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The Evolution of Consciousness
GA 227

4. Dream Life

22 August 1923, Penmaenmawr

Between a man's waking life and his life in sleep — which yesterday I was able to picture for you at least in outline — there comes his dream life. It may have little significance for the immediate actualities of daily existence, but it has the greatest imaginable significance for a deeper knowledge of both world and man. This is not only because what a dream signifies must, in the Spiritual Science spoken of here, be fully recognised, so that the study of it may lead on to many other matters, but also because of the particular importance of dream life as a chink, shall we say, through which certain other worlds, different from the one experienced by human beings when awake, shine into this ordinary world. So it is that the puzzling elements in dream pictures often call attention both to other worlds, below or above the one normally accessible, and also give some indication of the nature of these worlds.

On the other hand it is extraordinarily difficult, from the standpoint of higher consciousness, to go deeply into the enigmas of dream life, for dreams have power to lead people into the greatest imaginable illusions. It is precisely when dreams are in question that people are inclined to go wrong over the relation of something illusory to the reality behind it. In this connection let us consider what I have said about sleep life and repeated lives on Earth.

An example of dream life, constantly recurring in one form or another, is this. We dream we have made something that, when awake, we never would have thought of making — something indeed outside the scope of anything we could have achieved in real life. We go on to dream that we cannot find this article we think we have made, and start frantically hunting for it.

Let us look at this example more closely. In the form I have described it figures in the dream life of everyone, with variations. But let us take a concrete instance. Let us say that a tailor, though a tailor only in a small way, dreams that he has made a ceremonial coat for a Minister of State. He feels quite satisfied with his work on the coat, which should now be lying ready. Suddenly, however, the mood of the dream changes and when he looks all round for the coat that has to be delivered, it is nowhere to be found.

Here you have a dream of something that could never happen to the dreamer, but of something he can very well imagine as highly desirable. He is only a small tailor for lowly folk, who never could order such a coat. But occasionally, in his ambitious day-dreams, he may have had the wish to make some high-rank garment; though perhaps incapable of it, he might still have cherished it as an ambition.

But what underlies all this? Something very real. When in sleep a man is out of his physical and etheric bodies with his Ego and astral body, he finds himself within the being who goes through repeated lives on Earth. What gives inner strength to the sleeping man, what above all is inwardly active in his being, is the Ego together with the astral body. These need not be limited to memories of experience in the life just over, but can go back to other lives on Earth. I am not theorising, but telling you of something rooted in reality, when I say: It may be that our dreamer once had something to do — let us say in an earlier, Roman incarnation — with an order for a certain ceremonial toga. He need not have been the tailor in this case; he may have been the servant, or perhaps even the friend, of a Roman statesman. And because at that time he had such a lively desire for his lord to appear before the world in the most dignified possible guise, destiny may have brought him to his present-day calling. For in human life generally, wishes, thoughts, have an extraordinary significance; and it is possible for the memory of what has been lived through in a former life on Earth to play into a man's soul and spirit, his Ego and astral body. Then, in the morning, when he dives down with his Ego and astral body into his etheric and physical bodies, a lingering memory of the splendid ceremonial toga comes up against the conceptions possible for the tailor in his present life — conceptions always there in his etheric body. Then what remains of the old Roman experience is checked; it has to accommodate itself to ideas which are limited to making garments for quite lowly people. Now the soul that sinks down in this way may find it very difficult to transpose into another key the feeling it has had about the splendid toga; it is hard to relate this to a picture of the terrible clothes the tailor is obliged to make. So the picture of the toga, encountering this obstacle, changes into a picture of a present-day official uniform; and only later, when the man is well down into his etheric and physical bodies is this picture lost.

So between falling asleep and waking we have our whole human life. We have to bring to bear on it all that as earthly beings we can conceive and think, and by this means try to unravel the strange forms taken by dreams. The great difficulty is to distinguish the immediate content of the dream, which may be sheer illusion, from the reality which lies behind it, for the reality may be something quite different. But anyone who gradually gets accustomed to finding his way among all the intricacies of dream life will finally see that we need not pay much attention to the pictures conjured up before the soul, for these pictures are shaped by the etheric body left behind in bed. This etheric body is the bearer of our thoughts and conceptions and these are absent from our real being during sleep. We have to separate the content of these conceptions from what I would call the dramatic course of the dream, and learn so to fix our attention on the dramatic element that it prompts questions such as: If I had this experience in waking life, would it give me immense pleasure? And, if I felt pleasure and had a sense of relief in this dream, was I heading in the dream for a catastrophe? Was I leaving some kind of exhibition and suddenly everything got into confusion — there was a crash and a disaster? Such questions must be given first place in the study of dreams — not the thought-content but the dramatic incidents.

Someone may dream he is climbing a mountain, and the going is becoming more and more arduous. Finally, he reaches a point where he can go no further; huge obstructions tower up in front of him. He feels as though they were something important hanging over his life. That is certainly a dream a man could have; one could enlarge on it. But either he or someone else may have another dream: he is entering a cave leading to some kind of mountain cavern. After passing the entrance, there is still a certain amount of light, but it gradually becomes darker, until he arrives at a place where he is not only in complete darkness but meets with such appalling conditions, including cold, that he can penetrate no further into the cave.

Here, you see, we have two dreams quite different from one another in content. From the dramatic standpoint both deal with an undertaking that begins well, and then runs into great difficulties, ending in an insurmountable obstacle. The pictures are quite different, the dramatic course is much the same. In the super-sensible world, as it were behind the scenes of life, both dreams can have the same basis. In both dreams the same thing can have affected the soul; the same thing can symbolise itself in a wide variety of picture-forms.

All this shows how we have to look for the key to a dream not — as is often done — by considering its content in an external way, but by studying its dramatic course and the effect it has on the dreamer's soul and spirit. Then, when our conceptual faculty has been strengthened by the exercises referred to in the past few days, we shall gradually progress from the illusory picture-world of the dream and be able to grasp through the dramatic element the true basis of all that we experience as super-sensible reality between going to sleep and waking.

Before speaking in detail — as I shall be doing — of the dream and its relation to the physical body of man and to his spiritual element, I should like to-day to describe how, through the dream world, he is found to belong to the Cosmos as a whole. We can see how in dreams the connection between single events in life is quite different from anything we experience when we are awake. We have just seen in the example given that in waking life things appear in a certain connection according to the laws holding good in the sense-world — a later event always follows an earlier one. The dream takes events that could happen in the sense-world and makes them chaotic. Everything becomes different; everything is broken up. All that is normally bound to the Earth by gravity, like man himself, is suddenly — in a dream — able to fly. A man will perform skilful flying feats without an aeroplane. And a mathematical problem, for instance, such as we may strain every nerve to solve in ordinary life, appears in a dream to be mere child’s play. The solution is probably forgotten on waking — well, that is a personal misfortune — but at any rate one gets the idea that the obstacles which hamper our thinking in daily life have disappeared. In effect, everything in daily life with definite connections loses them to a certain extent in dreams. If we want to picture what actually happens — or appears to happen — in a dream, we can imagine the following. Into a glass of water we put some kind of soluble salt in crystalline form, and watch it dissolve. We see how its clear-cut forms melt away, how they take on fantastic shapes, until all the salt is dissolved, and we are left with a glass of more or less homogenous fluid.

This is very like the kind of experience we have inwardly in dreams. The dream we have as we go to sleep and the dream we have just before waking both draw on the experiences of the day, break them up and give them all sorts of fantastic forms — at least we call them fantastic from the point of view of ordinary consciousness. The dissolving of a salt in a liquid is a good simile for the kind of thing that happens inwardly in a dream.

It will not be easy for those who have grown up in the world of present-day ideas to grasp without prejudice facts of this kind; for people to-day — especially those who regard themselves as scientific — know remarkably little about certain things. In truth I am not saying this because I like picking holes in science. That is not at all my intention. I value the scientific approach and should certainly never wish to see it replaced by the work of amateurs or dilettanti. Even from the standpoint of Spiritual Science the great progress, the strict truthfulness and trustworthiness, of science to-day, must be given full recognition. That is an understood thing. Nevertheless, the following has to be said.

When people to-day wish to know something, they turn to earthly objects and processes. They observe these and from their observations they work out laws of nature. They also make experiments to bring to light the secrets of nature, and the results of their experiments are further laws. Thus they come to laws of a certain type, and this they call science. Then they turn their gaze to the vastness of the heavens; they see — let us say — the wonderful spiral nebulae, where they see individual cosmic bodies emerging, and so on. To-day we photograph such things and see much more detail than telescopic observation can give. Now how do astronomers proceed to learn what is going on in those far celestial spaces? They turn to the laws of nature, laws founded on earthly conditions and earthly experiments, and then start speculating as to how, in conformity with those laws, a spiral nebula could have taken form in distant space. They form hypotheses and theories about the arising and passing away of worlds by treating facts discovered in their laboratories about manganese, oxygen, hydrogen, as laws that still hold good in heavenly spheres. When by such means a new substance is discovered, unconscious indications are sometimes given that science here is not on firm ground. Hydrogen has been found everywhere in the vastness of space, and helium, for example; and another substance that has been given a curious name, curious because it points to the confused thinking that comes in. It has been called nebulium. Thinking itself becomes nebulous here, for we find nebulium in company with helium and hydrogen. When people are so simple that they apply as laws of nature knowledge acquired in earthly laboratories, and indulge in speculation about what goes on outside in the wide realms of space, after the manner of the Swedish thinker Arrhenius [Svante August Arrhenius, a pioneer of modern physical chemistry; gained Nobel prize for his work on electrical conduction in dilute solutions. In one of his books, Das Werden der Welten, 1907 (English translation, Worlds in the Making, 1908), he suggested the name “nebulium” for a hypothetical gas represented by certain then unidentified lines in the spectra of gaseous nebulae. In 1927 it was shown that the lines are due to singly and doubly ionised atoms of oxygen.] — who has done untold harm in this connection — they are bound to fall from one error into another, if they are unable to consider without prejudice the following.

Again I should like to start with a comparison. From the history of science you will know that Newton, the English physicist and natural philosopher, established the theory of what is called gravitation — the effect of weight in universal space. He extended this law, illustrated in the ordinary falling of a stone attracted by the Earth, to the reciprocal relation between all bodies in the Cosmos. He stated also that the strength of gravity diminishes with distance. For any physicists who may be present I will remind you of the law — gravity decreases with the square of the distance. Thus if the distance doubles, gravity becomes four times weaker, and so on.

For such a force it is quite right to set up a law of this kind. But while we are bound to purely physical existence, it is impossible to think out this law far enough for universal application. Just imagine in the case of a cosmic body how the force of gravity must diminish with distance. It is strong at first and then grows weaker, still weaker, always weaker and weaker.

It is the same with the spreading out of light. As it spreads out from a given source, it becomes always weaker and weaker. This is recognised by scientists today. But they fail to recognise something else — that when they establish laws of nature in a laboratory, and then clothe them in ideas, the truth and content of these laws diminish as distance from the earth increases. When, therefore, a law is established on Earth for the combining of elements — oxygen, hydrogen or any others — and if a law of gravity is set up for the earth, then, as one goes out into cosmic space, the efficacy of this law will also decrease. If here in my laboratory I set up a law of nature and then apply it to a spiral nebula in far-off cosmic space, I am doing just the same as if I were to light a candle and then believe that if I could project its rays through cosmic space on to the spiral nebula, the candle would give the same amount of light out there. I am making precisely the same mistake if I believe that a finding I establish in my laboratory is valid in the far reaches of the Cosmos. So arises the widely prevalent mistaken idea that what is discovered quite rightly to be a natural law in a laboratory down here on earth can be applied also throughout the vast spaces of the heavens.

Now man himself is not exempt from the laws we encounter when earthly laws, such as those of gravity or of light, no longer hold good. If anyone wished to discover a set of laws other than our laws of nature, he would have to journey further and further away from the Earth; and to find such laws in a more intimate, human way, he goes to sleep. When awake, we are in the sphere where the laws of nature hold sway and in all that we do we are subject to them. For example, we decide to lift a hand or arm, and the chemico-physical processes taking place in the muscles, the mechanical play of the bony structure, are governed by the laws discovered in earthly laboratories, or by other means of observation. But our soul goes out in sleep from our physical and etheric bodies, and enters a world not subject to the laws of nature. That is why dreams are a mockery of those laws. We enter an entirely different world — a world to which we grow accustomed in sleep, just as when, awake in our physical body, we accustom ourselves to the world of the senses. This different world is not governed by our laws of nature; it has laws of its own. We dive into this world every night on going out of our physical and etheric bodies. Dreams are a power which forcibly opposes nature's laws.

While I am dreaming, the dream itself shows me that I am living in a world opposed to these laws, a world which refuses to be subject to them. While going to sleep in the evening and moving out of my physical and etheric bodies, I am still living half under the laws of nature, although I am already entering the world where they cease to be valid. Hence arises the confusion in the dream between natural laws and super-sensible laws; and it is the same while we are waking up again.

Thus we can say that each time we go to sleep we sink into, a world where the laws of nature are not valid; and each time we wake we leave that world to re-enter a world subject to those laws. If we are to imagine the actual process, it is like this. Picture the dream-world as a sea in which you are living, and assume that in the morning you wake out of the waves of dream-life — it is as if you arose out of the surge of those waves. You move from the realm of super-sensible law into the realm of intellectual, material law. And it seems to you as though everything you see in sharp outlines on waking were born out of the fluid and the volatile. Suppose you are looking, say, at a window. If you first dream of the window, it will indeed appear as though born out of something flowing, something indefinite perhaps, imbued with all manner of fiery flames. So the window rises up, and if you had been dreaming vividly you would realise how the whole sharply outlined world of our ordinary consciousness is born out of this amorphous background — as if out of the sea arose waves which then took on the forms of the everyday world.

Here we come to a point where — if as present-day men we are investigating these things anew — we feel reverent wonder at the dreamlike imaginations of earlier humanity. As I have said during these days, if we look back to the imaginations experienced even in waking life by the souls of those early peoples, imaginations embodied in their myths, legends and sayings of the gods, which all passed before them in so hazy a way compared with our clear perception of nature — when we look back on all this with the help of what can now be discovered quite independently of those old dreamy imaginations, we are filled with veneration and wonder. And if in this sphere we search again for truth, it echoes down from ancient Greece in a word which shows that the Greeks still retained some knowledge of these things. They said to themselves: “Something underlies the shaping of the world, something out of which all definite forms arise, but it is accessible only when we leave behind the world of the senses while we are asleep and dreaming.” The Greeks called this something, “Chaos”. All speculation, all abstract inquiry into the nature of this chaos, has been fruitless, but men to-day come near to it when it plays into their dreams. Yet in mediaeval times there was still some knowledge of a super-sensible, scarcely material substance lying behind all material substance, for a so-called quintessence, a fifth mode of being, was spoken of together with the four elements: earth, water, air, fire — and quintessence.

Or we find something that recalls the mediaeval vision when the poet with his intuitive perception says that the world is woven out of dreams. The Greeks would have said: The world is woven out of the chaos you experience when you leave the sense-world and are free of the body. Hence, to understand what the Greeks meant by “chaos” we must turn not to the material but to the super-sensible world.

When from the point of view of what is revealed to us on the path I have been describing here — the path leading through Imagination, Inspiration, Intuition, to higher knowledge and super-sensible worlds — when we follow all that goes on during our dreaming, sleeping and re-awaking, then we see that a man sleeps himself out of his daytime state into his life of sleep, out of which dreams may arise in a way that is chaotically vague, but also inwardly consistent. Behind, in bed, the physical body is left with the etheric body which is interwoven with the physical, giving it life, form, and power of growth. This twofold entity is left in the bed.

But another twofold entity goes out during sleep into a form of super-sensible existence which I might also describe to you in relation still to dream existence. For the higher knowledge given by Imagination, Inspiration, Intuition, it presents itself in the following way.

When a man goes out from his physical body and etheric body, his individuality resides in his astral body. As I said before, there is no need to be held up by words. We must have words, but we could just as well call the astral body something else. I am about to describe something concerning the astral body, and we shall see that the name is not important but rather the concepts that can be attached to it. Now, this astral body is made up of processes. Something happens in a man which develops out of his physical and etheric bodies, and it is these happenings which represent the astral body; whereas our concepts, our thoughts, are left behind in the etheric body.

Within the astral body there is spiritualised light, and cosmic warmth permeated by the force of the capacity for love. All this is present in the astral body, and at the time of waking it dives down into the etheric body. There it is held up and appears as the weaving, the action, of the dream. It may also appear in this way when, freeing itself from the physical and etheric bodies, it leaves the world of concepts. Thus it belongs to the nature of the astral body to carry us out from our physical and etheric bodies.

As I have already said, the astral body is that part of our being which actually opposes the laws of nature. From morning to night, from waking till going to sleep, we are subject to these laws — laws which in relation to space and time we can grasp through mathematics. When we sleep, however, we extricate ourselves both from the laws of nature and from the laws of mathematics — from the latter laws because our astral body has nothing to do with the abstractions of three-dimensional space. It has its own mathematics, following a straight line in one dimension only. I shall have to speak again about this question of dimensions. It is truly the astral body that releases us from the laws of nature, by which we are fettered between waking and sleeping; it is also the astral body that bears us into a completely different world, the super-sensible world.

To describe this process schematically we must say: When we are awake we carry on our life in the sphere where the laws of nature hold good; but on going to sleep we go out from there with our astral body. While we are living here in our physical and etheric bodies, our astral body, as a member of our being, is subject to the laws of nature, and in all its movements and functions lives entirely under those laws. On leaving the physical and etheric bodies, the astral body enters the super-sensible world and is subject to super-sensible laws, which are completely different. The astral body, too, is changed. While we are awake it is, as it were, in the straitjacket of nature's laws. Then it goes to sleep, which means that it leaves the physical and etheric bodies and moves in a world whose laws are in tune with its own freedom. Now what is this world? It is a world giving freedom of movement to the Ego-organisation which, together with the astral body, is then outside the physical and etheric bodies. Every night the Ego becomes free in the world to which the astral body carries it — free to carry out its own will in this world where the laws of nature no longer prevail.

In the time between going to sleep and waking, when our astral body is no longer subject to these laws, and we are in a world where the force of gravity, the law of energy, in fact all laws of that kind have ceased to be valid, the way is clear for those moral impulses which down here, during waking life, can find expression only under the constraint of the world of the senses and its ordering. Between sleeping and waking the Ego lives in a world where the moral law has the same force and power as the laws of nature have down here. And in that world where in sleep it is set free from laws of nature, the Ego can prepare itself for what it will have to be doing after death. In coming lectures we shall be speaking about this road from death to a new birth.

Between going to sleep and waking, the Ego can prepare in picture form, in Imaginations — which are not concepts, but strong impulses — for what it will have to strive for in the later reality of the spirit. When the Ego has gone through the gate of death, moral laws take the place that the laws of nature hold in the physical world of the senses.

Thus we can say that the Ego, even as a quite small spiritual seed, works upon what it has to carry through after death in the world of the spirit. Here, in what the Ego works upon in picture form during sleep, are indications of what we shall be able to carry over — not through any laws of nature but by reason of the spiritual world — from this life on Earth to the next. The causal effects of the moral impulses we have absorbed can be followed up here only when we have disposed ourselves in inward obedience to them. Just as the Ego during sleep works upon the moral impulses, and continues its work between death and a new birth, so these impulses acquire the force that otherwise the laws of nature possess, and in the next human body, which we shall bear in our following life on earth, they clothe themselves in our moral disposition, in our temperament, in the whole trend of our character — all wrongly ascribed to heredity. This has to be worked upon during sleep by the Ego when, freed by the astral body from the world of nature, it enters a purely spiritual world. Thus we see how in sleep a man prepares and grows familiar with his own future.

What, then, do the dreams show us? I would put it like this. During sleep too the Ego is active, but what it does is shown us by dreams in illusory pictures. In earthly life we are unable to take in what is already being woven during sleep for our next life on Earth. At the beginning of this lecture I explained how the dream, in the same confused way in which it presents the experiences of a past incarnation, also shows, in a chaotic form, what is prepared as a seed for humanity in future times.

Hence the right interpretation of dreams leads us to recognise that they are like a window through which we have only to look in the right way — a window into the super-sensible world. Behind this window the Ego is actively weaving, and this weaving goes on from one earthly life to the next. When we can interpret a dream rightly, then, through this window from the transitory world in which we live as earthly men, we already perceive that everlasting world, that eternity, to which in our true inner being we belong.