Knowledge of the State Between Death and a New Birth
Anthroposophy Quarterly, April, 1916
The following thoughts are intended as aphoristic sketches of a domain of knowledge that, in the form in which is it characterised here, is almost entirely rejected by the culture of our time. The aphoristic form has been chosen in order to give some idea of the fundamental character of this field of knowledge, and to show — at least in one direction — the prospects for life which it opens up. The narrow frame of an essay requires one to refer the reader to the literature of the subject for further information. The author is fully aware that precisely this form of presentation may easily be felt as presumptuous by many who, from the well-founded habits of thought of the culture of the day, must find what is here brought forward directly opposed to all that is scientific. It may be said in answer to this that the author, in spite of his ‘spiritual-scientific’ orientation, believes that he can agree with every scientist in his high estimation of the spirit and significance of scientific thinking. Only it seems clear to him that one can fully accept Natural Science without being thereby compelled to reject an independent Spiritual Science of the kind described here. A consequence of this relation to Natural Science will, at all events, be to guard true Spiritual Science from that amateurishness which is noticeable in many quarters to-day, and which usually indulges the more presumptuously in phrases about the ‘crude materialism of Natural Science’ the less the speakers are able to judge of the earnestness, rigour and scientific soundness of Natural Knowledge.
The writer wished to make these introductory remarks because the brevity of the discussions in this article may possibly obscure from the reader his attitude towards these matters.
He who speaks to-day of investigating the spiritual world encounters the sceptical objections of those whose habits of thought have been moulded by the outlook of Natural Science. His attention will be drawn to the blessings which this outlook has brought for a healthy development of human life, by destroying the illusions of a learning which professed to follow purely spiritual modes of cognition. Now these sceptical objections can be quite intelligible to the spiritual investigator. Indeed it ought to be perfectly clear to him that any kind of spiritual investigation which finds itself in conflict with established ideas of Natural Science cannot rest on a sure foundation. A spiritual investigator with a feeling for, and an understanding of the earnestness of scientific procedure, and insight into the achievements of Natural Knowledge for human life, will not wish to join the ranks of those who, from the standpoint of their ‘spiritual sight,’ criticise lightly the limitations of scientists, and imagine their own standpoint so much the higher the more every kind of Natural Knowledge is lost for them in unfathomable depths.
Natural Science and Spiritual Science could live in harmony if the former could rid itself of the erroneous belief that true spiritual investigation necessarily requires we [human beings] to reject attested knowledge of sensible reality and of the soul-life bound up with this. In this erroneous belief lies the source of innumerable misunderstandings which Spiritual Science has to encounter. Those who believe they stand, in their outlook on life, on the ‘firm ground of Natural Science’ hold that the spiritual investigator is compelled by his point of view to reject their knowledge. But this is not really the case. Genuine spiritual investigation is in full agreement with Natural Science. Thus spiritual investigation is not opposed on account of what it maintains, but for what people believe it could or must maintain.
With regard to human soul life the scientific thinker must maintain that the soul activities which reveal themselves as thinking, feeling and willing, ought, for the acquisition of scientific knowledge, to be observed without prejudice in the same way as the phenomena of light or heat in the outer world of Nature. He must reject all ideas about the entity of the soul which do not arise from such unprejudiced observation, and from which all kinds of conclusions are then drawn about the indestructibility of the soul, and its connection with the spiritual world. It is quite understandable that such a thinker begins his study of the facts of soul-life as Theodor Ziehen does in the first of his lectures on “Physiological Psychology.” He says: “The psychology which I shall put before you, is not that old psychology which attempted to investigate soul phenomena in a more or less speculative way. This psychology has long been abandoned by those accustomed to think scientifically.” True spiritual investigation need not conflict with the scientific attitude which may he in such an avowal. And yet, among those who take this attitude as a result of their scientific habits of thought, the opinion will be almost universally held to-day that the specific results of spiritual investigation are to be regarded as unscientific. Of course one will not encounter everywhere this rejection, on grounds of principle, of the investigation of spiritual facts; yet when specific results of such investigation are brought forward they will scarcely escape the objection that scientific thinking can do nothing with them. As a consequence of this,one can observe that there has recently grown up a science of the soul, forming its methods of investigation on the pattern of natural-scientific procedure, but unable to find the power to approach those highest questions which our inner need of knowledge must put when we turn our gaze to the fate of the soul. One investigates conscientiously the connection of soul phenomena with bodily processes, one tries to gain ideas on the way presentations associate and dissociate in the soul, how attention acts, how memory functions, what relation exists between thinking, feeling and willing; but for the higher questions of soul-life the words of Franz Brentano remain true. This acute psychologist, though rooted in the mode of thinking of Natural Science, wrote: “The laws of association of ideas, of the development of convictions and opinions and of the genesis of pleasure and love would be anything but a true compensation for the hopes of a Plato or an Aristotle of gaining certainty concerning the continued life of our better part after the dissolution of the body.” And if the recent scientific mode of thinking really means “excluding the question of immortality,” this exclusion would have great significance for psychology.1Brentano, Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt, 1874 page 20.
The fact is, that considerations which might tend in the direction of the ‘hopes of a Plato and an Aristotle’ are avoided in recent psychological writings which wish to satisfy the demands of scientific thought. Now the spiritual investigator will not come into conflict with the mode of procedure of recent scientific psychology if he has an understanding of its vital nerve. He will have to admit that this psychology proceeds, in the main, along right lines insofar as the study of the inner experiences of thinking, feeling and willing is concerned. Indeed his path of knowledge leads him to admit that thinking, feeling and willing reveal nothing that could fulfil the ‘hopes of a Plato and an Aristotle’ if these activities are only studied as they are experienced in ordinary human life. But his path of knowledge also shows that in thinking, feeling and willing something lies hidden which does not become conscious in the course of ordinary life, but which can be brought to consciousness through inner soul exercises. In this spiritual entity of the soul, hidden from ordinary consciousness, is revealed what in it is independent of the life of the body; and in this the relations of man to the spiritual world can be studied. To the spiritual investigator it appears just as impossible to fulfil the ‘hopes of a Plato or an Aristotle’ in regard to the existence of the soul independent of bodily life by observing ordinary thinking, feeling and willing, as it is impossible to investigate in water the properties of hydrogen. To learn these one must first extract the hydrogen from the water by an appropriate procedure. So it is also necessary to separate from the everyday life of the soul (which it leads in connection with the body) that entity which is rooted in the spiritual world, if this entity is to be studied.
The error which casts befogging misunderstandings in the way of Spiritual Science lies in the almost general belief that knowledge about the higher questions of soul-life must be gained from a study of such facts of the soul as are already to be found in ordinary life. But no other knowledge results from these facts than that to which research, conducted on what are at present called scientific lines, can lead. On this account Spiritual Science can be no mere heeding of what is immediately present in the life of the soul. It must first lay bare, by inner processes in the life of the soul, the world of facts to be studied. To this end spiritual investigation applies soul processes which are attained in inner experience. Its field of research lies entirely within the inner life of the soul. It cannot make its experiences outwardly visible. Nevertheless they are not on that account less independent of personal caprice than the true results of Natural Science. They have nothing in common with mathematical truths except that they, too, cannot be proved by outer facts, but are proved for anyone who grasps them in inner perception. Like mathematical truths they can at the most be outwardly symbolised but not represented in their full content, for it is this that proves them. The essential point, which can easily be misunderstood, is, that on the path pursued by spiritual investigation a certain direction is given, by inner initiative, to the experiences of the soul, thereby calling out forces which otherwise remain unconscious as in a kind of soul sleep. (The soul exercises which lead to this goal are described in detail in my books “Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment” and “Occult Science.” It is only intended to indicate here what transpires in the soul when it subjects itself to such exercises). If the soul proceeds in this way it inserts — as it were — its inner life into the domain of spiritual reality. It opens to the spiritual world its organs of perception so formed, as the senses open outwardly to physical reality.
One kind of such soul exercises consists in an intensive surrender to the process of thinking. One carries this surrender so far that one acquires the capacity of directing one's attention no longer to the thoughts present in thinking but solely to the activity of thinking itself. Every kind of thought content then disappears from consciousness and the soul experiences herself consciously in the activity of thinking. Thinking then becomes transformed into a subtle inner act of will which is completely illuminated by consciousness. In ordinary thinking, thoughts live; the process indicated extinguishes the thought in thinking. The experience thus induced is a weaving in an inner activity of will which bears its reality within itself. The point is that the soul, by continued inner experience in this direction, may make itself as familiar with the purely spiritual reality in which it weaves as sense observation is with physical reality. As in the outer world a reality can only be known as such by experiencing it, so, too, in this inner domain. He who objects that what is inwardly real cannot be proved only shows that he has not yet grasped that we become convinced of an outer reality in no other way than by experiencing its existence together with our own. A healthy life has direct experience of the difference between a genuine perception in the outer world and a vision or hallucination; in a similar way a healthily developed soul life can distinguish the spiritual reality it has approached from fantastic imagining; and dreamy reverie.
Thinking that has been developed in the manner stated perceives that it has freed itself from the soul force which ordinarily leads to memory. What is experienced in thinking which has become an inwardly experienced ‘will-reality’ cannot be remembered in the direct form in which it presents itself. Thus it differs from what is experienced in ordinary thinking. What one has thought about an event is incorporated into memory. It can be brought up again in the further course of life. But the ‘will-reality’ here described must be attained anew, if it is to be again experienced in consciousness. I do not mean that this reality cannot be indirectly incorporated into ordinary memory. This must indeed take place if the path of spiritual investigation is to be a healthy one. But what remains in memory is only an idea (Vorstellung) of this reality, just as what one remembers to-day of an experience of yesterday is only an idea (Vorstellung). Concepts, ideas, can be retained in memory: a spiritual reality must be experienced ever anew. By grasping vividly this difference between the cherishing of mere thoughts and a spiritual reality reached by developing the activity of thinking, one comes to experience oneself with this reality outside the physical body. What ordinary thinking must mostly regard as an impossibility commences; one experiences oneself outside the existence that is connected with the body. Ordinary thinking, regarding this experience ‘outside the body’ only from its own point of view, must at first hold this to be an illusion. Assurance of this experience can, indeed, only be won through the experience itself. And it is precisely through this experience that one understands only too well that those whose habits of thought have been formed by Natural Science cannot, at first, but regard such experiences as fantastic imaginings or dreamy reverie, perhaps as a weaving in illusions or hallucinations. Only he can fully understand what is here brought forward who has come to know that the path of true spiritual investigation releases forces in the soul which lie in a direction precisely opposite to those which induce pathological soul experiences. What the soul develops on the path of spiritual investigation are forces competent to oppose pathological states or to dissipate these where they tend to occur. No scientific investigation can see through what is visionary — of an hallucinatory nature — when this tries to get in man's way, as directly as true spiritual science, which can only unfold in a direction opposed to the unhealthy experiences mentioned.
In that moment when this ‘experience outside the body’ becomes a reality for him the spiritual investigator learns to know how ordinary thinking is bound to the physical processes of the body. He comes to see how thoughts acquired in outer experience necessarily arise in such a way that they can be remembered. This rests on the fact that these thoughts do not merely lead a spiritual life in the soul but share their life with the body. Thus the spiritual investigator comes not to reject but to accept what scientific thought must maintain about the dependence of the life of thought on bodily processes.
At first the inner experiences described above present themselves as anxious oppression of the soul. They appear to lead out of the domain of ordinary existence but not into a new reality. One knows, indeed, that one is living in a reality; one feels this reality as one's own spiritual being. One has found one's way out of sense reality, but one has only grasped oneself in a purely spiritual form of existence. A feeling of loneliness resembling fear can overtake the soul — a loneliness to experience oneself in a world, not merely to possess oneself. Yet another feeling arises. One feels one must lose again the acquired spiritual self-experience, if one cannot confront a spiritual environment. The spiritual state into which one thus enters may be roughly compared to what would be experienced if one had to clutch with one's hands in all directions without being able to lay hold of anything.
When, however, the path of spiritual investigation is pursued in the right way, the above experiences are, indeed, undergone, but they form only one side of the soul's development. The necessary completion is found in other experiences. As certain impulses given to the soul's experiences lead one to grasp the ‘will-reality’ within thinking, so other directions imparted to the processes of the soul lead to an experience of hidden forces within the activity of the will. (Here also we can only state what takes place in the inner being of man through such soul experiences. The books mentioned give a detailed description of what the soul must undertake in order to reach the indicated goal). In ordinary life the activity of the will is not perceived in the same way as an outer event. Even what is usually called introspection by no means puts one into the position of regarding one's own willing as one regards an outer event of Nature.
To achieve this — to be able to confront one's own willing as an observer stands before an outer fact of Nature — intensive soul processes, induced voluntarily, are again necessary. If these are induced in the appropriate way there arises something quite different from this view of one's own willing as of an outer fact. In ordinary perception a presentation (Vorstellung) emerges in the life of the soul and is, in a certain sense, an inner image of the outer fact. But in observing one's own willing this accustomed power of forming presentations fades out. One ceases to form presentations of outer things. In place of this a faculty of forming real images — a real perception — is released from the depths of willing, and breaks through the surface of the will's activity, bringing living spiritual reality with it. At first one's own hidden spiritual entity appears within this spiritual reality. One perceives that one carries a hidden spiritual man within one. This is no thought-picture but a real being — real in a higher sense than the outer bodily man. Now this spiritual man does not present himself like an outer being perceptible to the senses. He does not reveal his characteristic qualities outwardly. He reveals himself through his inner nature by developing an inner activity similar to the processes of consciousness in one's own soul. But, unlike the soul dwelling in man's body, this higher being is not turned towards sensible objects but towards spiritual events — in the first place towards the events of one's own soul-life as unfolded up till now. One really discovers in oneself a second human being who, as a spiritual being, is a conscious observer of one's ordinary soul-life. However fantastic this description of a spiritual man within the bodily may appear, it is nevertheless a sober description of reality for a soul-life appropriately trained. It is as different from anything visionary or of the nature of an illusion as is day from night.
Just as a reality partaking of the nature of will is discovered in the transformed thinking, so a consciousness partaking of the nature of being — and weaving in the spiritual — is discovered in the will. And these two prove, for fuller experience, to belong together. In a certain sense they are discovered on paths running in opposite directions, but turn out to be a unity. The feeling of anxiety experienced in the weaving of the ‘will-reality’ ceases when this ‘will-reality,’ born from developed thinking, unites itself with the higher being above described. Through this union man confronts, for the first time, the complete spiritual world. He encounters, not only himself, but beings and events of the spiritual world lying outside himself.
In the world into which man has thus entered, perception is an essentially different process from perception in the world of sense. Real beings and events of the spiritual world arise from out of the higher being revealed through developing the will. Through the interplay of these beings and events with the ‘will-reality’ resulting from developed thinking, these beings and events are spiritually perceived. What we know as memory in the physical world ceases to have significance for the spiritual world. We see that this soul force uses the physical body as a tool. But another force takes the place of memory in observing the spiritual world. Through this force a past event is not remembered in the form of mental presentations but perceived directly in a fresh experience. It is not like reading a sentence and remembering it later, but like reading and re-reading. The concept of the past acquires a new significance in this domain; the past appears to spiritual perception as present, and we recognise that something belongs to a past time by perceiving, not the passage of time, but the relation of one spiritual being or event to another.
The path into the spiritual world is thus traversed by laying bare what is contained in thinking and willing. Now feeling cannot be developed in a similar way by inner initiative of soul. Unlike the case of thinking and willing, nothing to take the place of what is experienced within the physical world as feeling can be developed in the spiritual world through transforming an inner force. What corresponds to feeling in the spiritual world arises quite of itself as soon as spiritual perception has been acquired in the described way. This experience of feeling, however, bears a different character from that borne by feeling in the physical world. One does not feel in oneself, but in the beings and events which one perceives. One enters into them with one's feeling; one feels their inner being, as in physical life one feels one's own being. We might put it in this way: as in the physical world one is conscious of experiencing objects and events as material, so in the spiritual world one is conscious of experiencing beings and facts through revelations of feeling which come from without like colours or sounds in the physical world.
A soul which has attained to the spiritual experience described knows it is in a world from out of which it can observe its own experiences in the physical word — just as physical perception can observe a sensible object. It is united with that spiritual entity which unites itself — at birth (or at conception) — with the physical body derived from one's ancestors; and this spiritual entity persists when this body is laid aside at death. The ‘hopes of a Plato and an Aristotle’ for the science of the soul can only be fulfilled through a perception of this entity. Moreover the perception of repeated earth-lives (between which are lives spent in the purely spiritual world) now becomes a fact inasmuch as man's psychic-spiritual kernel, thus discovered, perceives itself and its own weaving and becoming in the spiritual world. It learns to know its own being as the result of earlier earthlives and spiritual forms of existence lying between them. Within its present earth-life it finds a spiritual germ which must unfold in a future earth-life after passing through states between death and a new birth. As the plant germ contains the future plant potentially, so there develops, concealed in man, a psychic-spiritual germ. This reveals itself to spiritual perception through its own essence as the foundation of a future earth-life. It would be incorrect so to interpret the spiritual perception of life between death and a new birth as if such perception meant participating beforehand in the experience of the spiritual world entered at physical death. Such perception does not give a complete, disembodied experience of the spiritual world as experienced after death; it is only the knowledge of the actual experience that is experienced.
While still in one's body one can receive all of the disembodied experience between death and a new birth that is offered by the experiences of the soul described above, that is to say, when the ‘will-reality’ is released from thinking with the help of the consciousness set free from the will. In the spiritual world the feeling element revealing itself from without can first be experienced through entrance into this world. Strange as it may sound, experience in the spiritual world leads one to say: the physical world is present to man in the first place as a complex of outer facts, and man acquires knowledge of it after it has confronted him in this form; the spiritual world, on the other hand, sends knowledge of itself in advance, and the knowledge it kindles in the soul beforehand is the torch which must illumine the spiritual world if this world is to reveal itself as a fact. It is clear to one who knows this through spiritual perception that this light develops during bodily life on earth in the unconscious depths of the soul, and then, after death, illumines the regions of the spiritual world making them experiences of the human soul.
During bodily life on earth one can awaken this knowledge of the state between death and a new birth. This knowledge has an entirely opposite character to that developed for life in the physical world. One perceives through it what the soul will accomplish between death and a new birth, because one has present in spiritual perception the germ of what impels towards this accomplishment. The perception of this germ reveals that a creative connection with the spiritual world commences for the soul after death. It unfolds an activity which is directed towards the future earth life as its goal, whereas in physical perception its activity is directed — although imitatively and not creatively — towards the outer world of sense. Man's growth (Werden) as a spiritual being connected with the spiritual world lies in the field of vision of the soul between death and a new birth, as the existence (Sein) of the sense world lies in the field of view of the bodily man. Active perception of spiritual Becoming (Werden) characterises the conditions between death and a new birth. (It is not the task of this article to give details of these states. Those interested will find them in my books Theosophy” and Occult Science.
In contrast to experience in the body, spiritual experience is something to which we are completely unaccustomed, inasmuch as the idea of Being as acquired in the physical world loses all meaning. The spiritual world has nothing of the nature of Being. Everything is Becoming. To enter a spiritual environment is to enter an everlasting Becoming. But in contrast to this restless Becoming in our spiritual environment we have the soul's perception of itself as stationary consciousness within the never-ceasing movement into which it is placed. The awakened spiritual consciousness must accommodate itself to this reversal of inner experience with regard to the consciousness that lives in the body. It can thereby acquire a real knowledge of experience apart from the body. And only such knowledge can embrace the states between death and a new birth.
“.... In a certain sense all human beings are ‘specialists’ to-day so far as their souls are concerned. We are struck by this specialised mode of perception when we study the development of Art in humanity. And for this very reason a comprehensive understanding of spiritual life in its totality must again come into existence. True form in Art will arise from this comprehensive understanding of spiritual life ....”
(From Ways to a New Style in Architecture)