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To believe . . . or not to believe — in reincarnation, that is —
is not what Other Lives, Other Selves is all about. What even
the most ardent skeptic will come away with after reading this book is
a greatly expanded appreciation for and perhaps even awe of the creativity,
resilience, and fertility of the psyche and its healing powers.
And for some of us — perhaps I should say all of us, for who has
not tiptoed to the edge of the abyss and asked, Why am I here? — there
will also emerge a clearer understanding of the psychodynamics of existence
and a heightened awareness of this great cosmic drama — or is it a comedy?
— in which we are all players.
I was impressed by the style of Woolger’s presentation as well as
the substance: Clarity, integrity, and humility are the qualities
that come to mind. In Other Lives, Other Selves the author
provides a dispassionate and yet compelling look at the possible value
of past-life therapy, as well as a disarmingly honest account of his own
evolution from Jungian analyst — and skeptic — to Jungian past-life therapist.
At no point does he proselytize, instead he sets forth the evidence from
his many years of work with clients, and he never deviates from his central
concern — relieving their suffering by using whatever tools he has at his
disposal for that purpose. His approach throughout is eclectic, syncretic.
Thus his resources include Jung, Freud, Reich, Gestalt, subpersonalities,
body language, psychodrama, breathwork, and more. If there is one
simple equation that would define Roger Woolger’s philosophy, and which
is eloquently borne out in this book, it is simply: Healing = Truth.
He tells us from the outset that he is not invested in, nor concerned
with, the metaphysical or philosophical truth of reincarnation. Whether
the events occurring during a therapy session genuinely are past-life experiences
is not the issue for Woolger. He is only concerned with his clients’
"psychic truth" — that which is real to them. He tells his patients:
"It doesn’t matter whether you believe in reincarnation or not for this
therapy to be effective" (p. 82). He asks them only to believe in
a concept that is basic to nearly all the schools of psychotherapy which
derive from Freud and nineteenth century hypnotic-regression work, and
that is "the healing power of the unconscious mind" (p. 82). As he
says, the psyche is fundamentally a "story-teller." Whether or not
these stories are "real" or "fantasy" is not important. What Woolger
has come to over the past decade — while listening to literally thousands
of hours of these "stories" — is the inescapable realization that by accepting
them as "true" and allowing his clients to cathart freely around the issues
that they involve he is able to facilitate an ever-mysterious process of
Let me state right now that what resonated so strongly with me in
reading Woolger’s work was its implications for bringing in the new worldview,
which is a broader paradigm for dealing with human suffering. Unfortunately
it is also one which is being resisted might and main by mainstreamers
blindly insisting on the "science only" dogma — a cruel dogma indeed, for
at every turn it denies the fundamentality of consciousness and the integrity
of subjectivity as valid instruments in the relief of human pain.
However, sooner or later the die-hard materialists will have to acknowledge
that this new worldview is not only more all-encompassing and compassionate
but also that it derives from a more comprehensive, long overdue understanding
of our essentially Divine nature. In this worldview the head can
no longer ignore the heart, specialists of any ilk must be willing to network
and broaden their views for the higher good, everyone of us will be obliged
to stretch our focus and concerns to include all of humanity, and so on.
As Woolger puts it, in his one swipe at old-paradigm thinkers: "A
belief in the final interpretive power of rationality and science to explain
everything is itself a pernicious form of monotheism and only leads to
all kinds of irrational, inexplicable, and even occult reactions from the
repressed polytheistic unconscious" (p. 49).
And is he qualified to shake the scientistic pedestal? Yes!
The most ardent rational materialist, I believe, will be obliged to expand
her or his universe after reading this book because of the sheer weight
of evidence presented. And by evidence I mean the irrefutable
kind: case after case of trauma reexperienced, painful emotions released,
confusion dispelled, and healing realized. By healing, I mean
on all levels — body, mind, spirit. For as new-paradigm facilitators
(those of us in holotropic breathwork, for example) will assure you, only
the holistic approach brings lasting results.
As Woolger himself says,
The wheel has come full circle in psychotherapy. From the
cathartic cures of the nineteenth century and Freud’s early emphasis on
trauma many therapies followed Freud in moving away from the experiential
to an interpretive or, as in behaviorism and psychiatry, to a manipulative
approach to psychological illness. Now, thanks to Moreno, Perls, Janov,
and all who have stressed the direct reexperience of trauma and attendant
catharsis and also the larger visions of Stanislav Grof and Morris Netherton,
experiential therapies are once more available to heal the psyche in all
of its complex levels. (p. 127)
In this regard one of the most valuable contributions in this book is
the author’s new therapeutic model — a model grounded in his own findings
which only in the past decade have come to include those of past-life therapy.
According to Woolger there are six levels that belong to any complex1:
In Woolger’s epistemology these levels can be symbolized as petals of
a lotus, and the power of this lotus wheel model — as he calls it
— lies in its delineation of multidimensional aspects of the complex, as
both overlapping and resonating with one another. Instead of the
linear or hierarchical model, which one finds in Ken Wilber’s (1980) work
for example, Woolger’s concept is an organic one in which circles radiate
from the central core (or feeling nucleus of the complex) overlapping,
resonating, and moving in and out of each other.
1. The Existential Aspect, which concerns current reality
2. The Biographical Aspect, involving memories from early
childhood or later.
3. The Somatic Aspect, e.g., as revealed in the client’s
body language (chronic stiff neck, back pain, or whatever the physical
symptom which traditional medicine has not "cured").
4. The Perinatal Aspect, womb and birth trauma.
5. The Past-Life Aspect.
6. The Archetypal Aspect, involving spiritual insight into
the basis for the complex. For example, the element of karmic debt
perhaps involving a deep connectedness with a significant other from this
life which has carried over apparently from past lives. (p. 116)
A striking benefit of this model is that in overlapping with each
other the petals portray how all aspects of the complex mirror or interface
with all others. As Woolger explains, no single aspect is more "important"
than any other or any "deeper" (as the Wilberian model would suggest, for
example). Instead, as Woolger has observed in his own practice, at
any point in the client’s healing process any of the aspects might present
itself. The first session may bring up a past-life experience; the
second, a pre- and perinatal one; the third, a biographical. There
is no logical sequence; rather the psyche, as healer, has demonstrated
to Woolger over and over again that it transcends time in order to catalyze
needed healing. For each client the process is unique and a different
sequence occurs. In the same light, Woolger acknowledges that if
a more directive approach seems to work with a particular client, and the
therapist stays with one particular aspect — be it perinatal or past life,
for example — sooner or later the feeling core of the complex can be reached.
Woolger’s theory of the complex and its recurring and interrelated
aspects I felt resonated well with Grof’s COEX system (system of
condensed experience)2 idea
— a concept which Woolger refers to in Chapter Five. He states that
his own work has validated the COEX principle, and he also acknowledges
how he has benefited from Grof’s model of basic perinatal matrices
(BPMs) as well.
Like Woolger, but based on our own experiences as primal-breathwork
facilitators, my husband and I are firmly convinced that only the individual
psyche "knows" the healing path. We have learned that we need only
provide the setting, an unconditionally accepting context, and allow the
patient, him- or herself, to lead the way. In reading Woolger’s book
I was inspired to find such reassuring and strong validation for this healing
principle — one which we first learned from Stanislav Grof and which in
the course of our own practice has gained the force of self-evident truth.
In Chapter Six of his book, titled "Unfinished Soul Business: The
Psychology of Karma," Woolger demonstrates once more his wide-ranging eclecticism
and catholicity of mind by embracing certain principles hitherto confined
to Eastern yogic epistemology: namely the concepts of karma — the
law of cause and effect; samskara — past-life impressions manifesting
in this life; and klesa — painful negative tendencies brought forward
to be acted upon in this life. He does this, he says, in order to
bridge the gap between Eastern and Western psychology. In the West
we have been conditioned for over a century now to think in the purely
physical terms of genetic inheritance. But because of Woolger’s exposure
to Jung and the collective unconscious and the archetypes, as well as the
now thousands of experiences of his own clients in regressing to past lives,
he tells us he is ready to use terms like samskara (karmic complex)
and klesa to provide a broader terminology and a more inclusive
model for human sufferings, a model which the Western psychotherapist can
From life to life, Woolger says, we are doomed to replay our old
unfinished business — our "plays of passion" as Jung would have it, the
soul’s way of providing an opportunity to make the unconscious conscious
at last. And once we do, we can release ourselves from the unconscious
compulsions of these samskaras and become the true directors of our destinies.
One of the more poignant case histories in this regard — and one
which also appears to validate the premise of relative equality of the
aspects of a complex as depicted in his lotus-wheel model — was the story
of Sol, a respected osteopath and healer in his late fifties. Sol
came to Woolger suffering from a lifelong history of sinusitis, which he
thought might have something to do with a past-life memory he had experienced
at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. As his process unfolded, Sol did
not immediately reexperience a past life in Jerusalem as Woolger had half
anticipated. When asked to go to the source of his sinusitis, Sol
immediately regressed to a this-life experience as a young boy, when he
had stoically repressed his sorrow at impending abandonment by his mother
who was hospitalized at the time with a life-threatening illness.
To make a long story short, Woolger had Sol give full and free rein to
the feelings that he had buried at that time. Then, sensing that
there might be another part of the client’s complex to be accessed, he
asked Sol to repeat the emotionally charged words, "I’ll never see her
again," and to allow the words to take him to any other story to which
they might apply.
His therapeutic intuition was in tune, for Sol regressed immediately
to a past life as a Roman watching the crucifixion of Jesus. Over
time in that life he had apparently been profoundly moved by Jesus’s teachings:
"We can learn to heal if we have faith and love. . . . We are all one.
. . . We must love one another," and so on (p. 130). Upon watching
the death of this man he so admired Sol found himself saying: "They’ve
taken Jesus. I’ll never see him again. I’ll never see him again!"
(p. 129). As Woolger describes it, Sol emerged from his story with
great emotion. It had been a genuine catharsis for him, and he now
recognized the spiritual origin of his vocation to be a healer in this
As Woolger explains, this particular case was a touching example
of how experiential exploration at more than one level of a complex had
succeeded dramatically where a more narrow and focused treatment had failed.
To me this case history not only validated some of the components of Woolger’s
unique approach but also provided an illustration for the skeptic of how
important the archetypal or transpersonal aspect of therapy is. To
put it another way, by helping Sol to access the somatic level of the complex
(his sinusitis); and the biographical (an early-in-this-life experience);
as well as assisting him to regress to a "past life" (as the Roman); Woolger
was able to facilitate his client’s healing — a healing of the whole person,
body-mind-spirit, in a compelling testimonial to the efficacy and power
of his approach.
In Chapter Nine, "The Great Wheel: Death and Beyond," Woolger cites
a number of cases wherein clients, having regressed to their "death" in
a past life, felt an expanded sense of awareness, a moment of deeper understanding
of the Self — as Jung would say — in all its many and conflicting forms.
In that state many patients experienced visions that somehow integrated
the "sublime heights and barbaric depths that go to make up the human comedy"
(p. 297). Woolger emphasizes in his work the value of seizing the
opportunity that this kind of reexperience can bring. Often clients
who have been "stuck" in a particularly painful pattern of, say, self-punishment
or self-blame can find the resolution they so desperately need in this
form of regression.
He tells of one client, Madeleine, who comes to him because she is
unable to overcome chronic, suicidal depression and guilt feelings.
With his help she regresses to a series of past lives in which it seems
she had been an extremely violent perpetrator, having caused the deaths
of many victims. While recalling one particular life in all its grisly
detail, she is gently encouraged to reexperience her "death" as well.
In the after-death state (which Woolger likens to the Tibetan bardo)
she finds herself reliving a long period of "atonement." After what
appears to be a kind of interminable purgatory in which she sees one after
another the faces of each of her victims and expresses her sadness and
remorse, a guide finally assures her: "Enough, enough. You
have done enough."
In her very next session Madeleine then recalls a positive past life,
one in which she had a sense of her goodness and had enjoyed love, nurturance,
and happiness. "How could I deserve such a good life?" she finds
herself asking when that life ends. This time, the inner voice of
wisdom tells her, "You must learn through love, not just from suffering."
With this experience made fully conscious, Madeleine was able to
reown her capacity for happiness. There was no longer a need to perpetuate
the cycle of violence, which the painful samskaras of self-hatred had contributed
to. She was at last able to break free of the cloud of depression
and guilt that had oppressed her her entire life. The words of Jesus
come to mind: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you
free." Madeleine, by having the courage to undergo this form of self-exploration,
had achieved the catharsis and attendant spiritual understanding and insight
to forgive herself at last and move on.
This particular case also struck me as a validation of the-other-half-of-the-cure
concept, to use Mickel Adzema’s (1995) term. Briefly, this is the
idea that in primal therapy, for example, it is not enough to simply feel
the Pain but one must also tap into her or his inner "joy grids" in order
to complete the healing. This axiom was proven for me in Madeleine’s
experience (and there are many other examples in Woolger’s book of this
need to access the positive for full resolution to occur). It seems
that otherwise we remain stuck in one part of the dualism which is the
format for existence on this physical plane.
In Chapter Eight, "The Great Wheel: Birth," Woolger pays tribute
to Thomas Verny and to Gerhard Rottman for their pioneering work — work
which, as he says, has gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream for two
decades. This work has laid a scientific foundation for the concept
of consciousness en utero and has therefore also prepared the way
for acknowledging the vulnerability of the developing fetus and the traumatic
nature of birth. Though praising the contributions of Stanislav Grof,
as well, in this chapter, Woolger parts company with primal therapy over
the issue of seeing pregnancy and birth as the ultimate cause of the patterning
of all succeeding neuroses; this is a view he labels "simplistic" (p. 258).
While Woolger acknowledges the validity of the latest findings —
which confirm that the mother’s (and father’s) emotions, thoughts, and
actions have a strong impact on the developing fetus — he brings in the
unique dimension that is past-life therapy’s contribution to our understanding
of this critical time. As he puts it, "The incoming soul is attracted
to a mother (or father) who will help mirror his or her unfinished karmic
business during pregnancy and birth" (p. 253). He goes on to say
that "The buck doesn’t stop at the mother’s door" (p. 258), for there are
already preexisting impressions (samskaras) embedded in the infant’s unconscious
at the time of conception. Many of these are a result of past-life
deaths, Woolger says. And these deep impressions can be restimulated
and thus reinforced by the mother’s thoughts and feelings throughout her
pregnancy, not to mention the actual experience of birth itself.
I might add that this stance is held by other professionals in the field,
e.g., Michael Gabriel (1995) in his book, Remembering
Your Life Before Birth, and Winifred Blake Lucas (1993) in her
opus, Regression Therapy, A Handbook
for Professionals, Vols. I and II.
Be that as it may, it was obvious to me that the author, of course,
fully supports the efforts of many primal and other deep experiential therapists
today who work devotedly and steadfastly to help clients reexperience the
trauma and release the pain around birth. What Woolger’s work does
is to broaden and deepen the cognitive map of these therapists; it is a
map that can only be enriched by the findings from his and other past-life
therapists’ experience. As he says, birth offers a unique opportunity
for release, and the insights that clients gain from working through their
birth trauma are indeed powerful, not only because of the experience in
and of itself, but also because each birth is a "highly condensed reminder
of karmic residues of previous deaths" (p. 264).
In the chapter "Eros Abused" Woolger describes the pendulum swing
in our incarnational histories between male/female, victim/perpetrator,
and assorted other dualities, which we appear to have to experience before
some kind of transcendence and integration can take place. For example,
he points out that thousands of years of violence against, and suppression
of, women has created an enormous Shadow in this regard in our collective
unconscious. Past-lives therapy helps and is needed by both men and
women if a healing resolution is to take place, first in individuals and
then in society at large which is only now and with great reluctance beginning
to let go of its patriarchal character. Men need to "own" and heal
the buried feminine in their own past; women need to heal and "own" the
violent and/or cruel male in their past in order to make peace with and
benefit from their masculine side. In addition, Woolger takes pains
to point out and emphasize (as in the case of Madeleine earlier described)
that "Not just the victim, but the bully and the rapist in all of us also
are in need of healing and forgiveness" (p. 212).
In closing I feel that Woolger not only sets an eclectic example
for psychotherapists by providing references to a wide range of therapeutic
modalities of this and the last century, but also he shares the valuable
gift of his own experience in eliciting healing components from each, which
he has used to such good effect in his Jungian past-life therapy practice.
He does this humbly and articulately. Perhaps for this reason the
case histories he shares stand on their own merits by demonstrating in
instance after instance how his clients were not only empowered to release
their Pain but also, and as importantly, to weave whole cloth out of the
ups and downs, the triumphs and tragedies of past lives. Because
this therapy includes a spiritual or transpersonal component, clients who
persist in their process may often be rewarded with a coherent picture
of their own soul’s evolution, thereby becoming empowered to realize as
did the poet: "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my
soul."3 Many more narrowly
focused or nonexperiential therapies simply do not provide the same depth
of healing — not to mention liberating vision — as the unique path Woolger
shares with us.
And through it all he demonstrates patience with himself, his clients,
and the process; for as he says, quoting Shakespeare’s King Lear:
Woolger does offer a cautionary note in his last chapter (which, given
the subtle power of the ego, each of us might do well to keep in mind)
when he tells us that he cannot work with those who are obsessed with any
particular theory. "Unfortunately any philosophy, theology, or metaphysics
[including the scientistic! emphasis my own] can all too easily
become an ego defense against the shadow sides of the personality."
He repeats his mentor, Carl Jung’s, famous injunction: "We do not
become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness
conscious." (p. 311)
Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
Ripeness is all. (p. 335)
Finally, I found this work a call to all of us, therapists and lay
persons alike, to persist in our own healing process in order to win the
sacred prize of inner peace and wholeness. Ultimately, I felt, it
does not matter whether we define our predicament here according to a linear
model of successive "lives"; or whether we prefer Seth’s concept of an
extended Now wherein all of these "dramas" are happening simultaneously
for our own mysterious ultimate good; or even whether we prefer the Course
in Miracles’s approach, which, like Buddha, neither confirms nor denies
the "truth" of past lives. Whichever of these scenarios is "true"
really is not the issue, as Woolger so brilliantly intimates. What
matter is the healing. I know that I feel a sense of gratitude to
the author for helping me to refocus on my own process. To borrow
Shakespeare’s metaphor: on this stage, with its backdrop of eternity, it
seems we have all played many, many parts. I do believe that, even
as I felt motivated by my reading of Woolger to finally ring down the curtain
on all "the sound and fury" of my this-worldly sojourning, just
so will other persevering readers be motivated by Other Lives, Other
Selves to indeed "get on with it!"
1. Complex is a Jungian term Woolger uses
that is identical or nearly identical to terms from other contexts, such
as samskara (Eastern philosophy) and COEX system (Grof),
and is similar to such terms as an issue (general psychobabble),
a feeling or pattern (Primal), and a problem (ordinary
parlance). [return to text]
2. "A COEX system is a dynamic constellation
of memories (and associated fantasy material) from different periods of
the individual’s life, with the common denominator of a strong emotional
charge of the same quality, intense physical sensation of the same kind,
or the fact that they share some other important elements" (Grof, 1985,
p. 97). [return to text]
3. Originally attributed to the poet, W. E.
Henley (1849-1903). [return to text]
Note: Click on book title
or its cover icon for more info on book or reference, including how to
Adzema, Michael D. (1995). Reunion with the positive (self): The other
half of "the cure." Primal Renaissance: The Journal of Primal Psychology,
Wilber, Ken. (1980). The
Atman Project. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House.
* This article was
originally published in Primal Renaissance: The Journal of Primal Psychology,
Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 93-100.
Copyright © 1996 by Mary Lynn Adzema
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MARY LYNN ADZEMA is
a former journalist, civil-rights activist, and poet, whose writings have
appeared in a number of West-Coast, national, and international publications.
She has been a student of yoga and Eastern spirituality for over thirty years.
She has also been a lecturer in psychology at World University
in Ojai, California, where she had previously earned a Master’s degree in Consciousness
Psychology and an A.B.D. in
Philosophy. She wrote a chapter for and co-edited a book about
the experiences of Sai Baba devotees titled Transformation of the Heart.
Mary Lynn has received training with Stanislav Grof in holotropic breathwork
and with various people in primal therapy. Having served with the International Primal
Association on it Board of Directors and as Assistant
Editor of the publications, Primal Renaissance: The Journal of Primal
Psychology, a professional journal of psychology, and Primal
Spirit: The Deeper Wave of the New Age, a magazine; she now serves as
Assistant Editor of those some publications in their reincarnation on this
website, and as consulting editor for Primal Spirit
website in its umbrella-role for those publications plus all its other
facets. Most importantly, she serves as Assistant Director of the newly
opened Primal Spirit Center for Human
Evolution, offering primal breathwork, primal therapy, a community of
healing -- to name its major intentions. Mary Lynn's extended bio can be
found at Mary Lynn Adzema's Writings. She
can be contacted at P.O. Box 1348, Guerneville, CA 95446-1348; phone:
(707) 869-9008; e-mail: email@example.com.
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