Past Lives, Present Life

I’ve always had an eclectic gaggle of friends no matter where I’ve lived: Christians, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, communists, Muslims, as well as New Age believers. Some of these believed wholeheartedly in the idea of reincarnation–that we have each lived past lives numerous times and that we are living this current life as a result of choices made in previous lifetimes. Like all religious teaching, this cannot be proved or disproved. What I AM certain of, however, is that the various “lives” each of us has lived in this lifetime have created the situation in which we now find ourselves.

Our phobia of spiders, for example, might stem from an early childhood encounter in the garden. The verbal put-downs we experienced from family members as a teen might be part of the reason we cling to self-limiting beliefs about not being pretty enough, smart enough, etc… Likewise, early training in sports may have given us a lifelong interest in maintaining our weight and physical health. Early praise for our art projects may have given rise to our creative endeavors later in life.

These “previous lives” have two faces, one positive and one negative. Violence, death, and abuse in life may show up as fear, uncontrollable anger, or low self-esteem later on. Positive experiences from an earlier lifetime may cause us to feel strongly drawn to certain people, places, or objects without understanding why.

For those who believe in literally having lived previous lifetimes, there are “regression therapists” who can assist in recalling memories and emotions from the past. For those of us who do not believe in a literal previous lifetime but who want to understand better why it is we are the way we are, we can use some of these same tools to explore our past.

There is an unfortunate tendency in North American culture to use the effects of one’s past as an excuse for poor choices made in the present. We hear this often in regard to sexual abuse victims who later become abusers themselves. While there might be a kernel of truth in this perspective, for me it is more appropriate to speak of our “past lives” as a key to be used to unlock the prison of the present. The past–with all its grace and sin–can hold the secret to getting rid of bad habits, limiting beliefs or a general lack of loving ourselves.

I am not a psychologist by any means, but I think it makes sense that the impact of earlier memories lies within our subconscious, and that both good and bad habits may well have their origin in those experiences. And if this is true, it makes sense to reconnect with past memories so we can understand them now as adults, and find a way to free ourselves.

How might we do this? Keeping a journal works well for some people: as they write about current situations and feelings, they discover things written earlier about similar situations that, had they not written them down, they might never have made the connection. Another idea is to think about the people we like and dislike, and why this is so. Perhaps someone we feel immediately connected to reminds us of a beloved family member who showed us unconditional love, while someone to whom we feel instant revulsion might be calling up subconscious memories of abuse or feeling taken advantage of.

The goal here is not to fan old hurts into flame, but to look calmly and without judgment at the things that have made us who we are today. If the past holds memories of grace and strength, our response should be one of profound gratitude. And if the past holds disappointments or hurts, then forgiveness is essential. Holding on to old injuries is its own kind of prison for us, never for the offending person. And the simple truth about forgiveness is this: until we forgive from the heart, we are harboring the illusion that our past could have been any different, that by holding our resentment, we can refashion the past into some other story. Clearly, we cannot. Accepting that simple truth can often be the key turning in the lock of our prison door.

There may be beliefs from our “past life” that we are still laboring under but feel a need to surrender because they do not serve our highest good. Remembering the past and finding connections to the present is useful even if we can’t find obvious connections at first. Sometimes that comes later. Regardless, we can make the most of our past by learning from those significant events the critical lessons of forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude. We will come to see that, ultimately, God is not found in our past. He is available to us only in the present. And it is precisely the present where God most needs us to be, to bring healing and miracles to a world that is so often trapped in past hurts, unable to forgive and move forward.


About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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