I want to get back to the thread on reincarnation, and discuss life after death, or really, life between lives. But first let's review some of the sources I might refer to on this subject.
There's a lot of literature about reincarnation and spirit realms I can refer people to which might be helpful. In the modern psychological literature, there's the works of Michael Newton (Journey of Souls; Destiny of Souls; Life Between Lives, etc.) and Brian Weiss, M.D. (Same Soul, Many Bodies; Many Lives, Many Masters; Only Love is Real, etc.), both of whom are practicing psychologists who stumbled into past-life regression therapy during their therapeutic practice by accident, in the course of using hypnotherapy to treat people with psychological disorders. Most people did not come to them originally for past-life regressions, and he only used the technique when the patient's teleology indicated it would be useful, but the results were striking nonetheless. In a great many cases, it was observed that the various patterns and traumas that some patients were experiencing did not have clear origins in this lifetime, even in early childhood, but were rooted in the experiences of previous lifetimes. In the course of uncovering these unconscious memories of past lives, they found that patients often benefited significantly simply from having these memories become conscious, and thus providing a larger context for understanding the various problems they were experiencing in this life, even with people in this life who they had a long history of conflict with in past lives.
Michael Newton's books are particularly interesting to me, in that he made an effort to elicit information from his patients not just about their past lives, but about the period of times spent in the spirit world between lives. He found this useful for his patients, but also for his own curiosity about the general structure and "culture" of the world we live in between earthly lives. Much of his findings are quite remarkable, and I would say generally accurate, although there are some limitations to his methods, and to his study population, consisting as they did of therapy patients from the industrial world. Nonetheless, what he found was a striking uniformity in experience, regardless of the person's religious background or beliefs, or even the lack of these. Nonetheless, the primary limitation to his method is that very few of his patients were what one might call "advanced" spiritually, with prior conscious experience of subtler spiritual phenomena. And none, that they spoke of at least, representing the kind of spiritual maturity one finds in the more renowned spiritual figures who at times have directly experienced or taught about these matters.
Nonetheless, there's reason to think that their hypnotic methods might actually elicit more reliable information, if at a less comprehensive level, about reincarnation and the spirit worlds. I've found there's a lot of things in these books which are actually superior to traditional teachings about reincarnation and the subtle realms, in that there is less subconscious projection and filtering going on that is often the case when people have spontaneous spiritual experiences about these things.
One of the problems with the spiritual traditions, is the degree to which their viewpoint about subtle experience, subtle worlds, afterlife phenomena, karma, and spirit beings represents a distorted projection of their own faulty connections to the body and minds they have incarnated through, and by which they give and receive information about these matters. These traditions have often reinforced various illusions, and even a number of pathologies, that make a clear understanding of these matters more difficult than if one had no knowledge of this kind at all. These more "scientific" investigators of the subtle realms have actually found ways to be more accurate and provide more realistic descriptions of some aspects of the spirit reality than many time-honored traditional sources. Not that they are complete or full or even entirely accurate, but they are at least aware of their own limitations and try to simply report their findings without forcing it into pre-ordained categories and interpretations.
Another category of literature is the whole recent body of channeled spiritual teachings. This represents one of the most challenging categories, since it is dominated by so many foolish and dubious characters and a startling degree of naivete and unconscious projection. One has to be extremely discriminating when looking at the teachings that come from these sources. Nevertheless, a surprising - to me at least - amount of information from the better examples of this breed is relatively accurate, and even relatively wise. One does not find the most profound kind of wisdom in this group - there are no Buddhas, Ramana Maharshi's, Nisargadatta's, etc. - but one does find some relatively good descriptions of life in subtle worlds, and the mechanics of earthly incarnation. I've never deeply studied this category, since much of it is just too obnoxious to even read, but there's a few figures I'd point to as being worth considering, such as the Seth Material, channeled by Jane Roberts; Kryon, channeled by Lee Carroll;and Michael, channeled by a number of people. There's also some amusing books by Dolores Cannon, James Monroe, and Moody.
As for the more scientific literature, there's Ian Stevenson's classic study, "Twenty Cases of Reincarnation", and his protege Jim B. Tucker's "Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Childhood Memories of Previous Lives". There's no final and conclusive evidence or proof of reincarnation to be found in these books, but there are some striking studies and evidence that should give pause for thought to any but the most doctrinaire materialists. The more one reads of this kind of material, the harder it become to deny the likelihood of reincarnation as a simple fact or our lives.
My own viewpoint is neither scientific nor therapeutic. I'm not interesting in proving reincarnation objectively, and I'm not terribly interested in the therapeutic value of recalling past life memories. Both are valuable enterprises, and I applaud those who have undertaken them. It's just not what I'm personally interested in pursuing. For me, all of these studies merely point to an understanding of the process of incarnation in this and every present moment that matters in a very practical manner, in the here and now. This understanding leads to a conscious grasp of what is actually going on here, with each of us both internally and inter-personally. This means being attentive to our own mind and life, and allowing ourselves to simply observe what we really are, what we are really doing, and what the nature of our conscious existence is, from a larger perspective. In the course of doing that, it has simply become more and more clear to me that we are all spirits here, and that we are relating to these physical bodies and this physical worlds from a spiritual dimension that is simply not of this world.
We are, as Moses says in Exodus, "strangers in a strange land". The sooner we accept that, the better equipped we will be to deal with the actual difficulties we encounter in this life, a great many of which are the result of our simple personal struggle to incarnate in a world that is not ours to begin with. That alone should come as something of a relief to us. The universal existential experience of feeling separate from this world, of classical dualism - of being a mind separate from the body - is on the practical level simply true. We are separate from this material world, in a very ordinary respect. We are not from this world, we are strangers here, who don't feel altogether at home simply because this is not our home. It's a place we visit through a complex process of incarnation, which is really just a form of subtle immersion in the mental experience of the physical, not actually "becoming physical bodies". Our spirits do not literally become physical entities, and they don't even "enter" the physical body. They simply grow a subtle connection to the physical that provides a powerful immersive experience from birth until death.
While alive in the body, we tend to think that we are supposed to be here, that we actually are here, and we point to our bodies as evidence that we are here. And yet our minds don't actually experience ourselves as "being here". Our mind feels removed from the experience of the physical world. This simple fact has of course led to a huge proliferation of religious ideas and philosophies throughout human history that there's such a thing as "life after death". These ideas don't all agree with one another, in fact there are serious disagreements on many levels, but the basis for these ideas isn't far-fetched at all - it's built into the literal mechanism of our own conscious experience. There are certainly some who will argue that this mind-body split is merely a result of various illusions created in the physical brain and nervous system itself, but I will continue to suggest that the root of it is real, and that even those phenomena in the nervous system are the result of the process of incarnation, and would not exist otherwise. What's certainly true is that all the various experiences and ideas about the cosmos that appear in the mind and brain represent incomplete and even wildly distorted perceptions of the actual process, and that we can't merely take them at surface value.
It often appears that it is the method of inquiry which determines the results one will find. Those who use various forms of traditional meditation and inquiry into the subtle experience of the afterlife will often obtain results consistent with that tradition. And those who use non-traditional methods, such as hypnosis, will also find consistent results of their own, even when the subjects of that method come from different traditional backgrounds. Newton and Weiss report that both traditional Christians and staunch atheists report remarkably similar recollections of the afterlife, which in both cases strongly contradict the views they have outside of hypnosis. And yet, one is left wondering if the method of hypnosis itself produces its own form of bias. Not that I think these methods are false, self-generated, or examples of "implanted" memories. But one cannot assume that subtler forms of bias don't exist due to the method itself.
That said, I'd like to put forward my own basic understanding of our spiritual "selves", the part of us that does not live here in this world, but simply connects to this world for purposes of our own. I won't pretend that these subtle "selves" are the real nature of our being. They are not. They are merely part of the total mechanism that we identify with within the sphere of dualism. It's no mere coincidence that this produces a dualistic sense of identity on so many levels. Deconstructing dualism thus means more than merely making assertions of non-dual unity, it also means observing ourselves and understanding the simple mechanisms by which dualism recreates itself in deepening layers of illusion. We experience dreams within our dreams within our dreams. It's important to be able to discriminate between them and understand how we seem to have gotten here.
THE SUBTLE WORLDS
The first thing to be mentioned about the subtle worlds is that most spirits who live there do not incarnate in physical worlds like ours. It is a relatively rare phenomena. Most spirits live in spirit worlds of varying qualities and ranges of experience, and they don't take part in any process resembling "reincarnation". Most of the spirits who incarnate in the human world come from a relatively "low" level subtle world. This is in many respects simply a practical matter. You can't easily incarnate into a physical world from a highly subtle world - the connectionss are much more difficult to grow and maintain. For most spirits, the process of reincarnation in physical worlds is considered something of a "beginners" exercise. Others consider it dangerous or unnecessary. But often it is looked upon with a certain kind of awe, in the sense that it takes a lot of courage to brave the struggle with physical worlds. It offers the possibility of more rapid spiritual growth. Even so, most reincarnating spirits only take on physical incarnation for a fairly limited period of time, and once they've gotten relatively good at it, they move on to higher worlds and subtler experiences.
This points to certain differences in outlooks among spirits. Like people here on earth, spirits have a wide variety of viewpoints, values, motives and goals, and hence they look upon earthly incarnation from differing viewpoints. For many, it's simply a place to indulge in various sensual, physical desires which are very powerful in the physical world, and which don't quite have an equivalent in the subtler worlds. Physical bodies are deeply engrossing and offer very powerful immersive experiences. Subtle bodies are much more diffuse, indefinable, and plastic. So many spirits become addicted, one might say, to the experiences of the physical world, and learning to master those addictions and desires offers them a very important lesson in their spiritual growth. However, having learned those lessons, they often simply "graduate" to more advanced spiritual worlds where they can find a different kind of pleasure that they can master.
Other spirits recognize that pleasures themselves are not terribly fulfilling, and they have more socially oriented goals, aimed at loving relationships with others. They find the emotional challenges in the physical highly valuable. The difficulties one encounters trying to love others in the physical world are immensely harder to overcome than those in the subtle realms, where love feels more natural and easy. If one examines the physical world, even animals and living things here, one will see that they don't have an easy time loving one another. It's not absent in them, but it's not terribly common either. A lot of things get in the way of love, particularly the drive for survival and pleasure. So a good number of spirits come here to "hone" their skills in loving one another. And once again, when these spirits accomplish those goals and attain a certain degree of skill in loving others, they too move on to higher realms, where those skills become much more powerful tools for spiritual growth.
There's also that relatively small number of spirits who recognize that earth offers an excellent ground for transcendental spiritual realization of the non-dual reality. These are spirits who may come from any number of backgrounds and past histories, who have a deep interest in actually taking the "direct path" to spiritual realization, rather than the "long path" of simply evolving along the lines of the universe itself, which will one day return to God completely because that is its very nature. These spirits use earthly incarnation for the purposes of realizing God, recognizing that its deeply frustrating nature, and the obviousness of suffering in the physical realms, helps to impress upon the soul the fruitlessness of conditional seeking in either gross or subtle realms. Many of these souls have already felt the ultimate fruitlessness of the paths of spiritual evolution that the spirit realms are essentially oriented towards, and they choose to incarnate in physical worlds precisely to exaggerate and make inescapable the basic facts of suffering, which in the subtle realms are actually harder to keep in mind, simply because the subtle realms have less obvious confict and suffering associated with them.
The subtle realms lack many of the limitations we are so accustomed to here. Even time and space are experienced differently, and are not so fixed and definable. This of course gives those realms some obvious advantages, particularly from the viewpoint of people who feel claustrophobically confined by the sheer bareness of our spatial and temporal dimensions, but also some not so obvious (to us) drawbacks. It's relative easy to just "float by" in the subtle realms, and never have to actually grow as spirits, or simply take one's sweet time at it. In the physical realm, one doesn't have those luxuries, and one is therefore much more motivated to grow in order to more effectively deal with its limitations. In a very real sense, just being born in the physical worlds is a form of "asceticism", and those who practice spiritual asceticism here are in some respects merely replicating their purpose in coming here at all - and in some cases, to an unnecessary degree, since the fundamental spiritual asceticism of human birth is often enough, and further self-imposed practices are redundant and even inhibiting.
People in the physical worlds often talk or fantasize about a "dream life", in which all their desires are fulfilled. Often this is an expression of a kind of regret about incarnation, the casual forgetfulness of the reasons we came here. But it's also a nostalgic memory of the subtle worlds themselves, where it's possible to create things with mind alone. Those created things, as in dreams, are fascinating and meaningful, but they lack the power of physical objects. They are subtle objects, which are quite different in nature from physical things. So we often try to create things in the physical world by this same method, and it doesn't really work that way. Such paths as "The Secret", which suggest that you can simply manifest things in this world by the power of thought alone, have their roots in this kind of subtle memories of the spirit realms. The physical realms are in some respect responsive to the power of thought, but not in the sense that these paths like to think. The connection between the mind and the physical world is much more indirect and tenuous, even in respect to our own bodies. The physical world simply doesn't respond or react to mental desiring in this fashion.
The physical world does respond to mental intention, even what we might call "prayer", but it does so indirectly, through an energizing process whereby our own physical bodies become "activated" with spiritual energy from our own spiritual selves in the subtle worlds, through the neural-spiritual connections we have grown. That can create a kind of harmony in the physical world which can make harmonious "results" occur, but not necessarily some precise correspondence to the "things" we might have prayed for. In general, "things" are not what prayer is even about. Instead, it is about achieving a spiritual harmony in relation to the physical body, by bringing the spiritual energy of the subtle world into the physical body, and from there into the world of physical relations.
This occurs because of the subtle dynamics of even the physical world, which is not merely made of material matter, but has its own subtle, underlying structure. In the spiritual traditions, this underlying subtle energy is known as "prana", "chi", "etheric energy", or "mana". It is a subtle corresponding form of matter, similar to physical matter in most respects, even mirroring physical matter in many ways, and directly "attached" to it, but invisible to most forms of material observation. It is relatively easy for the subtle mind to observe this energy, however, if one becomes spiritually aware, because it is directly related to the subtle spirit. It is the intermediary between the spirit realm and our spirit bodies and the physical realm and our physical bodies. The neural-spiritual connections we grow to the material body are actually connections to the pranic body first, which is then connected to the physical body.
It's important to recognize that all physical things, and all living physical bodies, have a pranic dimension to them, but they do not all have subtle spirits who connect to their pranic bodies as humans do. Such creatures may be aware of the pranic energy of this world, and their own participation in it, but not of the subtle realms themselves, since they don't have a neural connection to it as we do. They don't quite understand what human beings are up to in that sense. We are not just strange to most animals, but categorically different. However, those animals which do recognize us and relate to us with any sense of empathy or commonality are those which have, indeed, evolved through a reincarnational connection. Naturally, most of those animals are domesticated animals or pets, which have natural relationships to human beings. Some are highly intelligent animals in the wild, such as whales. But even these animals recognize that humans are "different", representing a highly sophisticated form of reincarnational connection to the physical.
That human reincarnational connection through the pranic body is not necessarily more easeful than is the case in others species who may have spiritual connections through reincarnation. The human body represents in some respects a leap to a higher vibratory consciousness, but in making that leap all kinds of unique challenges come into being that in some respects make us less sensitive to the pranic world. Because we are not "of this world", we are not even terribly attuned to the pranic energies of this world, unless we fully develop our subtle connection to the pranic body, and from there to the physical body. If we do, however, we gain some remarkable capacities that aren't directly observable from the perspective of the body itself. One of these is the capacity to bring subtle spiritual energy into this world, not just in the form of mental ability, but in all kinds of creative capacities, including a unique spiritual capacity to "conduct" spiritual energies into the pranic body, and thereby to create an opening to the physical body that has all kinds of implications for us not just spiritually, but physically. In this sense we have an advantage in not "being here". We can bring something into this world that simply doesn't exist here, and the capacity that gives us is simply remarkable.
The common description of humanity's unique ability is that of "tool-making". This misconceives that difference between us and animals, because it only looks at the more obvious physical abilities we have. Even such mental abilities as "reasoning" or "imagination" don't quite get to point. The real difference is that our minds are able to bring deep subtle energy, attention, and intelligence to bear upon the physical world, and to make the physical world conform to our intentions in that respect. It's not that we merely think a thought and it appears here, it's that we establish connections to the physical world which enable us to "import" all kinds of intelligences and capacities that simply don't exist within this world on their own, and which don't evolve naturally at anything like the rate at which we can develop them. Natural, evolutionary processes are extremely slow and gradual, whereas human beings, since we developed a reincarnational connection to the spirit realms, have evolved in ways which simply cannot be easily explained by these slow, natural evolutionary processes. If we had the capacity to see extraterrestrial civilizations which have evolved by purely natural evolutionary processes, we would see how slowly they have accomplished this feat, and how differently it has come about than it has in our world. Our growth has been extremely fast and moves in leaps and bounds that represent the importation of what one might call "extraterrestrial intelligence" from our own subtle bodies in the subtle worlds, which represents a store of experience and awareness which dwarfs the natural capacities of the material worlds themselves. In that sense, we are way ahead of even civilizations which are technologically much more advanced that ours, and on a pace to outdo them even in those respects.
Of course, the purposes of human incarnation can't genuinely be described in terms of purely material capacities and technological innovation. That is just a sign of what is going on beneath the surface with us. The greater "innovation" is that of spirituality itself, and our capacity to enjoy a spiritual relationship to the physical, which in turn helps us develop an even more profound relationship to our own spiritual natures. The spirit is indeed made more self-aware and intelligent by lieu of its relationship to the physical world. The challenge of learning to be spiritually self-aware and loving in the midst of human incarnation with all its complications is a profound one, and when it is even moderately successful to consequences are extraordinary for us, and not just as individuals, but for the whole of humanity, and for the spirit worlds themselves, where individuality is not a form of separation, but of connection.
(Note: to keep this post from getting too large, I'll post it now, and continue on with this train of thought later, within a few days I hope).