[note: This article is in no way meant to debunk past life memories, so much as it is meant to address a potential problem with remembering and offer a sane and rational way of approaching and accepting the real stuff.]
Past life material is tricky stuff to deal with. First and foremost, there is always the question: is this memory something real, or is it the product of my imagination? This question is difficult enough to deal with, but there is a psychological phenomenon known as cryptoamnesia which can make nearly all past life memories suspect.
In cryptoamnesia, an individual is exposed to certain information, forgets that this was learned information, and it reappears sometime later as a constructed memory. With memories created through cryptoamnesia, the individual will have no idea that the memory is a fabrication of their own mind and that they never actually experienced the content of the memory.
How does this work exactly? Say, for example, as a child, you saw a special on ancient Ireland on the Discovery Channel. Your little mind soaked up all of that information, even if you didn’t understand it all at the time, and stored it away in the back of your brain. Years later, you have forgotten ever watching that particular show, but the information you learned from it is still hanging around in your unconscious mind. When you start thinking back to who you may have been in a past life, your mind finds the images from the Discovery Channel special and starts feeding them back to you. However, you’ve forgotten that you saw all these on a television show. And so, as you remember details of what life was like in ancient Ireland and you see images of the land, perhaps some standing stones, or some artifacts, you assume that these memories are coming to you from the long distant past.
It is nearly impossible to differentiate memories created through cryptoamnesia from real memories. In the case of created memories just from this lifetime, such as created memories of ritual abuse or childhood molestation, the psychological repercussions can be just as severe as if the individual had actually gone through the imagined trauma. This is one reason why many psychologists are largely skeptical of “repressed” memories recalled under hypnosis. It is a generally held belief that most memories dredged up in this manner are actually imaginative content fabricated by the unconscious from learned information inspired by unintentional cues from the hypnotherapist.
Where does this leave us for legitimate past life memories? On very shaky ground, I’m afraid. From my observations and personal experiences, one is often drawn to read about a particular time period or a particular country when one has a strong past life connection to it. However, the very act of reading up on these strangely fascinating times makes the legitimacy of any past life content very suspect. There is no way to prove or to guarantee that you did not digest the information from a book or a show, imaginatively fill in a few gaps, and re-present it to yourself as a past life memory. And since very few past lifetimes are such that you can actually look up people you knew or go visit the town you once lived in, there is almost no chance of proving the validity of the memories – to yourself or to anyone else.
How then, can you ever know that what you’re remembering is real or imagined? In black and white, real-world terms, you can’t. You will never know, and you will never be able to prove it. Does this mean that past life memories are a bunch of poppycock? That is another issue entirely, and it boils down to a matter of faith.
Once you stop questioning the validity of a particular memory and stop trying to prove or disprove its legitimacy to yourself, then and only then can you objectively look at the content of the memory itself. And it’s the content that matters most anyway.
I look at past life memories like this: my mind is fixating on this image or set of images for a reason. Whether you take a metaphysical point of view and say that I’m remembering these things because there are karmic issues I still have to settle from that past life, or if you take the psychological point of view and say that my unconscious mind is trying to get me to deal with repressed personal issues that are coming through in the language of dream and symbol, the result is the same. I must look carefully over these images and try to see what they’re telling me about me. And that’s the key to past lives right there. What can they tell you about your life right now? If there isn’t something you can learn from them, then they’re just useless curiosities – they might as well be idle daydreams that you’re using to waste an afternoon.
I’ve seen far too many people get caught up in their past lives and fixate on a time so long ago that it crippled their ability to interact with the reality of here and now. They were worse than the kind of elderly folk who are so busy mourning the loss of the old days that they allow the new age to pass them by. These people got themselves stuck in a time completely removed from their current life, and they just could not get past it.
Past lives in that respect are a total waste of time. You have to always remember: you are living your life here, now. You are in this age for a reason. There is a great deal for you to do, much to experience, and much to learn. If you spend all of your time looking backward along the lost corridor of years, you will not see what’s in front of you, and you are most likely going to run into something very solid and bang your head — hard.
The use of past life memories is what they can teach you about where you are now and where you may be going. A lot of us made mistakes in the past. If we lived in the past at all, we made mistakes. Mistakes are part and parcel of living. Very often, we recall the circumstances of these past mistakes as a guidepost to help us avoid those same mistakes in the present and the future. In this respect, past lives can be very useful. They can reveal to us hidden aspects of ourselves, and provide insight into dealing with our current problems.
Past life work should therefore always be an exercise in observation. If the memories come to you, explore them as fully as you can. Analyze them. Pay attention to details, especially how you feel in those remembered moments and the circumstances which stand out to you. Later, analyze those feelings and circumstances in relation to your life as it is now. Look for parallels in your current situation, in the way you relate to the people around you, in your choices of dealing with the world at large. Even if the content is some half-imagined fantasy that your unconscious brain has cooked up for you, it will still reveal a great deal of your troubles and issues in the symbols and stories that are chosen.
Above all, do not fixate on the memories. Do not try to recreate yourself as you see you in the past. Live your life now and for the future. Learn what you can, but accept that the past is in the past. The memories might linger, but who you are can always be changed.
Michelle Belanger 23 March 2001