Monday, 17 March 2014

The fear of death and the idea of reincarnation

Big JuJu today. Bit chewy - I'll do my best.

People are/may be filled with dread by the idea of the end of the self, "me," "I," at death. Can the idea of reincarnation help with this fear? 

A few takes:

1) The classic Hindu/Buddhist-derived concept: we have souls; when our bodies die, our souls take off, and re-enter the cycle of life, to be reborn as another creature. We can't remember our previous life or lives (well, a few people say they can...)

But that's no good, is it? Jane Ordinary might say "It still means the end of 'me.' There's no continuity. I might see it as a way of urging me to live a more ethical life, if I believe in a causal, 'karmic' relationship between my behaviour now and my next reincarnation.

But when I'm a mayfly I won't have any connection to the current 'me.' So I still dread the death of my self.

 2) The whole thing is a rather wonderful myth, a longing for some kind of cosmic justice. 

The myth says "Jane Ordinary, you were once a dung beetle, then a tern, then warrior, then a teacher, and now you are enlightened and virtuous? You can step off the wheel of reincarnation and fuse with the eternal." H'mm. "But," says Jane, "that's nothing to do with this 'self' that doesn't want to end. And what if I don't think I've got a soul?"

3) In one sense, we are reincarnated. The matter of which our bodies are made is not eliminated, it's simply re-arranged, with atoms and molecules being, er, redistributed.

 "Gee, thanks," says Jane, "I find that no help at ALL."

4) Step forward Alan Watts. In "Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown" there is an essay called "The Reality of Reincarnation." I couldn't possibly outline here (or anywhere else) such a sophisticated line of thought, but here are a couple of very crude versions of points he makes, in that essay and elsewhere*:

  1. It only feels that "I" am a separate thing from the rest of the universe, but "I" is not a thing, it is a set of vibrations, a pattern of movements (atomic particles, molecules, cells...) just as a river isn't a piece of water you can isolate and say 'that is the essential river.' The flowing of water in a channel is a river, ever changing. "I" is a process, continually changing.
  2. If that's so, then I am the same as the universe; the universe peoples like a tree leaves or a river flows. I am not part of the universe; I am the same thing as the universe, which existed before "I" did, and will continue after "I" end.

So, Jane Ordinary, try looking down the other end of the telescope. If you don't believe in the traditional Hindu/Buddhist version of reincarnation, or any New Age version thereof, then work (via reading and meditation or contemplation) on your perception of yourself; on what you feel yourself, your "I" to be. 

This may not be a matter of logical thought alone. Someone somewhere (Lawrence Durrell?) wrote that (this kind of) "truth is a matter of direct apprehension; you canot climb a ladder of concepts to it." But the path to apprehension may come through perfectly rational thought and reading. 

Jane, maybe you could try letting go of reincarnation as a lifebelt on which you can prolong "Jane." Let go of what you currently think "I" is, what your self feels like, and maybe your sense of dread will lessen. "Jane" is a manifestation of something more than just "Jane."

Maybe you will feel that the pulse that you are now has always been and always will be. The water molecules in the river run into the sea, evaporate, rain, becomes river. Our planet "peoples" just as it "rivers." Our universe "planets." 

Once your sense of "I" relaxes its grip on your states of mind, you will, I hope, no longer fear so much the death of "I, Jane Ordinary."You may be able to accept the end of that transitory, constantly re-made and necessary social construct we call "me."

Well, it may be worth a try; and of course there are other ways of lessening the dread of personal extinction. Did I ever mention mindful meditation? I did? Oh, good.

I know all the "" above are a bit irritating, but I'm trying not to slip back into the usual unconscious assumptions about our individual identities. Which I thin are only part of our story.

*Especially in "The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are."  


  1. This feels like a frovolous response to a thought provoking post, but it is on message...

  2. Not frivolous, thank you Vale, but delightful.

  3. I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care. Does it for me.

  4. Maybe there's room for a little booklet with such thoughts in, Charles, "a shirt-pocket guide to how to not fear the end of your life." (OK, the title needs a bit of work...)
    Because I wonder how widespread your kind of stoicism is?