At the beginning of this month, when I realized that there were going to be five Wednesdays in August rather than the usual four, I asked readers of this blog what topic they wanted me to discuss on the fifth Wednesday’s post. A substantial plurality of those who responded wanted to hear what I had to say about reincarnation.
That was a bit of a surprise, to be frank. I’ve never been sure how many of my readers find my way to this blog because they share my interest in Western esoteric spirituality, as contrasted with how many find their way here because they share my concern about the accelerating decline and impending fall of Western industrial civilization, or simply because they heard me say something outrageous on a podcast and are hanging around waiting to see what I’ll say next. The multiple hats I wear as historian of ideas, social critic, ecologist, novelist, student of occultism, operative mage, and erstwhile head of a contemporary Druid order, just for starters, make for strange conversations at times.
That said, I have no particular objection to discussing reincarnation. It’s been a noticeable part of the teachings of Western occult spirituality since there was such a thing as Western occult spirituality, and ancient and modern Druids alike are tolerably well known for their belief in that particular form of post- (and pre-)mortem existence. So here we go; we’re going to cover a very large body of lore very quickly, so buckle up and hang on.
Before we get into the ectoplasmic nuts and bolts of the particular set of teachings I tend to rely on concerning this subject, though, it’s probably necessary to talk a bit about the nature of knowledge. We all know more than we can prove. If I ask you to identify your mother’s photo from among a collection of mug shots, for example, odds are you can do so in an instant; if I ask you to prove it, you may have some trouble doing so, and if I demand that you present me with your reasons for knowing that one particular face belongs to your mother, you’re likely to be nonplussed—this despite the fact that you probably can, in fact, identify your mother at a glance.
Most of us, similarly, can’t prove that Antarctica exists, nor can we testify to its existence on the basis of our own experience. We rely on the reports of people who have been there, and the unlikeliness that they’re all in on in a conspiracy to deceive us. A group of people who believe that the earth is flat, the North Pole is its center, and the edge where the earth drops away into nothingness is off beyond the southern oceans—I understand that the Flat Earth Society these days does in fact claim something like this—could insist that such a conspiracy exists, and convincing them otherwise would be surprisingly difficult; even if you loaded them on a plane and flew them to McMurdo Sound, they could claim that you’d actually taken them to Greenland, and shipped in penguins from Patagonia as part of the deception.
We’re in a similar situation when it comes to life after death. There’s actually a substantial mass of data supporting the theory that an individual center of consciousness survives the death of the physical body and is reborn in a new body after an interval. The late Dr. Ian Stevenson spent his entire academic career collecting accounts of young children who appear to recall details of previous lives, and he built on the work of a great many scholars from the days when “psychical research,” as it was then called, had not yet been hounded out of the academy by the yapping curs of a shallow materialism. Research into near-death experiences dovetails neatly with the findings of research into apparent past life memories, to such an extent that in most other fields, so detailed a consensus of evidence on the subject would be enough to justify acceptance of reincarnation as a working hypothesis until and unless some solid disproof emerges.
Of course that’s not what happens, because we have our equivalents of the Flat Earth Society of my metaphor. Materialist atheists insist that there is no such thing as post- (or pre-)mortem existence—why? Because they say so, that’s why. Believers in the more dogmatic end of the Abrahamic religions reject reincarnation out of hand on roughly the same basis. So every scrap of evidence for the existence of Antarctica gets shouted down from both sides, and those of us who find it useful to collect information about penguins, ice sheets, Mount Erebus, and equally forbidden and unhallowed topics have to go looking for data points in strange places.
Of course there’s one significant difference between Antarctica and the subject of the present post. Very few people ever go to Antarctica, while every one of us will someday travel across the southern oceans of my metaphor and set foot on the territory beyond. Knowing a little about penguins, ice sheets, Mount Erebus, et al. before we get there is thus arguably a very good idea.
One further note. The theory of reincarnation varies somewhat in detail from one tradition to another. The version I take most seriously is the one to be found in the teachings of the Druid Revival; it most closely matches my own experience as well as that of the scholarship mentioned above, and it also fits well with what we know of biological evolution, which (as we’ll also see in due time) has its own connection to the subject. Those of my readers who like to believe that human beings have a separate origin and destinty from other living beings will probably not appreciate what follows; those who, as Druids generally have done, recognize that one life flows through all things may find the following more congenial.
With that said, let’s proceed. The first thing to keep in mind when talking about reincarnation is that from the perspective we’re discussing, one of the core assumptions of modern thought—the notion that matter is the ultimate reality, and life and consciousness are products of matter—is utter hogwash. To the occultist, spirit is the ultimate reality, and matter is the last and least stable product of that reality. Matter seems solid to us only because it’s what our senses perceive. Thus the death of the physical body isn’t the end of the real person; it’s the shedding of an outer layer, not much more significant than what happens every night when you take off your clothes.
What we’re calling “spirit” isn’t a simple thing. To rework a turn of phrase from C.S. Lewis, it’s not a sort of vague mist that hovers around matter; it’s a complex, intricate, overwhelmingly powerful reality, and all other things derive from it in a cascading process that descends from level to level. Among many other things, that’s how a human life happens. A spirit moves down the planes, taking on mental, vital, and material bodies; it’s rather as though you put a silken glove on one of your hands, and then a glove of supple leather over the silk, and then an iron gauntlet over the leather. When life ends, in turn, the process unfolds in reverse: the iron gauntlet comes off, then the leather glove, then the silk glove, leaving the hand bare and free.
In the language of one school of occultism, the part of you that endures from life to life is called the Individuality. It’s not your personality, nor is it your thinking mind. You can perceive it very faintly if you look at something, then become aware of the you that’s looking at whatever it is, and try to follow that back to the pure conscious presence in you that’s perceiving what you look at. That’s what you are between lives—a center of awareness, with certain innate capacities of will and representation, and with an ability to remember what it has experienced.
The Personality, in the language of that same school, is a reflection of the Individuality that takes shape in the incarnate individual, starting in early childhood and slowly ripening into maturity. Unless you’ve done a lot of meditation, the Personality is probably what you think of when you say “me.” It’s a collection of habits: habits of action, perception, emotion, thought, and so on. Over the course of your life, those habits shape the Individuality, fostering certain kinds of will and representation at the expense of others. That reshaping of the Individuality then affects the Personality, as well as the vital and physical bodies, that you end up with in future lives.
Where does the Individuality come from? In the Druid teachings, the mineral realm is the material expression of an immense mass of undifferentiated Spirit. The old writings call it the Cauldron of Annwn from which souls are born. (Annwn is pronounced AN-oon.) Out of the Cauldron, Individualities are always being formed—but we’re not talking human Individualities, not at first. Here’s how an old teaching dialogue phrases it:
“Q. What wert thou before thou didst become human in the circle of Abred?
“A. I was in Annwn the least possible thing that was capable of life, and the nearest possible to absolute death, and I came in every form, and through every form capable of a body and life, to the state of humanity along the circle of Abred, where my condition was severe and grievous during an age of ages, ever since I was parted in Annwn from the dead.”
Abred—this is pronounced AH-bred—is the condition of physical incarnation. Each of us, according to the teaching, started out in incarnation as “the least possible thing that was capable of life”—in modern terms, our first body was the simplest sort of single-celled organism, with rudimentary mental and vital bodies, all surrounding a tiny point of awareness. Each of us went through countless brief lives in such forms, and each such life added a layer of potential to the point of awareness, a set of possible actions and reactions. Life after life after life, passing through countless living forms, we picked up the potentials for will and representation that made us able to take on more complex forms, explore more varied behaviors, take in a richer range of experiences, and proceed further.
The Druid teachings don’t romanticize the conditions under which this process unfolds; “my condition was severe and grievous,” says the dialogue, and with good reason. People who fantasize about being wolves, say, have rarely thought through what that actually means: a life spent sprinting through the wild in a desperate effort to fill the gnawing ache of hunger for a little while by tearing some other living creature to gobbets with your teeth, with death from starvation a constant threat on one side and death from injury, infection, or human gunfire an ever-present possibility on the other. The old Druid Revival writings get this. To pass through Abred, they say, it is necessary for each of us to be all things, to know all things, and to suffer all things.
Entering these lives, with their being, knowing, and suffering, the Individuality takes on the mental body that will eventually become a Personality, and the vital and physical bodies that give the Individuality an anchor in the world of matter. This isn’t a matter of choice, not yet—remember, the Individuality starts out as a tiny flickering point of awareness, unable to do much beyond perceiving the faint trickle of experience that comes through a bacterium’s organelles.
A process akin to reflex drives those countless early lives; this turns into a process akin to instinct as the Individuality matures. Choice doesn’t enter the picture until we reach the uppermost edge of Abred, where it borders on the next realm of being. Over and over again, the Individuality enters into incarnate life, adapts and grows, and then rises back into itself for a time to absorb the results of each life and prepare for the next one. That’s as true of the human level as it is of other levels, by the way; reincarnation isn’t immediate, except sometimes in the case of children who die very young and so have next to no experiences to absorb. Most of us are out of incarnation for at least a few years, and often much longer, between one life and the next; the phenomena reported in near-death studies are a pretty fair sketch of what entering that intermediate state is like.
Remember also that all this is unfolding across deep time. It took more than a billion years before the first Individualities to emerge from Annwn on this planet got past the single-celled organism stage. Things speeded up later, since those pioneering souls laid down patterns that later souls picked up more quickly, but we can gauge the slowness of the whole process we’re discussing by watching how long it took for really complex multicellular organisms to evolve.
We don’t happen to know when the first souls reached the upper boundary of Abred, the point at which human beings exist now. Most occult traditions agree that it was a very long time ago, and that our species is simply the current form, or one of the current forms, in which Individualities that have worked through the potentials of Abred incarnate before going on—or not. It’s not a given that other such forms had, or have, organs such as hands capable of manipulating the world the way we do; a pretty fair range of evidence suggests that whales and dolphins are just as conscious and intelligent as we are, and thus are at the upper edge of Abred as well, even though they lack the kind of organs that would allow them to tinker with stone tools, computer keyboards, and the like.
The upper boundary of Abred is the point at which instinct begins to give way to choice, where the Personality starts to be able to reflect on its own activities and experience itself as something that stands apart from its own habits of action, reaction, and so on. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that it has “free will” in any absolute sense. To begin with, it simply has a little wiggle room, the capacity to feed this set of emotions or that one, that train of thought or this one. It’s still mostly automatic—and each of us, if we reflect on ourselves honestly, will admit that there’s a lot of automatism even in our most conscious moments.
Under those circumstances, when we first reach the human level (or the equivalent in other forms), we pretty consistently make a botch of it. As we slip loose from from the guidance of instinct, we lay down clumsy patterns of perception, emotion, and thought that slam us face first into any number of awkward and ugly consequences. Time and suffering teach us to choose habits that have better results, and over many lives we become more reflective, more aware of our thoughts and feelings, more skilled at using our limited freedom of will, and—in due time—we begin to become aware of that still center of awareness at the core of it all, our Individuality. Our perspective shifts, sometimes slowly, sometimes all at once, and we experience ourselves as we actually are: not bodies, not lives, not personalities, but centers of pure awareness embodied in mental, vital, and material forms…
…and the door swings open to Gwynfydd.
Gwynfydd (that’s pronounced GWUN-vuth) means “the luminous life.’ It’s not heaven, not if by this you mean a static end point where the inmates bliss out for eternity. It’s not the end of a journey, but the beginning of the journey’s second half. In Abred, the Individuality is drowned in instinct, enclosed in mental, vital, and material forms, forgetful of its nature; in Gwynfydd the Individuality is awake and aware of itself, with full access to its memories from its previous lives, and its mental, vital, and material forms are freely chosen. One way of putting it is to say that in Abred, the spirit is wrapped up in matter, while in Gwynfydd, matter is caught up into spirit. Physical incarnation, in the sense of landing in another freshly born body, ends when Gwynfydd begins; material manifestation is still available, but it’s in other-than-human forms.
Having attained Gwynfydd, the Individuality now has an immensity of further development ahead of it. The traditional lore is emphatic that there are beings in Gwynfydd who are as far beyond human beings as human beings are beyond bacteria. Druids who prefer the old polytheist language refer to these higher beings as gods and goddesses; Druids who prefer Christian terms—yes, there are a lot of Christian Druids—refer to them in terms of the nine hierarchies of angels. Those beings were once where we are now. We have the capacity to get to where they are now—and by the time we get there, they’ll be something even further beyond our imaginations. (Human beings are never going to be top dog in the Druid cosmos. Deal.)
Will everyone make it to Gwynfydd? That’s been the Druid teaching since the dawn of the Revival. That doesn’t mean you can’t screw up and delay your arrival there by vast cycles of time. It’s also a Druid teaching that people routinely fall back to less complex and reflective forms of being—yes, that means animal forms—when they turn their backs on their human capacities, and then they have to haul themselves back up to the boundary of Abred, step by painful step, and try again. They can do that as many times as they wish, and cost themselves just as much misery as they choose. Eventually, over the course of deep time, they’ll get there.
Okay, let’s fill in a few details. First, plants belong to a different current of spiritual evolution than we do, and have their own roughly parallel pattern, with which we interact only at a distance. There are other kinds of beings, too, many of which don’t happen to have the same sort of material bodies we do. The world of traditional occultism is a crowded place, full of lives and minds on many different levels, and human beings have been remarkably clueless toward most of the other beings out there. Will we be getting a bill for that in due time? You bet.
Second, notice that this way of thinking about things explains why humanity in the mass never seems to progress spiritually or morally. Humanity is a stage through which Individualities pass. Those that attain Gwynfydd aren’t reborn as human beings, while there are always more souls being born as humans for the first time and making all the usual mistakes over again. Think of the way water flowing over a rock in a mountain stream forms a wave, which remains in place even though the water is constantly changing. Humanity is like that—and therefore the human world is never going to turn into Utopia or solve all its problems, because Gwynfydd is something each of us has to attain ourselves, as individuals, in our own time.
Third, this way of thinking also makes it possible to link three phenomena most people don’t connect: the unparalleled burgeoning of human population over the last century or so, the equally drastic declines in the populations of every other species of large intelligent mammal over that same interval, and the astonishing cluelessness with which most of the human population stumbles blindly ahead toward a wretched future. From the perspective of reincarnation, what’s happening is simple: a very large number of Individualities right now are experiencing their first-ever human lives, with no more success than usual. They’ll be fine; over the next few centuries, as the human population shrinks to a few per cent of current levels via the normal processes of demographic contraction, we can also expect the rapid speciation that’s usual in the wake of an extinction crisis to give rise to new animal forms, and the Individualities in question can process their brief experience of humanity, ripen their capacities further, and attempt the leap to Gwynfydd under better conditions later on.
Fourth, from this perspective, one core function of religion on the one hand, and of the mystery schools on the other, is to guide people toward Gwynfydd. Religion does it by bringing people into relationships with one or more of those beings I mentioned earlier, the ones who are as far beyond us as we are beyond bacteria, so that they can help us make the leap. The mystery schools do it by teaching exercises that help us awaken to self-knowledge and get rid of other obstacles to making the leap. There’s no contradiction between those two approaches, which is why many people do both, in and out of the occult community.
There’s a good deal more to the process, but at this point I think I’m going to open things up for discussion—subject to the usual rules, of course.
In other news, the latest issue of Into the Ruins, the world’s premier (well, at the moment, also the world’s only) magazine of deindustrial science fiction, is hitting the virtual newsstands as we speak. I’m still waiting for my copy, but to judge by previous issues it’ll be full of stories worth reading, about the kind of futures we can actually expect. Those of my readers who haven’t yet gotten a subscription can find the juicy details here.