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Reincarnation And Free Will: Why Keep Coming Back To This Earth?

Author: B. T. Newberg
Posted: December 4th. 2005
Times Viewed: 4,744

"If reincarnation is true, and we have a choice, then why do we keep coming back to this insanity called Planet Earth?"

This anonymous challenge was not posed by a Pagan, but it just as well could have been. We are "Earth-centered" people, but the world does sometimes seem insane to us. And since many of us claim free will is involved in our reincarnation here, it would seem that we sign up for the insanity. So, why choose such a difficult place to live? This is a sentiment we have all felt. Yet, if we back up and look from a different point of view, it doesn't make any sense. Is it really possible to live apart from the Earth? Can we separate self from Earth? Can we make a choice against "coming back?" Before we can address the challenge, we must deal with this basic issue. Are we essentially of this world, or not?

There are at least two basic views on the issue: either we are in the world but not of it, or we are both in the world and of it. The challenge seems posed from the former point of view. In order to understand where we are coming from, let's look first at that view, then at the alternative, and finally we may address the challenge itself: why do we keep coming back to this Earth?

First, let's look at the point of view of the challenge. We can take our cue from its phrasing. It assumes three things: first, that reincarnation means we leave this Earth and come back; second, that for us there is a possible alternative to this Earth; and finally, that there is something in us that can make a choice against this Earth. In this last notion there is latent a further assumption that we have the power to act on that choice. All three of these things depend on a view of the self that is essentially separate or separable from the Earth. We are in the world but not of it. Let's take these three one by one, and see how the view works.

First of all, reincarnation means we leave this Earth and then come back. In this view, there is some part of us, usually called the soul, that is currently residing in this place we call Earth. When we die, it separates from the Earthly body and goes somewhere else. We leave, and we come back. The important point is separability. We are not essentially of the Earth, but rather we are able to separate from it and then return to it. In the big picture, we are but travelers moving from one realm to another.

Furthermore, and this is the second point, there are realms other than Earth that are legitimate alternatives for us. These realms will do for us just as appropriately as Earth or more so. The Summerlands, Tir Nan Og, Asgard... by whatever name, they are not-Earth and yet perfectly appropriate for us. Transplanted there, we are just as well in our rightful place, or more so. Because we are not of the Earth, we can change addresses, as it were, without losing any essential part of who we are.

Third, and finally, there is something in us that can make a choice against this Earth. So, not only are there legitimate alternatives to this Earth, but we have the free will to choose them. Free will is important in Pagan discourse. Perhaps we cling to it because it pictures us as empowered individuals, able to shrug off the religions of our parents. Or perhaps it is what powers our magic. In any case, according to most Pagans, we do have free will. Because we have free will, we can choose an alternative to this Earth.

Latent in this ability to choose is the assumption that we also have the power to act on our choices. Not only can we make a choice against the Earth, but we can carry through with it. We can actually propel ourselves to Tir Nan Og, or wherever, rather than just sitting here longing to go. This distinction will become important later in the discussion. For now, let's summarize.

In the view of the challenge, we are separable from the Earth. Not only are we separable, but there are other legitimate realms to inhabit, and we have both the free will and the power to choose them. To encapsulate this point of view in a metaphor, let's take a cue from the challenge's word "planet." We are like inter-planetary travelers. Though we are docked together on this planet at the moment, we are each separated in our own detachable pods. There are other planets to visit, and we have the controls and motor-propulsion to get to them. We are in the world (or at the world, if you like) but not of it.

From this view, it makes sense to ask why we keep coming back to this "insanity called Planet Earth." Whether the Earth is actually insane or not is a matter we will come to shortly. For now it is enough to understand the perspective behind the challenge. It comes from a view that we are not essentially of the Earth. This, however, is not the only way to look at the situation. There is an alternative view. It is the view that we are both in the world and of it.

Personally, I don't feel that I came to this Earth like some inter-planetary traveler. I did not come to this Earth at all. I came out of it. I sprouted from the Earth, in the same way that an apple sprouts from a tree. I am of one seamless piece with the Earth, in the same way that the apple is of one piece with the tree. This is a view of the self that is not separable from the Earth. Because the self is not separable, there is no other legitimate place to go, and no sensible reason to choose any place but the Earth. Let's look at these three things in more detail.

First, the self is not separable from the Earth. The self is something that grows out of, and in relation to, its environment. Furthermore, it never leaves it. Even though it may appear to leave at death, this is an illusion. The self at death can be likened to an apple falling from a tree. Just as the apple appears to separate from the branch when it falls, so the self appears to separate from the Earth. But it never leaves. In a sense, the apple never really leaves either. It disappears into the soil. It seems to be gone, but actually it is incubating somewhere near the roots of the tree. There amidst the unseen aspects of the tree, it undergoes transformation. Finally, when it is ready, it sprouts. It appears to come back, but actually it never left in the first place. The self is similar. When we die, we appear to leave the Earth, but we do not. Rather, we spend time breaking down and transforming amidst various unseen aspects of the Earth. When we are ready, we are born again from the Earth. We appear to come back, but in fact we never left.

So, we don't leave and come back. We just move from place to place within the same ecosystem, never separating from it. We never leave the tree, as it were. This is because we are all part of one ecosystem, represented by the tree. People and things within that ecosystem may be differentiated but not separated. They are yet part of one ecological balance. The sprout grows up next to its parent, continues to affect its parent, and continues to be affected by its parent. Though that sprout and parent are no longer contiguous, they are still one. In a greater sense of ecology, they remain of a piece. In this sense, the tree is not only its roots, trunk, branches, leaves, and fruit, but also everything that supplies and affects it. It is the soil and water that feeds it, the air that interacts with it, the sunlight that shines on it, the birds that live in it, and the animals that eat its fruit. All these things are just as essential to the organism as its own physically contiguous parts, so why view them as separate? In a larger sense, the tree is an environment, an ecosystem. Everything is interconnected. Both the sprout and the parent, as well as all things of this Earth, are part of one ecosystem. This sense of the tree is what we might call the Great Tree, to differentiate from the little or original tree. But it is in no trivial sense that the original tree is yet one with the Great Tree. Differentiating between the two is only an aid to understanding. They are ultimately inseparable. Even if the sprout were uprooted and moved to a different forest, even if the apple were eaten by an animal, it would only affect in different ways the same great ecosystem. This is the Great Tree, which is the Earth. The self's place in the ecosystem is not different from the apple's place. We may have forms non-contiguous with other parts of the Earth, vie against other parts, move from place to place among the parts, and transform into other parts, but we never leave the Earth. We can't. We are of a piece with it, inseparable.

This brings us to the second point, which is that there is no other legitimate place we can go. Because we are one with the Earth, we cannot go anywhere else without losing half of ourselves.

Let me illustrate this with a photography metaphor. Have you ever seen a doctored photo, where a person has been cut out of one image and pasted into another? There is never quite a match. The light is off, the colors are wrong, the angles are funny... it just doesn't fit. This is because the image of the person has been separated from its natural environment. The native context is just as much a part of the person. Try to transplant only the positive space, and only half the person is moved. Try to snip around the edges of the person, and actually you snip right down the middle. The total person is the entire photograph. No part can be separated without losing something essential. The self is similar. Going anywhere but Earth would be like pasting oneself into another photograph. It wouldn't fit, because we are more than just our positive space. We are also the negative space which surrounds us. As Alan Watts put it, "For every inside there is an outside, and for every outside there is an inside, and no matter how different they may be, they go together." The Earth and the self may be different, but they complement each other, and cannot be separated. Thus, there is no alternative place we can legitimately go but Earth.

Even if it were possible to go somewhere else, could we make a choice against the Earth? This is the third point. We do have free will, yet there is nothing in us that can ultimately choose against the Earth. This is because our free will is one with the free will of the Earth. To choose against the Earth, we would have to will against our own will. Let's return to the apple metaphor, when it was still on the branch. Eventually, the apple is going to fall. Apples grow and fall; such is the nature of apple trees. But can the apple choose not to fall? Can it choose where and how it falls? Can it choose rather to be plucked and eaten? Normally we would say no, but if we stretch our imaginations we might say maybe. Think of the apple as a nature spirit, if it helps. If the apple has some kind of self-reflective consciousness, conceivably it could feel a definite preference for whether, where, and how to fall. Yet because the apple is of a piece with the tree, that means its consciousness is also of a piece with that of the tree. Somewhere deep down there is a shared will. And that shared will is no less prevalent in the apple's ultimate choice than its frets and worries of whether, where, and how. Ultimately the apple will freely choose according to its inmost desire, because that is how free will works. We do not will randomly, but according to something issuing from our deepest self. And in the current view, the deepest self is of the Earth. Thus the apple's inmost desire, whether it realizes it or not, is the desire of the tree, or the Great Tree. Whatever the ecosystem wills is what happens to the individual, and whatever the individual wills is what happens to it in the ecosystem. There is no loss of freedom in this arrangement, but there is no conflict because ultimately the two wills are in accord. The self at death is similar. We may feel definite preferences for whether, where, and how we reincarnate. We may fret and worry, clinging to fantasies and recoiling from realities, but ultimately we choose according to our inmost desire. Whether we realize it or not, our inmost desire is the same as that of the ecosystem. We choose the Earth. That is what we freely will, to the extent that we are in touch with our inmost desire. That is the Earth's desire, and we are of that will. This is the perspective of being both in the world and of it. We are inseparable from the Earth, neither in body, nor in will, nor in freedom of will. There is nothing in us that can ultimately choose against the Earth.

But just to play the devil's advocate, let's say that we can choose against the Earth. We do not have this capability, but we often seem to have it. We identify with desires in isolation from our inmost desire. So it is useful to explore this situation, where we appear to choose against the Earth. Do we have the power to carry out that choice? If we could somehow freely will against our inmost desire, though it would lead us into contradiction, could we actually propel ourselves to an alternate realm? It is difficult to see how. Everything we are made of physically, psychically, and spiritually, is of the Earth. What in this composition could help us leave? We would be stuck on Earth, imprisoned as it were. Though we rail against it, in no way could we leave it. Though we grow rancorous and resentful, we could do nothing but frustrate ourselves. When our will is no longer in accord with that of the Earth, that is when there is conflict. We do not lose freedom of will, but we pit our will against that of a much larger organism. Such a battle we will always lose. We are doomed, or fated.

Now the world starts to look insane. Where we cannot control what happens to us, that place is scary. Where we are impotent to change the direction we are headed, that place is the insanity called Planet Earth.

This is a mindset we have all experienced. Even though we are at one with the Earth, we recoil from it. Being at one with the Earth is not the same as being comfortable in it. Harmony is more complex than that. We may struggle and vie against what we find in the Earth, just as the sprout appears to vie against its parent for nutrients, but ultimately all the parts are balanced in the ecosystem.

At the same time, this does not prevent us from worrying or fretting, clinging to fantasies or recoiling from realities, or otherwise paying attention to things in surplus of our inmost desire. We develop definite preferences of whether, where, and how we take part in the world. And insofar as we identify with these preferences, we become resentful of our powerlessness to affect them. We develop a sense of separation from the world, a sense of us vs. the Earth, and we begin to think about leaving it. We cannot leave it, and this further exasperates us. We reach a state where we are oblivious to our inmost desire. We choose nothing but what is against ourselves.

Now, what insanity is this? How can we choose against ourselves? Before it seemed the world was insane; now it appears that we are the insane ones. Once again it is useful to recall the ecological balance. Our inner world is no less an ecosystem than the outer, and in that ecosystem many parts appear to vie against each other. Yet in the larger picture, they are in harmony. They may not be comfortable with each other, but they are at one with each other. Just as the apple is of the tree, so all desires within the self are of the inmost desire. They are inseparable from it. Problems arise when we identify with only a single desire or group of desires. That is how we lose track of the inmost desire. That is how we start to go insane.

To summarize, we do not have the power to carry out a choice against the Earth. This is inconsequential, since we cannot ultimately make a choice against the Earth. Yet it is relevant because we often feel that we can. When we identify with an isolated part, e.g. the individual as separate from the Earth, then we feel dis-empowered and frustrated. When we are living in a state of insanity--that is, a state out-of-accord with the ecosystem--then we start to perceive "the insanity called Planet Earth." When we believe we are separate, then the Earth starts to feel like a prison to escape. It is then that we become defensive about our free will, and then that we long for a view where we are capable of choosing against the Earth. By contrast, when we identify with the free will of the ecosystem, we draw on its power. When we live in a state of accord, then there is no conflict. When we acknowledge that we are differentiated but not separated, then we are secure in our free will and choose to return to the Earth.

Now to bring all this back to reincarnation, the only sensible reason to choose rebirth anywhere but Earth is if we disagree with or resist the view that we are of the Earth. If we take that view, that is our choice. As we saw before, there are two views. There is the inter-planetary traveler view, where we are in the world but not of it. There is also the apple-tree view, where we are both in the world and of it. We have looked most closely at the latter view, but neither view is more Pagan than the other. It is clear enough which one is my view, but there is room within Paganism for both. In any case, looking at both views has clarified the problem.

Now at last we can address the challenge. "If reincarnation is true, and we have a choice, then why do we keep coming back to this insanity called Planet Earth?" From the inter-planetary traveler view, there is no satisfactory answer. On the other hand, from the apple-tree view, the question is a non-question. We can't leave the Earth because we wouldn't. Even if we would, we couldn't. Our home is here. Our self is here. We reincarnate here not to sign up for insanity, but to recognize our sane self. This is where we are, and who we are. To live on Earth is to know ourselves. That is why we keep "coming back" to this Earth.

As a closing note, the problem of reincarnation depends largely on the attitude you take to it. If you take the attitude that the Earth is insane, then reincarnation becomes a hope for escape, which may or may not be possible. On the other hand, if you take the attitude that the Earth is your deepest self, then reincarnation becomes an abiding hope to live in accord, life after life on Earth.

Incidentally, amongst these many lives, nothing says that subtle realms of the Earth may not be experienced between the grosser incarnations. Even places like the Summerlands, Tir Nan Og, and Asgard can be interpreted as Earthly, albeit unseen. We can even think of multiple simultaneous reincarnations, as our physical bodies become soil, our actions become memories in the minds of others, and our subtle parts transform in mysterious ways...

And though thy mist shall roll beyond the veil,
O'er summery lands or listless oceans pale,
There to form as yonder morning's dew,
Yet hither shall thy form be glimmering too.

Then again, others may prefer a simpler image. Even if we are nothing more than our physical bodies, and reincarnation nothing more than physical transformations, I don't think that would be so bad...

Rotting quietly
The corpse rejoices, for soon
It shall become grass

However we conceive of reincarnation, the picture is colored by our attitudes and views of the self. As Pagans we are "Earth-centered" people, yet the world does sometimes seem insane to us. The challenge was posed by a non-Pagan, but it can help us think about our place here. Our relationship to the Earth can only deepen, by whatever path we choose. And when we die, then and only then will we find out what really happens.

Copyright: Copyright 2005


B. T. Newberg

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota


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