Reincarnation intrigues people. It is as if their souls know something their minds don't quite understand. But proof is a matter of individual conviction. When I first heard about reincarnation I knew it was true. It answered questions that were deeply troubling: Why are some children born to poverty or abuse while others have every advantage? Why do good and decent people have such a hard time? How can a loving God be so cruel, so unjust? I worried about death: Is it the absolute end? Are heaven and hell everlasting? Are unbelievers eternally damned?
The idea that we have lived before and will live many times ended my nightmares. The explanation that we are what we are and where we are because of our thoughts and actions in the past made sense, and convinced me that there is justice in life, and purpose. I began to realize that the situations people find themselves in are opportunities for growth, for developing understanding and improving their lives.
Henry Ford believed in reincarnation:
When I discovered Reincarnation it was as if I had found a universal plan. I realized that there was a chance to work out my ideas. Time was no longer limited. I was no longer a slave to the hands of the clock. There was time enough to plan and create.
We all retain, however faintly, memories of past lives. We frequently feel that we have witnessed a scene or lived through a moment in some previous existence. But that is not essential; it is the essence, the gist, the results of experience, that are valuable and remain with us.
These "results" become part of our spirit of which Krishna speaks in the Bhagavad-Gita (2.11-13):
Those who are wise in spiritual things grieve neither for the dead nor for the living. I myself never was not, nor thou, nor all the princes of the earth; nor shall we ever hereafter cease to be. As the lord of this mortal frame experienceth therein infancy, youth, and old age, so in future incarnations will it meet the same.
Krishna here speaks as the self or spirit within each individual that uses a number of souls and bodies to express itself. Interestingly, each of these bodies, souls, and spirits is pursuing its own evolution through a process of repeated embodiments. When we examine the processes involved we become aware of various aspects of reincarnation.
Consider our bodies: these marvelously complex organisms are composed of innumerable living and evolving beings, held together, guided, and used both by a dominant soul and a spiritual overshadowing intelligence. At death, when soul and spirit withdraw, these various elements disperse and reimbody in whatever organisms attract them.
As humans, our consciousness is centered in our reincarnating ego and this ego is the vehicle of expression of our divine and spiritual selves. Now the three parts of our constitution — our body, built of astral-vital-physical components; our human soul, consisting of mental and emotional elements; and our immortal spirit — work and evolve together during our sojourn on earth. This evolution consists, at this time, of unfolding and refining our thoughts and feelings so that we can better express our spiritual qualities of compassion, intelligence, imagination, and willpower. Considering this, we begin to understand how important each life is, and how the lessons we learn, the good that we do, enrich and contribute to the advancement of every part of ourselves.
I wonder if those who do not want to return have any idea what that would involve? But why don't they want to come back? Do they dread being born again into this cold, cruel, violent world? Or is it because they feel snowed under with problems? Even a casual study of karma and reincarnation helps us understand that our problems and those of the world were created by ourselves, and can be solved only by ourselves. Immersed in our troubles, we are immersed also in their solutions, could we but see it. When an individual endeavors to take responsibility for his life, he becomes increasingly aware of the consequences of his motives and actions and feels impelled to change what is selfish and unkindly to what is for the general good.
Change is one thing we can count on: nothing stands still. Think how we change, in appearance, personality, outlook, size, and shape. After death changes continue: when we return our soul will be enlarged, transformed through the integration of our life's experiences and our spiritual aspirations.
Of course, many of our present problems and temptations are karmic consequences of encounters left unresolved at the end of our previous life. But now, thanks to the blessing of forgetfulness, we are free from emotional involvements and better able to resolve such disturbances. Oliver Wendell Holmes caught this idea of the soul's progression in his poem "The Chambered Nautilus":
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul!
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!
How about the people who fear coming back as somebody else? That is not possible. We are ourselves — forever. When an incarnating soul returns earthward, it is attracted to parents and family with similar traits and abilities. The embryo then draws from its parents' gene-pool the qualities that are inherently its, whether or not they seem to be similar to those of a family member. Because of this, in our next life we will be much like what we are now, but enriched and refined by the lessons we are now learning. Refreshed by our afterdeath experiences, we will come back ready and able to carry on where we left off, and to face challenges that will help us unfold our spiritual potential. Benjamin Franklin put this clearly in his epitaph:
The Body of B. Franklin,
Like the Cover of an Old Book,
Its Contents Torn Out
Stripped of its Lettering and Gilding,
Food for Worms,
But the Work shall not be Lost,
For it Will as He Believed
Appear Once More
In a New and more Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.
This "return" into earth life occurs sooner for those who have made little psychological karma, or later for the more developed and spiritual who need time to assimilate their spiritual aspirations.
As to the concern that we will come back as an animal: that is not possible either. (For detailed information see ``Like Attracts Like,'' Sunrise, June/July 1985.) Once we have developed self-consciousness we cannot go backward. This idea came from taking figures of speech literally. As was the case of the American Indian: when he spoke of becoming a wolf or an eagle or a mole, he did not mean he would become that animal. He meant he would become as clever and family-oriented as a wolf, as farseeing as an eagle, or as close to the earth as a mole so as to fathom her secrets. Humans cannot revert to animals; animals cannot become humans overnight or for a long, long time.
There are, however, psychological and physical exchanges going on all the time. Our atoms, for instance, are constantly transmigrating: whenever we smell a rose, listen to music, think of a friend or caress our pets we exchange life particles and forces. Then too, our souls continually "migrate" from one state or condition of consciousness to another, from sleep dreams to waking awareness, from surface thinking to deep concentration. And this continues after death. These exchanges can be mutually beneficial or harmful, depending on the quality of the energy generated. Knowing this, the wise consider it a duty to think and live harmlessly and in the most kindly manner possible.
Another question often asked: What happens to what I loved and worked for? Will that be lost when I die? Nothing is lost. The knowledge we gain, the skills we develop will endure through our postmortem interlude and in future lives blossom in increased proficiency and power. Plato referred to this, explaining that all knowledge and wisdom are memories of former existences. And as these develop and unfold in the present, new personalities are shaped to express the characteristics and needs of our inner and outer conditions. Shakespeare said the same thing, reminding us that an actor in his time plays many parts, identifying himself with and becoming for a few nights' performance Hamlet perhaps, and then Macbeth, King Richard, or Prospero. As the actor knows he is playing these parts, so our permanent self knows, even though it may be unable to convey this knowledge to the temporary "mask" or personality.
And the big question: If we lived before why don't we remember? Henry Ford was sure we do retain memories of past lives, but being unfamiliar with the processes of reincarnation, we are not able to recognize them. Buddhists think character is the sum of our past. Theosophical teachings explain these ideas — telling us that memory is stored in the higher part of our nature, glimpsed on occasion, and seen clearly at the moment of death. When free of earthly entanglements we see in retrospect the causes, interrelations, the purpose and justice of all that occurred in the last life.
But how about the people who are sure they remember? Whether they are picking up scenes and events from the earth's astral atmosphere and identifying with them, as imaginative writers often do, or whether particular incidents of a past incarnation were so indelibly impressed on their souls that they do remember, it is difficult to tell. Theosophical writings explain that when a person's life ends in violence, or is cut off "before its time," the soul may return soon after to reestablish its balance, retaining some memories from that too brief life.
Another type of "remembrance" is what the Tibetans call tulku when, under certain conditions, a high lama may, a few years after his death, incarnate in the body of another. The Associated Press carried the story of 5-year-old Simon Heh, of Tibetan-Chinese parents living in Victorville, California, who recognized a Tibetan monk traveling through the area as a friend from his last life. Startled, the monk, Geshe Tsepel, thinking the child could have been Lobsang Phakpa, an elderly lama he had studied under as a boy and who had died in China in the 1950s, wrote the holy leaders of his home monastery in India. Not wanting to influence their decision Geshe named five former monks who could have reincarnated as Simon. Upon examination the leaders determined that the child was indeed the reincarnation of Lobsang Phakpa. On January 3, 1993, the youngster was honored in an ancient ceremony that marked "the beginning of his spiritual journey toward becoming a lama."
Assuredly, all living beings existed before their present appearance on earth. Origen, an early Church Father, explained that human souls pre-existed in the spiritual world within the ambience of the divine before they incarnated on earth. Plato went further, explaining that souls not only existed in the universe of being before entering this realm of experience, but that when freed from the bonds of its limitations, they return to that former abode to rest and assimilate their earthly experiences. After a time, they sail forth again invigorated and ready to face the ordeals by which they gain knowledge of life and behold visions of heights they will one day attain.
How many lives will we live? In Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the wise gull expresses a view that may hold a seed of truth:
Do you have any idea how many lives we must have gone through before we even got the first idea that there is more to life than eating, or fighting, or power in the Flock? A thousand lives, Jon, ten thousand! And then another hundred lives until we began to learn that there is such a thing as perfection, and another hundred again to get the idea that our purpose for living is to find that perfection and show it forth. The same rule holds for us now, of course; we choose our next world through what we learn in this one. Learn nothing, and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome. . . . — p. 54
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1994; copyright © 1994 Theosophical University Press)
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