Sunday, September 5, 2010

Promotion of belief in reincarnation masquerades as psychotherapy

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die. Genesis 3:4

And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment; Hebrews 9:27

As reported by Lisa Miller in The New York Times of August 27, 2010:

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 décor 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.

Belief in reincarnation, he said, "allows you to experience history as yours. It gives you a different sense of what it means to be human."

Peter Bostock, a retired language teacher from Winnipeg, Manitoba, says that in the early 1880s he managed a large estate — possibly Chatsworth — in Derbyshire, England.

In a twist that would make Jane Austen blush, he thinks he was in love with the soul of his current wife, Jo-Anne, then embodied as a cook in the estate’s kitchen. Married to someone else, Mr. Bostock could not act on his feelings.

He says he and his wife share the kind "of attraction and recognition that a soul makes when it encounters the familiar." In that spirit, the couple traveled last month to Rhinebeck, N.Y., where they and more than 200 others paid $355 each to attend a weekend seminar run by one of America’s pre-eminent proselytizers on the subject of reincarnation, Dr. Brian Weiss.

On this second, sweltering day of the seminar, Dr. Weiss, a 65-year-old Florida resident with a hawk-like visage and placid blue eyes, was wearing a polo shirt the color of robins’ eggs. He took a break from teaching and, over a healthy lunch, reflected on the rise of interest in the West in reincarnation. Like Dr. DeBell, he is a psychiatrist with an Ivy League pedigree (Columbia University and Yale Medical School).

Dr. Weiss was censured by the medical establishment in 1988 after he published "Many Lives, Many Masters." In it he details his work with a patient he calls Catherine, who, under hypnosis, the book says, remembered multiple past lives, relieving her of paralyzing phobias. It has sold more than a million copies.

Now, Dr. Weiss said: "Doctors are e-mailing me. They’re not so concerned with their reputations and careers. We can talk about this openly. And it’s not just psychiatrists, but surgeons and architects."

According to data released last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a quarter of Americans now believe in reincarnation. (Women are more likely to believe than men; Democrats more likely than Republicans.)...

...The popular purveyors of reincarnation belief these days are not monks or theologians, but therapists — intermediaries between science and religion who authenticate irrational belief.

Dr. Weiss stresses that he is a medical doctor who was not expecting to encounter past lives in a conventional therapeutic setting. (His favorite title, he says, is not "guru" but "professor.") Under hypnosis, Catherine, the patient in his book, had memories of times and places, and in such extraordinary and historically accurate detail, he said, that she could never have invented them. (In one life she is an Egyptian servant in charge of embalming corpses. "I see eyes," she told Dr. Weiss under hypnosis. "I see a woman, a goddess, with some type of a headpiece on ... Osiris ... Sirus ... something like that.")

Critics of hypnotic regression dismiss such visions as scientifically dubious. "The mind fills in the blanks, basically," said Dr. Jim Tucker, a child psychiatrist at the University of Virginia who studies accounts of past lives. "How are these visions different from dream material: that’s quite the question." Nonetheless, Dr. Weiss’s elite credentials, and his initial skepticism, open the door to belief for people who might otherwise stay away...

...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.

Whereas in classic psychoanalysis, patients used to have to see their doctors multiple times a week to talk about parents, childhood traumas and dreams, past-life therapists promise they can access the memories from which troubles stem in just one session. Catharsis and healing are nearly instantaneous results, Dr. Weiss said. "You don’t need six months of trust," he explained. "This is the fast form."

Among past-lives therapists, a debate rages about whether it’s possible to solve emotional problems by "changing" a past-life memory. To learn to swim instead of drowning, for example; or to strike a killing blow at a killer. Dr. Weiss said he opposes such memory manipulation. "I want the memory to come out unedited, unchanged," he said. Further, therapists have begun to broaden their definition of "memory," leaving aside the question of whether a scene uncovered during hypnosis is "real" or not.

The reader will note the outrageously high fees charged by the "therapists." You always hear about the greed of pseudo-Christian televangelists, but nobody bilks people the way these New Agers do. And of course, women are disproportionately found among the believers in such false doctrine.

The typical North American idea of reincarnation tends to be different from the historic Eastern idea:

But nearly a billion Hindus and a half-billion Buddhists — not to mention the ancient Greeks, certain Jews and a few Christians — have for thousands of years believed something entirely different. Theirs is, as the theologians say, a cyclical view. You are born. You live. You die. And because nobody’s perfect, your soul is born again — not in another location or sphere, and not in any metaphorical sense, but right here on earth.

Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, Columbia University’s first Hindu chaplain, called it "a re-do," like a test you get to take over. After an unspecified number of tries, the eternal soul finally achieves perfection. Only then, in what Hindus call moksha (or release), does the soul go to live with God.

Which is to say, reincarnation in Hinduism is a form of punishment: you keep having to come back in another life again and again until you get it right. And this may take eons. One scholar offers a comment on the typical North American view of reincarnation:

Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University and author of "God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World," has made a study of Western interest in Eastern religious practice and suggests that our fascination with reincarnation is related to Americans’ relative prosperity. Modern Americans, in their optimism and material success, see reincarnation as a chance to postpone eternity for another day, he explained by e-mail. "Reincarnation means never having to say you’re dead," he wrote.

As Hebrews 9:27 indicates, belief in reincarnation is incompatible with the Christian belief in resurrection. A good book on the subject from a Christian point of view is The Reincarnation Sensation (1986) by Norman L. Geisler and J. Yutaka Amano. Early in the book, the authors cite pollster George Gallup's finding in 1982 that 23% of Americans claimed to believe in reincarnation. I remember seeing a poll from about 1986-1987 citing a figure of 29%, if I recall correctly. I find it interesting that the percentage of Americans who tell pollsters that they believe in reincarnation hasn't increased significantly since the 1980s, and may not have increased at all since then.

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