Before I was five, that is, before I went to school and began to develop personality, I knew quite definitely that I had lived before. I knew that I hadn’t always been William Page, and that there was something bigger behind William Page, and that this bigger part had lived as other people. It wasn’t a passing thought, or a one-time realization. It was an indelible sensation. It was piece of knowledge that I possessed and that I tried, not very successfully, to examine. I didn’t know anything about who I had been or how many times I had lived, and I didn’t have any memories of past lives. But I knew that I had been part of other families, that I had had other friends, and that I had looked at the world through different eyes. That I had come from nothing, and brought nothing to this life, made no sense to me at all. With the certainly of a child, I knew that I have lived before.
Eventually I came to ignore these feeling and perceptions because they weren’t connected to anybody or anything in my day to day life. They were unnecessary. But later, when I began to practice the fourth way and study various esoteric ideas, the theory of reincarnation resonated with me because of these childhood memories.
The theory of reincarnation solves a number of problems or issues, but it also adds a whole set of new problems. Much of the injustice in the world can be explained by different lives. For instance if we assume that we only have one life, it seems very unfair that certain lives are cut short by disease or accident. How can a person who dies in childhood or adolescence be expected to develop a connection to higher centers? But if we have many lives, then one may be short and another long, so that in the end there is a kind of balance or fairness. On the other hand, as Gurdjieff pointed out, if you know that you have many lives, it may encourage an attitude of procrastination and laziness; you may even give up on your present life and live in hope that the next will be better.
If you tell him (a man) about repetition, it will only increase his sleep. Why should he make any efforts today when there is so much time and so many possibilities ahead—the whole of eternity? ~ George Gurdjieff
This quote is a response to Ouspensky’s questions about recurrence. Recurrence is a sister idea, which I will not go into here because it is a more complicated to explain. For the purposes of this discussion, the main thing to understand about recurrence is that it compliments rather than contradicts reincarnation.
One of the most obvious implications of reincarnation is that it can only exist as a valid theory if there is a part of us that survives the death of the physical body. Otherwise every new life would be a clean slate.
From the point of view of esotericism reincarnation or recurrence needs to exist because one life is not enough to create a permanent connection with higher centers. In other words one life is not enough to create an astral body that can live independent of a physical body.
It would be of iniquitous proportion to draw an eternal reward in consequence of so short a life. ~ Montaigne
There are many different theories about how many lives are necessary. Nine is a number that seems to be popular, but then I’ve read authors who claim that it requires as many as ten-thousand. There is also a theory that it takes thousands of lives to get to the point where you begin to recognize that beneath the surface of life there are deeper possibilities, and that once you begin to see this, you will attract people and knowledge that will be able to help you. Another idea connected with this is that once you begin to find evidence that it’s possible for you to create a connection to higher centers, then, at that point, you only have a short number of lives (like nine) to evolve. I doubt there is a set number of lives needed create a soul. Creating consciousness is governed by natural laws and principles, not by rules.
Memory of past lives is said to be possible, but it must be understood that this memory does not exist in the body or in the mind or even in the emotions. The only true way to remember past lives is to have a near permanent connection with the being lived in those lives, in other words a connection with the consciousness that was developed in past lives. Even given the possibility of a permanent working of higher centers the knowledge of past lives would not be given automatically. The question you have to ask yourself is this: if you had a permanent connection with higher centers, why would you want to use that gift to explore past lives? It would be like any other endeavor. In other words, it would take your time and energy. Historically most spiritual figures have chosen to explore more compassionate and fruitful endeavors like teaching, healing, writing, and the arts. For instance Gurdjieff, as far as we know, didn’t concern himself with his past lives.
Also it has to said that in general people who give you dates and names about their past lives are either lying or in imagination. When memories of past lives bleed through into this life, they are just that: memories or images. They don’t automatically come with dates and names. More or less memories of past lives are remembered in the same way that suppressed memories in this life are remembered. Also from my own experience the types of memories that are remembered (without a concerted effort) are traumas or highly emotional events. This is so because it is traumas and emotional events that evoke high centers and it is higher centers (probably the higher intellectual center) where these memories are available.
There are many reason why memories are not remembered. Physical life is confusing enough without having the extra stress of dealing with lost relationships, unresolved traumas, and death experiences from past lives. Most people find it difficult enough to resolve of the traumas of their present life. To be flooded by memories of past lives would be an overwhelming burden. Besides, in theory the themes of your present life will truthfully reflect the challenges and aspiration set up in past lives.
Something to consider about your future lives is that they may not be in your future; they may be in your past. The sequence of historical time is a limitation of the mind and the physical body; it is the way we perceive. From the point of esotericism the universe must already exists in its entirety. So, really, there is no reason that we need to live out our lives in order of their historical appearance. In other words there is no reason why the life you are living now in the twenty-first century will not be followed by a life in ancient Greece or in Victorian England. You live your lives when you are ready for them; in other words when your being is ready to meet and transform the challenges and difficulties set forth by that life.
We can assume certain things about past lives without finding specific memories. For instance it is very likely that we all have had both male and female incarnations, and that we have had more lives where we have been poor than lives where we have been rich. This is just statistics. It also seems likely that we will attract lives that correct our misconceptions. For example, if you are unsympathetic or intolerant of a particular race or religion in this life, you may be born into that race or religion in order to learn to understand that religious or ethnic point of view. This assumes that you are evolving or ascending towards consciousness. Descent is also possible. In descending souls prejudice becomes more and more fixed and the mind becomes more and more limited. Plato suggests that humans can descend into animals, and that animals can ascend to be men.
The soul which obtained the twentieth lot chose the life of a lion, and this was the soul of Ajax the son of Telamon, who would not be a man, remembering the injustice which was done him in the judgment about the arms. The next was Agamemnon, who took the life of an eagle, because, like Ajax, he hated human nature by reason of his sufferings. ~ The Republic (Book 10)
There is another idea that there are only a certain number of human souls and that when the population on earth expands beyond that specific number, humans begin to be born with animal souls and carry animal characteristics into human life. In literature humans are very often compared to or made to act like animals. (Some of Shakespeare’s plays immediately come to mind.) Even in everyday conversation we can say that someone is like a snake or a dog or a wolf or a pig. If this theory is true, these characterizations may be more accurate than we know.
Another aspect of reincarnation that is not generally understood is that a life is a role that we play and that each life is potentially played by different souls. Again we are hampered by our idea of time and the universe. As long as we think of the universe as unfolding along a single irretrievable line of time, there are many ideas that will remain incomprehensible. When we start to think in terms of the universe recurring, we can begin to see that it would be wasteful if ascending souls had to replay roles which had taught them everything they needed to learn. From a spiritual perspective ascending souls need to move on to new challenges. This means that in the next reincarnation the role would be open to a soul who needed to learn the same or similar lessons.
The universe is wildly extravagant when it comes to unconscious life. A tree may produce thousands of seeds and yet only a few actually grow into new trees. We don’t know how many planets the universe has produced, but from what we can observe only a very few are capable of supporting cellular life. What I am suggesting here is that the universe is constructed such in a way that it is willing to waste enormous unconscious resources to produce a few higher forms of life. The influences that seed unconscious life are almost unlimited, but conscious influences—influences having to do with growth and development of higher centers—are not wasted. If a spiritual leader or a great artist plays their role and learns all that that role has to offer, it would be wasteful for them to have to repeat it. But since that role recurs and since it exists in the history of our cause and effect, it must be played by someone else. And if it was played with a connection to higher centers before, it will need to be played with a connection to higher centers when it recurs. Rembrandt cannot paint his painting without higher centers; it was one of the causes that made his paintings great. So if his soul has moved on to other challenges, another soul must step in and be Rembrandt. What this means is that there are conscious roles; that is, roles that are designed to bring a soul to permanent consciousness. It also means that there have been many Rembrandts. By analogy, we can understand this on our level through the example of a stage play. For instance, we know there have been many Hamlets. And even though the lines are always the same and the play always ends in the same way, each actor brings something different to the part. We can also see that it would be unprofitable for an actor to play Hamlet over and over again. (Recurrence.) The role of Hamlet needs a certain age and emotional maturity. An older, more mature Hamlet would be beyond the challenges set forth by the conflicts of the play.
The obvious benefit of reincarnation is that it gives the soul many different types of experiences. Consciousness needs expansiveness. Still it would be unwise to depend too much on the possibilities of future lives. All our possibilities exist now, in this life, in this moment. For example, it has become popular for people who believe in reincarnation to also believe that they will be able to work out unresolved relationships with their family and friends by reincarnating with them in future lifetimes. There may be some truth to this, but it shouldn’t be counted on. Since the idea in the end is to escape the cycle of reincarnation, the best attitude to take is to try to resolve conflicts here in this life by paying off emotional debts and transforming feelings of bitterness and anger. When you begin to think of yourself as living many lives, it makes sense to try to enter your next incarnation free of the debris of the life you are living now. In other words it makes sense to live each moment with a presence that is greater than the fears, jealousies, and desires created by that life. It also makes sense to see as much of your life as possible through the lens of higher centers because it only those memories that have the potential to survive; everything else dies with the body.