Inquiry: A philosophical approach to the primitive mind and reincarnation

Reincarnation: Digital Art by Ursula Freer

by LJ Frank

The word soul is complex, at least for me. Much of what I’ve read has been abstract, poetic, romantic and highly imaginative. People cling to the idea of immortality. Writing is one way to achieve that state of mind. Though much writing is forgotten over time and weeded out of the mind’s library. At times writing is a form of redemption for the writer and wasn’t meant to be saved. We become passersby, not to be lamented but enjoyed. The idea of the “soul” has that transcending and transitory quality.

 Etymologically the word soul is proto-Germanic and means from the water and in ancient Hebrew and Assyrian-Babylonian text “soul” signifies both blood and water. It’s an engaging metaphor.  Unfortunately that “blood and water” gets drained into the municipal sewer when embalmed in today’s civilized world. And the masked face with closed eyes is for the spectator not the spirit that recognizes the temporary nature of the flesh…and even the ashes that are placed in an urn are but a mixture of stuff swept off the chamber floor after being “awakened” by fire.

That all said, the idea of the human soul is ancient.  It dates back, more than likely,  hundreds of thousands of years to hunters and gatherers in their nomadic wanderings across the vast savannas and jungles of Africa and the mountains and plateaus of Asia and among native tribes crossing the land bridge from Siberia to the North and South American continents. Animism, magic and the idea of reincarnation were seeded and cultivated in the soil of the mind. (Mircea Eliade)

Looking at the stars of the deep night, feeling and feeling the brunt forces of nature around them and listening to uncertain sounds of the deserts and forests with their eyes and ears straining – the immediacy of survival was constant. At some point the conscience evolved and continues to do so. Conscience is a holistic experience.

Primitive burial rituals suggest the beginnings of spiritual questions. Did a spirit leave the body and inhabit a plant, an animal or another human? Did life start fresh without an individual memory of the past with only some “code” structured into spirit leaving one body and into the next as a possible rebirth into a new form  – or to “be reborn” again as some religions would later theologize. “A leap of faith in the face of the absurd” (Soren Kierkegaard) is to found in all cultures relative to the object of that faith. Was faith in “other powers” a substitute for a lack of faith in one’s aloneness? To believe in something greater or beyond eases the struggle. Rituals were created such as the drinking of human blood is but one example of being reborn and given new life. Christian communion appears to be rooted in the Neolithic sacred ritual. (Brian Hayden) Rituals once created become a vehicle related but not limited to control, order, obedience, power and celebration.

In his speculative work Zen Physics, astronomer David Darling wrote, “No one has yet come near to circumscribing the bounds of physical reality, we cannot rule out the possibility that any specific collection of matter, however complex, will recur – and recur many times over – in the distant future” and the “same argument applies, with equal strength, to the past of an old universe, or collection of universes.” But he adds “there is no escape pod like a soul…for transferring memories between successive phases of your existence.” One is reminded of Gottfried Leibnitz’s question, “What good would it be to be king…if in the next life you forgot what you have been?”

Yet Mahatma Gandhi observed while experimenting with truth, “There is no death, no separation of substance. And yet the tragedy of it is that though we love friends for the substance we recognize in them, we deplore the destruction of the insubstantial that covers the substance for the time being…it is nature’s kindness that we do not remember past births. What is the good either of knowing in detail the numberless births we have gone through? Life would be a burden if we carried such a tremendous load of memories.”

And Francois-Marie Arouet writing under the nom de plume of Voltaire questioned whether he wanted to live eternally for how boring could that be, especially after thousands of years?  Life is incredible enough in its transient struggle and in its emotional textures of joy and sadness and the meaning of “what is real, or what is in a name?  In his work, I and Thou, Martin Buber notes that once we name a “being” that “being” becomes approachable, accessible,  controllable and is given attributes whether natural or supernatural.

To the man or woman wandering across the desert or through a jungle belief in a soul migrating to a different being in the next life was a means of rationalizing the unfairness of an existing life and an opportunity to rectify things in the next. The idea and belief of one resurrection possesses a similar imagination. The education of the “soul” appears endless, self-determination not withstanding. (Origen) And if a Creator exists to initiate the energies of a self-determined existence to re-occur or finalized in one resurrection, how capricious can that Creator be, if there is even a tenth of an ounce of retribution in the plan?

One might ask, who, even among the most ancient of ethnic groups, would want eternal life if we were to occupy the same station she or he had in this life unless something greater than the “now.” The Book of Revelation talks of streets paved with gold, but it appears to have been written by a person of wealth or longing thereof and gets quite old before becoming eternal. Is the heart’s hope about the transmigration of the soul the “grace” of a theology or a fleeting philosophical rationalization to balance miscues or some inadequacy of materialism, or simply a matter of chance or being born in a class that bears that weight of its own demons while scrambling to place a silver spoon in it’s mouth in the current life?

Voltaire added caution about a starting point, “In a manner we begin to die at the very moment we are born…scarce do we begin to learn a little, when death intervenes before we can profit by experience…and added, “the laying of any schemes (is) deterred,” and he wondered about the nature of moving in an endless cycle while applying measures to move to another level, but knowing the best of all worlds is an imaginary one for the soul that forever seeks. Even to tend to one’s garden might not have the soil necessary to bear fruit.

Joseph Campbell spoke of the seeking as the “Myth of Eternal Return.” The spirit seeks another way and therefore religion finds a home of which some reincarnation beliefs and transmigration of the soul appear among the most ancient of writings that offer solace. “Birth is not a beginning, death is not an end…there is continuity without a starting point.” (Chuang Tzu)

The intrigue is that the human mind creates and develops myths and beliefs that originated in superstition and an occasional individual epiphany as a way of explaining existence in this or the next life. I sometimes wonder about the nature of science and beliefs that “thinking beings” have on other planets and whether reincarnation is among them along with differences of opinions. (Robert Heinlein)

“Where and who was I before my father and mother conceived me? For the unthinkable-after-death appears to be the same as the unthinkable-before-birth, so that if once I came out of nothing, the odds are I can come again and again.” (Alan Watts)  This primitive belief later influenced the concept of an all for one resurrection found in Christianity.

And yet, Rainer Maria Rilke would ask in the Sonnets to Orpheus, “Aber wann, in welchem aller Leben, sind wir endlich offen und Empfänglich?”  Or, I take it to imply, but when, in all our lives, will we finally be open and receptive? And the further hint of reincarnation, or perhaps the fervent wish of being raised from the dead, in his sublime “Weise von Liebe und Tod”: The Marquis answering an exasperated question of why he is fighting the ‘Turkish dogs’, answers, “Um wiederzukehren” or “So that I may return!” The eternal wish for eternal life…or at least another reincarnation…and to strive for a spiritual life…

For the non-spiritual life and its attitudes, “only means that those men and women have not yet attained a purified form of existence in which they are capable of knowing the truth and translating it into action. So the idea of reincarnation contains a most comforting explanation of reality…”(Albert Schweitzer).

Perhaps the anonymous ancient nomadic counsel is true – that the journey of the soul is a spiritual vision to be realized only by living the life in the physical body currently occupying with reverence, openness, humility, compassion and a sense of awe.