“Our tribe was invaded and they were setting the huts on fire,” Steve Buchheit remembers. “My wife and daughter were in one of them, and the invading warriors from the other tribe were outside, blocking the entrance. I went to try and get them out, and I got knocked out and killed.”
The experience was so vivid that Buchheit, a trauma therapist from Missouri, says he experienced real, physical symptoms of a trauma victim. “I had all this rage and fear and I could feel the memory as an unprocessed trauma, physically as I was remembering it, which gave it a little more validation,” he said.
In reality, Buchheit was sitting in a therapist’s office, participating in a hypnotherapy session led by Thomas Lipsitz, PhD. Via hypnosis, Lipsitz led Buchheit back through a series of memories of his present life — from childhood to infancy, and back through to a floating existence behind conception. There, in what Buchheit describes as a “plane of calmness” in which he was floating above something like water, he felt a presence that he believes is his spirit guide. The presence led him back, he said, into a past life.
“I got a sense for some other presence there, no image of a spirit guide or anything tangible, but the idea was to connect with that presence and ask it to take to a previous life experience that would be helpful for me to see,” he said. So he did. “It was pretty incredible.”
He says since the hypnotherapy session he has felt more intuitive in general, and his meditation practice has evolved noticeably. He has since revisited a total of five past life memories during hypnotherapy sessions. He recalled a life in which he was an inuit digging through the ice, which might explain why his hands and feet are always inexplicably cold in this life. He also recalled drowning in a submarine as a member of the German navy, and being thrown into a dungeon as a serf who was outspoken about classism in a feudalist society.
“I didn’t think it was really fair how we were all working so hard just so the people who owned the castles and stuff could live the luscious lifestyle they were living,” he said. “I was sort of outspoken about it and got locked up in the dungeon. It was interesting because it was a really scary scene being in the torture chamber, but it wasn’t that long. The guards were telling me, ‘You need to recant those things you’re saying because people are starting to listen.’ They said they were gonna hang me in front of my family and so on. I ended up instigating them to kill me in the dungeon, and it felt like a victory.”
As Buccheit’s experiences demonstrate, extraordinary things can happen when you explore the obscure crevices of your consciousness — it’s reaching them that’s the trick.
When he first started working with hypnotherapy in tandem with his clinical psychology practice in Missouri, Lipsitz says he didn’t at all buy into the outlandish claims of colleagues who swore the practice could transport people back into past lives. He was an American Jew who had trained in the Jesuit St. Louis University’s clinical psychology department, and “this whole past lives thing” seemed way too out there.
“I thought it was all pretty woo-woo stuff,” he said.
He used hypnotherapy instead for anything from “helping golfers with the yips” (performance anxiety issues), to helping people quit smoking, overcome child sexual abuse and even integrate their multiple personalities. He still does those things, but over his 38 years working with hypnosis, he says too many strange coincidences and uncanny moments have occurred for him to remain a skeptic. For the past 22 years now, he has used the hypnotherapeutic process called “regression” to transport his patients “through birth, and into past lives.”
At first when patients would explain that they felt they’d had a past life recollection, he’d write it off as a dream state and try to correlate it with a current life event that might be lingering on their subconscious.
“Now, after doing it so much, I actually believe in reincarnation,” he said.
For hundreds of years — possibly longer — people have used the practice of hypnosis in an attempt to do just that. Hypnosis is the name given to a psychological method of tapping into an altered, often trancelike state of consciousness. Its proponents say it unveils the unconscious mind and can help you break unhealthy habits, overcome deep-seated traumas — maybe even revisit a past life.
“The reason [the practice of hypnosis] has persisted for so long is because of the wonders of the unconscious mind and how difficult it is to access your unconscious in the everyday,” said Lipsitz. “One of the most difficult things in life is to get connected to your deeper self, and hypnosis is one way of doing that.”
Lipsitz has extensive training in hypnosis and has been practicing hypnotherapy (the therapeutic form of hypnosis) on his clients for almost 40 years. He describes hypnosis like a software program that’s already installed in every human brain, for which trained hypnotists have the access codes. The basic process of hypnosis is to quiet the busy, logical, rational left side of the brain, and bring focus to the subjective, emotional, intuitive right side of the brain. The idea is to more intimately connect with the unconscious processes of the mind. He said hypnosis is just one of many techniques able to do this, noting that practices like deep meditation and holotropic breathwork, can achieve similar results.
“During hypnosis I’m not doing anything to anyone, but I’m helping them learn how to do something for themselves,” he said. “I help them access this untapped reservoir of their creative self, if you will.”
Lipsitz’s experience with hypnosis reaches back to his childhood. His father was a physician of internal medicine who took up hypnosis in the mid 1950s, when Lipsitz was six. He’d practice the technique on Lipsitz and his sister, then would have people over to demonstrate how it worked.
“We were like guinea pigs,” Lipsitz said. “I learned how to be hypnotized from my father.”
Lipsitz’ father went on to use the practice to help people with smoking cessation, weight loss and anxiety issues. During graduate school, while earning his degree in clinical psychology, Lipsitz learned how to operate on the other side of hypnosis. Over the years he has subsequently taken additional classes, and is certified through the National Guild of Hypnotists, a nonprofit educational corporation aimed at advancing the field of hypnotism. He is also a member of a professional group called the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, which was founded in 1949 to gather psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, dentists and physicians for “scientific inquiry and the conscientious application of hypnosis in the clinical setting” according to its website.
Hypnosis and Health
Hypnosis has possibly been around since ancient times, but its modern use is dated back to 1841 when Joseph Braid, a surgeon in Manchester, England, observed that patients slipped into a “nervous sleep” when they gazed at candles above eye level. He coined the term “neurohypnology” from the Greek terms neuro (nerve) and hypnos (sleep). The term was later shortened to “hypnosis.” The 1998 book Current Thinking And Research In Brief Therapy: Solutions, Strategies, Narratives edited by William J. Matthews PhD and John H. Edgette, Psy.D. has a section on hypnosis, its origins and practical uses. It explains that, according to electroencephalogram (EEG) measurements, there is no similarity between hypnosis and sleep states.
To describe the “ultimate” relaxed hypnosis, the book relays the story of James Esdaile, a surgeon practicing in India in 1845 — a time before chemical anesthesia and sterile procedures existed. Esdaile experimented with what he called “mesmerism,” or passing his hand over patients’ bodies in a “mesmeric” fashion in order to lessen the pain and trauma of his surgeries, documenting 300 major operations. He reported substantially lower postoperative infection and mortality. But, as the book notes, “probably because of how he labeled his work, his report to the Medical Board was ignored.”
During hypnosis, people tend to be highly responsive to suggestion, and Lipsitz said that’s one reason it’s important to choose an experienced, professional, trustworthy therapist with whom you’ve developed an ongoing connection.
“It is a vulnerable thing, you need to be able to trust,” he said. “If you don’t trust who’s working with you you’re probably not going to let yourself go into hypnotic state. You need to know that the person knows what he or she’s doing.”
He explained the difference between asking a person to imagine themselves somewhere else — say, lying on a beach — and actually hypnotizing them. It’s based on the depth to which the person enters the experience. There are various levels of hypnotic states, each one taking you deeper into the experience. The first level of hypnosis is dissociation. You enter a detached state, which Lipsitz explains is similar to when you’re caught up in the plot of a movie or a book, and you forget where you are.
“Then there are deeper levels,” he said.
The deepest level of hypnosis is the state in which people experience positive and negative hallucinations.
“For example, if you were very deeply hypnotized and I gave you a post-hypnotic suggestion that when you wake up you’re gonna look at the wall in front of you and there’s going to be a clock on the wall and you’re gonna be able to tell me what time it is,” he said. “I’m going to have you come back and you’ll actually see a clock on the wall, you’ll be able to tell me the time.”
That’s a positive hallucination.
A negative hallucination means subtracting your awareness of something in your surroundings.
“There’s a Kleenex box in my office and I’ll tell people that when they open their eyes they’re gonna want to get a Kleenex, and they’re not going to see a Kleenex box in my office, and they’re gonna get mad at me because I don’t have any Kleenex for them,” he said. “And then I’ll have them open up their eyes and, even though the Kleenex box is right in front of them, they’ll say, ‘Doctor, I need a Kleenex, where is it?’”
LIpsitz says (simlar to the stories mentioned in the Matthews-Edgette book) in very deep levels of hypnosis people can actually undergo surgeries without anesthesia.
“You’re able to anesthetize a certain part of the body,” he said. “That takes a very deep level to be able to overcome the left brain enough to convince yourself actually that part of your body is numb or doesn’t feel.”
He said he’s never performed hypnotic anesthesia, but he’s helped lessen the pain of child labor by using hypnotherapy during the birthing process.
“It sounds like the work of sorcerers and scam artists, but hypnosis can play a very real role in protecting and promoting health,” as Sarah Klein, writing for the Huffington Post, put it in an article last July.
“The American Medical Association approved hypnosis as a therapy in 1958 (although it later rescinded its position, according to the ASCH), and the APA followed suit three years later, according to Harvard Medical School,” Klein wrote.
In recent years, neuroscience has revived its study of hypnosis, as detailed in a 2012 Guardian article.
Well-respected scientific journals regularly publish studies observing hypnosis, often with fascinating results. The American Psychological Association (APA) affirms hypnosis’ ability to help with some mental health issues, but, as Klein’s article points out, the APA warns on its website that hypnotherapy “should be conducted only by properly trained and credentialed health care professionals (e.g. psychologists) who also have been trained in the use of hypnosis and who are working within the limits of their professional expertise.”
LIpsitz says the effect of hypnosis on the brain is probably similar to what meditation does.
“When a person is involved in a traumatic experience, it gets coded in the right brain, in a loop,” he said. “And they hide it in that part of their brain, so that it’s like a visual image in their brain, or a memory that’s intense, and pretty well engendered in that part of the brain. Rational, logical thinking from the left side of the brain oftentimes cannot break into that loop. It’s connected. So, with techniques like hypnosis, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, what you can do is you can break into that loop. And when you do that, you allow rational, logical thinking from the left side to have much more of an impact than it would if you didn’t do these things.”
There was a longstanding debate in the scientific world over whether people being hypnotized are faking the experience, or subconsciously convincing themselves it is real. Neuroimaging has proven they are not.
“When people are asked to fake hypnosis, to the point where observers cannot tell the difference between them and the genuinely hypnotized people, the two groups are clearly distinguishable by their brain activity,” the Guardian reported.
According to the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH), the technique might help people use their minds more powerfully. A number of researchers have started to explore this hypothesis.
Some people are more hypnotizable than others, and studies looking at those people in particular have revealed some things about the human mind that scientists used to think impossible.
“It seems like the brighter the people — the better the imaginations, the more they’re able to access their right brains — the better subjects they are,” Lipsitz said. “People who are very rigid left brain kind of people, sometimes they kind of have a hard time because they can’t let go of the rational, logical, busy mind.”
A study at McGill University in Montreal showed that it is possible via hypnosis to turn off automatic word reading. The practice can even prevent the Stroop effect, which is a psychological occurrence in which a person has a difficult time navigating word meanings. As the Guardian put it, the Stroop effect is “a conflict between meanings, such as where we are much slower to identify the ink color of a word when the word itself describes a different hue.”
During the experiment a brain scanner showed participants’ anterior cingulate cortex (which helps us decipher competing demands) to have lower activation. The visual cortex, which we use in order to recognize specific words, was also less activated than normal.
“To the scientific world it was a strikingly persuasive demonstration that hypnosis could apparently disassemble an automatic and well-established psychological effect in a manner consistent with the brain processes that support it,” the Guardian writes.
A series of studies at Australia’s Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science successfully used hypnosis to produce effects in study participants similar to the effects of various brain injuries. On brain injury-induced condition called somatoparaphrenia, causes a person to disassociate with one or more of their limbs, believing they have been replaced and are not their own. Using hypnosis, scientists were able to produce the same feelings — actual symptoms of somatoparaphrenia — in healthy study participants.
While hypnosis research has come a long way, its study has been somewhat stunted, which could have to do with a lingering stigma born from the days when hypnosis was mainly used as a parlor trick. Scientists certainly haven’t begun to delve into the possibility that hypnosis connects us with past life incarnations of ourselves.
Lipsitz shares the story of one of 50 or 60 coincidental events that led him to become convinced that he was actually transporting his patients into past lives — not just dreamlike subconscious states — via hypnosis.
While taking a friend of his — an orthopedic surgeon — through regression, the friend described a scene in which he was on horseback, in a cavalry line. He was riding along and suddenly realized the king, who he knew to be William the Conqueror, was strutting right past him.
“He was describing him in detail by his red, flowing, curly, long hair and the crown on his head,” Lipsitz said. “He was just awed by the whole situation; he couldn’t believe that he was going to battle and the king was marching right in front of him. He was just taken aback by it.”
The session ended, and Lipsitz brought his friend out of hypnosis. Five minutes after the friend left, he met with a female patient in her late 70s. They were going to do past life regression for the woman’s first time, that day.
“She comes in with this picture,” he said. “I said ‘What is that?’ And she sits down and says to me, ‘I felt compelled to show you this picture. This is a picture of a woman who is relative of mine, and she’s also a distant relative of William the Conqueror.”
The hair on Lipsitz’ back stood up.
“I looked up at the heavens and I went ‘Oh my God,’” he said. “Why would she feel compelled to tell me that, right then?”
He said this was one of more than 50 inconceivable events that convinced him past life regression, and reincarnation are real.