reincarnation revisited


When I wrote a post about reincarnation and made some personal disclosures a couple years ago (“My Second Chance”), I was deafened by the silence which ensued.

Maybe this is because, in Western culture, reincarnation has been considered an oddball belief ever since 325 AD when the leaders of the Catholic Church convened the Council of Nicea and declared reincarnation (versus resurrection) an heretical belief. Maybe it is because reincarnation is popularly associated with Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern (and—according to certain supremacists—inferior) cultures. Or maybe it’s because it cannot be proved conclusively enough to replace the teachings and superstitions of our childhoods about an eternity spent in heaven.

It doesn’t matter. All theories are speculation and, in the end, come down to selecting the One True Belief that feels right to you.

I settled on reincarnation because I have observed that everything else in the Universe experiences cycles in its existence, and if you believe in the survival of one’s soul after death, why shouldn’t that recycle, as well? (But then cycles, especially business cycles, are described as “theoretical” by those who profit from them, want to maintain popular ignorance and skepticism, and hence, a competitive advantage.)

Anyway, last night I did some research into the work of Dr. Ian Stevenson (1918-2007), a psychiatrist who worked for the University of Virginia School of Medicine and was known as the world’s foremost scientific researcher into reincarnation. He spent over 40 years traveling the world to meticulously investigate over 3,000 cases of small children who appeared to recall previous lives. His life’s work was funded by a bequest from Chester Carlson, the inventor of Xerography. To Dr. Stevenson and his many admirers, his detailed case studies provided more than ample room for, as he liked to put it, “a rational person, if he wants, to believe in reincarnation on the basis of evidence.”

Unconvinced by the Freudian view that personality is fixed in early childhood, Dr.  Stevenson began to explore other theories for the origin of individual characteristics and the development of personality. He became interested in accounts gleaned from newspapers and journals about children who claimed to have memories of previous lives.

Dense with statistical data, his studies avoided any theoretical speculation on Eastern philosophical theories about the transmigration of souls. In fact, “soul” was a word Stevenson was always keen to avoid. He preferred the term “personality”, and was always careful to state that the mountain of evidence accumulated in his research “permitted”, rather than compelled, a belief in reincarnation.

In 1977, the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease devoted most of one issue to Dr. Stevenson’s work. In the issue, psychiatrist Harold Lief described Dr. Stevenson as “a methodical, careful, even cautious, investigator, whose personality is on the obsessive side.” He also wrote: “Either he is making a colossal mistake, or he will be known as ‘the Galileo of the 20th century.’ ”

The evidence he did provide came not from past-life readings or hypnotic regressions but from using the techniques of a detective or investigative reporter to evaluate claims that a young child, often just beginning to talk, had spontaneously started to speak of the details of another life. In a fairly typical case, a boy in Beirut spoke of being a 25-year-old mechanic, thrown to his death from a speeding car on a beach road. According to multiple witnesses, the boy provided the name of the driver, the exact location of the crash, the names of the mechanic’s sisters, parents and cousins, and the people he hunted with—all of which turned out to match the life of a man who had died several years before the boy was born, and who had no apparent connection to the boy’s family.

Some of Dr. Stevenson’s most important findings were that more boys than girls expressed such spontaneous past life memories, that children started recounting these stories were between the ages of 2 and 5 (yet seemed to have forgotten them by age 8 or 9), and that 60% of them described sudden, violent deaths. He also found that many of these children had birth marks which corresponded in location and shape to wounds suffered by the subjects who had previously died.

Toward the end of his life, Dr. Stevenson accepted that his long-stated goal of getting mainstream science “to seriously consider reincarnation as a possibility” was not going to be realized in his lifetime. One scientist—typical of the mainstream—wrote: “Why, in their past lives, was everybody a princess or mighty warrior? Didn’t anybody dig ditches in the ancient world? Who took out the garbage? Who fed the elephants?”

He obviously didn’t acknowledge that most, if not all, of Dr. Stevenson’s cases were ordinary people with unexceptional lives. He was not taking into account the possibility that knowledge of, and belief in, reincarnation can lead to benefits beyond the mere curiosity of it.

I am attracted to reincarnation because I like the idea of getting a second (or third or thousandth) chance to do it right or better than before. It is the idea of Continuous Improvement on a cosmic scale.

But I am also fascinated by another idea.

I believe that the purpose of life is to mature into an integrated personality, to learn from all of the experiences and mistakes of the past, and become a truly wise and good person. What if that past includes not only one’s present lifetime, but as many past lives as one can remember?

If this vision of the continuity of lives is true, it could bring a new meaning to the notion of a truly enlightened being. It could bring a transcendent quality to “the meaning of life.”

I have only a vague idea of my last former life. I don’t remember being a prince, a rich man, or famous man. It is more likely I was a nobody, an unremarkable person who died betrayed and disillusioned, whose life never had a chance to develop to its potential. Yet I got a chance at a better life this time around. A chance to redeem not only my early self from this life, but my past self as well.

I don’t know how else to put it, but that is living a life with meaning. A chance to experience immortality in the here-and-now. If it is wishful thinking, a fantasy, or self-aggrandisement, so be it. Leave me to my illusions.

They work for me.


Groove of the Day

Listen to the Forseter Sisters performing “(I’d Choose) You Again”


5 Responses to “reincarnation revisited”

  1. 1 matt
    July 20, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    Crickets . . . . . . . .

    Not really my thing, Dan, but it reminds me of a great quote by the sagacious Yogi Berra, “it’s like deja vu, all over again.”

    • July 20, 2014 at 4:15 pm

      Yeah, I know… I was just writing about my thing… but right now I am more “in the moment” regarding biting flies… the presence of which, according to local lore, mean that it might rain tonight. The dogs and I are being driven to distraction and eagerly awaiting nightfall when the flies disappear. Did I tell you it might also rain tonight?

      • 3 matt
        July 20, 2014 at 5:18 pm

        Then I wish you a long, gentle rain and a night filled with pleasant dreams of lives and people gone by.

  2. 4 Frank Manning
    July 23, 2014 at 1:44 am

    Truth be told, no one knows for sure what happens after death. After all, as my father used to say, no one ever came back to tell us about it. Reincarnation or divine judgement followed by damnation or paradise–or just simple nonexistence? It’s anybody’s guess!

    As an atheist I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife. But the thought of self-annihilation is a bit unsettling. I like your idea of maturing into an integrated personality based on the sum total of all one’s life experiences. The thought of getting only one shot at having the best possible life is not satisfying. But if the Cosmos just goes on expanding until the very constituents of atoms fall apart into nothingness, then the thought of living on forever does seem quite silly.

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