Editors, The Theosophical Forum: A letter I recently received from a friend contains the not unusual misconception regarding reincarnation and memory of past lives:
"Theosophy teaches that reincarnation is a natural fact, I understand. The vast majority of people have no memory of past lives, but I have heard the statement made that some Theosophists (Point Loma Theosophists were referred to) do remember who they were and their experiences in former incarnations on earth. Is that possible?"
In reply to this I send you the following paragraphs, which may help clear up the matter for others as well. — A. D. P.
For the normal human being in our present stage of evolution, detailed memory of past lives is not possible. Such a claim is unwise, to say the least. Furthermore, it shows lack of understanding, and self-delusion. One can safely conclude that any person, whether Theosophist or not, claiming to remember the events of past lives, is ignorantly mistaking imagination for memory. Have you ever heard anyone expressing that belief, paint a word-picture of ordinary, humdrum lives in lowly positions, as their past? Mediocre as the character may be, or however humble the status here and now, the "memory" is sure to be grandiose. Invariably it is of celebrated personages of ample achievement, occupying outstanding positions in the world. The ear-marks of phantasy stamp every such instance. The teaching of Theosophy regarding the ancient and fundamental doctrine of reincarnation is explicit, and, in main outline, simple. Details of the process lead into complex ramifications, of course, and involve great mysteries. With those we are not concerned at present. Superficial study is sufficient to inform one that belief in memory of the detailed events of past lives is untenable because in the comparatively unevolved state of present humanity, we are unable as yet to tap the reservoirs of stored knowledge residing in the reincarnating ego. We come into each earth-life a new personality. The new brain is not the organ upon which experiences in former bodies were impressed. Incarnating anew, the permanent ego which is the golden thread upon which are strung like pearls all imbodiments it has had, passes through the waters of oblivion and forgets the past. The brain-mind is normally too insensitive to photograph — so to speak — the record stored in the inner man, he who is the "heir of all the ages." Not an item of that record is ever lost; it is simply inaccessible until finer faculties develop as we grow greater life after life and the inner eye is opened.
The rare exception to the norm is the case of those super-men who are the flower of civilizations. By virtue of unfaltering determination and self-directed achievement, they have outstripped the mass of humanity. From within themselves they have evolved forth faculties and powers not yet normal, but which will be the natural endowment of all when we have reached their high estate. These few do have the power to view the imperishable record of their long journey through the "cycle of necessity," and to read the record made by their fellows as well. We have the testimony of at least one such super-man where the Mahatman K. H. in The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett makes the statement that although he has this power, perforce, he does not care to exercise it. One can well understand why not.
Nature's wise provision to protect us from the devastating experience is merciful. For the present we are spared the horror of reviewing what we have suffered through our misdeeds in less evolved states, and the suffering we have caused others. The time will come later on, we are warned, when every minutest detail of the sorry picture will lie open to our scrutiny. One can imagine that when that time comes, we shall be as anxious to turn away the gaze, as some few are now to prematurely force a glimpse of it.
Happily, it is within our power, by virtue of free will, to make good deeds outweigh the evil from the time conscious responsibility is attained.
Plato said, "Knowledge is recollection." The Ancient Wisdom affirms that man at each moment of his existence is the sum-total of his past. Therefore, character is the fruitage of all we have been from the beginning of time and is, in a sense, recollection — a faculty of the soul, quite different from that memory which belongs to the temporary brain-mind. Hopes, aspirations, every inherent tendency, talent, or essential characteristic of a man, are thus reminiscence of former lives. All experiences deep enough to become part of the fiber of the real man endure: minor incidents remembered more or less accurately for a little while — mostly forgotten — are not carried over to the next life, but vanish with the disintegration of the body and its brain. Only the essence of these experiences, in so far as they affect character, become a matter of record in the permanent self.
Growth would be interfered with by carrying this burden along from life to life. Compassionate Mother Nature permits us to drink of the Cup of Forgetfulness that we may return to the school-room of earth-life free to look hopefully and eagerly into the future and concentrate upon the lessons of the present term.
Undue interest and curiosity in the backward glance is a distraction and impedes progress. It is much the same as over-interest in things of the psychic realms. Normally, the consciousness of human beings today does not belong there. Our high business is with the opportunities for growth, through service, offered by the daily events of life where Karman has placed us — which means, simply, where we have placed ourselves through the consequences of our accumulated past. Lessons enough are right at hand. Qualities needing development to round out character are more quickly acquired if the whole attention is given to culling spiritual nectar from each significant event. Courage, compassion, unselfishness, patience, must be won by practical effort, never through attention centered in the past, nor upon the allure of the psychic world. Advice from real Teachers all down the centuries points to the initiation to be gained from the ever-present opportunities of life. Every waking hour — lived rightly — holds enough for the exercise of all the spiritual and intellectual faculties we can command. These are infinitely more worthy of cultivation than the pale-moon illusions of the lower astral spheres. In the fulness of time man must and will have complete knowledge of Nature. But growth is accomplished step by step in orderly sequence. The shortest and safest path is the Way of the Sages. They have left plain sign-posts for our guidance: "Man Know Thyself"; "Discipline must precede the Mysteries"; altruism is the first step — and the second, and so on forever; forget yourself in the simple duty of the moment; be patient; be cheerful; follow the gleam: then you shall reach the land of Heart's Desire and Nature will withhold no secrets from you, but will accept you gladly as another proved and worthy collaborator.