This is an extract from my just-published book, From Depression to Contentment: A self-therapy guide.
I will now demonstrate that reincarnation occurs. I will show that it is no more a matter of belief than, say, the adaptive value of sickle-cell anaemia. For millions of people, me included, it is based on personal experience. As I’ve described in Ascending Spiral, in 2007 I recovered memories from five past lives. More recently, I exchanged hypnotic past life regression with a colleague in Scotland, via video conferencing. She recovered a couple of past lives, and so did I. However, going through the exercise, I heard a voice that was not a voice, but a thought that was not my thought: “It is only spending time.” This told me that the lives I recalled in 2007 were the only ones I needed to know, in order to do my work in this life.
Why is reincarnation a wonderful tool for achieving contentment?
Because it allows us to learn from experience, to progress in spiritual development, to gain from suffering. This is why I titled my story “ascending spiral.” We go up and down, forward and back, but over a lifetime, most people grow and improve in some ways. Extend that for many lives, with lessons from one life influencing others, and you have inevitable overall growth. I make sense of our world by considering us to be caterpillars feeding on the green leaves of experience, until at last we graduate into butterflies. That is the state of enlightenment, when we can get off the wheel of life. It is when we have learned all the Lessons we can learn, the final one being the one from Jesus, of unconditional, universal love for all.
I’ll explore the implications for living after reviewing some of the evidence.
The evidence for reincarnation
Buddhist beliefs contain a genuine paradox about reincarnation. Because all is One, there is nothing separate that can be born again, that continues beyond death. In fact, the entire material universe, including human bodies, is an illusion, so also, there is nothing to reincarnate into. Several versions of Buddhism are very strident about this. At the same time, if you die with unresolved issues, you’re required to return into a new life in order to resolve them. Other Buddhist writings take this for granted.
In my essay, Buddhism for Christians, I describe the wave analogy that explains this. Do read it. Here, instead, I’ll look at the scientific evidence concerning reincarnation.
Can there be scientific evidence for such a concept?
Yes. First we need to examine what “scientific evidence” means.
There is no proof in science.
I have a hunch about something. To test this hunch, I try to DISPROVE it. I set up a way of gathering information that has a chance of showing my guess to be wrong. In science, this is called the null hypothesis.
If my procedures reject the null hypothesis, then my hunch is supported.
I am not perfect, and my preconceptions could have biased my results. So, there is need for others to be able to repeat my study, perhaps with some variations. If they agree with me, that’s cross-validation. My hunch is now a theory.
From that theory, we need to make further predictions, different from the original one. We try to disprove these too. If we can’t, then the theory is supported. This is “converging evidence.” The more unrelated, different lines of evidence support the theory, the stronger it is.
OK, on that basis, there is strong scientific support for reincarnation. Two examples below will meet the strictest standards. Another one is “hearsay:” people’s opinions, which is inherently not scientific evidence, but adds support to the other two. (This includes me telling you that I’ve had past life recalls, without objective, confirmable evidence. However strongly and honestly I believe what I say, it could be my imagination, or wishful thinking.)
Hypnotic past life regression
Check out the work of Peter Ramster.
Peter was a psychologist in Sydney, Australia, who found that some of his hypnotic subjects slipped into past lives (most hypnotists find this, me included). He did something new: got the person to make testable claims. For example, one woman felt herself to be a male medical student a long time ago, and drew the interior layout of the medical school in Glasgow, Scotland.
Peter got a research grant. He took four such clients to Europe to check each of the four claims.
They found that the Glasgow medical school building had an entirely different layout. But… a local historian had old blueprints of the building, before extensive renovations. They EXACTLY matched the drawings the woman had made in Sydney. No one had looked at those old blueprints for many years.
Two of the other three cases were also exact matches. The fourth had slight inaccuracies, but was substantially correct.
Given that in the hypnotic trance this lady felt being a man who had this knowledge, I can’t think of any other explanation than that she’d lived as a medical student in Glasgow, before the building’s renovation.
Children’s past life recalls
The best known investigation into past lives is that of a team at the University of Virginia, that’s been examining testable “odd” claims by children under seven years of age since the 1950s.
Ian Stevenson was the first Director of the institute, and wrote many books about their research. Given the skepticism of western culture regarding reincarnation, he and his colleagues were super-conservative in their conclusions, and meticulous with their research techniques. In 2002, he retired, and Jim Tucker took over his role. Jim’s personal website lists all their publications, and is a fascinating place to visit.
The technique is to seek out little children who know things they should have no way of knowing, or can do things they shouldn’t be able to. For example, consider a three year old boy who keeps saying he is Bobby Jones the golfer, has a fascination with golf although his family has zero interest in the sport, and as he grows, he becomes a junior champion with a string of 22 wins in junior golfing contests. This is one of the cases in Jim’s second book, Return to Life.
The investigators interview the family, and get the child to make testable claims regarding which the family don’t have relevant knowledge. They then go looking for the evidence.
Jim’s first book, Life Before Life, is an absorbing read. When he wrote it, the team had 2500 cases in which, despite every attempt to explain the findings as being due to other causes, only one conclusion was possible: this child had lived a previous life.
As well as giving an overview of the research and its findings, Jim discusses 25 cases in detail. Some of these are reprints of articles in high reputation scholarly journals.
In preparation for writing this section, I lashed out and bought Jim’s second book, Return to Life. It is chattier, is in fact autobiographical, and is convincingly honest. When a case has doubtful features, he states them. It is less “scientific” and contains more speculation, perhaps because western culture has moved on and is more accepting of the possibility of reincarnation.
Chapter 4 is particularly convincing: a little boy with many verified memories of having been a pilot, shot down in the battle of Iwo Jima. I won’t repeat the details, but it is simply impossible to account for the story in any way apart from reincarnation. Similarly, Chapter 5 is a great detective story, in which we read the progression of the case, all Jim’s caveats and doubts — and the overall conclusion that little Ryan had to have been a person in Hollywood in the 1940s.
Return to Life is like a detective game. Jim presents evidence, and lets you draw your own conclusions about a case. He then discusses deeper issues: how are reincarnation and similar observations compatible with science? This part is 100% relevant to the reason I am covering reincarnation here. There is a side trip into an excellent common-language explanation of quantum physics, which I also find fascinating, and the detour is well worth it, even if physics is foreign country to you. Basically, modern physics demonstrates that the physical reality we feel around us is the creation of consciousness. This then makes sense of findings showing that there is an ongoing, nonmaterial part of a person that can move from life to life. The final conclusion is that all is One, and we apparent individuals are components of a Consciousness.
I thoroughly recommend reading either of these books.
Clinical death and out of body reports
One of my clients was a young woman who’d had many major operations. She told me that while anesthetized, she usually found herself looking at the hospital from outside. On occasion, she’d looked in through a window, watching them working on her body.
Another lady had died from pneumonia, but was revived. She has an unshakeable memory of sitting on a log near a creek in a forest clearing, with her long-dead grandfather comfortingly sitting beside her.
In the Preface to her book, Ortho-Bionomy: A path to self-care, Luann Overmeyer gives a vivid, very believable account of dying in a motorbike accident. She saw her body in the ambulance while her consciousness was above the vehicle. While she hadn’t been able to see auras previously, now each person wore a glow. She watched from up near the ceiling as her body was left alone in a room. One nurse walked in — and looked up at Luann. She told her to go back into her body. Luann did, and lived to become an expert in a field of healing.
There are thousands of such accounts. The most beautiful is by Yvonne Rowan, which was her contribution to my book on cancer. She has given me permission to reproduce it here.
To shorten this post, I have cut this lovely account. You can find it in Cancer: A personal challenge for only $5. Reading this book will benefit you, whether you suffer from cancer (yet), or not.
The trouble with such accounts from the scientific point of view is that they are unverifiable. However believable an account may be, it’s only someone’s honest opinion, and we humans are excellent at fooling ourselves.
Actually, Jim Tucker has cited several reports in which a person in this state made a verified claim. For example, one person unconscious on the operating table reported being out of body, and seeing his mother smoke a cigarette in the waiting room. That was the first cigarette of this middle-aged lady’s life, and was completely unexpected and therefore unpredictable.
Some people have spent a long time in a coma, perhaps kept alive by machines. They tell a story of being in contact with Someone, who doesn’t judge them, but requires them to relive their life from the end toward birth, experiencing the effect they’ve had on other people. When the effect was positive, the experience is strongly motivational for building on their strengths. When it was negative, the person will learn from it, and typically wants to make restitution.
This is the meaning of karma, which is not reward or punishment, but learning from past lessons like this, and setting up opportunities for the lessons the person chooses. This was my personal experience during my past life recalls.
Incidentally, you don’t need to die to deal with karma. I once acted negligently, and as a result a calf got terribly hurt. For years, I bore the guilt, and was sure I’d need to return as a calf to pay for this act. But a wise person asked, “What has been the effect on you?”
“I’ve been very careful since to avoid injury to any other animal.”
She explained, “You’ve learned this lesson, so you won’t need to learn it again.”
Reincarnation and suicide
Someone asked the Dalai Lama, what was the greatest regret of his life. He said, an old monk once came to him, asking to study a particular Buddhist discipline. The Dalai Lama gently explained that this needed to be started at seven years of age. In his current life, the old man couldn’t possibly do it. So, the man killed himself, presumably in the hope of being able to take the relevant path in the next life.
This cannot work. Suicide was such a debit on the man’s karma that after death, he was certain to require restitution for the act in the next life. Being denied the opportunity for learning this discipline is the only possible restitution.
The same goes for suicide for any reason, or no rational reason at all. It’s a way of running away, probably from the very lesson situations the person was born for. As with the processing of trauma, running away from it only prolongs it. Suicide never works to solve problems, only to have them repeat.
I have described two lines of evidence that give excellent scientific support for the existence of reincarnation. I haven’t read the studies about verified out of body experiences, but that’s probably a third line of support. If I were a defendant in a court of law, and my case depended on having the validity of reincarnation accepted, this evidence would be considered to prove it.
Implications for living
Life has inherent purpose. This is not the accumulation of wealth, power over others, or fame. It isn’t happiness or contentment. We are here in order to learn Lessons, life after life, progressing toward perfection. Those who reach that can get off the wheel of life. And since even the last life is a learning experience, we don’t need to live perfect, only to die perfect.
Several versions of Buddhism emphasise that “there is a Bodhisattva in everyone.” No matter what you have done in the past, there is a chance for you to achieve enlightenment, in this life.
Yes, this means you. (As I write, that little voice inside me says, “Yes, Bob, your readers, but of course not you!” I smilingly send him love, and ignore his opinion.)
Suffering is the spur to growth. Some of your suffering may well be restitution you’ve chosen for misdeeds or mistakes in past lives. Others may be your chosen lessons. You can identify them because your nose keeps being rubbed in the same lesson, time and again. This may be major, but can also be a small matter. Remember, on page 35, I talked about using clarifying questions with myself in order to minimise inappropriate reactions? When I do this, it works for me, but I keep forgetting. Often, I open my big mouth and needlessly hurt someone. Then new information comes in, and I have to bear the guilt of disobeying my own philosophy. (“Above all, do no harm. If you can, do good. If you can’t do good, change the situation until you can.”)
I’m in exactly this situation, right now. I bought something on eBay, and never received it. I made a complaint, and implied dishonesty on the vendor’s part. After several messages via eBay’s complaint system, my wife suggested where the item could have gone. I won’t go into the details, but she was right. The item WAS delivered, and had I done some detective-style thinking a few days after the due date, I could have avoided hurting another person.
Obviously, this is something I need to be mindful of in the future. When I have learned this Lesson, I’ll have become a better person.
Not everything negative is a karmic load. But whatever the reason for bad fortune, it gives you an opportunity to grow. Also, the bad fortune of another person gives you an opportunity to be helpful and compassionate, and that is the most important step toward enlightenment.
Check out the work of Peter Ramster.
Read one or both of Jim Tucker’s books, Life Before Life and Return to Life.
Regardless of whether you accept reincarnation as true or not, work on these questions: “Suppose it’s true. What are my chosen life lessons? How have I reacted to them in the past, and how will I do so the next time I have the opportunity?”