Discussions about reincarnation frequently involve attempts at answering several recurring questions. As humans, what are our alternatives in thinking about death? Why do some people subscribe to reincarnation, and others not? Assuming reincarnation, why can't we remember empirical details of our past lives? What is it that reincarnates? Why shouldn't we be able to recall past lives when we want to? Why does nature, or the forces in the universe, keep us from remembering?
Let's examine the questions in order. As human beings with minds that allow us to consider alternatives to situations and problems, we find in thinking about death a number of options lying generally along a continuum, and these overlap one another.
The first option is that the universe is a random phenomenon, and that humanhood on our little planet is a chance occurrence. The universe, being primarily a physical phenomenon, physical life, therefore, is a random happening, and physical death the end of that happening. Any immortality that we might have is in the remembrance of us by relatives, friends, or history. When one dies, he dies: "You only go around once in life . . ." This position holds that there may or may not be animate life elsewhere in the universe.
A second alternative is that God, or a god, or gods, created the universe, and creates a new human soul each time a human being is born. After a lifetime on earth, the body dies but the soul continues somewhere. Concerning animate life elsewhere in the universe, this is of relatively little concern since focus is upon planet earth. A subcategory under this second option is that upon death of the physical body, the soul goes to a heaven or hell for eternity, depending upon our behavior during life on earth, and we get only one chance.
A third option is that an individual soul existed in another sphere or on another plane before being born on this earth and, upon death, God directs that this soul simply moves on to another sphere of existence, but never returns to earth again. The individual soul picks up with friends and family in spheres on down the line, hopefully becoming more spiritual as time and lifetimes pass. This option allows for life in various forms elsewhere in the universe.
A fourth alternative is that man has existed in one form or another commensurate with the existence of the universe. Man is part of the universe — as is everything else — and animate life is only one of a myriad of life types or forms, both visible and invisible to man, that infill the universe. This option holds that man Is consistently evolving from the less spiritual to the more spiritual, and one of the experiential pathways by which this occurs is continued reincarnation on earth as a human being. Our plight in a given incarnation is contingent upon our behavior, in the most encompassing sense, in previous incarnations.
The second question under consideration is: Why do some people subscribe to reincarnation, and others not? On a somewhat superficial level it might be observed that belief in reincarnation is often related to a person's characteristics and to his social, emotional, and intellectual surroundings and sense of contentment with these things. It may also depend on his level of consciousness, degree of awareness, or curiosity about the universe, or on his satisfaction with his philosophy of life or religious convictions; or, again, on the quality and quantity of pain he is currently experiencing.
Many people do not subscribe to reincarnation, the major argument being that they cannot remember any past lives. There is no proof. In fact, most people in the Western world cannot remember any past lives, although some apparently do, and this awareness or recall varies in degree. At one end of this continuum, we find some who flatly deny the idea of reincarnation altogether. They have no awareness of it or interest in it at all. Others do not deny the possibility, but are not much interested in it or concerned about it. Still others say they are open to the idea, but haven't explored it much.
A number of people have a feeling that they "have been here before," but are not really sure. Others have a very definite feeling, are quite sure they "have been here before," but don't remember any details. Still others are convinced they have been here, and have vague insights or reflections, though they cannot verbalize what they seem to remember. Some claim to recall a few details of one or two lives, while others say they remember many details of many lifetimes on earth. Of course, the apparent recollection of reported details of past lives must be considered with caution as to validity and quality, because imagination and suggestion are extremely powerful facets of the human mental makeup.
Assuming reincarnation, why can't we remember empirical details of our past lives? A key, perhaps, to addressing this question is the further question: what is it in the human that reincarnates? Most people would answer: why, the soul or spirit. Thus, when we talk about reincarnation, we are usually talking about the journey of the soul from one lifetime to another. To explore this notion further, it would be well to examine a conceptual model of the human being. That is, man exists on various levels or has various principles: on the lowest level is the physical body; above this is the energic-emotional level, followed by the mental level, and above this is the soul or spiritual part of man. Superior to, yet pervading all, is the divine part, the essence that links us with the divinity that infills the universe. Each of these several parts or principles overlaps and interacts with all the others.
Since the recall of past lives is under consideration, we might look at the mind in more detail. The mind can function in many ways and on many levels, and stretches from mundane, brain-mind functions of simple recall and recognition to very abstract analysis and the making of complex relationships and associations. At the bottom end, mind overlaps the emotions and out of this comes our personality, the "I am I," and the top end, the higher mind, interfaces with soul or spirit. It is from this that we experience the intuitive, the mystical, an awareness that we are part of all that is. Most psychologists agree that experiences at this level defy verbal description, and yet to the experiencer they are as real as, or more real than, any other life happenings. This soul or spirit is our individuality as opposed to our personality and pertains more, perhaps, to what we call character. But it is the lower brain-mind that is the storehouse of empirical data and facts about life.
In light of the above, let's consider death. At physical death, the body dies, and the physical energy and emotions withdraw along with the lower brain-mind, the storehouse of facts and empirical impressions about the experienced earth life. When all this process is finished, the soul or spirit part, the individuality, moves on to other states of consciousness, unimpeded by the body. It is this reincarnating part, when the urge becomes great enough, that eventually returns to earth, and picks up again with a new body, a new energic-emotional part, a new brain-mind. As Kahlil Gibran says in The Prophet: "Forget not that I shall come back to you. A little while, and my longing shall gather dust and foam for another body." He closes his book with "A little while, a moment of rest upon the wind, and another woman shall bear me."
Now this has been a very simple description of a very complex process and much has been left out. Generally speaking, if brain-mind functioning is closely linked with memory, we cannot expect a new brain to recall what the old one had in it. However, some people apparently do have glimpses or intuitions of past life experiences or situations. How is it that they have this kind of recall, and others not?
Prior to addressing this question, we might consider the model of man described earlier, consisting of the physical nature, the energic-emotional part, the mental portion, the soul or spirit, and the divine principle, each of these principles overlapping every other to a greater or lesser degree. For example, we know that the energic-emotional part interacts not only with the physical body, but also with the mental and the spiritual. And so it is with the mental part of man, including the memory portion of the mental process: that is, we possess memory at the physical level; our body automatically seems to remember certain things; we possess memory at the energic-emotional level; and at our present stage of evolution the physical-energic-emotional types of memory are perhaps the most prevalent, at least in terms of quantity. Our lower brain-mind is simply full of all sorts of physical images and emotional feelings from the past. Most of our everyday experiences are in the physical-emotional range and, since that is where our consciousness tends to be focused most of the time, it is here that we generate most of our memories in the form of images, attitudes, feelings, and the like. Our soul or spirit has a memory also, but this soul-memory might be considered the storehouse, so to speak, for experiences of a higher type of consciousness: images of intuitions, mystical experiences, feelings of unselfish or impersonal love, broad insights, and so forth.
Since reincarnation is an evolutionary of the soul, and it is the soul that returns here for another earth-life experience, it would seem reasonable that at the appropriate point in maturation in any life these intuitive, mystical feelings should come forth into our awareness. The soul-memory carries over from lifetime to lifetime. Why, then, do the laws working in this part of the universe keep us from recalling past lives, even if we want to remember them?
It is said that each of us incarnates with the exact amount of karmic load that we can handle in a given lifetime — no more and no less although we often feel that we're getting more than our share. Much of our karma at this time in our evolution has to do with memory, the remembering of past experiences that follow us along day after day, week after week. Although we live in the present, many people trudge through life with an immense burden of past experiences on their weary shoulders. They almost "live in the past." Others carry the burden of the future with them. They continually worry and fret about "what might happen": the big California earthquake, overpopulation of the earth . . . If such people had to retain memories of all the past and potential future experiences of just one lifetime, imagine what it would be like if they also had to carry along the recalled experiences of yet another past life, or several previous lifetimes. A worrisome burden, indeed!
Thus, nature — or the laws or habits of the universe — has built into it this protective mechanism, a protection provided us out of compassion. There is little doubt, however, that as we evolve toward spirituality, and learn to live more in the ever-present Now, we shall be able to recall more and more of our past earth lives. As our center of consciousness moves toward spirituality, we shall place details of phenomenal experiences in proper perspective.
As a final note on living in the present and not in the past or in the future: you can't mount the camel that has gone by; you can't mount the camel that has not yet come; you can only mount the camel that is right before you. There is practical wisdom here.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1985. Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press)