Helen Youngblood has bad dreams. Actually, they’re beyond bad—unnerving nightmares about the worst possible thing that could happen to a mother: the death of a child. “In my dreams, my son is dead,” says the Secane resident. “He feels like wood.” Three times she’s had this dream. The first time, it was so disturbing Youngblood actually went to check on her son to make sure he was OK. “In these dreams I truly feel the grief, pain and sorrow of a mother who has lost a child,” she says.
Understandably bothered by these dreams, Youngblood decided to try something a little off-the-wall—a past-life party, where a hypnotist leads guests into an exploration of their subconscious. Could the dreams be a vision of a tragic future? Or maybe they’re the opposite, a memory from a past life. “I’m not sure what it means,” says the 33-year-old, who works for a mortgage company. “That’s why I agreed to do it.”
I agree to attend, too. I figure it will be fun, though normally I’m not a believer in matters of the supernatural, paranormal and extraordinary. Sure, things like past lives are interesting to talk about once in a while. But ultimately, I don’t spend much time thinking about them. As I drive to the Devon home of hypnotherapist Wendy Goldenthal, I’m nervous. I’m not sure what the night is going to bring. And while I may be a skeptic, I’m also smart enough to know I don’t have all the answers.
The idea behind past-life regression is to find memories that may be buried in our subconscious from a life we experienced in another time. “Information is there,” Goldenthal says. “It’s just a matter of getting to it.”
On the ride to Devon, my imagination running wild, I try to envision the place where the party will be held. Will it be spooky or New Agey? Will there be incense and wind chimes? The reality is much more sedate. The room is nice and normal—a couple plants, a couple paintings and the sort of comfortable, soft chairs you can really sink into. A greyhound named Roxie, adopted from a rescue group, mills about. The guests settle in for the evening, and Goldenthal explains what’s going to happen. “We’ll do a lot of talking,” she says. “My job is to open people’s eyes so they look at things differently in life. We’ll let your mind kind of wander.”
As a hypnotherapist, Goldenthal uses the power of hypnosis to address a whole host of issues in her clients: smoking, low self-esteem, fears, stress, weight loss, nail biting. She helps sales people deal with rejection, assisted one woman in ridding herself of an eating disorder, and is currently aiding one man with improving his golf game. Through a process known as hypnobirthing, she helps pregnant women relax during labor and delivery. Goldenthal also uses hypnosis to access past lives. In one session, a client went through three or four lives in an hour. Afterwards, Goldenthal pointed out that all the client’s past lovers were men in uniform. “Of course,” the woman replied. “My current husband is a state trooper.”
Another woman saw herself in the Middle Ages, surrounded by men in black who proceeded to chop off her head. They then threw her body and head in the water. After the session was over, the woman admitted, “I like the water, but I never go over my head.”
One person saw himself as an Indian chief’s son. Another was a worker in the circus cleaning up after elephants. Another was a maid in England. One saw himself losing a fortune in the Great Depression. “None of these lives were extraordinary,” Goldenthal admits.
In fact, the 51-year-old believes that’s proof people aren’t making their past lives up. If they were, they’d pick something more spectacular. “I never had anybody be Cleopatra,” she says. “I never had anybody be a king or queen.”
Besides Youngblood and me, the past-life party has just two other participants. One, a 25-year-old Main Liner, was uncomfortable having her name published. So we’ll just call her Kate. This past-life party will require Kate to do something she usually avoids: looking back at her birth. As someone who’s adopted, Kate admits she sometimes feels like she’s floating along in life. “My perception is made different by adoption,” she says. “I feel disconnected. I don’t think about my ancestors too much.”
She also experiences déjà vu a lot, which Goldenthal says is a potential sign of a past life. If you’re vacationing in France for the first time, for instance, and have a feeling you’ve been there before, that could be memories coming back to you from your past life. Kate isn’t so sure. “I think déjà vu is interesting, but it doesn’t exactly mean for me that there has been a hiccup in the universe,” she says. “Maybe I get it only because I do a lot of the same things.”
The other guest was Kelly Lange, 23, an Ardmore resident open to the possibilities of the unknown. “I’m more interested in the unknown than I am afraid of it,” says Lange, who works in public relations. “I’m very spiritual. I definitely believe in past life.”
To Lange, everyone has a purpose, and those who fail to fulfill it are reincarnated to get another shot at it. In fact, she believes that her father, who passed away when she was young, came back to watch over the family. “I don’t think he was satisfied enough with his life here on earth to leave just yet,” she says. “I believe he stayed to take care of us and make sure we were all OK.”
Not everyone is such a firm believer in the possibilities of past life and reincarnation. “I’m not rejecting it as a possibility,” says Frank Farley, a psychologist and professor in the department of psychological studies in education at Temple University. “The world is full of a trillion possibilities. There are so many things we know nothing about.”
But from a scientific viewpoint, not much evidence exists to support the idea of past lives, Farley says. The mountains of research that science is built upon—where ideas and theories are tested and corroborated by independent researchers doing random studies—isn’t there. As it is, most of the study of past lives is based solely on personal experience and impressions. “Show me the evidence,” says Farley, who’s also a former president of the American Psychological Association. “I would welcome good scientific research in it.”
Goldenthal admits that, if someone does have a vision of a past life, it’s hard to say exactly what’s happening. Is it an actual past life, or is it just a case of an incredible imagination? “It’s hard for us to prove things,” she says.
One way to prove the validity of a past-life experience is to extract from a person details—dates, names, addresses—that can later be verified. If someone says they were such and such a person living in New York around the turn of the last century, records can be checked to see if that person actually existed. But cases like that aren’t easy to find. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, people don’t come up with proper names or info so you can verify it,” says Carol Bowman, a Media-based past-life therapist and author of two books on past-life experiences.
Furthermore, if people do have visions of a past life, they may be afraid to come forward because of what others may think. One incredible past-life case was that of James Leininger, a Louisiana boy who loved airplanes and knew all sorts of amazing details from the past. He said he flew a Corsair aircraft and was on the Natoma Bay aircraft carrier. He even knew the name of someone else on the boat. He gave so many details, in fact, that his past life was determined to be a man named James Huston, whose plane crashed around Iwo Jima in 1945. Huston’s sister was tracked down, and the child remembered a lot of family events, which she said were true. “It’s better than a Twilight Zone episode,” says Bowman, who adds that it’s common for children—especially those under 5—to have past-life experiences. “The memories are very close to the surface in children.”
Bowman’s son, who had a phobia of loud, booming sounds, had a past life as a Civil War solider. Her daughter, who had a phobia of fire, recalled being trapped in a house fire in another life. Bowman herself says she’s lived two past lives. The one life was in the 19th century, where she saw herself dying of consumption. In the other, she died in the gas chambers of the Holocaust. After finding out about these past lives, which both involved lung-based fatalities, Bowman claims her own serious lung illness went away. From that point on, she wondered if other people could be cured of ailments, phobias and other issues by delving into their past lives.
Bowman has devoted almost 20 years to the subject, getting her master’s in counseling and a hypnotherapy certification. “We bring with us qualities of past lives,” says the 56-year-old. “The source of our present problems can be attributed to past lives. It goes beyond heredity and upbringing.”
The idea that health issues can be cleared up by past-life regression, though, worries Farley. “I feel uncomfortable about it being used in therapy,” he says, pointing out that enough proven therapies already exist, so why use something that hasn’t been backed up by science?
Goldenthal doesn’t use past-life regression as a form of therapy. She’d rather just have fun with it. At our party, she prepares us to delve into our past lives. Like a coach leading a runner through stretches before a race, she takes us through mental exercises to make our brains limber and get us in the right frame of mind. Telling us to close our eyes, she asks us to imagine we’re inside our favorite kitchens with our favorite dish on the stove. Imagine touching a lemon, then biting into it. Imagine a pail of wet sand in one hand and a helium balloon attached to the thumb of the other hand. “The purpose of this is to get us thinking,” she says. “We usually don’t daydream and think like this.”
She tells us about hypnosis, explains how the tool could lead to past lives, and corrects any misconceptions we had about it. Hypnosis can’t make you do anything against your will, and it can’t make you reveal secrets. It’s also not a place where you can get stuck. And throughout hypnosis, you’re always aware of what’s going on. “Hypnosis is a state of mind where the subconscious is open to positive suggestions,” she says.
Producing a feeling of calm and focus similar to meditation, hypnosis works by bypassing the conscious mind to work on the subconscious. Its effects can be powerful. Once, at the start of a family vacation, Goldenthal broke her toe. Not wanting to spoil things on the first day, she used her hypnosis skills. She repeated to herself, “The more I focus my attention on my toe, the more comfortable I feel,” like a mantra. It worked. The pain went away. “I was fine the entire day,” she says.
After final instructions, we’re finally ready for the main event: the actual past-life regression. I still feel uneasy. So does Lange. “Now I’m nervous,” she admits, as Goldenthal puts on dreamy music and tells us to relax and close our eyes.
Goldenthal works her way back into the past. She tells us to picture a pleasant time when we were 18, then 5, then 2. Then we imagine our birth. Then she leads us past that, to an in-between time, when the soul is resting, waiting, transitioning from one life to another. The world is full of a blue mist, she says. Then we leave the mist and head to something beyond that—presumably a past life. In all, the past-life regression lasts 25 minutes, though it feels much shorter. Opening my eyes, I sense that I’ve gone far away. We talk about what we envisioned. Lange, the believer in past lives, didn’t experience much. “I would have to say that I was a bit disappointed,” she says. “I expected to uncover some real past-life experiences.”
She thinks she knows why nothing happened: “I do feel there is a good chance that this is my first time here on earth.” Youngblood, who wanted answers about her bad dreams, didn’t find any. Oddly enough, though, she did imagine butterflies, a creature she’s not fond of. “I really don’t think that it means anything,” she says.
Goldenthal disagrees. “Why would you have an experience of something you hate?” Goldenthal also questions why Youngblood, when describing the scene, used the word “frolicking.” That seemed out of character. “I’ve never before heard her use that word,” says Goldenthal, also Youngblood’s former co-worker.
It turns out Kate let her faith lapse after attending Catholic school, and she believes the vision might be a sign that she should be bringing religion back into her life. She also envisioned an image of a woman who may have been her biological mother. It was inside a house in the 1970s. A playpen was there. She couldn’t see a face. “I don’t remember anything else, because it was a place that I didn’t want to go,” she says.
As for me, I pictured water and pine trees, mountains and sky. It was certainly nice, though I don’t think it had anything to do with a past life. It was a scene from Alaska, where I had visited a couple years earlier. “Whatever comes out has value,” Goldenthal tells me.
Perhaps I like Alaska because I was once there in a past life. Or maybe I like it just because it’s a nice place to be. “I don’t have any answers,” she continues. “It’s hard to prove any of it, but we weren’t here to prove anything. We were here to have an experience. It’s 25 minutes of an unusual experience.”
Sure enough, it was. In the end, though, nothing crazy happened to me. All my nervousness was for nothing. Leaving Goldenthal’s house after our long, strange trip into the subconscious, the street was full of shadows and dark. Nearby, the lights of the Devon Horse Show Grounds glowed in the night.