The title of this post is a purposeful riff on the title of my previous posts that discussed the possibility that beings from another planet (or planets) visited Earth in the past. This post, however, is of a decidedly more metaphysical nature.
Every major religion (and perhaps every religion), past and present, holds as one of its central tenets that some form of consciousness survives physical death. The idea is universal enough that I don’t think I need to give any examples. For now, let’s just assume all these religions are right.
Certainly there is some anecdotal evidence to support the idea, such as the many documented cases of people reporting near-death-experiences (NDEs). (Actually, in the name of accuracy, they should be called “death experiences,” because the people are clinically dead — for a while.) Not everyone believes in their veracity, but there are enough cases where people have been revived and have related information they couldn’t possibly have known, had their consciousness not traveled to a distant location when they were dead, that it is difficult to discount the concept out of hand.
Obviously, in order for consciousness to survive death, there has to be a “soul” or “spirit” or whatever you might want to call it. The great eastern religions maintain that upon leaving the body the soul either joins the universal soul (Taoism) or else reincarnates, coming back to the world in some form time and time again (Buddhism, Hinduism). The three major monotheistic religions (Islam, Judaism, Christianity) maintain that you get one shot. One life, one chance to make good, then it’s heaven or hell, depending on the choices you make.
What evidence is there for that? None, really. No one has ever come back from a NDE to say “Whoa! I hooked up with Saint Peter and even though I couldn’t understand what he was saying (I think he was speaking Aramaic or something), heaven looks really awesome!” Or, “Yikes! the dude really does have horns and a forked tail! Man I am going to church from now on!” No, we simply have to take the word of the religious texts and the clergymen who interpret them for us (setting aside for now the idea that this dogma is one of the ways these religions maintain control over their adherents).
On the other hand, there is considerable evidence that we come back to this world repeatedly, living a different life in a different body each time. There are numerous anecdotal accounts of people recalling past lives under hypnosis, or having true deja vu experiences at places they’ve never been before, or waking up from a brain injury speaking a different language fluently. There are also well-documented cases of young children knowing intimate details about people they’ve never met and distant places they’ve never even heard of, much less visited. These are things they could not possibly have known in their current lives. The evidence here is compelling, but it’s still anecdotal, and from a scientific standpoint anecdotal evidence is really no evidence at all.
Fortunately, there is actually scientific evidence (or, at least, evidence collected through the scientific method). A few decades ago, a psychologist named Helen Wambach began using past life regression as a therapeutic tool, not because she was particularly interested in it or believed it was real, but because she found it useful for helping her patients. However, she found herself intrigued by the compelling and detailed stories her patients were recounting. She also found it surprising that none of the patients she hypnotically regressed claimed to have been famous or important people. If the past life stories were fantasies, as critics claimed, Wambach expected her patients to contrive elaborate stories about being kings or otherwise historically important figures. Instead, the lives they described were mundane and unassuming. Intrigued by this, she decided to apply the scientific method to past life regression, to see if there was any truth to these stories of reincarnation.
There are certain things we know about the past, from biology, history, and archeology. We know that the ratio of men to women has remained a fairly constant 1:1 through time. We know the kinds of foods people ate in different parts of the world, and how that changed over time. We know what clothes they wore, from animal skins to rough cloth to finely woven fabrics. We know what tools they used. In the evolution of eating utensils, for instance, the fork started with two tines, went to three tines decades later, and finally to the four tines we see most often today. All of these things are verifiable.
In her study, Dr. Wambach hypnotized people not individually but in groups of ten or fifty or even a hundred. By the end of the study, she had hypnotized thousands. These were people from all walks of life and from all over America, all of them strangers to each other. And she didn’t just have them tell their past life stories. In fact, she wasn’t really interested in their stories. Instead, for each time period she took them to, she asked simple, mundane, testable questions. What is your sex? What is the color of your skin? What are you eating? What utensils are you using? What are you wearing? What kind of structure are you living in? At the end of the study she collated the data and compared them to the historical and archeological record. And they matched.
In their current lives, like most of us, few of her subjects knew much, if anything, about these mundane facets of history. Who knew how the fork evolved over time? I certainly didn’t. And there was no way for all those thousands of strangers from all over the country to have colluded with each other, over the course of years, in order to provide Wambach with the exact same answers to these questions for each historical period. Nor was it possible for them to discuss their answers with each other ahead of each session, not only because they had never met, but also because no one knew what the questions would be, and no one except Dr. Wambach knew what time periods she would be researching at each session.
For me, this is compelling evidence. Intrigued by the evidence in her book, I had myself hypnotically regressed, and I experienced snippets of lives that were as real as the one I’m living now. Yes, I have come to believe that reincarnation exists.
Unfortunately, it raises an uncomfortable question: If we live multiple lives, as both men and women, at different times and places, and as members of different races, then who exactly are we?
If our consciousness does return to the physical world time and time again to inhabit different lives, does that make us extraterrestrial parasites, inhabiting and manipulating helpless humans like something out of Star Trek? Or are we symbionts that need human vitality for our existence, and in return we provide our hosts with consciousness, conscience, and motivation? Again, straight out of Star Trek.
Or are we instead part of a universal consciousness, complicit in the development and evolution of life, creating sentient life forms so we can leave the spiritual world and experience the physical?
Of these three possibilities, only the last one seems makes any sense to me. If we were parasites or symbionts, why would we enter a body (or stay in one) that was doomed to live a life of misery and pain? However, if our short physical lives are really only a small part of a much larger existence, well, it would be as though we were actors going on stage, and actors sometimes play some heart-wrenching parts. But then the question is: Why? Why do we bother?
For that, I have no answer.
For those who are interested, Dr. Wambach’s book is titled Reliving Past Lives: The Evidence Under Hypnosis. It’s long out of print, but you can still find used copies online.