Virtually all comprehensive systems of occultism include methods for developing the ability to recall past lives. For most people beginning their occult studies, or those who have a superficial interest in the occult, the value of remembering past lives is as proof that the consciousness or soul survives physical death. For more advanced occultists, however, the concept of the continuation of consciousness (to some degree) after death is an accepted reality. So other than a natural manifestation of the development of psychic abilities and a fascinating curiosity, what difference does the memory of past lives make to a dedicated occultist? Why did Aleister Crowley, one of the most important and controversial occultists of the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, make special mention of it as the "magickal memory?"
ARE THEY REAL?
I think it is undeniable that people have the experience of living before this life. The first question any logical person has about such experiences is, "Are they real?" That leads to an even more philosophical question on the nature of reality: If I experience something it is subjectively real; but is it objectively real? What, if anything, is the difference between subjective and objective reality?
Perhaps the best way of approaching this is to look at the question from a debunker's point of view. Such a person might ask, "If past lives are real, why is it that so many people think they were someone famous like Napoleon or Cleopatra?" I've a couple of responses for that silly but ubiquitous question.
First, I have personally used hypnosis to regress over one thousand people. So far, not even one person has claimed to be anyone famous. The claim of debunkers that people only or mainly remember famous past lives is simply false, invented to denounce and mock the past life experience.
Now, I do admit there are some people who claim famous past lives. Most of the more vocal and publicity-oriented ones are selling something or looking for fame or fortune. To such people we should sadly shake our heads and remember what famed occultist Dion Fortune (a contemporary of Crowley) wrote in her book Sane Occultism: "To claim greatness in the past does not so much cast reflected glory on a mediocre present life as suspicion on the intervening lives…"
Is it possible that there may be people who aren't looking for fame or selling something and who remember a famous past life? Probably. Further, let's assume for a moment that several people actually do remember the same famous past life. Are all of them (or all except one) wrong? Actually, there's an explanation where they all could be right.
THE POOL OF SOULS
In the Kabbalah, various aspects of a person's being are associated with Sephiroth on the Tree of Life. For example, the memory is associated with the fourth Sephirah, Chesed. Anything associated with Chesed is mortal and fades with our physical death. An event in a past life must have impressed us greatly and somehow skipped to an immortal part of our being for us to remember it. That would explain why the memories of past lives tend to be short, episodic, and incomplete.
But what happens to those memories that are mortal and die with our physical bodies? Physics teaches us that matter and energy can change but not be destroyed. Something has to happen to those memories.
One theory is that they enter a locus of universal memories, a "Pool of Souls." When a person dies, all of his or her memories join in this pool where everyone else's memories link together after death. According to this theory, the memories of everyone who has died are in one place (albeit it may be a non-physical, non-contiguous place).
When a soul is ready to join a body for incarnation it may take memories from the Pool of Souls. This does not subtract from the Pool, it merely accesses it. That means any number of people can access memories—even the same ones—from this Pool. Thus, if this theory is correct, numerous people could have the memories of the same past lives.
OBJECTIVE PROOF FOR PAST LIVES
In actuality, there are numerous examples of people who remember past lives and can give objective proof of that reality. One of the most amazing such cases is that of Dorothy Eady, born in London in 1904. As a young child she began having recurring dreams of living in a huge, columned building and often insisted to her parents that she wanted to go home. When she was four her parents took her to the famous British Museum. When they came to the Egyptian area she ran through the halls, kissing the feet of the statues, insisting she was home. Although she never formally studied Egyptology, she eventually moved to Egypt and was frequently consulted by scholars until her death in 1981. She used her ancient name, Omm Sety. Several books have been written about her amazing situation, and you can read more about her here.
Unfortunately, all such cases can only be called "anecdotal evidence." As such they are not acceptable scientific proof. Frankly, I don't know if there will ever be such proof.
OTHER POTENTIAL SOURCES OF PAST LIVES
Another possibility is that memories of past lives are transmitted through our DNA. The past life memories may have been those of a distant blood relative, perhaps a great-great-great-great-grandfather. A different possibility would be the concept of "parallel lives." That is, in some way a person makes a link with another person. The past life memory is actually a memory from the parallel life of the other person. In each of these cases, different blood relatives or linking with different people could give the impression of multiple past lives.
In any of these instances, the past life experience is based upon objective reality. Of course it is also possible that past lives are simply subjective experiences. Maybe they are fantasies. Maybe they are symbolic ways for the unconscious to communicate a message to the conscious mind. Alternatively, they might be random thoughts that flit through our minds or things we make up to fit some sort of conscious or unconscious hope or fear, what hypnotherapists refer to as a "confabulation." Certainly if they are totally subjective or made up they have no real value…or do they?
CAUSE YIELDS EFFECT
Before answering the question at the end of the paragraph above, I want to describe something that I can't prove is true. However, I believe it forms a wonderful metaphor for the way we can choose to live our lives.
Most people have reasons that their lives are filled with failure and unhappiness. They can point to individual events that have resulted in not achieving their goals. " was in the wrong time and place, I was too poor, too tall, short, skinny, heavy, had the wrong religion, the wrong skin color, etc."
It's quite likely that one or several of these reasons are valid. However, there is another word for reasons: excuses. Most people believe that everyone and everything is responsible for what happens to them. In fact, the only person who isn't responsible for what happens to them is...them!
Look at this formula: >C > E
It stands for the concept that cause yields effect.
If everyone and everything except me causes the events in my life, I'm powerless. I'm at the "E" part of the formula. Everything and everyone controls me. This is known as being "at effect."
If, however, I choose to assume that I am the cause of everything that happens in my life, then I am in control. I move to the "C" in the formula. I'm "at cause." If I don't like something, I can choose to change it. I can accomplish whatever I want.
Even if I accept this belief, it's also true that I don't know why some unwanted things happen to me or why I find it impossible to stop doing something I know isn't good for me—there must be a cause! Perhaps the cause is something that I did in a past life.
If we obtain information or "learnings" from our past lives we can discover why unwanted things are happening or why we can't stop unwanted behavior and limiting thinking. With this information we can be more in control of our lives. With this information we can choose how to act, to be the conscious cause of things in our lives. If this is true, then we have learned one value of past lives for occultists: what we learn from the past life experience gives us control over our lives today.
WHY DO I LIKE TO WRITE? KARMA.
If we choose to be "at cause" of all things in our lives, we still have to wonder why each of us has certain interests, likes, and dislikes with no apparent reason. My brother was always fascinated with the latest cars and auto racing. Both things bored me. We grew up in the same environment. What drove him to be interested in cars and me to become interested in writing and teaching? Was it something that happened in a past life?
There's another name for things we did in a past life causing things to happen to us today: karma.
Karma is the working out of the law of cause and effect. Simply put, whatever you do has a reaction in the universe. Karma is not destiny or fate, nor is it a system of punishments and rewards for past actions. Rather, it is a way to teach you about the results of your actions.
There are several ways to deal with karma. Most people just suffer from its effects. However, a better way to deal with it is by understanding that wisdom erases karma. When you learn the message that karmic experiences are teaching you, you no longer need to experience them. Thus, karma is discharged.
When we experience something negative, we may begin to see it as a teaching rather than something horrible. This wisdom is a means to end personal suffering. What we might interpret as punishment for past actions is really our karma trying to say, "Hello! Pay attention! There are things you need to change to overcome the physical and emotional problems that have a source in past lives." The things we consider "bad" that happen to us are meant to give us information so we can be more in control and create the type of lives we want. If we don't have the life we desire the cause is not demons, gods, or some mythical "lords of karma." The cause is ourselves. That's great news, because it means we can learn what the cause of our unhappiness is and change it. However, nobody can learn something for you. The basis of karma is self-responsibility. You are responsible for what you do.
If we can discover the causes of our problems by examining past lives, we lose the ability to blame our misfortunes on circumstances or on others. We understand the causes of our problems today and can choose to act upon them and overcome them. We move from being "at effect" to being "at cause."
There is another name for what we're doing when we abandon being "at effect" and assume responsibility for our lives, when we move to being "at cause." That name is self-empowerment. For the concept of karma to be valid, you need to have a perspective that includes multiple lives and reincarnation. Otherwise, karma does not make sense. Therefore, another reason for occultists to study our past lives is for self-empowerment.
MAGICK AND PAST LIVES
In the practice of magick—causing desired changes to happen in your life—the first thing you need to do is determine what it is you want to change or obtain. Teachers of magick always stress the importance of making your intent or goal as specific and clear (see my Modern Magick) as possible. However, even if you're not a magickal practitioner, having clear and specific goals in your life is important. The more obvious your goals are, the more obvious your direction to achieving those goals will be.
Put another way, if you're at point A and want to reach point B, the clearer you know where you are (A) and where you want to be (B) the more obvious your direction to reach point B will become. Sometimes, however, even after you have established a clear map and pathway, you may not achieve your goals. If you can't get to point B, something is blocking your way. That "something," or the cause of that something, may be found in a past life.
In summation, recall of past memories is important, especially for occultists, because the information you can gain from past lives will help you with self-empowerment, allow you to become more in control of your current life, and aid you in overcoming any blockages to achieving your magickal and non-magickal goals. Thus it is clear why comprehensive systems of occultism have traditionally focused on uncovering past lives and the information they carry—they help you achieve the prime goal of most spiritual organizations: self-mastery.
IF ONLY IT WERE THAT EASY!
Ah, if only we could simply flip some magickal switch and access our memories of past lives. Unfortunately, we usually get just brief glimpses at most. We need a better way to access these memories. The best technology we have for this is through the use of hypnosis. I have taught hundreds of people to do this in workshops, and I always recommend getting in-person training. However, there are many books that can really help you to discover your past lives. Here are two I recommend: Hypnosis for Beginners by William W. Hewitt and Life Between Lives by Michael Newton.