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Recalling Past Lives – Is It Possible? (Abhinna, Abijna, Abhinnanana)

I’m not Buddhist, but I do enjoy hearing what Buddhists believe, especially about meditation because my own meditation was based on what the Buddha did. My experiences have been very similar.

There are a few major areas I talk about on this website: meditation; mindfulness; Jhana; Abhinna (Abijna, Abhinnanana).

The supposed ability to recall past lives falls under the ‘Abhinna’ topic. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it here in the past, but recently my sister brought it up on social media and asked what I thought. Up until this point, I have to say that I’ve been skeptical of reincarnation and the ability of someone to recall past lives. In the same way, I was skeptical about many things in my life that I haven’t experienced directly, I’m skeptical about anything involving past life regression.

I would like to believe in it. Sounds great to me. I’d love to know there was something else after this life, and that there was another chance to go around again. Though I think we don’t have any idea what sort of lives we could be living in the future. That’s scary. That might be scarier than just having this one life be the end – and that’s it. No more Vern. Not sure.

Anyway, let me talk about monks who claim to have gone back and recalled their past lives. Just today I watched a video of a monk who spoke about it. Will put at the bottom of this page. He told of the process that monks use to go back and recall past lives. He obviously knows a lot about the topic from the Buddhist perspective. There are many Thai monks that have said they can recall their past lives. His explanation seemed pretty logical until one small thing. Time. Well, there are other things, but I’ll get to them in a minute.

This monk said a monk who remembers his past lives starts by going backward in time from right now – to what he just did, what he did before that, and so on. All the way back to the womb. Then further back into past lives. There are accounts of monks sitting down to meditate, and then coming back out of it, they declare they’ve just seen all their past lives, tens or hundreds of thousands of them.

Here’s the thing about time – Homo sapiens man hasn’t been around on the planet for more than about 200,000 years. The average lifespan of a human being over this time might have been 30 years on average. If so, that means there were 6,666.6 generations.

If someone is claiming to have recalled 100,000 or more lives, that seems pretty ridiculous in the face of time. We haven’t been around that long. Unless these monks are talking about life as monkeys and fish and one-celled organisms in the primordial ooze, then it just doesn’t make sense. If the average lifespan of the said monk was just 2 years old over all that time, then it could make sense. But, that doesn’t make sense, right?

The other thing about time. It takes time to recall a past life. If a monk is going back day by day, back to the time he was born, let’s see, for me that would be, at 49 years old now – 17,885 days back to the day I was born. To recall each day takes some amount of time. Let’s say for the sake of ridiculousness, it takes a monk only 5 seconds to recall what he did for an entire day. That works out to 62 days straight – 24 hours a day – to recollect over the course of 5 seconds for each day – everything that happened during each day of my life.

Thing is, monks aren’t sitting for 62 days straight and then claiming to have seen all their past lives, or even just to recall their present-day lives. They sit for a couple of hours, a day or so straight, and they are telling us they’ve just recalled their 147,845 past lives.

I’m skeptical. No, I’m more than skeptical. So, what could be the discrepancy here? Maybe, and I’m betting this would be the answer I’d get – “The minds of monks while recalling past lives work very fast. They’re able to recall whole days or years of existence in split seconds. They are not bound by time.” Uhm, yeah. Sure they’re not.

I have an open mind. My mind has literally been blown wide open as a result of my own meditation experiences of strange experiences, then Jhana, and then some of the Abhinnas. Even knowing without any question or doubt that at least a couple of the Abhinnas are true, I cannot make the leap and say that recalling past lives has any validity at all.

Here’s another reason why: I have never seen proof of any sort. Meaning, if a monk could recall his past lives, then the one just before his present one should be easily recallable. He should be able to tell in-depth, detailed things about that life – right?

Is anyone doing this? Is any monk going back to their previous life and finding some morsel that couldn’t be known, like – the first time I had sex in this previous life was with a girl named Sarah Connor? Then, track Sarah Connor down and explain to her the circumstances of their union. I don’t see this happening. Nothing of the sort.

Now, there are kids on Youtube doing it – saying they remember this person or that as their murderer in a previous life. I haven’t looked closely at those, but I’m sure with a decent vetting, one could uncover lots of gaps in the story. I’m skeptical of that too.

Here’s yet another reason I don’t believe in reincarnation and past life recall: I haven’t seen any scientific experiment in which monks recalled some of their past lives, say, 100 of them, and then were latest tested again about the details of those past lives – and they could remember them without error. That would at least be somewhat convincing. I haven’t ever heard of a study like that.

I will spend some time researching that today and see what I come up with. If nothing, I won’t change this page. If I find something I’ll add it below. So, the Abhinnas are true at least in part. From my own point of view, and I cannot expect you to believe it because I told you, or because I experienced some Abhinnas that made me a believer.

However, it’s a giant leap to make a statement about all the Abhinnas being true because I haven’t experienced all of them. If I ever experience a past-life recall, I’ll be sure to let you know. If I ever find some good data in an amazing experiment, I’ll be sure to let you know. Won’t you do the same for me? Thanks!

The most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had in my life were Jhana and Abhinna. Of these, Abhinna was by far the most impactful. See more about Abhinna on these pages:

3 thoughts on “Recalling Past Lives – Is It Possible? (Abhinna, Abijna, Abhinnanana)”

  1. Interesting topic and I appreciate the thought you’ve given to this matter. I can relate to this line of thinking, as I also appreciate a balance between practicing healthy skepticism and keeping an open mind about reported phenomena I haven’t personally experienced. My professional background was in scientific research (mostly in psychology/cognitive science) prior to moving into more social services oriented work; my training as a scientist keeps me grounded in assessing the evidence basis for things and not holding ‘fixed beliefs.’

    Now, I also had an interest in conducting my own experiments into consciousness with the tools provided via Buddhist (Vipassana & Zen) approaches. So spent many hours in daily sitting meditation practice and also went on silent retreats for 1-2 weeks at a time for intensive practice. Just to see what happened, basically.

    In case it is of interest, I have, while in deep meditative /concentrated states on retreat, experienced the recollection of “past lives.” I have not shared these on a public forum before because it hasn’t seemed skilful but that perspective has changed recently and I believe some may find the information useful.

    A few notes/theories about these experiences:

    I believe the first time it happened was after experiencing jhana states spontaneously (only learned about them on a later retreat) during my first silent retreat, on day 6. While in the mediation hall, in state of deep concentration and clarity, I suddenly experienced what felt like a sudden and spontaneous ‘download’ into my brain of a stream of information and images that downloaded at what felt like the speed of light. Way too fast to perceive anything at first. The review of this new information happened in the minutes afterwards. The rest of that sitting, these new memories appeared automatically in my mind’s eye, that were as real and detailed as my regular memories from this current life, one by one, about 7 of them at that time. The 7 that were most useful for me at that time to relive, in order to learn and clearly ‘see’ how suffering had continued thematically through these otherwise disconnected lives across time and space. There were memories from an ancient civilization, a hunter-gatherer community, medieval and Renaissance periods, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

    It is worth noting that they were not ‘fun’ or neutral memories; they were memories of intense traumatic moments that I believe someone did live before. Moments of fear, pain, emotional distress and actual death. But they were helpful to me at the time for the sake of learning not to repeat past ‘mistakes’ that lead to yet more suffering, and I was not in distress myself while reliving them. In fact I felt at peace and with greater clarity after accessing these insights.

    When I access the memories (I’ve not tried to control this process or spend time investigating the memories, only let it happen spontaneously) they seem as real as anything I can remember from this current life; it is as though I am inside another person’s body and reliving their thoughts, emotions and other sensory perceptions from a time of intense distress (e.g., dying alone, in fear and pain from a disease like the plague, watching a loved one die and being powerless to save them, being murdered by a former lover, feeling distressed about unrequited love while being close to death from something that was probably syphilis). The initial 7 seemed linked by the themes of how the things which we think bring us pleasure are temporary and can lead to intense suffering and that sense of dukkha imbues even the sensory pleasures themselves as what goes up most come down.

    Only in one of these 7 did I re-experience the actual moment of death and that was a wonderful experience actually- despite the violence of this death (being murdered by someone ‘I’ knew) I saw how the mind/body at first panicked and felt extreme emotions, then this quickly subsided to acceptance, calm and feeling forgiveness and love towards this person. The last ‘human’ thought was that I felt a little sad I was unable to tell the person that they were forgiven and that everything was going to be ok. There was a sense of the deepest peace and love and then everything just ‘blinked’ out of existence/experience.

    Later on I had the experience of a stream of death memories in my mind’s eye (mostly dying on battlefields as well as some other relatively common but stressful ways) that moved too fast to recall more than a few random details here and there; hard to number those but probably well over 100. It went on for awhile and I did not experience a detailed ‘review’ of any of those. I think the ‘purpose’ there was probably to exhaust my remaining ego via a constant stream of impermanence reminders.

    Could people specially train at this and ‘remember’ 1000 or more lives/memories? Probably yes, because of the speed of light capacities of consciousness which can distort, dilate, and once speed of light is reached, actually stop time. Time after all is only relative and arises in relation to the space-time continuum.

    Anyway those are my thoughts on the matter from what I’ve observed personally. The last two points to make: 1) ‘past lives’ is just a concept like any other- they feel like reliving a past life “I” lived but who was the “I” that lived them? When I reflect on it, it would perhaps be more accurate to view them as packets of memory data that preserved the sensory experiences of someone at a point (or few minutes) in time and then this was ‘transferred’ to my mind because it was for whatever reason helpful to me at the time. They did feel connected karmically at the time, but I don’t have much to say on that matter except that certain energy streams may last for quite a long time. But everything comes to cessation eventually. 2) There is no reason to assume that one must experience past life phenomena in order to awaken. It seems likely that if one does recollect past lives it is because something needed to be seen; others may just not need that extra information to stop the cycles of suffering.

  2. Addendum for clarity: Is it theoretically possible to experience the reliving of many thousands of past life memories? Yes, if we consider those memories to be stored in the field of consciousness as ‘packets of sensory information experienced by someone’ as noted above. The experience of ‘remembering’ them does not mean “I” or some part of myself as a discrete entity experienced them when they first happened in space-time, unless we’re talking about general or collective consciousness experiencing them. In theory it is possible that specific memories from all lives ever lived may still be accessible on the level of general or fundamental consciousness, where the usual space-time continuum collapses. But I don’t know that it would be particularly useful to attempt to access a vast quantity of them, or even to set an intention to access any at all; based on my direct experience, it seems that the primary usefulness of such recollections is to help us gain insights into the nature of reality (namely anicca, dukkha, & anatta). If this is part of one’s path it’s because it was helpful for that person’s awakening, nothing more and nothing less.

  3. Wow Kristin! Thank you for the amazing comments on past lives, memories. I got degrees in psychology in the mid-1990s but quickly moved to the computer field after graduation. The mind fascinates me much more than do computers. 🙂

    Your experiences sound amazing. There is probably a lot on this site you could comment about, and I want to encourage you to do so!

    I’ve still not had any of these past life recall experiences. I am open to the idea that the whole of mankind’s collective consciousness is available to each of us whenever we happen to make some connection to it. It’s a wild idea, but one that I like to entertain sometimes. Other times I just figure people recalling past lives are accessing a part of the brain in which are stored memories of books read, stories heard, and thoughts that one has had in the past. In moments of quiet, these things have a tendency to bubble to the surface, as you probably have experienced at other times during meditation. You may find yourself feeling very sad and not know why. Or, you may know why… and it’s a relief to let it out. I remember a number of these experiences as I meditated early on.

    Do you still meditate?

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