Buddhists believe that we are reincarnated many times until we are able to achieve perfection. If this is true, it brings up many questions about the nature of our personality. Do we start out each life with the same personality traits or are they completely replaced each time with one that is shaped by a combination of genetics and environment? Does our personality evolve slowly over multiple lives, or is it completely changed by the new physical and mental traits that we inherit and the environment into which we are born (nature versus nurture)? When we die, do we instantly remember all of our previous lives and suddenly understand why we acted like such a moron when we were alive? If we discover that we’ve had vastly different personalities among our past lives, what is the final result? After death, do we instantly change by adopting only our favorite characteristics or do we have to go to some kind of school in which we analyze and learn more from our life lessons?
We have to recognize that our bodies have tremendous influence over our personality. In effect, we live in a chemical bath that strongly influences our moods, abilities and intelligence. Our bodies impose limitations on what we can do, think or feel, especially when we are severely mentally or physically handicapped. Let’s say that in one life you are the son of great warriors, a strong man with a lot of testosterone who releases a lot of endorphins and has an over-active thyroid. In the next life, you are the daughter of slaves, a frail woman with tremendous surges of progesterone every month who doesn’t produce enough endorphins and has an under-active thyroid. You go from being an aggressive, happy, physically fit, macho man to that of an overworked, depressed, moody, overweight woman. How much of your “real” personality is in there and how much has been influenced by your body? Now, let’s say you go from life in a racist, militant tribe of cannibals to a life in a peace-loving, tree-hugging commune? How much of you has been influenced by your social environment? Who are you really? How do you reconcile your multiple personalities?
If you are gay, is it really just the leftover feelings towards the opposite sex from a previous life? What if your former lover comes back as your sibling, child, or parent? This is exactly what some spiritualists say happens. Are some of the relationships that are considered inappropriate in today’s society just the result of reincarnation? Sure, I can hear the excuses now. Just to be safe, be careful how you treat your loved ones and your enemies too or they really might just come back and torment you!
People who claim to speak with deceased spirits often characterize them as though they still have the same personality they did when they were alive. They are still cranky or cheerful or whatever, although they often seem to have learned something and want to convey some message. If true, this indicates that people do not change much after death. Whatever previous lives they had before the most recent one must somehow have already been incorporated into their personality while they were still alive.
Sometimes spirits supposedly show remorse and ask for forgiveness for wrongs they committed upon those who are still alive. If our personality were to change dramatically after death, I don’t think we would bother to ask for forgiveness from our loved ones. First of all, we might not even love them anymore if we saw everything in a new context and knew that everyone alive was just a temporary condition of his current environment. Second, we would probably realize that our actions were the result of the unique conditions created by our former body and physical environment. So, why would we bother to ask forgiveness for the actions of our former self if that self was not representative of whom we really are? Third, we would know that our loved ones would eventually come to understand this situation when they die too.
These questions and what limited knowledge we have about deceased spirits point us to a logical answer. If reincarnation is a fact, then it must continually shape our personality from life to life. What you see really is who we are, although our bodies still may affect us in minor ways. Perhaps our personality actually influences our body more than our body influences us. The great American healer and psychic Edgar Cayce used to say “the mind is the builder and the body is the result.”
There are many more questions to ask. Is there a purpose for not being able to consciously remember past lives or is it just a random effect of the interaction between the spirit and the body? Most good cases of supposed reincarnation involve young children remembering what seem to be past lives and correctly identifying facts from those lives. But after a few years, these memories seem to fade. Why do memories from early childhood tend to fade? Our bodies are rapidly developing and our minds are rapidly learning and storing as much as possible, so why does it just disappear into our subconscious? Is there a reason or is it just because our brains are too immature to properly store the data? Could it be because we need to start out life with a clean memory so that we don’t try and continue where our previous life left off? If we did, there might be a lot of little kids running away from home looking for their loved ones, seeking revenge, or doing whatever it is they used to like doing last time. We might just wallow in misery that our loved ones were all gone and we certainly wouldn’t listen to our new parents.
The failure to remember past lives seems to have a good purpose, but is it a limitation deliberately imposed on us because we have a reason for coming back that would be frustrated by a good memory? Some psychics claim that, after we die, we decide what additional life lessons we need to learn and agree to be reincarnated to learn those lessons. This doesn’t make much sense to me, since understanding your flaws is at least half of the battle. If I decide that I need to learn to be more patient or less angry, well I think I’m already most of the way there. Why would I want to go through another life not knowing what I need to learn and having to figure it out again the hard way? Wouldn’t it help to keep at least some of our old memories? Would remembering a past life really interfere with our ability to learn something new?
Maybe it would. Maybe the purpose of the subconscious and of dreams is to keep memories hidden away, but too far hidden. We still need the memories to guide us in our lives, but not too explicitly. By the time we are old, however, we might have too much memory for our own good. Elderly people are notorious for not wanting to learn new things. We may have accumulated a lot of experience and wisdom, but we don’t seem to be able to handle change or override all those old prejudices. Maybe we need to die and start over again just to stuff all those memories away and keep learning.
If all this reincarnation stuff is true, it implies that our brains and our bodies may be designed for a reason rather than just the result of random evolution. Either that, or evolution applies to our souls as well. Maybe our souls can only evolve if our bodies make it possible. Bodies that permit memories of past lives might not survive as well because they make it difficult for its inhabiting souls to continue to learn and adapt. In that case, the souls that evolve the best will be those that inhabit the most suitable bodies. Good characteristics of a body would be those that dream and permit a strong subconscious influence, or instinct. In other words, people who have a strong intuition, based on subconscious memories from past lives, may have an evolutionary advantage.
Those bodies might not necessarily have to be human. If animals dream and have a strong instinct, is it for the same reason as humans? Are they also accessing memories from past lives? If so, are animal bodies suitable places for a reincarnating soul? Some psychics claim to have communicated with deceased pets that can express emotions. If this is the case, then maybe animals also have souls. But are they any different in nature from the souls of humans?
This brings us to a related question. Is our intelligence independent of our body? If we inhabit a mentally-impaired body, do we continue to have low intelligence after we die or is it just a temporary limitation? Are animal souls limited by the capacity of their former brains or are they really just as smart as us after they die? Are some souls only as intelligent as a poodle while other souls are as intelligent as Einstein? Is that why some kids show unimaginable genius when they are very young? What about plants and bugs and rocks? Are they inhabited by-really dumb souls low on the evolution scale? Do they get the chance to move up to a better body next time? Do human souls sometimes move down the evolutionary scale or die out by inhabiting lower-quality bodies?