I wrote this in 1988. I was 40 years old and I don’t recall what prompted this musing. I’ve done a fair amount of reading on eastern philosophies in the past 30 years and my thinking/understanding has evolved. But only a little.

Reincarnation. The word conjures up all sorts of mystical images. While I don’t recall any past life as a soldier at the Little Big Horn, it’s sort of like “the undiscovered planet” that makes sense of the orbits of the other planets.

As I think about the idea of a past existence, I feel a fondness for this “earlier me”. A sense of gratitude for whatever spiritual progress he was able to achieve. At the same time, I feel a sense of anticipation or expectation for my “next life”. And some responsibility to that future self. I’d like to move him (or her?) along as far as I can on this “cosmic lap.” To move him closer to…a perfect consciousness? Nirvana?

Mixed in with all of that is a sense of relief that I don’t have to complete everything in this lifetime. This is not the only shot I’ll get. And this awareness is vital because we all know –consciously or subconsciously– that we won’t “get it all done” in a spiritual sense. We hope (and work) for progress but a single lifetime seems hopelessly short.

So, how close am I? What if I’m only a single lifetime (only?) away from reaching this level of consciousness? Suppose I progress sufficiently in what I have left of this lifetime that I’m within “striking distance” in the next?

It’s possible I’m on my first “existence” and have many to go. Or I might have lived thousands of lives and have but a few remaining. The point is, it doesn’t matter where you are on this journey. There’s no race and no time limit. You finish when you finish and everybody finishes. And that’s a liberating thought. There’s no Heavenly Stopwatch ticking away. No point at which you must throw in the towel and face the fact you’11 never be “good enough” to get through those Pearly Gates. Eternity is not pass-fail.

Most of us fear death. We fear the unknown… what might be waiting for us. Most Western theology offers only heaven or hell. Or nothing. Poor choices, all.

What if we’re just as frightened of “being born” as we are of dying? Once you accept the idea that our souls or spirits or consciousness do not die, but are eternal, you can imagine how frightening it might be to face being born into a new existence. There is symmetry here that feels right. If my soul or consciousness is eternal, can it really be that it magically sprang into existence at the moment of my conception? One instant it didn’t exist, the next it did? It came from nowhere, out of nothing? No. I think eternity stretches in both directions.

I wish I could tell the “earlier me” that things worked out fine. There was nothing to fear. I don’t remember “dying” or being born and this life has been terrific. And why not assume the “next me” will do just as well? And will be a little more spiritually evolved thanks to the progress “this me” is making.

Why don’t (most of us) remember our “past lives?” I think it would be an awful distraction. Our purpose is to live each moment of this life fully. To grow through each day’s experience. Not to dwell on and puzzle over a life already lived. Lessons already learned. So we remain unaware of past and future lives, focused on the only life we can ever really live, this one.

And what about Heaven? Can it really be the cosmic end-of-the-line we’ve been taught? Have you ever really believed in this Sunday School heaven with streets of gold and God sitting on his judgment throne? Isn’t there more hope, more promise, in the ongoing spiritual journey?

As for Hell, we are all quite capable of creating our own, anytime, anywhere. And we do.
The idea of timeless existence fills me with a wonderful sense of anticipation. If, after 40 years, I’ve learned to stop worrying, does that mean I can go on to new challenges in this life (and the next)? If I’ve lived a life afraid to take chances, to risk, for fear of failure, will I conquer that fear next time? Can I take the spiritual progress f this life on to the next one? It seems right, doesn’t it?

And equally logical that I’ll take unsolved challenges with me as well. But how many people do you know who expect to leave their enemies behind when they go to “their reward”. Smug in the knowledge those enemies are now paying for their sins.

No, I think He or She would say, “Don’t talk to me about right or wrong, your job is your own spiritual growth. As long as you feel hate, or anger, or guilt, or worry… keep working on it. And to help you, I’ve got a limitless number of real-life situations for you to practice on.”

Does this mean I can coast through this life, dodging spiritual challenges, procrastinating on into eternity? I don’t think so. I’d love to hit that next life free and clear (to the extent that is possible). Unencumbered. I want to put worry and fear and self-doubt behind me now. I want the “next me” to have every opportunity for continued growth. Let’s drop some of this baggage. God knows how many lifetimes I’ve been hauling it (for those who need another reason for not recalling past lives).

The idea of the spirit or consciousness living on past what we call death raises the question of friends and loved ones living (again) among us. Should be sad we don’t recognize them nor they us? No.

First, they have new lessons to learn and new people and experiences will help. In our own lives we tend to find and remain in comfort zones. We do the same things, with the same people, throughout most of our lives. Only when we force ourselves (or are forced) into new situations, do we see real growth and progress. It would be like staying in the first grade for 12 years. We know the teacher and our classmates and the lessons. It’s safe and comfortable. But instead, we are forced to move on to new schools, new rooms, new teachers and classmates, new lessons. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, there is a unity of all consciousness. The essence of each of us, exists in all of us. That essence is part of the reborn consciousness of friends and loved ones. One more lesson: Look for and recognize the things we loved about that person, in all people.

The Bone Clocks

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at Thu, Sep 4, 9.57.02 AMJust finished The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell and found it… gripping. Never thought much about that word as applied to stories, but this novel grabbed me me and held on, even when I wanted to put it down (as he described “a nuclear wilderness in 2043, after a deluge of viruses and natural disasters.”)

From the New York Times review: “You may not believe in telepathy, second sight or reincarnation, but if you enter Mitchell’s universe you can’t not believe in them either.”


book-coverThe Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, by Stephen Cave (Amazon)

The Mortality Paradox – On the one hand, our powerful intellects come inexorably to the conclusion that we, like all other living things around us, must one day die. Yet on the other, the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.”

The Terror Management Theory – We must live in the knowledge that the worst thing that can possibly happen to us one day surely will. […] We have created institutions, philosophies and religions to protect us from this terror by denying or at least distracting us from the finality of death.”

“Immortality is not for the weak and foolish.”

“”Longevity Escape velocity” – living long enough to live forever”

“”Computational Resurrection” – the rerunning of software that is your mind on a new piece of hardware so that you might live again.”

“The Soul – the most influential single idea in the history of Western civilization”

“Whether or not we literally believe we have a soul that will go to heaven, the cosmic significance we ascribe to ourselves as unique individuals reassures us that we transcend mere biology. […] We are creating a myth of immunity to extinction.”

“Buddhists do believe in some essential part of you that survives the body in order to be reincarnated in accordance with the laws of karma. This is pure consciousness, stripped of all memories and convictions and the rest of the accumulated baggage of a lifetime. The Dali Lama describes it as a “continuum of awareness.””

“In Hinduism and Buddhism there is an undercurrent of recognition that the individual mind cannot continue without the body. Beyond the theory of reincarnation, which requires a soul robust enough to be punished for its past sins, there are hints of something more radical. Nirvana, for example, literally means “extinguishing” or “blowing out.” But what is it that is being “blown out” like a candle? Some Buddhists say worldly desires. Others, however, go further and believe it is the self that is extinguished. For some in the ascetic tradition, the source of worldly suffering is not just being in the world–it is being at all. Liberation therefore means to cease to be an individual altogether, or as the Hindus put it, to become one with the all, the Brahman.”

“We have already concluded you have no soul — no unchanging essence or immutable inner core. We could go further and say that there is, in fact, nothing that is the “real you.” You are just a collection of disparate thoughts, memories, sense impressions and the like, all bundled up together in a package we conveniently label a person. What is more, all these disparate parts are continually changing,as some things are forgotten and others learned, opinions changed and new memories formed. The question is, then, if you are such an ever-changing bundle, what does it mean for “you” to survive?”

“Psychologist Roy Baumeister has estimated the length of time for which most of us can expect to be remembered as seventy years. He points out that not many people can even *name* their great-grandparents.”

“People in modern cities long ago lost the ability to survive independently—we are utterly reliant on a complex higher level system for clean water, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, security and energy. Like the specialized cells of our bodies, which have given up their independence for the greater strength and security offered by life as part of a macro-organism, we have each given up our independence to be part of strong and secure superorganisms.”

“Individual humans are merely temporary forms taken by the single, shifting web of life on earth. If humans are not really separate things, then their births and deaths are also not real, but simply one way of seeing the rhythms of life.”

“The great social-reform movements of the last centuries — emancipation of slaves, equality between sexes and races, social welfare and son on — arose only when the preoccupation with the next world began to lose its grip on Western society. […] If this life here on earth is regarded merely as a series of tests for a place in another life, then it is necessarily devalued.”

“There are as I see it two sets of problems: on the one hand, the boredom and apathy that would result from having done and seen everything there is to do— that is, from having already lived a very long time—and on the other hand, the paralysis that would result from having an infinite future in which to do any further things. Both these problems, the backward looking and the forward-looking, threaten to suck the meaning out of life and leave one wishing for a terminal deadline.”

“Death is the source of all our deadlines.”

“Life as we know it may be too short to watch daytime TV, but eternity wouldn’t be.[…] Given infinity, time would lose its worth. And once time is worthless, it becomes impossible to make rational decisions about how to spend it. […] If civilization exists to aid our preparation into the future, then if that perpetuation were guaranteed, civilization would be redundant. […] Civilization exists to give us immortality, but if it ever succeeded it would fall apart.”

“We do not “see” or experience death; death is the end of all experience. […] Neither you nor I can ever literally *be* dead. Living things cannot be dead things. To talk of someone “being dead” is just a shorthand for saying they have ceased to exist. […] We can never be aware of (life) having an end — we can never know anything but life.”

“If you are happy now, then you are happy always, as there is only now.”

Life After Death

“A must read for everyone who will die.” That’s how one reviewer describes Deepak Chopra’s “Life After Death.” I ordered the book after seeing Dr. Chopra on The Colbert Report. The title pretty much describes the book which got a fair amount of highlighter (my measure of good non-fiction). Here’s one graf from page 239:

“In spiritual terms the cycle of birth and rebirth is a workshop for making creative leaps of the soul. The natural and the supernatural are not doing different things but are involved in transformation on separate levels. At the moment of death the ingredients of your old body and old identity disappear. Your DNA and everything it created devolve back to their simple component parts. Your memories dissolve back into raw information. None of this raw material is simply recombined to produced a slightly altered person. To produce a new body capable of making new memories, the person who emerges must be new. You do not acquire a new soul, because the soul doesn’t have content. It’s not “you” but the center around which “you” coalesces, time after time. It’s your zero point.”

I’ve never studied or researched reincarnation, but I’ve always had a curiosity about and openess to the idea. In 1988 I wrote:

“As I think about the idea of a past existence, I feel a fondness for this “earlier me”. A sense of gratitude for whatever spiritual progress he was able to achieve. At the same time, I feel a sense of anticipation or expectation for my “next life”. And some responsibility to that future self. I’d like to move him (or her?) along as far as I can on this “cosmic lap.” To move him closer to…a perfect consciousness? Nirvana?”

“Mixed in with all of that is a sense of relief that I don’t have to complete everything in this lifetime. This is not the only shot I’ll get. And this awareness is vital because we all know –consciously or subconsciously– that we won’t “get it all done” in a spiritual sense. We hope (and work) for progress but a single” lifetime seems hopelessly short.”

Upon rereading the full post, I’m struck by how close I got (to Dr. Chopra’s explanation), given my complete ignorance.

I confess I could never stretch my common sense and logic (and faith?) around many of the stories in the Bible. And my recent read of Richard Dawkins’ case for atheism (The God Delusion) didn’t convince me. But I really enjoyed Life After Death and will read more by Dr. Chopra.