This beautiful photograph is from soniathorpephotography.com/blog.
The longer I consider the question of the survival of human consciousness after physical death, the more I notice that my perspective on age has changed. I won’t pretend that aging is no big deal for me, because I still contemplate cosmetic procedures on a daily basis; however, the preconceptions I had regarding the meaning of age have completely changed.
My best friend is twelve years younger than I am; the people I spend the most time with are typically far younger, or far older. Whereas I used to define others by how many years they had spent on the planet—dividing them into stages, groups or generations—now I see how irrelevant one’s age often is. There is a tendency in our culture to separate us into age groups by one’s decade of life. Women’s magazines are the worst culprits here, but all media tends to separate us by age, making huge assumptions about our identities based on where we are in life’s spectrum.
Only the medical profession should have any interest in our age. If we can prevent or minimize age-related disease, then we should dedicate ourselves to that endeavor. However, most psychological issues that we attribute to age are, in reality, due to the constant, negative messages of our culture that reinforce the idea that we have to maintain the illusion of youth for as long as possible.
What I see now is a continuation of the human spirit throughout the life span. My niece and nephew both came into the world with a curious, ancient wisdom that I could witness in their eyes (more so my niece than nephew; she’s “older” than her older brother). Many mothers will tell you that their children came into the world with a fully formed identity that simply unfurled over time. What I saw in my niece, especially, was a soul that had experienced several lifetimes. Although some will say that I am only basing these observations on the appearance of newborns, I know that it goes far beyond that. What I see in certain newborns is a deep understanding and awareness of their situation; they are back for another round at life, for better or worse.
This explains to me the total individuality of children, teenagers and young adults far beyond what genes might determine or environment. Whatever your belief system, it’s hard to deny that there are elements to a child’s personality that seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with their parents; there is also a kind of knowledge or common sense that seems to come from nowhere at times, manifesting itself long before anything is formally taught.
Elsewhere on soulbank, (“Who Was I Before?”), I have discussed my own childhood as defined by memories and experiences that occurred before I was born. In many ways, my adult life has been marked by this sense of “oddness” and experiences out of time that confuse and confound me. It’s still quite clear to me that much of what I reacted to as a kid was conditioning I could not have experienced with my current parents. I can’t describe the strangeness of remembering places, people and incidents that were not originating in my present life.
That confusion, that sense of responding and reacting to a life that I wasn’t in the process of living, makes me feel rather disconnected as an adult. I suppose that sense of strangeness affects me because I am not supposed to believe in such things as reincarnation as an academic. My parents certainly never encouraged such a belief, and I was usually made to feel credulous, flaky or fantasy-prone whenever I mentioned such concepts as multiple existences. My training has taught me that such things as multiple lives are a delusion of the superstitious and uneducated masses. Although I know better after studying the impeccable research of Ian Stevenson on the subject, the inner critic is fierce and unrelenting.
The problem is, reincarnation is what best fits my experience of life and my understanding of what happens to human consciousness. My instinct tells me that consciousness recycles. Now, when I have allowed such ideas to exist and percolate into my understanding of existence, I have noticed that people look different to me. It’s more and more difficult to generalize by age, since one’s “age” might well be determined by how many times a person has passed through a lifetime. A 16 year old might in fact be far older and wiser than a 72 year old, if that teenager has internalized lessons and intuition from previous incarnations and the 72 year old is “here” for the first time.
For me, this is what accounts for the huge variation in wisdom and understanding among the people I know. We all know that you can take two individuals from the same parents, provide them with similar education and experiences, and yet they will end up as two entirely different adults. There is the argument to the contrary regarding identical twins; they lead shockingly similar lives even when separated at birth. However, identical twins could share the same ‘soul’, or spirit; is it not possible that a ‘soul mate’ is simply someone we knew intimately long before birth? Could twins be reliving an intense bond that they shared centuries ago? Is it not possible for two people to share a soul?
Of course, I do not have answers for that. But perhaps a world-renowned scientist does:
“I had become dissatisfied, you see, with the methods that had been developed in psychiatry for helping people. Orthodox theory conceives human personality as the product of a person’s genetic material inherited from his ancestors through his parents, and the modifying influences of his prenatal and postnatal environment. But I found that some cases cannot be satisfactorily explained by genetics, environmental influences, or a combination of these. I am speaking of such things as early childhood phobias, about uncanny abilities that seem to develop spontaneously, of children convinced that they are the wrong sex, congenital deformities, differences between one-egg twins, and even such matters as irrational food preferences.” (Interview with Ian Stevenson, http://reluctant-messenger.com/reincarnation-proof.htm)
For me, Stevenson’s comments regarding “early childhood phobias” certainly have special meaning. I drove my parents crazy with my inexplicable fears. Those ranged from bees to strangulation to a pathological terror of loud noises. I remember how angry and upset my father used to be when I startled so easily; my sister suffered no such fears. It appears that I was born with what we now call post traumatic stress disorder. In more ways than I can explain here, I was deeply terrified of dying. This started at a very, very young age. I remember screaming in pain about my leg hurting when there was nothing wrong with my leg; I was only four at the time. Even then, it seemed more like a memory of pain than actual pain. My parents were so frustrated and confused by my strange behavior that they simply decided that I was a weird kid, and left it at that.
But “weird kids” might be dealing with much more psychological baggage than most parents are willing to consider. Stevenson’s view on this is that children who remember a past life are more cursed than blessed, since to live with memories no one else validates is a kind of hell. In my own case, my memories are fuzzy and ill-defined, certainly nothing Stevenson would find convincing or worthy of study; but that doesn’t negate the truth of what I still feel about my childhood. The fact that so much of my behavior was “inexplicable” created a sense of marginality in me that persists to this day. All of my attempts to understand, for example, my persistent and irrational anxieties have more or less led to a dead end. Therapy has largely failed in my case, because no one has ever been willing to explore the possibility that I am STILL responding to the way in which my last life ended.
I doubt that I will explore my past life issue in any systematic way, since as an adult there is too much “corruption” of my memories. It would be impossible to know whether or not what I recall happened sometime over the last 46 years, or happened before that. In any case, my goal now is to forge new paths without looking over my shoulder constantly at who I was. Who I was is inextricably bound up with who I am now. What concerns me now is the meaning of this existence; what is God doing with us humans? Why does He recycle our souls? Is it for continual improvement, or is this a random process? Stevenson says the following regarding God and reincarnation in the same interview I quoted earlier:
“Omni: Do you see in reincarnation a glimpse of a larger purpose?
Stevenson: Well, yes, I do. My idea of God is that He is evolving. I don’t believe in the watchmaker God, the original creator who built the watch and then lets it tick. I believe in a “Self-maker God” who is evolving and experimenting; so are we as parts of Him. Bodies wear out; souls may need periods for rest and reflection. Afterward one may start again with a new body.
Omni: Do you disagree with most bioscientists, who hold that what we call mind or soul is actually a part of brain activity?
Stevenson: The assumption that our minds are nothing but our brains appears to receive support when you consider the effect of injury, surgery, a high fever, or one or two drinks of whiskey on our mental processes. Some neuroscientists ac knowledge that they have only just begun to show how brain processes account for mental ones. But they claim to know that they or their successors will work it all out. They are sure there can be no other explanation, therefore they consider no other. We are not pledged to follow all the received opinions of neuroscientists, however. Recently, a small number of psychologists and philosophers have begun to ask whether mind can ever be fully explained in terms of brain functioning.”
This questioning of the relationship between mind and brain is leading more and more to the hypothesis that “mind” is not necessarily brain function. I have addressed that issue elsewhere in this blog. What I admire most about Stevenson’s words is his willingness, as a scientist, to embrace the idea of God. I am intrigued by his contention that God is “evolving”; it seems so contrary to our assumptions regarding the nature of the divine, yet there is something to this notion that appeals to common sense: everything grows, changes, adapts and transforms. Why not God? Certainly, the God of the Old Testament is not the same God we see in the New Testament. If there can be evolution of the Divine in the Bible, then perhaps that is the most reasonable understanding of God we can hope for.
Stevenson ends the interview with the words of a child:
“Omni: Has your work influenced your own attitudes toward life and death?
Stevenson: I think so. I wouldn’t claim to be free of the fear of death, but it is probably less in me than other people. These children sometimes provide reassurances to adults. We’ve had two or three incidents of children going to, let’s say, a woman who has lost her husband and is inconsolable and saying, ‘You shouldn’t be crying. Death isn’t the end. Look at me. I died and I’m here again.’ ”
That is the attitude I hope to attain in my life now, without fear of criticism or reprisals. Perhaps that is unrealistic; certain attitudes will not change, and I cannot force academia or my own parents, for that matter, to accept that consciousness continues or reappears after death. Some battles are simply not worth fighting; sooner or later, those who find these notions hogwash will see for themselves . . . if they remember what they used to think.
For now, it’s enough for me to see people as versions of souls in development. It’s fascinating, actually, to find an explanation for who people are. Identity has taken on a whole new meaning for me, as something that is far more complicated than we ever understood. The mystery that parents feel when they stare at a child and wonder “WHO ARE YOU” makes sense in the context of “who WERE you”. We may never know for sure who they were, who I was, who you were, but the more complicated and inexplicable aspects of your existence, of your identity, might be perfectly understandable if we could only remember.
For better or for worse, most of us do not remember and cannot remember; I believe that the information is stored somewhere, but it is inaccessible for most of us. I suppose Stevenson is right about not knowing as a blessing; the ability to fully access all those memories might drive us insane in this life, or prevent us from moving into the future. For someone like me, who lives to dig up mysteries and examine them, this ‘forgetting’ feels more like a curse.
—Kirsten A. Thorne