When I was a kid, I sat at the dining table with my mother and told her I had a vivid thought that often surfaced to mind. It didn’t feel like a dream. I was almost sure it was me, my identity, in a place that felt distant and familiar.
In my memory, I was asleep when I heard an echo of a woman’s voice and felt a cold breeze on my skin. When the voice grew louder, I opened my eyes and saw thin red lines illuminating the dark. I told my mother, “I heard a woman’s voice repeat, ‘Would you like the blue marker or the red marker?’ And then I closed my eyes.”
I remember the look on my mother’s face that afternoon. When she was pregnant with me, she said that question was what she asked her class before every lesson she taught as a teacher in 1992.
Maybe my lurid, childhood imagination played tricks on me. It could have been sheer coincidence. But I wondered: why is the idea of reincarnation so quickly dismissed by those who believe only humans exist among millions of galaxies, if we can’t even see dark matter that takes up 85% of total mass in the universe?
Growing up with a ‘third eye’
Growing up with family members who had their ‘third eyes’ open (a hereditary thing, perhaps), I was introduced to the concept of spirits in my early years. My grandfather was a clairvoyant and my dad worked in Buddhist temples.
Before I turned six, I lived in a duplex at Newton, surrounded by a large canal where pythons were caught. At the nearby park, there was a haunted playground beneath a large Liana tree. In Southeast Asia, I was told spirits often resided in those trees with vines.
Most afternoons, I caught grasshoppers in canals. Some nights, I played a game called 'The Last One To Stay'—a competition with my siblings against our neighbours, to see who dared to stay the longest at the playground until one swing would start moving on its own at nightfall. My dad explained there was a lady on the swing; we just couldn’t see her.
Through my dad’s work, my connection with spirituality grew over years. I often watched monks make intricate sand mandalas for days, only to destroy them as a reminder of impermanence in Saṃsāra (our beginningless cycle of birth, existence and death).
While studying in all-girls schools for 10 years, I also read the bible and went to church. “You can't have two religions,” I was told, but none of it made sense. Why would saints fight about a popularity contest? As a Buddhist today, I am taught all religions lead to the same path of compassion.
Still, despite my open-mindedness, I wasn’t a firm believer in old wives’ tales. I often brushed my encounters aside with “oh, it must be the wind” and “oh, I must have imagined that.” I couldn’t decide if I was curious or afraid, so I did silly things in my teenage years to find a tangible explanation in-between.
One time, I played catching at the old Changi hospital (OCH) at 2.00am. It was one of the most haunted places in the region and I saw a black figure behind my brother while I was running down the stairs. “Oh, it could have been a shadow,” I said, ignoring basic physics.
A man who disappeared
But the more I learnt, the less I knew.
I once attended a friend's chalet party near Changi beach. On the patio, we shared ghost stories and pointed out the scent of Frangipani (associated with Southeast Asia’s iconic Malay spirit) nearby. At 7.00pm, the gate to the secluded end of beach was locked but we climbed over it anyway.
There were two friends on my far left, two on my right, and one beside me as I walked in the middle. While I was mindlessly looking at our shadows on the floor, I saw a figure of a person running and heard footsteps from behind. So, I jolted to my right to make way and saw a Chinese man in a white tee and pair of berms. His body was slightly translucent and when he ran past my left shoulder, he disappeared into thin air.
There were five friends with me that night but no one else saw him. I was too shocked to register fear. I thought, “what the f*ck?” and “did I just see… a ghost? Lol.” More importantly, I thanked God we didn’t share eye contact.
From then on, I never believed in movies that depict Dracula as a man with no reflection in the mirror, or spirits with no shadows on the ground. Also, I was not on drugs. This is the part of every Jurassic movie where a kid goes to his mother’s bedside to convince her of a T-rex outside the window.
This is also the part where I have to say that I did try to pull an “oh nah, I’m just imagining things,” and failed. While I’ve had several unexplainable encounters, that night at Changi triggered the biggest paradigm shift in my beliefs.
Life Before & After Birth
Rebirth is conceptual, as theoretical physics hypothesises that time does not exist. Time, is relative to the observer (we only create ‘units’ of time).
Thomas Campbell, a NASA scientist and physicist, explained, “Everything is one. Hence, we are all experiencing everything all at once. That means you are you, you are the neighbour, the dog (yes animals may reincarnate as well), the kid on the skateboard, the grouchy guy in the corner store, you are me, the Dalai Lama, Jesus, Hitler, Joan of Arc. You are everyone, all at once, in all points of time, and all points of space. However, you are focused on seeing and experiencing reality through your perspective only at this time.”
When I asked my father if I could trace back to my past lives, he replied, “You can if you meditate well. But, it can be painful to remember. What if you could remember all the people you loved, hurt and lost?”
I’ve not found the answers to all my questions. Maybe ignorance is bliss. But sometimes I still wonder about the man I saw.
Was he dead or alive in a parallel universe? Did he die during a marathon? If he was dead, why was he still running? If he had Instagram, would he be a #fitspo? Would Nike have sponsored him? Why do spirits seem like they’re using a HD surround sound speakers? Who was I before I was born? How many lives have we led? What defines reality? Is YOLO even relevant?
There is fear in uncertainty. And, maybe the side we are on is an equally intriguing realm to another.