The Inner Life, v. II/Fourth Section/IV
HOW PAST LIVES ARE SEEN
As a series of past lives of enthralling interest has recently been published in The Theosophist, many enquiries have been received as to the exact method by which the record of such lives is read by the investigators. It is not easy to explain the matter satisfactorily to those who have not themselves the power to see them, but some attempt at a description of the process may at least help students on the way towards comprehension.
To begin with, it is by no means easy to explain what the record is which is to be read. A suggestion leading towards an idea of it may perhaps be obtained by imagining a room with a huge pier-glass at one end. Everything which took place in that room would be reflected in that mirror. If we further suppose that mirror to be endowed with the properties of a kind of perpetual cinematograph, so that it records all which it reflects, and can afterwards under certain circumstances be made to reproduce it, we have advanced one stage towards understanding how the record presents itself. But we must add to our conception qualities which no mirror ever possessed — the power to reproduce all sounds as a phonograph does, and also to reflect and reproduce thoughts and feelings.
Then we must further try to understand what the reflection in a mirror really is. If two persons stand in relation to a mirror so that each sees in it not himself but the other, it is obvious that the same area of glass is reflecting the two images. Therefore if we suppose the glass to retain permanently every image which has ever been cast upon it (perhaps it actually does!) it is again clear that the same part of the glass must be simultaneously recording those two images. Move up and down and from side to side, and you will soon convince yourself that every particle of glass must be simultaneously recording every part of every object in the room, and that what you happen to see in it depends upon the position of your eye. Hence it also follows that no two people can ever see at the same moment exactly the same reflection in a mirror, any more than two people can see the same rainbow, because two physical eyes cannot simultaneously occupy exactly the same point in space.
What we have supposed to happen with regard to the particles of our mirror does really happen with regard to every particle of every substance. Every stone by the roadside contains an indelible record of everything that has ever passed it, but this record cannot (so far as we yet know) be recovered from it so as to be visible to the ordinary physical senses, though the more developed sense of the psychometrist perceives it without difficulty.
How is it possible, men ask, for an inanimate particle to register and reproduce impressions? The answer is that the particle is not inanimate, and that the life which ensouls it is part of the Divine Life. Indeed, another way in which one may attempt to describe the record is to say that it is the memory of the LOGOS Himself, and that each particle is somehow in touch with that part of that memory which includes the events which have taken place in its neighbourhood, or what we may call within sight of it. It is probable that what we call our memory is nothing but a similar power of coming into touch (though often very imperfectly) with that part of His memory which refers to events which we happen to have seen or known.
So we might say that every man carries about with him on the physical plane two memories of anything which he has seen — his brain-memory, which is often imperfect or inaccurate, and the memory enshrined in any unchanged particles of his body or of the clothes that he wears, which is always perfect and accurate, but is available only for those who have learnt how to read it. Remember also that the brain-memory may be inaccurate, not only because it is itself imperfect, but because the original observation may have been defective. Also that it may have been coloured by prejudice: we see, to a large extent, what we wish to see, and we can remember an event only as it appeared to us, though we may have seen it partially or wrongly. But from all these defects the record is entirely free.
It is obvious that a man's physical body can have neither a memory nor a record of a past incarnation in which it did not participate; and the same is true of his astral and mental bodies, since all these vehicles are new for each new incarnation. This at once shows us that the lowest level at which we can hope to get really reliable information about past lives is that of the causal body, for nothing below that can give us first-hand evidence. In those previous lives the ego in his causal body was present — at least a certain small part of him was — and so he is an actual witness; whereas all lower vehicles were not witnesses, and can only report what they have received from him. When we recollect how imperfect is the communication between the ego and the personality in the ordinary man, we shall at once see how entirely unreliable such second, third, or fourth-hand testimony is likely to be. One may sometimes obtain from the astral or mental bodies isolated pictures of events in a man's past life, but not a sequential and coherent account of it; and even those pictures are but reflections from the causal body, and probably very dim and blurred reflections.
Therefore to read past lives with accuracy the first thing necessary is to develope the faculties of the causal body. Turning those faculties upon the causal body of the man to be examined, we have before us the same two possibilities as in the case of the physical man. We can take the ego's own memory of what happened, or we can as it were psychometrise him and see for ourselves the experiences through which he has passed. The latter method is the safer, for even the ego, since he has seen these things through a past personality, may have imperfect or prejudiced impressions of them.
This then is the mechanism of the ordinary method of investigating past lives — to use the faculties of one's own causal body, and by its means to psychometrise the causal body of the subject. The thing could be done at lower levels by psychometrisation of the permanent atoms, but as this would be a much more difficult feat than the unfolding of the senses of the causal body it is not at all likely ever to be attempted successfully. Another method (which, however, requires much higher development) is to use the buddhic faculties — to become absolutely one with the ego under investigation, and read his experiences as though they were one's own — from within instead of from without. Both of these methods have been employed by those who prepared the series of lives which appear in The Theosophist, and the investigators have also had the advantage of the intelligent co-operation of the ego whose incarnations are described.
The physical presence of the subject whose lives are being read is an advantage, but not a necessity; he is useful if he can keep his vehicles perfectly calm, but if he becomes excited he spoils everything.
The surroundings are not specially important, but quiet is essential, as the physical brain must be calm if impressions are to be brought through clearly. Everything which comes down to the physical level from the causal body must pass through the mental and the astral vehicles, and if either of these is disturbed it reflects imperfectly, just as the least rippling of the surface of a lake will break up or distort the images of the trees or houses upon its banks. It is necessary also to eradicate absolutely all prejudices, otherwise they will produce the effect of stained glass; they will colour everything which is seen through them, and so give a false impression.
In looking at past lives it has always been our custom to retain full physical consciousness, so as to be able to make a note of everything while it is being observed. This is found to be a much safer method than to leave the physical body during the observations, and then trust to memory for their reproduction. There is however a stage at which this latter plan is the only one available, when the student, though able to use the causal body, can do so only while the physical vehicle is asleep.
The identification of the various characters encountered in these glimpses of the past sometimes presents a little difficulty, for naturally egos change considerably in the course of twenty thousand years or so. Fortunately, with a little practice it is possible to pass the record in review as rapidly or as slowly as may be desired; so when there is any doubt as to identification we always adopt the plan of running quickly along the line of lives of the ego under observation, until we trace him to the present day. Some investigators, when they see an ego in some remote life, at once feel an intuition as to his present personality; but though such a flash of intuition may often be right, it may certainly also sometimes be wrong, and the more laborious method is the only one which is thoroughly reliable.
There are cases in which even after many thousands of years the egos of ordinary people are instantly recognisable; but that does not speak particularly well for them, because it means that during all that time they have made but little progress. To try to recognise twenty thousand years ago some one whom one knows at the present day is rather like meeting as an adult some one whom one knew long ago as a little child. In some cases recognition is possible; in other cases the change has been too great. Those who have since become Masters of the Wisdom are often instantly recognisable, even thousands of years ago, but that is for a very different reason. When the lower vehicles are already fully in harmony with the ego, they form themselves in the likeness of the Augoeides, and so change very little from life to life. In the same way when the ego himself is becoming a perfect reflection of the monad, he also changes but little, but gradually grows; and so he is readily recognisable.
In examining a past life the easiest way of all would be to let the record drift past us at its natural rate, but that would mean a day's work to look up the events of each day, and a lifetime spent upon each incarnation. As has been said, it is possible to accelerate or retard the passage of events, so that a period of thousands of years may be run through rapidly, or on the other hand any particular picture may be held as long as is desired, so that it may be examined in detail. The acceleration or retardation may perhaps be compared to the hastening or slackening of the movement of a panorama; a little practice gives the power to do this at will, but as in the case of the panorama, the whole record is really there all the time.
What I have described as the unrolling of the record rapidly or slowly at will is in reality a movement not of the record, but of the consciousness of the seer. But the impression which it gives is exactly as I have stated it. The records may be said to lie upon one another in layers, the more recent on the top and the older ones behind. Yet even this simile is misleading, because it inevitably suggests the idea of thickness, whereas these records occupy no more space than does the reflection on the surface of a mirror. When the consciousness passes through them, it does not really move in space at all; it rather puts on itself, as a kind of cloak, one or other of the layers of the record, and in doing so it finds itself in the midst of the action of the story.
One of the most tiresome tasks connected with this branch of enquiry is the determination of exact dates. In fact, some investigators frankly decline to undertake it, saying that it is not worth the trouble, and that a round number is sufficient for all practical purposes. Probably it is; yet there is a feeling of satisfaction in getting even details as accurate as possible, even at the cost of tedious counting up to very high numbers. Our plan is of course to establish certain fixed points and then use those as a basis for further calculation.
One such fixed point is the date 9,564 B.C., when the sinking of Poseidonis took place. Another is the date 75,025 B.C., for the commencement of the great previous catastrophe. In the course of the investigation of the lives of Alcyone we have thus established a number of points, up to the date of 22,662 B.C., and as those lives were worked backwards, and the intervals were therefore counted one by one and not all at once, the scheme was not too insufferably tedious, as it certainly would be with very large numbers. In certain cases astronomical means are also employed. A description of these different methods will be found in my book on Clairvoyance.
It is on the whole somewhat easier to read lives forwards than backwards, because in that case we are working with the natural flow of time instead of against it. So the usual plan is to run rapidly to some selected point in the past, and then work slowly forwards from that. It must be remembered that at first sight it is rarely possible to estimate accurately the relative importance of the minor events of a life, so we often skim over it first, to see from what actions or occurrences the really important changes flow, and then go back and describe those more in detail. If the investigator himself happens to be one of the characters in the life which he is examining, there opens before him the interesting alternative of actually putting himself back into that old personality, and feeling over again just what he felt in that ancient time. But in that case he sees everything exactly as he saw it then, and knows no more than he knew then.
Few of those who read the life-stories, which are often somewhat meagre outlines, will have any conception of the amount of labour which has been bestowed upon them — of the hours of work which have sometimes been given to the full comprehension of some trifling detail, so that the picture finally presented may be as nearly a true one as is possible. At least our readers may be sure that no pains have been spared to ensure accuracy, though this is often no easy task when we are dealing with conditions and modes of thought as entirely different from our own as though they belonged to another planet.
The languages employed are almost always unintelligible to the investigator, but as the thoughts behind the words lie open before him that matters little. On several occasions those who were doing the work have copied down public inscriptions which they could not understand, and have afterwards had them translated on the physical plane by someone to whom the ancient language was familiar.
A vast amount of work is represented by the sets of lives which are now appearing; may that labour bring its fruit in a more vivid realisation of the mighty civilisations of the past and a clearer comprehension of the working of the laws of karma and reincarnation. Since the first set of lives which appeared have culminated in the initiation of the hero in his present incarnation, they are surely a valuable study for those whose aspiration is to become the pupils of a Master of the Wisdom, for their own progress should be the more rapid when they have learnt how a brother has attained the goal towards which they are striving. This progress has been made the more easy for them because that brother has taken the trouble to record for us in that most admirable little book At the Feet of the Master the teachings which led him to that goal.
About a hundred and fifty of those who are at present members of the Theosophical Society are the prominent characters in the drama which lies before the readers of The Theosophist; and it is deeply interesting to note how those who in the past have often been linked by the ties of blood-relationship, though born this time in countries thousands of miles apart, are yet brought together by their common interest in Theosophical study, and bound to one another more closely by their love for the Masters than they could ever have been by any mere earthly connection.
There are two sources of possible error in examining the records clairvoyantly; first, personal bias, and secondly, limited views. There are fundamental differences of temperament, and these cannot but colour the views taken of other planes. The adept has a perfect perception of life, but below that level we are sure to have some prejudices. The man of the world magnifies unimportant details and omits all the important things, because he is in the habit of doing that in daily life; but on the other hand a man starting on the Path may, in his enthusiasm, lose for a time his touch with the ordinary human life from which he has emerged. Even then he has made a great advance, for those who see the inside of things are nearer to the truth than those who see only the outside.
The statements of clairvoyants may and must be coloured by opinions already formed, as was clearly the case with Swedenborg, who used a very narrow Christian terminology to describe the facts of the astral plane, and unquestionably saw many things through strong thought-forms which he had made in previous years. He started with certain definite preconceptions, and he made everything which he saw fit into those preconceptions. You know how it is possible down here on the physical plane to start with some preconception about a man and distort his most innocent words and actions to fit that preconception — to read into them ideas of which the unfortunate man never even dreamt. The same thing is possible on the astral plane if one is careless.
Theosophical investigators are thoroughly on their guard against this danger of personal bias, and use constant checks of all kinds to avoid it. To minimise the chance of error from this source the Masters usually select people of radically different types to work together.
Secondly, there is the danger of a limited view — of taking a part for the whole. For example, there has been much said of the corruption and black magic of later days in Poseidonis, but there existed there, at that very time, a secret society that was quite pure and had high aims. If it had happened that we had seen only this society, we might easily have thought of Poseidonis as a most spiritual country. It is possible, you see that such limited views may be taken as applying to a whole region or community. Generalisations must be checked and verified. There is, however, a general aura of a time or a country, which usually prevents any great mistakes of this sort. A psychic who has not been trained to sense this general aura is often unconscious of it, and thus the untrained man falls into many errors. In fact, long continued observation shows that all untrained psychics are sometimes reliable and sometimes unreliable, and those who consult them always run a risk of being misled.
The records must not be thought of as originally inhering in matter of any kind, though they are reflected in it. In order to read them it is not necessary to come into direct contact with any particular grouping of matter, since they can be read from any distance, when a connection has once been made.
Nevertheless it is also true that each atom retains the record, or perhaps only possesses the power to put a clairvoyant en rapport with the record, of all that has ever happened within sight of it. It is by means of this quality that psychometry is possible. But there is this very curious limitation attached to it that the normal psychometer sees by means of it only what he would have seen if he had been standing at the spot from which the object psychometrised has been taken. For example, if a man psychometrises a pebble which has been lying for ages in a valley, he will see only what has passed during those ages in that valley; his views will be limited by the surrounding hills, just as if he had stood for all those ages where the stone lay, and had witnessed all those things.
True, there is an extension of the psychometric power, by which a man may see the thoughts and feelings of the actors in his drama as well as their physical bodies, and there is also another extension by which, having first established himself in that valley, he may make it the basis of further operations, and so pass over the surrounding hills and see what lies beyond them, and also what has happened there since the stone was removed, and even what occurred before it in some manner arrived there. But the man who can do that will soon be able to dispense with the stone altogether. When we use the senses of the causal body on the counterparts of physical things, we see that every object is thus throwing off pictures of the past.
As we develop our inner consciousness and faculties, our life becomes a continuous one; we reach the consciousness of the ego, and then we can travel back even as far as the group-soul in which we lived the animal stage of our life, and look through animal eyes at the human beings of that period and the different world that flourished then. But there are no words to tell what is seen in that way, for the difference of outlook is beyond all expression.
Short of that continuous consciousness, however, there is no detailed memory — not even of the most important facts. For example, a person who knows the truth of reincarnation in one life does not necessarily carry his certainty over to the next. I forgot it myself, and so did Mrs. Besant. I did not know anything of it in this life, until I heard of it from outside, and then I instantly recognised its truth. Whatever we have known in the past will spring up in the mind in this way as a certainty when it is next presented before us.
As a child I used constantly to dream of a certain house, which I afterwards learned was a house which I had lived in a previous life. It was quite unlike any with which I was at that time familiar on the physical plane, for it was built round a central courtyard (with a fountain and statues and shrubs) into which all the rooms looked. I used to dream of it perhaps three times a week, and I knew every room of it and all the people who lived in it, and used constantly to describe it to my mother, and make ground-plans of it. We called it my dream-house. As I grew older I dreamt of it less and less frequently, until at last it faded from my memory altogether. But one day to illustrate some point my Master showed me a picture of the house in which I had lived in my last incarnation, and I recognised it immediately.
Any one may intellectually appreciate the necessity of reincarnation; but actually to prove it one must become, in the causal body, cognisant of the past and future. The only way of casting off the fetter of doubt is by knowledge and intelligent comprehension. Blind belief is a barrier to progress, but this does not mean that we are wrong in accepting intelligently the statements of those who know more than ourselves. There are no authoritative dogmas which must be accepted in the Theosophical Society. There are only statements of the results of investigation, which are offered in the belief that they will be as helpful to other minds as they have been to the investigators.