The other night I had a dream about my mother, who died over 30 years ago. She looked the same as she had done then, and my dream filled me with happiness, not the sorrow of loss.
Like most people I often dream of the dead. But on this particular occasion I had a moment of half-wakefulness – that limbo between sleep and consciousness when the mind is strangely lucid – in which a thought came to me: Such dreams are reminders that our dead live on within us.
The next morning, fully awake, I remembered that thought, and tried to figure out what it meant, if anything at all.
Freud interpreted dreams as a psychic mechanism by which the subconscious processes unresolved impulses and issues and brings them to the light of day for resolution.
So, what meaning would I give, in a non-Freudian sense, as to the way my personal dead, those I have known, live again in my dream state, in my subconscious? Could this be a metaphor for a different take of the doctrine of reincarnation, central to much of what is called Hinduism, and in Buddhist philosophy?
I’ve always been a bit chary of the belief that the cosmic wheel of karmic consequence causes us to be reborn, over and over, until we finally attain moksha, or nirvana.
To me the idea of reincarnation has always smacked of a sort of spiritual charity shop where a succession of physical forms, like discarded clothes, are passed on from person to person until they become totally outworn and are no longer needed.
But there could be another, simpler view of reincarnation: that we are reborn not in individual physical terms, not as ourselves in the cast-off clothing of different mortal flesh, but in the thoughts and deeds of those we have encountered and who have influenced us, for good or ill, during our lives.
Schopenhauer in his ‘The World as Will and Idea’ reinterprets reincarnation as a continuum of consciousnesses, each assimilating and subsuming others, like a baton passed on from runner to runner in a relay race.
In Boris Pasternak’s novel, the eponymous Dr Zhivago expounds his take on spiritual immortality by suggesting that all of us live on, are reborn, in the ways in which we continue to mould, consciously or otherwise, the lives of others who come after us, not just as our genetic descendants but those who are the offspring of our memes, our mental genes, which we leave behind like footprints on the shifting sands of time for others to follow.
Spiritual masters like Christ, Prophet Mohammed, Guru Nanak, Mahavira and others, have left behind a memetic legacy as a foundation on which their followers have built faith systems. Mohandas Gandhi’s active philosophy of ahimsa and satyagraha was derived from Tolstoy and Thoreau, and in turn passed on to Martin Luther King Jr, and others.
Our parents, teachers, friends, even strangers we come into tangential contact with, live on in us by being the wellspring of what we think and do, often without our being aware of our source of motivation.
When we dream of those who are no more, they are not spectres of the past, but are an indispensable part of our own living selves, as we ourselves will be to others, in the flowing river of life called reincarnation.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
END OF ARTICLE