I am a firm believer in not poo-pooing something until you have looked into something and / or given it a go yourself. And when I say looked into I do not mean a cursory Google inquiry. I like to do research. About 20 years ago I undertook some training, a foundation course, in North American Indian shamanism, it had elements of runic shamanism attached. I completed the course. One of the components was past life recall. In this you would go on a shamanic journey to retrieve past life “fragments” for someone else. It involved ritual drumming, the use of sage smudge sticks and rattles. You would rattle over the body of another being and then lie down next to them and enter a shamanic trance state. Then you would go on a journey to retrieve “energies” for them so that they might heal. In the trance state you may see many things. Back then I was perhaps easier on the eye than I am now and there were some lonely women on these courses. I was a quite popular shaman. The wife reckons it may not have been due to my shamanic abilities, rather that the ladies liked lying down in close contact with me and getting some attention. The whole experience is quite pleasant. And sometimes you could intuit something which did indeed prove useful to them, I doubt it had much to do with past lives. It may have been an archetype or a theme which was useful in the unlocking something in their psyche. There were other aspects of this shamanism which I found more convincing such as medical diagnoses. But I may return to that another day.
To consider past life recall one has to countenance reincarnation. And this idea is very present in common parlance, we say in a past life I was this, or in a former incarnation I was that. It can be used as a metaphor for things in a given life. For example, in a previous incarnation I was a lecturer in physical chemistry. One cannot prove categorically in an evidence-based way that reincarnation occurs. One can provide strong circumstantial evidence for it. There is no way as yet, because we haven’t invented time machines, to check. And of course, that opens up a whole gamut of possibilities in regard of pissing about with time’s arrow, in any case. Certain cultures rely on reincarnation as a bedrock. For example, the Tibetan culture has the reincarnating Dalai and Panchen lamas. These are held to reincarnate relatively promptly after death and in a manner in which they are identifiable. The testing of these may be partially by recognising artefacts used by the previous vehicle. There has been controversy about the recognition of some of these rebirths. The whole Tulku system is based on the ability to recognise and assign incarnations and there are many Tulkus around. There is even a film called “Tulku” by Gesar Mukpo which is very enjoyable.
There are some people referred to as an old soul, implying wisdom beyond years. Whilst there is no absolute evidence, reincarnation has acceptance more widely in the East than the West, though as a notion it continues to find increased credence in the West. There can be an element of romance and wishful thinking attached. Many claiming past life recall claim to have been someone famous. I suspect that certain persons in history have many people claiming to be them, reincarnated. Someone must be wrong. Few claim to have been an anonymous farmer.
In other traditions there is restoration of memory. After training this capacity to carry forward learning to next lives is enhanced. Then in the subsequent lives it can be restored, near fully. We all have experienced déjà vu, which may or may not have some past life component to it. Certain places and certain things evoke something in us which is not otherwise explainable. We may have some “memories” and “knowledge” which are incongruent with our current life trajectory and experience. Where do these come from? The possibility of past life recall is one explanation, albeit not amenable to rigorous testing. If one comes across a series of “teachings” and can assimilate them quickly is that down to innate ability of prior experience? There is no way to prove so one is left to believe whatever one wishes. When I found that I could read old French with ease, this freaked me a bit. I only have ‘O’ level French and it was more than a little rusty at the time.
About a dozen years ago, when I was not looking into Buddhism at all, I started having visions of myself in Buddhist settings, wearing robes and with tattoos of om mane padme hum in Sanskrit on my forearms. I started looking into this more, looking at the scripts on the web to be sure. What prompted these sometimes-invasive visions? Was it some psycho problem of mine? Not really, I was still fully functional and able to lecture to classes of ~100 about chemical kinetics. One explanation remained, some kind of past life breakthrough. Needless to say, I did reach for the salt in order to take a pinch. One is left with the idea of believing without believing and accepting without accepting. It does not really matter if the explanation is true or not, one simply has to get on with the current life. These visions feel more like memories than visions.
If the explanation is a valid one, then I have recall of four of my previous lives and I have tracked these down where possible. None of these is complete, all are fragmentary. The one two lifetimes ago is the strongest visually and in terms of feeling for me. I have been to certain places and they stir, there is a “resonance” somehow, to which one cannot put a finger. There are sounds and there are texts.
It is very easy to bullshit yourself and others. There is a bit of glamour associated. I myself am open to the idea that past life recall is possible. When one does a shit load of meditation it changes you fundamentally and opens up capacities hitherto unconsidered. I doubt you can recall a life for someone else, you have to do it by yourself, if at all.