This was your life

Could the secrets of our 'past lives' help us to understand the traumas of our present? Steve Bloomfield spends time with his former self
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The Independent Online

The sun is beating down on my back. Beads of perspiration run down my brow. In one flowing, expert move I pull back the machete before cutting through the swaying sugar cane in one clean swipe. It is hard, punishing work. Over my shoulder, I see a weary-looking woman. As she picks up the cane my machete has cut down, our eyes meet. We exchange the briefest of smiles.

Later, a small boy is running around my feet, screaming with laughter. The woman, my wife, catches my eye again. This time our smiles are longer. A voice asks me for another memory.

I am now tied to a crudely built contraption, rather like a narrow set of goalposts. The rope that ties my hands to the crossbar chafes against my wrists. My legs are spread-eagled - each ankle tied to a different post. There is a sound of rushing wind and the whip strikes my back again.

This, it would seem, is my past life. I, Steve - Birmingham-born, not really the manual-labour type - was once Bayou from Barbados, able to cut through sugar cane as if it wasn't there.

The past 10 years has seen a rise in the number of hypnotists who claim that they can delve into your "past lives". They believe we have all had several lives before our present incarnation, and that by unlocking the secrets of our past, we may be able to help our present. Ever recognise someone you've never met? Perhaps you met them in your last life. Niggling pain in your neck that you can't explain? You may have been beheaded in the 18th century.

On Saturday, a new TV series on UKTV People will examine the past lives "phenomenon". But instead of just hypnotising and regressing the guinea pigs, a reporter will also investigate the claims that are made: was Bill actually a bootlegger in 1920s Chicago, or does he just have a vivid imagination?

As part of my own research, I have come to see Chris Smith, a professional hypnotherapist who regularly regresses clients in order to help them with their current problems. As clients go, I'm probably not the most promising case. For a start, most people who see him actually want to be regressed. Instead, I find myself feeling very uneasy. Then there is the God thing. Chris believes he is doing God's work; I'm an atheist.

Chris points me to an armchair and encourages me to make myself comfortable. He then hands me a headset through which floaty pan-pipes-style muzak is played. He whispers into a microphone that I should close my eyes. There's no "you are feeling very sleepy"; he just makes sure I'm comfortable and encourages me to empty my mind. Having established that my mind is empty (I think I forgot some numbers asked me to count), Chris takes me back to a recent event, which I describe in not as much detail as I think he was after. "Any noises?" he asks. No. "Can you describe the room you're in?" Er, it's got a window. "That's excellent." I'm not sure he really thinks it is.

Next, it's back to a moment in my childhood. I tell him about when I was two years old, painting with my mum, when my dad arrived home with the new car, a red Ford Fiesta. Chris seems a bit happier with this.

The next bit is weird. He takes me back to my birth. I get images of a baby in a womb, and then of a baby with the umbilical cord still attached being held by a midwife. There is a man present, who looks like my dad. But when Chris asks for more detail, I can't provide it. There is no sound, no snatches of conversation.

Chris thinks I am ready to go back to a past life. As he counts down from five, he explains, a door will open and I will move into the light. When he reaches number one, I will be in a past life. Thus begins my adventure as Bayou, a slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados in the early 19th century.

When it's all over, I feel a little strange. The images I saw seemed real enough, but I also felt that I could change them. In other words, I felt that the things I saw were the result of my imagination and not some past life.

Certain things bother me. The memory of the two-year-old boy excited to see the new car is just that - a memory. It's one I've had before. And then there is the birth. I know what a hospital, a midwife and a newborn baby all look like. If you were to close your eyes now and imagine your birth, you would probably come up with an image very similar to the one that popped into my head.

Finally, there is the life on the plantation. A basic knowledge of history, plus a bit of an imagination would, I believe, bring about pretty similar results. I saw a wife and a child, but then Chris did ask who else was there and what their relationship to me was. The flogging is hardly surprising, nor is my final image of that "life", with me sitting on a veranda at the ripe old age of 92, knowing I was free.

Not being an expert on the history of slavery in the Caribbean, I decide to check with someone who is. Professor Gad Heuman, a former director of the Centre for Caribbean Studies at Warwick University, confirms that my story is plausible. Barbados, says the professor, was a very important sugar colony. The French name, Bayou, is believable too. "By the early 19th century it was a mostly Creole population, which had begun to reproduce itself," Heuman says. Slavery ended in Barbados in the 1830s, ensuring that Bayou would have been a free man before he died.

I get the feeling that Chris has little doubt that what I experienced was real. He points out that I had several "abreactions" - physical changes under hypnosis - during the procedure, which convinced him of my regression. "During your recall in the plantation when you described being flogged, there was an expression of wincing," he says. "On another occasion you looked in a distressed, uncomfortable position. You recoiled."

I'm not convinced I've been hypnotised. Instead, I was relaxed, played floaty music, pointed in the right direction and used my imagination. Chris says he believes it's true but can't prove it. "It is difficult to be specific in why it works," he admits. "But from a therapeutic point of view it doesn't matter if it is real or imaginary." He may be right. And as he points out: "What harm can it do?"

'Past Life Investigations' will be shown on UKTV People on Saturday at 9pm. Chris Smith is based in London (