by Stephen S.
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Reincarnation, or rebirth of some aspect of a person's soul, essence, memories or personality into a new body after death, is one of those things you should be able to prove. If it exists, and if presumably every one of us has experienced it, then why is proof so elusive? In researching this topic for several months for a documentary, I found that memories and experiences relating to reincarnation are not uncommon. I was surprised to learn, however, that proof is also not terribly uncommon! Of course there are always frauds or questionable cases, but there are altogether too many believable ones to dismiss them all as frauds.
The problem arises when you ask the question, "What would 'you' accept as proof?" In fact, there are different categories of proof, and different degrees of proof. Absolute proof may be impossible to attain, but there is some very strong evidence.
The types of evidence for reincarnation I have found to be the most convincing are: children's statements about a previous life; cases in which adults experience memories either spontaneously or through hypnosis and then are able to verify the facts through historical records; and cases in which birthmarks match wounds shown in autopsy reports from a remembered past life of a person.
In the course of my own research, I ran across two cases where children appeared to spontaneously remember some detail from a past life. I was filming an artifact on display at a Civil War museum, and I heard a young boy behind me exclaim in a loud voice, "I know that man!" I turned around, and this fellow came running up alongside me, and looking at a picture of Capt. John A. Tompkins, he repeated emphatically, "I know that man!" Curious but not wanting to ask leading questions, I said, "Who is he?" The boy answered, "He's John." I prodded him further, "What did he do?" The boy answered, "He killed all the bad guys." As his parents had joined him by this time, I asked his mother, "Could he have read the name below the photograph?" She answered hesitantly, "He's five years old and he's just now learning to read simple words, I don't think he could have." His father, silently shaking his head, simply said, "He couldn't have read that."
The second case involved an 18-month-old girl. This is her mother's account: "Laura was instantly attracted to one of my friends. She didn't like many people, but she liked my friend Carrie. She often called her mommy and cried heart-rending sobs when Carrie would leave. She also liked Carrie's two daughters, Rene and Susan. I was always puzzled about her attraction. Carrie felt Laura might have been meant to be her daughter; right before she knew I was pregnant she had this desire to mother a baby again. I remember her telling me she wanted to get pregnant. She knew it would never happen, she had had her tubes tied. I'd wanted children for years, but it never happened. I'd resigned myself to being childless, then there she was. In one lucid moment, while Larua was relaxed and in a moment of clarity, I asked her about Carrie, Rene and Susan. I asked her why she loved them so much. SHe said to me clear as day, "Mama, less Mess 'aims." (sp) This was when she was about one-and-a-half, when she was first learning to speak between gibberish, and clear English diction. I'm not sure whether I spelled it correctly or not. But it was French..."Mama, they are my friends."
Speaking in a (known) language unknown by normal means to the speaker, is called "xenoglossy" and, especially in children, forms one of the strongest evidences for reincarnation. Even telepathy, which is an alternate explanation for most proofs of reincarnation, doesn't seem to fit here. Who would this child have telepathically received the exactly appropriate words in French from?
Another oft-used explanation for reincarnation proof is cryptoamnesia. The theory of crytopamnesia states that, as a person absorbs thousands of bits of stories from books, oral accounts, movies, television, etc. over the course of a lifetime, these memories become stored as unconscious memories and can resurface juxtaposed and consolidated into a seemingly believable past-life memory. This child, however, could barely talk, had had few life experiences at age one-and-a-half, and according to her mother, had not been exposed to the French language--no less this particular phrase. So while cryptoamnesia cannot be ruled out entirely in this case, it is unlikely.
That leaves intentional misreporting. The person reporting the incident was skeptical about reincarnation and very hesitant that I use the example publicly (names are changed by request). She is a practical-minded person, gave me no other reported incidents, and I think the story was unlikely to have been falsified.
The foremost spokesperson for this phenomenon of children relating incidents about past lives, is Carol Bowman, author of Children's Past Lives: How Past Life Memories Affect Your Child. Ms. Bowman has not only collected a number of very strong case histories, but publicly encourages parents to listen respectfully when children give these accounts. Typically, the memory will have to do with a traumatic death. Re-telling the event is part of resolving the emotional impact, and is necessary for the child's emotional and even physical health.
Ms. Bowman became interested in the subject when her own young son, Chase, displayed a terrible fear of loud noises. Upon being hypnotized, he relived being a black soldier in the U.S. Civil War, and remembered being shot in the wrist. After the session, not only was Chase cured of his fear of loud sounds, but a long-standing case of excema on his wrist cleared up permanently! Such instant cures of long-standing phobias and physical complaints are commonly reported.
Dr. Roger Woolger, past-life therapist and author of Other Lives, Other Selves, has found in the course of his work that behind many strong, seemingly irrational feelings and physical symptoms lie emotionally-charged memories from past-life traumas, often violent deaths. Using a combination of Gestalt and Psychodrama techniques, Dr. Woolger encourages his patient to re-experience the full impact of the past-life event and then to release the emotions associated with it. I attended one of Dr. Woolger's week-long training seminars, and can attest to the power of the emotions that arise, and also to the web of interconnected themes that develop and relate to current-life issues.
Looking at this method objectively, there are two possible explanations. Firstly, the patient may be generating a story that "symbolically represents" emotional issues in his present life, which, experienced fully, like a movie, release the emotions associated with those issues and create a coherent explanation. Secondly, these may be actual past lives, which explain leftover feelings and attitudes in the current life. Dr. Woolger readily admits that both processes may be taking place, but that a signficant portion of what patients experience is actual past-life memory. The emotional core of the experience may be an actual past-life trauma, and then the patient may fill in the details via imagination, just as we do with any memory.
Dr. Woolger takes the stance, as do many past-life therapists, that the experience of reliving a past-life trauma, under trained professional guidance, is valid and therapeutic for the client whether or not all of it is genuine past-life material or not. However, he told me that at least one of his workshop participants followed up on the details of her session and was able to prove it conclusively, finding the town, house and a plaque commemorating the person.
In a case that has come to my attention, police detective Capt. Robert Snow was challenged to undergo a hypnotic past-life regression on a dare by a co-worker. Although skeptical and physically uncomfortable during the session, after some time he suddenly began experiencing two realities--being in the hypnotherapist's office, and being in a past life, simultaneously. All in all he experienced three past-lives, and the third one was of a minor portrait painter in America earlier in the 20th Century. While experiencing this lifetime, he clearly saw himself painting a portrait of a woman with a hunched back. After the session he listed 28 points that could be proven or disproven using standard police detective methods. He began with a search in the literature for the painting he had seen, but gave up months later. Not long afterwards, on vacation in New Orleans, he came across this very painting in an obscure art gallery! (These kinds of coincidences, described by psychologist Carl Jung as 'synchronicity,' seem from my observations to be fairly common in these cases.) The subject, a hunchback woman, is a very unlikely one to come across by accident--in fact, one would be hard-pressed to find such a portrait anywhwere. From this point on, Capt. Snow had a name--J. Carroll Beckwith--and a little biographical information. From this, he was ultimately able to trace an unpublished diary and scrapbook, and he finally confirmed 26 of the 28 provable points. The 28th point, that he got wrong, was his past-life wife's name.
I see only two possible explanations for this case other than reincarnation: 1) a problem with credibility, or 2) cryptoamnesia. That the subject is a police captain and detective in a very responsible position in society, using research methods designed for criminal investigation, adds to his credibility. That he included the error on the 28th point, and that it was such a crucial one, also adds believability. As for cryptoamnesia, it is extremely unlikely that Capt. Snow ran across any reference to this obscure portrait painter or that particular portrait at any time in his life. Capt. Snow concludes in his book, "Looking for Carroll Beckwith, "I realized I had now proven beyond even the smallest doubt that I carried memories of Carroll Beckwith in my mind. There was no other explanation. With the level of proof I had, if this had been a criminal case I would have been absolutely certain of a convinction."
As strong as this case is--and there are others, such as Jenny Cockell's personal account in her book, Across Time and Death--psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Ian Stevenson has gathered the strongest evidence. For almost forty years Dr. Stevenson has been collecting and examining cases, and eliminating all but the ones that have no plausible explanation other than some kind of survival of the personality from one life to another. He does not claim to have proven reincarnation, but rather considers his best cases to be "suggestive of reincarnation."
Primarily he focuses on children who have reported to their parents that they remember being another person (many of these cases occurred in India, where parents are more likely to take these accounts seriously). In a typical case, the child may want to see his "other parents" or act in a way consistent with the previous person's caste or station in life. The child may have a memory particularly of how he or she died in the past life. When the parents hear of such a person having died in the same way that matches the facts given by the child, the parents arrange for the child to be brought to the village of the deceased person. There, the child may seem to know his way around, and lead them directly to the deceased person's former residence. Even if the adults on both sides try to fool the child, the child not only points out who his relatives were in the previous life, but also names them and acts appropriately towards them, including appropriate displays of emotion.
Dr. Stevenson has gone further, however, in studying cases where birthmarks closely match wounds received by the previous person. He has documented and compared autopsy reports for the previous person, with similarly shaped unusual birthmarks in the current person. This is the "smoking gun" or physical evidence that people who dismiss reincarnation as an unprovable belief would do well to consider.
Thus, the evidence is there, though largely ignored. My question is: "What would be proof to you?"
Other articles on our site by Steve S:
Skepticism in Documentaries on Reincarnation
Comments on Reductionism
The Social Relevance of Reincarnation
Avenues of Understanding Reincarnation
Too Close to See: The Influence of Past Lives in our Daily Life
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