I used the phrase ‘next time round’ recently and it was there in my head when I woke in the cold dark hours. And as one does, in the cold dark hours (after dancing to the bathroom and diving back under the covers), I began turning it over in my head and thinking about whether I really meant anything by it, or used the term out of habit.
Do I really believe there is a next time round? By extension, do I believe this isn’t the first time round? Which leads to other questions – what is that makes me, me. I’m not talking psychology here, or about a ‘ghost in the machine’ (Ryle’s or Koestler’s), that is a whole other discussion (although undoubtedly connected). What I was trying to get at again as I turned all this over was the difference between living and non-living. I know the material definitions, but they seem inadequate. At some point in the future it will be possible (I am sure) for a scientist to construct a human body. It will lie on the table in front of them, perfect in every detail down to a cellular level. There will be DNA and all that stuff; there will be blood in veins; all the inner organs; all the sense organs; a brain. But it won’t be a living being. It will be an intricate piece of organic engineering. Much as I will be when I die. So, what goes, what leaves, what stops, what is absent from that future scientist's construction that is present here in front of this computer?
I have no answers. Nor does any scientist. They can give, I am sure, a reason for the ‘machine’ stopping. They can give material explanations. They can say how. But they cannot say why. Ah. Yes. Yet another whole other topic.
So how does this chime with my thoughts on whether I’m coming back for another go? I’m not sure, to be honest, beyond the fact that my belief in reincarnation seems to me to be no more absurd than many other positions regarding spirit (or lack thereof) and survival of the spirit beyond death of the body.
Given all the other factors at play here, my grounding in Celtic mythology and philosophy, my social and environmental concerns and responsibilities, observations of the natural world, and personal experiences, I cannot help but be attracted to what we know (and can piece together) of ancestral Celtic belief.
When I die here, I will be reborn in the Otherworld. That is why I hope people here will be happy for me when I have gone (the Otherworld is, after all, a place of healing and decades of ‘disability’ take their toll – the very thought I might be able to go for long walks again, dig the garden… and I know you materialists will be nodding sagely and thinking about wish fulfilment, but you have given me nothing to get me through this and my comforts hurt no-one, so screw you).
The Otherworld, despite being a place of healing, is no happy-clappy fluffy bunny place in the sky. You don’t get wings, ambrosia, and a foot stool. You are born into a family, you grow, learn, earn your living, love, get old and, yes, you die. Your responsibilities from this world may follow you. You have to make an effort to grow there, just as you have to do so here. There is no free lunch.
Perhaps the only difference would, as I understand it, be in emphasis. Whereas here we live in a material plane and must work hard to develop spirit, there we live in a spiritual plane and must work to develop our material being. Don’t ask me how it works. I don’t remember.
I do have a particular vision of the Otherworld. It is very much like my childhood memories of Gloucestershire, those endless holidays playing in the woods behind my grandparents’ house – when summer was summer and winter brought snow. As a child I encountered spirits in the woods, in those quiet moments when siblings and cousins were distant sounds and the beech grove I discovered was my own.
The beech tree is the queen of the forest; the etymology of the name linked with the word ‘book’ and all that is implied by that. It certainly makes sense in terms of my life – a love of the feminine (I sure am piling up other discussions for a later date) and of women (with a few rare exceptions, I have never been easy in the company of men); a love of books, of learning, of understanding.
Playing as I did in the forest, I was aware from a very early age of the cycles of life. Things die. They re-appear. Individuals go, but they return – in our memories, through children, through the legacy of their thoughts, and beliefs and the things they create. I also believe they return as people.
Whether we come back as a the same person, or whether the life that animates us finds a new home is something I know nothing about. It might not even make sense to use ‘I’ in a conventional sense. However, when I die in the Otherworld, I believe I will return to this world.
Now this has interesting implications. It is what my ancestors believed and they were, on the whole, a responsible people. They weren’t perfect. They weren’t paragons of ecological (or any other kind of) virtue. Nor were they the boozy, belligerent, cattle thieves of Roman propaganda and Christian redaction. They had a highly developed moral and legal system, parity between the sexes you’d find it difficult to match today, and didn’t seem to have been responsible for large scale environmental disasters. In the absence of ‘perfect’, that’ll do for me.
This was partly achieved through their beliefs. They believed they would be coming back. They honoured their ancestors, because they knew they counted amongst that number. They looked after the land on which they relied for their living because not only would their children need it for making a living, they knew they would be back and need it for themselves again. You don’t (unless you’re a complete idiot) leave your home in a state of disarray with the taps and gas running, food rotting, animals stuck in a spare bedroom, and windows open to let the rain (and who knows what else) in when you go on holiday. Because when you come back your house will have been trashed by squatters, the animals will be dead (and the SPCA will be after you), your bills will be through the roof; unless your roof is with the rest of the property in that pile of smouldering cinders.
It may sound like selfishness, but I do my bit to keep the world clean and healthy because I’m coming back. In fact, there is a difference between self-interest and selfishness. I do not act like this just for me. That wouldn’t work. I do it for everyone and everything. All life. The whole planet. Without that, it is pointless.
That is why developing a relationship with the world about me is every bit as important (if not more so) than developing relationships with people. That is why my religious beliefs and activity centre on cultivating a relationship with those aspects of deity that are manifest in the world about me. I don’t know about an over-arching, all-encompassing deity. That is beyond my comprehension. I do not know if such a thing exists. I do know that there is spirit in the world around me. And it is with that which I work.
This is not a knee bending adoration. We each have our work to do in this world. Often, it can only be done in co-operation or by my actions releasing or allowing those aspects of deity into action. Between us we maintain the ongoing act of creation.
It is all about the here and now. If we get it right now, the future is taken care of. This is not to say I do not have ambitions for the future, but they are for my personal future. And even those are created here. I learn from the past, but what I learn is applied to the now. That is why the natural world (that phrase again) is my book. It provides all the patterns and guidance I need. True, I will be biased in my interpretation by my own being, but that is why it is called a relationship.
Those are my beliefs.
If I am wrong, it doesn’t matter. I will have lived (or attempted to live) in a way that leaves the world a better place – materially and spiritually (for you cannot separate the two). If my afterlife is solely in the memories of those that outlive me, then I will be content that if within that small garden I am, for the most, remembered with affection as someone who gave more than they took, who created rather than destroyed, who was human (with all the faults of his kind) yet who strove to be something just a little bit more.