Review of Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss

I first heard about Brian Weiss from an Indian woman who works at a nursing home where I sometimes volunteer. She said that he was a prominent American psychiatrist who had come to believe in reincarnation. I did not have to search very hard to find his book Many Lives, Many Masters. First published in 1988, Many Lives gives a detailed account of the events that transformed Weiss from a skeptic into a firm believer in reincarnation.

The book begins with an account of Weiss’s very successful academic career, beginning with Ivy-League training and culminating in a post as Chief of Psychiatry at a large university-affiliated hospital in Miami. Weiss writes that he was skeptical of anything that could not be proved scientifically, and that he was not interested in parapsychology, finding it “farfetched.” What changed his mind was a series of therapeutic sessions with a patient called Catherine. Catherine, according to Weiss, was an “extraordinarily attractive woman, with medium-length blond hair and hazel eyes” who worked as a laboratory technician at the same hospital where Weiss worked. She was suffering from a variety of panic attacks and anxieties. Weiss commenced traditional therapy, but without much success. He wanted to try anti-anxiety medication and hypnosis, but Catherine was initially afraid of both, and refused. The turning point came unexpectedly when Catherine accompanied Stuart, a married man with whom she had been having an affair, to an Egyptian exhibit at an art museum.

Catherine had always had an interest in ancient Egyptian artifacts and reproductions of relics from that period. She was hardly a scholar and had never studied that time in history, but somehow the pieces seemed familiar to her.

When the guide began to describe some of the artifacts in the exhibit, she found herself correcting him…and she was right! The guide was surprised; Catherine was stunned. How did she know these things? Why did she feel so strongly that she was right, so sure of herself that she corrected the guide in public? Perhaps the memories were forgotten from her childhood.

After this experience, Catherine consented to hypnosis. Weiss took her back to her childhood, seeking to identify specific traumatic events that could explain her panic attacks. Together they did indeed uncover some childhood traumas, but to Weiss’s disappointment, there was no improvement in Catherine’s symptoms. Still, Weiss persisted.

While hypnotized, Catherine spoke in a slow and deliberate whisper. Because of this, I was able to write down her words verbatim and have quoted Catherine directly. (The ellipses represent pauses in her speech, not deletions of words nor editing on my part. However, some of the material that is repetitious is not included here.)

Slowly, I took Catherine back to the age of two, but she recalled no significant memories. I instructed her firmly and clearly: “Go back to the time from which your symptoms arise.” I was totally unprepared for what came next.

“I see white steps leading up to a building, a big white building with pillars, open in front. There are no doorways. I’m wearing a long dress…a sack made of rough material. My hair is braided, long blond hair.”

I was confused. I wasn’t sure what was happening. I asked her what the year was, what her name was. “Aronda…I am eighteen. I see a marketplace in front of the building. There are baskets. … You carry baskets on your shoulders. We live in a valley. … There is no water. The year is 1863 B.C. The area is barren, hot, and sandy. There is a well, no rivers. Water comes into the valley from the mountains.”

After some further material in the same vein, the session ended. Weiss was perplexed, having never encountered such a phenomenon before.

I was stunned! Previous lifetimes? Reincarnation? My clinical mind told me that she was not fantasizing this material, that she was not making this up. Her thoughts, her expressions, the attention to particular details, all were different from her conscious state. The whole gamut of possible psychiatric diagnoses flashed through my mind, but her psychiatric state and her character structure did not explain these revelations. Schizophrenia? No, she had never had any evidence of a cognitive or thinking disorder. She had never experienced any auditory hallucinations of hearing voices, visual hallucinations or visions while awake, or any other type of psychotic episodes. She was not delusional, nor was she out of touch with reality. She did not have multiple or split personalities. There was only one Catherine, and her conscious mind was totally aware of this. She had no sociopathic or anti-social tendencies. She was not an actress. She did not use drugs, nor did she ingest hallucinogenic substances. Her use of alcohol was minimal. She had no neurological or psychological illnesses that could explain this vivid, immediate experience while hypnotized.

Weiss also emphasizes that Catherine did not have any prior belief in reincarnation.

Her religion was simple and unquestioned. She was raised to believe in traditional Catholic ideology and practices, and she had never really doubted the truthfulness and validity of her faith. She believed that if you were a good Catholic and lived properly by observing the faith and its rituals, you would be rewarded by going to heaven; if not, you would experience purgatory or hell. A patriarchal God and his Son made these final decisions. I later learned that Catherine did not believe in reincarnation; in fact she knew very little about the concept, although she had read sparingly about the Hindus. Reincarnation was an idea contrary to her upbringing and understanding. She had never read any metaphysical or occult literature, having had no interest in it. She was secure in her beliefs.

Most of the rest of the book is devoted to recounting further sessions with Catherine in which she described other previous lifetimes. Sometimes she was a man, and sometimes she was a woman, but she was always an “ordinary” person and not anyone famous. Often, significant people in Catherine’s present life would appear in her previous lives, but incarnated in some other person. Most significantly from Weiss’s perspective was that when Catherine would “die” in a previous life, she would enter some kind of intermediate state in which she would channel other spirits, known as Masters.

“I am aware of a bright light. It’s wonderful; you get energy from this light.” She was resting, after death, in between lifetimes. Minutes passed in silence. Suddenly, she spoke, but not in the slow whisper she had always used previously. Her voice was now husky and loud, without hesitation.

“Our task is to learn, to become God-like through knowledge. We know so little. You are here to be my teacher. I have so much to learn. By knowledge we approach God, and then we can rest. Then we come back to teach and help others.”

I was speechless. Here was a lesson from after her death, from the in-between state. What was the source of this material? This did not sound at all like Catherine. She had never spoken like this, using these words, this phraseology. Even the tone of her voice was totally different.

At that moment I did not realize that although Catherine had uttered the words, she had not originated the thoughts. She was relaying what was being said to her. She later identified the Masters, highly evolved souls not present in body, as the source. They could speak to me through her. Not only could Catherine be regressed to past lifetimes, but now she could channel knowledge from the beyond. Beautiful knowledge. I struggled to retain my objectivity.

Once Catherine started recalling her past lives, her symptoms started to improve. After some time, Catherine was essentially completely cured, and the sessions came to an end, somewhat to Weiss’s disappointment, who had undergone a dramatic spiritual awakening and was eagerly soaking up the messages from the Masters. In the epilogue to the book, Weiss mentions that he has applied past-life regression to twelve other patients, with consistent success. In spite of this, Weiss does not prescribe past-life regression as a universal panacea. For him, it is more important to heed what the Masters want to teach us about life and death, because therein lies the true solution to the troubles that seem to constantly plague us in this life. Weiss summarizes his main message in the final paragraph of the book.

I hope that you will be helped by what you have read here, that your own fear of death has been diminished, and that the messages offered to you about the true meaning of life will free you to go about living yours to the fullest, seeking harmony and inner peace and reaching out in love to your fellow humans.

What interests me most about Weiss’s book, however, is not the general life guidance provided by the Masters. While unobjectionable, it does not strike me as particularly new or exciting; I do not need a Master to tell me that I should overcome greed and mistrust, and pursue love and wisdom. Instead, I am more interested in whether anything that Weiss has documented provides evidence that reincarnation, in the popularly understood sense of a single individual soul inhabiting a succession of human bodies, is real, and that the Masters are separately existing entities that can provide us with accurate information about life after death. Do we really, as the Masters teach, bounce back and forth between a physical plane and a spiritual plane as we die and are reborn again and again? Are there really seven planes of existence? Is the process governed by the need to pay debts for our sins?

For a hardcore skeptic, of course, Weiss’s book is worthless as evidence, because Weiss could be lying, or Catherine could have been perpetrating a deliberate hoax. Neither of these seems too likely to me, though, and so I am inclined to give Weiss the benefit of the doubt where possible. If we take Weiss’s accounts of his session with Catherine at face value, then what we might call the “conventional” explanation is that the minds of some people, Catherine in particular, have unusual capabilities that we do not fully understand, but that reincarnation and the Masters are not straightforwardly real in the sense that Weiss claims. They key question in my mind is, does Weiss report anything that is difficult, if not impossible, to explain conventionally?

The first interesting episode in the book from this point of view is one that Weiss did not observe firsthand.

One one occasion, when her parents came to visit her, her father expressed tremendous doubt about what was happening. To prove to him that it was true, she took him to the racetrack. There, right before his eyes, she proceeded to pick the winner of every race. He was stunned. Once she knew that she had proved her point, she took all of the money that she had won and gave it to the first poor streetperson she met on her way out of the track. She intuitively felt that the new spiritual powers she had gained should not be used for financial reward. For her, they had a much higher meaning. She told me that this experience was a little frightening to her, but she was so pleased with the progress she had made that she was eager to continue with the regressions. I was both shocked and fascinated by her psychic abilities, especially the episode at the racetrack. This was tangible proof. She had the winning ticket to every race. This was no coincidence.

Weiss did not investigate Catherine’s precognitive powers further, so we are left with just an intriguing but isolated episode that is not fully documented. We do not know, for example, how many races Catherine predicted, or what the bookkeeper odds were in each case. In any case, even if Catherine’s precognitive abilities were confirmed, this would not directly demonstrate that she was truly recalling past lifetimes, or that the Masters were truly separately existing beings who could be trusted to provide reliable information about life after death.

Probably the most impressive anecdote in the book is the following one, which I quote at length.

“Your father is here, and your son, who is a small child. Your father says you will know him because his name is Avrom, and your daughter is named after him. Also, his death was due to his heart. Your son’s heart was also important, for it was backward, like a chicken’s. He made a great sacrifice for you out of his love. His soul is very advanced. … His death satisfied his parents’ debts. Also he wanted to show you that medicine could only go so far, that its scope is very limited.”

Catherine stopped speaking, and I sat in an awed silence as my numbed mind tried to sort things out. The room felt icy cold.

Catherine knew very little about my personal life. On my desk I had a baby picture of my daughter, grinning happily with her two bottom baby teeth in an otherwise empty mouth. My son’s picture was next to it. Otherwise Catherine knew virtually nothing about my family or my personal history. I had been well schooled in traditional psychotherapeutic techniques. The therapist was supposed to be a tabula rasa, a blank tablet upon which the patient could project her own feelings, thoughts, and attitudes. These then could be analyzed by the therapist, enlarging the arena of the patient’s mind. I had kept this therapeutic distance with Catherine. She really knew me only as a psychiatrist, nothing of my past or of my private life. I had never even displayed my diplomas in the office.

The greatest tragedy in my life had been the unexpected death of our firstborn son, Adam, who was only twenty-three days old when he died, early in 1971. About ten days after we had brought him home from the hospital, he had developed respiratory problems and projectile vomiting. The diagnosis was extremely difficult to make. “Total anomalous pulmonary venous drainage with an atrial septal defect,” we were told. “It occurs once in approximately every ten million births.” The pulmonary veins, which were supposed to bring oxygenated blood back to the heart, were incorrectly routed, entering the heart on the wrong side. It was as if his heart were turned around, backward. Extremely, extremely rare.

Heroic open-heart surgery could not save Adam, who died several days later. We mourned for months, our hopes and dreams dashed. Our son, Jordan, was born a year later, a grateful balm for our wounds.

At the time of Adam’s death, I had been wavering about my earlier choice of psychiatry as a career. I was enjoying my internship in internal medicine, and I had been offered a residency position in medicine. After Adam’s death, I firmly decided that I would make psychiatry my profession. I was angry that modern medicine, with all of its advanced skills and technology, could not save my son, this simple, tiny baby.

My father had been in excellent health until he experienced a massive heart attack early in 1979, at the age of sixty-one. He survived the initial attack, but his heart wall had been irretrievably damaged, and he died three days later. This was about nine months before Catherine’s first appointment.

My father had been a religious man, more ritualistic than spiritual. His Hebrew name, Avrom, suited him better than the English, Alvin. Four months after his death, our daughter, Amy, was born, and she was named after him.

Here, in 1982, in my quiet, darkened office, a deafening cascade of hidden, secret truths was pouring upon me. I was swimming in a spiritual sea, and I loved the water. My arms were gooseflesh. Catherine could not possibly know this information. There was no place even to look it up. My father’s Hebrew name, that I had a son who died in infancy from a one-in-ten million heart defect, my brooding about medicine, my father’s death, and my daughter’s naming—it was too much, too specific, too true. This unsophisticated laboratory technician was a conduit for transcendental knowledge. And if she could reveal these truths, what else was there? I needed to know more.

An alert reader will note that even this episode is not impossible to explain more conventionally. Since Catherine worked at the same hospital as Weiss and they knew people in common, it is conceivable that this sort of personal information about Weiss could have reached Catherine by conventional means somehow. Note also that the remark about the heart of a chicken is a little odd; as far as I have been able to tell, there is no sense in which a chicken’s heart is backward relative to a human heart. Still, the accuracy is impressive, assuming that Catherine had not intentionally made any attempts to learn anything about Weiss’s personal life.

A similar but briefer example occurs later in the book when Catherine is recalling childhood events in her current life, and speaking about her parents.

“They never planned for my brother. They weren’t married when … he was conceived.” This proved to be startling new information for Catherine. She had never known about the premarital pregnancy. Her mother later confirmed the accuracy of Catherine’s revelation.

Other anecdotes in the book are less impressive. For example, Catherine later visited Iris Saltzman, a well-known psychic, and Saltzman was apparently able to validate many of Catherine’s past lives. However, this account is second-hand, and we cannot tell whether Saltzman used any of the many well-known, conventional techniques for cold reading. In general, despite Weiss’s repeated insistence that he employs the utmost scientific rigor, he generally accepts what he hears at face value with minimal critical scrutiny. For example, early in the book, I was surprised to read the following paragraph.

During the week I had reviewed my textbook from a comparative religions course taken during my freshman year at Columbia. There were indeed references to reincarnation in the Old and the New Testaments. In A.D. 325 the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, along with his mother, Helena, had deleted references to reincarnation contained in the New Testament. The Second Council of Constantinople, meeting in A.D. 553, confirmed this action and declared the concept of reincarnation a heresy. Apparently, they thought this concept would weaken the growing power of the Church by giving humans too much time to seek their salvation. Yet the original references had been there; the early Church fathers had accepted the concept of reincarnation. The early Gnostics—Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Saint Jerome, and many others—believed that they had lived before and would again.

I had not heard these claims before, and upon investigating them, I found that Weiss’s description was at best highly misleading, if not flat out wrong. I have not been able to dig up any evidence that Constantine deleted anything from the New Testament. The Second Council of Constantinople did not discuss reincarnation as Weiss thinks of it; it did condemn Origen for his unorthodox views about the pre-existent soul and the resurrection, but these were far from any doctrine of reincarnation in the sense that Weiss intends. Calling Clement, Origen, and Jerome “Gnostics” is also a stretch at best. I would be curious to know exactly which textbook Weiss got this information from, or whether there were other sources for the information in this paragraph. At any rate, Weiss’s uncritical attitude towards secondhand testimony is the reason I am not particularly impressed when he cites evidence other than what he has directly observed in his own sessions with Catherine.

What other kinds of evidence might we look for in purported accounts of a past life? One possibility, already hinted at in Catherine’s experience at the museum, is detailed factual knowledge that the person seems to have had no way of acquiring otherwise. This is a tricky issue, though, because if the knowledge can be corroborated by looking it up in some reference work, then that means that the information was in principle already available somewhere, and the person could have been exposed to it previously, but then largely forgotten it. For example, in one of Catherine’s past lives, she referred to an airplane as a “fixed wing.” Weiss writes, “I was amused because Catherine knew nothing about airplanes. I wondered what she would think ‘fixed wing’ meant.” But how could Weiss know that Catherine had never been exposed to that term before in her present lifetime?

Since some people that Catherine knew in her present lifetime would frequently show up in her previous lifetimes, there is the intriguing possibility that two people’s testimonies of past lives could be recorded independently and then checked against one other. Unfortunately, even if somehow two people could be queried in a truly independent manner, it is not clear what this would prove. Even if the testimonies were consistent, it would be hard to quantify the probability that the consistency occurred by chance. Furthermore, inconsistent testimonies could be chalked up to a faulty memory. After all, ordinary memory is far from totally reliable, so why should memories of past lives be any better?

There is one detail in Catherine’s first past-life memory that strikes me as arguing against its interpretation as a straightforward memory, namely Catherine’s reference to the year as “1863 B.C.” Obviously, nobody living in 1863 B.C. would have said that the year was 1863 B.C. The only way out that I can see is that somehow the eternally existent Catherine has some kind of bird’s-eye view of her entire history—indeed, at one point, Catherine claimed to have had eighty-six incarnations—and is able to supply the dates of some of those lives according to a modern calendar. This is possible, though I do not find this explanation very persuasive. It would seem more likely to me that if the person were able to report any date at all, it would be according to whatever calendar was in use at the time and place of the purported past life.

From a Christian perspective, reincarnation is certainly not standard doctrine. Hebrews 9:27–28 is often cited as a prooftext against reincarnation: “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him” (NASB). Certainly a worldview in which there is an eternal cycle of rebirth without any final ushering in of God’s kingdom, and in which Jesus Christ plays no special role in saving us from our sins, is incompatible with the basic message of Christianity. However, I can imagine that some limited form of reincarnation could be accommodated. (The New Testament itself evidently does not take the phrase “die once” absolutely literally, since Lazarus and some others were raised from the dead, only to die a second time eventually.) Even the existence of the Masters might be accepted, as long as they were treated as limited and fallible beings. So I am willing to keep a somewhat open mind about the findings of Weiss and others. Many Lives, Many Masters by itself, however, provides only a few suggestive hints and not a great deal of what I would consider solid evidence for reincarnation.

Posted May 2014

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