It is no more surprising to be born twice than once; everything in nature is resurrection. — Voltaire
As far back as I can remember I have always known of reincarnation, having been exposed to the idea at the age of four when my father died suddenly. Young as I was, I am sure I felt less devastated than I would have had I thought he was gone forever. The idea that the bond of love endures through death and that those with strong ties will be together again in future lives, is a thought that even a child can grasp. As the years go by, it has become increasingly clear to me that reincarnation is our human way of fulfilling the cyclic process of birth, death, and regeneration needed for growth, which affirms that we are part of an evolutionary enterprise involving every single thing throughout nature. The divine oneness of all life is assumed here because reincarnation implies that there is an immortal part of us that survives death. The broad perspective it gives embraces death and birth as equally necessary in the continuity of our total experience and explains in a believable way the many seeming injustices and unusual turns of fate unanswerable within the time frame of one life.
I believe in the immensity of our human purpose: that we are essentially godlike beings on the road to manifesting more fully our inner divinity; that we have lived countless lives in the past, and will return innumerable times, for this is a habit of ages, a memory deep within the soul. At each moment we are all that we have been, and a prophecy of what we will be. We are a living testimony to a long evolutionary development: thinking beings, able to contemplate our own destiny, with yearnings, intellectual and spiritual, which are just a preview of what is yet to unfold in proper season. When we reflect on humankind's contributions to the world through the ages, the works of genius, the noble characters who have brought inspiration in their time, the untapped capabilities and potentials, and each one of the billions of people on this planet a unique individual — would it not seem that the human race has far too important a place in this universal scheme to be expendable in one life?
We are, in our present stage, on an odyssey in search of our real selves that began far, far back in time. The universal story tells that long ago we outgrew the age of innocence (the Garden of Eden), a childlike and pure spiritual state, and on being tempted by the serpent (Lucifer-lightbringer) we ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Adam and Eve representing humanity), and mind was awakened, giving us the power self-consciously to direct our destiny as individually responsible beings. For eons we have been going through the travails of the soul, growing, changing, failing and conquering again and again; learning gradually through trial and error as we taste of the fruit of ignorance and indiscretion as well as of wisdom. We have been following the cycle of birth and death and rebirth on this planet since that awakening, because it is possible to reap effects only where the seeds of action have been sown — a karmic principle. This has been called the "cycle of necessity" since it is the means by which we learn through our own efforts to bring to birth our innate wisdom and to prove to ourselves why we are here, what is our destiny, and how we may best achieve it.
The whole question of reincarnation is a challenge to the validity of our views and confronts us with the extent of our doubts. Here in the West we have been suffering for some time from apprehensions about death, regarding it as a finality. Materialists deny any continuation of life, yet any type of eternal afterlife is not much of an improvement, for it precludes the possibility of further growth.
As death-related thoughts strongly influence how we conduct our lives, these views have induced fear and insecurity about life as well as about death, and have placed blocks in the way of the soul's inner space and freedom. However, in this decade particularly, new light is being shed on the subject. As more people are discovering the meaning of life and death for themselves, the approach is gradually changing from one of doom to one of hope. Even in tragic and difficult circumstances we can try to let go of our fears and flow gently with life's changes, trusting in nature's wise and beneficent ways. I have known more than one family whose empathy and courage allowed a continuing painful situation with one of its members to become, nevertheless, a beautiful, sharing experience. Karma works in mysterious ways for the greatest good of all involved. We have more wisdom locked up within than sometimes we might guess, and always there are new horizons of possibility beyond our immediate concerns.
I am confident that there is a profound reason for being and a reason for everything that happens to us, even though we cannot readily discern it. Although we seldom have the penetration to recognize the "why" of all that occurs during life, at the instant of death — when the heart has stopped beating and the brain is still active — we have our moment of truth: a panoramic vision that reveals, as though by an autobiographical reel, every event from childhood on. This impresses on the reincarnating ego the inner story of our particular karma which influences our after-death state as also the trend of our succeeding life. Modern research into near-death experiences is confirming the theosophic teaching found in many traditions that during and after death the personality merges with the individuality, and we see impartially and clearly the justice and reason for all that has eventuated.
The replay is said to occur again before the reincarnating ego enters into its dream state, in order that the wisdom to be gained from this may be thoroughly absorbed into the consciousness. Then before returning to earth after its period of rest and assimilation, the reincarnating ego may have a similar panoramic vision, this time preparing it for the general pattern of karma for the coming life, and showing the justice of what we have designed for ourselves through former incarnations (cf. "The Three Visions," SUNRISE, August 1967.)
The panoramic review is being built from moment to moment during life, recording automatically on the plastic astral substance of our being everything as it happens, receiving and retaining every impression, every thought and feeling. This sensitive registering of events not only allows us to gain maximum benefit from what we have learned, but each time prepares us for the step ahead and insures a meaningful continuity through life and death. Such is the protective guidance behind every phase of our human saga.
Sleep, for example, is like a mini-performance of the great mystery drama of death. Both involve a transition into other mansions of consciousness and various dream states. In sleep, the body is quiescent, yet the soul soars to its own realm, and we awaken feeling renewed. In death the cord of life is broken, and the separation of the higher and lower aspects of our nature takes place, each going where it is magnetically drawn, while the enduring spiritual essence returns to its source among the stars.
An interlude of death between lives is a needed part of our human experience. It accomplishes many functions simultaneously, including a chance for the soul to regain a certain psychological, mental, and spiritual equilibrium. In the peaceful dream state varying in length of time for each one, there is also fulfillment of the highest unexpended energies and of hopes unrealized while on earth, before we take the road again, as Masefield expressed it. Death is not, however, an escape to an eternal paradise of dreams any more than sleep is. When we accepted our obligation as awakening self-conscious beings, we entered the arena of life's dualities, and it is in this field of action that our true duty lies. During the years we all get hunches from time to time regarding a course of action. When we do, we may be hearing the voice of the self within that is trying continuously to arouse us to our particular task in this life, which was etched into our soul before we incarnated again.
We are never alone. There is always the knower within, seeking to lead us away from concentration on personal desires, egoism, selfishness, and the like. We tend to forget, too, that we have within a reservoir of strength and wisdom acquired in past lives, and that we are continually drawing on accumulated experience, however unconsciously. Were this not so, we might be overwhelmed by all that is to be absorbed and learned. There is something to say for preparedness and the habits of ages in pursuing this cycle of soul learning. Moreover, there are other, more subtle connections with the past. How do we account for the intricate web of human attractions and antagonisms? How often have we associated with family and friends other times, despaired and laughed, suffered and rejoiced together. How often have we thought the same thoughts, dreamed the same dreams, yearned deep within for understanding and inner peace? How many times and in how many different lands might we have welcomed the warmth of the sun, a vibrant spring day, walked out in wind and rain, or gazed at the stars on a clear night?
Children are among the most convincing representatives of preexistence, if proof we are seeking. From the moment they are born each is an individual and shows inclinations of character and ability that differ one from the other. Their wisdom is at times astounding. They are indeed old souls in young bodies, and bring something of the spiritual beauty of the world they have so recently left, yet they also bear the individual karma each soul has chosen to work out in a life. This may explain the enormous differences in their situations, opportunities, and problems, when they are still too young to have created any causes. The Yorubas of West Africa greet a newborn child with the salutation, "Thou art come again." Children believe instinctively that a plant, a pet, or any living thing really doesn't die, because there is something within, call it its spirit, that lives on. One child was overheard saying, "Of course we have to die. How else would we get born?"
A remarkable example of a wise soul in a young body was a little seven-year-old boy named Edouard, wasting away from leukemia, whose story was featured in the news in 1978. He was aware that the doctors had taken strenuous measures to try to save his life, but finally one day he demanded that they relieve him of the life-support devices so that he might die naturally, as he was too sick to live, and too full of pain. He spoke confidently of the freedom of the spirit after death, and said "it was like traveling to another galaxy." A tape recording was made of his words of hope and encouragement. Obviously his wisdom exceeded that of his mother, or of any who attended him, and his mother stated that her son's faith in reincarnation "Inspired her to believe" also.
One cannot help wondering, were the tenor of thought more sensitive to the grand pattern of spirit — of the real human being — whether we would be focused less on the body alone and not attach such importance to physical preservation. This often prolongs suffering, especially when all the vital signs show that the body is giving up. The thought of reincarnation lets us look forward to the opportunities of future lives, rather than clinging desperately to this one at any cost. We would then understand the body in better perspective, a vehicle for the deathless soul and, when the indications are right, the soul would be allowed to depart in peace. Edouard's confident attitude suggests that just knowing about what is to come is to experience a growing awareness of the wonders of death which will lead at length to complete self-conscious participation in the great adventure. The more we penetrate behind the scenes and see the remarkable interrelationships between our sojourn here on earth and what follows after death, the more we find that our attention must be centered on how we live, and then all else will unfold naturally. For the measure of spiritual fulfillment in the after-death state and in future lives depends on the degree to which we express our true humanness while here on earth. How little we really know, and yet how much we can learn that adds dignity, nobility, and beauty to our living.
We are all traveling the road of self-discovery from where we are in our thinking and feeling, each in our own way. But the traveling becomes more meaningful as we let go of set ideas and allow the light from within to illumine our lives. "Ye are gods," it says in Psalms (82:6,7) "and all of you are children of the most high." Gradually we begin to feel more comfortable with the many unknowns in our being as we steadily seek to find the calm that is not an abdication from life's trials, but rather a controlled quiet that comes from facing reality, and from mastery of our lesser selves. The challenges of pain, suffering, and soul-searching are all opportunities to awaken compassion and refine the disparate elements of our being in the crucible of experience until "smithied all to kingly gold."
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1985. Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press)