Reincarnation is a word often loosely used when rebirth or reimbodiment is meant. It really applies only to creatures having bodies of flesh (carne). Organisms that do not have fleshy bodies do not incarnate, so of course they do not reincarnate. However, anything that has enduring form, even though it is flexible and mobile, grows and changes, is obviously organized; that is, it coheres for a longer or shorter period, held together by something more enduring than the form. Something, some kind of magnet, keeps the ever-moving atoms in their proper formation, causing the body to maintain its general shape and integrity from birth to death, and this something must outlast its garment of matter.
Is this something the soul — that theoretical nebulous entity which people are supposed to have? It seems rather strange to speak of "having" a soul, as though it were a possession, when it really is what we usually mean by our selves. On the contrary, the soul may be said to have a body, which it brought into life, and which it hopes to survive. But when we begin to examine our own nature with a view to finding out what the soul is, we discover that it is not one but many things. All kinds of properties are part of it: talents, faults, some virtue and many little propensities which, all taken together, make each of us the unique individuals we are. However, these properties are not static and permanent: we can alter them. We can improve our character — or deprave it; we have the option to train or disfigure it in many ways.
This brings up the vexed question of immortality. How can a changing, ever-altering soul be immortal? What is there in it which can remain intact for even two seconds together? That consciousness survives the body is hardly in question: much research and many theories are devoted to the after-death adventures of the human being, and a good deal of evidence supports the survival of consciousness after the body's demise. At the other end of the spectrum, very little conjecture is recorded on the soul's condition before birth, and none at all seems to deal with the possibility of soul survival in the other kingdoms of nature. We see minerals, plants, animals, and human beings occupying their respective stages on the ladder of evolution. What we do not see is what takes place before and after life on earth. It is rather like looking at a tower with a vertical window exposing one step on each level of a spiral staircase but without a clue to their connectedness. Is there then any way in which we can determine what takes place in the larger portion of existence which is unknown?
From what we can observe nature is consistent throughout; rhythm rules everywhere. This rhythm is often discerned to be the result of spiral motion which, when we see only part of it, looks like waves. The ocean's waves are a good example. The water seems to travel along the surface, but it really doesn't; the individual particles of water describe a vertically spiral path, progressing very little on the ocean's face. They rise and fall, emerge into the air and plunge once more beneath the surface in a nearly circular movement. The same kind of motion is seen at the extremes of our scale of sizes — in the skies and in atomic worlds. As electrons circle their proton, or planets swing about their common center, the sun, that center is moving in a greater circle about something else. These cycles within larger cycles — wheels within wheels — graphically parallel the way we appear to come into existence and again vanish from the terrestrial scene. Out of the cosmic ocean we emerge, make some small progress on the visible surface of life, and recede once more into the unseen, perhaps to contribute to the life of unknown worlds where other parts of our variegated nature are at home.
One of the most common questions asked is, "Why do we not remember our past lives? We do. Indeed we do, Soul memory is inescapable: it supplies all that we possess from birth of talents and leanings; only the trivial and temporal is forgotten, just as the first few years of each life are largely forgotten. We do not keep in mind the events of every moment known to our present brain, much less those that took place in which that brain was never involved. But the fluid personality, combining and dissolving its components, surrounds a permanent core of soul-memory. That is the magnet drawing to itself and holding together all that belongs to it: thoughts, emotions, atoms of mind and soul. When the governing self withdraws at "death" these continue to evolve on their own; they visit other compatible forms, progressing independently until their own host consciousness summons them on its return to earth. Meanwhile they are guests, welcome or unwelcome, in other minds and personalities, leaving a residue of memory in all who give them lodgment.
Each time we enter through the gate of birth, new, clean, and seemingly unremembering, we learn in amazingly brief time to use the utensils of earth — our incredibly complex brains, musculature, and the several senses to be mastered. The more we think about it the more marvelous it seems that an infant can acquire such facile use of the body's faculties. The ease with which a baby learns to see, to determine the direction of sounds, to recognize parents, and all the other marvels of its acclimatization, would be impossible had life not long ago become a routine resumption of familiar skills. Consider the diverse abilities it takes to walk and contrast this coordination of skills with the most advanced properties of simpler organisms. And this is only the beginning. Soon the child becomes able to speculate on abstract ideas and express thoughts by means of conventional language, whether in one tongue or another — or, for that matter, in several. Even our simplest achievements should prove that we assume our role as human beings far more readily than we could possibly do without repeated practice.
Having caught up with its common human needs, the child adapts more slowly to the mores of its new environment, which may be very different in cultural details from its last experience. Only then is the personality ready to develop creativity and artistry beyond what it had previously learned, and resume its evolutionary progress where it last left off. But every skill developed and every knowledge learned would be a sterile gain were there not an ever broadening scale of understanding molding the learning into wisdom.
We partake of an unceasing flow of energic particles on every level: they form our bodies, minds, emotions, vital forces, and spiritual insights. We attract to ourselves what we desire and what is compatible with our moods and characters. We are targets for undesirable thoughts drawn by our weaknesses, and we also share in a never-ceasing fountain of god-force — sublime inspirations that flow in profusion through our inmost, higher self from the divine source of the system we inhabit and help compose. For the human race helps make up the consciousness of our planetary life as surely as the rocks and plants make up its body and vitality, and as all of us together create an ecosphere of mutual benefit. As human beings, members of the genus Homo sapiens, awareness is what makes up our life. It is the continuous flow of changing consciousness from birth to death which constitutes our experience of living. Much of it goes unheeded. Some episodes are of temporary significance. Memorable insights remain with us as a spiritual substratum to the passing panorama of events. This is doubtless why in the mythologies of the world a vital part is assigned to mind and memory. Among the Greeks, Ouranos and Gaea (Sky and Earth, or rather Space and Matter) brought forth Mnemosyne (Memory). With Zeus, divine ruler of the gods, Memory bore nine daughters, the Muses, who are the inspirers of all the arts that grace human creativity. The Norse myths accord similar roles to Odin's ravens, Hugin (Mind) and Munin (Memory), who daily "fly over the battlefield [earth]" and bring Allfather Odin the knowledge and experience gained on their excursions. A little thought will show the cogency of this imagery: mind is the product of all that has gone before. It is the protean, ever changing, growing, learning, improving processor of events which constitutes the evolver in us. All the while, memory accumulates the hoard of experience whereon further gains can be made by the mind. Progress would be impossible were there no memory to record the gains accrued, or mind to undergo constant modification. As the mythic gods imbody to gain experience in matter and amplify their wisdom so do we their children, contribute to their store while amplifying our own.
Yet throughout the continuous changes brought about by the events of living, the central consciousness endures, whether on earth or elsewhere, amassing memories in all the spheres it inhabits, gleaning in each world what that milieu has to offer of experience and understanding. At night, when the body is quiescent, the soul has a taste of the worlds it explores more fully after death. On the permanence of this recording self rest the various religions' beliefs in immortality; at the same time, the ever-changing nature of our composite character denies it for, when there is change, modification, and either improvement or deterioration of the soul, it cannot rightly be called immortal. Nevertheless, the core of consciousness endures, for it is intrinsic in its parent universe, to whose indwelling deity's thought world it contributes.
Conscious life is the essence of us all. Galaxies swirl and ponderously spin majestic wheels of life, as searching consciousness finds manifold expressions. Humanity is one of those expressions, a slender slice of universal being; each of us is an agent of the divine life which activates our universe, garnering what human intelligence can garner, ever reaching godward. With every tour of duty we yield to divine nature what has grown godlike in ourselves, rendering to that greater self in which we exist whatever is worthy to serve the divine purpose. We can only dimly dream what vistas are comprised within the consciousnesses that imbody in stars and galaxies of stars as we, like toddlers in a grown-up world, stand knee-high to the gods who are at once our ideals and our destiny. We, and they, are intrinsic in the universe. Everything, from physical molecules to divine, pure, unsubstantial consciousness, belongs within it. We possess all of its qualities, in embryo and growing, as we develop our true humanity and prepare in the course of eternities to become gods ourselves. Is it any wonder the worlds require long ages of growth, practice, and experience at every phase? To perfect even our humanity is a long and difficult task. The injunction, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," is not to be taken lightly. It is the human goal: attainable, but not immediate, nor is it rightly to be gained by and for any one alone. It demands the perfection of all humanity. This is why scriptures all stress the need for selflessness, for altruism — complete and universal.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1985. Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press)