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'Theosophy - What's it all about?' - Chapter 7, Reincarnation or the Continuity of Life
by Geoffrey Farthing
'A brief summary of a wonderfully exciting and vitally important subject.'
So far we have touched on a number of subjects and have left many loose ends. There is some important detail to add to the story of life after death. We have to see the way in which Karma provides us with the many chances we need to 'make good', that is, to complete our evolution as human beings. These are the elements of a fascinating and wonderful story.
We have seen something, in general and perhaps in rather high-level terms, of the long-term purpose of life. We have seen how spirit involves itself in matter progressively down through the planes of being until it reaches our physical world. Here spirit is so confined in matter that it can manifest virtually nothing of itself - so much so that matter in the ordinary sense seems to us quite dead. Something of life begins to appear in what we call organic compounds, where we get what we agreed is the basis of living things or forms. In terms of these forms we can define life as animate or vegetative existence. It has also a certain mobility, takes in food and excretes waste. We get a ladder of life, with the simple organisms of plant and animal life at the bottom but increasing in complexity, specialization of organs and parts, and usually increasing in size as they go upwards.
We can observe the processes of growth of life forms. From the fission of tiny seed-like cells, through many stages of multiplication, we see the growth of the individual creature through to maturity. We then see the diminution of life energy in the individual till death takes place and the creature, as such, ceases to be. We know that the physical characteristics of all organisms, whether plant or animal, are transmitted from one generation to the next by means of microscopically small structures, DNA, genes and chromosomes,
present in the nucleus of every cell of the parent stock. We know that these structures transmit faithfully the essentially characteristic qualities of a given species through countless generations. Within the limits of the principal characteristics, variations of a secondary nature take place at intervals.
Theosophy teaches that, although the physical mechanism of inherited characteristics is by means of DNA, and genes, the essential form pattern of anything is fixed at a higher level of being, as we briefly saw in chapter IV. The 'patterns', so to speak, exist at the mental level and the 'moulds' at the astral level. These moulds are filled by matter, beginning with that at the astral level then passing to ordinary gaseous and liquid and solid matter. The ultimate sizes of plants and animals is, within fairly narrow limits, fixed by these moulds. All sorts of other mysteries such as, why certain species cannot be crossed with others, are explicable in terms of the essential nature and qualities of the various streams of life coming into physical existence through the inner and subtler realms of being. The life with its particular characteristics and patterns rayed out from the mental levels along great divergent streams is guided by lofty intelligences, themselves aspects of the One Life at their level of being and with their own various natures. Sometimes when life 'natures' are not too different, crosses between individuals of differing kinds can be made and the offspring may be the beginnings of a new strain, but sometimes the offspring are sterile or are not true breeding.
It has been said that we can imagine that in the astral level of being there is a fluidic plastic 'life' medium for each of our innumerable families of forms, constituting, as it were, a field of force, something like that which surrounds a magnet and to the shape of which iron filings conform when placed in it. This field will determine, for example, the pattern of growth of crystals or the fernlike patterns that freezing moisture on the window-pane will assume. It is important to notice that in these two examples there is apparently nothing of the nature of physical genes and chromosomes operating, yet the characteristic nature of the
forms assumed is preserved. Not only are the characteristic forms preserved but all the other characteristics and properties too. Would it then be too much to say that between the appearance of successive forms there is something on the inner planes of being approximating to a continuous life thread, not affected by time, running through the forms?
Mutations in germ plasm could not then occur unless some prior modification were to take place in the inner life field, or if they did they would produce sports and be abortive. Might it not be that nuclear radiation, itself a manifestation of life energy, is capable of affecting under certain circumstances modifications of this field and so of the forms associated with it? This, in fact, seems to occur. It also seems that other apparently purely physical things like food and environment can be factors in mutations.
We have earlier touched on, somewhat obliquely, the law of periodicity as it applies to materials and forms. They come and go, but their characteristic life persists. This process applies to human beings but with something of a major difference. We have said earlier that humans are individualized. They feel themselves to be 'I', each with an exclusive self-consciousness. We explain this self-consciousness, 'I-ness', by the fact that in the human, or spiritual soul, as opposed to the animal soul, there is the individual higher mind element in which is focused the two higher cosmic principles, of Spirit and it’s vehicle of manifestation. This Egoic, higher mind consciousness enables man to be aware of his 'awareness'; that is, of the functioning of his lower mind, emotions and sensations which can be objective to him.
We have seen that during the processes of death the life energy withdraws from all the vehicles of personality when unconsciousness intervenes and remains until the higher mind is freed from the trammels of personality. We stopped there, but the process does not. We said that the spiritually significant results of the life just lived were ingested into the higher mind principle. They then become, so to speak, condensed into a sort of memory residue of profitable experience by being transformed into faculty, abilities, tendencies and so on. These become the accumulated characteristics
of the individuality. This process of gestation cannot go on for ever, as indeed no process of Nature can. The cyclical law of periodicity always operates. The ordinary man, after his long period of heavenly restorative and healing dreams, falls unconscious again and a period of dreamless sleep follows. The process of gestation that preceded the heaven experience now changes to another one of assimilation. When at long last all the content of the past life has been transmuted, and after a suitable period of rest, the thirst for physical life begins to reassert itself, the life centre becomes, as it were, energetic again. The magnetic field begins to expand and attract into itself matter of the lower planes to form its lower mental principle and astral body. The characteristics of the 'magnetic' field are the result not only of the immediate past life, but of the 'balance' or resultant of all previous lives. Any imperfections in this field will manifest as imbalance and weaknesses in the next personality, impressing the newly forming lower mental and emotional and astral principles of the new personality. When this process is complete, the new personality is ready to take over a new physical body. The inexorable operations of the Law, working at physical level, now begin to affect the course of events and, again by a process of 'magnetic' attraction the new personality gets the parents, the kind of body, and the circumstances of early life, to which it is entitled and which will provide it with the further experiences it needs, with the means of discharging its karmic debts, reaping its karmic rewards, and with the opportunities of doing what it has to do in the new life to come.
It might be well to emphasize certain points to prevent serious misconceptions and to look at the question of our lack of memory of our past lives. Why do we not normally have this memory? The short answer is that all that comprised the vehicles of the previous personal life, i.e., the vehicles of consciousness at the physical, mental and emotional levels are dispersed during the long dying process. Now it should be noticed that whereas we have learned to operate to a considerable extent in fully waking consciousness in our physical bodies, we have not yet
learned to function self-consciously at the emotional and mental levels of being and we have hardly quickened our vehicle of consciousness at the higher mental level at all, our consciousness there being germinal. It is, however, at that relatively high level of being that the impressions of our previous lives, together with all the past, are available to us. We do not have access to this record until we have organized our higher mental vehicle and learned to operate in it in full self-consciousness. This is the generality and it is not to say that in some particular cases and circumstances, some knowledge of previous lives cannot be impressed on our ordinary waking consciousness and felt as intuitions or seen subjectively. This can and does happen and many checkable instances have been recorded.
The common misconceptions about reincarnation are those that arise from the idea that personality persists from life to life. It does not; it disintegrates. The individuality only, with its acquired innate characteristics, persists. All that was left of detailed physical emotion and normal mental experience is dissipated at death together with the personality vehicles. This detailed experience once occasioned in us some self-concern. If we were successful in life we were proud (maybe discreetly). If we were unsuccessful we consoled ourselves with our psychological compensations. The number of Cleopatras and Pharaohs we hear about as past lives of so many people might be connected with this compensatory process! There is no doubt it has helped to bring the idea of reincarnation into discredit. Some serious thinking as to what is left of us after the dissolution of the personality is a salutary exercise. Another misconception is that we can be reincarnated into animals. For various technical reasons this is not possible. Once man, always man, even though the circumstances of individual lives may markedly deteriorate.
The truth about reincarnation and the operation of the Law is far grander and more wonderful than the ideas commonly held about it would lead us to believe. No wonder the very idea is so often scorned by the serious minded! It is, however, reincarnation and Karma that can give us a real long-term interest in living. Ourselves and
our lives here and now are seen to be single experiences only in a long, long chain of such experiences, each with its growing strength, consciousness and power unfolding to an, as yet, undreamt-of glory and perfection to which we are heirs if only we are prepared to work for it.
Theosophy - what's it all about? > Next Page Chapter 8 Evolution by Self-Effort