Woolger, Dr Roger - Other lives, Past Selves - Peter's Story
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Other lives, past selves [A Jungian Psychotherapist discovers Past Lives] – Dr Roger Woolger
Peter's Story: A Nineteenth-century Migrant Worker
It is a Monday evening. A small group is sitting in a circle on the thick carpet of our living room in the old stone farmhouse in upstate New York where my wife, Jennifer, and I live. It is a recently formed past life therapy group.
A young, slightly built man in his early twenties, whom I shall call Peter, lies on the carpet with his eyes closed. His body is slightly contorted; he turns his head to one side and grimaces. His fists and jaw are clenched.
The group has just done a short exercise to find an image of a character from another lifetime that they each feel identified with. In this guided imagery exercise performed with closed eyes, each of them have found themselves briefly imagining themselves as another person in another time with another body. After briefly sharing their images, which ranged from an Italian woman in achurch to a Roman slave, the group chose to hear more of this young man's image.
"I'm a boy in my early teens," he says, jaw still clenched "and I'm being whipped by this farmer."
"What else is happening?" I ask.
"There are these two farmhands. They're holding me by the arms while he whips me. I hate the sonofabitch."
"Do you cry out?"
"No, I don't," he says, still grinding his jaw. His face is now contorted with what certainly looks to all observers like pain and rage.
"What would you say if you could let it out?" I urge, "I wanna kill that sonofabitch. I ain't got no right to say no to him, but he can hit me when he chooses. I hate you. I HATE YOU! I just wanna get the hell outa here. But I can't go. He'd kill me."
By now Peter is breathing heavily and spitting out his venom at this farmer who, it seems, abuses him. For a while I encourage him to repeat the most venomous phrases, to say what his clenched fists want to, to let it all out.
"I've had enough of you, you bastard. I'm gonna kill you. I'm gonna punch you real good, I used to be scared of you but I'm bigger now. I could kill you."
As he shouts and writhes, his breathing deepens and his knuckles whiten; the whole story begins to emerge with only the slightest prompting from me, because he is so deeply in it by this point,
"I'm just a farmhand on this farm; in my early teens, but big. I'm sort of indentured to this man. It's Missouri. I don't remember my parents. I think they must have died when I was young. I've always resented him pushing me around the way he does, but I never say anything. But today it was too much, He told me to go feed the chickens and I told him no.
So he hit me in the face and I took a swing at him. He won't stand for that so he sent two older farmhands to hold me.
They're holding me by the arms against a fence, while he's getting his horse whip. He's whipping me (he winces, contorts), but I don't cry out,"
This time, as he screams out his loathing, his body is noticeably less tense, his jaws and fists less clenched. He has verbally expressed his hatred. The affect is lessened. Now Peter becomes quieter, more reflection.
"I don't know what I done. I must have done something, It ain't fair. I ain't got the right to say no”.
Now that he speaks less heatedly I am aware that he is speaking with a very distinct accent, one different from day-to-day Peter. And as he continues his story a kind of bitter sneering tone enters into his voice as well as a strange kind of mannerism of looking to one side.
The remainder of his story is both poignant and disturbing. Never having learned to read, and bitter at this humiliating punishment, he eventually leaves the farm at seventeen, when the farmer dies. Legally no longer bound, he takes to the roads to become a migrant labourer and a social misfit. For a while he works in a mine, but he is so secretive and his mannerisms so odd that he makes people nervous: "They think I'm funny," he says. He wanders for years, most of his life in fact, until he eventually dies, at eighty-four, just after the turn of the century in a charity bed in a state hospital somewhere in the Midwest.
There are big gaps in his story, so I ask him, "Are there any other important events you need to look at?" With a little guidance, his eyes still closed, he reports a field of dandelions with a house in it.
"Yes, I go to this house. There's an old woman there. The men in the town hate this woman. They're giving me money to beat her up and threaten to kill her. I'm at the house. She, invites me in and offers me this tea cake. She’s really nice to me-the first person in my life who has ever been kind to me.
I don't know if I can do it, but I'm all worked up. Those men knew I was crazy enough to do it, so maybe I can. I go into the kitchen. It's a big house. The maid's there. She says I look funny. That riles me. I blurt out that I'm gonna kill the old woman. She just laughs at me. I get really mad now. I punch, out at her. The tea tray goes flying and I punch her real bad.
I’ve killed her; what am I gonna do? I don't wanna go but I gotta, I drag her body off and dump it in the pond outside the house at the back. Then I hit the road. They never catch me. I never tell anyone what happened."
Tears come to Peter's eyes: "The old woman, she was the only one who was ever kind to me. The first place I was treated right. I had no one, no one."
All the loneliness of this derelict's years on the road, his terrible unspoken humiliation on the farm, his remorse at the murder and his hunger for a few crumbs of human kindness well up inside and he weeps for his empty life. All of those watching are deeply affected. I lay a hand on Peter's shoulder, still talking to him as the Midwesterner. "It's all over now, you can let it go," I say.
Peter is now back in the hospital bed.
"I'm leaving now. I'm out of that body, just looking down on it lying on the bed. Oh, it was so lonely. I was so full of anger. That's why I could never face anybody. I was angry at the whole world. The maid got what had built up inside me all those years . . . I'm reaching up. There's an angel. He's come for me"
Peter smiles and I leave some moments of silence for him to inwardly commune with whatever the angel brings him in his after-death vision. Then I ask him: "How does this story relate to your current life, Peter?"
"I have always had a problem with anger," he says, "and I am fascinated by violence and war. Part of me is afraid I might lash out if I get really angry. And authority figures-I always rub them the wrong way up."
"Could you be carrying something of that man in you today?" I ask.
"Oh yes, that makes a lot of sense. I tend to be a loner in this life too."
We talk for a little about the need to feel some compassion for the pain and wretchedness of this man's life but above all to realize that this unhappy personality in Peter no longer needs to run his life from the background, as it were. Peter agrees that it is as though he has been unconsciously challenging authority figures in order to play out the humiliation and resentment that really belongs to the laborer's life and not to this one.
Finally Peter opens his eyes and looks around the room.
A circle of rather stunned and concerned faces greets him. He smiles. "I'm .fine," he says, as if to reassure them.
"I feel very different " The whole remembering has taken about forty-five minutes, but to most of us it has seemed quite a bit longer.