Limitation of Reincarnation Theory|
When I was 30 I heard a talk on the theory of reincarnation. I had never heard of this theory before then. It at once struck me with tremendous force that it must be true. It seemed to be the spiritual basis of justice. After that introduction, I tried to find further details connected with these ideas.
Over a period of many years all ideas about reincarnation that I read remained unsatisfactory to me. Theorists past and present had little understanding of the subconscious mind and so the theories that they produced were incomplete.
The theories were incomplete because the mechanics of how the process of reincarnation happened were only schematic, as in the Buddhist Wheel of Life. Usually just the ethical reasons were produced for explaining the necessity of the process (that is, why it happened). This one-sided presentation is too limited to explain the problems of human evolution. Any complete theory that has to explain psychological factors has to answer both these aspects, that is, it has to give reasons for both how and why something happens. My understanding of the way that the mind functions has enabled me to give a psychological account of how reincarnation works.
First, I need to add a short note on the difference between a paradigm and an ideology, which is the difference between impartial thinking and value-directed thinking. I use the current model of scientific practice to explain my ideas.
Paradigm and Ideology
The contrast between ethical neutrality and value-based thinking can be used to describe the realistic basis of scientific practice. It can be formulated under two terms, those of ‘paradigm’ and ‘ideology’.
A paradigm is a self-contained or closed system of meanings within which every problem is explained (or ignored). The paradigm of science is a mechanistic and materialistic world of physical causality (a world of facts and the relationships between facts). One way to approach the meaning of anything is to investigate the causal relationships of which it is a part.
Hand-in-hand with a paradigm goes an ideology, which is a self-contained system of values. An ideology is just another name for a closed system of thinking. A closed system of thought occurs when any framework of knowledge tries to ask and answer all questions concerning values and standards within its own boundaries. Such a system does not lead to the acceptance of any knowledge that is outside those boundaries.
In essentials, an ideology is a perspective for encapsulating power, and how that power is used. It defines what is, and what is not, real. Power can be exerted on what is real, but not on what is ‘unreal’. Only what is defined to be real has value.
The ideology produces the paradigm.
For example, within the paradigm of science, flying saucers do not exist. The reason for this is that within the ideology of science no valuation is placed upon the phenomenon of saucers. Hence there is no impetus to change the paradigm so as to incorporate them. Values always come first within any system, so ideology always determines what is admitted to the paradigm.
Scientists usually have little or no awareness of the difference between the paradigm and the ideology ; they make statements about the ideology when they think that they are making statements about the paradigm. When a scientist states that flying saucers do not exist, this is a statement about the ideology and not a statement of fact (the paradigm). The scientist is afraid that if he chooses to explore ‘fringe’ ideas then he will lose academic prestige and power and will find himself subject to public ridicule – hence his views reflect the constraints of the ideology.
For comparison, within an ideology of New Age values, saucers can exist, but whether they actually do is an open question. They probably do – it depends on how one understands the incident at Roswell, and the purpose of Area 51.
Overview of Reincarnation Theory
Now I can give an overview of reincarnation theory, in which I add my own interpretation to past ideas about it. The theory has three strands to it (the third one, on confusion, is my view alone).
a). Paradigm Aspect of Reincarnation
As a theory of evolution, reincarnation is concerned with understanding problems about life. Each person needs to learn how to handle social problems and problems of individuality. To handle a problem, a person has to develop abilities as well as developing individual and social skills. To understand a problem in all its complexity a person has to be both giver and receiver, both a success in life and a failure, both topdog and underdog, both authoritarian and rebellious. These positions are very difficult to achieve in a single lifetime. Hence a person will spend many lives at the bottom of society, many lives in the middle, and many lives at the top. Many lives will be a success when topdog, and when underdog too ; but many lives will be failures.
All permutations of social and political positions will be experienced, over a course of many lifetimes. But society evolves, and problems evolve in tandem with it. Therefore this cycle of permutations is repeated endlessly in order to ensure that the person experiences all nuances of problems that are of importance and relevance to him.
Why does reincarnation theory assume a time-scan of myriad incarnations? Because a person learns only very slowly about himself and about relationships. Learning occurs primarily through trial and error, a highly inefficient method. So repeated exposure to persistent problems is needed in order for him to change his attitudes and beliefs to more harmonious ones. This psychological structure of reincarnation is a value-free structure, a paradigm, since it is independent of morality.
The person changes his place in the social and political lists (high, middle, low) by utilising desire. The person follows his own desires. This makes him the arbiter of his own achievements (the Buddhist view).
b). Ideology Aspect of Reincarnation
The driving force of reincarnation is a system of rewards and punishments given by celestial agents of the solar deity. This system is superimposed on factor (a). Depending on how the person handles his desires, how he uses his abilities, how he relates to other people, how he interprets his successes and failures, etc, so he is rewarded or punished (this is the Christian view). Reward and punishment is a value system, an ideology, and is often considered to be a spiritual form of justice. It is handed out according to needs, not according to desires.
In factor (a), the Buddhist view, evolution works through desires.
In factor (b), the Christian view, evolution works through needs.
Factors (a) and (b) work together in a classic paradigm-ideology combination.
c). Confusion Aspect of Reincarnation
However, this combination of factors (a) and (b) fails to explain adequately why good people do bad things. Traditional religious theories assume that it is due either to ignorance or to the evil nature of materialism. These assumptions have limited applicability.
Ignorance exists but represents a low-level explanation, that is, it fails to explain why people still do bad things after they have been taught the ‘correct’ view of things. The concept of ignorance cannot explain compulsion and determinism. Within the system of reward and punishment, ignorance is not accepted as an excuse : people are still punished when they do bad things from ignorance.
The ‘evil’ nature of materialism comes under the aspect of survival, or the influence of Nature. A person is driven by Nature (or the impersonal god, by another name), to survive, so that life becomes the ‘survival of the fittest’. This drive is amoral, so that good people may have to transgress their moral code in order to survive. However, this explanation is no longer viable when a person upgrades his life beyond the survival level.
The high-level explanation of why good people do bad things is the concept of confusion. This is a psycho-dynamic concept and proposes that confusion is a mixture of forms of determinism which exist in varying intensities in the minds of everyone – whether of high status or low, whether wise or ignorant. All people are confused, though only a small proportion are so confused that they need psychiatric intervention. Confusion often results from problems that originated in past lives and are influential in the present life. When this influence is being felt, the person is then motivated by compulsive emotions and attitudes such as fear and hostility, and does not know why they occur or how to eliminate them.
Confusion undermines nobility of character and makes a person act from fear. This effect causes a problem for the moral basis of reincarnation. A good person acts from confusion and so is punished for it. This can breed resentment and bitterness at life’s unfairness, so adding to the confusion. The problem is whether a confused person is responsible for his actions. The spiritual world holds him to be responsible and thereby punishes him. The person can now drift into a downward spiral, where confusion and resentment spur each other on. The good person becomes trapped in this spiral and his character deteriorates. He is no longer one of the ‘fittest’ and ends up among the out-casts of society.
Spiritual justice, as a system of rewards and punishments, is based on merit. The reality of confusion highlights the deficiency in this system – there is little equity or fairness in the spiritual world. As a system of justice, rewards and punishments are inadequate. This system ignores the significance of the compulsiveness of past-life problems, problems that appear to be insoluble in the present life. Even when the person has learned from these problems, so that they have served their purpose, they remain operative in his life.
When the spiritual influences acting on a seeker are subjected to empirical inquiry and intellectual analysis, then the concepts of ‘ignorance’, ‘evil materialism’, and ‘spiritual justice’ fail to explain adequately the trials of a human life. The only coherent way of understanding the sorrows of life is to presume that life is primarily a learning experience. From this perspective it follows that justice is not always a major concern of the soul. Spiritual justice exists, but it is often over-ridden by the soul’s desire to learn how to handle both the pleasant and the unpleasant features of life.
The reality of confusion complicates this learning process, and ensures that learning is a very slow process. Hence human evolution requires a myriad number of incarnations in order that the person can finally master life’s trials and attractions.
To understand the dynamics of spirituality the seeker has to start exploring life ; the seeker has to start inquiring into life. This empiricism can flow in two directions. The status of the ego has to be explored – this is the first inquiry. This exploration always needs to be set alongside a second inquiry, an inquiry into purpose and meaning. Any satisfactory explanation of reincarnation should include both these explorations. Both require an understanding of dynamic psychology and ethics.
The two inquiries are :
d). What is a person ? . What is an ego ?
This is the ontological inquiry, the inquiry into Being.
The ego is the focus of inquiry.
e). What is the purpose of life ? . What is the meaning of life ?
This is the inquiry into rules, constraints and boundaries that limit the ego’s freedom of choice. This is the inquiry into Becoming.
Relationships are the focus of inquiry.
Traditionally, only Buddhism has answered inquiry (d), in a partial manner. In both Buddhism and Christianity the overall valuation, within a perspective of asceticism, is that the ego is the source of all badness and the world of the spirit is the source of all goodness. Therefore the practice of ‘ego-denial’ is advocated.
In both Buddhism and Christianity the answers given to inquiry (e) relate only to ethics and ignore the significance of relationships, so producing a devaluation of Earth life and a focus on attaining Nirvana or heaven respectively. From a metaphysical perspective, the world of physical reality (or Nature) has no inherent meaning, no built-in essence. This perspective allows the concept of purpose to be ignored, thus enabling the ascetic traditions to centre on world-denial.
No formulation of ethics and spirituality given in the past (or even in the future) is completely accurate. Any theory reflects only the capability of a society to grasp and understand it. As a society evolves its intellectual resources, so spiritual theories need to evolve in tandem in order to remain relevant and stimulating.
I began my inquiry into metaphysics with the assumption that the perspective of world-denial is inaccurate, and that the practice of ego-denial leads only to confusion (when a person tries to deny his own ego, all he is doing is learning to hate himself). An understanding of the ways that the subconscious mind works is absent from such a practice – this is only to be expected in pre-modern thinking.
In modern times, the problems of the world have to be solved within the world. Nirvana, heaven, or even states of enlightenment are not a cure-all : they still leave intact the perspective of world-denial. The existential tradition (short as it is) is the stage beyond asceticism. It is the existentialist who empirically explores purpose and meaning as it is on Earth.
Buddha analysed the ego in terms of its Being, and not its purpose or meaning. He considered the question: what is the nature of the ego? . What is its Being? . Buddha gave two answers. One of these is the usual view propounded in Buddhist texts and states that the ego has no permanent reality. This view is easy to understand, whether or not one accepts it. Discarding this view as being inaccurate, I prefer the other analysis (which is not easy to understand, and so usually is mentioned only in passing in the texts). Buddha stated that :
f ). The person who believes that the ego survives death is called an eternalist.
g ). The person who believes that the ego ends at death is called a nihilist.
He then stated that both views are wrong.
This analysis is correct. How is it to be interpreted?
One day the answer popped into my head. The ego is a relative entity. What does this mean? . The ego is form rather than essence. The ego is defined by its relationships to other egos rather than by any internal pre-determined essence.
I answer inquires (d) and (e) from the perspective of my existentialism.
The answer to (d) is that the person is a relative being, having its own perspective on life.
The answer to (e) is that the person is undergoing expansion of consciousness.
Expansion of consciousness operates within the necessity to explore social relationships since it is the dominance of social relationships that distinguishes Earth life from higher planes of existence. Overall, these views generate the existential proposition that man has to create himself, has to create his own essence, through the critical exploration of social ties. Another way of understanding these ideas is the view of Jean-Paul Sartre that existence comes before essence.
I accept Buddha’s ontological analysis of the ego. It was over the question of meaning and purpose that I came to differ from him. A psycho-dynamic psychology is an analysis of the subconscious dynamics of a particular zone of consciousness. This zone is the overlap between the ego and its social interaction, and it is this analysis that is missing from Buddhist theories.
The failure of the Indian and Semitic traditions of spirituality to explore purpose and meaning arose from their failure to handle emotional relationships harmoniously. This failure is an automatic by-product of the exclusive focus on developing will power.
In fact, no one tradition can attend to all the needs of all the different human societies that spring up and evolve at different rates. At least three main traditions have been operating on Western society, and each reflects different needs at different times. These traditions are those of ancient Egypt, of Christianity and of Buddhism. The emphasis given by each tradition is as follows:
The Egyptian: To know oneself.
The Christian: To forgive others.
The Buddhist: To control oneself.
All these are ways of learning to purify oneself. Buddhism has been influential through its relationship to theosophy. The development of psychology since the nineteenth century suggests that the Egyptian influence is re-appearing in the West.
The ego is form rather than a pre-determined essence. And the ego has to create itself. What is the framework within which this scenario unfolds? . It is the relationship between the ego and its soul.
The concept of ‘ego’ has evolved over time. Traditional literature does not always use it, preferring labels like ‘body’ and ‘soul’. The problem of definition arises because it can be hard to separate conscious desires and needs from subconscious ones. There is always dynamic interaction between the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. So the boundary of the ego (which is centred on the conscious mind) seems to be confused and fuzzy. The concept of ‘ego’ changes as its apparent boundary is made to change, in order to fit into the moral disciplines and psychological needs of each thinker or religious practitioner.
Within traditional religious literature, the terms ‘body’ and ‘soul’ are either not defined, or are poorly so. These terms are surrounded by confusion, self-deception and imagination (imagination functions when a thinker takes to be true what he would like to be true). It seems to me that in the old phrase ‘body, soul and spirit’, the bad aspects of an ego are assigned to the body, and the good aspects to the soul. Whence :
‘body’ = body + bad ego
‘soul’ = soul + good ego
The consideration of the place of the body in spiritual theory interests me only a little. Whereas the place of the ego and the soul interests me very much. My use of ‘soul’ is equivalent to the term ‘higher self ’. The ego uses the body as a vehicle for the expression of emotion, desire and intellect within the physical world. This enables it to learn through experience. At a higher octave of experience, the soul uses the ego as a vehicle for suitable spiritual idealisms.
In traditional views, the ego is not something that is usually admired. The soul is considered to be the source of goodness and the ego the source of badness. For example, in the cultivation of ‘humility’ the ego is often seen as the enemy within. This is despite the fact that the ego is the agent in the search for spiritual development and spiritual wisdom (hence this view of humility involves self-deception).
The person’s self-image is upset by the generation of unpleasant desires and emotions from the subconscious mind. How is this state of affairs to be handled?
A common way of avoiding the issue of the nastiness in oneself is to deny oneself (that is, the ego repudiates itself ) and then to aspire to link oneself with the soul. In this perspective, the ego has to be tamed and repressed. The focus of spiritual effort is on a return journey back to the soul (the soul is considered to remain perpetually in its original state and not undergo evolution). The religious person is always looking backwards, metaphorically speaking. As usual with most metaphysical theories, there is some truth in it, mixed with a lot of confusion. I fail to see why there should be an ego at all, if this perspective is fundamentally correct; what is there for the soul to do or learn?
My focus is on the forward journey, to where mankind is going (because I believe that the soul is evolving, and hence there is no state of originality that the person can return to).
I focus primarily on the psychological and psychic aspects of ego and soul, and also include my view of ‘spirit’. I clarify my use of these terms.
Ego / Soul / Spirit
The ego is agency. It is the agent of consciousness. The ego has to make choices, and these produce effects. So the realm of the ego is the realm of cause and effect. The analysis of ego motivation brings issues of freewill versus determinism (or choice versus conditioning), the viability of morality and ethics, and ideas of character development (which necessitates practices such as meditation and psycho-therapy).
To these issues is added an overall framework of reincarnation and karma. The primary sphere of activity of these two ideas is the subconscious mind, and this understanding rarely featured in the thinking of traditional teachers. Because of this limitation, traditional ideas on reincarnation and karma are surrounded by confusion, imagination, and self-deception.
From my experience and understanding of the subconscious mind, I have re-interpreted reincarnation and karma in a manner that fits the facts of modern consciousness. In outline, the ego lasts for one cycle of life from earth to heaven, and then becomes subconscious when it is due to return to earth. In the next cycle of life, beginning on earth, a new ego is created, using the previous ego (now subconscious) as a template. Hence egos are neither eternal nor are they destroyed – they all end by enlarging the subconscious mind. This is the explanation of Buddha"s second analysis of the ego. I go into more detail in the next article, Psychological Mechanics.
The soul is also agency. It is the source of spiritual idealisms, and it is ‘the silent watcher’. Another common name is ‘the witness’. The soul is a ‘higher self ’ to the ego (this should not be confused with the creation by an ego of an idealised ‘self ’). The soul acts as a guide to the ego, trying to steer it through the confusion of a human life. The soul does not reincarnate, and so it retains the memory of all past egos that it has used. The blueprint for the next cycle of ego reincarnation is set by the soul and not by the ego. The soul does not reincarnate because it is immune from cause and effect. However, it is not perfect because it is learning (and hence is evolving), and it learns by observing the causes and effects that operate on the ego. This means that it makes mistakes in the way that it tries to guide the ego.
Many people do not detect any communications from their soul, and consequently do not believe that it exists. This belief is understandable. Communication between ego and soul is one-way. The ego can only become aware of its soul if that soul is prepared to make its presence known to the ego. The soul is beyond the range of the senses of the ego. So without help from the soul, the ego can never establish by its own efforts whether a soul actually exists.
The spirit is the immanent god in a person; it is the impersonal god. My psychological experience of it is through abreaction. It creates and sustains the process of abreaction, so that an ego constantly swings between the polarities of goodness and badness. (The transcendent god is the personal god, and produces different effects from the immanent god. )
Why have an Ego ?
An important feature of any theory of spirituality is to explain why an ego is actually needed. Why cannot the soul do its learning on its own?
The answer relates to the way that abreaction affects the subconscious mind. The soul has to remain free from the influences of abreaction, and so it has to avoid creating a subconscious mind. These necessities bring out the difference in the emotional orientations of ego and soul.
There are three feelings, and these are the basis of emotions. In the relationship between ego and soul, the soul orientates on the neutral feeling, whilst the ego oscillates between the positive and the negative feelings. This means that the soul centres on equanimity, whilst the ego savours all the range of emotions (except equanimity). The soul can also experience love and hate (towards the ego); whether it experiences other emotions I do not know. [When my soul beams hate at me I feel that it is acting the martinet, or the sergeant-major, in the way that it criticises me. In the same way the Old Testament portrays the god Jehovah as being a stern, as well as jealous, god].
The soul avoids having a subconscious mind because it is not involved in the process of reincarnation. This means that it is not enmeshed in any form of abreaction. Therefore it is not involved in the problems that abreaction causes.
The process of abreaction is maintained by the spirit.
This causes a person to see both the good and the bad sides of his desires. This applies even to idealistic desires, whether spiritual or not, since even ‘spiritual’ desires usually have bad aspects to them: for example, the need to blame others (especially if they are heretics or apostates), or the need to chase after power. In effect, a person’s idealism is channelled through the abreactive process.
As a person evolves and sets higher goals, so he experiences greater achievements and greater failures. Achievement stimulates the creative side of a person; failure stimulates his destructive side. Now the intensity of abreaction matches the intensity of one’s idealism. So the more evolved that a person is, the greater becomes the intensity of both creative and destructive effects that he feels. The destructive effects centre on the induction of guilt and resentment and bitterness.
When abreaction features in the evolutionary process, then resentment and bitterness are always experienced. The only way in which the soul can be free from these effects is by the expedient of using an ego. Therefore, it is necessary to have both a soul and an ego. This arrangement ensures that destructiveness never touches the soul, yet the soul can learn how to handle it.
It is the poor ego that has to live through the drama of extracting goodness from amidst all the trials and sorrows and joys of life.
Author Bio :
Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath, owner of a map of psychological spirituality suitable for modern times.
Number of comments for this article : 0