How can one come to a certainty about something as seemingly nebulous and intangible as reincarnation? "Prove it to me, show me the 8x10 coloured glossies," says the sceptic. Actually, the glossies exist, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. First of all, in order to know about something, it is a prerequisite that you want to know about something. It is not possible to know about something you don't want to know about, because of the mind's amazing capacity for denial. We can experience any tragedy, and the natural ability of the mind to go into shock can prevent us from knowing it, both physically and mentally. This ability can be called forth to meet any challenge, including a challenge to one's world paradigm.
So, let's assume the reader is not simply reading with a combative mind, but really wants to know. What, then, are the avenues, the ways of knowing? For convenience, I'm breaking them into five categories: 1) memories and direct experience, 2) scientific research, 3) what I'll loosely term "detective methods," 4) philosophy and intellectual inquiry, and 5) authority, or believing someone else who one is convinced does know. Each of these subjects could and does fill volumes, so this is simply going to be an overview, and I apologise for the length of it even so.
1) Memories and Direct Experience
Direct experience of reincarnation most often comes in the form of memories in childhood (i.e., experienced as a child or reported to you by your child), dreams, and in a sense of recognition, often mutual, with another person. Although there are no statistics compiled as yet, Carol Bowman, who has studied this phenomenon as it occurs among American children, suggests that it is fairly common, if not universal. The reason it isn't recognised and reported more often, is that parents don't know what they're seeing, and because children lose the memories after about seven years of age and thus usually don't continue to talk about it at an age where their opinion is taken seriously. Judging by three years' worth of correspondence with a cross-section of "experiencers," repeating dreams immersing the dreamer in a vivid landscape of a past-life are also relatively common. But people usually keep this kind of thing to themselves, lest their sanity be called into question.
The sense of recognition, including mutual recognition, deserves special mention. This recognition goes very deep, and can be either positive or negative. Instant friendships or romantic relationships are formed on the first meeting; people relate to each other as though they had years of history together. Instant enmity can arise also, or a strong feeling that one owes the other person something, or that one fears them for some unexplained reason. All of these experiences may be past-life memories breaking through into the present life.
Another form of direct experience, which appears to be more rare, is full-sensory flashbacks. The person may vividly re-experience a brief scene from a past life in all its intensity, complete with colours, smell, emotions, and sensations. These types of experiences are all spontaneous, sometimes triggered by encountering a person, a situation, or a sensation such as a distinctive smell. Past-life memories can also be induced, as through hypnosis or certain types of therapy techniques. Sometimes these memories can be brief glimpses, and often they are mixed in with fantasy and imagination. However, occasionally these techniques can trigger the same kind of vivid, realistic flashback that a few people have spontaneously. Despite the scepticism surrounding hypnosis-induced past-life memories, some of these memories have been verified, and thus the entire matter can't be dismissed as suggestibility. Inasmuch as it's important to know when an author is writing from personal experience and when the material is second-hand, suffice it to say that I have had glimpses of a past life in a dream, once through hypnotic regression, once through non-hypnotic therapy techniques, and on three occasions, very brief flashback experiences while feeling a deep sense of recognition for another person. Certainly not as extensive as some people have reported, but enough to know from my own experience that it's real. I have also spoken personally with people who have had more prolonged and more detailed experiences.
2) Scientific Research
The scientific research into reincarnation rests almost entirely on the work of Dr. Ian Stevenson and his colleagues. Dr. Stevenson has painstakingly studied children, mostly in India and the Middle East, but occasionally elsewhere, who show evidence of remembering what is usually their most-recent lifetime. When I say evidence, I mean very solid evidence, gathered with very good science. In a typical case, a very young child might start complaining that he or she wants to go home, doesn't belong with this family, and remembers as many as 30 or 40 details which are later verified. The child acts appropriate to the previous personality, even when severely punished for it. When the identity of the past-life person is determined, say, in a neighbouring village, and the child is taken there, he recognises and acts appropriately toward his old family. There's much more, but I would refer the reader to his books, including "20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation" to get the full impact of these studies. Dr. Stevenson will only say his findings are "suggestive," but the evidence is so overwhelming the real question is how can it be so thoroughly ignored by mainstream science.
3) Detective Methods
Dr. Marge Rieder, a hypnotherapist, is probably the foremost researcher using these methods. I use the phrase "detective methods" loosely, because she is after "just the facts, ma'am," as she says, which she fearlessly pursues wherever the evidence takes her. She is not, for example, convinced that past-life memories are primarily about reincarnation. For one thing, she sees evidence in her work that people under hypnosis not only can tell you about how things were (things were subsequently verified), but also how they *currently are*--obviously involving some degree of psychic perception. In her Millboro study (focusing on Millboro, VA), she hypnotised a group of people in California who, under hypnosis, had very detailed memories of living, and knowing each other, in this small town toward the end of the US Civil War. Dr. Rieder took the unusual step of hypnotising people together, and in a deep trance state, they would start relating to each other as though they were their former personalities. Many things said under hypnosis in this study were subsequently verified. In fact, both Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Rieder have already provided the "8x10 glossies" the sceptic asks for.
Another person who has used detective methods is literally a detective. Robert Snow is head of the homicide department of the Indianapolis police department. He underwent a hypnotic regression session on a dare, from a co-worker who had seen it used in child molestation cases. After 45 minutes of experiencing nothing except an aching backside, suddenly he was plunged into one of the vivid flashbacks described earlier in this article, where he experienced full tactile sensation and yet never lost the experience of being in the hypnotist's office. His book, "Looking for Carroll Beckwith," describes the third of three past-life experiences he had in that session and how he tried his best to disprove their validity using standard police detective methods. Instead, he ended up proving 26 of 28 provable points as recorded on the audiocassette he made of the session.
4) Philosophical Arguments
This is obviously too big a topic to delve into at length. However, one example will suffice to give the idea. The case for reincarnation is often advanced by referring to the law of conservation of energy, and by pointing out that nature moves in cycles rather than in a straight line. Anyone who has studied ecology understands this, and through increasing environmental awareness, the principle has become widely known. Water, for example, changes shape from air-borne moisture, to rain, to rivers or lakes, and back to air-borne moisture. This "recycling" model is logically applied to the process of reincarnation. Sceptics can always shoot down any philosophical argument, especially if they are willing to engage in sophistry and throw in some fashionable derision (which they will typically do if backed into a corner). A philosophical investigation is extremely useful for the serious inquirer, but basically useless for convincing anyone who doesn't want to know.
By authority I mean, relying on someone else's opinion, out of faith in that person's knowledge. The type of authority I consider most significant is faith in someone else's direct experience. In this broad sense, your child can be an authority on reincarnation, if she tells you about how she died in a past life and you believe her, because you know she doesn't make up stories and had no opportunity to learn about the subjects she's talking about. However, there are two kinds of authority that have most influenced a belief in reincarnation in the West--psychics, and spiritual teachers from the East.
There are quite a few psychics who claim to be able to "read" past lives. Based on my limited personal experience, they are accurate some percentage of the time. I arranged and videotaped a psychic reading given for Jeff Keene, who has memories of being Confederate General John B. Gordon. He also has memories, derived both spontaneously and through a form of meditation, of a more recent lifetime as a British special forces officer during World War II. At the time I booked the reading, I had already read Keene's manuscript describing his memories of both lifetimes. The account of the second lifetime was much less detailed, but there was enough information to know that he had been what was called a "Fucillier" and had been dropped behind enemy lines in Germany en route to France. The psychic was given absolutely no information about Keene other than his name and birth date, and the camera was turned on. After her "invocation," the psychic immediately began describing Keene in a uniform crawling on the ground with a gun in wartime. She described the terrain, and then further explained, "This is in another country. You're either in France or Germany, somewhere there--and boy, do I feel like it's France." (see Jeff Keene's page for complete streaming video of this session)
As I stood there filming, I immediately remembered the paragraph in his manuscript relating to the Fucillier. Keene's manuscript (again, this was written by him and read by me before the session), reads in part: "I remember thinking (while riding in a military airplane), 'I'm not part of the crew, they don't even know who I am or what I am. All they know is they are dropping me over Germany. I am going to France by way of Germany.'"
The statistical chances of a psychic hitting this close with NO prior information, as her very first utterances in the session, are very slim. From what I could gather from this and other psychics, the information is actually obtained through disincarnate spirits who have access to some kind of "database" in their present condition, not unlike an ethereal "Internet." But my impression is also that the information coming from psychics about past lives is a mixed bag, so that you don't know what to believe. Beyond that issue, it's difficult to determine which psychics are genuine. If I had the money, and I wanted to seriously try this method, I'd have several readings given by several different psychics, and compare notes, taking care not to give them any prior information about myself at all. If several psychics hit on the same theme or themes, it probably would have some validity. Incidentally, I did videotape two blind readings (no information given by me ahead of time) for Jeff Keene, and several themes such as leadership ability came up in both, including the suggestion by the second psychic that Jeff had been someone in authority "like a general." However, the Fucillier life did not appear in the second reading, which was a numerology reading focusing more on present-life issues than on past-lives.
Finally, there have been no small number of teachers and gurus from India and elsewhere coming to the West in the last 100 years or so. A handful are genuine; the vast majority simply have second-hand knowledge. I have spent a lifetime studying this area and I feel I can point with confidence to about 9 or 10 of these teachers I believe were genuine. But I would be unable to prove my conclusions to anyone else. Nonetheless, these teachers claim to have verified reincarnation from their own personal experience, and furthermore, to understand its larger place in the fabric of life. This is really the royal road to understanding reincarnation, because the Eastern teachings are much more advanced than our current state of knowledge. However, the entire matter rests with whether the authority you choose really knows or is just guessing from second-hand knowledge. Some of the pretenders know they are pretending, while many of them have convinced themselves. Either way you run the risk of getting flawed information, just as you do with psychics.
Scriptures--which after all are mainly the written record left by an authority and codified by their followers--also provide information on reincarnation. Some, like the Bhagavad Gita, are quite explicit, while the Christian New Testament has only retained a few veiled or indirect references. The Gita, for example, says: "Just as the dweller in this body passes through childhood, youth and old age, so at death he merely passes into another kind of body. The wise are not deceived by that."
In the Gospel of John, at the beginning of Chapter 9, is found the following story: "And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents; but that the works of God should be made manifest in him."
Obviously, the only way the man could have been thought to cause his own congenital blindness by sinning is if he had sinned in a previous lifetime. Thus the question put by the disciples clearly shows they considered reincarnation a plausible explanation. In His answer, Jesus does not rebuke them for suggesting it--thus demonstrating that Jesus was aware of the doctrine and presumably did not consider the theory, itself, to be in error. Rather, He offers a third explanation for this instance, that the situation was somehow set up ahead of time for Jesus to be able to cure the man. It is commonly accepted, among reincarnationists and those who study the afterlife, that people in the state between incarnations do have choices about their conditions in their upcoming incarnation, so a plausible explanation for this scripture from the reincarnational point of view would be that the man chose to be blind so that Jesus could cure him and thus glorify God.
I do not personally know of any references to reincarnation in the Koran, but you only have to turn to the mystical Sufi's such as Rumi to find clear references to it. Buddhist scriptures are quite explicit about reincarnation, but have a slightly different take on it than the popular conception, since they do not believe there is any such thing as a single entity which continues through time, any more than it is the same flame which continues to burn in a candle, except as we conceptualize it to be the same flame. Like the elephant being examined by the blind men in the Hindu teaching fable, all of these scriptures are probably correct in their particular point of view as expressed through their particular culture.
In the final analysis, even knowing through faith in an authority is probably based on some personal experience relating to that authority. It is very difficult to believe in something you've had no experience of. A sceptic may and should question it. But when I looked into a person's eyes and saw her face change in my mind's eye and become very Irish, and I knew she was someone dear to me, a relative like a cousin, and I suddenly had an upwelling of emotion, started crying (and ordinarily I can't cry even if I want to) and couldn't help blurting out, "I thought I'd never see you again!"--when I experienced this first-hand, there was no question in any corner of my mind or heart that it was a real experience of a past life. It's for me to know and anyone else to take as they will.
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