I was desperate. My life had been gradually slipping downhill, with chronic back pain and lack of romance, worsened by my tendency to stay up until 5 a.m., drowning myself in videos and the Web before gobbling sedating herbs. What the secular world had to offer me--whether psychotherapy, motivational tapes or Paxil--hadn't eased my malaise or even gotten me to bed at a reasonable hour. It was, I realized, time for a spiritual makeover, with God as the ultimate personal trainer.

I was well aware that my search for God's grace demanded of me forgiveness, altruism and unconditional love--but since I'm the kind of guy who snaps at clerks while waiting on line to buy spiritual self-help books, I needed expert help.

I soon learned about a highly regarded psychic and medium I'll call Maria*, reputed to have the ability to tap into the Akashic Records, a sort of cosmic database with the lowdown on our past lives and their clues to our current miseries. Best of all, her brochure promised that I'd learn how to "release Karmic Debt and return to the Grace of God." Of course it would probably take a few sessions--if not lifetimes--to accomplish that.

When I arrived at her modest suburban house, I was pleased to see that Maria was successful enough to own a decent Honda Accord (impoverished psychics worry me). A short, dark-haired woman, she was dressed all in white. She led me into a tiny room where I explained all the problems that were besetting me. Unfortunately, that burned up a lot of the 90-minute session. She carefully listened as I talked about everything from my lack of self-discipline to sagging energy to social isolation.

As Maria prepared to invoke the spirits, she donned a pair of wraparound sunglasses to "go within." It was then that I realized that I'd told her so much about myself that she'd have to be an idiot not to be able to concoct a plausible-sounding "reading." Whatever she told me, she wouldn't be able to prove her psychic skills to me in a way that would ease any lingering doubts. I was only mildly reassured by the degree on the wall certifying her as a "pastoral counselor." Still, she had quite an impressive roster of spirit guides enrolled to help me.

Speaking quickly she said, "I call on the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel so that they may stand in the four corners of this room as sentinels of light and guardians of truth." That sounded good enough for me, although I wasn't really sure about that Uriel fellow. While I'd heard of the others, Uriel sounded a little like the Zeppo Marx of Archangels. She continued, "I am the living light of God, I am a perfect channel--I step into the position of being an emissary of God."

I was cheered by the prospect of receiving such a direct pathway to the Almighty. So, it was disconcerting when God's emissary told me how immature I was: "You're a child in a man's body. I don't think your adult self has kicked in." True enough, but since I'd already spent over a half hour describing my pathetic existence to her, I wasn't sure if this was a message from a Higher Plane or just a commonsense judgment that any sentient person could make.

"You need soul recovery work," she said, reporting what her spirits told her. If my soul's been damaged, I asked, could she look into my past lives for answers? She lowered her head, seeking further guidance. After a long pause, she declared, "I see horse-drawn carriages, cobblestones. I see a kitchen area near a hearth, and I see you coming in very angry. You're very well dressed, maybe you were a lawyer. I think it could be England."

That life didn't sound much better than this one. I was an overworked man who resented my wife and children as a burden: "You treated your wife and children badly, like you were treated." I was angry in part because I felt I'd been deprived of my childhood by a domineering father who saddled me with endless responsbilities. He was reincarnated as my father in this life, she said. I wondered: What's the point of reincarnation if we're going to repeat the same damn thing over and over again?

I learned more about my staggering karmic debt. "You've been hateful to each other," she said of my relationship with my father, then fell quiet for a moment. "So, we're going back to Rome...." (Always Rome or Greece or Egypt. Isn't it odd that our past lives don't ever take place in, say, Schenectady?)

My life as a Roman sounded pretty good. "You served under Caesar--you may have been a senator--and you were dressed beautifully," she told me. It was comforting to know that I had a decent wardrobe in at least two of my past lives. Then she hit upon the crux of all my bad karma: "I see that you had this servant, who was your father in future lives."

Either she really was tapping into a long-buried memory--or she'd just seen "Gladiator"--because the story had a very familiar ring to it. It turns out that the man she pictured was captured in a foreign country and brought to me as a slave. I was determined to break his spirit, so after beatings didn't work, I threatened to torture his family unless he bent to my will. He ultimately submitted, but seethed with hate. Apparently, he held a grudge for a long time, because every few centuries, he returned to ruin my life.

Of course, now I've got to learn to forgive him.

But, what could I do to solve my problems and release my karma in the present? Her solution: past-life regression therapy--which she also happened to offer. "Past lives are virtual realities that have formed your psyche, and you need to revisit them in hypnosis and reframe them," she told me. "Like in Groundhog Day, you've got to do it over until you get it right."

I passed. Afterall, it seemed like an awfully time-consuming and expensive way to help me get to bed earlier.

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