Looking Back — Searching for Past Lives, Part 1

Attracted as much by its spiritual quirkiness as by its geographical otherness, I had moved to New Mexico, whose license plates describe it as the “Land of Enchantment.”

The plates don’t lie. As you drive West on Route 40, the red clay and odd hills that stretch out away from the road tell you you’re not in Texas anymore. You might be on Mars. Nor do the state’s friendly residents dispel that notion. Native Americans live in pueblo towns. White nuclear physicists practice their arts — it was here that the first atomic bomb exploded, causing a young blind girl traveling with her parents to ask what that flash of light had been. New Age spiritual seekers explore. Immigrants from Old Mexico find this state warmer, in more ways than one, than some others in the union. Retirees and artists and drifters come here to settle, attracted by the sunshine and the skiing and the clarity of the air.

D.H. Lawrence had been to ashrams in India and monasteries in Tibet, but he said that the place that really cut through his Judeo-Christian shell to reveal his soul’s core was Taos, New Mexico. That was good enough for me.

In Albuquerque, where I figured I’d be able to find a job, you can also find hypnotists in the yellow pages offering ‘past-life regression.’ (As it turns out, many if not most hypnotists offer this sort of work, but depending on the city in which they operate, they may not mention that fact in the ad; you have to ask them.)

In a hurry to put a roof over my head, I agreed to pay more rent for a one-bedroom than I really ought to have paid. Moreover, the electricity costs were staggering. I was working as a temp at a bank, and then as a mental health worker in a psychiatric hospital, and my income was failing to keep pace with expenses.

After months of this — working all the overtime I could, yet falling behind each month, failing to make a dent in the credit-card debt I had incurred with the drive west – I felt frustrated. I had come here, in part, to explore spiritual things, to see for myself if there was any real value behind the books I was reading. And yet I could not afford to pay a hypnotist, even once.

Pennies in a jar

One day I saw a sign on the door of the First National Bank in Albuquerque: “Guess how many pennies are in the jar – Win a $100 savings bond!” I went in to check it out.

The jar was sitting on a ledge in front of the tellers, so that if you went to see a teller you had to walk past it. They wanted a lot of entrants. A sign explaining the contest said that the person whose guess came the closest would win the bond. In the event of a tie, the winner would be selected by etc., etc.

I stood near the display, trying to figure out a good way to reckon the number of pennies. It looked like a mess. The pennies piled on top of each other at all angles, twisting and jumbled. Wanting a figure – any number – I counted a certain number of pennies up the side, and another number of pennies across the diameter at the top, and then, unable to remember how to calculate volume, I estimated the number of pennies across the bottom, too. And there was a bend in the jar – it widened as it went up, and then it narrowed again. I attached a number to the distance across the widest point, too. By now I knew my system made no sense, but I saw no other way. I multiplied the estimates, coming up with a figure somewhat higher than 20,000.

I wrote this number down on a sheet of paper and moved away from the jar, feeling helpless. Even if I could remember the way to calculate the volume of a cylinder, this was not a true cylinder. Standing forty feet away now, filling out my deposit slip, I continued to stare at the jar.

I had just been reading a different book by Linda Goodman, the perky astrologer. This one was called “Linda Goodman’s Star Signs.” It didn’t say too much about astrology, but got into all sorts of other esoterica – numerology, Nikola Tesla, eating purple food if you wanted to gain weight, and green if you wanted to lose it.

The book was strange, but I didn’t mind. The author seemed both kind and smart. So I remembered favorably a section I had just read, in which she had spoken of a ‘higher self.’

Ask my ‘self’ a question

She said that we all have a higher self, and that self knows many things that we do not. It’s attuned to a higher frequency, or something. In any event, she said that if we wanted to know something, all we had to do was ask our higher self for the answer.

I decided to try it. “Okay, higher self,” I said within my head, not moving my lips or making a sound. “If you’re really there, please help me out. I’d like to know how many pennies are in that jar.” I paused, and thought about my circumstances. I was eating rice and soup for dinner most nights, then, and bringing peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to work. I fantasized about eating a nice dinner at the Olive Garden someday, but I knew it would be months before I could afford to do that. So it meant a great deal to me when I said, “If you tell me how many pennies there are, I promise I will not use the money from the savings bond to eat a good meal. I will use it to get hypnotized, so I can search for past lives, in the interest of spiritual understanding.”

Numbers appeared to me, not before my eyes but behind them, the way words may appear to us before we speak them. I wrote them down one by one: 3, 6, 8, 7.

I wrote the figure “3,687” on an entry form, added my name and phone number, and handed it in, along with the one containing the number that was somewhat higher than 20,000. Then I left the bank, feeling somewhat odd.

After I had done this, I decided not to think about it. That seemed the right course of action, somehow.

You’ve won!

One weekday morning two and a half weeks later, the phone woke me at around 10 am. I had worked the evening shift until 11:30 pm the night before and hung out with friends afterward, so I was groggy when I picked it up. I figured it was the mental health center, calling to tell me they were short-staffed and could I please come in.

The woman’s voice was unfamiliar. “Hi, this is Gloria, from First National,” she said, or words to that effect. “I’m calling about the contest – the pennies in the jar. You won! In fact, not only did you win – you got the number exactly right!”

“Oh, is that right?” I said, less enthusiastically than I might have. I tried to sound alert for her.

“Yes! When can you come in to pick up your prize?”

“Um, I guess I can come in today. Is that okay for you guys?”

“Absolutely! That will be great. Just come in and ask for me – my name’s Gloria,” she said, and I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget.

As the water in the shower helped wake me up, her words started to hit me a little more: I had gotten the number exactly right. I wondered briefly if there really might have been more than 20,000 pennies in that jar.

I drove a mile or so to the bank, and asked for Gloria. I was shown to a desk along a side wall.

Gloria told me that the number of pennies had been exactly 3,687.

“It’s amazing that you got it right – to the penny,” she said. “The next closest guess was off by around a hundred, but it certainly didn’t end in ‘87’ or anything like that. That was really great!” She smiled, and went away to get a form for me to sign.

Then two other women walked up. One spoke, while the other looked on. The speaker was a thin, sweatered woman with curly gray hair; she may have been in her mid-sixties. The other one I don’t remember too well; she hung back.

“So you’re the winner,” the speaker said.

“Apparently so,” I said, with an embarrassed smile.

“That’s wonderful. And apparently you got the number exactly right.” She was smiling, too, but her tone sounded suspicious.

“Yes,” I said.

“How did you do that?” she asked.

I smiled again, in what I hoped was a disarming manner, and told the truth: “Well, I was reading an interesting book, and it said that we all have a higher self, and we should ask it for things we want. So when I was here in the bank, I asked my higher self how many pennies were in the jar, and I saw some numbers and wrote them down.”

“Really?” she said – sounding as though she was, at some level, disturbed.

I nodded. Her conservative dress and manner made it look as though she might have been working in this bank for a long time. It seemed to me that she would have been more comfortable if I had told her, “Well, ma’am, I cheated. I know the guy who put the pennies in the jar, and he told me.” That answer would fit her view of what was possible in the world.

Gloria returned with the form, I signed it, and she handed me the bond. I thanked her and smiled. She smiled brightly back – she wasn’t suspicious – and I felt that I could go.

Just a number

As I walked out I felt self-conscious and strange. One or two other bank employees looked at me, and I imagined that they might have heard that I had gotten the number exactly right. I wasn’t sure, of course. But I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.

When I went home I wrote about the event in my journal, wondering what it meant. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to tell you the actual number; I’m more of a word guy. But that was it: 3,687. More than 16,000 pennies fewer than my estimate. As I said, I’ve never been much for numbers.

Now that I had the bond, I could afford one session of hypnosis. But what if it didn’t work?

From my reading, I learned that some people do not hypnotize well. Knowing my own nature, I could imagine myself resisting the suggestions of the hypnotist – trying to stay “in control” – and wasting the entire session as a result. Then the bond would be wasted, too.

Raymond Moody, the man who coined the phrase “near-death experience,” also looked into past-life regression at one point. He had been reluctant to do so, he said, but when a friend offered to hypnotize him to look for his own past lives, he accepted, and was amazed at the “lives” he generated. His book “Coming Back” details his skepticism – he does not say that these experiences are real past lives, but suggests that they might be creations of our unconscious. Nonetheless, he says, they are fascinating, and who knows – perhaps some of them are real, after all.

At the end of “Coming Back,” Moody includes a script that the reader can use to find out what hypnosis feels like, and to explore past lives in a comfortable way. I decided to make a recording of myself reading the script, as he suggested, and then to listen to it in the privacy of my apartment, in order to see what hypnosis might feel like.

It felt pretty good, as it turned out. It’s like that feeling you get when you’re about to fall asleep, but you don’t quite. Most nights, when we’re in that state, we just keep drifting until we’re asleep, and then the next morning we don’t remember how nice it felt. But if the phone rings when we’re in that state, or a noise startles us, we know the pleasant feeling we have just lost.

So hypnosis felt like that, more or less, once I got used to the sound of my own recorded voice suggesting that I ought to relax. When my voice on the tape asked me to safely experience any past-life imagery that might come up, I imagined some things that looked unusual, but nothing too definitive.

Around that time, some guy knocked on my apartment door to try to sell me a coupon book that he said was a great deal. “The free oil changes more than pay for the book,” he said. “And then you’ve got all these other things, too.” When I looked through the book, I saw that what he said made sense. Plus, there was an offer for a free session of hypnosis. For $25, that book seemed like a damn good deal.

So I bought it, and called the hypnotherapist on the coupon to ask if he helped people look for past lives. He said that he did. He also said that he wouldn’t work on those during the free session. That session was really intended just to show people what hypnosis felt like, and then if they wanted to work on particular issues after that – smoking, weight loss, and so on – then they could do so during a paying session.

I didn’t mind that so much; I had the savings bond.

I went in for my free session, and found the man pleasant and non-threatening. I lay back in his office’s easy chair, and when he suggested that I relax, I did.

Afterward I wasn’t sure I had really been hypnotized – it didn’t feel as though much of anything had happened – but he assured me that my eyes had fluttered in a REM-like way. So, sure enough, I could be hypnotized.

Next time, I would look for more.

Originally published by The Guy Code, May 31, 2001.

Comments are closed.