By Rudolf Steiner
Volume II, Lecture 14 (GA 236)
Dornach, June 22, 1924
The study of problems connected with karma is by no means easy and discussion of anything that has to do with this subject entails — or ought at any rate to entail — a sense of deep responsibility. Such study is in truth a matter of penetrating into the most profound relationships of existence, for within the sphere of karma, and the course it takes, lie those processes which are the basis of the other phenomena of world-existence, even of the phenomena of nature. Without insight into the course which karma takes in the world and in the evolution of humanity it is quite impossible to understand why external nature is displayed before us in the form in which we behold it.
We have been studying examples of how karma may take its course. These examples were carefully chosen by me in order that now, when we shall try to make the transition to the study of individual karma, we can link on to them. To begin with I will give a general introduction, because friends are present to-day who have not attended the lectures on karma given during the last few weeks and months.
It is very essential to realise the importance and seriousness of everything connected with our Christmas Foundation Meeting. We must be deeply conscious of the fact that this Christmas Meeting constituted an entirely new foundation of the Anthroposophical Society. And there must be no returning to old customs, to old habits of thought in relation to the fundamental changes that have come about in the method of handling the truths of Anthroposophy. The contents of the lectures given here since Christmas should not really be passed on to any audience otherwise than by reading an exact transcript of what has been said here. A free exposition of this particular subject matter is not possible at the present stage. If such a course were proposed I should have to take exception to it. These difficult and weighty matters entail grave consideration of every word and every sentence spoken here, in order that the limits within which the statements are made shall be absolutely clear. If anyone proposes to communicate the subject-matter to an audience in some different way, he must first get in touch with me and enquire whether this would be possible. For in future a united spirit must prevail through the whole Anthroposophical Movement. Otherwise we shall fall into the same mistakes that were made by a number of members who thought it their duty to elaborate anthroposophical truths in terms of modern science, and we have experienced to the full how much harm was done to the Movement by what was then “achieved” — I say the word with inverted commas!
These conditions do not, of course, apply to entirely private communications; but even in such cases the person who makes them must be fully alive to his responsibility. For the moment things are spoken of in the way we are speaking of them here, there begins, in the fullest meaning of the words, a sense of responsibility in regard to communications from the spiritual world. It is difficult to speak of such matters here in view of the limitations of our present organisation which do not, however, admit of any other arrangement. It is difficult to speak about these matters because such lectures ought really to be given only to listeners who attend the series from beginning to end. Understanding will inevitably be difficult for anyone who comes in later. If, however, friends are fully conscious that such difficulties exist, a certain balance can be established. Provided this consciousness is present, then all will be well. But it is not always there ... Nor will it ever be possible to think in the right way about these matters — which are among the most delicate in our movement — if, as is still the case even since the Christmas Foundation, the same habits persist — jealousies, mutual rancour and the like. A certain attitude of mind and earnestness are absolutely essential for anthroposophical development.
Before I assumed the office of President [of the Anthroposophical Society] I spoke of such matters as a teacher. But now I must speak of them in such a way that they actually represent what proceeds from the Executive at the Goetheanum and must come to life within the Anthroposophical Society. I think that the meaning of what I have said will be understood. I have spoken as I have in order that the necessary earnestness may prevail in regard to lectures of the kind now being given.
Karma is something that is in direct operation through the whole course of person's life, but lies concealed in the unconscious and subconscious regions of the human soul.
Now a biography should evoke experiences of a very definite kind in the reader if he follows the narrative with genuine, warm-hearted interest. If I were to describe what the reading of a biography can awaken in us, it is this. Whoever reads a biography with alert attention will find description after description of events and phenomena which are not really in keeping with an uninterrupted flow of narrative. When reading a biography we have before us a picture of the life of a person. But truth to tell it is not only the facts experienced in his waking consciousness that play into his life. Time takes its course thus: First day, then night; second day, then night; third day, then again night, and so on. But in ordinary consciousness we are aware only of what has happened during the days — unless we write an anthroposophical biography which, in the circumstances of present-day civilisation, is an utter impossibility. Biographies give an account of what has happened during the day, during the hours of waking consciousness of the one whose biography is being written.
But what actually shapes life, gives it form and implants into it the impulses that are connected with destiny — this is not visible in the events of the days but comes into operation between the days, in the spiritual world, when man himself is in the spiritual world from the time of falling asleep to that of waking. These impulses are at work in life but are not indicated in biographical narratives. To what, then, does a biography amount? In regard to the life of a person it is as if we were to hang Raphael's Sistine Madonna on a wall and paste strips of white paper over certain places so that only portions of the surface remain visible. Anyone looking at the picture would be bound to feel that there must be something more to be seen if it is to be a complete whole.
Everybody who reads a biography dispassionately ought in truth to feel this. In view of the conditions of culture to-day, however, it can be indicated only by means of style, but that should be done. The whole style and manner of writing should indicate that impulses are flowing all the time into the life of a person from impersonal levels of the life of soul and spirit. If that is achieved we shall gradually come to feel that in a biography karma itself is speaking. It would of course be pure abstraction to narrate some scene in a person's life and then add: This comes from a previous earthly life; at that time it took such and such a form and now it takes this. Such a way of speaking would be sheer abstraction, although a great many people would probably find it highly sensational! Actually, however, it would contain no higher spirituality than is to be found in the conventional biographies written in our time, for everything that is produced in this area to-day is so much philistinism.
It is possible to cultivate the attitude that is needed by learning, to love the diaries or daily notes written by individuals. If such diaries are not read (or written), thoughtlessly ... some diaries, of course, are very humdrum and prosaic, but even so, as he follows the transitions from one day to another, a person who is not a philistine will be aware of feelings and perceptions which lead on to an apprehension of karma, of the connections of destiny.
I have known people — and their number is by no means small — who out of blissful ignorance thought themselves capable of writing a biography of Goethe. But the fact is that the more deeply one looks into the connections of existence, into the karmic connections of existence, the more do the difficulties increase.
Try to recall what I have been telling you here recently, and especially the lecture in which I urged you expressly to understand me with your hearts rather than with your intellects, and when I should speak again, to receive that too with your hearts. Remember the emphasis I laid upon this. For the fact of the matter is that an intellectual approach cannot lead to a real apprehension of karma. Anyone who is not inwardly moved by many of the karmic connections disclosed here shows that any real perception of karma is beyond him and that he is incapable of pressing on to the perception of individual karmic connections.
But let us try now to find the transition from the studies hitherto pursued, to what can lead us to an event in the life of a person so that we can say that this is a definite form of manifestation of karma.
When I recall all that I experienced in relation to Goethe during the seven years I was working in the Goethe and Schiller Archives in Weimar — in writin my biography I am having to review it all in thought — I say to myself in reference to karma that one of the most difficult problems in any presentation of the subject is to describe the experiences through which Goethe passed between the years 1782 and 1800. To write this chapter in a biography of Goethe is one of the most difficult of all tasks.
Now we must learn to perceive, even if it has to be with higher, occult vision, how and where karma is working in the life of a person.
Between the moment of falling asleep and that of waking, man lives in his astral body and his I, outside his physical and etheric bodies. With his I and astral body he lives within the spiritual world. Again, it is one of the most difficult of all investigations that can be undertaken in spiritual science to make an accurate survey of what happens between falling asleep and waking. I shall describe it in outline to-day.
If you review all that has been brought before you in Anthroposophy, you will feel that it gives the impression of being comprehensible; but the discovery of it is a matter of extraordinary difficulty in anthroposophical investigation.
If I were to draw a kind of sketch of the human being, this outline or boundary-line indicates his physical body. In this physical body is the etheric body, within that the astral body, and within that again, the ‘I’.
Now think of man as he falls asleep. The physical and etheric bodies lie in the bed. What happens to the astral body and the I? The astral body and the I go out through the head and, in reality, through the whole senses-system, that is to say, they pass out through the whole body but mainly through the head, and are then outside. Thus, leaving aside the I, we can say: At the moment of falling asleep the astral body leaves the human being through the head. Actually, the astral body leaves him through everything that is a sense organ, but because the sense organs are concentrated chiefly in the head, the main part of the astral body goes out through the head. But as the sense of warmth, for example, is distributed over the whole body, and the sense of pressure too, weaker radiations also take place, in every direction. The whole process, however, gives the impression that at the moment of falling asleep the astral body passes out through the head.
The I, which — speaking in terms of space — is rather more extensive than the astral body and not entirely enclosed within it, also passes. — Such is the human being falling asleep.
Now let us turn to him as he wakes. When we observe him at the time of waking we find that the astral body approaches through the limbs, actually through the tips of the fingers and toes first, and then gradually spreads through the limbs. Thus at the moment of waking the astral body comes in from the opposite side. So too, the I, only now the I does not envelop the astral body but on returning is enclosed by the astral body.
We wake from sleep and as we do so the astral body and the I stream into us through the tips of the fingers and toes. In order to fill the human being entirely, as far as his head, they really need the whole day; and when they have reached the head the moment has come for them to go out again. You will realise from this that the I and astral body are in constant, perpetual flow.
At this point you may raise the question: Yes, but if that is so, half an hour after waking from sleep we have in us only a small part of our astral body (and here I include the I as well) as far as the wrists above and as far as the ankles below. And that is actually so. — If somebody wakes at 7 o'clock — I will assume him to be a person of decorum and stays awake, then at 7.30 his astral body will have reached about as far as his ankles and possibly his wrists. And so it goes on, slowly, until the evening.
You may say: But how is it, then, that we wake up as a whole person? We certainly feel that we wake as a whole person, all at once ... yet properly speaking, only our fingers and toes were awake at 7.15, and at mid-day most people are within the astral body only as if they are sitting in a hip bath. This is really so.
The question that arises here must be answered by pointing to the fact that in the spiritual realm other laws prevail than in the physical world. In the physical world a body is exactly where it is — nowhere else. In the spiritual world it is not so. In the spiritual world our astral body works through the whole space taken up by the body, even when it has actually occupied only the fingers and toes. That is the strange fact. Even when the astral body is only approaching it can already be felt throughout the body. But its reality, its substantiality spreads out only slowly.
Understanding of this phenomenon is of the greatest importance, above all in enabling a true judgement to be formed of the human organisation in health and disease. For think of it: throughout the hours of sleep, in what lies in the bed and is not man in the full sense but only the physical and etheric bodies, a kind of plant-mineral activity is going on, albeit within a human organisation. And this activity can be either normal or abnormal, healthy or unhealthy.
It is precisely in the morning hours, when the astral body begins to rise upwards from the limbs, that the unhealthy phenomena become manifest to a special faculty of perception. Therefore in forming a judgement of illnesses it is of the utmost importance to know what feelings the patient has when he wakes from sleep, when his astral body is forcing upwards what is unhealthy within him.
And now let us proceed. — On falling asleep, our I and astral body pass out of our physical and etheric bodies into the spiritual world. The after-effects of what we have experienced during the day still remain. But thoughts do not remain in the form in which we harboured them, neither do they remain in the form of words. Nothing of this remains. Remnants, vestiges, still adhere to the astral body when it leaves, but no more than that.
Immediately the astral body has passed out of the human being, karma begins to take shape, although at first in the form of pictures only. Karma begins to take shape. What we have done through the day, whether good or bad, viewing it to begin with in accordance with customary ideas — directly we fall asleep, all this begins immediately to be translated, integrated, into the stream of karmic development.
This process continues for a time after we fall asleep and overshadows everything else that happens to us during sleep. As sleep continues, however, a person begins to dive down into the experiences undergone in his preceding earthly life (see arrows in diagram), then into those of the life before that, and so on, backwards. And when the time of awakening comes he has reached and passed his first, most distant earthly life as an individual. Then he reaches the state of being when he was not yet separate from the cosmos, a state of existence in reference to which one cannot speak of an earthly life as an individual. Only when he has reached thus far can he return again into his physical and etheric organisation.
Still another question arises here, moreover a very important one. What happens when we have a very short sleep, for example an afternoon nap? Or indeed when we have a brief forty winks during a lecture, but really do go to sleep; the whole thing may last only two or three minutes, perhaps only a minute or half a minute. What happens then? If the sleep were real, we were in the spiritual world during that half minute.
The truth, my dear friends, is that for this short nap even during a lecture, the same holds good as for the all-night sleep of a lie-a-bed — I mean, of course, a human lie-a-bed! As a matter of fact, whenever a person falls asleep, even for a brief moment, the whole sleep is a unity and the astral body is an unconscious prophet; it surveys the whole sleep up to the point of waking ... in perspective, of course. What is remote may lack clarity, as when a short-sighted person looks down an avenue and does not see the trees at the farther end of it. In the same way the astral body may be short-sighted, figuratively speaking, in the subconscious. Its perception does not reach the point where the individual earth-lives begin. But broadly speaking, the fact is that even during the briefest sleep we rush with tremendous, lightning-like speed through all our earthly lives. This is a matter of extraordinary significance. Naturally it is all very hazy; but if somebody falls asleep during a lecture, then the lecturer or those who share his power of observation have it in front of them. Think of it: the whole of earth-evolution, together with what the sleeper has experienced in previous earthly lives! When somebody falls asleep during a lecture everything lacks clarity because it happens with such terrific rapidity; one thing merges quickly into another, but it is there, nevertheless. From this you will understand that karma is perpetually present, inscribed as it were in the Cosmic-Chronicle. And every time a person falls asleep he has opportunity to approach his karma. This is one of the great secrets of existence.
One who can survey these things from the vantage-point of Initiation Science, with unimpeded vision, looks with deep reverence, a reverence of knowledge, upon what can live in human memory, upon the memory-thoughts that can arise in the human soul. These memories tell only of the earth-life now being undergone, yet within them lives a human I. And did these memories not exist — I have spoken of this previously — then the human I would not be fully present. Deep down within us there is something that can ever and again evoke these memories.
But inasmuch as we are in communication with the external world through our senses and our mind, we form ideas of this external world, ideas that give us pictures of what is outside.
Drawing this diagrammatically, we say: here (a) man looks out into the world. Pictures arise in his thoughts, representing to him what he perceives in the external world. Here (b) man lives within his body. Thoughts well up, containing their own store of memories. Of our store of memories we say that it presents, as faithfully as our organisation of spirit-soul-body allows, what we have experienced in this present life on earth.
But now let us think about what lies on the other side, outside man. We do not as a rule reflect upon the fact that what we see there is but a section of earth-existence, the surrounding earth and sky. If a person is born in Danzig, his eyes and other senses perceive different processes and phenomena from those of one born in Hamburg or in Constantinople. We can say: The world presents ‘sections’ of itself in infinite variety; for no two human beings are these sections identical, even though the two may have been born at the same place and die at the same place, living their lives in close proximity. The section of the world presented to the one is completely different from that presented to the other.
Let us be quite clear what this means. The world presents to us a certain part of itself and this we see. The rest we never see. It is extremely important to reflect upon how the world presents to a human being a sum-total of impressions upon which the experiences of his life depend. This will mean very little to a dull thinker, but one who thinks deeply will not put it lightly aside. As he ponders it all he will say: ‘This fact is so puzzling that I am at a loss how to put it into words. — The cosmos, the world, presents to each human being only a portion of itself, a more or less coherent portion; therefore in this sense the cosmos particularises human beings. How am I to put this into words? In speaking of it as abstractly as this I am merely stating a bare fact which does not really amount to anything. I must be able to express the facts clearly, to formulate them. How am I to do so?’
Now we shall arrive at a way of formulating these facts if we again consider memory. What is it that wells up from the depths when we recall something in memory? What is it that rises up? It is what our own human being has experienced. Our real human being is somewhere deep down where we cannot grasp it. It streams up in our memory-thoughts, streams up into our consciousness from our inmost being. What is it that streams into us from outside? Man himself is still so minute when all this is welling up from within him and everything in the cosmos out yonder is so vast, of such immensity! But these ‘sections’ of the cosmos are always entering into man. And the fact of the matter is that here too, thoughts arise.
We know that our memory-thoughts derive from what we have actually experienced. But thoughts also come into us from outside, just as memory-thoughts come from below. Here below (see diagram) is our own human being; and here, outside, is the whole world of the Hierarchies.
An impression of greatness and majesty comes to us when with Initiation-Science we begin to realise that these ‘sections’ of cosmic intelligence are outspread around us and that behind all this that makes an impression upon us from outside live the Hierarchies, as truly as our own individual being lives behind the memories that well up from within.
It all depends upon the vividness of some experience whether or not we can call it forth again in memory, whether or not there is any reason why one thought rises up from our store of memories, and another, or all the others, lie dormant. And it is the same here. Those who learn to know the true facts realise that at one time a Being from the Hierarchy of the Angeloi is appearing, at another, a Being from the Hierarchy of the Exusiai, and so forth.
Thus we arrive at the following formula. — During our earthly existence we behold that which it pleases the Spirit-Beings to reveal to us.
Inasmuch as a particular portion of the world is revealed to us during our life on earth, we learn to recognise that it is just this portion of the infinite range of possibilities contained in the cosmos that certain Beings of the Hierarchies have selected in order to disclose it to us from our birth until our death. One human being has this portion revealed to him, another that. Exactly what is revealed to individuals lies in the sphere of the deliberations of the Hierarchies.
The Hierarchies remember, just as man remembers. What is it that provides the basis for the memory of the Hierarchies? They look back upon our past earthly lives — that is what gives them the basis for their memory. And according to what they behold in these past lives they bring the appropriate section of the cosmos before our soul. In what we see of the world — even in that lies karma, karma as apportioned by the world of the Hierarchies.
Within: remembrance of the present brief life in our human memory. Out yonder: memory of the Hierarchies of all that human beings have ever done. Memory-thoughts rise up from within; memory-thoughts from the world of the Hierarchies enter in the form of what a person beholds of the cosmos ... and human karma takes shape. This thought is startling in its clarity, for it teaches us that the whole cosmos, working in the service of the Hierarchies, is related to man. Viewed in this aspect, to what end is the cosmos there? In order that the gods may have the means to bring to man the primary form of his karma. Why are there stars, why clouds, why sun and moon? Why are there animals on the earth, why plants, stones, rivers, streams, why rocks and mountains, and all that is in the cosmos around us? It is there as a reservoir upon which the gods may draw in order to bring to our vision the primary form of our karma, according to the deeds we have wrought.
Thus are we placed into the world and thus can we relate ourselves to the secrets of our existence.
And so we shall be able to consider the various forms of karma. In the first place it is karma in its cosmic aspect that is being brought before us, but it will come to be more and more individual. We shall discover how karma works in its inmost depths.
Thanks to the Rudolf Steiner Archive
Continued in the next issue of SCR