Tag Archives: reincarnation

Karmic Druid

Karma crops up in a number of traditions. There’s reason to think the ancient Celts believed in reincarnation, and that debts could be repaid in future lives, but we don’t really know if they had the kinds of ideas that crop up in other cultures. We don’t have clear rules about how to feel and behave (maybe our ancestors did). This means that we don’t have a clear collective sense of what actions would constitute good or bad karma for a Druid.

Karma can be seen as a form of justice, repaying us for good work, punishing mistakes. That can be comforting if you get no justice in this life. It can encourage us not to seek justice, and to blame victims (it only happened to you because you have bad karma). I do not like that attitude. If we mistake material success for spiritual reward, we’re on a very slippery slope, with those who have money and power effectively getting some kind of divine endorsement to do as they please, and no responsibility for those less well off. If poverty is proof you were a ‘bad person’ in a former life, there are problems for your whole culture, and there will be no compassion.

I happen to think compassion is a good thing.

I’m troubled by the idea of karma as some sort of points system, a bit like a store loyalty cards, where you save up good karma for a reward. It tends to suppose that someone or something is keeping score, and that there are mechanisms by which this can occur. It seems a rather restrictive way of thinking about existence, and not actually helpful. Especially given we don’t know what the rules are.

Tentative forays into Jainism presented me with some interesting ideas. Jains view karma as being more like a substance, or set of substances, that stick to you as a result of your actions. So, do good things, get good karma sticking to you. No external judgement is required, it’s a simple mechanism akin to eat more chocolate, gain more weight. Interestingly Jains don’t see good karma as an entirely good thing. Any karma ties you into the cycle of death and rebirth, the aim is to escape from karma. So, while good karma is better than bad karma, the idea is to step out of life and not have any karma at all. For a Druid whose path very much affirms being in the world, this is not a perspective I can work with. Nonetheless, it is an interesting idea to consider.

The more science is able to tell us about structures in the body and the way the mind functions, the clearer it becomes that what we do shapes who we are. How we think forms pathways in the brain. What we think forms habits, paths we quickly and easily walk. Our lifestyles shape our bodies, in all kinds of ways. We are what we eat, what we drink, what we breathe. We are how much exercise we get. We are our stress and fear, our hope and delight. It all contributes to us as corporeal beings. Mind, emotion and body are not separate things, but part of the same system.

For me, karma is what we do to ourselves. It is the bodily legacy of our own choices. That doesn’t mean the shit that comes into our lives is deserved and of our making. It means that how we react to the crap, and to the good stuff, is who we are, and that’s our karma. I don’t know if we take that with us beyond death or not, but there’s plenty enough to be going along with in this life.

I perceive the world as fearful, hostile and unkind. Often I find that the word is a scary, hostile, unkind sort of place. How much of this is to do with how I choose to make sense of my experiences, how I choose to live what happens to me? Could I choose differently? I talked recently about choosing innocence. Could I go further and choose not to be afraid, even as alarming things bear down on me? And if I could change that, would I not have changed my karma?

Pagan ethics generally are, as Christine Hoff Kraemer has identified, largely virtue ethics. In cultivating personal virtues, we shape our paths and ourselves. I am increasingly of the opinion that I want courage as a personal virtue. The only way to get it is by cultivating it. Courage fits well with what I know of the Celts, it strikes me as being a good, Druidic virtue to aspire to. I want to believe I can survive and thrive. I want not to be afraid anymore. I do not want to feel that all the bad stuff in my life is somehow of my making.

Reincarnation stories

I’m currently reading David Lacey’s ‘The Karma of Everyday Life’ and I suspect I’ll be back to ponder karma another day. Usually karma turns up in belief systems that also include reincarnation, although it could be applied as a one lifetime process. I don’t have any strong opinions about what happens after we die, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m entirely at ease with my own uncertainty. There are things that make me wonder though.

I have some very early memories from this lifetime. One of the things that strikes me about those recollections from the time when I was really small, is just how big my vocabulary was. I have a better memory for words than images at the best of times so am reasonably confident I’ve not added this later on. Being small enough to play under the coffee table and hearing the word ‘obsessed’ is one such example. I was talking early.

My family were not, I think, any weirder, more funny about nudity or more keen on covering up than any other typically repressed English household in the second half of the twentieth century. Me, on the other hand… I couldn’t bear nudity. I remember having a rash that might have been measles, and arguing with my parents that I did not want to have to show the Doctor my bottom. Ok the rash was worse there, but I had rash other places. I was made to do it though, and the burning shame and humiliation made for a powerful memory. My experience of other small children is that you tend to have more trouble getting them to not show you their bums, their underwear, etc.

I couldn’t stand it if adult males were topless around me. That filled me with feelings of fear and loathing (now, thankfully overcome!) It went further though. I loved cuddly toys, but they had to have pants too. Really. So obsessed was I with this issue, that I figured out a knitting pattern all by myself and I knitted pants for bears. Many bears. If someone had told me that you could cover up the scandalous, exposed legs of tables, I’d have been right there.

I arrived in this world with middle class Victorian sensibilities about nudity and clothing. I have no rational explanation for this. I didn’t like wearing trousers at all as a little girl, that felt almost immoral. I’ve since got over that one, too.

On the plus side, it gives me something to tap into for the period literature. I don’t have to imagine what it would feel like for it to be shocking if a man saw your ankles. I know that feeling. That sense of other people’s bodies as somehow alarming and wrong… I recall my father pointing out to me that, underneath the clothes, everyone is naked, and how sick that made me feel. A Victorian gentlewoman does not like to have such things pointed out to her, and there was one such creature living inside my childhood head. I remember the horror that came with understanding how reproduction works in the natural world, and realising that we humans might not be wholly different. That wasn’t a happy discovery for me. (Again, I got over it). I don’t struggle to imagine what an uninformed Victorian virgin might have gone through in face of the realities of marriage…

Paganism has been a great antidote to this, learning to be ok in my skin and with nature as it manifests in the human form. I started life in a very odd place, a hundred years out of date and desperately confused by everything around me. Reincarnation? I don’t know. And that’s without getting started on the fear of fire, and the meltdown I went into watching The Name of the Rose for the first time. I’m not squeamish, but show me a stake and I cease to function.

Theories of reincarnation

Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism all emerged from the same roots, bringing into the world a hierarchical concept of reincarnation that has been absorbed somewhat into New Age thinking. We know the ancient Celts believed something along the lines of reincarnation but we don’t have much detail. It’s easy, and therefore tempting, to import the ideas of other cultures to fill in the gaps.

While I like the idea of reincarnation (matter, after all, gets reused, why not spirit?) I don’t like all of the baggage. Far too many New Age folk are willing to accept superficial wealth and material success as proof of good karma and blame misfortune on bad karma, even going as far as to suggest disability is a consequence of bad karma. That’s hideous, illogical and a way of abdicating responsibility. Why would material wealth be a reflection of your spiritual condition anyway? If we think about the majority of spiritual teachings, there are plenty of reasons to argue that poverty is a spiritual advantage (easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, and all that). Material wealth, in every seriously spiritual context, is a trap and a distraction from real life. The only people who seem to advocate it as a spiritual good, also seem more interested in material wealth than anything else and I’m prepared to bet that’s not a coincidence.

Another problem I have with this system of reincarnation is that it suggests something or someone is keeping score for all of us, to decide who to punish and who to reward, and that starts to sound like all the things I dislike in monotheism. I’ve been reading about Jainism this week, and they understand karma as a substance that attaches itself to your soul and by its presence, dictates what you are capable of doing. Good karma gives you auspicious opportunities to grow and develop, bad karma can ultimately reduce you to being a hell-bound type creature, but what you suffer is precisely the hell you have created. There’s something very pleasing about that idea, I think.

Then there’s this whole business of what constitutes a ‘better’ incarnation. The widespread understanding is that being a human represents a pinnacle in earthly achievement and from human state you can ascend to something even better. I can’t help but feel this opinion has everything to do with us, as a species, thinking rather too well of ourselves. As a Druid, it doesn’t chime with me at all. Everything has spirit. Why should our manifestation be considered ‘superior’?

Consider the number of other creatures who clearly devote a lot of time to quiet contemplation. By the looks of it, my cat meditates far more than I do. Dolphins strike a lot of people as being very spiritual creatures. How about elephants? Wouldn’t it be progress to reincarnate as an elephant? Although this rather assumes the existence of progress or that one form is better than another, and really we have no idea.
With the Druid hat pulled down firmly over my ears last night, I came to a conclusion. A longer lived entity has more lifetime over which to develop spiritually. All Eastern reincarnation traditions seem to have aspects of renouncing the world, becoming still, quiet, sometimes inactive as the last step before transcending. This does not sound like people to me. This sounds like trees. Then I went on to think about the spirits of mountains, and other very old things that have had time to become, and are no doubt still becoming. You’d need a lot of human incarnations to keep up with that.

I’m not that convinced by the idea of reincarnating into some higher, unearthly state of being any time soon. I’m not so troubled by the woes and wonders of this world that I feel a need to transcend them. I’m interested in learning how to do as good a job as I can at being alive. That may mean I am simply a very long way from being able to transcend, but that doesn’t trouble me much either. Give me a few thousand more runs round the wheel and maybe I will know differently. In the meantime, I rather like the idea of coming back as a tree.

Tales of spirit and afterlife

One of my core beliefs is that we cannot know what comes after this life. We can guess, and we can make up stories but the uncertainty is intrinsic to the human condition, and I am sceptical about any claims to knowing. However, ideas about the afterlife shape what many people do in this one, and it’s nice to have some kind of working model to pin current existence to. Up until recently I had a very simple working model – accepting the state of not knowing, I would assume there was nothing beyond my own biology and no afterlife, and live accordingly. So while I’m a spiritual person, I have adopted a more atheistic mindset for how I approach life. It’s a good, pragmatic approach, but it lacked spirit and I’ve never been wholly easy with it.

What I’m going to share today is the new story about the afterlife that I’ve been working on, and have decided to adopt. It owes a bit to Phillip Pullman, there’s nothing especially original here.

If we took my computer apart, we would not find the internet inside it. We would not find the means to create and store the entire internet either. If the internet was an unproven, theoretical idea and we thought maybe it didn’t exist, we might find my computer passably supported this. And at time of writing, I’m not online. The quest for internet, from the boat, is frequently an act of faith and devotion! Now, there is no cluster of cells in the brain that can happily be designated as the soul. We’re not even entirely clear on how consciousness works. Hopefully you see where I’m going with this. What if consciousness and soul are to the body what internet is to the computer? Or the television and radio signals are to those devices? Without getting bogged down in the metaphor, there is room in a rational reality for things that make a thing go, but do not live inside it.

Now, what if soul is not a single, indestructible lump of stuff? What if it has more in common with the rest of physical reality, such that it can disintegrate, and change? So when we get to the end of our lives, our continuation as a coherent spiritual identity might depend on a number of things – strength of soul and personality, having the kind of self that is able to survive (what would than mean?) being happy enough with oneself to want to continue, intact, into another form. A person could choose to merge into the whole, Nirvana style. They could choose to disintegrate from self loathing. They could choose to reincarnate. They could be too weak to do anything but disintegrate.

I like this for a number of reasons. All those people who think they were Napoleon in a former life get to be sort of right, they have a bit of something that once was, and those kinds of famous, high impact spirits are likely to be more visible even if you only get a shard. There is no requirement for an external judge in this story, we do it to ourselves, we get to choose. There is continuation of spirit, but not necessarily continuation of conscious awareness, which would explain why some of us remember bits of past life and some do not. There is room to find more than one person in life for whom you feel deep soul resonance, because there may be many souls with whom you have some sparks in common. There may be scope (I nod to Pullman here) for those who are very close to become part of the same entity after death. This story holds room for change, chaos and uncertainty, but also for continuity, it’s not offering any kind of clear certainty, but lots of possibility. There is scope for inherent justice within it, because to get to choose what happens to you after life, you will need the kind of soul whole enough, aware enough, strong enough to do that. What people will get at the end would depend a great deal on what they have done along the way.

While this story does not require the presence of a judgemental deity, it also doesn’t preclude the idea of deity, and I like that too. After all, what does happen to a really enlightened, really powerful soul that has been through various incarnations? There’s room to birth gods here.

I know it’s a story. I might be right, I might not, and I hold that uncertainty very carefully. I like this story because it has scope to be useful, and it gives me a new way of looking at the world. I’ve spent a decade or so with the ‘no afterlife’ story informing what I do, and that was interesting, but it’s time to experiment with a new perspective and see what I can learn by holding it. No doubt at some point along the way I will feel the urge to fettle it. I may even abandon it entirely in favour of something else. This is an idea I am increasingly comfortable with. Our relationship with reality must grow and change as we do. All good relationships grow and change if we stay in them. Absence of change is not a hallmark of fidelity, it’s a very slow way of smothering something to death.