There was a deeply silly New York Times article about “Past Life Regression” over the weekend:
In one of his past lives, Dr. Paul DeBell believes, he was a caveman. The gray-haired Cornell-trained psychiatrist has a gentle, serious manner, and his appearance, together with the generic shrink dÃ©cor of his office — leather couch, granite-topped coffee table — makes this pronouncement seem particularly jarring.
In that earlier incarnation, “I was going along, going along, going along, and I got eaten,” said Dr. DeBell, who has a private practice on the Upper East Side where he specializes in hypnotizing those hoping to retrieve memories of past lives. Dr. DeBell likes to reflect on how previous lives can alter one’s sense of self. He, for example, is more than a psychiatrist in 21st-century Manhattan; he believes he is an eternal soul who also inhabited the body of a Tibetan monk and a conscientious German who refused to betray his Jewish neighbors in the Holocaust.
At least this is in the Style section, aka “Stuff Wealthy White People in the Northeast Like,” (the hook here is that well-to-do doctors in Manhattan have gotten into this stuff) but still, this is a bit much. As silly as it is, though, this at least represents a small amount of progress in dippy New Age thinking– they don’t quote anybody “remembering” being somebody famous in a past life. At the same time, though, nobody “remembers” a past life where they were anything disreputable.
Which is kind of remarkable, given how this is supposed to work.
I mean, it’s striking that, of all the possible past lives he might’ve had, Dr. DeBell remembers one as a monk in Tibet, a group that has never constituted a significant fraction of the world population (total population of Tibet at the moment is a few million, and I’d be surprised if monks are even a few percent of that), and another as a WWII-era German who refused to betray his Jewish neighbors, a group that is probably considerably smaller than the historical population of Tibetan monks.
Given that improbable one-two combination of virtuous past life living, wouldn’t you expect the soul in question to have moved on to a higher plane by now? Or does “Manhattan psychiatrist” occupy a high position in New Age cosmology?
It’s all like that, too. Not all of the people quoted as “remembering” past lives were important during those lives, but somehow all their recovered memories are flattering to them in some way. Funny how that happens.
It’s also worth doing a little math about this. The article describes a bit of a past life workshop:
In a post-Freudian world, past-lives therapy has its advantages. For one thing, it’s quick. A regression session usually takes several hours — and costs more than $100 an hour. Under hypnosis, the patient follows a guided visualization. In his workshop in Rhinebeck, Dr. Weiss talked more than 200 people into a meditative state and then encouraged them to imagine walking through one of five doors. One had on it the year 1850, another 1700, another 1500 and so on. (All this reporter could visualize were Vermeer paintings; peasants in homey kitchens and the bourgeoisie at play.) “Any good therapist can use these techniques and you can learn them in a week,” Dr. Weiss said.
The current world population is about 6.7 billion. The estimated world population in 1850 was, according to a quick Google search, anyway, around 1.2 billion, meaning that four out of five people living today can not possibly “remember” a past life as a human in 1850. For 1700, you’re looking at maybe 700 million, which knocks out 90% of the population. 1500 is maybe 500 million, ruling out 92.5% of people alive today, and so on.
If souls are continually sent back out into the world, 80% of the people alive today must’ve been animals in 1850 (presumably passenger pigeons, or some other numerous species that has now gone extinct, freeing up more souls for incarnation as humans). And yet, people not only remember past lives, they remember interesting past lives– nobody ever remembers being a cow, or a bird, or a beetle (though in the next decade or so I’m sure some people will remember being a Beatle).
I do appreciate the Vermeer line, though. It lets you know that Lisa Miller, the reporter writing this, doesn’t take it nearly as seriously as the people she’s covering. Though that does make you wonder why the Times feels this is worth writing about at all.