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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Old and New Methods of Initiation
GA 210

Lecture VIII

17 February 1922, Dornach

Today we shall consider the passage of the human spirit and soul through the sense-perceptible physical organism. We shall look first at how this element of spirit and soul prepares for physical incarnation by descending from the spiritual worlds, and then at how it departs from physical incarnation through the portal of death and returns to the spiritual world. We shall take particular account of what happens in the soul during this process, for we must understand that on entering the physical organism, right at the moment of conception, a tremendous transformation takes place, and that another tremendous transformation takes place when the human being departs from physical incarnation through the portal of death.

We have described these things from numerous standpoints already. But today we shall be concerned with the inner experience of the soul itself. What are the last experiences of the soul before it descends to physical life on earth?

Between birth and death our soul is filled with an intricate fabric of thoughts, feelings and impulses of will. All these work together and intermingle to form the total structure of the soul. Our language has words for all the different forms of thought, of feeling, and of will impulses, so that we can describe all these things that are experienced during physical earthly life. And by considering our more subconscious feelings and our soul experiences as a whole, we can throw at least some light on what lives in the soul before it enters earthly life.

First of all we must be clear that the thought element leads a shadowy existence in the soul during physical earthly life. Thoughts are quite rightly described as pale and abstract. At best, the thoughts and mental pictures of the human being during earthly life are no more than mirror images of the external world. Human beings make thoughts about what they have perceived with their senses in the external world. As you know, if you subtract from your thought life everything you have perceived through your senses and everything you have experienced with the help of your senses during the course of earthly life, there is very little left. This is different, of course, if a study of spiritual science has led to the acquisition of other kinds of thought content than those drawn from the sense-perceptible world. Our thought world is shadowy because it has lost its inner vitality as a result of our descent into the physical sense-perceptible world. You could say that as a solid earthly object is to its shadow on the wall, so is the real content of thoughts to what lives in our thinking during earthly existence. If we seek to make the transition from the earthly thoughts of our life between birth and death to the true stature of our thought life, we find that this really only exists in our purely spiritual life before conception has taken place. It is like going from a shadow picture to whatever is casting the shadow. Before birth, or rather before conception, there is a vivid, fully alive existence which later becomes shadowy thoughts. The thought world existing as an inner weaving of soul before conception might well be described as our actual spiritual existence, our actual spiritual being. This inner weaving life before conception is, of course, something that fills the whole of the universe known to us. Before conception we live throughout the totality of the universe which otherwise surrounds us. The thoughts that then live in us during our life on earth are the shadows, confined within our human physical organism, of something that has life on a cosmic scale prior to conception.

This is a description of one element of our soul before birth, or before conception. Before the human being descends to the physical world we find, as one part of the content of his soul, something that is like thoughts when he is on earth but which is actually a spiritual element of his being when he is in the super-sensible world. The other part of the content of his soul cannot be described as anything other than fear, to use a concept taken from earthly life. In the period prior to physical life something lives in the soul which, as fear, fills it entirely. You must understand, however, that fear as an experience outside the physical body is something quite different from fear within the human physical body.

Before descending to earth man is a being of spirit and soul filled with an element of feeling which can only be compared with what is experienced in earthly life as fear. This fear is well justified for that period of human life about which I am now speaking. In the life between death and a new birth the human being has undergone manifold experiences of the kind which are possible while he is united with the cosmos. By the end of the life between death and a new birth he has, in a way, grown tired of this cosmic life, just as he grows tired of earthly life when, towards the end, his bodily organization shrivels up and becomes infirm. This tiring of life beyond the earth is expressed not so much in actual tiredness as in fear of the cosmos. The human being takes flight from the cosmos. He senses that the fundamental aspect of the cosmos is something that has now become foreign to him; it no longer has anything to offer him. He feels a kind of timidity, comparable with fear, towards the element in which he finds himself. He longs to withdraw from this cosmic feeling and contract into a human physical body.

From the earth a certain force of attraction comes to meet this state of fear in the human being. In a diagram it would look like this. Think of the cranium, and the brain within. Here is the base of the cranium. As I have frequently suggested, the human brain with its remarkable convolutions is a kind of copy of the starry heavens, of the universe. This brain structure made up of cells is indeed a copy of the starry heavens (see diagram). While living before birth in the cosmos the

human being encompasses with his spirituality the whole of the starry world. But now he fears it. He withdraws into an earthly image of the starry heavens, an image in the human brain.

Now we come to the choice made by man's spirit and soul. For now the soul chooses whichever brain—in the process of being formed—most closely resembles the starry constellation in which it stood before descending into the earthly realm. Naturally, the brain of one embryo depicts the starry heavens differently from that of another embryo. And the soul feels attracted towards the brain which has the most similarity with the starry constellation in which it existed before descending to earth.

So it is, in the main, a feeling of timidity which leads the soul down to the confines of a human being—a feeling of fearfulness with regard to infinity, you might say. This feeling of fear pertains more to the soul. And the thought world which unfolds more and more from childhood into adulthood pertains more to the spirit. Both—the feeling of fear and also the spiritual element which is transformed into shadowy thoughts—undergo a substantial metamorphosis which I should now like to describe to you. I can only use expressions which will seem unusual as far as ordinary thinking goes, but ordinary thinking lacks points of reference which might serve to describe these things. Ordinary thinking lies far from all aspects of this theme, so we cannot avoid using unusual expressions if we want to give an adequate description of them.

Let us start with the spiritual element which lives in the cosmos and then makes its way to the confined dwelling place of the human body, unfolding chiefly through the nervous system and the brain and undergoing metamorphosis as it does so. There are two aspects of this. First of all it is definitely true to say that the being who is man in the world of spirit and soul prior to conception dies during the transition into the physical body. Birth in the physical body is a dying for the spirit and soul life of man. And when a death takes place there is always a corpse. Just as a corpse remains when man dies on earth, so a corpse also remains when the element of spirit and soul goes down to the earth through conception and dies in the heavenly region. For the whole of our earthly life we then live, as far as our thoughts are concerned, on what remains as a corpse. The corpse is our world of thoughts. Something that is dead is the world of shadowy thoughts. So we can say that as the spiritual aspect of man descends to life on earth through conception, it dies for the world of spirit and soul and leaves this corpse behind.

Just as the corpse of the physical human being dissolves into the elements of earth, so the element of spirit and soul dissolves in the spiritual world and becomes the force which is unfolded in physical thoughts. Just as the earth goes to work on the corpse when we bury it, or as fire does when we cremate it, so throughout life we go to work on the corpse of our spirit and soul element in our world of physical thoughts. The world of physical thoughts is the continuing in death of what exists as real spiritual life before man descends into physical earthly life.

The other living element which enters into man from his pre-earthly life comes into play in the physical human being, not through the world of thoughts, but in the widest possible sense in everything which we can call feelings—feelings to do with man as well as feelings to do with nature. Everything by which you spread into your environment in a feeling way (see chart) is an element which represents a living echo of pre-earthly life.

You do not experience your pre-earthly life in a living way in your thoughts but only in your feelings for other creatures. If we love a flower or a person, this is a force which has been given to us out of our pre-earthly life, but in a living way. So if we love a person we can say that we love him or her not only out of our experiences in this earthly life, but also out of karma, out of being connected in earlier earthly lives. Something living is carried over from pre-earthly life in so far as the sympathetic sphere of the human being is concerned. On the other hand, what is a living spiritual element between death and a new birth dies into our thought world during earthly life.

That is why our thought world is so pale and shadowy and dead during earthly life, because it actually represents a part of our pre-earthly experience which has died.

Now let us turn to the second element—timidity, fear—which is also metamorphosed in such a way that it falls into two parts. What we experience prior to our descent into the earthly world as a fear which fills our whole soul and makes us want to flee from the spiritual world, becomes, on entering the body, on the one hand something that I should like to describe as a feeling of self. This feeling of self is metamorphosed fear. Transformed fear from pre-earthly life is what makes you feel that you are a self, that you are self-contained.

The other part into which fear is transmuted is our will. All our will impulses, everything on which our activity in the world is based—all this exists as fear before we descend into earthly life.

You see once again what a good thing it is for earthly life that human beings do not step consciously past the Guardian of the Threshold. I have frequently said that human beings sleep through what the will represents, down there in the human organism. They have an intention, then they carry it out, and then they perceive the consequence. But what lies between the intention to do a deed and the accomplished deed, that in which the will actually consists—this is something in which human beings are as much asleep as they are between falling asleep and waking up again. If they were to look down and see what lay at the foundation of their will they would feel, strongly welling up out of their organism, the fear coming in from their pre-earthly life.

This is also something that has to be overcome in initiation. But if we look into ourselves, the first thing we see is the feeling of self. This is something which must not be caused to increase too much as a result of the training. Otherwise, when the human being finally steps into the spiritual world he might fall into megalomania. But at the foundation of all his will impulses he will find fear and he must therefore be strengthened to withstand this fear.

As you see, in all the exercises contained in my book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds the aim is to learn to bear the fear which we come to perceive in the way I have described. This fear is something that has to be there amongst the forces of development, otherwise human beings would never descend from the spiritual world into earthly existence. They would not flee from the spiritual world. They would not develop the urge to enter into the limitations of the physical body. The fact that they do develop this urge stems from this fear of the spiritual world, which quite naturally becomes a part of their soul configuration once they have lived for a time between death and a new birth.

So thoughts are attached to us like a corpse—or rather the power of the thoughts, not the thoughts themselves. We can describe this even more exactly. However, to consider this more exact description it will benecessary to develop certain very precise ideas. The spiritual force which dies in our thoughts and becomes a corpse when we descend into physical earthly existence is the same force which builds our organs out of the cosmos. Our lung, heart, stomach—all our specific organs—are formed out of the power of thought of the universe.

When we enter into earthly life this power of thought enters the narrow confines of our organism. What does the earth and its environment want of us? It wants us to create an image of it within ourselves. But if we were to create an image in ourselves, then during the course of our lifetime all our inner organs, such as our lungs—but, above all, the manifold convolutions of our brain—would be transformed into crystal-like formations. We should all become statues resembling not human beings but crystals in various contrasting groups. We should gradually come to be inorganic, lifeless shapes—statues after a fashion.

The human organism resists this. It stands by the shape of its inner organs. It will not have it that, for instance, its lungs might be formed to represent, let us say, a range of mountains. It will not allow its heart to be transformed into a cluster of crystals. It resists this. And this resistance brings it about that instead of forming images of our earthly environment in our organs we do so only in the shadow images of our thoughts. So our power of thought is actually always on the way to making us into an image of our physical earth, of the physical form of our earth. We constantly want to become a system of crystals. But our organism will not permit this. It has so much which has to be developed in the living realm, in the realm of sympathy, in the realm of feeling of self and in the realm of will impulses, that it does not permit it. It will not allow our lungs to be transformed into something that looks like crystals growing out of the earth. It resists this formation into earthly shapes, and so the images of earthly shapes only come about in geometry and in whatever other thoughts we form about our earthly environment. As I said, you must think with absolute exactitude if you want to reach the point where you can imagine all this.

But the tendency is always there of coming to resemble the system of our thoughts. We have to fight constantly in order not to take onthis resemblance. We are constantly striving to become a kind of work of art—though given the kind of thoughts human beings have on the whole, it would not be a very beautiful work of art to look at. But we strive to attain an external appearance that resembles what exists in our thoughts as no more than images and shadows. We do not achieve this resemblance, but we mirror back what we are aiming for, so that it turns into our thoughts instead. It is a process that can truly be likened to the creation of mirror images.

If you have a mirror with an object in front of it, then you get a mirror image of the object. The object is not inside the mirror. Everything we see before our eyes constantly wants to bring about an actual structure within us. But we resist this. We keep our brain as it is. Because of this, the object is mirrored back and becomes the mental image. A table wants to make your very brain into a table but you do not allow this to happen. In consequence an image of the table arises in you. This act of rejection is the mirroring process. That is why, in our thought life, our thoughts are only shadow images of the external world. When it comes to our feelings, however, the situation is different. Try once to imagine absolutely accurately what is involved in feeling something. A round table feels different from one with corners. You feel the corners. The thought of this angular table does not affect you very much, whereas getting the feel of the corners is more painful than gently following the curve of a round table. When we feel, therefore, external forms come more to life within us than when we think.

This is an indication of the metamorphosis undergone by our element of soul and spirit when it comes into earthly existence from pre-earthly existence. But now what occurs when we go through the portal of death? Our world of thought is, so far as its strength is concerned, only the corpse of pre-earthly existence. It is of little significance. It disappears when we go through the portal of death, just as our mirror image disappears if we suddenly take away the mirror. So, in speaking of immortality, there is absolutely no point in reflecting on the earthly power of thought for it certainly does not accompany us through the portal of death. What does go through the portal of death with us is everything we have developed in the way of sympathy, of feeling and sensing towards earthly things. Our feeling of sympathy goes through the portal of death. Inasmuch as we have sympathy towards our environment, we develop the strength (see table) in the spiritual world to stand among the spiritual beings in the spiritual element of thought. Our sympathy, which our body keeps separate from our earthly environment, streams out now, after death, into our spiritual environment and unites with the spiritual thought element of the world into which we step on going through the portal of death.

Because we flow with our sympathy into the spiritual element of thought, we develop once again a kind of thought body, a living thought body which is ours for the time between death and our next birth. And the feeling of self we have on earth becomes a kind of ‘standing within’ other beings. Whilst we are on earth, our feeling of self only lets us know that we are within our body, but once we have passed through the portal of death we learn to know that we are in other beings, the beings of the higher hierarchies. And because we stand within spiritual beings we receive from them forces which lead us onwards on our course through life between death and a new birth. In this way our own being of forces develops. This is the metamorphosis of the element of spirit and soul which takes place when we pass through the portal of death.

Unlike our world of thought, our will does not disappear at death. It is the source of the content of our feelings of self. Imagine that you want something which satisfies you. This wanting in itself gives you something that satisfies you, it gives your feeling of self a particular nuance. If you have done something that does not satisfy you, this too gives your feeling of self a particular nuance. Our will is not only something that acts outwards. It also rays forcefully back into our inner being. We know what we are from what we can do. And this nuance of our feeling of self, this raying back into us of our will element, is something which we take into the spiritual world with us, together with our feeling of self. So we take our will—or rather the raying back of our will into our feeling of self—with us when we submerge ourselves in the beings of the higher hierarchies. And because we take with us this element, which has either strengthened or weakened our feeling of self, we find the force of our karma, our destiny.

Gaining an understanding of these things helps us to see what the human being really is. And we also learn to recognize certain symptoms which accompany earthly life. In earthly life fear certainly puts in an appearance here and there. But it must never be allowed to fill our soul entirely. It would be sad if this were to happen. But before we come down to earthly life our soul is indeed entirely filled with fear, and in that situation fear is what we need so that we really do descend into physical earthly life.

Our feeling of self, though, is something that must not be allowed to exceed more than a certain degree; indeed it really ought not to be felt independently at all in earthly life. Someone who develops his feeling of self with too much independence turns into a person who knows only himself. Our feeling of self is actually only with us during earthly life, so that we keep a hold on our body until we die, returning to it every morning after sleep. If we lacked this feeling of self during earthly life we would fail to return. But after death we need it when we become submerged in the world of spiritual beings, because without it we would all the time lose ourselves.

We do indeed submerge ourselves there in real spiritual beings. The earth, on the other hand, makes no such demands on us. If you go for a walk in the woods, you stay on the path, and the trees are to the left and right of you, and in front and behind. You see the trees but the trees do not expect you to enter into them—they do not expect you to become tree nymphs and submerge yourselves in them. But the spiritual beings of the higher hierarchies, whose world we enter after death—they do expect us to submerge ourselves in them. We have to become all of them. So if, on passing through the portal of death, we were to enter this spiritual world without our feeling of self, we would lose ourselves. We need our feeling of self there simply in order to maintain ourselves. And moral deeds we have done during earthly life, deeds which have justifiably enhanced our feeling of self—these protect us from losing ourselves after death.

These are thoughts and ideas which, from now on, ought to enter once again into human consciousness for the near future of earthly evolution. These thoughts and ideas simply flowed into mankind in earliest times, when understanding was still instinctively clairvoyant. Human beings used to have a strong feeling of what they had been before they descended into earthly life. This was strongly developed in primeval times. But hope of a life after death was less strongly developed in primeval times. This was something that was taken for granted. Today we are chiefly interested in what we might experience after we die. In primeval times, thousands of years ago, people were more concerned about their life prior to descending to the earth.

A time then came when clairvoyance, which had originally been instinctive, waned, and the intense connection of the soul with life before birth also waned. Then two spiritual streams sprang up which prepared what had now to develop in human civilization. We now have two clearly distinct streams which we have described from varying standpoints. Today we shall approach them from a particular standpoint which will also be a help to us in our considerations tomorrow and the next day.

Take earthly evolution prior to the Mystery of Golgotha. You find, spread over the earth, the heathen culture, and in a certain way separated from this, a culture which one could say was that of the Old Testament. What was particularly characteristic of this heathen culture? It contained a definite awareness of the fact that everything physical surrounding man contained a spiritual element. The heathen culture had a strong awareness of the nature of living thoughts which become transformed into dead thoughts. In the beings of the different kingdoms of nature, this culture saw everywhere the living element of which human thoughts were the dead counterpart. Heathen culture perceived the living thoughts of the cosmos and regarded man as belonging to these living thoughts of the cosmos.

One part of this heathen world that was particularly filled with life was that of the peoples of ancient Greece. You know that the idea of destiny was particularly strong in the world of these ancient Greek peoples. And—think of certain Greek dramas—this idea of destiny permeated human life with laws in the way the natural laws permeate nature. The ancient Greeks felt that they stood in life permeated with destiny, just as natural things stand permeated with the laws of nature. Destiny descended on human beings within this Greek outlook like a force of nature. This feeling was characteristic of all heathen cultures, but it was particularly marked among the Greeks. The heathen world saw spirit in all of nature. There was no specific knowledge of nature in the sense of the natural science we have today, but there was an all-embracing knowledge of nature. Where people saw nature, they spoke of the spirit. This was a science of nature which was, at the same time, a science of the spirit. The heathen peoples were less interested in the inner being of man. They looked on man from the outside as a being of nature. They could do this because they saw all the other natural things as being filled with a soul element too. They did not think of trees, plants, or clouds as soulless objects. So they could look at human beings from outside in a similar way and yet not think of them as being soulless. Filling all nature with soul in this way, the ancient heathen was able to regard human beings as natural creatures. Thus the ancient heathen world was something which contained from the start a spiritual element which inclined towards the world of spirit.

The creed which then ran its course in the Old Testament was the polar opposite of this. The Old Testament knew nature neither in the way we know it—I mean in the way we come to know it as we turn towards spiritual science—nor in the way the ancient heathen knew it. The Old Testament knew only a moral world order, and Jahve is the ruler of this moral world order; only what Jahve wills takes place. So in the world of the Old Testament the view arose as a matter of course that one must not make images of the soul and spirit element. The heathen world could never have come to such a view, for it saw images of the spirit in every tree and every plant. In the world of the Old Testament no images were seen, for everywhere the invisible, imageless spirit ruled.

We ought to see in the New Testament a coming together of these two spiritual streams. People have always given prominence to either one view or the other. Thus, for instance, the heathen element was always predominant where religion was more a matter of seeing the objects of religion. Pictures were made of spiritual beings, pictures copied from nature. In contrast, the Old Testament element developed wherever the newer scientific attitude arose with its tendency towards a lack of images. In many ways modern materialistic science contains an echo of the Old Testament, of the imageless Old Testament. Materialistic science strives for a clear distinction between the material element in which no trace of spirit is left, and the spiritual element which is supposed to live in the moral sphere only, and of which no image may be made, or which we may not be allowed to see in the earthly realm.

This particular characteristic which is prevalent in today's materialistic form of science is, actually, an Old Testament impulse which has come over to our time. Science has not yet become Christian. The science of materialism is fundamentally an Old Testament science. One of the main tasks as civilization progresses will be to overcome both streams and resolve them in a higher synthesis. We must understand that both the heathen stream and the Jewish stream are one-sided and that, in the way they still exercise an influence today, they need to be overcome.

Science will have to raise itself up to the spirit. Art, which contains much that is heathen, has made various attempts to become Christian but most of these attempts have fallen into luciferic and heathen ways. Art will have to lead to a Christian element. What we have today is but an echo of the heathen and the Old Testament elements. Our consciousness is not yet fully Christian. This is what we must particularly feel when we consider factually, as described by spiritual science, the way in which human beings pass through birth and death.