Grandfather Tree

Now having come to understand that we are all spiritual beings who have chosen to temporarily live a physical existence on this planet, certain musings are inevitable, and shared here.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Reflections About Reincarnation

I want to start off with an excerpt from an NPR interview of Kurt Vonnegut in a series called The Long View” on Morning Edition. This was broadcast on 1/23/06:

Where you can see tribal behavior now is in this business about teaching evolution in a science class and Intelligent Design. The scientists themselves are behaving tribally… They say, about evolution, it surely happened. The fossil records show that, but look, my body and your body are miracles of design. The scientists are pretending they have the answer of how we got this way when natural selection couldn’t possibly have produced such machines.

Q: Does that mean that you would favor teaching Intelligent Design in the classroom?

Look it’s what we’re thinking about all the time. If I were a physics teacher or a science teacher, it’d be on my mind all the time as how the hell we really got this way. It’s a perfectly natural human thought. O.K. if you go into the science class you can’t think this? Oh, all right as soon as you leave you can start thinking about it again without giving aid and comfort to the lunatic fringe of the Christian religion. Also, I think it’s tribal behavior. . .

Q: May I ask what tribes, if any, you have belonged to over the years.?

Well it’s an ancestral tribe. These were immigrants from north of Germany who came here about the time of the Civil War. Anyway, these people called themselves freethinkers. They were impressed, incidentally, by Darwin. They’re called humanists now, people who are not so sure that the Bible is the word of God. The trouble with being a secular humanist is that we don’t have a congregation; we don’t meet, so it is a flimsy tribe. There’s a wonderful quotation from Nietze, “Only a person of deep faith can afford the luxury of skepticism.”

It’s something perfectly wonderful is going on. I do not doubt it, but the explanations I hear do not satisfy me.

I certainly share that sense of wonder. I have struggled for some years with how to handle that wonder, what to do with it. One of the ways I have expressed or embraced that wonder has been through my interest in science fiction. In fact it was my reading of science fiction as an adolescent which helped to be skeptical of my deeply held Roman Catholic religious beliefs.

It used to be a guideline in classical science fiction that the author needed to stick to what is known in science, and only describe technology that is possible according to the best scientific understanding at the time of the writing. This way the writer is able to stretch the imagination to see where technological development is likely to go in the future, and to explore some of the effects such technology might have on people prior to it actually happening. Respectable science fiction seldom deviated from this, and this was how one distinguished between science fiction and fantasy. However, in order to make the genre a little more interesting, science fiction writers were given one and only one exception to this. So the writer could incorporate faster than light travel (warp drive) or time travel, or some other device even though this is not supported by currently accepted scientific thought, as long as the writer confined himself or herself to only one such device. I believe that this convention gradually eroded.

Star Trek, for example adopted at least two of these exceptions, warp drive and teleportation, as simply part of the universe being created. Then when time travel was introduced in an episode it was not seen as a stretch away from science fiction because the other two were part of the accepted facts of that universe, not unusual or to be questioned. It seems clear that there has been a gradual wearing away of this guideline and it appears that this original guideline is rarely followed today, and I would suspect that younger readers of science fiction may not even be aware of it. One of the results of this is that it is difficult to make any kind of distinction between science fiction and fantasy. I find the convention for as long as it lasted to be extremely interesting as it provides some restraint on imagination, similar I think to the constraints that artist put on themselves when for example they decide to write a haiku or a sonnet, or follow some other structure in painting or sculpture, and confine their imagination and creativity within that particular structure.

I am interested in whether it may be possible to follow some similar constraint in the way in which we discuss or consider spiritual ideas or concepts. I would not quarrel with the idea that any discussion about spiritual issues is primarily a discussion involving the imagination, as opposed to a discussion about ideas proposed from within the discipline imposed by the scientific method. So if we venture off into the imagination, it would be easy to simply dismiss all such discussion as without discipline, as simply free flowing and of little or no value in regard to understanding what is real or important in our day to day life. I would strongly dispute this way of understanding imagination.

Rather, I would propose that we allow for one exception to currently understood ideas about reality, and then to carry on the discussion more or less following standards of logic and reason. Through such a project, I believe, we might learn something useful about our perception of reality and especially about the meaning of this life, if not the nature of it.

In spiritual discussions there are a number of commonly discussed ideas including whether there is a Supreme Being or not, and if there is such a being, what this being’s nature might be, and whether that being has any relationship to this world we live in and to us humans. If there be such a relationship, what is it? Other questions focus on us human beings: What is our nature? What are we doing here? Do we have a purpose? What happens when we die? And so forth. There are also questions about the universe or universes in which we reside: What is the nature of this universe? Are there others? What is the meaning of such? These last series of questions tend to overlap scientific questions, and lead to many complicated explorations.

I want to focus on a simpler question, and it has to do with the question of whether or not there is some other aspect of who I am that supercedes this brain and body? I am, of course, talking about consciousness. I look into a mirror and I look into my own eyes. What do I see there? I intuitively sense there is someone there. Who is this creature? And how can I be considering this question? Who is the I who is looking into the mirror?

O.K. so I take one liberty. I believe that I have a consciousness that is not confined to this body. I have a soul, a spirit. Granted, this is a huge leap of the imagination and cannot be proven. There are of course anecdotal accounts of persons who have been clinically dead and therefore unable to perceive through their senses, but who have recounted details about the events which occurred in the hospital room. In one such account a clinically dead woman traveled to the roof and identified an object on the roof that she later described correctly. I do not expect these accounts to be scientifically convincing however, and I do not claim that they are so. I fully concede that it is a leap of faith. It is one I have taken, and one that I know many of you here have taken as well. I invite those who have not taken such a leap to simply concede the point for the sake of argument and let’s see what happens next.

So, if I have a soul or a spirit that is potentially independent of this body, then it is reasonable to suppose that it will exist after this body ceases to function. Christian thought revolves around this idea and proposes various notions about what happens to this spirit after death, with some kind of judgment and some higher authority deciding where it goes, to a place of happiness or a place of perpetual torture. I see no reason to embrace any of these ideas at this point, as each one takes another leap of faith, and as you may recall, we are only allowing ourselves one exception. It seems fine with me to leave such questions unanswered, although I will suggest some ideas about this later.

However, if we are going to believe that this spirit can exist outside of the body, and that it will exist after the body’s death, then isn’t it reasonable to suppose that it existed prior to the formation of this body in the mother’s womb? If not, then we would have to take another leap, and that would be that some Supreme Being goes to the trouble of creating a brand new spirit each and every time that a human being is born or perhaps conceived. Such a new notion is not really necessary as it then brings in the supreme being question and takes a position about it as well, which actually means we have to adopt two additional beliefs, first that there is a supreme being of some kind and secondly that this being is specifically involved hundreds of thousands of times each day in creating new souls or spirits.

So in order to step away from such new beliefs, it is necessary to believe that this spirit existed prior to our birth. O.K. how did this spirit join with this body? We could suggest again that some supreme being caused it to be, but this would again require a belief in such a being and a belief in this being’s ongoing daily intimate involvement, and we are back to where we were before. If we are serious about keeping our exceptions to only one, then we must reject this idea. It would be logical then to suppose that this spirit has within itself the ability to incarnate into a human body as it forms in the womb of a human mother.

Now we are at a wonderful juncture. We have come, through logic, to a very exciting place, because we are now assigning incredible powers to this spirit. It means that you and I existed in some non-corporeal form prior to our births, that we had consciousness at that time, and that we had the power to incarnate into this body, and that we in fact did so. If we did it at our birth, it is logical to think that we may have done it before and that we may do it again.

So in my mind a next obvious question to consider is why we don’t remember having done this? I do not think we will be able to definitively answer this question, but I think it is a legitimate exercise to speculate about this and other questions as long as we do not break our original tenet, that is, as long as our speculations do not require an additional leap of faith. We tend to think of memory and intelligence as residing in our brain, but since we had consciousness prior to this brain even existing, then we must have had something comparable to intelligence and memory, without a brain. This consciousness would then preside somewhere within our non-corporeal being, somewhere within our spiritual being. It seems logical then to suppose that the actual process of incarnating my spirit into this body resulted in the loss of that other intelligence and memory, in order that I might embrace a new version of it in my brain. So, incarnating into a body results in a memory loss. Does the same thing happen when I leave this body? Do I then forget everything that happened in this life? If so, it would certainly make the process of incarnating somewhat pointless, in my view.

Many folks who have had experiences of clinical death, and many who come close but do not actually experience clinical death, report an experience of their life flashing in front of them. I am wondering if this could be a downloading process or rather an uploading process, of all our experiences in this life, being prepared to upload to the spiritual self. Then after leaving the body, my spirit will have access to all my experiences and all the things I may have learned in this particular incarnation. As a spiritual being, I could then use that information to help me decide if and when I might incarnate again, and perhaps set some goals for the next lifetime.

This leads me to another proposal, and that is that the loss of memory is useful to me at birth so that I will have a “clean slate” in a sense to learn things that I might not have learned had I been able to remember my life outside the body. By creating some independence or separation from my spiritual self, I can perhaps create new experiences that I cannot have as a spirit. Perhaps the memory loss is purposeful, part of my plan.

I am led at this point to speculate about other questions such as what is the meaning then, of this life? Why do we incarnate into these bodies at all? Could it be just for the fun of it? Could it be simply to have a new experience after the boredom of the spiritual world? What are the relationships among all the spirits prior to and after incarnation? Are there some spiritual beings who never incarnate? Could they be what some call angels? Is here a connection between all these spirits? If they do not have corporeal bodies, how do they distinguish one from the other? Or could they all be One?

Perhaps I will speculate on some of these questions in future blogs.

Since accepting the idea of reincarnation in my own life, much has changed and shifted. For example, I no longer believe that any of us are truly victims. No one can hurt me unless I decide to allow this to happen, unless I decide that being hurt is something I want to experience. So if someone suggests to me that he or she is a victim, I instead see this person as a powerful being who wanted to learn something through such an experience. If I have a bad experience in one lifetime, I can always try again and perhaps do it next time in a way closer to my preferences. If we are powerful enough to incarnate into this body, then we certainly should have the right to leave this body if we so choose, so I believe in the right to die. Since I probably have lived many lifetimes, I suspect that I have had many different experiences. Any terrible thing that I observe in others is likely a thing I have also done in some lifetime or another, so this helps me to develop compassion and patience. The Buddhists suggest that we consider every being we meet as someone who could very well have our mother in another life, and so to treat every being with the deepest of respect and gratitude. This has helped me many times in dealing with difficult people in my life. I would welcome comments about this topic from my readers.


  • At 5:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Amazing you wrote that yesterday. I have a live journal account and today, 2/14 I was thinking about the idea of reincarnation. I was also writing about death as a release of energy, sentient energy I suppose. And conflicted on whether I believed that it dispersed into the earth/world/universe or whether it immediately filled another 'vessel' (cell, plant, animal, human?). Perhaps it does one of those things, depending on the manner of death. Anyhow, the thoughts might have come from the whole romantic notion of soul mates. I liked what you had to say, you seemed to take it step further into the consequences of following that line of thought.

  • At 11:45 PM, Blogger LaReinaCobre said…

    I consider reincarnation to be a very real possibility, but haven't read much on it.

    A few weeks ago I wondered if, when we died, our souls went into a big pool. And when there were more melancholy souls in the pool, did all the living people feel it? I was going to write something about this, but completely forgot about it till I read your post.

    After I am done with some books on my list, I need to do some studying on notions of reincarnation.


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