When the subject of reincarnation is mentioned it is quite usual for people to think of a series of bodies as the means for experience by a soul. I use that word soul in a vague and general sense because that is the way in which people usually think of the matter. It is seldom that they dwell upon the subject of reincarnation from a psychological point of view, and ask themselves just how that soul obtains what it is seeking or what it is intended to attain through this process.
We shall understand the method if we say that a life-cycle is really an act of meditation. That is looking at it from the point of view of the mind of the soul that is going through the experience. This meditation is a composite of three mental processes in succession. First, we give our attention to something, and if we attend to it closely we get a clear and strong active consciousness with reference to that thing. One can emphasize this with a little experiment, as follows:
You hold up a pencil and ask a friend to look at it. You then put it behind your back and ask him what color it was. He says, "Yellow." You then ask him "How yellow?" He generally replies that he does not understand you. You then request him to imagine the pencil or think about it, and ask him if he can think of the yellow color that he saw. Then, after a moment, you bring out the pencil again, and you say: "Look at it carefully. Does it look more yellow than it did before?" "Why, yes," he says, with some surprise, "It does."
All I have done is to trick my friend into paying more attention to the color yellow than he did before. What he has really done is to put out more of himself towards the yellowness of the yellow. This is what is called concentration, which is the first step in meditation. In ordinary life, the utility of things is that they compel our attention and at the same time they restrict our attention, so that at the point of concentration our consciousness achieves quality and power which would not otherwise be obtained.
The first point, then, in understanding the psychological uses of reincarnation is to see that objects or environment present us with opportunities. The environment does not do anything to us but give us the opportunity to gather ourselves together and control ourselves upon limited things whereby our state of consciousness is educated. Every such piece of education, though it be but a passing experience, produces a permanent effect in consciousness.
Here I like to mention the simile of the camera. A camera is a dark box with a little hole in front and a chemical plate of film at the back which can receive and record the effect of the pencil of light that comes through the little hole in the front. The simplest form of the camera is that which is usually shown to students at school in the physics class when they begin to study the properties of light. In that case we take just a plain box. We take out the back and put there a piece of ground glass or glazed paper to form a screen, and in the front we make a little hole with a pin. We now point this camera at a bright object and the pupil sees the picture of that object on the screen at the back of the camera. We then tell him that this is due to the fact that the same picture appears at both ends of a ray of light. We next ask him to imagine what will happen if we enlarge the pin hole, and he says we shall have more things in our picture. So we push something through that hole to make it bigger and the student finds to his surprise that the picture becomes blurred. Then we take out the whole front of the camera and no picture is to be seen on the screen. We have at this point to tell our student that he is quite mistaken in thinking that there is no picture there, for what has happened is that many pictures are there, that all the pictures brought by all the light rays are there, that there are so many pencils of light all falling upon one another that all he can now see is a mass of light.
With the aid of this simile we can understand that the body is like the camera box and that the senses are like the little pinhole. The limiting effect of the body and the senses enables us to get a clear picture on the screen of our consciousness, but without that there would just be a blaze of glorious light which would mean nothing definite to us.
The second point in this psychological process is the expansion of our pictures. The concentration gives us grip and now we are to obtain a larger grasp and take in a bigger picture without losing the quality of consciousness which I have called the grip. It is just as with a hand we can have a firm grip and also a large grasp.
Behind every such psychological action there is something that we must call a soul-hunger. We want to experience something. Leaving aside for the moment why we want to experience it, we can see how we do it and what the effect is. A painter has the hunger to paint a picture because as he does it he gets some enhancement of his consciousness. He gives all his attention and faculty to the work, so really he is not merely making a picture but he is also making a man, himself, and it is the enhancement of consciousness that in some degree satisfies his soul hunger and gives him the joy of a richer life. This is only one illustration; it is the same with every creative act in our lives.
It is noticeable that when a soul has attained some satisfaction of that hunger it turns away from the mere object by which it was obtained. The artist is now tired of that picture; his hunger shifts a little and he will now try to satisfy a slightly different phase of the same hunger. This explains why in the course of incarnations all objects are either destroyed or dropped aside, but the consciousness goes on with its process of self realization. We need some external thing, as we call it, to assist us in our work of concentrating our consciousness so as to educate it in the special effects of the compartments of its own being. Here, then, on the whole we see the reason why the objects should be temporary while the man is eternal, and we cease to grieve over the temporariness of those things.
There is a third step in this meditation process, which we call contemplation. It is that part of the process in which we become so intent upon the object that we forget our idea of ourselves. In the beginning of these efforts we think of ourselves as looking and making an effort to see while we examine the object but in the process at its best we just forget the idea "I, so-and-so, am looking," and we become engrossed in the object. We all know how when it is something of beauty, such as a sunset sky or a lovely piece of music, we become what is called enraptured. We have not then lost ourselves. We are in fact at our very best. We are enjoying the highest delights of enhanced consciousness. But we have forgotten ourselves, if by "ourselves" we are to mean that picture of ourselves as something in the world which so commonly accompanies our activities and thoughts.
In the contemplation we get our best awakening of consciousness, and in the result of it we find that some deeper part of ourselves has received what we sometimes call intuition or inspiration. It is something that makes such a deep and indelible impression upon us that we can speak of it as now a part of our character. Before this the thing was simply something that we knew about or we knew, but now we can say that the experience has been really digested and the result is new power in consciousness, which we rightly call character. I am not the same after that sunset or that music as I was before.
If we give our best attention and our best creativeness to the business of life and the world, we are attaining our best growth and moving towards the fulfilment of the purpose of the incarnation. This is education. At the same time it is self-education, for the objects which give us the opportunities are of the nature of karma. Briefly, the world of each one of us is his own karma, something that he has made by his work in the past. He has made that according to his character at the time, so it is an expression of his own imperfection, that is, his own limitation. I have myself made the things that stand up there outside me and compel my attention, and profit me to the degree in which I willingly give the utmost attention to them.
At the end of a life period in the body it can be truly said that we have acquired quite a lot of experience, we have stored up thoughts and feelings, but for the most part these are only the beginnings of thoughts and feelings — they are not mature and ripe and they have but rarely attained the quality of contemplation. What then happens after death? Death is not the end of the life cycle. The principal thing now to come is what we theosophists call devachan, and this is described as a kind of meditation, rising to the quality of contemplation, in which we get the full value of all those experiences which are useful to the soul of a permanent man. In this state we can say that those experiences are now digested into character. It is just as though an artist painted a picture. He has brought a variety of things into his scene and has achieved a certain realization through that. He is a better artist at the end than he was at the beginning, and now he sets aside that picture and starts upon another, which will take him to further attainment.
Let us now think upon the phases of life. We go through childhood, youth, maturity, elderliness, old age, death and devachan. In each of these phases there is a certain quality of experience and a certain direction of attention. This is a sort of rounded out picture, in which experience is seen from different points of view. It is evident that there is something more at work here than the karmic presentation of objects and the psychological experience of these objects. There is something that moves the man from within to go through these phases. The hunger of the soul has some plan of its own which causes it to follow this cyclic form of growth.
It is here that the will comes in and makes its decisions. It is a section of our psychology that is not mental. It is an obedience to some central spiritual law, in the intuitive obedience to which the will gets its own delight and sense of power; not a sense of power over things or power over others, but an intuition of an inner freedom. Such happy intuition is our character in the degree of attainment of unity with that part of ourselves already beyond the need of the psychological process of meditation.
There is in us a central urge, and the hunger of which I have spoken, which expresses the phases of that urge. The will in us is the future speaking to the present. That is why it is free.
It is not for the mind which deals with external objects to try to characterize that freedom and harmony of the unity-making will with any descriptions taken from its field of knowledge. Its work is in its own sphere, to assist in that psychological process in which contemplation produces fulfilment.