Past-life regression therapy grows in Lebanon
Popularity of alternative practices rises as people shun traditional approaches
Rima believes she was a miner in one of her past lives.
She first approached Myrna Saadeh, a psychiatrist specializing in hypnotherapy, as a skeptic.
But conventional medicine had failed her. She’d suffered from shortness of breath for as long as she could remember, and every doctor assured her nothing was wrong. Past life regression therapy sounded crazy, but gave her hope.
After four sessions with Saadeh, she found her answer in a hypnotic trance: A hundred years ago, said Rima – not her real name – she was a man named James working in a mine. Just as he was coming up from underground, an earthquake struck, and he suffocated to death without reaching the surface. Mona says she awoke cured.
“We’re seeing a growing discontent with traditional, one-sided talk therapy as a means of healing people from pressing issues like addictions, various health conditions and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” Saadeh, who has a master’s in psychiatric mental health nursing from the American University of Beirut, told The Daily Star.
“Health is more complex than doctors we know allow for. It’s about the body, the mind and the soul.” Saadeh’s own inexplicable panic attacks are what pushed her to pursue integrative medicine.
While past-life regression therapy has gained traction in the West – one out of four Americans now believe they’ve had past lives, a massive jump from a decade ago, according to a Gallup poll – the trend has a tougher time in Lebanon, facing challenges not only from the medical establishment but also from influential religious authorities.
“Priests and Sunni and Shiite imams alike denounced me on MTV when I started to gain exposure,” said Marc Mallat, a psychologist and hypnotherapist based in Beirut.
“They worried that spiritual therapists who cured anxiety, healed trauma and brought clients hope and comfort would pose a threat to people’s religious practice.”
Saadeh faced particular pushback, given her medical background and education.
“All of my AUB colleagues couldn’t believe what I was doing,” Saadeh said.
“Only in the past month, after years of solving people’s conditions successfully, did my former professor look at me and say, ‘I’m proud of you.’” Slowly, she said, other doctors are reaching out to start conversations with her as well.
Although stigma persists, psychologists practicing past-life regression in the country find acceptance with a community that embraces reincarnation as part of their faith.
Like for Hindus and Buddhists, reincarnation is part of the Druze religion, with many Druze residing in rural mountain areas visiting families and houses where they believe they lived and died before.
And yet Druze are not the only clients. “In recent years, as people reckon more and more with traumas from our country’s wars, I’ve seen the number and diversity of my clients increase,” Mona Abdulrahim-Santl, the Middle East’s first certified hypnotherapist, told The Daily Star.
“I have people of all religions and all backgrounds come to me for everything from cancer to depression – but mostly fear and anxiety as a result of violence.”
As a hypnotherapy trainer and educator, Abdulrahim-Santl founded the Lebanese Syndicate of Hypnotherapists in 2013, with approval from the Labor and Interior ministries.
Abdulrahim-Santl has recently trained over 45 hypnotherapists, many of whom practice past-life regression. Several of her students have gone on to train and certify others. She said she has transported clients back into medieval worlds and royal courts, and heard them recount experiences with such extraordinary detail that she believes they could never have invented them.
While encouraged by her practice’s progress, she is sensitive to what she calls the widespread fear of past-life regression in Lebanon.
“Many of my clients will come to me for a trauma and during hypnosis, experience a scenario that goes further back than even childhood … what I would call a past life. But if I know that for religious reasons this would disturb them, I explain it merely as a ‘story’ that emerges from their subconscious, like an internal TV.”
She said using the translation of hypnotherapy as “suggestion therapy” in Arabic instead of the more literal “magnetic sleep” helps mitigate concerns.
Mallat has also seen his practice grow in popularity as a result of people’s disillusionment with more traditional forms of therapy.
“We’re talking about collective trauma. A huge part of the country has witnessed death and destruction without fully reckoning with it,” he told The Daily Star.
According to a study from the Lebanese Psychological Association, 70 percent of respondents experienced war-related trauma and suffer from PTSD, manifesting today as mental, behavioral or scholastic problems.
“PTSD is not going to disappear with talk therapy and the overprescription of medication – the same techniques doctors use to tackle depression. People come to me when they’ve run out of options.”
Whereas psychoanalysis practices require that patients see their doctors multiple times a week over months to talk through their dreams and childhood scars, past-life therapists promise instantaneous catharsis. “This is fast-fix therapy,” Saadeh said.
“You don’t do a year of building trust. Most of my clients are teenage girls who suffered sexual abuse. After just a couple sessions, we’re seeing results in their healing processes.”
For those not prepared to plunge into past lives, other lesser-known forms of PTSD therapy have caught the attention of the medical establishment and moved into the mainstream. For the first time, the Health Ministry included Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy in its 2017 Action Plan. EMDR uses eye movements to help the brain “digest” traumatic memories and relegate them to the past.
“We are immediately going to the core of the problem, and literally shifting the brain to help distressing memories get ‘unstuck,’” Lina Ibrahim, founding president of the Lebanon EMDR Association, told The Daily Star.
Ibrahim dismissed past-life visions as scientifically dubious, perhaps related to dream material. Hypnotherapy alone, she said, could serve as a legitimate technique, but not an approach to treatment.
“We shouldn’t be doing away with all traditional forms of psychotherapy to find alternatives. We should be combining and enhancing techniques that supplement each other,” Ibrahim said.
EMDR often involves a mix of talk therapy, hypnosis, meditation and the tracking of bodily stimulation.
“The fact that people are reaching out to such spiritual alternatives is telling, and we should listen to that need,” Ibrahim said.
Abdulrahim-Santl echoed this, saying that believing in reincarnation and connection to past lives is not the point of the approach.
“I don’t care if it really is a past life or some sort of fantasy,” she said. “All I care about is that we resolve the issue, and my patient’s life improves.”