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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Stages of Higher Knowledge
GA 12

2. Imagination

It is impossible to make real progress in penetrating to the higher worlds without going through the stage of imaginative knowledge. This by no means implies that during occult training the human being is compelled to remain for a certain time at the imaginative stage as though it were something like a class to be attended at school. In certain instances this may be necessary, but by no means as a general rule. It depends entirely upon what the occult student has experienced before entering upon his occult training. It will be shown in the course of this discussion that the spiritual environment of the occult student is important in this regard, and that depending on his orientation to this spiritual environment diverse methods have been instituted for treading the path of knowledge.

It can be of the utmost importance to know what follows if one is preparing to undergo occult training. Not merely as an interesting theory does this come into consideration, but as something by which manifold practical points of view can be gained if one is to succeed on the “path to higher knowledge.”

It is often said by those striving toward a higher development: I wish to perfect myself spiritually; I wish to develop the “higher man” within me; but I have no desire for the manifestations of the “astral world.” This is understandable when one takes into consideration the descriptions of the astral world found in books dealing with such things. There, to be sure, appearances and beings are spoken of that bring all sorts of dangers to men. It will be said that under the influence of such beings a man may easily suffer harm to his moral disposition and mental health. It will be brought home to the reader that in these regions the wall dividing “the good from the evil path” is as “a spider's web” in thickness, and that the plunge into immeasurable abysses, the fall into utter depravity, lies all too near.—It is, of course, impossible simply to contradict such assertions. Yet the standpoint taken in many cases as to treading the occult path is in no way a correct one. The only reasonable point of view is the one that says, rather, that no one should be deterred from traveling the way of higher knowledge because of dangers, but that in every case strict care must be taken to weather these dangers. It may happen that one who asks an occult teacher's guidance will be counselled to postpone actual training for a time, and first undergo certain experiences of ordinary life or learn things that can be learned in the physical world. It will then be the task of the occult teacher to give the seeker the right instructions for accumulating such experiences and learning such things. In most cases, by far, the occult teacher will be found to proceed in this way. If then the student now is sufficiently attentive to what happens to him, after he has come into contact with the occult teacher, he will be able to observe many things. He will find that henceforth things happen to him as if “by accident,” and that he can observe things that he would never have been exposed to without this link with the occult teacher. If the student does not notice this and becomes impatient, it is because he has not paid sufficient attention to what has happened to him. It is not to be believed that the influence of the teacher upon the student will show itself in distinctly visible “tricks of magic.” This influence is rather an intimate matter, and he who would explore its nature and essence without having first reached a certain stage of occult training will surely err. The student injures himself in every case in which he becomes impatient over the waiting time prescribed for him. His advance will be none the less rapid on this account. On the contrary, his progress would be slowed down if he were to begin too soon the training he often impatiently awaits.

If the student allows the waiting time or the other advice and hints given to him by the occult teacher to influence him rightly, he will be actually preparing himself to hold his ground before certain trials and dangers that approach him when he encounters the unavoidable stage of Imagination. This stage is unavoidable for this reason: Everyone who seeks communication with the higher world without having passed through it can only do so unconsciously and is condemned to grope in the dark. One can acquire some dim sense of this higher world without Imagination; one can without it certainly attain to a sense of being united with “one's God” or “one's higher self,” but one cannot in this way come to a true knowledge in full consciousness and bright, luminous clarity. Therefore, all talk about coming to terms with the “inferior spiritual worlds” (the astral and the devachanic) being unnecessary, that the one thing needful is for man to awaken the “God within him,” is no more than illusion.—Whoever is satisfied with this approach should not be interfered with in his strivings, and the occultist would not so interfere. But true occultism has nothing at all to do with such strivings. It makes no demand upon anybody to become a pupil. But in him who seeks its discipline it will awaken no mere dim perception of himself as “godlike,” but will also try to open his spiritual eyes to what actually exists in higher worlds.

Of course, the “divine self” is contained in every man. It is in every created being. In stone, plant, and animal, the “divine self” is also contained and active. But it does not so much matter to feel and know this in general as to enter into a living connection with the manifestations of this “divine self.” Just as one can mutter over and over again that this world contains the “divine self” veiled within it and know nothing thereby of the physical world, so does he who seeks the “divine kingdom of spirits” only in blurred and indeterminate generalities know nothing of higher worlds. One should open the eyes and behold the revelation of deity in the things of the physical world, in the stone, in the plant, and not merely dream away all these as only “appearances” with the true form of God somehow “concealed” behind them. No, God reveals Himself in His creations and whoever would know God must learn to know the true essence of these creations. Therefore one must also learn to behold what really goes on and is living in the higher worlds, if one would know the “divine.” The consciousness that the “God-man” dwells within one can at most provide a beginning. But this beginning experienced in the right way, rises to an actual lift into the higher worlds. But this is possible only for one in whom the spiritual “senses” have been developed. Any other view arrives only at the standpoint, “I will stay as I am and attain only what is possible for me to attain in this way.” But the aim of the occultist is to become a different human being, in order to behold and experience other things than the customary ones.

It is precisely for this purpose that passage through imaginative knowledge is necessary. It has already been said that this stage of Imagination need not be conceived of as a school class that must be gone through. It is to be understood that, particularly in present-day life, there are persons who bring with them pre-conditions enabling the occult teacher to call forth in them inspired and intuitive knowledge simultaneously, or nearly so, with the imaginative. But it is not at all to be understood that any person could be spared passage through the imaginative stage.

The cause of danger inherent in imaginative knowledge has already been pointed out in my book, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment. This cause is that upon entrance into that world the human being in a certain sense loses the ground under his feet. The source of his security in the physical world is for the moment to all appearances entirely lost. Upon perception of something in the physical world it is asked: Whence comes this perception? This is mostly done unconsciously. But it is quite “unconsciously” clear that the causes of the perception are objects “outside in space.” Colours, sounds, odours go out from these objects. Colours would not be seen floating free in space, nor sounds heard, without consciousness arising as to the objects to which these colours pertain as qualities, and from which these tones come. This consciousness that objects and entities cause physical perceptions gives to them, and thereby to man himself, his security and sure hold. Anyone having perceptions without outward causes is spoken of as abnormal and morbid. Such causeless perceptions are called illusions, hallucinations, visions.

Now first of all, viewed entirely outwardly, the whole imaginative world consists of such hallucinations, visions, and illusions. It has been pointed out [in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds] how, through occult training, such visions, etc., are artificially produced. By focusing the consciousness on a seed or a dying plant, certain forms, which to begin with are nothing but hallucinations, are conjured up before the soul. The “flame formation,” spoken of as appearing in the soul through observation of a plant or the like, and that after a time completely separates itself from the plant, is, outwardly viewed, to be regarded on the same level as an hallucination. It is the same in occult training when the imaginative world is entered. What was customarily regarded as going forth from things “outside in space,” or “clinging to them” as properties—colours, sounds, odors, etc.,—now float free in space. Perceptions break loose from all outer things and swim free in space, or fly around in it. Yet it is known with strict accuracy that the things before us have not brought forth these perceptions, but rather that they are self-induced by the human being. So it is that one thinks one has “lost the ground under one's feet.” In ordinary life in the physical world those inner picturings that do not proceed from things must be guarded against and are without ground or foundation. But to call forth imaginative knowledge, the prime essential is to have colours, sounds, odours, etc., fully torn loose from all things, “floating free in space.”

The next step towards imaginative knowledge is to find a new “ground and foundation” for the picturings that are thus adrift. This must occur in that other world that is now about to be revealed. New things and entities take possessions of these inner picturings. In the physical world, for instance, the color blue stays on a cornflower. In the imaginative world likewise it must not remain “free floating.” It streams, as it were, towards some being, and whereas it floated unattached at first, it now becomes the expression of a being. Something speaks through it that the observer can only perceive in the imaginative world, and so these “free-floating” picturings gather around definite centers. It becomes clear that beings are speaking to us through them. And, as in the physical world there are corporeal things and beings to which colours, sounds, odors, and so forth, are attached or from which they are derived, so now spiritual beings speak out through them. These “spiritual beings” are, in fact, always there; they hover continually around human beings. But they cannot reveal themselves to them if the occasion is not given them to do so. They are given this opportunity when one calls forth the capacity to let sounds, colours, and so forth, arise before one's soul, even when occasioned by no physical object.

The “spiritual facts and beings” are entirely different from the objects and entities of the physical world. In ordinary speech it is not easy to find an expression that even remotely describes this difference. Perhaps it can best be approached by saying that in the imaginative world everything speaks to man as if it were directly intelligent, whereas in the physical world intelligence can only reveal itself in a roundabout way through corporeality. Exactly this makes for mobility and freedom in the imaginative world—that the medium of the outer object is missing, and the spiritual lives itself out with full immediacy in the free-floating tones, colours, etc.

Now the basis of danger threatening the human being in this world lies in the fact that he perceives the manifestations of “spiritual beings”, but not the beings themselves. This is the case as long as he remains only in the imaginative world and rises no higher. Only Inspiration and intuition lead him gradually to the beings themselves.—If, however, the occult teacher should awaken these faculties prematurely, without having thoroughly introduced the pupil to the realm of Imagination, the higher world would have for him only a shadowy and phantasmal existence. The whole glorious fullness of the pictures in which it must reveal itself when one really enters into it, would be lost. Herein lies the reason why the occult student needs a “guide.”

For the student, the imaginative world is at first only a “picture world” of which mostly he does not know the meaning. But the occult teacher knows to what things and entities these pictures pertain in a still higher world. If the student has confidence in him, he can know that later connections will be revealed to him, which he cannot yet penetrate. In the physical world, the objects in space were themselves his guides. He was in a position to prove the accuracy of his inner picturings of them. The corporeal reality is the “rock” upon which all hallucinations and illusions must be shattered. This rock disappears into an abyss when the imaginative world is entered. Therefore the teacher must serve as another such rock. From what he is able to offer, the student must sense the reality of the new world. From this it can be judged what great confidence in the teacher must exist in any occult training worthy of the name. When he can no longer believe in the teacher, it is exactly the same in this higher world as if in the physical world everything on which his faith in the reality of his perceptions had been built were suddenly taken from him.

Apart from this fact, there is yet another through which the human being might be thrown into confusion if he were to enter the imaginative world without guidance, for the occult student has in the first place to learn to know himself as distinct from all other spiritual beings. In physical life man has feelings, desires, longings, passions, ideas, and so forth. True, these are all caused by things and beings of the outer world, but the human being knows quite definitely that they form his inner world, and he distinguishes them from the objects of the outer world as what is happening within his soul. But as soon as the imaginative sense is awakened, this ease of differentiation completely ceases. His own feelings, ideas, passions, and so forth, literally step outside him and take on form, color and tone. He stands before them now as before wholly strange objects and beings in the physical world. It will be understood that the confusion can become complete if it is remembered what has been said in the chapter, “Some Results of Initiation,” in my book, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment. The way in which the imaginative world appears to the observer is described there. All appears there reversed as in a reflected image. What streams out from man appears as if it were coming toward him from outside. A wish that he cherishes changes into a shape—for example, into the form of some fantastic looking animal, or again into an entity resembling a human being. This appears to assail him, to make an attack on him, or to cause him to do this or that. So it can happen that the human being appears to himself as surrounded by a wholly fantastic, often charming and seductive, often also horrible, world of fluttering forms. In reality these are nothing other than his thoughts, wishes, and passions, transformed into images.—It would be a great error to believe it easy to distinguish between this self transformed into images on the one hand and the real spiritual world on the other. At first it is downright impossible for the student to make this distinction. For the identical picture can come from some spiritual being that speaks to men or from something in the interior of the soul, and if one's development is unduly precipitate at this point, there is danger of never learning to separate the two in an orderly fashion. The greatest caution is to be the rule in this regard.—Now the confusion will be still greater in that the wishes and desires of the soul clothe themselves in images of an exactly opposite character from what they really are. It may be assumed, for instance, that vanity clothes itself in a picture in this way. It may appear as a charming shape promising the most wonderful things if its dictates are carried out. Its pronouncements seem to set goals thoroughly good and worth striving for; if followed, they plunge one into moral and other kinds of ruin. Conversely, a good soul quality can clothe itself in unprepossessing garb. At this point only the real knower can differentiate, and only a personality unsusceptible to weakening in respect to a right aim is steady in face of the seductive artifices of his own soul's imagery.—From these considerations it will be recognised how necessary is the guidance of a teacher who, with a sure sense, makes the pupil attentive to what in this realm is phantasm and what is truth. There is no need to believe that the teacher must always stand just behind the pupil. The presence of the teacher close to the occult student in space is not what matters most. Certainly there is the moment when such spatial presence is desirable, and also when it is absolutely necessary. But on the other hand, the occult teacher finds means of remaining in touch with the pupil even when spatially far removed. Besides, it must be observed that much of what takes place between teacher and pupil in this sphere when they meet can go on working often for months and perhaps for years afterward. But there is one thing that must surely destroy the necessary link between teacher and pupil. This happens if the pupil loses confidence in the teacher.—It is particularly bad if this bond of confidence is broken before the pupil has learned to distinguish the illusory reflections of his own soul from true reality.

Now it could perhaps at this point be argued that if a connection with the teacher occurs in this way, the occult student loses all freedom and independence. He gives himself, so to speak, wholly into the hands of the teacher. This is in truth, however, not at all the case. The various methods of occult training certainly differ from one another with respect to this dependence upon the teacher. This dependence can be required to be a greater or a lesser one. It is relatively greatest in the method that was followed by the Oriental occultists, and even today is taught by them as their own. This dependence is already proportionately less in the so-called Christian initiation, and, properly speaking, its complete omission comes on the path of knowledge that, since the fourteenth century, has come to be advanced by the so-called Rosicrucian occult schools. On this path the teacher can by no means be disregarded; that is impossible. But all dependence on him ceases. How this is possible will be presented in the continuation of these thoughts hereafter. Therein we shall explain precisely how these three paths of knowledge differ: the oriental, the Christian, and the Rosicrucian. In the Rosicrucian approach there is nothing at all upsetting in any way to a modern man's sense of freedom. It will also be described in this continuation how one person or another as an occult student, even in present-day Europe, may travel, not the Rosicrucian, but the Oriental path, or the old Christian; although today the Rosicrucian is the most natural. This way, as will be seen in due course, is not at all unchristian. A man can go this way without endangering his Christianity, as can also he who supposes himself to stand at the pinnacle of the modern scientific world-conception.

But perhaps one other explanation is needed. One might feel tempted to ask whether the occult student could not be spared going through the delusions of his own soul. But if this happened, he would never attain to that independent discernment so desirable for him. For by no other means can the singular nature of the imaginative world be so well grasped as by the observation of one's own soul. To begin with, man knows the inner life of his soul from one side. He is immersed in it, and this is just what the occult student has to learn—not only to look at things from outside, but to observe them as if he himself were within all of them. If his own thought world now meets him as something foreign, and he already knows a thing from one side, he can still learn to know it from another. He must himself become to a certain extent the first example of such knowledge. Here in the physical world he is accustomed to something quite different. Here he looks upon all other things only from outside, but he experiences himself only from the inside. As long as he remains in the physical world, he can never see behind the surface of things. He can never go outside himself, “slip out of his skin,” as it were, to observe himself from outside. This objective observation of himself is literally his first obligation in occult training, this helps him learn also to look beneath the surface of outer facts and beings.