The Self as Symphonic Palimpsest
“I am a part of all that I have met” — Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson
“The nature of our immortal lives is in the consequences of our words and deeds, which go on pushing themselves throughout all time. ” — Cloud Atlas, 2012
Who am I?
I have written in previous articles about the “self as outward-facing consciousness” as distinct from the ego — who I “feel to be right now”, the harmonic cluster of memories and associations that comprises what feels like “my unique personality”.
I have also written about reincarnation in the “egoless” sense, the way that life and consciousness always feels continuous despite being “spaced” by periods of amnesia and death, since it’s impossible to have an “experience of non-experience”.
But I want to talk about something else today. About whether it’s possible for an individual to reincarnate.
After all, while it may be comforting to know that you will never experience your own death, and that in a sense all forms of life “feel like they’re I” as Alan Watts would say, the fear of death isn’t just the fear of losing consciousness, it’s the fear of losing loved ones, the fear of losing the precious parts of one’s own individual personality - memories, imaginings, feelings. This loss is something that we will all have to face when we die, and when our loved ones die. It even can happen before death, such as in Alzheimer’s disease. It is the most painful loss we will ever face. Our beloveds’ ego-selves, their particular manifestations, are what made us love them over others. Our own ego-self, is precious to us, even if we try to cultivate detachment and acceptance of impermanence.
Where then, to find comfort, when your spouse takes their last breath, hand growing limp and eyes unseeing? When your child is born dead? When your friend dies suddenly and unexpectedly? When your strong and vital parents wither into shells of their former selves?
Where to find comfort when someone you love reveals themselves to be monstrously abusive? When an artist who inspired you is revealed to have committed unconscionable acts? When a friend suddenly turns on you, and you wonder if they were ever really true?
Reincarnation in a nonspecific “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” sense, has limited comfort in these scenarios. After all, it’s the unique behaviours of your beloved that you miss, not their “energy” transmuted into different forms (as we know occurs scientifically, bodies being consumed and joining the “cycle of life”, feeding the microorganisms and fungi, the grass and worms, the birds and mammals, or being transformed into fire and heat during cremation). A worm feeding off the body of your beloved might “feel like it’s I” in the way that Alan Watts describes, but you will not recognise them as your beloved and neither will the worm have any of your beloved’s memories of you.
But alongside this nonspecific, ego-less “reincarnation”, is a process that could also be called “reincarnation” albeit in a different sense. To understand it, we need to think about the nature of the ego itself. What makes you feel individual?
When I think of my so-called “individual self”, I think of memories, feelings, mental imagery, thoughts. A sense of idealism, and optimism. Feelings of joy and wonder and transcendence. Curiosity and the exhilaration of discovery. Flow states of absorption. Aesthetic appreciation of beauty. The glee of creation. Contextualised by memories, knowledge I have absorbed, and the colours of my synaesthesia.
But I wasn’t born with any of this. Yes, my brain has certain biological proclivities, but it is the interaction between those and my “environment” that brought forth my experiences and memories.
Who “Lady Reverie” is, is a collection of overlapping imprints. All the books that I have ever read. The movies that have inspired me. The people I have met. The places I’ve been. All together these experiences harmonise into the pattern in reality that calls itself “Lady Reverie” (and other names offline). That pattern of behaviour, of manifesting, of Be-ing, is what others recognise as “individual me”. In turn, I imprint upon everyone I meet. For example, I’m imprinting part of my pattern on you, who are reading this right now. And your very presence, without it I couldn’t have written this or been who I am either.
I am a living palimpsest, a pattern comprised of other patterns. I am a vast and layered symphony, recognisable to those around me as “unique” even while I’m never still from one moment to the next, never static. Within the musicality of me, some themes are more influential, more noticeable. For example, there is a “spiritual and philosophical” theme that is recognisable as the same “spiritual and philosophical theme” expressed in Alan Watts when he was alive, that is expressed slightly differently in Lana Wachowski. A geeky LOTR nerd theme that is recognisable in the unique symphony of my best platonic friend. Recognisable themes from my favourite pieces of art, becoming a part of “me”.
The more closely entwined I am with a person, the more deeply I empathise with them, love them, the more of their themes become a part of me and I become a part of theirs. So there are many themes within me, that come from my soulmate, and vice versa.
These patterns aren’t just conceptual. They are expressed in my behaviour. For example, one of my themes is going to work at my business every weekday. My colleagues have the same theme within them. And the business itself is made up of the themes of everyone working in it. The shape of my body and my level of fitness is also a pattern resulting from semi-regular exercise and a vegan diet. Others who live a similar lifestyle may manifest a similar recognisable theme.
The patterns are also expressed in the mirror neurons of the brain. When I empathise with someone, my brain starts firing in a similar pattern to theirs. People who live together or spend a lot of time together, can end up synchronising to such a degree that they seem to independently think of the same things at the same time (this has happened to me and my love, as well as to my best friend, where we have what feels like “telepathy” of thinking the same thing at the same time far too often for it to be a coincidence). Women who live together find their menstrual cycles synchronising. Even identical twins separated at birth find themselves frequently living similar lives to each other.
This being true, the idea that you are your loved ones, is not just a comforting fantasy. It’s fundamental to who you are. But you’re not just made up of them — they are also “you”.
“As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation.” — Carl Jung
This idea, that what you consider to be “you”, the collections of memories, feelings, beliefs, imagery that creates the living pattern recognisable as an individual “self” — is a collection of overlapping imprints from “other than you”, is expressed by Carl Jung as individuation, the drawing out of a distinct pattern that one recognises as the “individual self” while at the same time remaining equally and completely aware of the socially constructed nature of this “self”.
Individuation from a Jungian perspective doesn’t require a belief in separation, and is perfectly congruent with a recognition of nonduality. In fact, Jung would argue that it is in the exploration of the nature of “individuation” that the interconnectedness of Be-ing is discovered.
“Individuation does not shut one out from the world, but gathers the world to itself.” — Carl Jung
My favourite movie of all time, Cloud Atlas, expresses this message in a very layered way. The story is shown across separate time periods, the actions of one character in their lifetime imprints upon the people around them, whose actions in turn then carry on the pattern throughout history, until it finds new form in the mind of another character in another life. Lovers recognise each other anew, even without the specific memories of their past lives. The patterns of being and behaviour that comprised past lives, expressing again in new yet recognisable ways hundreds of years later.
Art (music, writing and film) is shown as the vector for transmission of patterns across time, the means by which this form of reincarnation takes place. Music heard in a dream by one man; is written down by another. The revolutionary spirit expressed an autobiography of a mundane life, inspires an escaping clone slave far in the future. A whistleblower’s courage imprints on a cowardly, selfish man via a mystery story based on her life. The words of a martyr becoming the religious text for a post apocalyptic society.
“My life extends far beyond the limitations of me.” — Cloud Atlas
And so you can take comfort from this palimpsest, symphonic, archetypal nature of the “individual self”, in the recurring nature of patterns. There have been people before me who felt “like I do” in the sense of their emotions, their ways of viewing the world. Individuated patterns, arranged for the 21st Century. It won’t be “me” in a static sense, but then again there is no static self, it’s always shifting.
Likewise when my loved ones die, there will never be again the exact same interaction of patterns (just like there won’t be for the ones that I love who are still alive), but the patterns of who they were will resonate within me, as long as I live, and will pass on from me into others who I myself imprint. And one day there will be another relationship that has recognisable harmonics, recognisable patterns in it to how I am now with my love and in those moments, the future lovers will feel like me and my soulmate.
“You know who you are in the sense that you remember who you are. You identify yourself with a series of events, that you remember. And these are, like, strung-out in a line, they’re like a certain tune. And therefore you identify yourself with that tune. So we repeat ourselves, we have consistent characters. Just in the same way as a tune is always constructed to repeat itself in a certain way with variations, so that we recognize the tune, and the name of the piece, by hearing even one part of it. So here is a tune, you see, that is being played. And it is attached to a center called I. Only the I is much more than this particular tune, this particular series of memories. Even though we are persuaded and kind of hoaxed into identifying the whole I with that series of memories. But, you know, supposing somebody plays a Chopin Etude. And then he stops. Then, later on, somebody else plays it. Is it the same tune? Why, in one sense yes, in another sense no. So it is possible, isn’t it, that, even though your tune was wiped out, because the memory system goes with death, the same sort of tune could be played again with its characteristics themes. And that will be in another sense you. In a more particular sense than the you of centrality.” — Alan Watts, The Power of Space
“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts”
— Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson