I've read a large smattering of books about people who discuss metaphysical issues including past life remembrance, channeling, and the nature of existence. If you've read any of my past prattling on this topic, you may conclude that I eat this stuff up like sweet, sweet candy. That would be a reasonable, but incorrect, conclusion. The truth is that I approach each and every book (not that there have been more than what can be counted on my fingers) and concept with skepticism. In fact, I cannot even say at this very moment that I have a solid belief that any of what I read is true. That being said, I also do not have a solid belief that it is false.
I've pondered the motives behind writing some of the books which have had a great influence on me. The first of such books was Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss. Weiss is a psychiatrist with a strong medical background who initially approached the larger questions in life from the same hard-edged view as many with lives deeply steeped in science until he encountered a patient, a nurse, who seemed to remember her past lives under hypnosis and was able to tell him things no one should have known about an infant son who had died.
While reading his books and others like it, I always find myself asking the same questions. They are:
- Are these books lies and fabrications to gain notoriety and money? Do the writers really gain more from the books relative to the professional losses incurred by putting forth such views?
- Are the writers of these books delusional? Warped? Mentally ill? Are they really experiencing what they think they are seeing or are they hallucinating?
In some cases though, there would have to be collusion in order to validate some of the statements that have been made. For instance, in one of the Seth books, Jane Roberts, her husband Robert Butts, and another witness claim that the entity they call Seth made her fingers grow longer and fatter in front of them to prove his existence and ability to manipulate reality. This "parlor trick" was done to prove to them that he was not a delusion of Jane's, but an external force communicating through her. Obviously, either Mr. Butts and the other witness would have to lie in support of Jane's delusions, or they actually believed to have seen a change in her hands because of a form of contagious belief, hypnotism, or shared psychosis.
- Are the writers of such books bending facts to conform to their mindset? Is there anything objective proving what they have stated?
That being said, it's important to bear in mind that many of the less pie-in-the-sky writers of these types of books are just as skeptical as non-believers. They need validation as much as those who have never had their experiences. The best example of someone who tried as hard as possible to objectively verify her experiences was Jenny Cockell. She sought out children of a past life and talked to them about her memories. She didn't do this to prove to everyone else that her beliefs were credible. She did it to convince herself.
- Am I being persuaded by rational-sounding voices because I want to believe what they're saying?
In the end, it's difficult to know for sure what is true when it comes to the metaphysical claims unless you personally experience something profound. Even then though, you can't know for sure that you're not the one having some sort of hallucination, losing touch with reality, or just had one bizarre moment when your mind told you something that didn't really happen. Mother Theresa rather famously had a religious experience early in her life which motivated her to become a nun then never had such an experience again. She mentioned later in life that she was frustrated and sometimes disillusioned that she had never been reassured in such a fashion again about the path she'd taken in life. I'm sure she reached a point where she doubted that the original experience was real at all. She admitted her faith wavered because the experience did not repeat itself.
I'm not quite cynical enough to believe that there are so many people out there who are calculating enough to swindle people with their stories, though I am cynical enough to believe it happens sometimes. In the case of Philip Smith, I do believe he's telling the truth about his father and what he recalls of his life with him. I can't say that the truth he recalls was the reality that occurred, but I don't think he's making it all up. I also have to believe that, given how many people his father helped, it would be very easy for one of them to come forth and call the son a liar if he made so much up.
Everyone lives a different reality and I think you can't experience something if you don't want to or if you rule it out as a possibility. Your perspective defines your world as much as your world shapes your beliefs. You accept what fits your worldview and reject what doesn't. I believe the writers of some of the books I've read about the nature of existence happen to believe things many people do not and that's OK with me. It doesn't make them liars, and it doesn't make the people who doubt them correct.
I've come to learn, thanks to a random article on the front page of Wikipedia about a half year ago, that the way in which I approach such issues is in line with one of the things Jainists believe. While I don't believe their dogma, I do share the belief that truth is dependent upon your point of view. I also embrace the idea that we're all a little wrong, but leave open the idea that we're all a little right.