To The Infinite Music: Thoughts On Reincarnation
Article ID: 10251
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 4,762
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Author: Alison Leigh Lilly
Posted: November 6th. 2005
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“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
- W. B. Yeats, from Among School Children
There was that moment, during Steve Vai’s performance of his song 'For the Love of God, ' when the thought somehow occurred to me that death was an illusion.
Not in these words, of course. Rather, what I realized was that I could not possibly conceive of an end to consciousness - but not even yet in these words. The exact experience was something like this: I had been so fully engaged by Vai's complex, beautiful and seemingly endless improvisational guitar playing that somewhere in my mind or heart, a quiet voice suddenly whispered in curious awe, "If I died right now, how would I know it?" To which every instinct in me suddenly responded (not in words at all, but with an obvious sense of awareness) that I would not know it. And furthermore, I would not know it because the kind of 'death' implied in the question did not exist. There was no sudden blackout, no end to consciousness - even upon my death; it occurred to me, I could not possibly cease to listen to this music. Even if death in the traditional, physical sense came at that precise time, I simply knew that I would continue listening and experiencing this relationship, the interconnection and mutual vibration of song. Even my body might keep standing there, too engaged to realize it had died. The image of my body suspended ridiculously, swaying to song made me laugh out loud.
The way I know that this was not an intellectual conversion is because it has been months now, and I am only just beginning to understand and to be able to articulate exactly what happened or what changed. And yet the change itself was immediate and palpable.
I have always resisted thinking about things such as death and eternity, convinced (or, at least, trying to convince myself) that my lack of concern and contemplation was really a kind of bravery. I had the courage not to fear death, not even to consider it, I told myself. But of course, this was not really true. Especially recently, I had come to feel utterly inadequate in my limited lifespan, in the violent wake of history's course. What could I possibly accomplish, in this little body with this isolated little mind and weak little heart? I could not admit it to myself, but I was afraid of death. Because it meant that, at some point in the future, my efforts and deeds would end, my work here would be over. I did not fear death because I was afraid of the unknown or the possibility that I would cease to exist. I was afraid for the world's sake. I was afraid that all of its great leaders and loving individuals would fade away, stolen by death, before their work was finished, abandoning those of us here still struggling. And I was afraid that I too would be gone before even my own trivial work was done. This was a very real kind of fear.
But for a moment at this concert, it suddenly seemed utterly silly. As ridiculous as a body suddenly evacuated of a soul still dancing and swaying to the music. The image suggested something I had wondered about for so long but had never articulated: if the body does not disappear into oblivion, why should the soul, the consciousness? And for me, even a “heaven” was a kind of oblivion - a spiritual respite, perhaps, but one in which the Divine overruled our freedom, sweeping us along into a state which was, anyway, some isolated and disconnected escapist fantasy, wholly apart from this beautiful and sacred world. Heaven was no reward for me, to think that I might someday be severed from all life here and, thus, in some way from even the Divine itself as it manifests through and sustains that life. And so I could not hope even for that.
On the other hand, the thought of reincarnation had always troubled me. It seemed to be for most people a simplistic explanation of suffering - and even worse, a glorification of the ego by making it eternal, just some infinite body jumper. I felt that the whole idea of karma had a kind of shallow, self-justifying ring to it. It seemed essentially a way of buying, trading or hoarding good luck. As if a person not only had an excuse to ignore others' suffering (which was karmically deserved) but even to scoff at those who suffered and died, since death (or the self, and thus the death of the self) was an illusion.
Many of my other beliefs, however, seemed to suggest a subtler interpretation: (a) That the soul continues to evolve forever and that this process of growth is actually in itself sacred and a manifestation of the Divine. (b) That we are selfless creatures, essentially, but also infinitely interconnected with all other life through the Divine - not in a way that denies us freedom and meaning, but that gives us ultimate meaning and allows us infinite, creative freedom. (c) That the Divine is not merely transcendent, but also immanent within this very reality, the physical world in which we live; and so, this creative act of ongoing creation and love is also holy. In light of these beliefs, I could not help but feel as if permanent separation from the world, even if it meant going to “heaven, ” was a denial of my free creative will, rather than its edification.
I found many of these thoughts echoed in Robert Thurman’s book, Infinite Life: Seven Virtues for Living Well, in which he discusses in great detail the Buddhist concepts of infinity, reincarnation, interconnection, and karma. Thurman's emphasis on selflessness and the illusion of a separate, isolated ego-self rings so true for me. He writes on how this very interconnection leads one logically to accept the idea of 'reincarnation' as an infinite interweaving of life with life (not some gamble with one's karmic stockpile). Furthermore, he emphasizes that such interconnection, when recognized, manifests as infinite love and compassion for others. If this is the case, then understanding karma as payback is about as shallow an interpretation of Buddhist philosophy as is interpreting the idea of heaven as a reward for lip-service and world-denial.
Instead, the two concepts have a lot in common. Both understand suffering not necessarily as punishment for past wrongs, but as challenges placed before us that we must work to overcome. In this way, we continue to grow in perfect freedom, so that we may come to the Divine of our own volition and, furthermore, manifest the sacredness of the Divine to others through our overcoming. Reincarnation merely extends this process of growth infinitely, suggesting that the challenges placed before us in this life are the result of those which we have not yet faced or overcome in the past. Just as, within one lifetime, we might run into the same patterns of difficulties and conflicts if we fail to learn from them. Such a view does not suggest callousness, indifference or a lack of free will, especially when one emphasizes our interconnection and an interweaving, also, of responsibility for each other's spiritual evolution. Instead, it can lead us to be ever more compassionate to other's suffering.
These thoughts, which had been forming within me for so long, finally coalesced that night, listening to the inspired music of Vai on stage. If I died right now, how would I know it? Would I be condemned to a nightmarish eternal separation from the Divine, being stuck alive? Or would I be swept away into some cheerful, wing-strewn oblivion where I could forget about the world and its suffering? I laughed. No, my body, my heart, my being answered me. Of course not!
It is amazing, the freedom of infinity. If I am not condemned to abandon the Divine world when I die - if I can continue to participate in the active creativity which is, in essence, that of love - then what have I to fear? If I can love so greatly, engage myself so fully in the Divine and its loving activity, in not only its perfect being but also in its creative becoming, then I can overcome death. Death will not be an unnatural cessation, but a transformation. I have nothing to fear of it. I will continue to evolve and grow as a spiritual being, growing ever closer to the Divine and aligning myself ever more harmoniously with its Sacred Will. I do not have to rush to accomplish it all in this one lifetime or otherwise consider myself a failure. It is enough to keep working, and in this way I am free of the distracting and even sometimes paralyzing fear of failure and disappointment.
These are all words, but I have only recently found them. After the night of the concert, some nonintellectual, non-rational conviction in me had shifted. I wanted to read - to perform - poetry. I was in part merely inspired by Vai's amazing showmanship. But I was also motivated by this new freedom, this new intuitive awareness that no performance needs to change lives or devastate minds. If only I performed wholeheartedly and with love, hope and good-humor. There was a great release, the relaxing of a pressure that had until now always been there, driving me towards improvement but also towards fear and stumbling. What I had known about flowers and rain and birds - that they are blessings not because they try so hard to be blessings, but simply because they are themselves, and so also are they Divine - I now knew secretly about myself. Indeed, I didn't just know it intellectually or rationally, but I felt it deeply.
I have since then on many occasions forgotten this newly realized truth. In fact, more often than not I forget it and become entrenched again in a mist of distractions and pressures all insisting that I have only this one shot to be Something and that I am not yet the Something I should be. And in my rush and burning to be Something according to the world, I still forget so often to orient myself to the Divine, to give up my self-centered worrying and instead allow the Divine to be what it is through me. But I am slowly learning. I have these moments which remind me so strongly of this essential truth, moments which, unlike my intellectual convictions (which seem, so often, founded on shifting sands pounded by wind and waves), do not falter or fade.
Thurman, Robert. Infinite Life: Seven Virtues for Living Well. Riverhead Books: March 2004.
Copyright: Copyright 2005 (a rough-draft, journal-entry version of this essay first appeared on the Pulse Like Water website, June 11, 2005)
Alison Leigh Lilly
Location: Seattle, Washington
Author's Profile: To learn more about Alison Leigh Lilly - Click HERE
Bio: Ali is a Christian Witch who has been studying comparative religions for seven years and has been writing poetry as a spiritual practice for fifteen years. Most of what she knows about Craft has come from her dedication to her art. She currently resides in Pittsburgh where she is studying poetry at a graduate level, working as a waitress in a family restaurant, and making frequent trips to the city park down the block.
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