My Multitudes of (Re?)Incarnations: Micro-Incarnations, Mini-Incarnations, Macro-Incarnations
Charles T. Tart
[While attempting to clean up my desk, I found this essay, written some time ago, and apparently not published anywhere. It’s an initial draft of some interesting thoughts relative to the question of postmortem survival of death. Like most of my writings nowadays, it raises more questions than it answers…but they are interesting questions that others may someday answer much better than I can. October 6, 2019]
One of my central research interests, broadly as a psychologist studying consciousness, and more specifically as a parapsychologist, has been the question of postmortem survival. Does some essential aspect of a person survive physical death?
If I had to summarize more than a century of research in a few words, I’d say
– (1) the evidence is good enough to argue that some people might survive death in some form,
– (2) the reality (or lack of it) of survival can be of vital importance in determining the course of one’s life, and so
– (3) we should devote a lot of research effort to getting clearer answers.
My scientific assessment of the evidence is that it argues strongly for some kind of survival, but there are a lot of sophisticated and subtle questions around just what the evidence may mean. Meanwhile, as I approach the end of my own life, I personally find it more interesting and stimulating to think that I and others may survive in some form than to assume that the brain dies and my mind, my consciousness, my self will be all over. If you take that latter, materialistic view, it seems there’s not much to do but prolong life and health as long as possible, and not worry about questions of meaning, purpose, etc., beyond getting by as well as possible in physical existence. To speak as physicists often do, though, taking the approach that some kind of survival might occur leads to all sorts of interesting questions, whereas total material annihilation of mind simply ends thinking, there’s nothing more to think about.
One of those interesting questions to think about is, given some kind of survival, what’s it like? Do “spirits,” “souls,” or whatever we want to call them, live some kind of active, ongoing life, e.g.,? The apparent spirits called up by mediums almost always claim they are living an intense, ongoing life somewhere, but some investigators think the idea of persona survival of death is so unlikely that alternative interpretations of the evidence are called for. Or, in the case of some spirit a medium apparently contacts many years after her or his physical death, has this spirit, as some investigators have thought, simply been in some kind of “storage,” a “program” or “app” that’s been stored, by analogy on disk for a long time without being run? The idea of some sort of psychic impressions being somehow stored and then accessed by some form of ESP seems less impossible than the idea of personal survival of our souls.
So will “I” passively stored as an app until needed and then reconstructed or reactivated when “powered up,” or will I be doing or experiencing something meanwhile? If the latter could be determined to be the case, why is such a “soul app” stored? That’s a question going way beyond my thoughts here, so I’ll let that go for now.
Personality as Process:
When I think about my personality or self in an ordinary sense, I try to think about a relatively predictable process (not a fixed thing) that repeatedly manifests under the usual conditions of my life. I say “try,” as I think it’s much more accurate to realize I am a process, but, like almost everybody, I think about reality largely in terms of things. My self can be usefully thought about as a largely predictable process in that one moment of experience or action is seldom ever identical to another, but it may be very similar, and so quite predictable. I wake in the morning, e.g., usually remembering some fragment of a dream but forgetting it quickly, noticing my familiar body sensations, like a full bladder, getting up from my side of the bed, going to my bathroom, preparing a cup of coffee the way I like it, taking my medications, usually planning to do the kinds of things typically important to me, etc. At the end of the day I go to bed, let my mind start to drift with little intention that any particular direction of thoughts is any more valuable or desirable than any other, and so I fall asleep, I disappear, until my next waking.
Although I intellectually know I am a dynamic process, not a solid, fixed thing, I usually think of myself in thing-like ways, both implicitly and explicitly. Here are my personality traits and habits, at least partially physically embodied in neural brain ensembles and habitual muscle patterns, linked to each other in fairly strong ways. Guiding rules automatically result. “If it is morning and my bladder has been emptied, elevate the brewing of coffee to a high priority,” etc. One of the great insights of Buddhism, as I understand it, is to remind us that we are ongoing, changeable, dynamic processes, but that our habit of concretizing them, dealing with them as if they were fixed, unchangeable things, creates a lot of difficulties. We get attached to a particular outcome of these processes, we over-concretize it, and then are upset when it doesn’t work right and we have less flexibility in dealing with reality than we could have.
So you might say my macro-incarnation, the overall manifested pattern developed in the years in my physical life, is a highly predictable process. It’s not certain I’ll want coffee after getting up in the morning, but it’s highly likely. When I go to sleep, that big macro-incarnation I conventionally call me goes into abeyance (ignoring possible intrusions of dream life for now). My macro-incarnation gets activated again when I wake in the morning, the macro-app gets booted. “I” incarnate, as it were, when I wake in the morning.
But within the overall framework of my macro-incarnation, I experience a multitude of shorter “incarnations,” concatenations, patterns of thoughts, desires, fears, skills, etc. that may last from seconds to minutes. Gurdjieff wrote about these mini-incarnations as relatively independent “selves.” Selves because whichever one is activated at a given time becomes “I.” We unthinkingly and automatically identify with it. I’m sure the Buddhists and Gurdjieff are usefully correct on this, these are dynamic, interdependent patterns, processes of mind, not fixed, unchanging things. Still, it’s easy to implicitly think of them as thing-like objects, even if the objects are program code. They may be pre-assembled and in static storage until activated, then get called up and powered on. They may be created in a moment.
*Note: I have written extensively about Gurdjieff’s psychological ideas in three books: (1) Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential. (2) Living the Mindful Life. and (3) Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People. I’m often asked which book is best, but can’t answer that. Each one covers the same basic material about problems with ordinary consciousness and ways toward spiritual maturity, but with different emphases. I’ve often needed to see several descriptions of the same processes before I finally understand them, so any one of the above books is a good place to start.
The habit of automatically identifying with each mini-incarnation, letting it speak as “I,” creates an opportunity for unnecessary suffering. A widespread and automatized social belief in our Western world is, e.g., that a major sign of success is owning and driving a new car. If the macro-incarnation is looking around and an automatized mini-incarnation “I” looks at my and my neighbor’s car and sees that mine is several years older, I don’t feel so good about myself. I’m not succeeding. If some wider aspect of consciousness, such as can be developed through some meditation techniques or Gurdjieffian self-remembering methods* sees the same scene, though, there can be a simultaneous perception that my car is older and that there is a social belief being called up that success is measured by the newness of one’s car. But from the wider perspective, without the automatic identification with the mini-incarnation “I” seeing the cars, the chance of feeling bad about the situation, letting the social beliefs automatically control me, is reduced or eliminated*.
*Note: See the discussion of this in my three books noted above.
Lately I have been observing, both in the course of more formal vipassana-like meditations or just in everyday life, how incredibly fast and dynamic these mini-incarnations can occur. I’ll have to make up an example rather than describe a clear memory, as one of their common aspects is how they fade from memory within seconds.
Let’s say I’m doing something and the idea of putting in a sensor-controlled outdoor light fixture at our country cabin, the “ranch” as my wife Judy and I romantically call it, comes to mind. It comes so fast it’s hard to catch its development, for almost instantly I have a strong visual image in my mind of just where this fixture could be installed. Not so vivid an image that it blots out ordinary visual perception if my eyes are open, but vivid enough to catch my attention up. Surrounding multi-sensory imagery of the sort that would be there in the actual location appear: – (1) a pattern of sunlight on the wall of the building, e.g., (2) perhaps the warmth of the sun reflecting from the wall, (3) a subtle “auditory” background quality of what sounds – typical ranch sounds like the wind blowing through the pine trees, e.g. – are like when they are reflected off a metal wall, (4) some subtle tactile sensations of what my body would feel if I were in some awkward position installing this light and sensor, (5) a background set of visual image information on the breaker panel in the building and (6) where the nearest electrical cables would be that I could tap into. All this takes a second or less, and there’s a sense in which I’m located “there,” experiencing things from a perspective that fits this imaged reality well. My current physical reality isn’t gone but has faded, I’m “there,” at the ranch. I don’t have to consciously “work” to draw up and tie all this information together, it all just comes to me. In a moment I mini-incarnate at the ranch.
My thoughts about how to do this go on until suddenly they hit a snag. Such-and-such would be a problem, and poof! The whole sensory/intellectual scene disappears, as often does any memory of it unless I make a specific effort to store it because it has some useful information that I may want to bring up later. And it’s all gone, that mini-incarnation no longer exists….. “I” was born, lived, died. Amazing! So fast, so “real,” so usually unnoticed. I do this sort of thing all the time with no realization of what an amazing process it is!
I’m using mini-incarnation in this essay for differentiating experiences that only go on for a few seconds or minutes. They are indeed mini compared to the whole macro-incarnation span of my life. I’m postulating micro-incarnations too, as it seems useful to differentiate such experiences. Like the overall macro-incarnation and mini-incarnations, they have an “I” quality to them, we identify with them. Micro-incarnations are processes that are even shorter, that happen so fast it’s unlikely I’ll consciously notice them*, although they may well have (after)effects on my life. I could put “re” in there, micro-reincarnations, as they have probably happened innumerable times and will continue to happen innumerable times as long as I’m alive.
From this perspective, the Buddhist emphasis on the unreality of “self,” that there is no permanent, unchanging core of self (something to be known deeply, of course, not just as an intellectual concept) gets much clearer. In this one lifetime I’ve already been (re)incarnated zillions of times and almost all of those incarnations have “died,” passed away, some with no lasting effects on me at all, others probably with important (after)affects. Sometimes I think of these micro-incarnations as a vast “back-office” of micro-incarnated clerks, constantly preparing ideas and images that might be useful to me, given what’s happening in my ordinary consciousness. But only some make it up into my consciousness. I won’t take the time to elaborate this here.
*Note: I think I’ve occasionally caught glimpses of micro-incarnations, or been able to infer their existence from my conscious experiences. Buddhism puts much emphasis on learning to observe the rising, duration, and falling off of thoughts and sensations. In my usual vipassana-style meditation, as learned from Shinzen Young originally (Break Through Pain: A Step-by-Step Mindfulness Meditation Program for Transforming Acute and Chronic Pain is his first book, The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works his second). and practiced in ways modified by me, I try not to force things. I try to observe the flow of arising experience in a “leisurely” way, typically observing a rising every second or two, staying with it as best I can with some concentration, clarity and equanimity for a second or two, occasionally consciously being aware of its passing. I understand from Ingram (Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book) that if I could observe risings and fallings at a speed of 10 or more events per second, the meditation process might change greatly, but I am far from that skill level. But I might see the mini-incarnations come together in more detail if I got that observant. I have no doubt some skilled meditators can experience arisings at what seems to be that speed, but I also wonder if we can really observe that fast or rather have an experience that seems that fast, but isn’t. I’m not downgrading the experience, merely indicating it might not be just what it seems to be.
It’s the speed, comprehensiveness, depth and integration of these mini- or micro-(re)incarnations that impresses me so. One moment there is nothing. A few moments later “I” exist in a way that feels, from its inside, as a complete, functional personality. No fumbling to put the parts together, Shazam! I’m there.
Afterlife and Open Ending…..
I’ll make a big inferential jump now from observations of actual experience in my life to the question of survival of death: So perhaps after death a “spirit” or “soul” is existing in some sort of “non-physical space,” functioning from moment to moment, living an “afterlife?” I like the idea that we survive death in some form and go on existing in realms where we learn things. Admission to a cosmic university sounds good to me! Is that what might happen? And/or maybe what survives of me is dormant, and then the intentions and current structure/process of a medium’s mind creates a focus and the needed aspects of me “incarnate” to produce a sometimes* impressive incarnation?
*Note: Mediumistic channeling often give very generalized, non-specific ideas about a desired surviving spirit’s earthly life, but occasionally give very specific, factually correct details of that life that we would not expect a medium to know by normal means. I’ve described this to some extent in my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book (now available in paperback as The Secret Science of the Soul: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together), but won’t continue with that here.
And thinking about the internal processes of such a surviving spirit: Does it seem to itself to be real at the time of its functioning, just as I have no doubt of my existence at this moment? Or just information psychically retrieved by a medium’s mind? That is, will the “me” that seems to manifest be like information being read from a computer memory, with “nobody” home?
Consciousness research, especially on the nature of highly developed meditative skills, is obviously going to be of great relevance to the survival question. What is consciousness actually like during our physical life, our macro-incarnation? Are there gaps? Is something happening in these gaps? Is there a “back office” of intense activity operating, the action of micro-incarnations? What causes or hinders identification with various experiential contents, so that something is happening to a “me?” Is one’s physical body creating an “intention” or “focus” that attracts needed things (skills, memories, perceptions, etc.) moment by moment?
If you are puzzled by what I’ve touched on here, dear reader, that’s normal! Questions about who/what we really are, its changes, its possible survival of death are exciting, important, and very, very puzzling! Stimulated to think? Excellent!
And so ultimately “I” am?????? I am what????? Who??????