Many Lives, Many Masters

I recently finished reading "Many Lives, Many Masters" by Dr. Brian Weiss, a classic in the literature on past lives and reincarnation in the Western world. The book is based on the true case history of a young woman named Catherine who visits Dr. Weiss's psychiatry practice in the early 1980s seeking treatment for depression, anxiety, and multiple phobias. Dr. Weiss was head of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, Florida, at the time. As a classically trained psychiatrist, he is well-versed in conventional treatments that eschew the supernatural and spiritual dimensions in favor of more scientifically verifiable and measurable methods.

After such conventional treatments provide little relief to his patient, Dr. Weiss tries hypnosis on Catherine, opening an unexpected and unorthodox pathway of treatment. During hypnosis, Dr. Weiss hopes to find reasons for Catherine's phobias in repressed childhood memories of trauma, but instead he finds trauma from more than a dozen of Catherine's past lives, ranging from ancient Egypt to the Roman Empire to Celtic Britain. Dr. Weiss discovers the so-called "Master Spirits" in the space between Catherine's lives, a space where she has died in one lifetime but has not yet been reincarnated into another lifetime. These beings seem to guide immortal souls through their many lifetimes, dispensing advice in the form generic platitudes that could have been lifted from almost any of the world's religions. There are identifiable personalities among the Master Spirits, and they continually reappear throughout the book, with Dr. Weiss eagerly awaiting the messages they bring.

Dr. Weiss continually reminds the reader of the skepticism he feels during these sessions with Catherine. He imagines his colleagues' chagrin if they were to realize the depth to which he's gone with Catherine in exploring these topics. In some instances, Catherine's hypnotic recall of past lives borders on believable. Dr. Weiss reassures us that Catherine speaks languages she has never studied while she's under hypnosis, or that she can expertly describe the embalming of the dead in one of her ancient lifetimes in the Near East. Despite this, I am skeptical of Catherine's ability to recall her past lives. Most of the accounts contain very general descriptions of Catherine's appearance in the past life along with depictions of surroundings that any person remotely familiar with antiquity could manufacture. In a few instances, Catherine describes a life in the 19th or 20th centuries. In one such life, she is a German fighter pilot during World War II and has landed her aircraft directly after a battle to help evacuate the remaining soldiers and wounded from the area. Dr. Weiss encourages Catherine to approach and enter her aircraft. She says "I don't want to go [...] [i]t's so senseless," referring to the war and her role within it, a fair statement and sentiment. However, in avoiding the aircraft she also avoids Dr. Weiss's questions about the aircraft and its appearance and operation. Unlike the process of embalming the dead, flying an aircraft involves technical skill not easily imagined by the uninitiated.

While maintaining my skepticism of past lives and reincarnation, I am hesitant to fully dismiss the utility and effectiveness of Dr. Weiss's unusual approach to trauma counseling. If describing traumas from past lives, whether real or imagined, improves one's ability to cope with situations in the present, then I see no reason why such a treatment method should be ridiculed. Dr. Weiss alludes to this viewpoint later in the book when his own anxieties about death are assuaged by the knowledge that we may live multiple lifetimes. This, in essence, is the same reassurance that mainstream Judeo-Christian religions offer, except they avoid reincarnation, instead offering immortality to the soul after one lifetime. There are exceptions to this, like the concept of reincarnation in various Kabbalistic texts, but most Western religions either do not mention reincarnation or actively deny its existence.

Whether or not the reassurance that "there must be more to life than this" is a weakness of humanity or a key to our survival depends largely on our individual approach to the question. Dr. Weiss continues to treat patients with hypnosis and past life regression, and he continues to see positive results. In the end, Dr. Weiss's patients benefit from his treatment, and we are left with thoughtful questions and a good story.

Tags: book reading

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