Lessons we learn in this lifetime

(NOTE: I had actually published this post on Vesak day, to share something tangentially related to the festival which has given me a different perspective on life [and death]. However, I realised there was a lot more i wanted to say and have been adding to it since then.)

Over a month ago, I stumbled upon this Reddit thread titled “Parents, what spooky ‘past life‘ memory did your kid utter?”.

A discussion on reincarnation, it explores how young children will sometimes relate, to their parents, eerie accounts of past lives.

For the record: I’m not a woo-woo person. I find it hard to believe claims about alternative medicine, mysticism and the like, especially when they sound more like assertions than well-researched findings.

So when I started reading the thread, it was with some degree of scepticism.

Undoubtedly, there were dubious-sounding stories. Yet, for many of the recounts, there seemed to be a pattern:

  1. The children who had past-life memories were very young, around the ages of three to six years old or so.
  2. The utterances often took the sentence stems of “I used to…”, “When I was older…”, “This happened when I was big/grown-up…”, “Before you were my mum/dad…”, etc.
  3. These memories were sometimes triggered by certain experiences or places.

It took a while but I ploughed through all the comments, fascinated by the uncanny similarities of the cases.

Or coincidences, perhaps. I was recently introduced to the word “apophenia” or the “tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things”.

I was well aware of the possibility of me trying to make meaning out of nothing at all, as well as all the other conclusions that could be reached.

At the risk of dating myself, I’ve used the web long enough to be familiar with the adage “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”.

In other words, the nature of the internet affords an anonymity that allows anyone to pretend to be someone they are not, contributing to the proliferation of catfishing, a heightened belief in fake news, etc.

So it could be argued that these people who were posting on the Reddit thread – if they were even people and not bots – were all in on the act, posting tall tales for the attention, using a certain template hence the pattern, etc.

Even then, my gut told me there seemed to be much more to reincarnation and past lives that I – and we, as a civilisation – don’t know enough about.

At the same time, I saw, in some of the posts, mentions of academic research on reincarnation that had been carried out.

I thought it fair to suspend my judgement and started sifting through the external sources provided by some Redditors, as well as searching for key terms that had sprung up in the posts.

Since then, I’ve been reading as much as I can on these – and related – topics.

Interestingly, I’d been carrying out research on mindful leadership and self-care since last year, with some forays into meditation.

Some of the concepts I’m reading and learning about are starting to coalesce in some manner – though, again, I acknowledge the possibilities of confirmation bias, recency bias, etc.

I’m compiling what I’ve covered so far below this post so as to facilitate the search for anyone who might be interested in finding out more and desires some level of rigour in the readings.

As mentioned earlier, I’m not a woo-woo person, so I wanted to be sure the works had some degree of credibility.

Unfortunately, there’s still some fluff in some of the materials. This is unavoidable and should not be seen as marring the overall quality of the research done by other scholars or thinking embarked upon by other writers.

Until there are better and more precise ways to capture measurements, information, etc. about the phenomenon, what we have presently has to suffice for now.

Perhaps you might also be interested as to where I stand with regard to reincarnation and past lives, and why I’ve been so captivated by it.

First, the notion of reincarnation. Is it real? Does it exist?

The best answer I have right now comes from the translated abstract of a Spanish paper* which encapsulates my views in a nutshell:

The hypothesis of reincarnation is controversial. We can never say that it does not occur, or [that we] will obtain conclusive evidence that it happens. The cases that have been described so far, isolated or combined, do not provide irrefutable proof of reincarnation, but they supply evidence that suggest its reality.

Ernesto Bonilla, “Evidence that suggest the reality of reincarnation”

* NOTE: I haven’t been able to read the paper in full so my assumption is that the translated abstract represents the paper accurately, and that the paper is sound.

Next, if reincarnation is real, it’s conceptually appealing to me, as a believer in and lifelong practitioner of people development.

The purpose of reincarnation, as theorised by some religions in which reincarnation is a central part of their belief system, is for each of us to learn a set of lessons in each lifetime as we progress to our final stage, be it enlightenment, liberation or what have you.

Even if reincarnation were proven to be fake or a hoax, this principle of bettering ourselves is still a noble one to practise.

There’s a third reason which revolves around human intelligence and the next stage of our evolution as a species, though I haven’t quite been able to formulate it into a coherent thought.

The general idea I have right now: we need to be devoting as much resources – money, time, energy, etc. – to understanding ourselves as we are dedicating to developing technology of and for the future.

I hope to return to this soon when my thoughts are more fleshed out. In the meantime, please enjoy the readings and do let me know if there’s anything I should add to the list.

  • Web articles that provide a starting point
    • Children Who Report Memories of Previous Lives | University of Virginia
      The website of the Division of Perceptual Studies, a department in University of Virginia’s School of Medicine, dedicated to the study of phenomena related to consciousness functioning beyond the confines of the physical body, and phenomena that suggest continuation of consciousness after physical death.

The following section contains books from the National Library Singapore which I’d like to borrow, but which aren’t readily available:

(ST)²: Storytelling for Systems Thinkers (Run 2)

Poster of (ST)²: Storytelling for Systems Thinkers, a workshop for students from National University of Singapore Residential College 4.

Despite the recently-announced Covid-19 restrictions, the second run of (ST)²: Storytelling for Systems Thinkers was successfully completed.

A workshop on the art and science of crafting persuasive and convincing narratives, (ST)² was conducted once more for students from National University of Singapore Residential College 4.

Thanks to invaluable feedback from participants in the first run, this run was held over two days and covered three areas: Asking Good Questions, Listening for Good Answers and Telling Good Stories.

My thanks also go to the participants of Run 2 for their insights and adaptability as we discussed how best to shift the workshop online, while still meeting their learning needs effectively.

I’m looking forward to good stories – as well as stories for good – from them in due course!

Maaf zahir dan batin

Ever since I came to learn about the phrase “maaf zahir dan batin”, I’ve been fascinated by both its meaning and the context in which it is spoken, in terms of custom and practice.

Translated to the best of my knowledge, “maaf zahir dan batin” means “forgive me inwardly and outwardly” or “forgive my physical and emotional wrongdoings”.

It’s used as a greeting on Hari Raya Aidilfitri, in which the speaker seeks forgiveness from others for any lapses or hurt that may have been caused through word, thought or deed.

Also, while I can’t find an authoritative source on this right now, I remember reading previously that the phrase has special meaning for the recipient too.

It urges them to forgive wholeheartedly – not just on the outside, in a superficial manner, but in their hearts as well.

This relieves them of carrying the burden of hurt, which can be doubly damaging, and at the same time, genuinely assuring the speaker they are forgiven.

At the same time, I’ve found the custom and practice of seeking forgiveness fascinating, in relation to the concepts espoused in Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton.

For some context, de Botton:

…examine[s] aspects of religious life which contain concepts that could fruitfully be applied to the problems of secular society…that could prove timely and consoling to sceptical contemporary minds facing the crises and griefs of finite existence on a troubled planet” (19).

Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists

One of the aspects De Botton discusses is habitual practices, in terms of customs or conventions.

While sometimes tedious when carried out in a monotonous, ritualistic fashion, having a routine can be beneficial, especially when opportunities may not always readily present themselves to, for example, soothe or ameliorate tensions or grievances.

In de Botton’s musings on the practice of seeking forgiveness, he writes:

As victims of hurt, we frequently don’t bring up what ails us, because so many wounds look absurd in the light of day. It appalls our reason to face up to how much we suffer from the missing invitation or the unanswered letter, how many hours of torment we have given to the unkind remark or the forgotten birthday, when we should long ago have become serene and impervious to such needles. Our vulnerability insults our self-conception; we are in pain and at the same time offended that we could so easily be so.


Alternatively, when we are the ones who have caused someone else pain and yet failed to offer apology, it was perhaps because acting badly made us feel intolerably guilty. We can be so sorry that we find ourselves incapable of saying sorry. We run away from our victims and act with strange rudeness towards them, not because we aren’t bothered by what we did, but because what we did makes us feel uncomfortable with an unmanageable intensity. Our victims hence have to suffer not only the original hurt, but also the subsequent coldness we display towards them on account of our tormented consciences.

[… when] human error is proclaimed as a general truth [it] makes it easier to confess to specific infractions. It is more bearable to own up to our follies when the highest authority has told us that we are all childishly yet forgivably demented to begin with (56 – 57).

Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists

Thinking about “maaf zahir dan batin” in light of this makes much sense and, as de Botton suggests at the end of the chapter, could become a universal practice.

So from me to everyone, here’s kicking off this practice by wishing you a Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri and maaf zahir dan batin.