In a former life she was a gay man

"Why can't we change our form? I believe we're more than our physical body and that we're here to get it right."

The Edmonton Journal/May 16, 2003

Edmonton -- Cynthia Pollard looks down at the spats on her feet and realizes she is a man. She's well-dressed, in her early 20s, walking down a main street somewhere in California on an evening in 1926.

She suddenly looks up and sees a man, also in his early 20s, and her heart races. He is her gay lover, who she ends up either killing or driving to suicide while trying to keep their forbidden love from being discovered.

The disturbing memories, which came to her last month during a past-life regression, followed her back into her present life, where she is a married woman, who helps care for people in an extended care centre.

"I felt like I had done something, even though it wasn't me -- it was me in a past life, it wasn't me now," Pollard says.

"I was having nightmares. I'd cry like I was mourning for someone I loved. At work I'd be sad, at home I'd be sad. I finally got my reiki done and found out I was out of line with the earth, with my present life."

Would she try to find out about a past life again? You bet, only it won't be for a while, she says, not until the memories of this last past life have sufficiently faded.

Pollard's experience is the most dramatic of the nine people who gather in a small, candlelit office in north Edmonton for a group past-life regression after reading a newspaper ad placed by hypnotherapist Kari Clarke.

Pollard's sister Charlotte Krasowski, a medical technologist who is married with a 21-month-old daughter in this life, finds out she, too, was once a man. The year was 1927, and she was a 30-year-old, single male, a workaholic with no family, running an amusement park with a merry-go-round filled with children playing.

Their mother, Maria Halushka, who works at a city library, is transported back to 1847 when she was a blond-haired, ragged little boy of 10 or 11 heading towards a pirate ship moored at a dock on the ocean.

"I felt like I was an apprentice, like I was walking up a gangplank or something on the boat and I was going to learn the ropes on how to sail this thing," she says. She's approached by a man who looks like a pirate with black hair and a patch over his eye, minus the peg leg. "He appeared rough and tough, but I sensed that he was actually quite kind," Halushka says.

All three women are certain they've glimpsed a past life.

Krasowski says she believes she has a soul that is a source of energy, and energy, we learn from physics, is not created or destroyed, it just changes form.

"Why can't we change our form?" she asks. "I believe we're more than our physical body and that we're here to learn lessons until we get it right."

Krasowski is not alone. Millions of people, including Buddhists, believe in reincarnation and 42 per cent of the world's population claims to have had some sort of paranormal experience.

Even Edmonton Mayor Bill Smith has hinted this isn't his first go-round.

"Maybe I was Chinese in my other life. But I've always had this association with them and I've always felt very comfortable," he recently told a Journal reporter during an interview in which Smith talked of his mission to rebuild a Chinatown chop suey cafe and a Chinese laundry at historic Fort Edmonton Park.

But if 42 per cent of people believe in things like past-life regression, the other 58 per cent have no opinion or dismiss it as bunk and dangerous bunk to boot. Robert T. Carroll, a professor of philosophy at Sacramento City College, falls into this category.

Memory is so malleable, it's really easy to plant suggestions that are as real to people as if they actually happened, he says. People who have never been abused, suffer as if they had been abused by the planting of these false memories. They can have a tremendous effect on a person's life."

Past-life regression looks like a great effort to come up with details, Carroll says, but it's really not that difficult, and the fact that these people (hynotized by Clarke) were interested in past-life regression indicates they probably have pretty vivid imaginations and they are open to lots of interesting experiences that would take them beyond the normal and the average mundane life."

Vivid memories, like Pollard's, are pretty easy to explain in naturalistic terms, Carroll adds.

"They may have read these things, they may have heard talk about them, they may have actually experienced them, they may be confabulating, mixing together television programs, things they read and so on.

"You have these vivid, detailed recollections, these images are coming to you and you think, 'Well, how can I come up with such details if it didn't really happen?' Well, the thing is, some people have tried to verify these events and, so far, they haven't been able to verify them," says Carroll, who's written a book, The Skeptic's Dictionary, containing skeptical definitions and essays on occult, paranormal and pseudo-scientific ideas and practices, which hits bookstore shelves in July.

"If you really believe something you can override a lot of logic," he says, lamenting a world that he thinks is critically short of critical thinkers.

"In my view, there is so much fear and ignorance of real science that we're becoming more and more irrational and more and more uncritical. And while it's a good thing to be open-minded and to explore new things, a lot of these things have been explored and they've been exposed," Carroll says.

Clarke, a graduate of the Hypnotism Training Institute of Alberta, in Sherwood Park, who has worked as a hypnotherapist for about a year, says she believes in past-life regression "because it's just been too real for me not to believe it.

"I have been able to verify my own experiences, like not specific names or dates because the history was too old, but in one of my own past lives, I was able to verify, using Internet research, that the events I was describing had happened, even though it was almost 500 years ago," Clarke says. "I was somewhat skeptical until I put that date in the computer and stuff came up that I knew nothing about before I saw and read about them that day."

Past lives can explain things in your present life, she believes, which is what brings many people to her Open Doors hypnosis and hypnotherapy clinic.

Clarke cites her present-day passion for horses to her life as a groom looking after horses back in the 1400s.

Her childhood allergies, which developed into full-blown asthma at age 18, are rooted in her death of smoke inhalation as a child in another life, she says. >From the moment she learned that, about 18 months ago, "every time I felt wheezy, all I had to do was remind myself that that child isn't me now and that was it. I haven't used an inhaler since, even when I exercise," says Clarke, who was also a shepherd in the 1700s.

Not everyone who comes to her experiences a past-life regression, but Clarke figures it's because they aren't receptive enough or it wasn't their time to regress.

It's harder in a group regression but, everybody, unless they're out to prove her wrong, gets something out of a one-on-one encounter, she says. They may not see clear pictures, the way Pollard and her kin did, and that's OK, Clarke says. Sometimes it takes days or weeks after a regression for the information to fully process itself to be understood, or it may never be understood.

As for Carroll's argument that it's all rubbish, Halushka says she believes some of what she saw was the power of suggestion, but she also believes there is something to past life regression. And if she found out none of it was real?

"I wouldn't feel that it was a waste. I would feel that it was a learning experience. I guess I believe strongly that what I saw is not anything that's happened to me in this lifetime," Halushka says.

Clarke has her own explanation.

"To me, this is more of a connection to God than I had just going to church.

"Where else can this information be coming from?"

Born to Regress

How do you explain a child prodigy who's a math whiz or musical genius at the age of six, born to parents who are not that smart? People who believe in past-life regression believe these talents have simply carried over from the child's previous life.

Ask a child two to four years old 'What were you when you were big like me?' and many supposedly blurt out details they had no way of learning in this life. They remember without hypnosis or prompting because the details are still fresh in their minds.

People who don't believe in past lives dismiss this as the stories of kids with vivid imaginations, but hypnotherapist Kari Clarke says the question got her kids talking about their past lives when she asked them.

Maria Halushka thinks it explains why her daughter Cynthia, when she was not yet six months old, would scream if someone showed her a knife.

"How does a six-month-old baby know what a knife or a gun is?" Halushka says.

By the time kids start school, most have lost these memories, partly because they've been discouraged from "telling stories" or have been offered scientific explanations that have caused them to doubt what they remember, Clarke says.

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