But I Regress: Entering the hypnotic realm of past life regression therapy

Illustration by Kate McDonough

“It’s like throwing a handful of fine graphite dust on a piece of paper to see where the hidden indentations are. It lets you see the words that were written on the piece of paper above it that’s now been taken away and hidden. The graphite’s not important. It’s just the means of revealing their indentations.”

– Douglas Adams, “Mostly Harmless”

I believe, wholly, that you only get one go at life. Whether you use it to cure polio or dig up fresh graves so you can make lampshades is a matter entirely up to you. In either case, commit to it, because it’s all you’ll ever get to do.

Bobby Sullivan feels the opposite way, and he is going to give me a past life regression. We’re sitting across from one another at a dining table in his comfortable office in downtown Hopkins, a giant quartz crystal between us refracting the light that squeezes in through Venetian blinds. Bobby’s crystal blue eyes shine through thick-rimmed glasses as he lays things out.

“Earth is a school for souls,” explains Bobby, “one of many, in fact. We come here to learn about compassion, belonging, and truth, but we can fall short of that goal. When we do, we carry regrets into our next lifetimes. We normally cannot access memories from our former lives, but past life regression lifts the veil.”

Bobby tells me about some of his recent cases. A newly divorced woman, apprehensive about returning to the workforce, led to recall her past life as a frontierswoman who cut down her husband’s murderers and went on to run her own successful saloon. A man whose chronic leg pain baffled doctors, who had in a previous existence taken an arrow to it during his entire family’s massacre.

I am a man of science. I dissected my fair share of feral cats in college, and as a boy I watched several episodes of Beakman’s World. That’s why prior to Bobby’s and my rendezvous I looked up what the ivory tower set makes of hypnotherapy using science’s definitive research tool—a quick skim through Google. The thinkers at the Mayo Clinic say that hypnotherapy can be effective for treating myriad indispositions, including pain, insomnia, anxiety, and even hot flashes. While they warn that hypnosis is not for everyone, they do consider it a safe alternative medical treatment. Headaches, drowsiness, and dizziness are uncommon side-effects, which coincidentally are all also side-effects of single malt scotch.

Bobby asks me some personal questions, the answers to which I would love to share in a public forum but won’t bore you with, and motions me to the most comfortable chair I have ever sat down in.

Illustration by Kate McDonough

The regression begins with light hypnosis—soothing “three-two-ones,” directions to relax body parts, and other invocations made all the more compelling by Bobby’s honey-sweet voice. Inhibition sloughs off of my mind, my hands nearly float into the air. At Bobby’s suggestion, I am standing in the middle of a cornflower blue lake, an endless black expanse surrounding it. I descend a freshly materialized flight of stairs. It is the one that connected the kitchen in my childhood home to my father’s office. It smells like pipe smoke.

I am now standing at the end of a hallway. It belongs to a hotel, but not a nice one, with a gaudily patterned carpet and fluorescent lights flickering above the doors. I approach the portal numbered 33 and go through.

I am a child standing in a field, alone. A plane buzzes far overhead. It is one of those nice summer days where the color of the sky seeps into everything, and you feel a vague sense of melancholy as nothing happens. I have matches and am melting the tip of a toy soldier’s rifle, and flattening it between my thumb and forefinger. I am pleased with the result but regret that my toy is now permanently blackened.

I am now inside a kitchen, with sunny-side-up eggs on the plate before me. My mother is cooking, her back turned toward me. I feel a vague sense of unease at her presence—reverential, but afraid. I am now in a classroom. A dour old woman teaches grammar to a sea of young faces, but I am bored to the point of discomfort. I study the grain pattern on my wooden desk for the thousandth time, little doodles of planes bombarding battleships on the notebook where my schoolwork ought to be.

Illustration by Kate McDonough

I am back home. I am creeping down the stairs to the living room, eager to see what adults do after 10 o’clock. I see my mother sleeping on the couch, head thrown back and mouth gaping open. The light of the television dances across her taut face, revealing every wrinkle and worry that lives there. She looks like a corpse yellowing in the dark.

Through the miasma, Bobby’s voice compels me to jump forward to that lifetime’s greatest trauma. I am a man now, struggling to get to my feet, singed horrifically by a fire. My flesh is dripping off my forearms as the blaze behind me glows hotter. I feel total confusion and black hatred, and I do not know how I got here.

I open my eyes and shoot up in the unreasonably comfortable chair, back in Bobby’s office. A tear streams down my cheek. Bobby motions me back down, as I am still in hypnosis and need to be brought out of it. I relax once more as I focus on his voice.

Bobby is not ostensibly peddling a parlor trick—he learned the practice from acclaimed master regression therapist Julia Ingram, M.A., and offers sessions alongside energy healing, dynamic body balancing, aura photography, intuitive readings, and myriad classes and workshops. Whatever you might think of regression therapy, and plenty of scientists call it into question, his goal is for clients to address issues that are holding them back.

It would be unreasonable to assess past life regression’s therapeutic efficacy based on a single session. I still do not believe, however, that I have been in other lifetimes, barring the possibility that I have been a steady succession of dogs. That said, some atavistic chunk at the top of my spine must have been cooking up the visions which Bobby helped me to experience with such lucidity. No matter how deeply I cherish my materialistic view of life, I can’t do away the notion that my psychonautic detour detailed some of the wrinkles in my mind. But I won’t try further to better define them. I would rather not play with fire.