Sunday, March 25, 2012

Nature of the Reincarnation Conundrum - Part 1

In modern occultism, whether it's New Age, Neopagan, Wiccan or Theosophic groups and organizations, there is a wide-spread belief and support for the tenets of reincarnation. This belief is so prevalent in these groups that it seems to be an accepted fact, and one is judged either a fool or an unbeliever if he or she does not accept this doctrine as truth.

New Age adherents attend workshops to assist themselves in determining and remembering their past lives, and Wiccan followers speak platitudes about being reborn again with friends and family. Wiccans even reserve a special kind of hell for oath breakers and others deemed cursed by the Goddess, since they are denied this benefit of rebirth with friends and lovers, and are forced instead to be reborn and wander the earth with strangers.

Theosophists have established a doctrine of reincarnation that proposes a kind of long term cycle of spiritual evolution. This cycle is where individuals engage in a long series or chain of lifetimes in order to ultimately evolve into ascended spiritual masters. Once having achieved that goal they then exit the reincarnation cycle and continue to aid and assist humanity with its collective spiritual evolution. If it were not for the thorny problem of verifying and proving that reincarnation is indeed a fact, perhaps the Theosophical model of reincarnation would make the most sense since it's so well thought out and documented.

For those who are believers, the popular consensus of reincarnation is that we as individuals experience multiple lives, and that we are influenced today by what we have done in those past lives. We are ruled by a balance of virtues and flaws that have been a part of us since our nebulous origins, and that these positive and negative effects continue to follow and haunt us from one lifetime to the next.

These powerful influences are given the label of Karma, and they are an inescapable component of the influences of reincarnation. What happens to us in this life is not so much determined by our actions and intentions, but by actions and intentions that were part of our past lives. We might be so greatly influenced by past lives that free will and self-determination would be illusions, since all is predestined by events and actions that happened long ago. Thus a person murdered in this life could have been a murderer in a past life, because his karma would have required the previous murder to be balanced out by being a victim in this life. Diseases, accidents and other maladies that afflict us could be considered the result of wrongs perpetrated in past lives and not adduced so much to our current life style and choices.

With so much of our actions, intentions and even our goals pre-determined by our past lives, it's a wonder that there is anything newly emerging in the typical person for their present life. Perhaps there's a mix of the past lives and personalities with our current inner self influencing us today, with the past having less of an impact than the present. We could grade things as being less influential if they happened further in the past, and more influential if they happened in a recent life, thereby judging past life events as being more or less relevant to the present.Of course, there could always be exceptions.

In whatever manner we seek to organize and understand these influences, reincarnation creates a very complex model of human volition; where individuals have to carefully sift through their motives, intentions, actions and even the accidents that have occurred to them in order to determine what is being influenced unduly by past lives.

If reincarnation is considered a fact, then all of these speculations, and indeed even the required examination of past lives through regression hypnosis and trance, become very important tools to understand the totality of the self. However, if it's not a fact, then these activities could be considered extraneous and even counterproductive to self realization.

My experiences with the social fad of reincarnation and karma have not made them more plausible or acceptable to me, and in fact many of the problems with these powerful concepts are amplified by how people thoughtlessly and carelessly use them. The fault is not theirs, though, since there is no real authority to guide them in these beliefs and judge their pronouncements as accurate and believable or erroneous, and so mitigate what is implausible and even ridiculous.

There are many individuals who claim to have had past lives, and some even seem to have vivid memories of these past life experiences, which is all very well and good. However, many also seem to hold the romantic notion that they are the reincarnation of famous individuals in the past, such as Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Napoleon, Washington, Queen Elizabeth I, Hannibal, Catherine the Great, or numerous other luminaries. Seldom have I ever heard anyone talking about having been an anonymous Chinese, Middle Eastern or European peasant, or some common cutthroat or nameless criminal, which would be much more likely if one considers the odds.

Reincarnation has been made romantic and glamorous in its common usage, and seems to be increasingly used to add prestige and a depth to people who would otherwise have shallow and uninspiring lives. Perhaps the most absurd element of popular reincarnation is that there is probably more than one individual claiming to be the reincarnation of the same famous person. To straighten out this conflict there would have to be some kind of mechanism to explain this phenomenon, either by verifying one claim over the other (or denying both claims) or by proposing that both are correct, with some kind of bifurcation of the reincarnation lineage occurring. Who is to say what that mechanism would be, or if there could be any criteria for judging such claims?

There is also another problem to consider, and that is what does it all signify? If some man or woman claims to be the reincarnation of Cleopatra, then what does that tell us about who they are in their present life? In my opinion, it really tells us nothing about the person living in the present time, since the life of Cleopatra was lived so long ago and all of the factors and the historical context of that life are long gone.

Promoting a famous past-life personality seems to be nothing more than a cloak or mask to hide the real truth of a person's sense of inadequacy and unimportance. Certainly, the claim of being the reincarnation of a famous person could not be taken seriously in a court of law, where someone would try to lay claim to the legacy of a famous person. So we are left with more puzzling questions and insolvable conundrums by accepting reincarnation rather than carefully judging it or considering that it might be fatuous as it is popularly defined.

The most difficult argument for reincarnation is attempting to define exactly what aspect of the “self” gets reborn if it does in fact occur. There is also the difficulty in defining an eternal and immutable aspect of the self, since by dint of its definition, such a thing would be inexplicable and incapable of being defined or discussed. If we consider that each individual is a unique product of genetics, culture, time, circumstance and life experience, and that this uniqueness affects all that is a determinant for an individual life, then such a life is impossible to be repeated at a later time.

If we also consider that life as we understand it is centered in the body, where reside the emotions, mind, ego and perhaps even the individual soul, then when that body perishes in death, so too must perish all of the other unique qualities of that individual as well. An individual life is precious, since once it is gone, the loss is permanent and irreparable.

There may be something that is permanent, immortal and eternal in regards to a human being, but it could not be related in any direct or conscious manner to what is based on the self as defined by the mind or by the living body, since these elements are verifiably perishable. The typical adherent to popular reincarnation seems to assume that their ego-based mind somehow manages to survive death, but there is no concrete evidence for that survival.

The lack of empirical evidence for an immortal soul would force theologians and occultists to define it as something ineffable and essential to the self; but not a part of that self which is perishable. The fact that they have defined the human spirit in just such a manner should be no surprise. Yet this would make temporal memories (life experience) and emotional or mental sensibilities incapable of being transmitted from one life to another, since they would not be a part of that immortal self.

So we are left again with the problem of defining what exactly gets reborn, and if it's so abstract and distant from the nominal self, what relevance does it have to the living and perishable part of a human being? Other questions that would need answering are how does reincarnation function, how long is the duration between death and rebirth, how is the new life chosen, or is it just randomly assigned, and who or what guides the spirit as it makes these transitions and implements these decisions?

One element that can be pointed to is that even with the large population of people currently inhabiting the planet, there is still 15 dead people for every one living. That number has been reduced in half since the 1960's, and might drop even further in the future. While one could conceive that there is a possibility of each person on the planet having multiple previous lives, there is also the possibility of a growing number of individuals who might be living their first life in the chain of reincarnated lives. 

Eventually, if the population continues to grow as it has, the number of living people may outnumber the dead, and then it would be likely that the majority of people would be “new souls” who have never experienced reincarnation. Other souls would have to be very archaic as well, since we would assume that all available “souls” would be used up before “new souls” would be fashioned. (There is also the question - how are new souls made, and who or what makes them?)

To be continued...

Frater Barrabbas


  1. Coming from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, it is most definately NOT the ego that gets reincarnated, though there can be memories and such that survive, especially if it is a willed incarnation as in the case of a Tulku.

    That does not however indicate something immortal and eternal. There are layers upon layers of the aggregates that we call the self. The Lha, the Namshe and so on.

    The population problem is generally not an issue because people reincarnate throughout several realms: hot hells, cold hells, hungry ghost worlds, animal realms, human realms, asura realms, deva realms, etc. All of which exist in multitudes.

    Even confining things to this universe, Tibetan Buddhism has acknowledged life on other planets for a long time. Dzogchen for instance is said to exist on 12 different planets.

    Now, I completely agree that when people remember they are famous people, it is 99.999999999% probable that they are fantasizing. However, this does not extend to people who merely remember things that seem interesting or exciting, as these are exactly the type of memories that would survive.

    I went through a past life regression where I experienced having my throat slit in retaliation for poisoning someone. To this day, 20 years later, I have problems with people touching my neck because of how vivid the experience was. It COULD have been fantasy, but the trance was so light that I tend to doubt it.

    Anyway, good post. I like it when people discuss these things from a logical perspective.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Jason. I am not dismissing reincarnation, just the popular version of it found in pagan, Wiccan, New Age and Theosophical groups. Hinduism and Buddhism deal with this phenomenon in a entirely different manner. So did the ancient pagans. I will be getting deeper into these concepts in future postings. Stay tuned.

  3. Since I was three years old I've had a recurring nightmare. In that nightmare I'm curled up in a ball, wearing a striped uniform. People grab me and take me away: I realize they are taking me to die but I don't really care.

    Later I discovered the phenomenon of the musselmen or "living corpses" of the concentration camps. They would become so overwhelmed by the sheer misery of their situation that they became catatonic and curled up in balls. They generally either starved or were taken off for execution. And my recurring dream was a remarkably accurate rendition of that.

    It is entirely possible that I saw a documentary on TV at an early age - I note that the dream is invariably in black and white. Or it's possible that I'm dealing with a past life memory. I think the question is still open. But I also think it's a curious anomaly, not something which really shapes my life. It certainly doesn't make me a particularly special person - if the records are right, there were at least 5,999,999 others with similar stories.

    I'm with Jason insofar as the "I was famous in a past life" question. If you were a warrior lord three incarnations ago, why are you a doughy system administrator in this lifetime? To be fair, most of the people I've known with past life memories claimed to be relatively mundane people in their past lives. But that could be because I generally avoid the people who claim to be the next incarnation of Napoleon, Cleopatra, Aleister Crowley, etc.

    Ultimately, it's an interesting question and one which we can't really prove one way or the other without actually dying and reincarnating. But it's not really something that I would spend a lot of time worrying about. I figure that if I did reincarnate, my main focus is supposed to be THIS incarnation: past lives are important only insofar as they help me fulfill my goals in my present life.

  4. Very interesting post! I'm not really a fan of reincarnation and have never fully accepted it. I was at one point shown something in a sort of vision that could support it, but, if what I saw was real, then it would mean that the individual ego is most certainly not kept intact after death and that most of what we are is pretty much torn apart and recycled into new material that does not in any way resemble any single person. Of course, that's contingent on my vision not being a figment of my imagination, which it totally could've been.

  5. I'm interested to see where you go with this in the upcoming parts. Although I completely agree with you about the 'popular' versions of reincarnation (everyone's Cleopatra, Guinevere or Merlin LOL) I haven't taken that as a reason to dismiss the theory - just some of the people espousing those versions of reincarnation.