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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Joe Corbett has been living in Shanghai and Beijing since 2001. He has taught at American and Chinese universities using the AQAL model as an analytical tool in Western Literature, Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Science, and Communications. He has a BA in Philosophy and Religion as well as an MA in Interdisciplinary Social Science, and did his PhD work on modern and postmodern discourses of self-development, all at public universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at email@example.com.
An Integral Theory of Karma and Reincarnation
The way science currently sees fundamental reality has not caught-up to the implications of its own view.
The way science currently sees fundamental reality has not caught-up to the implications of its own view. The physical universe we see and are made of is not material in a strict and absolute sense because particles of “matter”, according to our best understanding, are not stand-alone objects at all, but are excitations within fields that extend infinitely and non-locally throughout space and time. Moreover, according to the uncertainty principle which is at the foundation of our best understanding of fundamental reality, empty space is everywhere, including right here and now, teeming with particles or excitations of energy that oscillate in and out of existence too fast for us to detect in our material universe, even though they fill the empty space between you and the screen from which you are reading this, and they exist (undetectable) even between and within the atoms that make-up your body.
The missing implication, then, is that there is a hidden realm of existence which is invisible and unknown to our physical instruments, and which is at the very foundation of our existence. Physicists have given it names such as the cosmic plenum, the quantum vacuum, and the implicate order. Others of a spiritual persuasion have proclaimed it as the foundational Consciousness Realm of the universe, the God-Matrix, and the Akashic-Field. I have called it the Kosmic Mind of the Kosmic Dynamics involving both the structure and movement of reality. By following this dynamic model of the universe we can get an idea, among other things, of how karma and reincarnation might work.
The manifestation of our physical existence is mediated from moment to moment by the virtual particles fluctuating in-and-out of the quantum vacuum. This much is established by QED and QCD, which are mathematical quantum-field theories that have made the most precise and exact predictions known in science. Each particle of matter that makes up our body and the world around us is an excitation at the peak probability in a field of potentialities that exist side-by-side with the actual event we see and know as “the particle of matter”. In other words, we and the world around us are composed of the actual events known as the collapse of the wave-function AND the surrounding potentialities of the wave-function that never collapsed. The field of potentialities never actually disappears when the wave-function collapses into matter, and these potentialities actively take part in how the wave-function continues to evolve from moment to moment.
Thus, the present form of matter is made of BOTH its past form (of high-probability habituation), and its future possible forms of greater and lesser probabilities (habituations), which continue to act on how the particle unfolds or “collapses” into the present. Matter has a memory, a pattern of habituation, but it also has a future orientation of novel habituations, adjacent sets of potentialities and probabilities, towards which it is attracted or pulled. This physics of physical manifestation from moment to moment is also how karma, or past memory-habituations (past lives, past thoughts and actions), and reincarnation, or future possible forms of habituation, operates in and through living beings. Sentience is a vehicle through which this arising and falling of manifestation from the physical to the non-physical realm is played out in an evolutionary dynamic of ever increasing complexity through countless lifetimes in countless beings throughout the entire universe, which is doubtless teeming with sentience.
In the terms of the doctrine of karma and reincarnation, our past thoughts and actions carry a memory that influences future outcomes, either in this life or in future lives. As each action from moment to moment imprints in the memory-field of our body and soul, the accumulation of past actions creates the present form of our existence, but it also creates the possible forms of our future existence. What we are now is the product of what we have done in the past, and what we will become in the future will be the product of our past plus our present actions. Furthermore, the possibilities that are open for us to become are determined by the quality of actions (good and bad) that mark our history. Past and present good actions will lead to good outcomes in the future, and vice versa. If ones actions become conscious and the result of deliberate choices rather than remaining unconscious and impulsive, one can direct the course of ones own evolution, and by extension the evolution of the entire universe, away from ignorance and suffering. Ultimately, the goal is to be released or liberated in moksha or nirvana from this wheel of samsara, where our past actions lead to the rebirth of ignorance and suffering in an endless round of learning the hard lessons of countless incarnations.
Release from the round of rebirth happens when the physical form of the body and soul no longer contain the imprints of ones past actions, when one acts without attachment to a future reward or punishment, and therefore when there are no more lessons of conscious awakening to be learned from either the past or the future. One will have perfected and fulfilled all the past habits and potential evolutionary possibilities for ones form, and there will be no more imperfections or potentials left to manifest unless one chooses, as the Bodhisattva did, to reincarnate for some other reason than to work through ones past and future karma.
From the perspective of the universe as a dynamic Kosmic Mind presented here, there never comes a point when the potentials of past actions become exhausted. There will always be more of oneself and of the universe that can evolve in the present from the dynamic between past habits and their future possible forms. When a person acts in the world they make imprints that are enfolded into the storehouse memory of the quantum vacuum or implicate order, and as those traces of our actions are unfolded back into the explicate order of physical manifestation, they are attracted to or resonate with the potential forms of manifestation that those actions are most similar to, which are the adjacent possibles of those actions. Consequently, destructive actions lead to the probability of further destructive outcomes, and constructive acts to the probability of further constructive outcomes.
However in this back and forth between the memory traces of past actions and their future possible forms on the one hand, and the physical manifestations of these invisible traces on the other hand that then enfold a new memory imprint, thus repeating the cycle of karma from moment to moment, there is both a local causative affect with personal implications and a non-local causative affect with impersonal implications. That is to say, our past actions can have direct consequences on our possible futures, but our actions and those of others also have affects that are spread out, affecting the wider field of people and events in our environment. This is because we are all, after all, interconnected in our actions and their consequences. Our karma is also the shared karma of those in our environment, near and far, and thus so too are the future possible forms of our individual and collective existence.
Why do bad things sometimes happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people? As they say, sometimes shit just happens. But from the perspective just given above, since karma is the accumulated habits of all beings and actions in the universe as a whole, as the general dynamic of the enfolding and unfolding of events in the cosmos from moment to moment, often times there is leakage of the consequences of actions from person to person and from event to event. Karma does not allows stay in its singular line of origination. Therefore, from the higher vantage point, eating animals or behaving in other immoral ways does not just affect the person performing those acts, it affects everyone and the whole universe of which those acts are a part. Karma is not just about individual evolution of the soul or atman, but about the collective evolution of the universe as a whole, the Kosmic Self.
When someone seeks release from rebirth by becoming free of karma, what they are really seeking is to be free of the Kosmic Dynamic of arising and falling, unfolding into existence and enfolding back into the cosmic storehouse, that is happening at each and every moment of existence, everywhere in the universe. When we go to sleep at night we are recapitulating, and rehearsing for, the ancient descent into the underworld of darkness and death, the only thing that gives substance and meaning to light and the living. Without this wheel of samsara the show cannot go on, and what is the point of it all if there is no longer any show? The dance of life and the universe itself will have been extinguished in the desire to be free, liberated from existence itself.
With death there are still the individual traces of history that each of us has imprinted into the cosmic storehouse as our karma. These imprints overlap with those of others we have encountered, entangling our histories into theirs. Together we share the future possible forms of ourselves in this and in other incarnations. Each of us alone and together work out the past habits of imperfection and the future potentials that those memory traces draw us toward. This is not just how we and our fellow travellers evolve through karma and reincarnation. It is also how the universe as a whole comes into existence through us and evolves through our trials and tribulations, our triumphs and overcoming.
We are merely complexly evolved subsystems of the larger Kosmic System that gave birth to us, as it continues to rebirth us in countless forms through eternity.