One of my friends died this week, shot to death by her husband.
It’s something that makes you question the cosmos and the afterlife, and the pain makes the pondering feel so much more important than simple navel-gazing. After all is said and done, after your loved one takes his or her last breath, where do they go? Are they souls eternal? Is there life after death?
The answer is, yes. Wicca and other Pagan belief systems hold that reincarnation is true.
Reincarnation, put formally, is the rebirth of a soul or part of a soul in a new physical body. Sometimes the soul brings a reminder of the previous life. Some people are born with a birthmark in the same place as the wound that ended the life before, for example. Other souls retain memories of prior selves and prior lifetimes. These memories are sometimes called “resonances.”
Say you’ve always been strongly attracted to a particular place. Everything about it holds your interest and sparks a familiar sort of tug in your heart – love or yearning, respect or a need to return.
Conversely, you may feel an unparalleled hatred of a particular place or point in time with no reason that you can determine. For me, I am in love with Egypt. Pictures of the Temple of Deir al-Bahri, the funerary temple of the Pharaoh Hatshepsut, fill me with a bittersweet longing that’s almost like homesickness.
When I went to Ireland’s West Country for the first time, I felt like I’d finally come home. The feeling of belonging was almost more than I could put to words. On the other side of the coin, I hate Joseph Stalin and everything he stood for with a loathing so complete that it’s startling. One picture of the man makes my stomach twist with revulsion. It’s something quite beyond the normal, “that was a very bad man” reaction.
Maybe I once was a priest who served the daily memorial rituals for Hatshepsut at that beautiful temple. Maybe I was Irish in the green moisture of Connemara in a life before this one. Maybe in a previous incarnation I was one of the people Stalin starved to death in a gulag or in Ukraine. Maybe I’ll someday undergo a past life regression to find out.
A past-life regression is a meditation technique, usually guided by someone else (a hypnotist or shaman), in which the person seeking knowledge retreats into the recesses of his or her soul, passing back through time and into the time before. The soul remembers everything it’s ever experienced and every lesson it ever learned.
The point of life is to learn. If we lost the wisdom we accumulate over our lifetimes, our existences wouldn’t make much sense. If we only live once, then what is the point of gathering all that wisdom just to have it evaporate at the end?
Some people in the Pagan community, particularly shamans and the so-called “New Age” Pagans, believe that our souls choose the bodies into which they’re born.
The belief is that, from whatever distant vantage point they have between their physical lives, souls can tell what challenges lie ahead for each incarnation. They see the souls who will be reborn around them, and if they know these souls – for souls are said to travel through time in groups – then they may pick that new life so that they and their beloved fellow souls can live together again.
Reincarnation is part of the karmic wheel. Some people believe that if you were bad in one life, you will pay for it in the next. If you were really bad, you won’t even be human when you return.
In some faiths, it’s possible to be reincarnated as a dung beetle instead of as a human. On the other hand, some people believe that human souls always reincarnate as humans, and cat souls as cats, and dog souls as dogs, and so on.
I have experienced past-life regressions that were startlingly vivid and which held the answers to fears and anxieties in my current life. For example, I have been plagued with headaches and the fear of being abandoned all of my current life. In a regression, I learned that I was once a soldier who was cut down by friendly fire and accidentally left behind by his platoon. He was executed by an enemy officer with a shot to the head. Once I uncovered the memories of that life, my headaches and fear of abandonment were still there, but they were much diminished. (I still have a strange reaction to the sound of helicopters, though.)
One person had an intense fear of falling. In a past life, she had fallen down a flight of stairs and died because she broke her neck. Another person was born with birthmarks that resembled shotgun wounds – and these wounds corresponded to the injuries suffered when the previous lifetime ended in murder.
Another person I know has been afraid of open flame all of his life, and it never made sense to him until he remembered a life on the Great Plains in the 1800’s when he was burned to death in a house fire.
Not every phobia can be traced to past lives, but I would wager that many of them can.
There’s a sort of conflict between the concept of reincarnation and the hope for a place of peace and rest. Can there be reincarnation and heaven at the same time? Of course there can.
No soul reincarnates immediately. It takes time for a soul to process everything it has just been through, the lessons and the traumas of the physical life just ended. It’s also hard to unravel all of the human emotions that are tied to the people and places that were loved the most in the life before. Souls need a place to go for a quiet rest, a time to reflect, and sometimes, if the trauma of the physical life was bad enough, a place to heal. There is a buffer time between lives, a place where souls can sleep and be rejuvenated.
In many Pagan groups, including Wicca, and among Theosophists (which really need a blog post all their own), the place where souls go to rest between incarnations is called the Summerlands. The Summerlands are our own personal heavens. They are experienced exactly as each soul needs them to be. All humans go to the Summerlands, where we are received by the Lord and Lady as the prodigal children that we are. We are united with loved ones who have gone before, and we are given time and space to heal and process what we went through in our physical lives. We are able to spend time with the other souls in our soul group. We can spend the time recuperating, internalizing the lessons of the life just lived, and, when we’re ready, we can begin to plan our next incarnation.
At all times, our loved ones and the Lady are with us, and nobody is alone in the Summerlands. There is no pain. There is no retribution. Those souls who committed grievous sins in their past lives are aware that balance requires that they will learn in their next life what it’s like to be on the other side of the equation. If you were a killer in the life just led, in your next life, you will be the one who is killed. If you were cruel, you will endure the cruelty of another. What you have sown, so shall ye reap. It’s more than a proverb taken from the Bible; it’s a very true karmic rule.
As we go through our lives, we experience everything that human existence can teach. We travel with our soul groups, and we learn these lessons together. We take turns being good and bad, hurt and hurtful, loving and loved, sick and healthy and those who heal. We learn what it’s like to be a child, a woman, a man, an old man, an old woman, to die old and infirm, to die young. We learn what it’s like to be talented and loved, and what it’s like to be infirm and incapable.
Before we’re done, we will have lived every kind of human life it’s possible to live. We will have experienced every culture, every subculture, every religion, every locale, every disease, every triumph, every accomplishment and every failure.
As souls, we have a lot of work to do. It takes hundreds of thousands of lifetimes to learn everything there is to learn. We are guided through our choices and in between the worlds by the Goddess and by Her psychopomps (a fancy name for the spiritual guides of each human soul, and for the spirits who accompany souls to and from the Earth and to and from the Summerlands).
In Celtic Wicca, one of the greatest psychopomps is Gwyn ap Nudd, the ruler of the Otherworld and the leader of the Wild Hunt. He and his hounds, the Cŵn Annwn, go forth in the winter and gather up the souls of the dead, taking them back to the Summerlands with them. This is the Wild Hunt, when the souls of the dead, especially those of dead heroes, go chasing for one last romp through the fields and forests of this green earth before they return to the Place Between.
And what happens when the soul has finally learned all that it can learn from being human? Then it can either stay with the Lord and Lady in the eternal bliss of the Summerlands, or it can be elevated to serve another soul as a spirit guide. To Christians, this would be like a human soul being transformed into a guardian angel.
Past Life Regression
Even though most past-life regressions are done with the assistance of a shaman or other guide, there are ways to guide yourself through a meditation that can help you encounter some of your own past lives.
There are commercially-offered guided meditation CDs and videos on the market, where a recorded voice can take the place of the guide. These are useful to some people, but irksome to others. It really does come down to personal taste. I’ve never had much success with these recordings, because they never seem to go at the right pace, and sometimes the voice of the person leading the meditation is impossibly annoying to me. That’s my personal problem, though; others find these recordings to be invaluable.
As with all else in the Pagan world, your mileage may vary, and you must experiment to find what suits you best.
As with any meditation, when you set out to do a past-life search, you should make sure that you’re in a place where you won’t be disturbed. No pets, no kids, no neighbors, nobody tromping in and out through the front door.
You should be comfortable so that your physical body presents no distractions. You should be neither too hot, nor too cold. You should not wear binding or uncomfortable clothing. You should either sit in a chair or lie on a bed that suits you so much that you’re able to ignore your physical being all together. Sometimes soft music and dim lighting can also be helpful. Anything that will help you relax and get into a mindful, meditative place.
Lie down or sit down in a comfortable position where and when you won’t be disturbed.
Take a deep, centering breath – in through the nose, with full response from the diaphragm, then out through the mouth. It’s the same sort of breathing that you’re taught in yoga class.
Breathe in, breathe out. Feel your body relax. Continue this deep, even breathing and imagine that your toes are relaxing. Your feet are loosening, the tendons on the soles releasing, the bones and muscles releasing all tension. Now your ankles are relaxing, and your shins.
The muscles in your calves stop clenching and turn soft, loose, tension-free. Your knees are next to relax, then your thighs. Your buttocks and your lower abdomen go quiet and stress-free. It’s as if your body is falling into peaceful dreams. You can feel the relaxation flowing over you like warm water, like a bath that’s just the perfect temperature, or blown over you by the gentlest of summer breezes.
Your stomach relaxes, and your chest. Your heartbeat slows and your breathing deepens, as if you are asleep. But you aren’t asleep. (If you do fall asleep during this step, don’t worry – it doesn’t mean you can’t meditate, or you haven’t any past lives to see. It means you’re tired.) The relaxation spreads up to your shoulders and down your arms, all the way to your fingertips. Feel them relax. Feel the muscles release all of the tension of the day. Feel your body easing into the background of your senses.
Your throat releases, then your jaw. The muscles of your face relax, and those beneath your scalp are calmed. Your mouth, your nose, your eyes… all are quiet. All relaxed. All at rest.
Inside your mind, retreat. Go backward, sinking deeper and deeper into the infinite space within your soul. You will find many things – images, shadows, memories, sensations. Let them pass. Let them wash over you as you retreat. They are things from this life, things that may be bringing you backward into your childhood. Go back in time. Go back.
Within yourself, you will find a path. It might be a door to open, or a staircase to descend. Some people see an elevator, others an escalator. Others see a gravel path that leads down the side of a gentle slope. Follow the path. Go downward into the history of your soul. Go back.
You may follow this path for a long while, or only for a moment. Soon, though, you will find yourself in a place with light and images and sounds, smells and sensations. Look down at your feet. Ask yourself what you’re wearing. Take stock of your body from toe to head – clothing, gender, health, age, coloring, adornment. When you have an idea of who you are, look around. Where are you? What do you see? Do you see other people, or buildings? What are they doing?
Keep walking. You are now in the footsteps of who you used to be. You have become one again with a prior incarnation. Follow that incarnation’s path and watch where you go, what you do, and what is happening. Take note of people or events that stand out to you. Be aware of things that make you happy, or sad, or frightened.
You may be powerfully moved by what you find, and that’s okay. Even if the power of the emotion pushes you out of your trance state, that’s all right. When your vision ends, either because you pull out suddenly or because you carefully retrace your steps back into the body of today, make sure that you sit quietly with the things you’ve seen and the memories you’ve re-encountered. Process it. Write it down.
You’ve just have a very powerful experience, and as you think about it, you might realize that there are connections between what you saw and what you’ve lived this time around. If it feels true, it is true. Honor your own impressions and your own instincts.
Congratulations. You’ve just stepped into a much wider world.