In Another Life: Reincarnation in America
By Sheri Divers
"Start talking to people, reassure them that you won't laugh at them, and you will find an amazing number have had experiences of past-life memory," according to Atlanta-based Filmmaker & Writer Stephen Sakellairos. He has completed a fascinating documentary called In Another Life: Reincarnation in America that explores reincarnation from several different perspectives.
In Another Life first examines the scientific research being done on the subject, and then explores the primary ways Americans have been encountering reincarnation: comments made to parents by their young children; spontaneous "flashback" memories triggered by a seemingly innocuous event; hypnotherapy, "past life therapy" and workshops; and the introduction of ideas about reincarnation by Eastern spiritual teachers.
Stephen S. holds a Master's degree in Counseling and Human Systems from Florida State University. Owner of GTVP which is a one-man video production business in Atlanta, Stephen began a serious interest in fine-art photography in 1986 and moved into video and television production in 1990 as an extension of photography. He has been a follower of Meher Baba since 1974, and is an avid student of Eastern spirituality and mysticism.
In Another Life has been gaining a lot of attention recently. It was broadcast by Denver PBS affiliate KBDI on January 11, 2003. As well, Stephen was interviewed by Shirley Maclaine for her internet radio show, "Independent Expression," in August of 2003.
Sheri: What made you embark upon this project?
Stephen: The short answer is that I woke up one morning and knew I was going to do it; it was the first thought that came into my mind.
The long answer is that I had recently started my one-man video production business, in 1997, and I wanted to have a personal project going as well. Coincidentally, I'd found myself talking with people of all walks of life, who, when they got to the point that they could trust me, began to open up with stories about the afterlife and reincarnation. I guess these two things came together in my mind overnight, or else I was guided.
I should say that I'd studied reincarnation as part of the larger picture of Eastern mysticism for about 30 years up until that time, and it had always fascinated me. I had had a few small past-life memories myself, and I've always had the ability to recognize people I've known in past lives. Usually it takes being around them awhile until some facial expression or mannerism causes that recognition to kick in, and then it's permanent. Rarely any details, just the overall feeling-tone of the previous relationship(s).
Sheri: Why are people so resistant to the idea of reincarnation despite the logic behind it?
Stephen: This question fascinates me almost as much as the topic of reincarnation itself. It would appear to be a form of psychological denial at work, and no group, including psychologists and psychiatrists themselves, are immune from it.
Reincarnation is part of the larger issue of what a person is. Acceptance of reincarnation leads one to the conclusion that "man is a spiritual being having a physical experience". This idea runs up against some very stiff resistance in our Western culture, which has become accustomed to believing that a man or woman is nothing more than their physical body, and that it is electrochemical brain activity which creates consciousness as a by-product.
Reincarnation, if true, suggests that the brain may be more of a "transmitter" or pass-through mechanism which enables consciousness to interface with the physical world through the physical senses. The entire basis of about 90% of our science would have to be re-examined, and it would mean that respected, learned men in our society have been making a fundamental error in their assumptions. Those men are, naturally, loathe to admit it. It would affect the legitimacy of the entire credentialing process, if it were found that the most highly-credentialed people in our society have made a grave and basic error. Society will protect itself against this shock by ridiculing even strong, credible scientific evidence for reincarnation, such as that of psychiatrist Dr. Ian Stevenson, painstakingly gained over 40 years of meticulous research.
On the other hand, reincarnation also runs up against resistance from traditional Western religion. It appears from my reading that reincarnation was accepted by a significant proportion of early Christians, but was removed for political reasons by the politically dominant factions.
It is clear enough to me that Jesus' disciples considered reincarnation and karma a plausible and not uncommon idea, from the question they posed to Him in the Gospel of John, Chapter 9: "And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" In my interpretation, the disciples asking Jesus this question are putting forth two of the most common views of the time, one of them being reincarnation and karma.
As is seen elsewhere in the New Testament, this is a record of the disciples putting to Jesus a thorny question of karma law. I interpret Jesus' answer, "...Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him," to mean, "Both of those explanations have merit, but this situation was special. This man offered to be born blind before he incarnated, as a gift, so that I would have someone to heal and thus manifest the glory of God." This interpretation falls right in line with reincarnationist ideas, which suggest that people have some choice as to their condition in the next life, and that sometimes they deliberately choose something that we would consider suffering, for higher reasons which are apparent to them from their perspective in the astral world.
If a Christian accepts reincarnation, he has to face a number of challenges to his religion, including: 1) the Bible has been distorted by human error or by intention, 2) The teaching about one life and eternal heaven or hell is a distortion, 3) heaven, in the sense of paradise, is a temporary state and not the ultimate purpose of religion 4) hell is likewise a temporary state 5) people of other religions or just good people with no religion also can experience the heaven-state after death 6) Jesus was not able to teach everything to the people of his day. Other spiritual truths, including reincarnation, have been taught by the other World Teachers in greater detail (although Jesus may have taught more detail to His close disciples).
Sheri: How has reincarnation touched your life?
Stephen: Firstly, I am sure, when I think back on it, that I had past-life memories pressing in on me as a child. I was unable to make any sense of them, and so I just developed an acute feeling of nostalgia which had no logical cause, and I felt very alone. As I got older I agonized over losing that "something", and I tried not to forget. The sense of nostalgia got very intense, while the memory of what I was nostalgic for kept getting fainter and fainter. It wasn't until I began studying the world scriptures, and the writings of a few modern spiritual teachers I felt were the most advanced, that I began putting everything into perspective.
Reincarnation puts a lot of things into proper relation with each other, and with God. For one thing, Christianity with reincarnation makes sense. Poor Christianity, as a religion, has lost its moorings to such an extent that to those outside it, it seems fantastical and fanciful. This quality of seeming fanciful is a result of the distortions, not an inherent aspect of Jesus' teachings. When you start to remove the distortions, the Teaching starts to make perfect sense.
This is very similar to what happens to a person who has a seemingly illogical phobia, and who undergoes past-life regression therapy. In the light of what happened in a past life, the phobia suddenly makes perfect sense and is quite reasonable and logical. In the same way, Jesus' teachings suddenly are quite practical and logical when you correct the distortions caused by reincarnation having been removed (along with some other distortions).
Again, while my study of history is not thorough, my impression is that when the issue of heresy came up, it was not the people who were wisest who won out. It was the groups who were the most politically powerful who won out and got their views put into the official text. Might doesn't make right, and it didn't in this case. For example, the Essenes and Gnostics are thought by some to have believed in reincarnation. But by their very nature they were not a politically powerful group, and most of their views were not retained in the Christianity we know today. This is my impression, I'm not speaking as a historical expert.
As I studied reincarnation for my documentary, I became more educated about past-life therapy. I have a master's degree in counseling and wrote an unpublished manuscript on "Eastern Mysticism and Psychotherapy" while I was in that program, in 1981. So I had a long-standing interest in how these two topics interfaced. When I asked Dr. Roger Woolger if I could videotape an interview with him and record a session, he asked that I participate in a week-long workshop before filming. I was fortunate to be able to volunteer for a session with Dr. Woolger demonstrating, and I did have glimpses of about three past-lives. The glimpses explained a great deal about aspects of my personality I'd never understood before. It all fit together, and as with phobias, it made perfect sense. I also had a hypnosis-based regression with a local therapist which helped me understand some long-standing, repeating relationship issues I'd had.
As said, many times I've recognized people I've known in past lives. Occasionally, this has caused me to fall in love with women who didn't recognize me and didn't feel the same for me. Or, my feelings developed too quickly and too intensely, which was a turn-off for them. It happened, in retrospect, when that past-life recognition feeling kicked in for me. This is my interpretation, not anything I could prove, of course.
In my current relationship, which I have had for about 3-1/2 years, there is also a feeling of recognition on my part, but it is more like a strong, familiar friendship, upon which I'm building the romantic part. So it started out a little more slowly. Also I think the past-life basis is healthier, i.e., a real friend from past-lives as opposed to someone I had an intense sexual encounter with in the past, perhaps inappropriately. This suggests to me that when people have sexual liaisons, if they understood reincarnation, they would think harder about it because of the mess they may be creating for themselves when they run into this person again. It may be an even more inappropriate situation next time, but the pressure to act on the feeling may be even more difficult to resist. And this cycle could conceivably go on intensifying from lifetime to lifetime with this same person, and with each person you do this with.
Sheri: Are there other spiritual and religious traditions that embrace reincarnation other than the Eastern religious tradition?
Stephen: Of course it depends on what you call "Eastern". I am not sure there is a spiritual or religious tradition which does not include, in its esoteric branches, a belief in reincarnation. Islam has the Sufi's, who clearly teach reincarnation. Christianity has had reincarnation as recently as the Cathars, who lived in 13th-Century France and were the first to be persecuted in the Inquisition. I understand that reincarnation is also a part of the teaching of Western mysticism, in groups like the Rosecrucians. I know that Benjamin Franklin believed in reincarnation as did many of his contemporaries, and I think it may have been taught by the Masons and that Franklin (if my knowledge of history serves me) was a Mason. It is my understanding that some Native American groups accept reincarnation. Again, this is an area I've only recently studied.
Sheri: Describe the process of making this film. Was it pleasant? Difficult or what?
Stephen: Oh, it was difficult alright. Nobody has any idea, and when I try to describe it, people think I'm just being whiney. From the search for funding, through asking for copyright permissions, to problems getting equipment to work right, to people featured in the documentary not wanting to appear in the show with each other, to being turned down by station after TV station, I was up against a huge wall of prejudice. Most often the prejudice took the form of simply not taking me seriously. It wasn't even to the point of ridiculing the project, it was more like patronizing me as a nut. And I mentioned equipment--it seemed as though there were unseen forces pushing against the project on this level as well, like Murphy's Law on steroids.
Sheri: Do you think American society is becoming more open to reincarnation?
Stephen: The most recent Gallup poll puts the number of Americans who believe at reincarnation at a full 25%. That means if you sit at a table with three other people, statistically, one of you probably believes in reincarnation. But, chances are that one person won't risk being made fun of and will keep quiet about it.
References to reincarnation show up in the darndest places. My girlfriend, an avid soap opera watcher, pointed out to me that a major "soap" had a story plot which involved past-life regression, so that the dramas in the past lives ran parallel to the same people in their current lives. She also pointed out to me an article in a mainstream magazine, about how past-life memories can sometimes surface during massage.
One of the most significant things that are happening in this regard lately is "Crossing Over," John Edward's television show. Edward is demonstrating, every day on national television, that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience. I looked into what Edward was doing pretty carefully, including attending one of his seminars where he ended up standing directly in front of me in the isle working with a woman about 20 feet away, and I'm 100% convinced he's genuine. This means a genuine medium is connecting people with their departed friends and relatives every day in front of the entire country, which from a sociological perspective is really fascinating. Individual people are being convinced, while the establishment sits by and ridicules--but sooner or later they are going to be left behind if they keep up this attitude.
What Edward is doing is opening the way to accepting reincarnation, which in turn will open the way for deeper spiritual truths to be accepted. Reincarnation is a kind of conceptual fulcrum point--or Pandora's box, if you are against the change. Once it is accepted, the cogs and gears deep inside one's entire world view begin to creak and move--it goes very deep. This change in world view can't happen overnight, but it will happen and is happening.
Sheri: Cite some of the greatest influences in your life and work and tell why they are influential.
Stephen: The greatest influences in my life and work are two spiritual masters, Sri Ramakrishna and Meher Baba. It is as though I was connected to Sri Ramakrishna and then got passed on to Meher Baba, because I feel deeply connected to both. There is an extremely powerful book called "The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna", which is a verbatim account of what it was like to be around Sri Ramakrishna on a daily basis. You feel like you're there with the writer, who stays out of the way in the narrative and only refers to himself as "M". Meher Baba wrote a series of discourses, which have been compiled into a single work also called "Discourses". I call "Discourses" the instruction manual life was supposed to come with.
He also wrote "God Speaks," which explains, as much as any person in the normal waking state of consciousness could understand, the deeper questions about the origin and nature of the universe, and the relationship between God and man. There was a third strong source for me, and that is the Persian poet Jallaludin Rumi, and in particular his work, the "Masnavi". Rumi was one of the greatest Sufi's, and his "Masnavi" is made up of teaching stories and commentaries, all simple, entertaining, and unfathomably deep. All three of these men, in my estimation, were God-Realized, and so trying to praise them adequately is impossible. I'm just fortunate to have been allowed to find them and recognize their status.
I can't even describe what the effect has been on my life, except to say that on the day I first heard of Meher Baba--in a 10-minute presentation given by an intern in my high-school psychology class--I was a mess. I was mentally and emotionally unbalanced, extremely intellectual, couldn't feel anything, didn't think I could love anyone, had very poor self-esteem, felt extremely confused, and was socially isolated. Meher Baba has gradually brought me over the last 30 years to a much, much more balanced state.
One of the greatest influences for me has been the permanent retreat established for Meher Baba in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, called the "Meher Spiritual Center". Meher Baba indicated that the Center is for people who love him, and for those who would want to know more (i.e., those who are sincerely interested). I won't try to describe it except to say that Meher Baba's presence is so tangibly felt there, it is really as though he never left--which he himself indicated was the case. (He visited three times in 1952, 1956 and 1958.)
Sheri: Can you recall any of your past lives? If so, how have they been influential in your work?
Stephen: I do think that several of my past lives have been very influential in my work. I have, through intuition, glimpses, and educated guesswork, identified a few lives I feel pretty sure of, and a number of others I have hints of. I've been a writer, connected, I think, with the Romantic poets, for example. Not any of the famous ones as near as I can tell, but I think I knew some of them personally and ascribed to their overall philosophy (for better or worse).* It seems that I was a Celtic priest back around the year 400 AD, very sensitive and other-worldly and impractical, but with a lot of mystical knowledge and given to altered states, especially as regards nature. I also appear to have had at least one lifetime where I had political power and misused it. I think I was also Japanese and did zazen and tended, or lived in, a garden. Each of these lives has strong points and weaknesses.
In this life I can draw on the strengths, and I can balance out the weaknesses. When I draw on the Celtic priest, for example, I can balance him by being more practical. When I draw on the Japanese meditator, I can temper my one-pointed focus with some emotional balance. When I draw on the writer, I can have more balance about what relationships are and aren't (i.e., God is for worship, not your significant other); when it's good to be sensitive, and when it's detrimental to be overly-sensitive. If I ever have power or influence--which apparently I once renounced ever having again--I will have to learn to use it wisely.
Sheri: Is there anything to fear regarding reincarnation? Is it possible for this belief to be a negative thing or in some way abused?
Stephen: I used to think it would be good to prove reincarnation, unequivocally, to everybody. I was, however, never able to find that kind of proof on my own for the documentary,** almost as though I was being prevented from finding it. Since making the documentary, I've become concerned that if you absolutely prove reincarnation to a person of low moral development, that person will feel freer to kill. I also think that past-life therapy can be overdone (as most things can). The problem of a person's past-life karmic tangles goes much deeper than a therapist can really resolve. It takes a genuine spiritual master to do that.
I think it's possible, for example, that a therapist could remove a phobia from a past-life trauma, and as a result the suffering from that phobia won't go on long enough to really reform the person's character. As a result, over the next 3-4 lifetimes, they may go ahead and repeat whatever initiated that karmic chain in the first place, leaving them eventually in an even worse condition than they were before the therapy.
I think it is dangerous to delve into past-life memories for recreation. Again, we have to take into account the possible effects on our future lives. If you force these memories now, they may appear unbidden in your next life, and cause a great deal of confusion. Some people can make the mental/emotional shift of knowing that their child was once their spouse, or their enemy, or that they had done something terrible to other people, but a lot of people can't really digest this kind of information. If reincarnation became widely accepted, and past-life therapy along with it, some of these kinds of casualties might emerge. This is why Don Stevens, the direct disciple of Meher Baba who graciously consented to be interviewed for my documentary, insisted on being allowed to give this warning in the film.
Sheri: What would you like everyone to know about your film that I haven't asked you?
Stephen: I'd like them to know that I created the film from a very intuitive space. I let it shape itself, and I let synchronicity happen. I knew how to recognize when something special was taking place, and while editing I chose those powerful moments, people and places. Even the bubbling spring I use for the credits at the end is a spiritually powerful place, connected with Marge Rieder's "Millboro" study and the Indians in that story. The little girl who is seen turning around and looking at the camera in slow motion, during the narrative introduction to Carol Bowman's interview, is what they are calling an "Indigo child" these days, in my opinion, who did in fact talk about a past life. All the photographs of children from India during the section about Dr. Ian Stevenson's work are authentic cases (provided by a colleague, Dr. Rawat in India). All the experts and experiencers interviewed are genuine, and in fact the entire show is really a "parade of old souls". The interview with the woman who had a spontaneous flashback in an Indian restaurant was filmed inside the home of Kitty Davy, one of Meher Baba's closest Western disciples, on the grounds of the Meher Spiritual Center (by permission). In short, this film has "juice". This is something I've never been able to really express before.
Sheri Divers is Website Editor & Publisher of SpiritualAtlanta.com, an ordained minister & freelance writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Republished from Spiritual Atlanta
*This was written before I discovered a possible past life as Matthew Franklin Whittier, younger brother of Romantic poet John Greenleaf Whittier. See the Update for 6/6/05.
**Subsequently I did find a strong proof case, that of Angela Grubbs.