Can you hear me
(can you hear me)
Through the spaces
(through the spaces)
Wondering in this wonderland…

— Don’t Worry Appleton

Reincarnation

Reincarnation is an ancient idea that some folks love and others find threatening or dangerous. Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Taoists and many New Age adherents around the world believe in reincarnation.

Theories about reincarnation take several forms but, generally, the idea can be summed up as follows: The soul enters creation like a spark from a fire, embarking on a long journey through life with only a rudimentary level of awareness. Passing through repeated cycles of bodily death and rebirth, the soul gradually increases in knowledge and goodness until it eventually achieves perfection. Once perfected, the soul is liberated from the double-edged sword of suffering and desire and breaks free from the cycle of death/rebirth. At this point, the soul merges with the eternal Godhead and is no longer unique nor bound by space and time.

As mentioned, there is more than one school of reincarnation. Indian philosophers, past and present, differ on its finer points. Ramanuja (1017-1137 CE), for instance, forwarded the notion of qualified monism where the soul retains a sense of individuality as it rests – as opposed to merges – in the Godhead. And most schools of Buddhism say there never was a reincarnating soul in the first place, only the illusion of one. Buddhists believe that enlightenment means ridding oneself of an array of false beliefs, including those of self, soul, God, and individuality.¹

Karma Defined

Karma is a Sanskrit term meaning “deed.” Essentially, karma is the accumulated merit and demerit of one’s past-life actions. Morally good and bad deeds accrue on a kind of cosmic balance sheet. Good deeds reap future benefits. Bad deeds bring misfortune and suffering.

But it is not quite that simple because in theistic religions (religions that believe in a deity or deities) God’s grace may mitigate the negative effects of bad karma. And even though Buddhists see God as a mere conceptual construct instead of an all-powerful being, some Buddhist schools claim that the compassionate gaze of the bodhisattva is similar to the idea of God’s grace. Not unlike an all-powerful creator God, the bodhisattva may lessen the negative impact of bad karma.

Karma Transfer

Many Indian gurus claim that negative karma may literally transfer from a disciple to a teacher. Karma mystically flies, they say, from less to more pure souls. This transfer of bad karma is experienced by the pure soul in various ways. Spiritual ‘pollution’ is a term many gurus use to describe these impure spiritual elements they have reportedly picked up from their disciples.

A well-known Indian holy man who claims to have picked up bad karma from his disciples is Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86). Ramakrishna claimed that his subtle body became festered with sores after receiving spiritually impure visitors. In essence, Ramakrishna believes he took the karma of others onto himself.²

Demonic Deception

Some folks are convinced they have lived past lives and it is conceivable that they have. But it is also possible that they interpret unusual experiences so as to believe in reincarnation when in actual fact they haven’t had any past lives at all.

In addition to alleged flashbacks and past life regressions, we hear stories about individuals claiming to have located objects in distant countries they have never visited. And some speak of esoteric yet seemingly rational connections from past lives to present life as if they encounter a growing sense of recall.

But none of this proves the belief in past lives. Another explanation is that these believers are being deceived by demonic influence. The idea of demonic deception might sound a bit less strange today with the success of TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural. It may still sound marginal to some, but it is arguably no less weird than the idea of reincarnation, which many readily accept.

Discernment

One of the most valuable ideas found in theology is discernment. In one sense discernment is described as a gift and developed ability in which one learns to differentiate among:

  1. Evil spiritual influences
  2. Divine spiritual influences
  3. One’s true self

Father Edward Malatesta, S. J. writes on the deeper, fuller meaning of discernment.

By the discernment of spirits is meant the process by which we examine, in the light of faith and in the connaturality of love, the nature of the spiritual states we experience in ourselves and in others. The purpose of such examination is to decide, as far as possible, which of the movements we experience lead us to the Lord and to a more perfect service of Him and our brothers, and which deflect us from this goal.³

However, a problem arises in that many individuals claim to discern while their alleged messages from the Divine often prove to be false or at odds with others also claiming to discern the true light and will of God. In fact, ‘discernment’ may devolve into nothing more than taking an alarmist view of issues one doesn’t understand, projecting bad habits and transferring unsavory psychological contents onto scapegoats. Needless to say, this has little, if anything, to do with mature discernment and is arguably the dynamic of an overzealous, hypocritical and underdeveloped personality.4

To return to the idea of reincarnation, many believers say destructive personality traits carry over from past to present lives. Within Catholic mystical theology, however, bad things experienced in one’s present life could be taken as evidence of demonic obsession or possession. In the Catholic sense, obsession is the unhealthy and significant influence of evil spiritual powers or beings, whereas possession is a permanent, temporary or sporadic loss of self-control due to spiritual attack.

Catholicism has no need to postulate past lives when obsession and possession explain just as well, if not better, what reincarnation theory attributes to bad karma.

Keeping An Eye On Time by Ian Foss via Flickr

Rethinking Space-Time

Another way to explain the unusual experiences often taken as evidence for reincarnation involves recent theories in subatomic physics. Instead of falling prey to demonic deception, sensitive individuals might be psychologically piercing through the veil of space-time and wrongly interpreting this as proof for reincarnation.

According to recent subatomic cosmologies, past, present and future don’t necessarily follow a one-way vector nor do we experience linear time at a consistent rate. Instead, past, present, and future apparently exist in an interactive field.

In his book Deep Time the physicist and astronomer David Darling argues that questions about the origins of the universe are misleading because past, present, and future exist in a unified loop.

Surely there had to have been some special point of origin? But no. What was needed was a more panoramic view in which the universe, past, present, and future, was seen as having always been there–a permanent, all-encompassing, space-time eternity. Of course, it was natural for man, whose left-brain consciousness produced the illusion of “passing” time to think of past and future as somehow different in status. To dwell, moreover, on that elusive moment called now which transformed the potentiality of future events into the actuality of the past. But “now” was, in truth, only a chimera. Every point in space and time coexisted with equal importance. The future was there from the beginning as surely as was the past.5

Like Darling, many theologians, mystics, philosophers, and artists speak to the possibility of intimate connections among space, time and eternity. The German mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) wrote:

The now wherein God made the first man, and the now wherein the last man disappears, and the now I am speaking in, all are the same in God, where this is but the now.

To suggest, as Darling does, that the past exists and the future is already out there doesn’t sit well with most theologians. For them, it is more prudent to say that God simply knows the past (which no longer exists) and the future (which does not yet exist). And I think it fair to ask if these theologians are simply regimented and afraid of change or whether their beliefs are reasonable.

Part of the problem here relates to how we define God. Natural pantheists say God’s mind is the universe, while theistic schools believe that God (and God’s mind) differs from God’s creation (to include the universe, heaven, purgatory and hell).

Reason to Believe

Roderick Main, a leading Jung scholar, says Jung “concludes that under certain psychic conditions time and space can both become relative and can even appear to be transcended altogether.”6 We cannot be certain if the past and the future exist right now but we may at least consider the possibility and, moreover, that they influence or even interact with our experience in the present.

Individuals predisposed to a different kind of sensitivity could be more attuned to other time periods and souls living therein.If events potentially interact within space-time, this could be depicted along a horizontal x-axis.

However, another axis is required to account for the moral dimension of life. Choices made at one time could impact other times (horizontal axis), but choices involving ethics could influence heavens and hells, which could be represented along a vertical axis. For instance, when we do bad things traditional believers say Satan and his demons are devilishly delighted while the angels and saints in heaven are struck with sorrow.

Horizontal (time) and vertical (ethics) axes help to conceptualize things but should not be taken as an absolute or complete schema. We could, in fact, simplify this model by hypothesizing that every event has a potential influence on every other event in space-time-consciousness.8

This interactive, multidimensional model challenges prevailing assumptions about life, the afterlife, past and future.9 It cannot be proved through conventional forms of experimentation10 but those experiencing unusual psychological phenomena could interpret their experiences according to this model. Along these lines, the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich distinguishes experiential from experimental verification.

In experiential verification we cannot quantify data and construct repeatable experiments, but we can make observation, accumulate knowledge, and learn from our experience.11

Admittedly, an issue arises here that might never be fully overcome but only improved upon. This is the problem of extricating ourselves from our current beliefs and theoretical constructs.

In such a reflection on the ultimate in hermeneutics of the subject matter, the writer will be undoubtedly influenced by his/her own hermeneutics and idea of ultimate reality and meaning. This may lead to an unwarranted conclusion specially if one’s own hermeneutic of ultimate reality and meaning is not consciously differentiated from that of the other. But one-sidedness can be remedied in certain degree by inviting more than one specialist to study the same topic.12

Taking this issue into consideration, the multidimensional model still seems more current and flexible than the belief in reincarnation. Some individuals try to justify reincarnation by saying it is an ancient belief which predates other religions but this argument makes little sense. Just because something is old doesn’t make it true. And from the standpoint of ethics, the current schema of temporal coexistence and interactivity doesn’t allow for the avoidance of personal responsibility on the basis of hypothesized karma and past lives.13

Often when I have tried to have intelligent conversations with believers in karma I have been struck by their complete unwillingness to step away from their beliefs and consider alternatives. Some believers in reincarnation seem just as dogmatic and intransigent as extremists of any kind, be they materialists, atheists, fundamentalists, liberals or conservatives. However, the history of science demonstrates time and again that dogmatism rarely paves the way for better theory.

Conclusion

The above may appear to focus on esoteric points of little or no practical value. But considering human evolution and our existence within the extended universe, we can hardly afford, morally and economically, to stop thinking about cosmology.

Instead of clinging to the past, multidimensional theory combines science, religion, and philosophy in an updated holism more appropriate to 21st-century challenges. This new approach could have a tremendous impact on education, psychiatry, religion, and several other fields. But first, the gatekeepers must realize that change is sorely needed.

1. Buddhists speak of becoming ensnared in cycles of rebirth but anatman theory says that the very notion of the soul is illusory. Therefore reincarnation doesn’t really occur. It only seems to occur until one is liberated from a false belief in individuality.

2. The subtle body is described as an inner spiritual body. For more about Ramakrishna see http://earthpages.wordpress.com/2011/02/10/karma-transfer. Christianity contains an idea similar to karma transfer. Saint Kowalska (1905-38) writes that she received the sins of others, suffering dearly to prevent their fall to hell. In Catholicism this brings to mind the idea of “victim souls” who allegedly suffer mostly for the benefit of others, an idea popular in certain Catholic circles. The main difference between the ideas of victim souls and karma transfer is that most Christians don’t believe in reincarnation.

3. Thomas H. Green S. J., Weeds Among the Wheat – Discernment: Where Prayer and Action Meet, Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1984, p. 41). If we’re all imperfect, the development of true discernment is probably a lifelong process. Some believe the Holy Spirit can override personal biases—i.e. an imperfect person makes a perfect discernment. We can also differentiate between (a) the initial discernment and (b) one’s reaction to and interpretation of that discernment.

4. Those political and religious figures behind the Inquisitions and the cruel torture of so-called witches in the Middle Ages would fall into this juvenile and horrific personality type.

5. (a) David Darling, Deep Time (New York: Delacorte Press, 1989), pp. 187-188.

6. Roderick Main. Jung on Synchroncity and the Paranormal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 18.

7. Subjects whose brainwaves are measured during meditative states reportedly feel as if they travel through time. However, it is possible (if one is willing to consider that departed souls could influence the living) that one could confuse the presence of a departed person for the presence of a person living in another historical time period, and vice versa.

8. By way of contrast, the Cambridge biochemist Rupert Sheldrake says in Dog’s That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home that past habits, not the future, influence the present (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999: 305).

9. The idea of multidimensionality was forwarded by Jane Roberts with some interesting differences, most notably Roberts’ advocacy of interactive parallel universes containing rainbow-like variations of the self.

10. (a) This would not upset the Austrian philosopher of science Karl Popper. For Popper, scientific statements cannot be proved, only disproved. Popper’s assertion is open to various avenues of debate, beyond the scope of this article.
(b) George P. Hansen recounts a lab experiment that could be taken as support for the idea of the future influencing the present. See George P. Hansen, The Trickster and the Paranormal (Xlibris, 2001: 328-336, 342).

11. Tillich cited in Andrew J. Peck, Tibor Horvarth et. al., eds. American Philosophers’ Ideas of Ultimate Reality and Meaning. URAM Monographs, No. 1. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994, p. 7. Several branches of Western philosophy challenge the distinction between experimental and experiential verification—for instance, Solipsism, Berkeley’s Idealism and, to some extent, John Locke’s critique of “secondary qualities.”

12. Ibid., p. 10.

13. It should be noted that conscientious believers in reincarnation say we must make positive choices to overcome bad karma. And, again, most believe that God’s grace can lessen the negative impact of bad karma. But still, the idea of karma is often abused around the world in a flimsy attempt to legitimize disparity and other social problems.

Further Readings about Time

Benford, Gregory, Timescape (Bantam, 1992). A sci-fi novel informed by scientists.

Flood, Raymond and Michael Lockwood (eds.), The Nature of Time (Blackwell, 1988).

Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (Bantam, 1990).

Paige, Huw, Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time (Oxford, 1996).

Farewell to Karma © Michael Clark, 2013 (revised February 9, 2019).

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