next lifetime: on the origins of religious experience

I don’t believe any of this stuff, right?  So how come I can see it all so clearly?

Maybe I’ve just got no imagination at all.  I can see the house vividly.  Every detail, from ceilings to secret balconies and sunbathing decks.  The place needs a major paint job.  You’d think my next lifetime would at least have fresh paint already.  But no.  Maybe next lifetime rules are just being kind.  Knowing that I love painting walls with layers and layers of glaze.  But this one needs some major work on the ceiling.  I hate painting ceilings.  Maybe I can call someone to help? Can you do that?

You’d think I’d manage a fully prepped next lifetime.  But no.

A student came in yesterday.  Great combination:  double major in anthropology and comparative religious studies.  She’s been working at the Rosicrucian Museum since she was sixteen.

So when I told her how I wanted to paint my (next lifetime) ceiling, she completely agreed:  the ancient Egyptian goddess Nuit holding up the night sky.  She said that on really hot days they used to go into the vault where Nuit presides, looking down at them from the ceiling. And they’d stay down there under her cool dark skies and stars during their breaks.  A nice Office Hours bonding moment.

The kitchen needs redoing in my next-lifetime house.  I mean, c’mon.  That is so not fair.  Haven’t I done enough restoration for one lifetime?  Oh.  Right.  This is next time.  I haven’t filled my quota on next time.  It’s not a bummer, really.  They just better give me a really good job to be able to afford my next lifetime.


The ‘they’ I don’t believe in.

Which goes with the ‘next lifetime‘ I don’t believe in either.

The vision keeps going.  I can see my partner vividly as well.  I’m in shock really.  I get that?  I mean, what did I do to deserve such, such —  I begin to stutter…

And that’s where morality kicks into this afterlife business. “What did I do to deserve” language —  already plunks us down into some kind of good and evil universe where somebody’s doling out the goodies and the pain.  In my little vision, I’m clearly on the goody goody side of things.

Is that because I abstained from so much in this life and came to recognize the things I might atone for (had I been one of those people who atones).  Or maybe all that abstinence was my atonement?

Okay.  Scratch that.  I don’t know what to do with the atonement stuff.

Or.  Is it because I learned to have so much fun in this life — and that took a hell of a lot of work to learn.  But this too still implies a sense of deserving one fate over another.

We invent these other lives out of the depth of our suffering, I think.  We weave them out of our pain and grief.

I beat my chest and do the Woe thing (if I were that kind of person).  We feel we must get something, after all we’ve gone through.

That’s why my particular vision doesn’t make any sense to me.  I think I’ve got it pretty good.  And okay, yes, I’ve worked hard for this life that I am living.  I don’t think I deserve a ‘Pass Go’ second (third? umpteenth?) go at it.  The thing I picture looks like Paradise to me.  But I would not actively change anything to make it happen now.  I’m not sure why not.

The now is just too damned good.  Even with the bad stuff.

And I worry about being greedy in this regard.  “C’mon, lifetime, let’s get on with it.  I want that next one — now.”

I know better than that.  My beautiful vision would disappear in a flash.  To be replaced by (yes, this is how it got invented) a version of hellfire that I might actually (yes, here’s that word again) deserve.

So.  I’m trying to figure it out.  Can I live in both lifetimes at the same time?  Is there fine print my old eyes just can’t read? More greed.  More self-reprobation.  More lack of imagination.

I’m feeling greedy.  It’s the ‘hand in the bush’ problem.  Gotta let go of something or it all disappears.

Or maybe it’s not that at all.  Maybe we humans have consciousness so that we can imagine multiple ways of being.  And maybe  that is the way we live out our dreams.  I believe that this-is-it, and that this-is-all-we-get.  So maybe there’s nothing wrong with envisioning that other lifetime in the world to come, and living this one to the fullest as well.  And maybe I can be mature and rational about it all, and just appreciate Jung, or something.

But I reach out my hand — and I can almost touch that other lifetime.  It is so close that my heart aches.  It takes my breath away.  But if I reach too far, I let go this life entirely —

I reach —

I pull back and restrain myself somehow.

Maybe this is the gift of getting older.  Maybe it’s the gift of prescience or some other  woo-woo thing that I can’t stand. Maybe it’s too many drugs in the ’60s.  Too much kabbalistic study.  Too little ditch digging for solid grounding.  But the one thing I do know is that it’s not my imagination.  It’s too close, and too far, and too detailed — and I’m not the only one who can see it.

Shared visions.  They always were my favorites, anyway.

And there — right there — when we share that vision, then we have a name for it.  We might not be believers.  But we build ourselves a place that we can pray.


By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

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