I've never been sure what I think about reincarnation. Most religious traditions
believe that our spiritual lives do not end with physical death. I was raised, as a Catholic, to
believe that when one dies her or his soul either goes to Heaven or to Hell. But Heaven and Hell
are Christian concepts which no longer hold the answers for me in regard to an "afterlife." They
are poetic attempts to explain the concept that when our bodies die our spirits continue to live.
However, I find it hard to accept that God would simply reject any of Its creations simply
because one was unable to live according to the rules. Concepts like these are a product of
our "either/or" mentality. Perhaps when these descriptions of an afterlife were first written
they were not meant to be as rigid as they have become over the years. Nevertheless they are
very restrictive ideas which no longer fit my world view. I no longer see the world in such
strict terms. My view of what we call reality is much more fluid and is full of unexplained
gray areas. I revel in the mystery. I have moved away from the black and white thinking
that creates concepts like Heaven and Hell. These ideas worked for me when I was a child,
and they certainly kept me in line, but now as an adult I find them lacking and juvenile.
My understanding of the Great Spirit has changed and I no longer see my God as
vindictive and judgmental. Even though I may reject the idea of Heaven and Hell, I
still believe in an afterlife. This conviction has led me to examine several ideas
Tibetan Buddhists have a system for identifying those who are the reincarnation of spiritual masters. Using statements made by the master during her or his life as clues, individuals are identified and then officially declared the reincarnation of the master. This intrigues me because I have often wondered if I might be the reincarnation of my motherŐs father. My mother and I have experienced enough role reversal in our relationship that I often have wondered why it is so easy for us to switch roles. This concept may not be as flaky as it sounds at first. Sogyal Rinpoche, who is the reincarnation of Tibetan mystic Terton Sogyal, is the author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. He explains that it is not the entire spirit or personality which is reincarnated, but an essence of the soul which never dies. This is not too far removed from the Catholic idea of a soul which lives for eternity. I was taught that my soul is eternal, that its presence makes my body a temple. It is the part of us which is Divine. It is that same part of the spirit, which Tibetans call the wisdom mind, that is reborn.
In Hinduism it is believed that our souls are perpetually reincarnated into this world and that we may be reborn in many forms. If one continues to evolve spiritually and lives a decent life, then she or he continues to be reborn as a human. But if one is unethical and does not live a righteous life, she or he runs the risk of being reborn as another animal, perhaps a dog or pig. Since I see Divinity, or spirit, in all creatures this is a very appealing concept. This Hindu concept of reward and punishment on the spiritual plane is based on the fact that humans have the ability to change their behavior while other animals do not because they live strictly by their instincts and cannot reason. The only problem I have with this approach is that it places humans at the center of Creation, as the finest invention of all. I no longer believe that we are the crowning glory of the universe. It is normal, of course, for a civilization to see itself as the center of the universe. In all Creation stories the people who tell the story are located at the center of the world. Today, as we begin the twenty-first century, we know that we are not the center of the universe. Science has shown us that we are indeed only a small part of an awesome expanding universe. Our existence is a miracle, a miracle we share equally with all of Creation. We are simply a part of a system, not its center or its greatest accomplishment. So perhaps each of us has been a spider at some time or will someday be a chameleon regardless of our actions. Perhaps the life of a chameleon is more satisfying than the life of a human.
A friend of mine recently related a story of the conception of her second child. Her daughter reminds her of her sister who died a few years ago of Multiple Sclerosis. After some time trying to get pregnant she and her husband started looking into adopting their second child. Around the same time my friend went to spend a weekend with some old friends. During the weekend she felt a very powerful presence of her sister. As soon as she returned home she learned that she was pregnant, even though the odds had been against it. Since her daughter's birth, my friend is struck by how her daughter constantly reminds her of her sister. Something of her sisterŐs essence seems to be present in her daughter. She describes a knowing that only a sibling could recognize. Is my friend's daughter the reincarnation of her sister? Or is this just the romanticizing of a woman whose life was strongly impacted by the death of her sister? I think that both may be true. The powerful experience of losing a sibling can wake up a part of one's psyche and reveal how it feels to experience the presence of a loved one who has died. It's similar to knowing that someone has entered the room before looking up to see who's there. We often know who it is. We can intuitively recognize the spirit of someone who is close to us but we usually do not know that we can do this until we lose a loved one. When that happens we may start looking for this experience. It helps us to feel that we have not been abandoned and that our loved one has simply passed onto a new plane of existence, which is what our religions and spiritual practices teach us. We also learn that it was their spiritual presence that we loved.
Some people have experienced past life regression in which they remember the circumstances and experiences of another life. I admit that I am suspicious of much of this. The stories I have been told about past lives are always glamorous or romantic. I know something of storytelling and realize that almost any story can be told with romance; still I have never been told about past lives of poverty and suffering. Everyone was either a knight or princess. If there was suffering it was remorse over a lost love, usually the love of someone with whom she or he is now involved. I should admit that I have entertained thoughts of relationships in past lives with people I know today. I have met people who I was sure I knew in other lives, but I have not been able to recall any details. This is not to say that I believe that past life regression is impossible, just that I am suspicious. This has not completely dissuaded me from my desire to believe that our spiritual experience is not just a one-time thing that belongs to just one life.
I have also felt at different times in my life that I either have known someone before meeting them or that I have been to a certain place that I know I have not been to before in this life. This happened to my partner and I last year on our first trip to Ireland. We stopped on the road in County Cork to take a picture. The place we stopped was a beautiful spot by an inlet to a bay, there was something strangely familiar there. We commented to each other that the place "felt" familiar, not that it reminded us of another place but that this particular spot was familiar. It was as if we had been there before, which was impossible; at least in this life.
In our scientific world-view, ideas about reincarnation are just seen as romanticizing and simply a tool we employ to deal with our fear of death and the death of our loved ones. This is a very cynical viewpoint in light of the many centuries people have believed in reincarnation. Could the beliefs of billions of people over several millennia be mistaken? Religions tell us that science mistakenly reduces our world to unrelated parts and random events without cause or direction. Science tells us that religion is only the superstitious beliefs of people who were unable to examine life under a microscope. I suggest that religion is an intuitive science which was used before we learned scientific methodology. In a way, science is the religion of the west. It is the basis of our cosmology. It is the tool we use to measure ideas. Religions were philosophical systems once used to understand the world and our place in it. We now use the sciences to understand the world. Reincarnation is easy to dismiss in our scientific world. If we can't see it or taste it or touch it, we do not believe it is real. That attitude has served us well in terms of medical science and biological research. However, it has caused us to doubt our intuition, and reincarnation can only be understood with one's intuition. The spiritual realm is real and it exists in conjunction with the physical world. It is, I believe, physical itself, but just invisible.
Where is reincarnation in all of this? What is our new, more scientific, definition of what happens to our spiritual energy when our bodies die? Another friend of mine, a Sufi minister, describes it this way. When we die our spirit enters a realm where all spirits are one. Like a drop of water into the ocean, our spirits become one with all that is. When a child is born she or he takes a drop of that spirit into the physical world. Therefore, physical consciousness includes a measure of spiritual consciousness. This concept works best for me because it has room for all the others. This says to me that the Tibetan idea of one's essence continuing to live after one dies is correct. It also says that the Hindu concept of spirits being reincarnated in different forms is also correct. And that the Christian idea of the soul returning to its Creator is also correct.
Reincarnation is a reality in one form or another and all the concepts and ideas that have been formulated about what happens to our spiritual essence when we die are all correct in their own way. They are all attempts to understand something that we have been unable to prove or see in this life. Some would say that because we have been unable to prove it that it is not true. I disagree. I believe that our intuition has told us that some part of our energy continues to live after our physical death. Science tells us that energy cannot die, it can only be transformed. If our spiritual beings are made only of invisible energy then our spiritual beings, or souls, must continue to live when we die.
Our souls, the small still center of ourselves, are the only constant in our lives. One's soul is the same today as it was at birth, yet it has gathered wisdom along the way. When one's soul or essence returns to the spiritual energy field it is not changed, but it brings with it what it has learned or experienced during this incarnation. This is what I was taught as a child, that the lessons I learn in this life are important for my spiritual development in the next life.
This article appeared in "White Crane Journal," a journal exploring gay men's spirituality
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