My beliefs about reincarnation have shifted and developed over the years, and remain rather tentative still. When I was young, my worldview was dictated by rationalism and skepticism, and I regarded belief in reincarnation (like belief in a heavenly afterlife) to be wishful thinking, a pleasant delusion by which some people sought to avoid the reality of death.
As I became more spiritual, my skepticism softened but still lingered. I appreciated that many people had had sincere experiences of past lives, or had experienced a strong sense of recognizing other people from past lives. I tended to think of their talk of past lives as a way of articulating those experiences and their meaningfulness. but I didn’t feel the any need to take such talk very literally.
A couple years ago, I attended a workshop in past-life regression and had an experience of a past life in India in the 1700s. It was quite vivid, and its relevance for me was clear and profound. I wouldn’t say that the experience “converted” me to being a true believer in reincarnation. I’m not really a true believer in much of anything; I tend to hold my beliefs lightly and with a bit of humor and humility, and to make use of whatever belief systems seem to be helping me along my way. My scientific training has left me with an appreciation that we’re always working with models of reality, even when we talk about them in a very literal, matter-of-fact way. The reincarnation model of human life is often a helpful one, as it gives us a context for understanding our present life and its lessons.
Many people work with a pretty simplistic picture of it, I think – a person dies and their essence departs and lands in a new baby, where it carries on pretty much intact, complicated only by social and biological pressures to “forget” what the previous life was about.
My own way of thinking about is somewhat more fluid than that. It seems to me that consciousness, or spirit (or whatever terminology you prefer) is transpersonal and undifferentiated; it permeates everyone and everything. Our sense of having an individual, personal consciousness is a convenience for us in going about the business of life, but is not the best way to think about consciousness when we are trying to mature and grow spiritually.
As embodiments of spirit, we collect personality, memories, and physical being around the spiritual core that we share with all things. I see us as little vortexes of consciousness, collecting bits and pieces of things that distinguish us from others and give us a sense of personal identity. Many of the world’s spiritual traditions teach that each of us possesses a layered consciousness or a hierarchy of bodies from the simplest spiritual essence to the full physicality of our biological bodies.
Just as our physical bodies are recycled by the Earth when we die, our spiritual bodies are also recycled. The central core, in fact, has never lost its connection with the One. But the experiences, memories, qualities of personality, knowledge, and understanding that give us a sense of individuality when we are alive somehow return to the mix for reuse as well.
It seems to me that those personal qualities seldom come back as a complete unit, packaged just like before. Rather, I would say that the characteristics most closely tied to our physicality and the circumstances of our life fall away most readily when we die, and our more spiritual qualities, such as accumulated wisdom and sense of connection and relationship, cling together longer. I think the recycling process is often a mix-and-match business. Each new child draws from many previous existences and from a range of qualities and characteristics. In a past-life experience, we identify one strand of our spiritual make-up and trace it back to a person who has gone before. Saying that the person we find that way is me, however, is an oversimplification of a reality that, to me, seems much richer and more fluid.
My wife, who is an animal communicator, recently encountered a cat whose personality divided after he died, to return in several different animals, each of which was a part of the original (and, of course, something new and unique as well). I would think this is often what it is like, and we just focus on a one-to-one model when we talk about reincarnation because it makes it easier for us to grasp and work with.
Just like the matter in our bodies can be reused in many different ways, our spiritual “stuff” can get recycled in lots of ways too.
I like this way of looking at it; it makes me appreciate the vastness and intricacy of my interconnection with other creatures, past, present, and future. We are all threads in a tapestry, weaving in and out, touching and touched.