Reincarnation and the Journey of the Soul
Etymologically, The term reincarnation is of Latin origin and comes from two words: re–, meaning “back, back from” or “again” and incarnation, meaning “being made flesh.” Reincarnation is also known under several other synonyms, such as rebirth, re-embodiment, transmigration, palingenesis and metempsychosis. Simply put, reincarnation is the belief that the soul or the consciousness of any sentient being continues to exist after death; it sheds off its old skin and and enters a new body. Spiritual teachings about reincarnation are found in many religions and philosophies of the world, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, the ancient Greek mystery schools, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Theosophy, etc.
Evidence for reincarnation is often found in cases of people — most often children — who remember their past lives, irrespective of the culture they have been born into. For example, the researcher and psychiatrist Ian Stevenson has collected over 2,600 reports about children who have claimed to remember their past lives, spanning South Asia, Middle East, West Africa and North America. Adults, too, sometimes have memories of past lives revived either through regression therapy, meditation, or a near-death-experience (NDE). Individuals who possess the gift of extra-sensory perception (ESP) have also testified in support of the phenomenon of reincarnation.
Central to reincarnation is the understanding of its purpose and significance. Reincarnation serves the purpose of soul or consciousness evolution. Every time the soul incarnates, it gets an opportunity for new experiences and lessons which lead to growth, development, and progress to a higher state of consciousness. In some traditions, this process of birth–death–rebirth is known as the Wheel of Life or samsara, governed by the law of karma (a cumulative set of one’s actions, either good or bad, acquired through the numerous past incarnations).
The ultimate goal, achieved through an inner journey, is to break free from this cycle of rebirth by elevating consciousness to the highest level of bliss, illumination and self-realization. As Chevallier notes, reincarnation or the Journey of the Soul indicates both “the yearning to grow into the light of the One” and “a feeling of responsibility for past actions.”
All great spiritual teachings remind us that we are spiritual beings, having human experience. On its path to self-realization the soul participates in a great cosmic drama. In each incarnation, it plays a role on the big stage of life, according to a personal blueprint formed by its karmas and the current state of evolution. What happens to the soul in the period in-between two consecutive births has been described in numerous spiritual and mythological accounts, with the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the Egyptian Book of the Dead as some of the most notable references. Many spiritual traditions teach that, after the physical death, the soul leaves the physical body and begins its astral journey to another realm/plane/world. While the description of these astral worlds/higher dimensions through which the soul travels differs across teachings, all spiritual systems and masters mention the existence of entry points into these worlds (for example gates or rivers), opportunities to reflect upon (self-assess) one’s now-completed incarnation, and absorb the learning/lessons. The soul then consciously, and on its own accord, chooses its next incarnation — all the circumstances, events, and challenges it is going to experience — in order to maximize its learning and facilitate the evolution of consciousness.
Spiritual evolution (or higher evolution) is the idea that the soul, in analogy to biological evolution, evolves from a simple form dominated by nature, to a higher form dominated by the Spiritual or Divine. The ultimate goal for the soul is self-realization (enlightenment, nirvana, samadhi) i.e. liberation from the life-death-rebirth cycle. The New Age doctrine, for example, outlines five major Stages of the Soul on its evolutionary path: Infant Soul, Baby Soul, Young Soul, Mature Soul and Old Soul, which begin with a strong anchoring in the material world and with a preoccupation for material survival, and gradually progress toward the spiritual path and the highest states of consciousness.
Meditation, by anchoring us in the present moment, helps us achieve a state of coherence, and by elevating our personal energetic signature (raising our vibration & level of consciousness), helps us deal with the ill-effects of karma with dignity, grace and the right amount of soul learning. Even though challenges and difficult situations will continue to occur in the life of the meditator, the meditator experiences them with calmness, self-control and ability to act in the best manner possible. Tragedies no longer pose a threat to his/her physical, mental and emotional stability. He/she views painful situations as part of the game of life, and an opportunity to grow/evolve.