show 20/20, “Ron relived three past lives which were located in different time periods and in different countries, but all of which shared one common element: In each one of them, he died the exact same way, by drowning.” By working with his subconscious in a trance-like state, Ms. Cathi, who is a clinical hypnotist with a degree in psychology, was able to help Ron let go of the horrifying associations with water imprinted on his soul (the word soul is used deliberately here because it is, according to past-life regression therapists, the soul and not the mind which retains these memories), and they eventually receded from his (present-day) life.

After his session ended, Ron’s thirst suddenly returned big time. He suddenly felt his throat to be extremely dry and parched (no kidding), and started clamoring for something to drink. He gulped down five bottles of water in a row until his reborn thirst was slaked. His phobia, both Ron and Kali claim, is permanently gone. Ms. Cathi performed her past-life sessions live and was filmed as they were taking place. The documentary opens with a disclaimer by the producers in which they avow that “Nothing was staged, and all the sessions were taped live as they occurred in real time.” While Ms. Cathi was successful in ferreting out the antecedents of Ron Taylor’s phobia, she failed to unearth the cause of a second client’s irrational terror of birds of all kind. “I have never walked in parks, gone to the beach or even taken my children to the zoo,” Adena Kaztaschi told Ms. Cathi on tape. “The minute I see a bird, I run in the other direction. I feel their presence as life-threatening. I start shaking with terror and my heart starts to pound with a terrible fear. I have asked my parents many times: ‘Where does this come from?’ and they always answer the same way: ‘You were born like this.’” Unfortunately, the sessions with Ms. Cathi yielded no insight as to the cause of the problem, although Adena’s phobia was greatly lessened as a result of the hypnosis itself.

Undaunted by her inability to uncover what had created Adena’s phobia, Ms. Cathi said, “To me, it’s quite clear that if nothing happened in a person’s lifetime to cause such terrible fear and suffering, then the only possible logical explanation is an energy from a past life being carried over into one’s present. How else can you explain it?” Ms. Cathi can’t really explain how pastlives regression therapy actually works. “By remembering the knowledge of what caused the phobia, we can let go of that fear. Extreme phobias just have to be baggage from the past; there’s no other way to view them. I know that many skeptics say that it’s all in the client’s imagination, and that there are no past lives, but if they’re cured, who cares where the memories or “imaginings” are coming from?” “Hogwash!” say fierce critics of the treatment, who believe that vulnerable people are being preyed upon by unqualified and irresponsible individuals who manipulate their clients’ malleable minds. Professionals in the field say there is no scientific evidence to back up the claims of both past-life therapists nor their patients, and that undergoing this form of hypnosis can not only be unhelpful, it can be irrevocably damaging as well. Interestingly enough, it is the country permeated with history, rich with relics and echoes of the past, and populated by enormous numbers of both real and imaginary mystics, which has actually taken a strong stance against past-lives regression therapy, a stance which is unique among the nations of the world.

In 2009, the advisory committee on the Law on Hypnosis of the Ministry of Health of Israel sent notices to Israeli hypnotists, telling them to “refrain from helping clients explore past lives” following a slew of complaints by people who said that they had been emotionally damaged by regression sessions. Unsurprisingly, Israel has a fairly large number of such hypnotists, many of whom are considered “experts” of international repute. One of the cases which spurred the Ministry of Health’s decision were the circumstances revolving around a past-lives regression which boomeranged…badly. A 23-year-old Israeli man who had become severely depressed after breaking up with his girlfriend sought help from a credentialed psychologist, who suggested that the man’s “inability to let go” might stem from a pastlife occurrence. While the psychologist was able to successfully hypnotize the man and bring him “back” to a past life, things went haywire when the man reported being trapped in a coffin, and began to gasp for breath. Rather than being “cured” by the therapy, the young Israeli instead started suffering from an endless round of terrifying panic attacks and respiratory problems, and ultimately had to seek help from both medical practitioners and psychiatrists to relieve his symptoms. Dr. Lianna Sofer, who often incorporates past-lives regression therapy into her “normal” practice in Israel, asserts that the story is an anomaly. “Correcting problems which began in an earlier life helps correct life in the present. I cured a woman from chronic neck pain after discovering that she had been decapitated in a previous life.” But Dr. Jim Tucker, a critic of hypnotic regression “dismisses such visions as scientifically dubious,” according to a New York Times article (“Remembrance of Things Past,” 8/29/2010) which explored the growing interest in reincarnation in America, citing a significant increase in numbers.

Ironically, Dr. Tucker, a child psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, is himself a researcher of children’s past-life claims. But while he does believe in reincarnation, he doesn’t give any credence to the new therapeutic model which it has spawned. “How are these visions different from dream material?” he asks. “Basically, it’s the mind filling in the blanks.” Still, he concedes, the burgeoning field is positive for one major reason: “It opens the door to belief for people who might otherwise stay away.” Although the principle of “reincarnation” has ancient roots—in cultures other than Judaism, too—using it as a therapeutic tool is a thoroughly modern invention. Although interest in past-lives regression began to form in the mid ’50s (after a best-selling book about an American girl who spoke Irish under hypnosis and claimed to be a reincarnation of an Irish woman named Bridey Murphy took the nation by storm)*, most pundits would probably agree that its popularity probably began with the watershed publication in 1988 of Dr. Brian Weiss’s best-selling book Many Lives, Many Masters. In the book, Dr. Weiss (who happened to be the son of Orthodox parents), a Yaletrained traditional psychiatrist with impeccable, even elite, credentials made his stand for past-lives regression therapy by revealing his own experience with the modality. He recounted the story of a patient he called Catherine (a pseudonym) whom he had been treating without success for some time.

One day, he was seized by a sudden inspiration to place her under hypnosis to see if her subconscious would reveal clues about hidden traumas that her conscious mind had been unwilling or unable to yield. He simply wanted to take her back to a period in her life when she suffered the traumas that were hindering her now. Dr. Weiss had no prior experience or even rudimentary knowledge of “past-lives therapy” and was just looking for another way to break down the defenses Catherine had erected that barred her from being cured. Under his hypnosis, however, she went much further back than he had ever intended. She began experiencing various episodes from “past lives” offering specific details, dates, names of people, and particular experiences, etc. etc. Dr. Weiss was stunned. As both chairman of the psychiatry department at Miami’s Mount Sinai Hospital, and an esteemed professor of psychology, Dr. Weiss’s mainstream conceptualizations were challenged and turned on their head. With both his scientific curiosity piqued and his openness to experimentation heightened by the results he had personally witnessed, Dr. Weiss continued to take his patient to places he had never meant to go.

When Catherine ultimately ended up being completely cured of the various complaints which had originally led her to therapy, Dr. Weiss found himself at a critical juncture in his career, as he now faced a conundrum with serious repercussions. Should he report his findings to his colleagues and go public with his extraordinary account? If he publicized the story, he could broaden the possibilities for other professionals and help multitudes of troubled patients…but would he end up being “a laughing stock”? He did and he was. Roundly skewered for his account by psychologists and psychiatrists from around the world and generally mocked in the public court, Dr. Weiss was placed outside the fringes of legitimate science for quite some time. But today he is considered—at least in some circles—to be a veritable icon and hero, a brave personage who placed peoples’ emotional welfare above his own professional reputation. In New Age circles, he is quite the celebrity, having been interviewed by the media countless times, traveling the globe to present sold-out workshops to throngs of believers, and writing several more best-sellers which remained on the top of the charts for years.

More importantly, as far as Dr. Weiss himself is concerned, by reporting his experience despite the censure he knew might come, he single-handedly sparked a nationwide conversation on the subject, and past-lives therapy is today practiced by tens of thousands of therapists in the United States alone. But whether that is a good or bad thing of course ultimately depends upon your point of view. * After many years of excitement—even hysteria—about the Bridey Murphy story, it was finally debunked as false.Note to Reader: I received a haskamah from a choshuve rav in Boro Park to undergo this hypnosis as part of my ongoing investigation into past-lives regression, and I took a friend with me to the session, both to verify the accuracy of what I was experiencing and to avoid any problems of yichud (just in case anyone was worried). It’s not that I don’t like exploring new frontiers, I do. Although I’m not the physically courageous type (I’m not talking about bungee jumping, I’m talking about ice skating), I tend to fancy adventures of a more cerebral nature, the kind of escapade that can stretch your mind, challenge your vision and make you grow as a person. There are lots of people who proclaim proudly: “There is nothing that I ever did in my life that I regretted.” I couldn’t agree with them less.

Perhaps it’s my innate naiveté and trusting nature that invites trouble. I vividly remember my first job after high school at “Franklin Book Programs,” a government agency that supplied tomes of knowledge to underprivileged youngsters in the Near East (probably, in retrospect, to budding terrorists) and being surrounded by intellectuals holding about 13 Ph.Ds each. I was the only undergraduate among them. Well, one memorable day a bigwig at the agency approached me and asked if I would be interested in observing a Wiccan ceremony.“What’s that?” I asked. “You never heard of Wiccans?” she said in surprise. “We are the good witches.” Gulp. I didn’t even know that there were good witches; I thought they were across-the-board bad. “You’re a witch?” I blinked at this mild-mannered woman who always possessed a low-key manner despite her high-level job. “Surprised?” she smiled. “You should be happy to know that out of the whole office, I only invited you.” (Mind you, there were not two other people in the office, there were 30.) “Why me?” I practically whimpered.

It was an uncomfortable position to be in with your immediate supervisor, trying to decline her gracious invitation to a Wiccan ceremony without wounding her feelings or bruising her ego. (And you don’t want to raise the shackles of any kind of witch—good or bad.) “Because you’re the most curious person here!” she exclaimed. “I figured that if anyone would be game to try, it would be you!” I still don’t know why she zoomed in on moi. I was wearing long, long, long, very long skirts; I sported spectacles that hailed from another era in history; a bun was primly pinned to the back of my head; and I constantly pored over a Tehillim in my spare time (which was most of the time, since the agency was overstaffed and featherbedded to an extreme). “Thank you so much for choosing me!” I said. “But I have school tonight and with all the Jewish holidays that conflicted with my classes, I missed so many sessions, I’m afraid of being flunked!” (Which mercifully was true; I didn’t even have to experience an excruciating ethical dilemma worthy of Ami’s “Truth or Consequences” column). “Well, that’s too bad,” she said sadly. “You would have enjoyed it.” This situation has been a recurring motif in my life.

Sometimes, I heartily welcome the opportunity to explore different dimensions of the kaleidoscope we call life, but in this particular case, I had no itching desire to meet 15 white-robed, wand-waving Galindas in person. (I was so freaked out in fact, that I switched jobs almost immediately, and from that day forward, worked almost exclusively for Jewish concerns, where witches do not abound.) So when I first came up with the idea to go “undercover” and learn what a “past-lives regression” is really like—to serve as a companion piece to my feature article—I was truly elated. This would be fun! This would be an adventure! I could dine out on this anecdote for weeks! Shabbos meal invitations would be suddenly extended en masse, and I could already envision my myriad hosts bending over their respective tables to ask breathlessly: “Nu, so what was it like?” In addition to all the fancy meals I now eagerly anticipated, I was also genuinely excited about embarking upon such a unique exploit. My interest was piqued and I found myself titillated by the sheer prospect of such a voyage of discovery.

Alas! A few weeks later, my enthusiasm has waned, replaced by fear. As I find myself walking down a long, carpeted corridor in a luxurious high-rise on Sutton Place to meet the psychiatrist who will take me traveling (time-traveling that is), I’m not so sure that this was such a good idea, after all. What am I getting myself into? If it doesn’t work (and I am not transported into some realm before my official birth date, and no, I will not tell you what that is), my editor will be sorely disappointed, and the magazine’s bookkeeper will be furious (the psychiatrist charges $150 an hour with a minimum of three hours a session). So I kind of feel compelled to have an experience. But what if I don’t? (One other hypnotist to whom I had gone for—yes!—weight loss, had shouted at me in exasperation that I was un-hypnotizable because I was unwilling to surrender control and the whole thing was a disaster.) Oy! So much pressure! It’s not enough that I have stress in my present life, I have to deliberately go looking for stress in my past lives, too? Because if you’ve ever read past-life stories, you know that none of them end well. Fires, plagues, drowning, and decapitation are de rigueur, and of course, no one survives to tell the tale.

At least not in that life. Another issue: What if I find out I was someone wicked in a previous life someone like Haman, or Vashti or Pharoah? How will I deal with that knowledge? I’m grappling with enough guilt now. My friend actually bought me a gag gift called “Guilt Away.” It was an aerosol spray can which read: “Just one spray eliminates ‘I’m not a good enoughmother…daughter….wife…sister…friend, etc. etc.’” I don’t have that can anymore. I used it up the first day. So if the past-life regression works and I discover I was a mass murderer like the Emperor Nevuzaradan, how will I live with my current self? (Note to self: Self, did you realize that it doesn’t even dawn on you that in a previous incarnation you could have been an illiterate humble peasant who spent his entire life toiling in the ricefields?) Skeptics of past-life regression always point out that everyone ends up being either Cleopatra or Napoleon and no one ever is the janitor.  My stomach starts to roil. Why have I agreed to this? I don’t even want to remember what I did yesterday; do I really need to know what I did 200 years ago? My hands get cold and clammy as I raise them to ring the bell. A tall, older and refined man opens the door with a gentle smile. There’s no turning back now. “May I use your bathroom?” I ask and flee in the direction to which he’s pointing. It’s my sanctuary of last resort, perpetual refuge of the die-hard procrastinator.

Finally, I return to the plush office of Dr. Paul DeBell, eminent psychiatrist and author of Decoding the Spiritual Messages of Everyday Life, and we begin our session. I turn on the tape recorder that I’ve brought with me, so that I can report back on my experience with the utmost accuracy. I look for the long chain or pendant that’s been a staple in fictional hypnotists’ offices for eternity (in this particular case, eternity is probably the most appropriate word). If you’re a certain age (we won’t say which), you’ll remember the classic watch being dangled back and forth in front of a hypnotist’s subject, as the hypnotist softly croons: “You are getting sleepy…you are getting sleepy…” and voilà! the patient’s eyelids obligingly close. Well, that seems to be a relic of the past—no timepiece or pendulum in sight. Instead the new instrument of choice seems to be the therapist’s own mellifluous and mesmerizing voice.

First, we engage in pleasant chitchat (clearly a gracious man, I know that Dr. DeBell wants to help ease my nerves) as he waves me to a comfortable easy chair that will convert later to a recliner. He tells me that he’s been a psychiatrist for over 40 years (he was a traditional therapist for most of his career but began incorporating past-life regression therapy into his practice about 15 years ago). An encounter with another therapist convinced him to try the innovative “avantgarde” therapy that had all the New-Agers entranced (no pun intended). His colleague was persuasive: He told Dr. DeBell that using past-life regression helped facilitate breakthroughs in patients’ therapy that traditional methods had failed to achieve. Dr. DeBell already had an M.D. in psychiatry from Cornell Medical School and had done several postgraduate fellowships at various institutions in New York, but to make sure he was truly qualified and formally certified, he enrolled for special training with the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. 

I’m a sucker for credentials. His impeccable pedigree assures me that he’s an ethical man and won’t make me bark like a dog or moo like a cow or whatever it is that tricksters/ hypnotists do with their hapless victims on stage. But will he be able to help me travel through the realms of time and space so that Ami’s lovely bookkeeper will be satisfied that the company’s money has been well spent? Believe me, I’m really going to try hard to concentrate, not space out, and be fully present— behaviors that are normally foreign to me. Because even as I sit down in his chair, I’m already mentally composing my opening sentence for this article, and not listening to a word he says. The standard technique used during past-life regression consists of the therapist first hypnotizing the patient so that he or she is extremely relaxed, almost asleep and in a trance-like state. This opens the portal to the unconscious where dormant memories (both of the recent past and far more distant ones) reside. Using various forms of visualizations, the therapist continues to guide the subject deeper and deeper into the innermost repositories of hidden and repressed memories, uncovering layers of concealed experiences.

A series of questions is then posed to the subject, in an attempt to reproduce his or her camera-eye of the past, further jogging a person’s buried memories that hold important clues to lost identities that cling to his or her soul like a filmy veil. “First, we’ll start with a series of exercises to relax you,” Dr. DeBell says in a gentle, lulling voice. “We’ll start with something simple. Hold your hands like this (he demonstrates what he wants me to do by holding his hands straight up in front of his chest, facing each other like two parallel lines, and spread about 10 inches apart). Draw your attention to your hands, and you’ll notice that when you put your attention to your hands, you’ll begin to feel energy coming from the palms. And as you put more and more of your attention on that energy, you’ll feel that it gets stronger and stronger until you can really feel the energy passing between the two palms of your hands. As that energy gets stronger and stronger, just like the opposite poles of two giant magnets, you’ll feel your hands pull together.” He continues: “I don’t want you to do anything—this is a way for your unconscious mind to teach your conscious mind how to step back and let things happen.

Some people take a half hour with this and really…there’s no hurry.” (No hurry! Yikes! Now I know for sure that Dr. DeBell isn’t Jewish. Which Jews do you know who don’t hurry? Rushing is in our genes! And did he say that this one exercise could take a half hour? Are there bathroom breaks?) Meanwhile, I can’t help but notice (the reporter inside of me is still taking mental notes) that Dr. DeBell has stepped up his game: His voice lowers into a soft, sing-song cadence that is repetitive, crooning and very soporific. If he were a witch (flashback to my first job), I would suspect that he was trying to put a spell on me, but I know he’s only trying to induce a trance, which if you think about it, is pretty much the same. He continues: “All this is a way for you to really begin to learn what it’s like for your conscious mind to step back and for your unconscious mind to move your hands like the opposite poles of two giant magnets.” I interrupt him tentatively: “Dr. DeBell, am I allowed to talk while you’re doing this, or do you want me to focus on your words?” “No, you can talk, why not?” “It’s very hard for me to turn off my conscious mind.” “I know,” he laughs. “So you can let your conscious mind keep going in whatever direction it wants, because that’s what’s important… for you to learn that your conscious mind can do anything it wants to do, but your unconscious mind will continue its focus on your hands.

We use our unconscious mind all the time with our fingers; we sit down at the computer and type automatically when we’re writing an e-mail or story…we don’t think about how our fingers move, we just use them automatically. When we see somebody we know from a distance our hand might automatically wave, or when we drive a car, our hands move without our moving them. In our journey today, you’ll want to watch and wait and when an image comes into your mind let it take on a life of its own, just like your hands. This is the essential skill of hypnosis… just having patience, because the gateway of all understanding is patience and just letting things happen without the conscious mind butting in and doing it.” I know what he’s doing, my conscious mind says. All these words… even though they make sense…it’s not really the words that are the point… it’s the calming even numbing quality of his voice that is making me feel soo drowsy, I just want to nod off… And maybe he thinks I’m already so sleepy that I don’t notice how many times he’s made references to my hands moving towards each other.

Aha! I’m on to him! I’m not going to succumb to this; I’m going to fight the narcosis, and be vigilant about maintaining my control… My resolve is great, but his expertise is greater. I can absolutely not believe it. I am shocked. I am blown away. Without my moving them, absolutely against my will, my fingers have started touching each other and are now clamped together in a tight embrace. On the tape I play afterwards, I hear myself say over and over again in stupefaction: “I can’t believe this, I can’t believe this, how did this happen? I thought I’m un-hypnotizable! I can’t even pull my fingers apart.” But other than my fingers, my hands themselves don’t get any closer, they don’t stick together as he’s been suggesting all along. Through the haze of my anesthetized state I hear Dr. DeBell say: “Even if the fingers remain intertwined but your hands don’t …this would be very interesting. I am suggesting that your palms be stuck together like giant magnets, but if this is how close your hands want to go, it’s highly symbolic about the relationship of the skeptic in your conscious mind and the believer in your unconscious one.

Now your hands can start floating apart, they can either move to the side of your body or fall into your lap. You’re doing very well, because I told you that sometimes it takes a half hour for this exercise to be completed, and I heard about one case where it took the patient three hours until her hands finally moved.” “Three hours! “ I shriek. My hands immediately plummet to my lap. “Can I interrupt you again, please?” I ask. “Sure,” he says warmly. I start to giggle. “I find that in general I’m not very good at multi-tasking. And I’m having a hard time focusing on my hands, listening to what you’re saying, and trying to quiet the chatter in my head all at the same time!” “That’s perfect!” he says serenely, almost approvingly. “You don’t have to listen to the sound of my voice.” “I don’t have to try to register what you are saying?” I ask in disbelief. “No, you don’t, because your interest is really in what is going on inside yourself, and your unconscious can really stay in touch with the sound of my voice, without your conscious mind having to be aware. Because I am not really talking to your conscious mind now, but your unconscious one. You are here to find out something about your past lives and their connection to this life.

To do so, we need to get beneath all of that chatter of your current identity and you just have to let go. My voice is just like a radio that plays in the background as you come and go.” The soothing, hypnotic voice continues: “Just like your fingertips got stuck together, you’ll soon find out how your unconscious mind can open doorways. Focus on your breathing now. Just listen to my voice. Trust that whatever happens is meaningful. You’re doing very well. Let things happen in their own way, at their own pace and just relax. You’re going deeper and deeper into trance just by getting absorbed in what’s happening. All hypnosis is about developing this ability to trust yourself. All hypnosis is self-hypnosis. You’re doing very well.” (I haven’t gotten so much approbation in years!) Despite my somewhat jaded stance and the disembodied observer/reporter inside of me that is stubbornly determined to take constant notes, my eyelids slowly close and I fall into a semi-sleep. He didn’t need a long-chained watch, after all.

The hypnotic quality of his repetitive phrasing and magnetic hum induce a semi-drugged somnolence which I cannot—for the life of me—shake. As I am about to pass out, Dr. DeBell asks me to temporarily vacate my seat while he converts it into a recliner. He then suggests that I remove both my shoes and my glasses so that I will be more comfortable, and offers a blanket which I tightly wedge around my body. “If I’m going back to infancy,”I quip, “I might as well swaddle myself!” In truth, I feel like the blanket is a shield of armor, protecting me from whatever may come. Dr. DeBell lowers the window blinds and darkens the room. (Don’t worry, my friend/bodyguard is still here.) Now, the second part of the session begins. “For the next half hour or so,” Dr. DeBell says softly, his voice lowered to an even softer pitch than before, “I’m going to train you to go deeper into the world of images. The first step is always to relax your body, so I want you to imagine a great wave of relaxation beginning at the top of your head, moving over your forehead, your eyebrows, and through your eyes, over your nose, your lips, tongue and throat as that giant wave moves back to your neck and stops at its base where we seem to carry so much tension.

Feel the wave now at the back of your head through your ears, moving down over your shoulders, your upper arms, your elbows, lower arms, your wrists, hands, fingertips, just carrying away all that tension. Your body is more and more relaxed and asleep. Just as you relax your body, you can relax your head. Imagine the inside of your mind as a crystal blue sky. All of hypnosis depends upon the power of image, because all of hypnosis is self-hypnosis, and the better you feel the deeper you go, and the deeper you go the better you feel.” (Do you hear the rhythm? It’s like a sound machine or white noise.) This relaxation exercise continues for about another half hour, but unfortunately I can’t continue to delineate it in complete detail since my word count maximum has long been filled, way over the top, into the far distant celestial realms (now I’m beginning to sound like him) where hopefully only angels dwell and irate editors can never dare to reach.

Later, at home, as I replay Dr. DeBell’s incantation about the giant wave that relaxes every muscle and organ of my body, I just want to forget about finishing this article, climb back into bed, (I work from home) turn out the lights, and go to sleep. It dawns on me that maybe I have finally found the cure for my ongoing insomnia. I can throw away my Tylenol PM and just listen to his tape Dr. DeBell continues: “Now we are going to learn how to move into the world of images. So I’d like you to imagine yourself in a beautiful place that happens to have three flights of escalators. Hear the sound of the moving steps, feel the belt under your hand, smell the air. As you go down, you see at the bottom of the first flight a giant number 2, at the bottom of the next flight a giant number 1, and by the time we get to the last flight there’s a giant zero, and you feel yourself going down, down, down, stepping off and feeling just a little bit deeper, more relaxed, at peace. “And now you find yourself in a beautiful place with a golden stairway, with one stair for each year of your life.” “That’s a lot of stairs!” I quip, apparently not quite as comatose as Dr. DeBell would have liked. He laughs good-naturedly. “And now you will descend each step at a time, going back in time, moving down…moving down…younger and younger…as you go back in time…your unconscious is turning the pages of memory, just as you would turn the pages of a photo album, going down the stairs, feeling younger and younger, down, down. Back, back in time.

Smaller and smaller as you move back in time.” We return to when I was 12, 5, 2, and finally…the womb. I retain vivid recollections of my early life, but I tell him firmly that I do not retain any prenatal memories, despite his pressing me to recall my mother’s heartbeat, the amniotic water surrounding me, and the muffled sounds I hear from deep inside. Finally (!) Dr. DeBell is ready to regress me to a past life. I want to ask him if I should buckle up, but I don’t want to appear irreverent. He’s a very nice man, and I would really love to have a genuine past-life experience, both for his sake, Ami’s editor, Ami’s bookkeeper, and least of all, for myself. (I always put everybody first.) “Now imagine yourself in a blue mist space, a spiritual space. Look around you and you’ll notice a portal of time beginning to appear, usually an area of darkness. You’ll be drawn into it like a long railroad tunnel with a light at the end.

So tell me when you sense the portal and I’ll count from ten to one, and at the count of one you’ll reach the light at the end and you’ll be in a significant day in a significant past lifetime.” “What are you sensing now?” he asks me hopefully. “Nothing,” I tell him mournfully.  “I just feel like I’m twirling around in that blue space,” I add, trying to be helpful.“Why do you think you’re twirling?” he asks.” “Ambivalence?” I suggest. “Just stay with it, whatever it is. Just relax,” he says reassuringly. “I really don’t want to go back,” I say. “Why?” he asks. “I’m scared,” I snivel. “Just let yourself feel open to the love and acceptance that comes from that blue space and the spiritual power in your life.” “Uh, oh, now I feel like I’m being sucked into the vortex of that tunnel…” I tell him. “Great!” Dr. DeBell says enthusiastically, his voice now becoming louder and more urgent than ever before, as he suddenly starts talking at a very rapid clip: “Just keep going. 10…9…faster and faster down the vortex…8… as you go back and back into time…7…as you pick up speed…6….5… ever so fast at a dizzying speed…4…closer and closer to that light…3…2…and I. Outside! Be there now at a significant day in a significant life. “Is it day or night?” he asks. “Night.” “Is it warm or cold?” “Cold.” “Are you standing or sitting?” “Standing.” “Look around. What are you standing on?” “Some kind of cloth or carpet, maybe a mat.” “Look around. What do you see?” “Little fires. Groups of people sitting around these campfires, as though they’re in family units.”

“How do you feel standing around looking at these people?” “Good.” “How old are you?” “I feel like I’m making this up, Dr. DeBell,” I suddenly protest. “Don’t worry; just answer me,” he says calmly, unperturbed. “How old are you?” “Thirty.” “Are you a man or a woman?” “Man.” “Look around you, get more absorbed into all the details. Smell the air, hear the sounds. What are you noticing, or sense?” “I seem to be with Indians…a Native American tribe.”“What year is it?” “1828—but I really feel like I’m making this up—I have a very vivid imagination, you know.” “That’s okay. Your imagination comes from your unconscious and your soul.” “What’s going on at the campfire?” “It’s not a special time or ceremony. Just throngs of people sitting around the campfires, eating their evening meal.” “Now go to another day in that same lifetime. What do you sense?” “I sense that I have a very vivid imagination!” I reply. “How old are you now? ” “52.” And what are you doing now?” “People are lined up, coming to me to ask for remedies. I seem to be some kind of medicine chief or healer.” “Go back to the day of your death. What is happening?” “Nothing traumatic.

A natural death. I’m in my bed, and people are around me, singing. It was a good life.” (A good life??? How is that possible? What happened to pogroms, inquisitions, Crusades? I’m a Jew! How could I have had a good life let alone a good death? ) “Move back up to your present life. What is the connection between that past life and your current one?” I brighten a little bit: “Well, I do often write the health column for Ami Magazine!” “What else?” “I was macrobiotic for two years and I’m very into alternative healing.” “What else?” “I love corn?” Actually, I’ve always had a lifelong fascination with Indian culture, ever since I was a child (this is true). My husband and I travel often to the West where I’m riveted by ancient Indian markings which appear on the red rocks, and I’m constantly badgering him to come with me to visit an Indian reservation. Once, on a road trip, we were in New Mexico, on our way to Arizona, and we did pass a reservation, but it wasn’t anything like what I was expecting. No tepees, no men bedecked in headdresses or feathers, no pow wows.

Sadly, just dingy shacks with garbage strewn around them and lots of men drinking beer. A huge disappointment. “What do you think that your past lifetime as an American Indian is telling you today?” I don’t know about being an American Indian, but I don’t want to disappoint Dr. DeBell any further. (I feel that the session has been a huge dud, and naturally I feel it’s my fault, not his, so for the first time since our session began, I tell a little white lie in response to his final question.) “Well, what I’ve learned, Dr. DeBell, is that I must return to my roots as a warrior and reclaim my lost power. I have to get in touch with the Indian inside of me and tap into his strength.” While Dr. DeBell seems satisfied with my answer, I feel shame wash over me. All this time, I had been 100% honest with him, and now …just at the end…to make him feel as if he’s succeeded with me, I’ve finally broken down and brazenly lied. Oh well, at least now I have a new topic for next week’s “Truth or Consequences” column! But maybe I will take that “Healing with Herbs” course in Manhattan I heard about, after all.       My “Inner Indian” insist

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