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The Jerk in the Next Life
Nick: If everything is only based on karma, then what if at some point in a past life I was a big jerk and now I’m just awaiting the bad karma to return? That’s a scary thought.
Sundari: Who is this referring to? If you take the jiva to be real, you need to worry about its karma “past, present and future” because karma must fructify. If you know you are the Self, there is no karma for you, because there is no one there for the karma to be delivered to.
Nick: Which leads me to another question. I don’t see how karma from past lives could ever be something we can prove by our own investigation.
Sundari: Firstly, let’s do an inquiry into what time is. If reality is non-dual awareness, which we know it is, then there is nothing other than awareness “in it.” Time is a construct, an uphadi, or limiting adjunct. It is created by fear and desire, and if you are identified with it, you are looking at the changeless through a changing instrument, the mind. This is ignorance. Nothing is experienced in the past or the future, only the present. How long is the present? A lifetime, a year, month, minute, millisecond? The moment you try to categorize time, time has already passed. Time therefore isn’t any specific measurement. What is it then?
If you think about it, time is the space between events. The essence of the experience of events is stored in and by the mind. Memory is simply catalogued and categorized events. Could you actually say an event took place previously if your mind didn’t record that event? You could not. Time is the distance between a memory of an event and another memory or current experience. It is an illusion. If time is the space between memories formed by the mind, what or who sees the presence of the memories and “time”? Awareness is the witness to time. Is awareness affected by any function of the mind? Does awareness actually have anything to do with the mental illusion called time? Would time exist if awareness weren’t there to see it? “No” to all these questions.
This is precisely what we mean when we say that awareness is “out of time” or “timeless.” Vedanta says that awareness isn’t a factor in the production of time; only experience and memory are. Yet awareness must be there for time to exist. That is why time depends on you, but you don’t depend on time. You see time, it doesn’t see you. You are the seer unaffected by time. You are free of time. Nothing ever happened. So what difference does it make if the vasanas are experienced in this life or an apparent “past” life? Without Self-knowledge, the vasanas cannot be dissolved and remain binding.
Once ignorance has been removed and the knowledge that your true identity is awareness is firm, then you understand that the person is no more than a conglomeration of tendencies, likes and dislikes, or vasanas, that create a certain personality and a life story. As stated previously, both Isvara and the jiva, or the apparent person, are objects known to you, awareness. “Your” conditioning belongs to Isvara; therefore, as awareness, you do not claim it. Nor do you set out to perfect the apparent person. What for, if the person is not real? All you need to be free is to understand the jiva’s conditioning in the light of Self-knowledge so that you can free of the limitation of identification with objects. The apparent person will always be limited, as they will never leave the apparent reality, meaning that the jiva is always subject to Isvara, even though as awareness they are free of Isvara and the jiva.
Nick: Like most other concepts in Vedanta. If there is only one “soul,” then reincarnation isn’t a real thing, because it’s all the same “soul”? Or do we somehow remain as this “piece of spirit” into our next life? If the spirit is partless, how does that work in terms of past and future lives if we’re all the same consciousness?
Sundari: The subject of reincarnation is not such a big topic in Vedanta, because Self-inquiry is about negating the notion that you are the body-mind, or the doer. We say you die and reincarnate with each thought. The whole idea of reincarnation depends on who you think you are. If you are religiously inclined and identified with being a person, then the ego will be attached to the idea of a future life “beyond this life” wherever “heaven” may be. If you are spiritually inclined, the ego may or may not be invested in the idea of a past life and reincarnation. You care about not being a jerk in the “next life” because you wrongly believe that who you are as a personality in this life has a continuation. It does not. As Vedantins we know that no life is real, nor is time, as explained, so the idea of reincarnation is moot.
Once you understand that you are not the person and why, it is not terribly important to know whether the person reincarnates or not, because you know that you, awareness, are eternal. The person is just an idea that appears in you, awareness. This does not mean that the person does not exist; it just means that he/she is not real: real being defined by “that which is not always present and always changing.” Only awareness is always present and never changes. Why bother with who you were in a so-called “past” life or who you will be in the next when neither are any more real than this one? Awareness has no past and no future.
The person called Nick is just a name for the Self under the spell of ignorance. The person (personality) will never reincarnate, because he/she is not real. The subtle body (eternal Jiva) is not real either, but it is relatively real with reference to the short-lived individual. It is called the “traveller.” It is the subtle body, or the vasana-bundle, that may or may not reincarnate. The “next” person, or subtle body, will be a completely different person with a different set of life karma. Nick will not be Nick anymore and will have no memory of ever having been Nick. So, what difference does it make? Whether reincarnation happens or not has no bearing on your present life. The belief is nothing more than a false sense of security for the ego.
The spiritual arena has built up a very elaborate fantasy around the belief in reincarnation because the ego is afraid of death. Some people do have “past” life memories, it’s true – but what difference do they make in the here and now? Knowledge of past lives will not help the mind render the binding vasanas non-binding. Only Self-knowledge has the power to do that in the present.
As awareness, you never die, because you were never born. The body-mind-ego will die. Each apparent incarnation is just a playing out of the gunas, which creates a story with a name and an address. It is no more than a movie playing out on the movie screen is real. Metaphorically speaking, awareness is the screen, not the movie. Although the story of the jiva may seem personal and to originate from “past” lives, as there is really only one Self/ awareness, there is really only one mind, or subtle body, seemingly appearing as the many – so there is only one story with no past. It is the story of ignorance and knowledge. If you understand the difference between non-duality and duality is, you will not be concerned with so-called past lives.
Nick: Thanks so much again for your help. The next book I’m thinking of reading is going to be The Yoga of the Three Energies.
Sundari: You are welcome.
~ Much love, Sundari