It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die, but retire a little from sight and afterwards return again.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Several months after the loss of my dad and less than a year after the Harmonic Convergence, I sat face to face with a psychic medium for a reading—my first. I’d looked as carefully for this “consultant” as I would for a physician or a financial advisor. Though skeptical, I hoped that the clairvoyant would facilitate a connection. It wasn’t to be. Not yet, at least.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, she reported that my father was at peace, as if he were asleep. She said he seemed to be benefiting from a circle of light beings, divine healers helping him make the transition from the Earth plane to the dimension she called Heaven. It took only minutes for her to report that communication with him wouldn’t be possible. Then, with most of the hour-long appointment left to fill, this psychic turned her focus on me. She wasted no time delivering an emphatic message that I need not read one more book about metaphysical phenomena; I already knew what I needed to know. I only had to claim that knowing. She “saw” an image of me “straddling a fence.” I’ll paraphrase, here, the exchange that followed:
“Your straddling the fence is a symbol for the fear you have of using your gifts, because you’ve been burned in previous lifetimes. Even literally burned. I’m getting images from one life when you were a missionary. And very idealistic…”
“Am I a nun?” I break in, recalling others’ earlier sense of me as a devout Catholic sister, once.
“No,” she says. “You’re in a small group in a jungle and very excited to be bringing your religion to a primitive tribe. It’s your truth, but as far as you’re concerned, it’s also the Truth.”
I honor the range of faith traditions, this time around, so I say, “Hmmm. How does that go?”
“Not well.” She grimaces. “I see you tied to a tree, watching as tribesmen kill your companions, one by one. You won’t be spared.” She looks ill, as she reports what—as a clairvoyant—she sees transpiring. “You’re to be eaten, too, like these others.”
“What?” This is above-and-beyond-crazy, so I laugh. “I’m about to be somebody’s Blue Plate Special?”
She’s not up for hilarity. She replies, with gravity. “You’re in a state of shock, confusion. In your mind, you were bringing these people a gift of great value. How could such a generous impulse result in this barbaric end? You’re questioning all your assumptions, asking yourself, ‘Where is God in all of this?’
“What would possess one human to eat another?” I mutter. “That lifetime must have been a long time ago,”
“Actually, I’m seeing that it’s a recent one,” she tells me.
Needless to say, I leave that session with lots of questions and not a little skepticism.
While most were aware in the ’80s of reincarnation as an element in Eastern religious belief, few in the West took seriously the possibility of having lived before. At the time—1988—in a new book called Many Lives, Many Masters, author and psychotherapist Dr. Brian Weiss recounted his experience with a client who, under hypnosis, remembered her past lives. She also began to channel messages from “a space between lives” which contained validating revelations about Dr. Weiss’ family and dead son. Exposed to the source of her immobilizing nightmares and anxiety attacks, his patient was able to free herself from fears that she’d carried into her present life.
The book would pave the way for other trained hypnotherapists to help clients identify and release past-life traumas still affecting them. Other patients would come to understand the roots of certain problematic relationships, stemming from major conflicts or betrayals, with different identities, in an earlier lifetime. It was also a means to recognize a lesson still unlearned; hence, appearing in one life after another. But all of this was in an early stage of evolution. All too often, much of what I was privately exploring was readily dismissed: “Every time you turn around, another fool claims to have been Cleopatra in a past life,” I recall one critic saying.
The medium’s message about me being on the fence, neither retreating nor moving forward, was spot-on. But the rest? Had I really unconsciously carried into this lifetime an old fear of baring my soul and sharing my story to avoid, in a sense, being “eaten alive” all over again? One day later, the Universe blessed me with a cosmic nudge. I opened the newspaper to find a major feature on the Asmat tribe of Papua, New Guinea. The Crosier Fathers and Brothers, a local order, had made inroads with these natives—integrating Christianity with the Asmats’ spiritual traditions. And somehow they’d kept their heads, though at the time of their arrival in 1958 the Asmat people still were cannibals.
When Michael Rockefeller went missing on an expedition in 1961, many assumed that the Asmat had consumed the young scion and art collector. After decades of conjecture, in 2014 travel writer Carl Hoffman published a book, “Savage Harvest,” confirming the event, with full disclosure by the son of one of the tribesmen who had killed and eaten him. Reading a newspaper account, I could suddenly appreciate the revulsion that the psychic, years before, had shown while receiving images of such a ritual.
The Catholic order was hosting a conference on the Asmat that very weekend at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum, the feature revealed. The registration fee was a measly five dollars. I took it as a sign that I should go, for the benefit of my own enlightenment. Also, perhaps, on behalf of a part of “myself,” who like Rockefeller, reportedly had faced a gruesome demise. The weekend was full of revelations. A Catholic brother admitted, for example, that persuading the Asmat of the relevance of Christianity was easier given the tradition of symbolically “eating the body and blood of Christ.” For these people, eating, say, the brains of a fellow human was the direct way to take on the best qualities or spirit of an opposing warrior or a powerful, if wayward explorer, as well as to avenge the death of one or more of their own.
The faithful, regardless of spiritual tradition, try to make sense of the Mystery. And they strive to make the unknown “safe.” Is it not fear—as much as devotion—that has prompted the uninterrupted wearing of a scapular, known to keep a devout Catholic from the “eternal fires” of hell? Among the Asmat, the fear of lingering spirits—whether of ancestors or interlopers—still ensures complex rituals that protect and fortify them, albeit minus the cannibalism, at last. Out of this meaning-making have come canoes and totems and other sacred objects of consummate skill and embodied spirit.
As I reflected on the tenacity of their survival skills in an unforgiving terrain and the beauty of their creations, I knew I’d been provided a peephole into a past lifetime and an opportunity to look at my previous horrifying experience with a new perspective. Would I unburden myself of the fear experienced in that past life, given the deeper understanding of my persecutors? Would I finally claim my knowing and my calling? It would not be easy to fear less for years to come. This was, however, a start.
Asmat men, above, studying photographs of their tribe, taken by Michael Rockefeller. @ Carl Hoffman