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Death, Rebirth,
and Everything in Between

A scientific and philosophical exploration
by Carter Phipps


James Leininger was born a normal healthy boy, but it became clear at an early age that he had an abnormal obsession—airplanes. He would play with nothing else. Around the time he reached his second birthday, however, the planes he loved so much had begun to disturb his sleep. He would wake up from nightmares screaming, telling his mother, “Airplane crash on fire; little man can’t get out.” Eventually, his mother began to wonder if there was more to James’s fascination with planes than just boyhood fancy. She remembers watching him go over one of his toy planes as if he were doing a flight check. She once bought him a model plane and pointed out the small bomb that was attached to its underside. “That’s not a bomb, Mama, that’s a drop tank,” James corrected her. His mother had never heard of a drop tank and was certain that this three-year-old boy never had either.

As time went by, James began to reveal more about his nightmares, and the outlines of a past life slowly came to light. James told his parents that he was once the pilot of a Corsair on a boat named the Natoma, and he even came up with the name of one of his friends on the boat: Jack Larson. James’s father, who had initially been skeptical of the idea of past lives, decided to do a little research. Soon, he hit pay dirt. The Natoma Bay had been an aircraft carrier stationed in the Pacific during World War II and Jack Larson (who was still alive and living in Arkansas) had been one of the pilots on board.

One day while looking through a book on World War II with his father, James pointed out the island of Iwo Jima, Japan, in a picture and indicated that it was where he had been shot down. He said that the plane had been hit directly in the engine. Curious to know more about his memories, his parents asked him what his name had been in his previous life, but James would only answer “James.” However, they noticed that he was signing all of his drawings with the name James 3. His father did some checking and found out that only one pilot on the Natoma had actually been shot down over Iwo Jima. His name: James M. Houston, Jr.

Krishna taught it; Plato believed in it; the Buddha revised it; Augustine considered it; Emerson wrote about it; Freud rejected it; Tolstoy was passionate about it; Sagan was curious about it. All of these great minds were fascinated, entranced, or troubled by one powerful idea: reincarnation. Of the many ways in which humans have tried to understand what happens after death, reincarnation is one of the most common and most enduring. Contrary to popular belief, it is not merely an Eastern notion but one that has flourished in cultures around the world, from indigenous tribes in Alaska to Islamic sects in the Middle East, from Christian cults of the Middle Ages to Nigerian tribes of today. Even some of the great founders of the Western worldview—Plato and Pythagoras, for example—believed that the soul would be reborn after death. And if you think that modernity’s forward march has managed to put an end to this ancient metaphysical idea, think again. Recent surveys have shown that twenty-seven percent of the American population believe in reincarnation. That’s over seventy-five million people who are convinced of the existence of past lives. While I doubt that many have stories that are as dramatic as James Leininger’s parents’, in a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture, seventy-five million should raise a few eyebrows.

And reincarnation is just one part of a larger story. Today, across the country, there is a broader transformation occurring in the way we look at life after death, a transformation that is perhaps most obvious in the extraordinary amount of cultural attention dedicated to the subject. From popular books (Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife) to hit TV shows (Crossing Over, Medium) to the scripts of Tinseltown (The Sixth Sense, Birth), there is a resurgence of interest in what some scholars call survival, a term that is short for “survival of bodily death.” Survival research explores whether or not any part of the human self is actually capable of surviving the death of the physical body. Some say there hasn’t been such an active interest in the issue since Spiritualism swept America in the late nineteenth century, back when table-rapping, trance-channeling mediums entertained the intelligentsia and Theosophy was a prominent new religious movement. But if you have somehow missed all of the excitement, don’t worry. Just head down to your local Barnes & Noble, where you can pick up a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Reincarnation or check out the inevitable bestsellers by popular mediums before coming home to watch Ghost Whisperer on CBS.

Now what makes this resurgence of interest in survival all the more noteworthy is that it’s not happening just in pop culture or on the outer fringes of the New Age but in private institutes, academic research centers, and professional conferences that span a number of different disciplines. Esalen, the legendary human potential center, has been sponsoring a yearly private gathering of scholars from around the country, many from major universities, to explore the subject. In fact, a surprising number of scholars are working within the usually conservative confines of the academy. What is stirring the excitement of these researchers is a large and growing body of evidence that can be objectively and empirically analyzed, all of which is suggestive of the existence of an afterlife. Some data is coming from near-death experiences, some from out-of-body experiences, some from past-life memories, some from experiments with mediums, and some from visions of apparitions. None of these experiences are, in and of themselves, new to human culture. But never before in the history of knowledge has there been such a wealth of cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary data converging from so many different streams of experience, all of which is providing hints of what lies beyond the physical veil. It is leading us into territory that until recently was the sole province of mythology, esoteric philosophy, and religious tradition. In some cases, the data being uncovered correlates remarkably well with traditional religious conceptions of death and rebirth. In other cases, it radically diverges. All of it, however, is contributing to a potential new science of survival, rebirth, and the nonphysical dimensions of existence.

So when the idea to pursue a feature article on reincarnation was broached in an editorial meeting last year, I was intrigued. I knew that reincarnation was one of the most active areas of survival research and one of the most controversial. Indeed, if it were ever to be proved that reincarnation is a fact, that would immediately upset the apple cart of a great deal of accepted scientific thought and raise some provocative questions. Some of these have been debated by philosophers for millennia—questions regarding past and future lifetimes, the nature of the soul, theories of karma, and so on. But the question that really began to fascinate me as I considered the notions of survival and rebirth was not just philosophical but also quite practical. If reincarnation is true, I wondered, where do we actually go after death? What happens in between lives? That is not a small question. And as I embarked upon my research, I wasn’t entirely sure if it was even possible to look at it objectively. Maybe, in the end, it all comes down to subjective beliefs and personal opinions. Maybe all speculations about what happens after death are just that—speculations.

Well, maybe and maybe not. What I learned as I began to look into the evidence for rebirth, both empirical and anecdotal, is that what I thought I knew about the subject is just the tip of a very big iceberg. Reincarnation may be a premodern belief but for some it has become a postmodern obsession. And the contemporary evidence being gathered in support of this ancient notion is making a powerful case that may forever change the way we think about what happens after our corporeal form kicks the bucket.

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