For as long as we’ve been self-reflecting humans, we’ve wondered what’s before and after this life. All the ‘who, why, where, when and how’ questions have lead to plenty of different ideas and beliefs across hundreds of centuries – and as many cultures.
Let’s face it, in the bigger scope of things (geologic time and cosmic space), our personal experience is pretty darn small. But is this all we are? Are we just this tiny spec of self-reflecting carbon existing for a (relative) insta-flash of time?
A few folks say yes, but most people have a belief – or at least a speculation – about who they were before they were here. We may never know the answer (as long as we’re here, anyway), but I thought it would be fun to have a look at some of the most common beliefs about our pre-self selves.
Deepak Chopra says we live not just in a singular body and mind, but “outside” ourselves, in a greater “field of awareness.” He quotes one of the ancient Vedic texts of ancient India which says, “the real you cannot be squeezed into the volume of a body or the span of a lifetime.” In other words: we reincarnate.
Reincarnation means slightly different things to different people. For some it’s kind of like climbing a ladder – you start off humbly (think bug or beast of burden), and slowly rise, life-after-life, to enlightened self-mastery, after which you get to live in nirvana (kind of like an eternal, super-bliss). This idea is often connected with an idea of karma that says you can basically slide down the ladder a few (or many) rungs if you screw up along the way.
Others see reincarnation in a less linear fashion. With this version, a ‘past’ life could have happened in the future, and a ‘future’ life might have happened in our human, historic past.
Still another variation on the reincarnation theme gives us more choice about the ‘who’ and ‘what’ of our different lives. Rather than the ‘crime and punishment’ style karma cycles, this idea suggests that we choose our lives based on specific lessons we want to learn, and experiences we want to have.
Return to Heaven
In the Christian tradition, the basic belief is that each of us begins our existence just before our physical birth. After that, our soul lives on eternally. But as for human life, we only get one shot. When we die, depending on how well we did here on Earth, it’s either heaven, purgatory or hell. (See Dante’s Divine Comedy for the gory details).
You Chose your Parents
In some Native American traditions, there’s a belief that we all choose our parents before we’re born, based on the circumstances and guidance we wish to experience in our lives. Our parents, through their strengths, weaknesses, circumstances and experiences, will in turn shape the opportunities and experiences available to us.
This is a One-Off Deal
There are others who believe that there is no before or after this life. It’s a one-off, flash-in-the-pan experience that may or may not have any greater meaning beyond the experience itself. (see Nietzsche and the Existentialists for further angst-of-meaninglessness details).
Finally, there are those who believe that we’re actually infinite beings living simultaneously in multiple realities. Like a quantum wave collapse or a holograph, we break down into infinite beings that are all complete in themselves, but at the same time just a fragment of the whole.
Which of these makes sense – or nonsense – to you? Who do you believe you were before you were you?