Facts, Insights and Hypotheses on Reincarnation

(c) Copyright 1997, by Timothy Conway, Ph.D., compiled on the basis of theoretical work by philosopher Robert Almeder, Dutch psychologist Hans TenDam, American psychologist Helen Wambach, Jungian analyst Roger Woolger, philosopher Chris Bache, and others.

The notion of personal reincarnation has three foes standing against it in our culture: it is rejected by the reductionist, "scientistic" materialists; it is rejected by most Christian denominations; and it is rejected by certain Spiritualists whose spirit guides do not talk about the phenomenon.

Reductionists do well to read works by Robert Almeder and Robert Jahn (see Margins of Reality (1987/2009), which postulates a nonlocal aspect for consciousness, thus opening the door to the notion that consciousness can function beyond the limitations of brain and body). Christians will benefit by reading the classic work by an Anglican vicar and Professor of Philosophy at USC, Geddes McGregor, Reincarnation in Christianity (1978). And Spiritualists may read the several books by Joel Martin (from the late 1980s onward) about the acclaimed contemporary psychic medium, George Anderson, of New York, whose Catholic spirit guides (apparently St. Francesca Cabrini and St. Therese of Lisieux) tell him reincarnation is a reality for most souls.

Dutch psychologist Hans TenDam has pointed out in his excellent book Exploring Reincarnation (A.E.J. Wils, Tr., Arkana, 1990) that awareness of reincarnation has come to us from 6 sources: 1) sacred traditions, especially translations of Hindu & Buddhist texts, starting around 1820; supplemented by cultural anthropologists' findings of reincarnational beliefs in other cultures, such as indigenous African and American groups, the Druses, and others; 2) views/writings of certain spiritists (spiritualists who believe in reincarnation), on the basis of reports given by spirits "on the other side" through psychic mediums (e.g., Allan Kardec's The Spirits' Book, 1857); 3) views/writings of Theosophists and neo-"gnostics," such as H.P. Blavatsky, Annie Besant, C.W. Leadbeater, Rudolf Steiner, Lewis Spence, Max Heindel, from 1880 on; 4) research by mental health professionals using regression techniques (starting with Albert de Rochas in Paris in 1890s; followed by his successors, Alexander Cannon, an acclaimed psychiatrist of England, John Bjorkhem in Sweden, Denys Kelsey, Morris Netherton and Helen Wambach from the U.S., Joe Keeton of England, Arnall Bloxham of Wales, et al, including, more recently, Edith Fiore, Chet Snow, Roger Woolger, Brian Weiss, and Winafred Blake Lucas, all from the U.S.); 5) Edgar Cayce readings; 6) spontaneous recall of past lives, first popularly reported in the West by Joan Grant in 1957, then carefully investigated among children by Ian Stevenson and others from the 1960s on, and analyzed by Robert Almeder.

Roger Woolger tends to think that it is "soul mass," not "individual souls," that incarnates. He gives the analogy of the old car built from parts of other cars. (Woolger, Other Lives, Other Selves: A Jungian Discovers Past Lives, Doubleday, 1987, p. 332) This accords with the Buddhist doctrine of "anatta," or "not self," which views the reincarnational process as the continuance of "mind-stream" elements (e.g., the samskâras, or tendencies toward certain virtuous or nonvirtuous states of consciousness), not the continuance of some abiding "personality" entity through the lifetimes. Woolger and I, based on the insight of Hindu Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhist sages, would declare that all lives are present to the God-Self (Buddha Nature, Absolute Awareness), which does not Itself incarnate, but is, rather, the changeless witness to all the changing personalities that occur over lifetimes. This God-Self is the Open Matrix or Groundless Ground of Being, upon which all apparently separate "beings" play out their karmas.

Ian Stevenson estimates that 1 out of 1,000 children spontaneously remember a past life. Among the thousands of cases, researched by Stevenson and others in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Lebanon, and Turkey, cases have been found that involve accurate memory of details that could only have been known by the consciousness associated with that other life. The intermission between death in the previous life and birth in new life is usually between one and four years; an intermission of more than 12 years hardly ever occurs; Karl Muller's analysis of many reincarnation cases concludes similarly.

Some people might wonder, if reincarnation is real, why don’t we all recall past lives more easily from childhood? There are some very good reasons why it is probably better that we not remember our past lives: 1) too much confusion over who are one's parents, and distress for the current parents in being told by the child, "You're not my real parents"; 2) no abiding sense of "home," thus interfering with development of a stable personality; 3) painful memories of the ills that other persons have caused us in past lives, leading to grudges and resentment in this life toward those persons in their current incarnations; 4) excessive load of past trauma; 5) vocational confusion: past life memories could interfere with developing one’s “destined” path and talents in this life. For all the above reasons, we can be thankful to our Divine Source that we don't remember, or don't remember much, of our past lives. (T. Conway)

Eight alternative explanations have been suggested to account for past-life memories, advanced by researchers and skeptics: 1) deception (but this is true only in a very few cases); 2) fantasy, e.g., as compensation (this sometimes happens; yet fantasy cannot account for specific, verifiable memories from a past life, such as Bruce Kelly's memories under hypnosis of having been James Edward Johnston [b. 1921], working for the CCC in 1938, drowning on the U.S. Navy submarine U.S.S. Shark on Feb. 11, 1941, and other details, all of which were confirmed by subsequent research; moreover, Helen Wambach discovered that compensation is in most cases not a factor: the majority of past lives remembered are not exalting or exciting, but constraining and boring); 3) pseudo-recall, based on hidden memory, or cryptomnesia (this is true for more cases than might be thought, but ultimately cannot account for memories of past-life experiences that have not been written or talked about); 4) genetic memory (this is a nonsensical explanation, since no empirical data indicates that specific memories can be conveyed via the genes); 5) waking dream or psychodrama (like fantasy, this sometimes occurs, but cannot account for specific memories of detailed, verifiable situations); 6) the collective unconscious (this is Jung's hypothetical construct, and cannot account for detailed, verifiable memories; Jung himself believed in reincarnation, as Woolger has uncovered, a fact that had been suppressed by the Jung Institute); 7) ESP, e.g., telepathy or clairvoyance plus identification (this sometimes happens for psychics but is not a valid explanation for past life memories occurring to people who otherwise show no ESP ability); 8) obsession or possession, that is, inspiration or possession by the souls of the dead (this might be true for memories of one former lifetime, but is less likely for memories of a series of lifetimes).

In summary, none of these proposed explanations can singly or collectively account for the data as fully as the reincarnation-hypothesis can. (Ten Daam, p. 20-6)

"The success rate for inducing past-life recall [via the best regression techniques] varies between 70 and 90 percent." (TenDam, p. 370) Note that some regression techniques (e.g., Netherton's) do not use hypnosis, but work with symbolic resonances, deep massage, exaggeration of frequently uttered postulates, etc.

"Past-life memories seem to have two different modes of entry. The first level is similar to our normal memory. It seems to be subject to the same laws of association, forgetting and remembering, sublimation and shifting, and pseudo-memories as our present life memory. The other level is called the higher self in theosophical terms. On this level, memory is complete and objective. ... Distortions are more common in the first level of memory. ... A few obscure historically correct details do not prove that all other information is historically correct. Conversely, a few incorrect details do not prove that all other information is incorrect." (TenDam, pp. 371-2)

Past-life memories can take "different forms and varying degrees of completeness. 'Fragmentary memories' are feelings associated with a name, or impressions of a landscape, house [etc.] ... 'Episodic memories' contain a few clear snapshots, without information about the previous occurrences or the circumstances. In 'film memories,' episodes from past lives are strung together into a cohesive story of the most important and impressive situations in that life... 'Total memories' may contain every detail of a particular life. ... The memories are clear, and remain consistent when repeated. A rarer form of past-life recall are the 'panoramic memories' where [one] oversees his whole life as if he were surveying a wide landscape. Probably, such memories are identical with the first retrospect just after death." (TenDam, 371)

Past-life memories may be of quite pleasant experiences, or of more mundane times, or of painful, traumatic events. Traumas may be remembered in "chains," as themes occurring over lifetimes as repetition-compulsions, apparently as the result of not having mastered such virtues as forgiveness, courage, compassion, detachment, and so on. Woolger has found that Heraclitus' and Jung's notion of enantiodromia, or movement between opposites, is often involved. For instance, in one life a person is a victimizer, in the next life, a victim. Trauma chains have been called "engrams" by L. Ron Hubbard, and "COEXs" (systems of condensed experience) by Stan Grof. Roger Woolger prefers to use the old Sanskrit term from India, "samskâra," meaning "karmic residue," "habit pattern," "mental/emotional/volitional conditioned associations," or "binding likes and dislikes." (The term “samskâra” may also involve certain talents or virtues cultivated over prior lifetimes). Woolger (p. 142): "It is as though each of us is born with a portion of the unfinished business of humanity at large which it is our personal and karmic responsibility to complete in one way or another. Unless we bring to consciousness and detach ourselves from these latent compulsions, the past life content of our complexes will continue to drive us to repeat the circumstances and scenarios of old defeats, betrayals, losses, humiliations, violations, deprivations, injustices, and so on."

Regression therapy has been found to be highly effective in working with disorders such as phobias; allergies and asthma; anorexia and bulimia; chronic, atypical forms of psychosomatic disturbance; alcoholism and drug abuse; epilepsy; cancer; sadism and masochism. Certain birthmarks, handicaps, and physical features may be the result of traumatic events or psycho-somatic tendencies carried over from past lives. Woolger: "A surprising number of physical complaints do indeed have a past life story behind them which, when reenacted cathartically, can lead to substantial relief and often to quite rapid recovery." "Several past life scenarios may cluster around one theme or one part of the body." (Woolger, pp. 167, 182)

Helen Wambach, who successfully regressed 90% of her 1,100 subjects to 5 different lives each (the largest data-base yet for a regression therapist), explored the issue of preparations for incarnations. She found that 8% felt nothing during the time immediately before this incarnation; 11% were more resistant and more or less afraid; 55% had some hesitation; 23% prepared themselves actively; 3% were too hurried or "acted against advice." Many persons reported having a spirit-guide advisor, and of these, 60% had more than one advisor, or even a circle of advisors. Wambach found that of the people with prenatal memories in her regression work with them, 60% could answer her question about their aim in incarnating: 27% came into this life to help others and grow spiritually themselves; 26% came to acquire new experience as a supplement or correction; 18% came to be more social; 18% came to work out personal karmic relationships; 12% came for miscellaneous reasons. She found that 76% of her remigrants chose their sex, the other 24% apparently had no choice or paid no attention.

Concerning prenatal experiences, Wambach found that 11% of her remigrants joined the fetus somewhere during the first 6 months of the pregnancy; about 12% connected with the fetus at the end of the 6th month; 39% during the last 3 months; 33% descended shortly before birth; and 5% descended only shortly after birth. Wambach also found that only 11% of her remigrants felt themselves to be inside the fetus, 78% outside the fetus, and 11% felt that they were sometimes inside and sometimes outside the fetus. Most float in the proximity of the mother, connected to the fetus with an "etheric cord." (Netherton & Goldberg's work supports this idea of the soul hovering around the fetus.)

TenDam: "What does all this mean for the current discussion of abortion? A body is a house someone is stuck with for a whole lifetime. Abortion is destruction of this house while still under construction. Is this bad? First of all, this depends on the moment of destruction. The closer a house is to completion, the more its demolition is destructive and unsympathetic. Second, it depends on whether someone had applied for the house.... Third, it depends on the extent of someone's personal involvement in the design and construction of the house. If someone has concerned himself actively with genetic selection during fertilization, or with making it suitable for him or her personally, then a piece of one's work is destroyed.... Fourth, and this is the essential point, it depends on whether the prospective inhabitant of the house is already inside the house at the time of the demolition. This would not be demolition, but homicide, and of a crude sort.... So the question is whether the soul of the coming person is already connected, notably, whether it has descended (according to Wambach in about 10 percent of cases before the sixth month).... Abortion is only murder when you know there is someone inside. This is seldom the case. Still, tearing down a house without knowing if someone is inside, though short of murderous, is certainly coarse and barbaric. ... If you ever consider an abortion, then do it early. Address the person who is perhaps already present, and make your excuses. (TenDam, pp. 170-2)

Some children can still leave the body during the first year, with a kind of "adult consciousness" from the previous lifetime. Often, the baby face shows the previous adult personality. With most people, this adult consciousness with its paranormal abilities fades fairly quickly after birth, as the experiences in the new body make the soul's self-image conform to the new, infantile body. Normally some time during the third year the new self-awareness which actually belongs to this incarnation starts to remember itself. The lowest point of incarnation is in the period between the loss of the adult identity in the first hours, weeks, or months after birth, and the re-attainment of a new identity and self-awareness in around the third year. (TenDam, pp. 164-6).

Apparently any discarnate experiences—for instance, memories of time periods between earthly lifetimes—are saved in a separate, less accessible form of memory storage. But when these bardo (intermediate realm) memories/perceptions are accessed, they reveal much in common with Near-Death Experiences: for example, the phenomenon of floating beyond the physical body at death; moving into a beautiful light; being welcomed by one or more spirit guides who are Christ-like, charismatic figures of love; and meeting departed ancestors from that lifetime (many of whom, it seems, accompany us from lifetime to lifetime, albeit in different roles—sometimes as parent, sometimes as spouse, as sibling, as child, as friend or as acquaintance.)

Netherton has found that the unborn child tends to register the experiences of the mother, especially chronic emotions, as its own. More recent research indicates that the father's attitude toward the mother, as well as his attitude to the unborn child, are both picked up by the unborn child as part of his/her self-image.

Karl Schlotterbeck identifies 3 distinct memory tracks: 1) the psychic memory of the discarnate personality, which enters the body in the last months, during birth or just after birth; 2) the etheric memory, which is present from the beginning of a person's current physical lifetime, at first indistinguishable from the etheric body of the mother; and during the rest of the pregnancy exists as the immediate link with the psyche of the mother, and so functions as the channel for identification with the mother; and 3) the physical brain memory, active from about the 3rd or 5th month.

Woolger summarizes some conclusions from his work, in accord with the work of Grof and Netherton: "As infants, we are all conceived with pre-existent psychic dispositions or samskâras that are already laid down in the unconscious. These karmic residues latent in the unconscious are reactivated during pregnancy and birth by certain thoughts, feelings and events in the mother's experience, aided by whatever cast of characters—father, doctors, nurse, etc.—are involved during this period of time. While workers like Verney and Janov see intrauterine patterning as a powerful first cause of neurosis, past life therapy sees it as already karmicly prefigured which is to say, in past lives. So, for example, the child whose parents engaged in drunken fighting during pregnancy most likely will have past life issues concerning violence and possibly alcohol or drug addiction. ... The period of gestation from conception to birth is therefore one of the most important in the overall scheme of the personality. Not only is the fetal consciousness an uncritical observer and recorder of all the mother does, thinks, and feels, but it is also engaged in a sort of deep rumination over all the still-unfinished business of other lives. The contents of these ruminations will constitute his or her ongoing karmic post natum. These two streams of consciousness, unmediated by any discriminatory ego, form the matrix of the personality later to emerge." (Woolger, pp. 260-1)

TenDam's list of the benefits of believing in reincarnation: such a worldview helps improve the art of living; one gains a meaningful perspective—"we are going somewhere and coming from somewhere." There is awareness of a planned life course, life seems less arbitrary and coincidental. We know that learning and development never end—'up there' we evaluate, think and steer, 'down here' we put ourselves and our ideas to the practical test and we consolidate gain. We see that our body is not a prison, but a 'diver's suit' enabling us to operate 'down here.' We can trust that human relationships continue beyond death and birth. We realize that more advanced people help less advanced people and are helped by more advanced people. We learn to be considerate to others, to have more empathy. We learn acceptance, respect, and trust—in others and in ourselves. We develop responsibility. We see that differing lives bring different experiences—male, female, extrovert, introvert, poor, wealthy, meek, assertive, etc.. We learn to see with perspective, and we grow less dogmatic, prejudiced, racist, sexist. We gain more insight, deeper emotions, richer talents, more relatedness to others. We enjoy a greater sense of shared destiny. We see our children as newcomers on the front, people who have to find their own way, learn their own lessons, and make their own contributions. (pp. 378-9)

Philosopher Christopher Bache, in his fine book Lifecycles: Reincarnation and the Web of Life (NY: Paragon, 1991), shows the elegance of the reincarnation hypothesis in allowing for a more just view of the cosmos. With reincarnation, we are given sufficient time to unfold our spiritual evolutionary potential(s). This is simply not possible in a “one-time” appearance on earth. And, with reincarnation being a reality, we obviously have a much greater stake in humanity’s and Earth’s wellbeing.

The most prominent proponent for a reincarnationist position is the well-known philosopher, Robert Almeder, former editor of the prestigious academic journal American Philosophical Quarterly. Almeder posits a “minimalist” reincarnation hypothesis that, as he has persuasively shown in rebuttals to skeptics, rigorously stands up as the best explanation to fit the massive data analyzed by researchers Ian Stevenson and colleagues. This minimalist hypothesis holds:

There is something essential to some human personalities, however we ultimately characterize it, which we cannot plausibly construe solely in terms of either brain state, or properties of brain states, or biological properties caused by the brain and, further, after biological death this non-reducible essential trait sometimes persists for some time, in some way, in some place, and for some reason or other, existing independently of the person’s former brain and body. Moreover, after some time, some of these irreducible essential traits of human personality, for some reason or other, and by some mechanism or other, come to reside in other human bodies either some time during the gestation period, at birth, or shortly after birth.” (Robert Almeder, “A Critique of Arguments Offered Against Reincarnation,” Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 11, No. 4, Winter 1997, p. 502.; see www.scientificexploration.org/ for archives)


Further thoughts on our "soul-connections" with loved ones:

After all the evidence—quite convincing—is presented on the phenomenon of reincarnation, there remains one final, very troubling concern about reincarnation for most people: when we pass over into the subtle realm after death, will we be able to see our previously departed loved ones, or will they be "missing" from the subtle realms of light because they are now reincarnated in a new earthly embodiment?

George Anderson's saintly Catholic spirit guides have reassured him and his many clients that we need not worry about this, that there is an aspect of the soul-personality that remains eternally in the subtle realms, always available to any other soul, regardless of whether an aspect of that soul's totality has associated with a new earthly lifetime.

A helpful way of understanding this is to realize, in the first place, that we are never really "incarnated," in the sense of being stuck in-carne, "in the meat" of a physical body. As Spirit or Pure Awareness, we always transcend even while pervading a physical body (or subtle body, too). In other words, as Awareness, we associate with a body, and we animate the body by pervading it, but we are never trapped inside a body, "like a little homunculus peering out at the world through the two peepholes of the eyes," as our old friend Douglas Harding would say.

Anyone who has enjoyed an "out of the body" (OOBE) experience in meditation or trance-state, or who has popped beyond the body in a "near-death experience" or NDE, knows this truth that, as essentially free Awareness, we are not any kind of limited entity that could be caught and confined within a material form.

And so: the real truth is that Who/What we really are is Absolute Divine Spirit or Supra-personal Pure Awareness, which in an unspeakably beautiful and poignant Divine Comedy expresses ItSelf as countless multitudes of unique, precious, individual soul-personalities, who are each destined to return Home and merge into/as God, as the great mystics East and West all affirm. These souls that we are, each and every one of us, are the personal disguise of the Supra-personal God. We are, so to say, unique individual rays of the one Self-effulgent Divine Sun.

On the level of our soul-nature as individual persons, we are multi-leveled or multi-dimensional. One aspect of us always remains associated with the subtle realms of light, available to other souls in the great solidarity of loving-kindness and playful togetherness, while another aspect of us associates with an earthly, physical body in what is conventionally called an "embodiment" or "incarnation." In this latter aspect, the soul explores all sorts of lessons and adventures in soul-ular growth over a series of lifetimes, the main aim of which is to cultivate more and more talents and virtues—especially love, compassion, generosity, detachment, courage, confidence and cheerful creativity.

What an amazing, astounding, stupendous Divine Game of "Hide and Seek"! It seems, on the surface level, that we have lost one another and God, and are alienated and alone. Yet our real Nature is All-One, always in loving solidarity with everyone and the One Who Truly IS—the Divine Self of all selves.

May all beings be awake to this Divine Truth.