Robert Snow was the captain of homicide at the Indianapolis police department. He was a sharp, intelligent, respected—and respectable—man, skeptical both by nature and by professional habit. He didn’t know this was all beginning to change for him when one day at a party, a colleague struck up a conversation about past lives. She had done past life regressions herself, he insisted the whole thing was quackery, and the encounter ended in a dare: he promised to go to a therapist to undergo the process. He didn’t really mean it, but welshing on a dare among cops is worse than cheating, so after a few reminders, he went.
In the therapist’s office, he started out snarky, then went into the requisite light trance, and suddenly…there it was. Among the few “stops” on his journey, one overwhelmed Bob Snow’s imagination: he was an artist, sometime in the late 19th c., painting a portrait of a hunchbacked woman. It was so real… It was more real than real. He knew things about him: how desperate for money he was, that his wife couldn’t have children, how his studio looked, that he’d spent time in France, when he died, and more. He ended the session obsessed with finding out what had happened to him.
Snow was a detective, one who had written books before, so he dove into research, but all was in vain: he could find nothing on an artist matching his parameters, could not find the painting he remembered anywhere. His theory, that the trance had awakened a latent memory of some artist he’d learned about at an exhibit or in a book, was not panning out. Eventually, he gave up looking and began to live with a mystery.
And then, Robert and his wife went to New Orleans for their anniversary. He wandered into an art gallery and stopped dead in his tracks: there was the painting of a hunchbacked woman, brushstroke for brushstroke. The gallery worker informed him that the artist’s name was J. Carroll Beckwith, that he hadn’t been famous “or all that talented,” and that the painting had been in private hands all this time and couldn’t have been seen by Snow before.
Armed with the name, Snow renewed his researching efforts, obtained the artist’s diaries, and recognized every fact he’d “known” in his trance in the biography of Beckwith, who had died in 1917 in New York. The homicide captain visited Beckwith’s grave and felt weak in the knees. He no longer could contest what he now believed was the truth: reincarnation is real, whatever that means, and he, Robert Snow, had been at one time the painter J. Carroll Beckwith.
He began to speak publicly about his belief, and it ruined his career. Undeterred, Snow wrote a book and appeared on mass media shows, including NPR and Katie Couric’s.
Robert Snow’s is a rare story of conversion by conviction, of available evidence, whether you think such proof satisfactory or not. But it is by far not an unheard-of principle. On a rare but famous occasion, children are born with the knowledge from the lives of dead adults, children are born speaking foreign languages, recalling traumatic deaths that had happened to real people. Hinduism had postulated transmigration of the soul thousands of years ago, and Buddhism—Hinduism’s rebellious, atheist child—did away with the soul and still managed to hold on to reincarnation. Abrahamic traditions don’t have it, talk about one earthly life only, and yet nothing in their largely shared cosmology is contradictory to the notion of multiple lives.
So…is reincarnation real? Could it be real? And if so, how does it work?
Well, I certainly don’t know. There are few things about this universe that I, as most of you, know. But the things I know, I know with conviction. First, I know that reality is complex, in interacting, interswirling, intertwining, you might call them, layers—levels, currents… Second, I know that time is not really linear. That’s old news to most people, but it’s relevant here. I don’t mean time travel, of course; I mean that in the complexity of reality, progressive time is a simpler “projection” of its more real nature, non-linear from our point of view, as a surface is of a cube or a line is of a vertical surface, but infinitely more mind-boggling.
Third. I know that the complex structure of reality concerns not only the realm of the physical but of the conscious and spiritual. That too is not news; we say “levels of consciousness” as a matter of fact. But I am struck by how mystics in every age describe their experiences of the larger reality, of what many call the Divine, how often they point out that it felt more real to them than this life, this world. Eastern traditions call those who’ve achieved enlightenment “awake.” A few people after near-death experiences have said the same thing. Mystics describe an all-permeating clarity, a revelation of reality as though the life before has been but a dream. It was the same for me when I had my experience, and even years later, after the memory’s details begin to fade, that feeling remains: I was awake. It was more real. Being in a mystical experience is astonishingly similar to waking up from a dream that had felt very real and realizing that this, finally, is real life, halleluiah.
I have allowed for the possibility of reincarnation for many years. I have no proof, of course, but it just makes sense to me. I believe that our journey through existence is one of learning and enrichment: for ourselves, for each other, and ultimately, for the grand reality we call God. And to achieve enough learning on this plane, one short life from one little perspective of one little species in one little place on one little planet is hardly sufficient. Especially for those who die young. Especially for those who spend their lives set in their ways. Especially for those who can see more out there. In other words, for all of us.
We do experience more than our daily lives—in our dreams. We don’t really know what dreams are. Why we dream. Why we dream what we dream. We don’t remember most of our dreams. But humanity has always had an inkling, though it still doesn’t know what to do with it, that dreams have relevance and reality of their own. We try to interpret them, mostly unsuccessfully. Some of them stay with us. Some are happy, others traumatic. Some present familiar images, others plunge us into exciting new worlds with their own mysterious laws. At least, mine do. A few times that I remember, I have lived whole lives on what appeared to be other planets. Other times, fragments of lives here on Earth, full of passions, joys, and sorrows, as myself and as others. Dreams operate under their own laws, and while living this one life, we go in and out of this dream state, dipping into it and withdrawing into the “more real” reality of our earthly world. Some people dream the same dream over and over again. From our layer of consciousness, here, we descend into the dream world repeatedly in some way, for some reason, to operate in it on a “less real” level and then wake up enriched in a way we may not understand but which, we now know, we absolutely need. If we don’t dream, we die.
Everybody dreams. Humans, animals… And we know next to nothing about the rest of the “souls” inhabiting the world, having only started to discern basic emotions in plants.
So here is the question: Who is to say that our lives on this plane are not to some higher level of existence as our dreams are to our earthly lives? Could there be a sort of “pyramid” of consciousness, of which a mystic, a bodhisattva, or a mind between lives gets a glimpse: the “higher” you go, the more “real” it gets? Until you reach the true, eternal reality? Some call it God…
If this were how it worked on some level, we would be “dipping” into life after life from this higher state of existence, in which our essence more fully lived. We are projections, in a sense, of more dimensionally complex beings into a simpler universe: body, mind, and spirit. Like a person dreaming multiple dreams, a “soul” is living multiple lives, learning from them, enriched by them, nourished by them, teaching through them—whatever the goal. And who is to say, then, that one cannot live one life over again? We are not supposed to remember our other lives as we do not remember our other dreams while dreaming, but glitches happen in human consciousness because we are complicated, and so is the universe. Startled from one dream into another by a traumatic death, is it possible one retains shreds of information? I’m just speculating now.
I know few things with conviction, but I know reality is mind-bogglingly complex, and I know we are steeped in the reality more real than our everyday awareness. There are people who specialize in past life regressions. The more conscientious among them make very few claims and no promises, but every one of my friends and family that I’ve asked considers the practice quackery by default. I don’t know. I am keeping the door cracked. I think that, if reincarnation were real and if we could have glimpses of our other lives, it would be most exceedingly fascinating. Certainly worth trying. The only problem is, we still wouldn’t know what to do with that.