How I Might Have Spent World War II (Past Lives, part II)

As I drove toward the hypnotherapist’s office to look for a past life, I wondered if I was a ridiculous figure.

I imagined that some people would think that, if they knew what I was doing. Some might consider the trip a simple waste of money, but others would see it as a sign of a deeper problem. The priests and nuns who had trained me might take my experiment as a personal insult – or a sign that, despite their best efforts, I was bound for Hell. My mom would fear the same things.

Some people might laugh at me, I figured, as they still laughed at Shirley MacLaine. And I hadn’t even done anything yet.

My onetime shrink had been puzzled, a year earlier, when I told him I was moving to New Mexico and was looking into New Age things.

A reasonable question

“What is it that you are looking for?” he asked, with a tone suggesting that there was simply no need for people to look into things like that. He had told me that he was an atheist. I guess he figured if atheism was good enough for him, it ought to be good enough for everyone – or, at least, everyone who’d spent as much time with him as I had.

Well, it was a reasonable question: What was I looking for? I hadn’t been able to explain it to him then, and maybe I still couldn’t. I guessed that I was looking for a sign that there might be some purpose to all the crap that happens in this world. After I had seen my strong father disappear into death, and understood that I would follow him someday soon, along with everyone I would ever know and all of the people I would never know, I wanted to figure out whether our existences had a point. All the striving, all the pain, all the loneliness – the injustice, the humiliation, the drudgery – for what?

What bothered me more than any of these things in themselves was the idea that they all might happen for no purpose whatsoever. As long as that possibility hung in front of me, so did the possibility that it was not worthwhile to live at all. The Greeks had come to such a conclusion, apparently – one said famously that it was better not to be born at all, but if one was born, then it was better to die young.

I could see why he had said that. In front of me I saw possibilities for pleasure – there was sex, of course, and good jokes and food, and sometimes love. But I saw many more possibilities for pain – including bad sex and rejected love and lousy food, and also car accidents, nuclear wars, nagging spouses, mid-career layoffs, loneliness, cancer, heart problems. If you escaped all those, your reward might just be Alzheimer’s.

So I guess what I was looking for, Doc, was a defense against the death wish. If I could believe that human suffering had meaning, then maybe I’d be able to avoid killing myself. If I could not believe it, then maybe, someday, I’d check out early to avoid the rush.

And I wanted to experience this meaning for myself. Books were helpful, but contradictory, and it’s hard to know whether you can trust an author. The pennies incident was pretty cool, too, but not as conclusive as I hoped hypnosis might be. I wanted to see events, smell things, interact with people from a previous existence in a way that was so solid that it would leave me certain, beyond any doubt, that the life of the spirit was real.

“You feel yourself relaxing,” said the hypnotherapist, as I sat back in his office easy chair for the second time. “You feel your eyelids grow heavy, in a comfortable way. You know that you are in a safe place, and you feel the warmth of the room. You find yourself slipping deeper and deeper into relaxation.”

Like my shrink, the hypnotherapist had asked me what I was looking for. But this guy’s tone was different. He was an adult who thought it was probable that I had existed before my current body was born, and that exploring that time period might be worthwhile.

Looking back

I told him I was specifically wondering what, if anything, I might have been doing during World War II.

My reading about reincarnation had shown me that many children spontaneously express interest in a particular time period at around the age when they begin talking and learning to read. Like many kids, I went through a dinosaur phase, but I wasn’t in this guy’s office to imagine life as a Tyrannosaurus rex. For me, the next phase after dinosaurs was the Second World War.

In an era of books like “The Greatest Generation” and movies like “Saving Private Ryan,” it’s hard to remember that there was a time, during the mid-1970s, when the Second War to End All Wars was not nearly so popular. America had just gotten out of Vietnam, and the memories of our troubles there were enough to stifle most moviemakers’ machismo.

Consequently, my strong interest in World War II did not feel like the result of a trend. As a young boy in upstate New York, I found myself riveted by movies like “Tobruk” that showed up on Saturday afternoon TV. Without parental or other encouragement, I drew pictures of scenes from that movie and others. I built models of German dive bombers, and came back from the library with books like “From Pearl Harbor to Okinawa.” I could sit and read for hours about the progress of this long-ago war. Mostly I read about the conflict in the Pacific – the Bataan Death March, the Battle of Midway, the pillboxes on Iwo Jima.

I told the hypnotherapist I was also curious to learn if there was a past-life link to the shape of my chest. When I was born my chest was concave. A surgeon corrected the indentation, more or less, by bending the bone when I was five. The literature on past lives suggests that some conditions – birthmarks, allergies, phobias – have roots in a previous existence, so I figured ‘why not?’

The man agreed to help me look for those things. He suggested that I let myself sink deeper and deeper into the chair, and that I gradually relax each part of my body, secure in the knowledge that I was safe. The knowledge that I was taping the session helped me to relax, too; it took away the fear that he would make me forget important things.

He suggested that I rise in my mind to a nice, comfortable place, where I could feel very secure. There, I could ask to be taken to a significant past life.

“What do you see?

Now he asked me to imagine that I was floating back down toward the Earth, where I would find myself in a life that had some connection to World War II. Down I floated in my imagination, as he counted down from 10, telling me that each number would take me closer to that life, 9, and now I was heading down into that life, 8, a life from World War II, 7, where I would feel safe as I explored what happened long ago, 6, and now I was even closer, 5, and I would be able to see what I needed to see, 4, and hear what I needed to hear, 3, and I was deeply, deeply relaxed, 2, and I was almost there, and 1: I was there.

“Look down at your feet. What do you see?” he asked.

In my mind’s eye I looked down. “I can’t see anything,” I said, and I wondered if this exploration was going to work.

“Keep looking,” he said. “Your vision should be improving, as you get used to where you are. Look around you – where are you?”

“I’m in a small room,” I said, and it felt right: I could see the walls, close in around me.

“What sort of a room?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s not clear.”

“Look again at your feet.”

I did, and I saw something. “Noooo,” I said.

“What do you see?” he asked.

“No, this can’t be,” I said. “I don’t believe it.”

“Don’t resist what you see. The conscious mind will try to fight what comes up, but there is plenty of time for you to analyze what you see later. For now, you can simply relax and tell me what you see.”

“I just don’t think -“

“What is it that you see? You can tell me. It’s all right.”

“Black leather boots,” I said. “I’m wearing black leather boots.” Warm as the room was, I felt my insides chill.

“All right,” he said. “Why are you wearing black leather boots?”

“Because I’m in the SS.”

“You are in the SS,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “That seems to be right. I’m in the SS. But I can’t believe it.”

“Don’t worry for now about whether you believe it. Tell me what is happening right now, in your life as a member of the SS. Why are you in that small room? Where is it?”

“I’m in Berlin,” I said. “I’m in a small hotel room. I have been sent here – a special mission. To kill Jews.”

“A special mission to kill Jews,” said the hypnotherapist. “And what is happening in your life right now, as you stand in the hotel room?”

“I’m nervous,” I said. “People are marching in the streets. They are very excited.” But I was not from the city. I felt that I didn’t know what I was doing there.

“Where did you grow up?”

“I’m from a small village.” The answers flowed from me without effort, as I tried to remain relaxed in his easy chair in Albuquerque in the 1990s. New Age music played in the room.

“Is your family still in the village?”

“They’re dead,” I said. “My mother and father have died.”

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

“No,” I said. “I’m alone.”

“Why did you join the SS?”

I could feel the answer as if it was something I did a few years ago, when I was younger and less secure: “I wanted to feel proud of myself,” I said. “I did not have much to be proud of, and the men in the SS – people are proud of them, admire them. I wanted to be admired, too.”

“How do you feel about that decision now, as you stand in the hotel room?”

“I’m confused,” I said. “I don’t think it’s right to kill Jews. I don’t think I want to do it. But I’m alone and I feel confused.”

“Go to the time when you decide what you will do,” he said. “Go there – now!” He snapped his fingers. “Where are you?”

“I’m outside an office. Inside the office is the man I’m supposed to report to.” I felt that I was sitting on a bench, and I could see one of those old-fashioned three-blade desk fans. Sunlight came through a venetian blind and reflected off the white wall. It was the type of office a private eye might have in a Humphrey Bogart movie.

“What do you do next?” the hypnotherapist asked.

“I haven’t decided,” I said.

“Go to the time where you make your decision,” he said. “Go there – now!” He snapped his fingers again. “What happens?”

I saw myself leaving, without ever checking in with my new commanding officer. “I left,” I said.

“You left?” the hypnotherapist asked. “Where are you? Where do you go next?”

“I’m not sure where I’m going,” I said. “But I got rid of the uniform pretty quick.”

“Are you afraid of getting caught?”

Yes, I say, “but there are so many people milling around, and they weren’t sure when to expect me.” I sensed that I had a little time to get away, but not much – I had to be quick. It helped that I didn’t have a high position — my tardiness was less likely to be noticed, and my face was less likely to be recognized.

The scenery indicated that I was moving out of the city, toward the mountains. At no time did I feel that I was being chased. In addition to being unimportant, I had not deserted openly, in a manner that might inspire others. There was no need for my superiors to hunt me down and make an example of me.

“Where do you go?”

“I get through the mountains somehow. It doesn’t seem to have been too hard. I get a room in a small town, in a country bordering Germany.” The hypnotherapist asked me to identify it, but I could not. “Maybe Switzerland,” I said, but I wasn’t sure. I was able to communicate with people there, but not well. For the most part, I avoided people anyway.

“Go forward in time to the next significant event in this life,” he said. “Go there – now!” Snap. “What’s happening?”

I could see a man lying on his back, bleeding. “He’s dying,” I said.

“Who’s dying?” asked the hypnotherapist.

“My friend, the shopkeeper,” I said. “Well, he wasn’t really my friend. We didn’t talk much, or spend any real time together. But he was kind to me – he was the closest thing I had in this town to a friend, and now he’s dying and I feel terrible.”

“Why is he dying?”

“A petty thief,” I said. “A guy came in to rob the store, and he stabbed my friend. That’s it, he’s dying, and I’m sorry that he’s going.”

“Okay, well, keep in mind that this all happened in the past, and it’s okay. Now go forward to the next significant event. What do you see?”

“There’s a plane in the tree. A plane crashed into a tree near the town.” I could see that it was a German plane. The pilot had been killed. I was cut off from the news; this plane crash was all I had, and I was guessing at what it meant. To me, the crash signaled that the war was ending – that Germany was losing. I had mixed feelings about this. Mostly I felt numb.

“What else happens in this life that is worth looking at?”

“Nothing really,” I said. “I just live out my life quietly in this small town. I keep to myself, and no one bothers me.”

“Now I’d like you to move forward to the day of your death, the day that you died in this life, this life when you were in the SS. Remember that you are safe as this happens; you are merely reliving something that happened long ago. Tell me what you see and feel.”

“I’m in a chair,” I said. “I’m alone in my apartment in a chair. I can’t breathe too well. Something’s wrong with my breathing.”

“What’s wrong with it?” he asked.

“A horse kicked me,” I said. “I got kicked in the chest by a horse. It crushed something. I’m just sitting here, trying to breathe. But I can’t breathe too well at all.” I could feel the difficulty.

“Now go to the moment when you stop breathing, when your body stops breathing and your spirit comes out of it. What happens? Tell me.”

“I’m looking at my body; it’s just sitting there in that chair. I’m confused.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know where to go.”

“Where do you go?”

“I wander in the woods for a little while, maybe a few weeks. I don’t know what to do, what’s happening with me.”

“Then what? Where do you go then?”

“I feel that I am going into the sky, to be with other souls. They are not relatives – I don’t know them. But there is a circle of them and I sense that I’m in the right place.”

“Why is that? What makes this the right place?”

“It’s hard to explain. But I feel that I am with people who could have done evil, but chose not to. We don’t know each other, but we have this in common. We didn’t prevent evil, but we didn’t commit it, either. I join them.” There was no glory to this rising; I felt tired, and the darkness and loneliness of that life were still with me as I joined the circle.

“Okay,” he said. “That’s enough. Now you can come back to Earth again in your current body, just as you are today – here in Albuquerque, in the present time. You will remember what you need to remember, and will be able to feel more peaceful about your current life, knowing where you came from.”

And he counted back from 10 once again, and as he did so I let myself feel my body more and more, and then it was done and I could open my eyes.

We talked for a bit. I wrote the man a check and headed out to my car.

I felt very strange as I drove home.

Originally published by The Guy Code, June 14, 2001. 

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