Modern studies repeatedly suggest that a significant proportion of people in the Western world now believe in reincarnation. Although this phenomenon can be traced back to various esoteric movements that flourished from the second half of the 19th century, it gained significant ground with the explosion of popular interest in Eastern spiritual approaches in the 60s. And it was reinforced by a proliferation of therapists offering to regress people into their past lives.
Yet now the tide seems to be turning again. For some years the emphasis has been moving more towards the idea that we are all part of the One, the All, the Source, the Absolute, the Ultimate, the Great Spirit or whatever we choose to call the ‘universal consciousness’. Of course this is not a new idea. But what is changing is that especially more intellectually minded spiritual seekers are tending towards the view that anything outside of the ‘One’ is mere ‘illusion’.
In fact this word illusion is used a great deal in spiritual circles these days, although actually in quite different contexts, and it is perhaps worth considering what these are. Of course readers would all agree that the physical world itself is to some extent an illusion, at least inasmuch as it is underpinned by the nonphysical planes and states of being that science is increasingly pointing towards. But what about the idea that we only reincarnate for as long as we fail to see through the ‘illusion’, and that as soon as we gain ‘enlightenment’ we can ‘break the bonds of karma’ and ‘reunite with the Source’? More radical still, what about the idea that any notion of individuality is completely illusory on all levels, and that as soon as we die there is no sense of continuation of any sort of individual soul consciousness?
Whether or not they make it explicitly clear, these latter two are the ‘illusion models’ supported by a significant proportion of our best-known spiritual commentators of modern times – be they proponents of, for example, the ‘power of now’, or of ‘cosmic ordering’, or of ‘quantum mysticism’. Yet to see the world in this way is entirely at odds with what we might call the ‘experience model’, which holds that we lead many lives in order to see all sides of every emotional coin, and to learn to deal with the manifest challenges that life on this planet provides. In other words, a model in which the emphasis is on an individual soul growing by experience over many lifetimes.
If we are to adopt a rational approach then, rather than relying on ‘revealed wisdom’ ancient or modern, it is surely sensible to consider which of these models is best supported by logical analysis and the available evidence.
We can start with the premise that there must exist some sort of ultimate force or energy that underlies the entire universe, both seen and unseen, which is the Origin or Source of everything in it. However ineffable it may be, this principle of a universal consciousness is almost a logical necessity, and it is certainly supported by scientific research at both the quantum and the macrocosmic level. The idea that ‘we are all one’ is also a common element of transcendental experiences, whether spontaneous, meditative or induced by hallucinogens. So our next step must be to investigate whether, at the same time, there is any real evidence to support the idea of an individual consciousness that exists or survives independent of the physical body.
The most relevant area of research here is near-death experiences. In particular we are interested in cases that involve subjects returning with factual information that is subsequently verified, and yet so obscure that they could not reasonably have acquired it in any ‘normal’ way.
Near-Death Experience & Reincarnation Cases
One of the most fascinating cases on record took place in the early 70s, and involves a gifted young Russian scientist called George Rodonaia. His work on chemical brain transmitters was sufficiently valued by the KGB that they were not prepared to lose his expertise to the US by letting him take up an invite to further his research at Yale. On the day of his departure, as he stood on the pavement in Tbilisi waiting for a taxi to the airport, he was deliberately mown down by a car and pronounced dead at the scene. His body lay in a morgue for three days, but as the autopsy began his eyelids flickered and he was rushed to surgery.
As a man of science George had never had any time for religion. So those close to him were bewildered when, three days into his lengthy recovery, he began to describe what had happened while he was ‘dead’. In fact his was a relatively non-typical and highly transcendental experience, but for our current purposes he also claimed he had also been able to travel anywhere he liked while ‘out of body’. In particular he was drawn to a newborn baby in the hospital adjoining the morgue because she would not stop crying, and doctors had been unable to diagnose the problem. Much to his surprise he found that he was able to communicate with her telepathically, and also to scan her body and establish that her hip had been broken, probably at birth. Incredibly, as soon as George was well enough to pass on this information, the doctors x-rayed the baby and found that she did indeed have a fractured hip.
There are other, similar cases of near-death experiences involving obscure, factual information that combine to strongly suggest that our individual awareness or consciousness does indeed continue to exist even when the physical brain is absolutely non-functional. So far so good. But is there any evidence to support the further idea that individual souls have many lives?
Here we encounter two important areas of research, the first involving children who have spontaneous memories of past lives. Although historically most of these cases have come from Asia, one of the finest involves a young American boy called James Leininger of Lafayette, Louisiana. Born in 1998, his fascination with toy planes from the earliest age took a more sinister turn as he approached his second birthday, when vivid nightmares began. He would thrash around in his sleep, kicking out with his legs up in the air and moaning: “Airplane crash, on fire, little man can’t get out.” His mother Andrea had no particular religious convictions but, when her mother suggested these might be memories of a past life, she began to encourage little James to talk about them. And he began to reveal startling details, such as that the pilot of the plane was also called James; that he had been shot down by the Japanese; that he had flown Corsairs; and that one of his fellow pilots went by the name of Jack Larsen. He also mysteriously mentioned the single word Natoma.
His father Bruce remained dubious about any sort of spiritual explanation, but he knew that neither he nor any other member of their family had any particular interest in aircraft or the war. So he began to research, and quickly established that an aircraft carrier called the USS Natoma Bay had been stationed in the Pacific during World War II and had taken part in the notorious battle for the Japanese island of Iwo Jima early in 1945. He ordered a book about this, and was flicking through it one day when James pointed to the island of Chichi Jima on a map and exclaimed, “Daddy, that is where my plane was shot down.” He then made contact with the ‘Natoma Bay Association’, who confirmed that Jack Larsen had been one of the pilots, and also that only one pilot had been lost at Chichi Jima: 21-year-old Lt James M. Huston Jr.
Bruce also knew that Huston had flown Wildcats, not Corsairs, on the Natoma Bay. But when he made contact with Huston’s elderly sister she kindly sent him some photos – including one of her brother standing proudly next to a Corsair. Military records then showed he had originally been part of an elite special squadron who test-flew these planes. But the real clincher involves three ‘GI Joe’ dolls. When Bruce asked his son why he called them Leon, Walter and Billie he replied, “Because they greeted me when I went to heaven.” Again military records confirmed that three of Huston’s fellow Natoma Bay pilots were Lt Leon S. Conner, Ensign Walter J. Devlin and Ensign Billie R. Peeler – and that all three had diedbefore Huston on other engagements. None of this detailed information is available on the internet pages about the Natoma Bay even now, let alone in popular books and so on.