To Light a Thousand Lamps — Grace F. Knoche

Chapter 6

Remembering and Forgetting Past Lives

Most of us do not remember our past lives or what happens between earth lives. Greek mythology tells us that we drink of the waters of Lethe — Unmindfulness, Forgetfulness — which blots out sufficient memory of our past so that we enter earth life with a clean slate on which to inscribe the thoughts, emotions, and deeds that will determine the quality of the life to be. We have each been writing our individual Book of Destiny for ages, and in this incarnation we are writing another page or chapter. If we had a detailed memory of all that we had inscribed in the past or, on the other hand, knew in precise detail the series of events that may occur in the future, we should be severely handicapped. The full memory of ourselves — and of others — would be too heavy a burden.

We are not yet wise or strong enough to go without drinking of Lethe's waters. Were it possible, three difficulties would arise: first, we should be burdened by past failures, for they would hang like an albatross around our neck; secondly, we should be burdened by past successes because in all probability they would engender pride and vanity; thirdly, if we had not forgotten anything, we probably would also remember the failures and successes of others, and this could be damaging indeed.

People have always tried to peer into the past and future, looking for counsel and insight. In ancient days the Greeks sought guidance from oracles at Delphi, Trophonius, Mount Olympus, and other sacred shrines. If the heart was pure, the mind disciplined, the answers received reawakened inner sources of wisdom. What lines of communication existed then between gods and humans? Today we seek guidance as of old, seek light upon the vexing problems of fear and despair which long ages of folly, ignorance, and greed have precipitated upon us in the present confusion of ideals.

Alas, the woods are full of quack oracles, counterfeit priests and priestesses who, professing communion with the divine, sell their unholy wares to the foolish and emotion-blinded. Nonetheless, communion between god and man is and always will be possible, for the power to tap the secret wellspring of truth is resident within the soul. Knowledge of such, however, is reserved for those who consort with Nous, the Knower within, personified as Mnemosyne, Goddess of Memory. Who is this goddess and what is her function?

Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses, is the counterpart of Nous, whose duty it is to arouse Psyche, the soul, to recollection of truth so that, remembering her divine origin, she will at last claim union with Nous. Among the relics of the Orphic mysteries, recovered from tombs in Crete and southern Italy, are eight small and very thin gold-leaf tablets finely inscribed in Greek characters. One of these found near Petelia, in the environs of Strongoli, tells of two wellsprings near the entrance to the Underworld: the fount of Lethe or Oblivion (unnamed) on the left, that of Mnemosyne or Memory to the right:

Thou shalt find to the left of the House of Hades a Well-spring,
And by the side thereof standing a white cypress.
To this Well-spring approach not near.
But thou shalt find another by the Lake of Memory,
Cold water flowing forth, and there are Guardians before it.
Say: "I am a child of Earth and of Starry Heaven;
But my race is of Heaven (alone). This ye know yourselves.
And lo, I am parched with thirst and I perish. Give me quickly
The cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory."
And of themselves they will give thee to drink from the holy Well-spring,
And thereafter among the other Heroes thou shalt have lordship. . . .
— See Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of the Greek Religion, "Critical Appendix on the Orphic Tablets" by Prof. Gilbert Murray, pp. 659-60.

In this hymn the Orphic candidate is warned against imbibing the waters of Lethe. In another account by Pausanias, 2nd-century AD Greek traveler and geographer, the candidate drinks from the well of Lethe in order to "forget all that he has been thinking of hitherto." (Pausanias: Description of Greece, trans. W. H. S. Jones, 4:351) Thereafter he partakes of the waters of Mnemosyne, that he may remember all he has seen and heard, for Mnemosyne is "the holy wellspring" whose waters are for the "pure and healthy in hand and heart and who have no evil conscience in themselves." (Inscriptiones Graecae Insularum Maris Aegaei 1:789; quoted by Harold R. Willoughby, Pagan Regeneration: A Study of Mystery Initiations in the Graeco-Roman World, p. 44)

Long periods, perhaps lifetimes, are required before one is able fully to resist the seduction of Lethe. As aid thereto, the candidate invokes the fair goddess of Memory, not by empty ritual but with unshakable faith that Nous will at last stir Psyche to remembrance. Thomas Taylor (1758-1835), indefatigable translator of Greek and Neoplatonic classics, published in 1787 a small collection of Orphic Hymns, from which we reproduce the following:

To Mnemosyne, or the Goddess of Memory.
Source of the holy, sweetly speaking Nine [Muses];
The consort I invoke of Jove divine,
Source of the holy, sweetly speaking Nine [Muses];
Free from th' oblivion of the fallen mind,
By whom the soul with intellect is join'd.
Reason's increase and thought to thee belong,
All-powerful, pleasant, vigilant, and strong.
'Tis thine to waken from lethargic rest
All thoughts deposited within the breast;
And nought neglecting, vig'rous to excite
The mental eye from dark oblivion's night.
Come, blessed pow'r, thy mystics' mem'ry wake
To holy rites, and Lethe's fetters break
— Thomas Taylor, The Mystical Hymns of Orpheus: Translated from the Greek, and demonstrated to be the Invocations which were used in the Eleusinian Mysteries, p. 146.

It is remarkable that we have these testimonials of a wisdom that speak to the immortal and not merely to the ephemeral. The duty of Mnemosyne is plain: with vigor and exactitude to waken us to our true heritage so that consciously we will begin the ages-long task of loosening the bonds of self-centered and matter-based thinking. Then, prudently partaking of the spring of Forgetfulness, and drinking deep of the cooling waters from the Lake of Memory, we may rightfully utter the ancestral password:

I am a child of Earth and of Starry Heaven;
But my race is of Heaven (alone

The descent into Hades completed, the successful candidate returns to light clothed with the radiance of things seen and remembered. That the independent experiences of each might be recorded while still fresh in memory, upon ascending from the grotto of Trophonius for example, the one newly-born was required "to dedicate a tablet on which is written all that each has heard or seen." (Pausanias: Description of Greece 4:355) Thus Pausanias reports what he had learned from personal experience and also from others who had undergone the sacred rite.

So much for the daring disciple of ancient or modern Mysteries. But what about you and me, who may feel genuine nostalgia for knowledge of things unseen? Most of us still require the sweet oblivion of sleep and partial non-awareness until we have sufficiently grown in self-knowledge, judgment, and compassion. Imprisoned though we may be by self-made bonds, a part of us longs to awaken our "mystic memory" of holy things.

Why don't we remember our past? Plato gives us a hint in Book 10 of his Republic (secs 614-21), where he recounts the vision of Er. His was not so much a vision as a conscious following of the soul's experiences in the interim between lives. Er, son of Armenius, was thought to have been slain. He lay on the battlefield with other fallen heroes but, after ten days, when his body unlike the others showed no decay, it was taken home to be buried. Two days later Er wakened on a funeral pyre and shared his vision of the inner worlds, revealing that the character of the afterdeath journey among the planetary spheres is dependent upon the quality of a person's deeds while here on earth.

There were openings to the left leading below, he said, and openings to the right leading upwards. Those who had committed "unjust" deeds went down into the lower worlds, not to suffer torture forevermore, but long enough to learn their lessons. After they were purified, they went upwards midway to meet the souls of the "just" returning from the heavenly worlds where they had experienced things of great beauty. Er followed the passage of the souls through the planetary spheres and on their return to earth they came upon the Spinners of Destiny, the three Moirai or Fates: Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos — Past, Present, and Future. They spin the fate of each individual soul as it passes through their realm. All chose lots (their future lives) according to their previous experiences. Finally, the souls came to the arid Plain of Forgetfulness (Lethe) where they were obliged to drink of its waters; but those not "saved by wisdom drank more than was necessary."

Does this not explain our condition here on earth? Some of us drank perhaps too much of the waters of Forgetfulness, and therefore have had difficulty understanding what life is all about. Nonetheless, a part of us shunned the lethal waters, so that ancient memories still haunt us. Do we not feel at times the stirring of a forgotten wisdom? It is those memories, faint though they may be, that lead us into the very experiences in this life that will allow us to remember who we are and to become mindful of our heritage and our future destiny.

How does the forgetting of past lives relate to the popular practice of regressing a person, whether under hypnosis, drugs, or by other means, so that a person "relives" experiences he supposedly went through in childhood, in the prenatal stage or, as many believe, in a former life or lives? Dozens of books relating accounts of "previous lives" of those regressed have been published in recent decades.

This is not to deny the possibility that certain "memories" revealed under hypnotherapy may be true, in part at least, and could be helpful if interpreted correctly. If memory inheres in every portion of the physical brain, as some believe, it stands to reason that its cells, astral and/or physical, must bear within them the imprint of our long past, however deeply hidden. Memory is elusive. How many of us can recall in detail events of only a few years ago? Yet some seemingly chance incident, sound, or scent will suddenly release a flood of memories into our consciousness.

The native wisdom of many older peoples as well as theosophical teaching holds that our mind/soul has access to hidden reserves of memory from our ages-long past; further, and most significant, that a living, conscious entity oversees the growth of its future body. More permanent than the memory residing in our physical brain is that retained by the inner aspects of our being. While memory may reside in the life-atoms of the astral brain, the model of the physical brain, it adheres more permanently in the memory cells of character, in the reincarnating ego.

Ongoing research in prenatal and neonatal consciousness suggests that the fetal consciousness even during the first trimester records neural responses to what is pleasing to it and what is not, and also reacts instantaneously to what it hears as well as to the unspoken thoughts and feelings of both parents. As a living entity, though not yet housed in a body like ours, whatever the fetus experiences is registered in the astral light as well as in its memory cells. The newborn has no apparent recollection of this, but studies confirm that the level of awareness of the returning ego is far more acute than previously suspected. (See Thomas Verny, M.D., with John Kelly, The Secret Life of the Unborn Child)

The mystery of memory is indeed profound, and we know very little about its role during life and after death. Even without regression, it is possible for an individual when fully awake to "see" into the astral atmosphere of earth, the astral light, and momentarily "relive" or "remember" persons or events that may or may not derive from his own karmic past. As with regression, it is equally possible for one to be "seeing" or "reading" in the astral light the thoughts or life-experiences of someone else. When so little firm knowledge is available in this field, it is well to be prudent and not make hard-and-fast judgments. The process of regression with or without hypnosis neither proves nor disproves reincarnation.

It is regrettable that the popularization of regression practices has given a confused picture of the doctrine of reincarnation, due in the main to the overemphasis placed on the role of the persona, the mask worn by the reimbodying human monad as it incarnates in life after life on earth. It is natural to want to know who we were in our last life, but such knowledge is double-edged. To undergo hypnotic regression simply to satisfy the hunger of people to know who they were in a previous life is morally and psychically questionable. Sufficient unto this life are the challenges thereof.

We can be certain that — whether in the astral life-atoms of our brain or in the higher elements of our constitution, as well as in the astral light of earth — all that we are, since we first became thinking, self-choosing humans, has been and is recorded. This ties in with Plato's views that the soul has a memory of its own. In his Dialogues, particularly in Meno (sec 81b), he speaks of the process of re-collection or remembering — not memorizing in the sense of learning by rote but of reminiscing, re-bringing forth memory of the wisdom the soul had anciently attained. The soul, he affirmed, has a reservoir of experience from the past and "if one is strenuous and does not faint" in his endeavor to re-call, to re-collect this wisdom, suddenly, as in a flash, there may come a revelation, a light streaming into the consciousness from within.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition