Written by Professor Lance Butler.
There is one spiritual idea that seems to keep coming round again and again, appropriately enough: the idea of reincarnation. When Westerners first learn of it they saw the notion of past lives as a stretch too far to the East. Then it sat for a while in the hands of Ian Stevenson and his team at Virginia University, as well as in those of Brian Weiss who said ‘All you have to do is reawaken to the memory, to remember… Journey into the beautiful dream that is life… the end is only the beginning’. But in spite of such scholars reincarnation felt like an outlier in the spectrum of post-materialist thinking.
Most mediums, psychics, spiritual thinkers and some parapsychologists, however, tend to mention the idea almost as a matter of course. It doesn’t easily fit in with the other ideas in our field but there, amongst us, it almost always is. We don’t see much evidence of reincarnation in NDE narratives and, indeed, the presence of our deceased relatives on the other side seems to contradict the notion and we ask Why haven’t they moved on? Poltergeists and precognitions seem not quite to fit with it either. And then there is the problem that the people who remember past lives never seem actually to become the person they remember being. Memories spoken of by young children fade as they grow up and such children seem never to take up the life they once had. They never switch to their previous name or rejoin relatives living in another town.
Where then are the reincarnated? What is the mechanism behind the theory of past lives? Who are we if we were once someone else? Who will we be next, and how?
To solve this conundrum I think we need to take some of our essential ideas more seriously. For instance we repeat mantras such as ‘There is no time on the other side‘ and ‘There is only one of us‘ and these perhaps should be given their full strange meaning. We can add to them the assumptions made in quantum physics that the universe is either infinitely multiple or a solid block. In either case we need a very strong notion of our inseparability, our radical interconnectedness with nature, the universe, each other and the great source – whatever that is considered to be.
If time isn’t a stream flowing but rather a series of whirlpools spinning in the infinite whirlpool and if all parts of it are constantly flowing into one another then our whole expectation of before and after is just one more of our illusions. If everything has, as it were, already happened and nothing is ever lost then we can, somehow, move among different times and places without contradiction.
These are virtually unimaginable conceptions of course, and we can’t really understand them in any meaningful way, but that doesn’t mean that they may not be in some deep sense true. After all, although with our post-materialist view of things we constantly and correctly try to reconcile all our evidence with reason and science, it’s surely obvious that it won’t succeed in that honourable and modest ambition without a radical re-shaping of our intellectual paradigm. The unthinkable will simply, somehow, have to become the accepted as has already happened in relativity quantum physics where the impossible has become the normal: time is no longer a constant, space can bend, particles can interact at any distance when there is no normal connection between them. Consciousnesses can live in different places and at different times while remaining themselves.
When the paradigm shifts a little, as it must, we may be able to see how reincarnation fits into our spiritual patterns. Until then it doesn’t have to be an act of faith of the old religious kind; we merely have to accept that the old paradigm suited us well but couldn’t accommodate truths that are beyond the imagination.