In another forum, I was asked how you know a memory is a past life and not imagination or perhaps resonating with some general past event. I’ve spoken on this subject here before, but thought this might be useful here again.
There are a number of things that make past lives quite distinct from what you might dream or imagine. Certainly, if you just have a fleeting scene, there is little to differentiate it except maybe a vague feeling. And as you say, it could be some resonating. But while dreams tend to repeat a little then end, past lives tend to open up.
There are a few ways you can come to distinguish them over time. First is to understand that our best doorways into the past are the strongest memories, thus strong experiences, often traumas. So there has to be a willingness to go there and resolve the old stuff. Stories you hear about people being this or that famous person with an easy life are not so likely valid. (How many people have been Cleopatra?)
As mentioned above, once the door opens, the memories will start to open up over time. Unlike imagination, they tend to have several feeling characteristics, like feeling associated with you and old, but a sort of different you. Hard to describe but like a modified, more primitive self. An old role you’d forgotten about. They become a part of your remembered past, just like when you were 12 years old.
Various past lives will also tie together in unexpected ways. You can see the sequential unfolding. And there are details you could never have imagined that will show up.
One of the main benefits is that at a certain point, a memory will suddenly grok why certain circumstances in your current life have happened. You’ll realize that the memories you’ve opened were related to life episodes you found inexplicable, like why a person from my background would end up in this circumstance. In my own case for example, a 10 year period was dominated by living out a difficult choice not taken in my last life. I lived now what I felt I should have then. And the consequences of the choice I did make were also playing out. Difficulties now are linked to past difficulties. But note how it was my response and its personal difficulty for me that lead to the “echo”, not the original circumstance itself.
This insight can result in the release of large traumas not only in this life but in the past life and back many lifetimes to its origin. Major traumas are like energy nodes we carry forward lifetime to lifetime. Resolving it now resolves it in all lives and finally ends the “echo”. Another one of those indications time is not as linear as we might think.
Finally, at a certain point, something will come up you can verify historically. For example, in my case I’d written a book 3 lifetimes ago. I looked it up and indeed there was the very title, publisher and location, now only rare in historical archives. I couldn’t have made that up if I tried. Note that this detail arose after the larger arc of that life had become remembered: my work, married life, home, travels, and so forth.
It’s worth noting that the Yoga Sutras (3v13-16) indicate knowledge of past (and future) lives is one of the abilities that often shows up from spiritual development. Given that spiritual practices help purify the past, that should not be a surprise. However, if a person is not interested in or resistant to this, it would not tend to develop.
Of course, the past is the past and should remain there. But it can be one way to resolve the quandaries and curiosities of the present and unload some of the baggage. Having your life make some sense may also help. (laughs)