I and I: an Omniperennialist Theory of Reincarnation and Cyclical Time (Part 3)


Back to Part One / Part Two

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”

Thomas Merton, “The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century”

“God is dead.”


“Nietzsche is dead.”


By now it should be clear why spirituality places such emphasis on distinguishing the true self — the wave which can learn that it is also the Ocean, the “I am” which has a clear path to knowing itself as the divine person (I AM) — from the socially constructed ego, the personality, which is only a false lead to a dead end.

“Ego” is a much-maligned, little understood term, and admittedly my own definition of it has changed over the years, so let me be clear what I mean by it now. Ego is your own subjective experience of yourself; it is your mind’s self-identity, a personality that is not identical to your person (the divine will) and can in fact be at odds with it. This is because the ego is the product of a conflict between two divergent elements: a triangulated amalgam of socially defined roles (“I am a white American, I am a father, I am a truck driver, I am a Cincinnati Reds fan who doesn’t eat meat and loves wine” etc) that doesn’t recognize a soul, and an actual natural self that is privy to an interior landscape the world cannot know. The ego sees itself as an isolated island of consciousness in a sea of other such islands, yet only knows itself by the dynamics of these interinsular relationships. The natural self, on the other hand, is a direct node of experiential self-knowledge. It doesn’t have a soul because it IS a soul [1].

We are mistaken, therefore, by assuming that the ego is our bastion of individuality, when it is actually the opposite: the collective’s yoke upon the soul. The ego is a full-body mask, an anthropomorphic box for the natural self that the world doesn’t trust, and teaches us not to trust. The more complex the social order, the tighter this box will fit around the self and constrict its movements. The tragedy is that we lose our oceanic sense of connection when we capture our wave in the fishbowl of ego, so we either arm ourselves to the teeth to protect our illusory fortress, or we surrender the self even more to the false security offered by the collective that built it.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

If we persist in accepting the ego, the world’s definition of the self, as the template for our experience of selfhood, this wave, which is the true experiential vehicle of personhood, is conflated with the illusion of personality. The ego-bound soul is either forgotten altogether or is stuffed into a material body (or, as materialists claim, it is merely an emergent secondary activity of an isolated complex nervous system) and somehow expected to operate it like a ghost in a machine.

But once we learn that ego is not in charge, that a personal will unites with physical form and becomes the vehicle of selfhood, now it can go places and do things, in a setting that isn’t foreign, connected with kindred vehicles who are part of the extended self — the Ocean of which we are all waves — rather than insular “others.” The soul is thus cornered by modern civilization, but not defeated. It knows that the walls that corner it are fabrications, and that fighting them is a process of watching them dissolve when exposed to truth.

Spirituality doesn’t just put forth a wishy-washy hope fulfillment of connection and immortality, in other words — it confirms them and reinstates our divinity by revealing a much more viable, integrated, and complete sense of the self than chemistry and biology and any social institutions can produce on their own. The unyoked individual, existing amidst the web of Existence itself connecting all with all, is truly the most powerful force on earth. A proper spirituality will equip us to take that power back to the collective and help others find it in themselves.

For the most part, modern religions, especially the Abrahamic traditions, have acquiesced to the egocentric perspective and its ghost-like disempowered soul that can only hope for release in heaven, with only the faintest nod to a “divine spark” found within the cohort and/or those deemed worthy enough to be vessels of the divine. At the other end of the spectrum are the neo-Advaitists and other ego exterminators and teachers of “fundamentalist non-duality” who will tell you that everything but God/the Ocean is an illusion — no souls, no waves, no wills, no atoms or play of LightDark, all just a big show by nothing, for nothing.

Yeah, that never satisfied me either. That’s like swatting flies with an atomic bomb. It’s a good thing the fundies didn’t turn me off to non-duality altogether, because it is still a very important aspect of any coherent metaphysical schema. 

Of the contemporary traditional wisdom paths, the ones best equipped to teach the soul as fully potentiated will with the capacity to return are, in no particular order and by no means exhaustively: Vishishtadvaita or authentic Advaita Vedanta (where “Atman is Brahman” offers a preemptive affirmation that the individual will is also divine will); Mahayana Buddhism; Sufism; mystic Judaism; various flavors of panentheist Christianity, which are most common under the umbrella of Eastern Orthodox; and perhaps the most overlooked and least understood of the lot, unprogrammed Quakerism, whose concept of “that of God in everyone” is uniquely attuned to this model. 

The missing ingredient in Quaker theology and most of the others is “the movement of return” as Buber called it. This, as I teased at the end of both previous parts, is cyclical time, the closest we can come to grasping eternity from an individual perspective. 

The best way I know to introduce cyclical time is to first explain what it is not. 

One objection I’ve encountered multiple times from people who haven’t questioned linear time is the dreaded thought of “eternal recurrence” — that cyclical time simply means events will repeat themselves over and over and over, and reincarnation in this case is just indefinite repetition with no teleological purpose. 

A Catholic friar named Paul who I know through a Facebook group once made an impassioned defense of the notion that every moment in life is a discrete, non-repeatable event on a linear timeline. He described a particularly moving orchestral performance he witnessed in his native Great Britain. Part of what made it so transcendently beautiful, he reasoned, was its ephemeral nature as a unique moment in time. The symphony may have been played tens of thousands of times across the ages, but never just like this, and he was there to witness that moment that will never be again. 

I wish I’d had the words to agree with him, and then explain that cyclical time agrees with him too. It doesn’t mean that these unique events we experience are going to happen again. It doesn’t mean that there is a discrete verse in a multiverse in which that exact performance will reoccur except the second violin will miss a note somewhere in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B Minor. 

What it means is that Paul’s subjective experience of this performance is part of a soul’s journey through time that will end where it began — in eternity. There is no “before” or “after,” nor “here” or “there” in eternity to constitute a journey from one time-space location to another; the duration between events in that temporal journey, within the timeless foundational context of eternity, is a subjective experience with no absolute universal reality. (Remember Einstein’s theory of relativity? Same logic, different application.) From the theoretical perspective of God, eternal Being itself, there are no separate moments in time, just as there are no separate drops of water in the ocean. God becomes subjective beings – that is, emanates the breath of divine will into the potential of the physical world – in order to experience a discrete journey of temporal experience. 

God, in other words, became the soul we call Paul, putting the will of I AM into a limited expression of “I am,” giving momentum to the potential of Paul and thus initiating his journey through the physical plane, in part to witness this exquisite performance, to know and love this part of being alive, before running out of momentum and returning to the timeless state of potential. (Every breath is both an out-breath and an in-breath.) That coalescence of will and potential created a unique time loop for the soul we call Paul to experience life from a unique perspective, and come home to its source via the movement of return. 

The full duration of an energetic pattern’s temporal existence is therefore best described as a cycle rather than a linear progression, whether it be the roughly 24 hour lifespan of a gnat, the 2400 year run of a redwood, or the 24 zillion year cycle of this physical universe itself. Out-breath and in-breath. Every journey of the soul begins at home and brings us home, having collected a unique set of experiences. 

Image by Incygneia from Pixabay

Think of it like a roller coaster. You board the coaster in one location, and it takes you on a long looping ride that will be terrifying and exhilarating and filled with experiences you would never have been able to comprehend if you hadn’t taken the ride. Then the ride ends, bringing you back to the place where you started, not somewhere else several miles away. This is a simple model of cyclical time, if we grasp that the starting and ending point of the ride is the same because it is outside of time — which is the actual meaning of eternity, not indefinite linear time. Cyclical time is necessary to account for both the subjective experience of duration and the grounding of that experience in eternity. 

Regarding any experience of recurrence or repetition: Does it seem reasonable that you would immediately get back on the same ride and do it all again? Or would you go find another ride and have another set of novel experiences? My 8 year old daughter enjoyed the “Forbidden Journey” ride through Hogwarts Castle at Universal Studios so much that we got right back in line and waited nearly two hours to ride it again, only to find that the second ride wasn’t nearly as fun because we knew what to expect at every turn. She learned that we would’ve been better off trying any of the park’s dozens of other rides with that time.

In case it isn’t clear, the person who “buys the ticket and takes the ride” is neither the unique personality nor in a strict sense the soul. The person in this illustration represents the divine spark, the Atman, the “that of God within everyone,” the will to be that harnesses the potential to be and coalesces into a wave of being. The unique soul is analogous to the ride itself. It is the divine spark, then, which also disembarks the ride and seeks another.

The soul, which includes the visible aspect of the “I am,” may acquire a name — let’s use “Hunter S. Thompson,” whose famous words I paraphrased above — and that name will be associated with this nebulous personality, giving an impression of solidity and constancy to a phenomenon without either. The soul, the energetic pattern that moves like a wave across the ocean of Existence itself, is the real source of the temporary constancy that is Hunter S. Thompson. But that name will not define the soul itself, because unlike a word which means this to the exclusion of that, the wave cannot be isolated from its extemporal context as a quality of the Ocean. The ego – or the Hunter S. Thompson personality as he experienced it himself, with some degree of awareness of his interior world – believes it is the “I am,” but this self-concept is the false front, hemmed in by a sense of isolation from its environment. It is, figuratively speaking, a wave without an Ocean, which is an illusion. In truth, only the soul – the divinely-powered body in an oceanic state of interbeing with all other bodies – was ever real.

But when that wave crashed in Woody Creek, Colorado in 2005, that was indeed the end of his particular ride, the completion of one soul-cycle, and Hunter S. Thompson did indeed cease to be as a result of this completion. (Though, it is very important to note, not the divine spark that he truly was; we’ll cover that more in Part Four.) If his limited sense of “I am” perished without reconciling that fact, he probably died afraid and alone. Ego attachment is not a victimless crime, though it does lead to the fake death of a false self. 

But here is where it starts to get interesting…his particular soul-cycle did intersect with many others, with varying degrees of intimacy, not to mention in his case the millions of impressions of Hunter S. Thompson based solely upon his books and biographical films. (We crossed paths just once in person, inside an auditorium in Washington, DC where I as a college freshman went to see my new journalistic role model talk politics and counterculture, and wound up learning far more than I ever needed to know about obtaining illegal drugs within the fishbowl of celebrity life.)

Every interrelationship created a distinct experience of the personality identified as Hunter S. Thompson. None of these experiences were exactly alike, and none were like his own subjective experience of himself. There are literally millions of versions of the Hunter S. Thompson personality lurking out there, millions of experiential variations of the same personality — but only one person, one soul, one energetic pattern, one wild ride that corresponds with the Hunter S. Thompson experience. Even the ego only knows this soul by inference, to the extent that it had relinquished its false claim on the self and trusted the internal guidance of the will. Only the soul that relinquishes egoic control and trusts the divine will within it, in other words, sees itself with clarity and truth, but even this one clarified soul produces innumerable variations of its truth along the way, variations that are analogous to individual performances of one character in many different plays [2]

This has some radical implications on the idea of eternal recurrence when properly applied to the cyclical time model. For the sake of this thought experiment, let’s assume the epic performance etched in Paul’s memory occurred on November 3, 1997 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The auditorium was filled to capacity that night, so including each member of the orchestra and its support crew, let’s say there were 5,500 people in attendance. That means there were 5,500 subjective experiences of the same event that occurred but once. 

None of these persons, it is safe to say, were present later that night in a small, dark venue called The Zone in Albuquerque, New Mexico to witness a very different musical performance by The Cramps. They are probably better off for it, for although the band absolutely tore the house down for over two hours, my ears rang loudly for four days afterwards, and I’ve had tinnitus ever since. Yet somehow I too look back on that night as a flashpoint in the otherwise dull monotone of memory, when the visceral thrill of being alive as ungodly guitar feedback and percussion assaulted my nervous system, amidst a spasm of uncorked but contained violence and cacophony, brought me to the same place as Paul’s orchestral performance, albeit by very different means. 

As a liberal estimate, let’s say there were 200 subjective experiences of the Cramps show, and no overlap between those and the 5,500 at Royal Albert Hall. I don’t know what Hunter S. Thompson was doing that night, but chances are it involved narcotics and small artillery fire and didn’t happen in London or Albuquerque, which means he was one of the estimated 5.872 billion people who were alive in 1997 and experienced neither performance. 

Now, consider this: In my subjective experience, the performance in London did not happen. I wouldn’t know anything about it now if Paul hadn’t talked about it years later in a Facebook group. It simply didn’t fall within the range of my experience.

This isn’t solipsism; I’m not saying the performance didn’t actually happen. I trust that it did. Let’s also be clear (looking at you, non-dual fundies) that ego is not the reason why my subjective experience is thus limited; this is simply the chosen experiential range of the will that became my “I am.” Likewise, Paul almost certainly had no idea there would be a gig by The Cramps seven time zones away that night in a city in the American desert. It was not part of his subjective experience. For Hunter S. Thompson and 5.872 billion other human beings alive that night, neither performance was part of their ride. Plus, we haven’t even accounted yet for the innumerable subjective experiences whose timelines do not overlap with November 3, 1997 — those who died before, were born after, or whose time is yet to come.

OK, enough with the elaborate setup, you might be saying now. There had better be a damn important point to come of all this.

Yes, there are a few. For starters, why should eternal recurrence be something to dread? According to cyclical time, there is only one “Hunter S. Thompson experience” that will not ever be repeated, but there are millions of subjective experiences OF him to have, and no two were alike. Even in the most brutal case of ego attachment imaginable, the “I am” that took that particular ride would have millions of opportunities to indulge that attachment while learning that there is no going back to it. Even if the “I am” that is currently Paul somehow again found itself at Royal Albert Hall on November 3, 1997 – a single time-space-needle in a universe of temporal haystacks, so to speak – there are 5,499 ways to experience it without doing so as Paul again.

This is not your dead German philosopher’s cyclical time. And as charming as the movie “Groundhog Day” is, there is no reason to think that Bill Murray must indefinitely replay the role of a cynical Pittsburgh weatherman for his person to have a discernible telos toward the realization of love, truth, and Andie McDowell. “The movement of return” is far better achieved by taking on other roles that cast the same morality plays in similar but different settings.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

It seems to me that the fuss over repetition in cyclical time comes from trying to shoehorn it back into a linear model. We are so conditioned by the subjective experience of cause-effect sequences and linear progression that we have grave difficulty understanding that eternity, the only “objective” truth, involves neither. One wave is not caused by another – both are “caused” by the entire ocean — and as already discussed, any segment of time begins and ends within a field of timelessness, so durations between segments are also relative measurements. There is no such thing as distance or direction of movement on an infinite field, nor is there direction or linearity within an eternal field. (Our ability to plot all of natural history on a linear timeline isn’t the knockout counterpoint that it seems, since all the beings observing this history are measuring it from the same cosmic vantage point; this is collective subjectivity rather than absolute truth.) 

Consequently, there is no reason to assume that one soul-cycle follows a previous one in a linear sequential manner, and certainly not upon a universal timeline that doesn’t actually exist in the context of eternity. There is no reason to assume that the divine will that became Hunter S. Thompson, for instance, must reincarnate as a new soul whose life begins after his death in February 2005. The movement of return, we mustn’t forget, brought that will back, not to a point on a timeline, but to timelessness, eternity. Past and future are null concepts here.  

It is only within measured segments that times moves in linear fashion like the water molecules in a river, and segments are created by subjective experiences or choices of parameters: birth and death, first day of school and graduation, etc. Oceanic time, the immeasurable phenomenon of the divine Absolute creating fractalized time cycles (which create fractalized cycles, which create fractalized cycles, and so on), is the best way to describe reincarnation in this model.

I was very fortunate to find another Facebook discussion yesterday in response to a question similar to what we tackled back in Part One: “If there is no true self according to Buddhism, then who is going to be reborn?” Alas, there was only one insightful response, but it was a humdinger, and I obtained the respondent’s permission to include it here in full:

“The important thing to remember here is Nagarjuna’s Two Truths, because it clarifies and explains this situation. The relative vs absolute distinction makes it clear because the truth is a superposition of these two perspectives.’

“From the relative perspective there are in fact individuals who reincarnate, and these individuals are relative constructions made up of a deep pool of past life experiences.’

“On the absolute level there is obviously no one who reincarnates per se. Instead what we have is consciousness simply moving from vessel to vessel. And this consciousness, the Buddha nature, is shared by all and is identical in all beings and as the fundamental substrate of reality itself.’

“So this explains how there is in fact, for example, a Karmapa who reincarnates continuously. But his “karmapa-ness” is also a relative construction. The chain of lifetime to lifetime that is reincarnation creates a relatively existing being within linear timespace.”

Relative truth (what we’ve been calling “subjective experience”) is anything that can be observed and measured. This can vary from an incorrect personal observation — in which case the “truth” is an experience of falsehood — to axiomatic physical facts. The utility of relative truth qua truth as an indicator or realness can thus vary drastically of course, but it remains within a fundamentally relative context, whether it be the internal experience of one human being, or a family of humans, or a nation, or a religious body, or humanity as a whole, or the sum total of events in the 13.7 billion years since the purported Big Bang. Relative truth always refers back to the subjective experience of an observer or set of observers who occupy time-space. Each manifestation of Atman, in other words, and its “deep pool of past life experiences” is a relative truth.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Absolute truth, or nirguna Brahman in Vedanta, is eternity. Though Brahman itself is featureless, it is also every potential moment at every possible time-space location — such as a mirror that reflects all possible qualities without possessing those qualities — and the observer is omnipresent. Thus the truth of Brahman is absolute non-duality of knower and known, I AM and “I am,” in that the latter is completely subsumed in the former — or more appropriately, there is no time-space for any knowable energetic patterns to have emerged. Whereas relative truth exists in four dimensions, the absolute truth of nirguna Brahman contains all possible relative truths in an unmanifest state of zero dimensions.

The superposition of the Two Truths is Satcitananda,  a Sanskrit compound word that translates as “truth, consciousness, bliss.” Satcitananda is the subjective experience of Brahman, and it comes from the realization of the non-duality of relative and absolute truths (“Atman is Brahman”), so that it is clear that the mirror does include the qualities it reflects while they exist. This is known as saguna Brahman or qualified non-dual reality, and it is experienced in cyclical time, in which the individual’s will to be and movement of return are one and the same. 

Every duration that marks the beginning and end of a temporal phenomenon is a cycle, a full “breath of God” that returns to from whence it came. Dualistic thought separates the cycle from its eternal ground and expresses it as a dead-end segment of linear time, making the impermanence of all phenomena a rather grim, even terrifying prospect. Spiritual remedies that don’t recognize the non-duality of the Two Truths tend to dismiss relative truth as an illusion at best and a vice at worst while holding up absolute truth as the sole reality or virtue, with the ironic result that virtue is unobtainable in this life, and the embodied individual is either perpetuated and doomed or playing a pointless game with no redeeming value. But Satcitananda shows us that the embodied being is the vehicle to absolute truth — and what’s more, it is riding on rails; it cannot help but return home. 

The soul-ride you are on right now, which you as a fragment of God willed yourself to take, no matter who or what you are, is your surest way back to absolute truth. 

Buy the ticket, take the ride.

Perhaps this is what William Blake meant by, “The fool who persists in his folly shall become wise.” If so, persistence would be the operative concept if the wisdom of Satcitananda shall be realized in a given life span. There can be no retreating to a less active self-awareness, no disassociating from the “I am” in nihilist oblivion nor cloaking it in egoic fantasies. These, as Jung suggested, are mere defenses against the experience of God/Satcitananda, or to be more charitable, they are filters to shape the experience so that it isn’t mind-blowing in a bad way to the immature seeker. And that, I believe, in a backwards manner of presentation, is one of the sounded arguments for reincarnation via cyclical time and the movement of return: Just as we learn best through successive lessons within a lifetime, so too will the ensouled Light (which also means embodied) come to maturity through successive life cycles, and the only way out is through.

[1] The author formally nods to C.S. Lewis here. I have challenged his statement in the past, but I have to acknowledge that he was right according to this theory. Or half-right. His duality is still showing. You are a body and a soul, for there is no separation between them. The former is the latter mistaken to be an isolated physical form; the latter is the former recognized as an energetic pattern within greater patterns. This isn’t the proper place to go into why, but the traditional connection between soul and consciousness is well founded. One could say that what we are talking about here is exactly “the mind,” released from both Cartesian dualism and monist materialist dominion.

[2] My e-book Beyond These Four Walls spells out an elaboration of this image that is complementary to this theory and highly recommended reading if you are enjoying this. There is also a free abridged version of it here.

Originally posted 7.23.22, edited 11.19.22

I and I:

an Omniperennialist Theory of Reincarnation and Cyclical Time





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