I have been looking for a reasonable explanation for some of the reported spiritual/unordinary/supernatural experiences, and in particularly reported visions of past lives or experiences that seem to validate their existence (although I believe that things like Astra Projection, Out of Body, and similar experiences also fall under this phenomena).
This came about in trying to resolve some of what spiritual teachers and some advanced meditators (plus plenty of new-age people) claim about spiritual experiences. At its core, it is the claim that special knowledge comes about from being advanced and having access to “higher” states of consciousness. For example, seeing other beings, other realms, experiencing psychic phenomena, and especially seeing your own or other people’s past lives.
Some of these imply some knowledge of otherworldly stuff or metaphysical truths but all refer to the current time or situation, even if relating to another realm. Past lives, however, have implications on both the notion of reincarnation (as opposed to just seeing the past or future) as well as karma.
In regards to some of the psychic phenomena, when I have asked several teachers about this, some say “it is absolutely real” and some say that the experiences themselves happen, that they are very convincing and that they appear to imply intrinsic truth, but are interpreted incorrectly 1. Meaning, you experience something that seems real and seems to imply some truth about reality and how it works, except that the part which implies intrinsic truth is itself misleading. This is not unlike an illusion, a dream or a hallucination, which can seem real (especially while they are happening), but prove to be just a temporary experience that isn’t real. What seems to separate some of these experiences from other, less convincing experiences (like dreams), is the feeling that they are in some cases more real than real life. This is one reason why these experiences are so convincing. Another reason is that, unlike dreams, they maintain the “this is real” signature even after they are over (what I refer to as Experiential Metadata).
In Buddhist Geeks Ep 350 (from Min 11 to 15), Vincent Horn speaks with Soryu Forall. Soryu suggests (in a sense) that one day, science might discover that the process of bringing up “stored” issues from the past or past lives and “fixing them” is actually addressing issues in the brain that are in some ways remnants from evolution or the past, things passed down from our ancestors through DNA, epigenetics, etc. I’m paraphrasing a bit (and I think he was saying this for pointing out something else anyway) but the idea is that what is perceived, like clearing of past life karma, is actually something that is happening (with a real effect in the brain or body perhaps) except the real story behind it is just different and was misunderstood by its perceiver.
In a dream experience, you can encounter people and be in situations that can have significant meaning for you, only it is presented in symbolic ways that can later be interpreted to try to extract that meaning by a therapist for example. Most of us don’t take these dream experiences to be accurate or have their own intrinsic reality, although they can correlate with something true and important in real life.
What if the experiences of past lives are symbolic representations of some internal condition and are being brought up or perhaps even addressed or resolved in some way? Just like the dream experience. This then is not an accurate visual perception of something that actually happened in the past, but rather a representation of something internal, comprised of symbols and archetypes pointing to issues that are related to the past (from childhood trauma, ancestral genetic or epigenetic traces, and so on).
I remembered Adyashanti discussing his experience of past lives in his interview with Tami Simon in The End of Your World (at Chapter 13 – Minute 53:10), describing how he was bouncing from past life to past life, noticing and rectifying unresolved issues in those past lives. He is being careful to not give that experience some metaphysical absoluteness, he even refers to his past lives as past dreams. He literally says he doesn’t know that past lives have existence in reality but does acknowledge that the experience itself indeed happens and he cannot discount it altogether.
“My experience of past lives aren’t that they are actually past, I call them that because that’s how people relate to them… they are experienced more like they are simultaneous lives.”
He goes on to say it is akin to being in a dream and while in the dream “remembering” past lives, but when you wake up from that dream you realize there were no past lives but just a dream of them. They were all created in the moment of “remembering” them, in the dream. He wraps this up by saying that infants are born already with imprints and “karmic traces” whether we want to attribute those to past lives or genetics etc’, but the fact remains they are there, whatever the cause actually is.
In searching for this segment to link to I found him telling part of this story in this interview (from Min 44 to 49) where he more explicitly says that it “just feels like past”, and that he is only speaking of it metaphorically.
This theory could help resolve the fact that many people are having these experiences, find them very convinced, and that they can tend to correspond in some cases with the experience, or a subjective feeling of, something being changed or resolved in some way. If Soryu’s hunch is correct, we might even discover what it is that changes (in the brain or the body) when a person has this experience.
In assuming that past life karma and reincarnation are themselves not real, this is simply my attempt to explain what might account for the experiences people have if they actually correlate to something in reality and are not mere hallucinations. It’s a working theory.
If you are interested in a more analytical & scientific approach to why reincarnation and karma might not be real, check out Jayarava’s post on Rebirth.