Sunday, October 3, 2010

Cleaning Out the Old Souls

I was raised in the quasi-hindu religion of Rhada Soami Satsang Beas.  A tenet of the faith being the concept of karma and reincarnation, I grew up with my mother frequently telling me that I was an "old soul".  A childhood book I have fond memories of called, The Journey of the Soul, illustrated the mythology.  In one page a heavenly region was depicted as a sea of teardrop-shaped souls, themselves teary-eyed at the painful, sad thought of having to return to their next sojourn in some Earthy, corporeal form.  Another page showed the concentric circles of terrestrial life spiraling outwards, and upwards, from the lowliest plant toward the higher mammalian forms.  This hierarchical concept was illustrated again as a sort of golden ladder, with two small human children sitting playfully on the top rung, below them the "lower" orders, the classic lion and tiger - "kings of the jungle" directly beneath.

There is an intuitive common sense to all of this.  At its core it is about consciousness, or the ability of a life form to be self-aware.  It is obvious that humans are the most conscious beings on the planet, followed by other mammalian forms, along with a few other forms with highly-developed brains such as corvids (crows) or cephalapods (octopi).  However, it is obviously highly unscientific.  Of what did any of the gurus know of science?  They simply delivered "inspired" teachings, largely derived from religious cultural memes. 

While we can devise an objective measure of consciousness, we have a long ways to go before we come close to understanding what is really going on within the neural networks of the brain.  But there is a lot that we do know.  We know for instance that the brain goes through a period of intense cognitive development in the early years of life.  We know that environment is very important to the brain's growth.  We know that there are multiple areas of specialty within the brain, and that what we think of as one "thought", is actually the product of a diverse range of structures.  The brain is not only responsible for coordinating what we think of as conscious thought, but also a vast unconsciousness.  Our base emotions, such as anger, pain, joy, fear, excitement, etc. are all interwoven with conscious thought, pushing it and pulling it in different directions, sometimes making it entirely impossible.  Just imagine trying to contemplate your weekend plans while fleeing a burning building.

So consciousness arises from an impossibly complex organ, estimated to be made up of over a million miles of neuronal connections.  Douglas Hofstadter describes the ultimate result as a sort of "strange loop", in which the sum of our processing capabilities folds back upon itself, allowing for self-awareness.  Yet while a healthy human is capable of such a feat, most of one's day is spent not in a state of self-awareness, but generally focused on various external loci.  The act of making the bed, tying shoes, fixing dinner, repairing a car, etc. requires a level of acuity that would be impossible to maintain while completely self-aware.  This is best stated in degrees, however, as every task requires a specific level of mental engagement.  We've all likely had the experience of reading a book or driving our car "absentmindedly", suddenly realizing that we've gone an entire paragraph or block while seemingly completely lost in some abstract thought.

I profess no expertise in the theology of Rhada Soami Satsang Beas, or any other religion that espouses the concept of reincarnation.  But I do know enough to critique its core belief that any soul can be "older" than another.  There no proof of reincarnation, obviously.  But the concept of reincarnation through evolution of consciousness is deeply troublesome for some very pragmatic reasons.  Human conscious development is entirely dependent on biological and environmental interaction; your brain is a product of your genes, plus the environment you were born into, from your appearance as a zygote up through the parenting you received, the house you live in, the job you have, the friends with which you comport today.

Now, this presents a problem for reincarnation of consciousness.  If we are determined by the biological/environmental world into which we are born, then how is it that we gain anything from our experiences here?  If one were to live life as an abused child who grows up into a deranged sociopath, that would surely require a "do-over", the work of a very "young" soul.  And if one were to be born into the arms of a loving family, and encouraged to grow into a compassionate, intelligent, well-adjusted adult, that would likewise be the mark of an "old soul".  Yet how were these two different souls given any opportunity to do other than they did?  Were they somehow supposed to have been applying consciousness from past-lives to their present reality, and rising above circumstance?  Seems the child who was loved had a considerably unfair advantage, no?

In many ways this mythology mirrors that of those who have a libertarian concept of free will: we all make our own choices in life and must suffer the associated rewards and punishments.  Fundamentally, this view presents a classic authoritarian view of existing social power dynamics.  For in society there have always been winners and losers.  Those at the bottom are subject to downward pressures on their consciousness that those at the top will never experience.  Returning to the concept of trying to plan one's weekend while running from a burning house, the pressures placed on those at the bottom include access to nutrition, health care, education, dysfunctional family structures, etc., and generally make the evolution of consciousness much more difficult.  Underdeveloped and caught up dealing with numerous life-stressors, the brain is unable to expend precious resources processing higher-order meta-cognition.

And yet while the modern authoritarian might only view those with underdeveloped capacities for consciousness as responsible for their own earthly existence, those who accept the doctrine of  reincarnation of consciousness take it a step further and doom them not only to their fate in this world, but that of the great beyond as well.  In this manner of hyper-punishment and judgment they are not alone.  The Judeo-Christian faiths do them one better and imagine a literal hell from which there is no possible redemption.  And all this merely because they happened to be born out of the wrong DNA, the wrong uterus.

In my own life today I wonder how much I've internalized this variation on the concept of original sin.  How much do I hold myself up to an impossible standard of thought and action?  How much of my consciousness is in perpetual recoil from the idea drummed in to me as a youth that I was indeed an "old soul", apart and "holier" than my fellow man?  At some basic level, even the Christian knows that while he may be a sinner, there is salvation in Jesus Christ and that he will be rewarded for his labors with eternal peace.  The reincarnated are in a sense eternally condemned to wander the earth, ghost-like, never quite good enough, but always better than their neighbor.

I like to think that I've left all this behind.  And rationally I have.  But what length of that million-mile length of neurons is devoted to self-criticism and self-doubt?  There is no way to know.  Religion has an awesome power to shape one's sense of self, sending its insidious tendrils deep into the psyche and holding fast.  Ironically, my religious instruction in the evolution of consciousness now exists entirely in my unconscious.  Like the golden rungs of that hierarchical ladder, it descends downward into the very depths of my reptilian brain, churning levers I can only begin to comprehend.

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