I was the blissful Japanese man—we were the same soul. And yet, I could tell that he was far more evolved than I. This confused me, for I had always thought of a soul's evolution as linear: We incarnate and learn our lessons; we reincarnate and learn more. My father describes the earth as like a school in which we take our classes and graduate to the next level. But this man that I was hundreds of years ago was clearly much more advanced and much wiser than I am now. If I were a high school student, he would have been earning his doctorate. How to account for this?

I realized that growth and evolution are not necessarily linear at all. That's simply a way for us humans to make sense out of the chaos of so many lifetimes. What if the process were actually circular? What if we could be so advanced as to touch enlightenment and then choose to be reborn into the crudest brain and body to test if we had really learned those earth school lessons—a self-imposed pop quiz? Or let's say that in one lifetime, a soul decides that it wants to learn about healing others. Perhaps that soul will be an exquisitely talented surgeon, who treats his patients with humanity and love, staying by their bedsides, healing them not only with his hands but also his heart. For that, a person might choose a personality that is dedicated and unflappable, loving and ambitious. And then, when that life is over, the same soul decides it wants to learn about nonviolence and so chooses a personality that is angry, rash and full of rage. It would be easy to love others and to control one's anger in a body and mind that are calm and serene, but what better way to truly learn those lessons than to navigate those obstacles of emotions and find the path to peace? The loving surgeon is not better than the angry man. They are the same soul, after all. The angry man does not need to evolve in order to become the surgeon. The soul is just learning different lessons in each life. It can become whatever it needs to be in order to learn. In this way, evolution is circular.

I could see that something similar was at play with the Japanese man. He knew how to be content and happy, to find peace simply in existing. That lesson was learned, and hundreds of years ago at that. And so at some point, before incarnating into this life, I had decided to take on depression as a handicap: "You have learned how to be happy just in being alive. Easy enough. But do you really know how to be happy? Put on this thick, heavy coat of sadness, let it weigh you down with each step, and if you can find your way to happiness even through that, then yes, you have learned it." Therefore, it is more of a struggle for me now than it was for the man I was then, but that is only because I'm learning the lesson at a deeper level. It's not a pop quiz on the subject but the final exam. Looking at it that way, soul evolution seems linear again.

More important to me, though, than understanding the progress of soul evolution was the instant understanding that depression was something I had taken on in this lifetime, that it was not a part of my soul itself. It was a heavy coat I had chosen to wear in order to learn an important lesson, but a coat can always be removed. No one mistakes a coat hanging in a closet for the person who wears it. It was not me; how could it be, when I had just seen that in other lifetimes I had not worn it? At the end of this life—or even before that—I would shed it. Sadness was not some fundamental part of who I was, my soul. My soul had just dipped into that experience to learn what it felt like, to see what it might teach me. But my soul did not possess it or become it, and I did not need to identify with it, to claim it any longer. These insights, gained in a split second, forever changed the way I saw myself.

I could see that every other soul in the world had taken on its own handicaps. Perhaps it was a physical disability or disease, perhaps a mental one. Perhaps it was merely a personality fault or flaw. Just as I took on sadness so that I could find my way toward happiness, someone else may have taken on a body she considered to be ugly in order to find her way toward loving herself, which would be all too easy had she been born beautiful (though, truly, we are all born beautiful). The possibilities and combinations are endless. All could be difficult to live with, sometimes unbearable, but all offer an avenue for learning, and none is part of who we really are. We are the perfect souls wearing the coats and then blissfully throwing them off, the weight of the world literally lifted off our shoulders.