There's a major discrepancy in the evidence for the afterlife that's always puzzled me. I don't claim to have the answer, but I thought I would throw out a highly speculative suggestion.
The discrepancy pertains to the always thorny issue of reincarnation. In most near-death experiences and in a great deal of channeled communications, reincarnation does not come up. Some alleged communicators have even gone so far as to state with certainty that reincarnation is a myth. Other communications received by mediums, however, say just the opposite. Moreover, past-life researchers who have hypnotized their subjects not only obtain detailed accounts of previous lives, but in some cases obtain descriptions of a life between lives in which the soul plans its next incarnation.
The inconsistency is most apparent in accounts of the soul's transition to the afterlife. If we listen to near-death experiencers and many purported spirit communicators, we hear that the soul arrives in the afterlife with no memory of any physical incarnation other than the most recent one. The afterlife environment, at least initially, is a place for rest and the casual enjoyment of arts, leisure, and learning. But if we listen to patients placed into deep hypnosis, we hear that the soul arrives in the afterlife with an immediate recall of many past lives. The soul is reunited with other souls that it knows from various earthly incarnations and from many interludes in the spirit world. Moreover, the soul almost immediately embarks on a training program to prepare itself for its next incarnation. Though there are some parallels between the two accounts, the differences are substantial and seemingly irreconcilable.
One obvious explanation is that at least one of these two bodies of evidence is not reliable. If I had to jettison one batch of afterlife accounts, I would choose the material obtained through hypnosis. Hypnotized subjects are notorious for their tendency to confabulate–in other words to invent fictional accounts–in order to satisfy the explicit or implicit demands of the hypnotist. Experiments in hypnotism performed in the late 19th century strongly suggest that a person's latent psi abilities may be greatly accentuated when under hypnosis; therefore, I would not rule out the possibility that the hypnotized subject is actually reading the hypnotist's mind and simply reiterating what it finds there, creating a kind of feedback loop or folie a deux. If this is the case, then the evidence from hypnosis studies may be of limited value. Meanwhile, the evidence of near-death experiences and mediumship in general strikes me as much more solid.
Still, there may possibly be a way of reconciling these two very different sets of accounts. Let's suppose that each type of account is valid, but that the accounts come from different sources. To put it plainly, what if the stories told by near-death experiencers and most mediumistic communicators originate with the ordinary soul, while the stories told by hypnotized subjects originate with the oversoul?
According to some mystical traditions, our earthly identity, which we might characterize as our soul, is only part of a larger, more comprehensive identity known as the oversoul or the higher self. This oversoul allows various aspects of itself to incarnate at different times and in different places in order to experience a variety of conditions in the physical world. The oversoul itself, while connected to the soul, remains distinct from it, much as a tree may be distinguished from a leaf on one of its branches. While the tree and the leaf may be seen as a single organism, they may also be seen as separate entities.
In this view, the individual soul does not reincarnate, since to do so would require losing the individual identity it had built up in its first (and only) incarnation. Instead, some other part of the oversoul undergoes the next incarnation, perhaps carrying with it some of the memories or karma acquired by the first soul in its earthly adventure. We might compare it to a relay race, in which the torch is passed from one runner to the next.
Now if there is any truth in this, we might perhaps see a way to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the two versions of the afterlife. In most cases, near-death experiencers and mediumistic communicators are speaking from the point of view of the individual soul–for want of a better word, the undersoul. On the other hand, some of the higher channeled entities, as well as the entities that communicate when a subject is in deep hypnosis, represent the oversoul, and thus provide a different perspective.
From the perspective of the undersoul, individual identity does not change very much in the transition to the next life. There is no memory of any previous incarnation and no knowledge of any master plan. The main purpose of the afterlife, at least in its early stages, is to provide an opportunity for rest and recuperation, as well as for an assessment of lessons learned.
Meanwhile, from the perspective of the oversoul, individual identity is largely dropped or at least minimized upon the transition back to the spirit world. Memories of all the incarnations of its constituents are immediately available to it, and it quickly embarks on developing a strategy for its next incarnation.
This distinction might help to clarify something rather odd about statements made by the hypnotized subjects, who often seem to distinguish between themselves and the person they were on earth. One such subject, for instance, said she felt that one of her earthly incarnations was a good learning experience for her and also worked out well for the person who served as her incarnation. It is rather strange to think of the soul viewing itself both as the incarnated person and as somehow outside the incarnated person at the same time; but this paradox might be resolved if we see it as the oversoul drawing a distinction between itself and one of its constituent undersouls.
In some channeled literature we are told that the soul–that is, the individual soul or undersoul–is eventually motivated to give up its life of leisure and to progress to higher dimensions of the spiritual plane. My hypothesis suggests that this advancement to higher dimensions consists of merging more and more fully with the oversoul, until eventually the distinction between oversoul and undersoul has been largely erased. Of course it is also possible that the oversoul itself may need to progress and merge with other over souls into some larger unity, and eventually, perhaps, into what we may call God itself.
One thing worth noting is that the level of profundity of near-death experiences seems to vary directly with the extent to which the subject is exposed to the so-called Being of Light. Some near-death experiencers do not encounter any Being of Light at all; others see the light but do not interact with it; still others establish a profound spiritual connection with the light. In my hypothesis, the Being of Light–which is sometimes characterized as Jesus or Buddha or some other religious figure–is actually the oversoul or higher self. (This idea is not original with me; Kenneth Ring suggests it in one of his books.) Possibly the more an NDEr interacts with or merges with the Being of Light, the more profoundly the experience affects him and the more closely he continues to identify with the oversoul, and to minimize the importance of the undersoul, even after returning to earthly life.
It is also possible that when we pray, our prayers are directed toward the oversoul; that so-called guardian angels and spirit guides are aspects of the oversoul; and that mystical “cosmic consciousness” experiences involve a direct, albeit brief, apprehension of the oversoul, or at least of a more substantial part of it than we usually can access.
As I say, this is only a speculative hypothesis. It seems to be broadly consistent with several different classes of evidence and with some important strains of mystical tradition. But when dealing with this kind of material, it's wise to add this caveat: everything I just wrote may be completely wrong.