Looking Beyond the Material

By Sarah Belle Dougherty 

The idea of reincarnation has a wide-reaching influence on our thoughts, enlarging our perspective on personal and world events. It makes us think about who we are and the nature of the world we inhabit. Why were we born with our unique personality in this place and time, contacting certain people and not others? Such "givens" in our lives are generally attributed to chance, divine providence, or even materialistic determinism -- forces perceived as outside ourselves. Reincarnation, however, focuses attention on the invisible but very real aspects of our nature and their evolution shaped by causes we have set in motion in various lives. It introduces the possibility of an aeons-long continuum of individual existence. Further, reimbodiment implies that all things, not just human beings, are rooted in unseen strata of existence that underlie the material world reported by our senses.

Certainly experience tells us how much more there is to a human being than the outer shell that we can see. By recognizing only the physical world, the materialistic science that has dominated intellectual life for the last 150 years has conditioned us to view anything else as unreal or, at most, a material by-product; but, although we identify strongly with our physical self and sense perceptions, it is clearly our invisible self -- with feelings, thoughts, reactions, will, and desires that is the real person, the one whom we think of as our self and who responds to and acts upon inner and outer circumstances. Reincarnation proposes that this "real person" survives physical death to return to earth again and again as a human being. Instead of tracing all events to environment, to causes in our present life, or even to supernatural agencies, reincarnation shifts our attention to our inner self-heredity. We find that we are responsible for our present circumstances, for who we are now as well as who we will be in the future, because in former lives we have brought out of ourselves the character, abilities, and tendencies which are with us today. These do not emerge as mere vague trends; we are drawn to a particular situation by causes we have set in motion which create an inner affinity. There are, for instance, specific reasons behind our being born into a particular family in a certain place and time. We are psychomagnetically drawn to parents who can provide a life-situation tailored to our own innate characteristics and karma. The child too is best suited to fulfill the karmic needs of his parents. Such things are not a matter of chance or accident, or simply of material processes. Material processes reflect inner processes, with causes operating on many different levels throughout the universe. So while we are necessarily parts of worlds of matter and time which influence us, we are not ultimately limited by them.

Even though we rarely know any details about our connections with others in former lives, we can better understand and accept our present relationships when we see them as rooted in past mutual action. The country we live in, the people we meet, those we are close to, the situations we find ourselves in, are the result of our interactions with people in many lives. If death is merely an interruption in our relationships, using or hurting others can never be in our own interests, whatever the apparent consequences or lack of consequences. Not only does each thought and act help make us what we are, but the energies we set in motion between ourselves and others will in time have their effect, determining the situations and people we will attract in the future. This is a very hopeful idea, for when we fail to treat someone as we would wish to, or are not able to come to terms with a particular person or situation, we know that eventually we will have opportunities to work out these relationships in the way we need in order to learn and grow. Realizing that all of us have innumerable lifetimes of experience behind us encourages us to draw on the reservoirs of inner strengths we have built up in ourselves and also to have a greater respect for the intrinsic dignity and worth of others.

This predominance of inner factors also affects our view of society and human history. Humanity appears, not as a parade of one-time-only individuals, but as a large group of evolving entities which imbody over and over on earth, forming complex relationships with each other individually and socially. We generally try to trace patterns of causation and progress from generation to generation and civilization to civilization in an unbroken line. Reincarnation introduces another dimension: causes that leap the vast periods of time between the incarnations of individuals -- perhaps thousands of years -- to come into effect when the people involved are united again centuries later. There is a cyclic appearance of people and groups of people, who bring with them the predispositions for certain actions and ways of thought because of what they have been and done together in the past -- karmic impulses which must find manifestation as results.

Recognizing such long-range causes makes us aware of the tremendous heritage of collective karma, positive and negative, which influences all of us. We cannot afford to drift along on the currents of collective tendencies without danger of falling into attitudes and actions we really do not wish to encourage by our participation. Because these influences are often subtle, it is important to examine our actions and attitudes carefully to ensure that they do conform to our individual beliefs and ideals. Being a member of any group, even if only one among hundreds or millions, carries a very real responsibility because everything we do or think matters, even if we cannot see the results within our lifetime. In the context of reincarnation, no action or decision is ever lost: its essence becomes a part of us and so helps make us what we are. It also affects the world around us and those effects will rebound upon us and our fellow beings in time to come. Thus, each one of us is important regardless of our outer prominence: each has an impact on the whole we help to form simply by our inner quality and that of our thoughts and actions.

And what is this whole we help form? Our connections with others extend far beyond the human race. We imbody on earth again and again because we are truly children of our planet and sun, bound to the earth and its inhabitants by strong ties of cause and effect based in mutual action, ties stretching back beyond the origin of the solar system. We are just as intimately connected with the entities which make us up -- our own cells and atoms, our emotions, thoughts, and characteristics. We are attracted to all these beings, great and small, and they to us, by sympathetic links which are strengthened or weakened at every instant. Far from being adrift in a material universe, a rare bloom of conscious life, we are integral parts of a living system, most of which exists beyond the range of our senses: like us, it is formed of divinity and consciousness as well as matter.

Our present life is part of a pattern we have been weaving with countless others since time began. The design is ever-changing because none of us is static, even for an instant. In each present moment we are determining what our future self and relationships will be. Just knowing that we have already traversed an infinite past should give us an unshakable confidence in our own resources as we continue to exist and grow, with those around us, into the infinite future.

(From Sunrise magazine, December 1985/January 1986; copyright © 1985 Theosophical University Press)

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