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Rudolph Steiner’s Philosophy of Life and Death
WHILE engaged as a tutor for a mentally backward child, Rudolph Steiner studied its inner life. He was able to do this through being able to observe clearly things though not by physical sense organs. This clairvoyance, he says, gave him entrance into the soul life of the child. He found that mental retardation, showing as physical malformation also, was due to an unbalance in the moral qualities of the soul. Working with the child and aiding it inwardly and outwardly, the child reached normalcy. In adulthood, the once-backward child became a doctor. As an example of what can be done with a child who is diagnosed by experts as mentally backwards, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNZVV4Ciccg
As a child, Steiner clearly experienced a non-physical world and beings as real to him as the physical world of his body. At first he could not reconcile this spiritual world with his experience of the physical, or with the education he received. Over the years, however, through constant attempts to understand modern science, while not denying his spiritual awareness, he found a unity.
In his early years, his spiritual experience had existed as something apart from his physical life. But through 40 years of constant search, contact with Goethe’s writings, and a self-imposed discipline of directing his attention to the physical world, he broke through to a vision of the spiritual reality permeating physical existence. The inner and the outer were then united in a common reality, not a duality. Only then, after so many years of discipline and search, did he begin to teach. In a huge number of lectures and books, covering the whole compass of existence from child education to farming, from past history to development of spiritual sight, Steiner gave his teachings.
In such books as Theosophy, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds, and Life Between Death and Rebirth, he gives his observations on man’s past, his life and his death. Because his descriptions of death are so detailed, they have been given here as well as could be done in such a small compass.
Steiner says that man has three levels of being the physical body, the soul and the spirit. The physical body is permanently under process of change. Its keynote is impermanence, and between its birth and its passing away stretch a continuous process of change.
At death it is no longer conscious in the same way as in life, or even at birth. This consciousness, that is absent at death, and undeveloped or unformulated at birth, is the soul, our individual awareness. Just as the body feeds upon matter in the form of food, and thus gradually builds up a defined physical body, so the soul feeds upon the sense impressions and experiences gained through the body. With them it builds up a defined ‘body’ of perception or self-awareness. The sense impressions are in themselves impermanent. As soon as the smell of cooking bread is removed, the impression has gone. But the soul faculty of memory gives a certain permanency to one’s physical existence.
Before the soul or body can be properly understood, one has to grasp an idea of the spirit. As can be seen from the very casual analysis of the soul above, it experiences and is rooted in the transitory world of the body through the senses. Yet if it only partook of the body, we would have no enduring personality, but wander from one sense impression to another, and be moved hither and thither by these. But an element of permanence penetrates these impressions in the form of memory, thought and understanding. Through these a person can gain something that is more durable. Through many sense impressions regarding physical existence, mankind have built up an understanding of gravity, physics, medicine, music and religion. Even without sense impressions, man can live in these thoughts, which can be passed onto other men and women. Such are the things the soul builds its ‘body’ with, but it does so only through the influence of permanency introduced into it by the spirit. If the keynote of the body is impermanence, the keynote of soul is balance, and that of the spirit changelessness. Through the influence of the spirit, the soul brings understanding and some permanency to the ever-changing sense impressions. And just as the soul feeds on sense impressions, so the spirit feeds on soul realisations, and extends them into universal consciousness and applicability. There is also a flow from spirit to body, for the chaotic mineral substances gain a measure of permanency in form and organisation through the power of spirit expressing through consciousness. The human will can also act from its feelings and thoughts, thus metamorphosing the physical world.
The body gains form by repeatedly eating substance. The soul gains definition of consciousness by repeated daily experiences of sensory impressions, and feeding on ideas, feelings and actions given in books or other cultural products. The Spirit self defines its own realm by feeding upon the higher experiences and realisations of the soul, through repeated earth lives. These past lives are not remembered easily because the new soul that developed in the new body had no past connections and has a new brain. Such memories of the past can only be attained by a deep awareness of the spirit.
We can gain a clearer idea of Spirit if we observe certain dreams or meditations. The images and emotions, worldly or personal concepts grasped by our soul, in some dreams or meditations, are suddenly transformed into a universal truth. For instance, the experience of fatherhood can be transformed into a realisation of a general principle that permeates all living things. The personal is thus transformed into the universal and timeless. The supernatural or cosmic thus enters into the mundane daily events of our life. This is the work of the spirit. The organs of perception in the body are the senses, in the soul they are attributes such as patience, morals, understanding, and in the Spirit its universal realisations.
In sleep and death, consciousness gradually withdraws from the physical into its own centre, rather like a snail withdrawing into its shell. At death, Steiner says, the influence of soul and spirit are disconnected from the body. It is left with only its own forces, and breaks up due to lack of a unifying and enduring influence. The Spirit is no longer immersed in the physical world through the soul, but it is still locked to the soul world through the soul. The soul may be saturated with physical concepts, desires and impulses, which as they are, cannot be integrated into the spiritual ‘body’, just as food, without digestion cannot integrate with our physical body.
Usually the first thing experienced at death is a vivid re-experiencing of one’s whole life in reverse order. These memories, Steiner states, are only experienced in this way when the formative energies of our being are separated from their action upon the matter of our body. Occasionally, he say, a temporary separation is brought about by a shock, a bad fall, or electric shock, and the person then has the same experience. Bennet, writing about his experiences in Subud, tells how he was able to actually enter into his wife’s experience of her past memories as she died. Some Gurus of the East, such as Ramana, say they help their disciples by giving them strength as they face these memories. But in fact it has also been seen that some ordinary people deeply share the death experiences of those they are with,
The essence of a lifetime is thus extracted. Now begins what is for most people a purifying experience. In life we can choose to act from the direction or impulse given us by our whole being, or spirit: or we can choose to act from impulses arising from just one aspect of self, such as the body, sexual desire, intellect, emotion etc. Steiner points out that the desire to eat, for instance, is basically an urge arising from the Spirit, as it wishes to take part in physical experience. But frequently we extend this urge and eat just for the pleasure of tasting, or being in company, through insecurity and so on. This also applies, of course, to sexuality, emotions and thinking. If our activities had arisen purely out of spiritual impulse, we would experience no purification. However, we have built into our soul nature, many longings and desires that can only be fulfilled through the body, which are out of harmony with the spirit. There is thus experienced a period of burning desires; as these longings consume themselves in their own fire. During this time, one lives again through memories of life, but only those that were out of harmony with one’s innermost nature. Not only does one remember such deeds and emotions, but also experiences them as happening to oneself. Thus pain given to others, destruction wrought in the world, loneliness and fear sown, are now gone through personally. As with all these experiences, many people go through them during life, and are thus already cleansed.
In succession, similar cleansings occur in regard to one’s likes and dislikes, the idea of body and its form being oneself, and other connections with corporeal life. Steiner says that suicides particularly suffer such inner reactions.
In the body, our relationships with friends, family and strangers, is coloured by our emotions, angers, wisdom and so on. After death, our relationships with dead family and friends is seen to be much more influenced by these things.
As the negative aspects of self are burnt out, there opens depth upon depth of entrance into other beings. From within begins to emerge the flow of direct knowledge and love that we blocked by our dislikes, prejudices and desires. As the ideas of self-being a physical form drops away, as’ the realisation that lasting pleasure arises from within, and is not dependent upon physical objects or activities dawns, one begins to become and to see others as beings of light and tones. These streaming colours and sounds, one gradually realises, are not separate or distinct from all else. They begin to be seen as flowing from greater beings, or a greater being, than oneself, and flowing through all. But through one’s own activities, loves, and thinking, one has woven these tones and colours in a unique fashion. Barriers of separation between others and ourselves melt away, and real union and love exists at this level. We can then, Steiner says, ‘live in each other without that separation which all companionship must experience in the physical world.
What Steiner is presenting in these descriptions, is the detailed activity of the spirit withdrawing into itself the fruits of experience gathered in the body. The difference between sleep and death is seen to be that in sleep, the process is frequently interfered with by fresh bundles of waking physical experience. In death, there is an uninterrupted withdrawal into Self. As can be seen, this consists of a gradual gathering of all the fruits – memories – a sifting and cleansing of them, and then a transmuting them into the universal and formless life of the Spirit. Steiner does not say this, but from other sources it seems that only inasmuch as we have built into conscious waking life, some experience of the spirit, can this be a conscious thing.
So far, what has been done is, Steiner says, all part of the soul world. With the achievement of experiencing oneself and others as beings of light and tone, there comes now an entrance into the lowest levels of the spiritual world. What had been a vision of tones and colours, is now seen to be ordered and enclosed by the archetypes, the non-physical moulds of Spirit. Here we break through the outer appearance of sound and colour to the underlying intelligence, power and love, in their creative moulds. These are the gods. Steiner tries to arouse in us an understanding of this by asking us to have before us the image of a physical and alive person. We must then imagine the actual physical matter of the person disappearing, leaving a vacuum in space. We must then imagine we are seeing all the exchanges of energy, flow of sensation, motivating forces, moving and flowing through the body, there apparent in the space the physical body, occupied. In this way, he says, we have a concept of the archetypal forms we meet in this level of the spiritual world. We meet the building blocks of all forms, all plants, all creatures, all mental and artistic creations here. This is the most formed, the most material level of spirit.
The second level of Spirit is akin to, not forms, but the blood flowing through the body. The archetypal energies are unified by one life flowing through all. The experience of this unifying life is the second level. In the third level is that of unified feeling.
Steiner points out that in fact, there are no levels in the soul or Spirit experience. There are only finer more rarefied aspects of our one being. They are spoken of as levels simply because the more refined levels do not appear to consciousness until we have matured through the others. Talking about the unifying life in the second level, Steiner says, ‘It is there the living Unity which is present in everything. Of this also only a reflection appears to man during earthly life. And this reflection expresses itself in every form of reverence that a man pays to the whole, to the Unity and Harmony of the Universe.’
He goes on to say, ‘While in the first region, one is in company with those souls with whom one has been linked by the closest ties during the preceding physical life, in the second region one enters the domain of all those with whom one felt oneself to be united in a wider sense: through a common reverence through a common religious confession, and so on,’ But one is not torn from intimate contact with one’s family by entrance into the other contacts. They are simply additions to what already exist. We do not ‘enter’ these regions, but attain in ourselves the capacity to perceive that which previously we could not see.
The third region of spirit is where we became aware of the drives that in life have led us to give ourselves to our fellows. One here is immersed in a communal feeling. ‘All that a person has carried out in his life on earth in the service of the community, in selfless devotion to his fellow men, will bear fruit here.’
Through these regions of experience, a soul is gradually seeing the fruits of its life in wider and wider contexts. Slowly the soul sees itself as it relates to the universe as a whole. In the fourth region, there confronts the soul, what it has gathered of the universal creative ideas and impulses. Works of art, scientific discoveries, music, architecture, have universal and eternal appeal, only inasmuch as a man or woman embodies these universal creative forces in their individual work. But such creative impulse can also be in regard to parenthood, farming, literature, or even washing dishes, as brother Lawrence proved. He brought the eternal into kitchen work.
When we come to the fifth region, we come to what is frequently called, ‘the Self.’ Here we find the matrix, not of our personal karma, but of our eternal selfhood, the divine individual we could become. It is the awareness and impulse behind all the many earth lives, and is the essence of all these lives, yet not them. This it is that often appears to us as our guardian angel or Christ or a great spiritual being. Here is the archetype, the architectural plan, for our real self, our maturity in God. When we come to this region we see how well or badly we have realised these eternal attributes of our eternal selfhood in our physical life. We gain a view of the many past lives, and how we have again and again sought to become this being that we potentially are. A summary of the past, and a plan for the future comes into being when we measure the fruits of our life against our Self. These fruits are also seen in the light of the eternal wisdom, love and power, shining through the Self. Due to the fact the Self dies to its realm, and is nailed to matter, suffering the loss of awareness of existence in the divine, life after life, that our soul may achieve eternal life, it has a Christ like love, patience and gentleness. Here too we meet those great beings of all nations, religions and times who have trod the path before us. If we remain conscious at this stage, the wisdom and experience of these saints and masters, comes to us as fully as we can receive it.
In the sixth region, one sees how our life has accorded not only with our own Self, but with the ‘true being of the world’. We see ourselves as we exist, in or out of harmony with that world consciousness, that essence of all beings, sometimes called the Christ, or Krishna. Here is the judging, the self judging, of the ‘quick and the dead.’
And finally, in this withdrawal, the seventh region is reached, ‘quick or dead’, asleep or awake to the highest in us. For some are asleep at this level.
‘The man stands here’ says Steiner, ‘in the presence of the “Life-kernels”, which have been transplanted from higher worlds into the three (body, soul, spirit) bodies which have been described, in order that in them they may fulfil their tasks.’ These ‘tasks’, expressing through the self, mediated by the soul, and materialised by the body, usually motivate us unconsciously through our body organs. In this seventh region, if consciousness remains, we know ourselves as the whole cosmos of sun, moon, planets, and stars; as all beings, creatures and kingdoms. When we look at these through our physical eyes, we are looking at our own wholeness. The ‘Life kernel’ is the doorway to other ‘cosmic beings’. ‘The life between death and a new birth,’ Steiner writes, ‘is really a living through the world of stars: but this means, through the spirit of the world of stars,’ not the physical stars.
Having made this ascent to the innermost of its nature, the essence of the whole cosmos, there now comes for most of us, a return to a fresh physical experience.
There awakens a ‘desire’ or direction, to perfect one’s own being and that of the earth. ‘Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven,’ is an impulse from this region. Depending upon what fruits were brought to each region, this descent enables certain things, qualities or strengths to be ‘claimed’ from each level of our being. A new spiritual ‘seed’ or ‘germ’ is fashioned which will play its part in fashioning our body. The essence of the future personality chooses the hereditary line and its parents. Steiner says the parents provide a seed bed of physical substance, impregnated with their own characteristics of body and psyche. At conception, the material substance is broken down into the germinal level of chaos, in which all physical form is dissolved. The spirit ‘germ’ of the new being takes hold of this.
At birth the ‘germ’ of the future personality and body, is clothed with physical substance drawn from the parents, along with inherited temperamental qualities. Working with these as materials is the essence of the past life and death experience. This spiritual impulse, takes the ‘model’ given by the parents, and works into it the pattern it brings from its central experience. So there comes into being, through life and death, another life upon the earth.
Just as there was a reliving of life at death, so just prior to birth there is a reliving of death. ‘He sees a tableau which this time displays all the hindrances he must remove, if his evolution is to make further progress. And what he sees becomes the starting point of forces that he must carry with him into a new life.