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The Threshold of the Spiritual World
GA 17

II. Concerning Knowledge of the Spiritual World

Comprehension of the facts stated by spiritual science is made easier, if in the ordinary life of the soul attention be given to that which gives rise to ideas capable of such enlargement and transformation that they gradually reach as far as the events and beings of the spiritual world. And unless this path be followed with patience we shall easily be tempted to picture the spiritual world too much like the physical world of the senses. Indeed, unless we follow this path we shall not be able to form a just conception of what is actually spiritual, and of its relation to man.

Spiritual events and beings crowd in upon man when he has prepared his soul to perceive them. The way in which they announce themselves is absolutely different from the way in which physical beings and facts do so. But an idea of this entirely different way of manifesting may be gained if the process of remembering be called to mind. Let us suppose we had an experience some time ago. At a definite moment—from one cause or another—this experience emerges from the depths of psychic life. We know that what so emerges corresponds to an experience, and we relate it to that experience. But at the moment of remembrance there is nothing of the experience present but only its image in the memory. Now let us imagine an image rising up in the soul in the same way as does a picture of memory yet expressing, not something previously experienced but something unfamiliar to the soul. If we do this, we have formed an idea of the way in which the spiritual world first makes its appearance in the soul, when the latter is sufficiently prepared for it.

Because this is so, one who is not sufficiently conversant with the conditions of the spiritual world will be perpetually bringing forward the objection that all “presumed” spiritual experiences are nothing else than more or less indistinct images of the memory, and that the soul merely does not recognise them as such and therefore takes them to be manifestations of a spiritual world. Now it should on no account be denied that it is difficult to distinguish between illusions and realities in this sphere. Many people who believe they have manifestations from a spiritual world are certainly only occupied with their own memories, which they do not recognise as such. In order to see quite clearly in this respect, it is necessary to be informed of those numerous sources from which illusion may arise. We may have seen, for instance, something only once and for a moment, seen it so hastily that the impression did not penetrate completely into the consciousness; and later—perhaps in a quite different form—it may appear as a vivid picture. We possibly feel convinced that we never had anything to do with the matter before, and that we have had a genuine inspiration.

This and many other things make it quite comprehensible that the statements made by those who have supersensible sight appear extremely questionable to those unacquainted with the special nature of spiritual science. But one who pays careful heed to all that is said in my books, The Way of Initiation and Initiation and its Results, about the development of spiritual sight, will be put in the way of being able to distinguish between illusion and truth in this sphere.

In this connection, however, the following should also be noted. It is true that spiritual experiences appear in the first place as pictures. It is thus that they rise out of the depths of the soul that is prepared for them. It is then a question of gaining the right relation to these pictures. They only have value for supersensible perception when, by the way in which they present themselves, they show that they are not to be taken for the facts themselves. Directly they are so taken, they are worth little more than ordinary dreams. They must present themselves to us like the letters of an alphabet. We do not look at the shape of the letters, but read in them what it is desired to express by their means. Just as something written does not call upon us to describe the form of the letters, so the images forming the content of supersensible sight do not call upon us to apprehend them as anything but images ; but by their own character they force us to look right through their pictured form and direct our soul's gaze to that which, as a supersensible event or being, is endeavouring to express itself through them.

As little as a person on hearing that a letter contains news previously unknown can deny the possibility of this fact on account of the well-known character of the letters of the alphabet of which it is composed, so little can anybody object to clairvoyant pictures being formed out of well-known objects taken from ordinary life.

It is certainly true, up to a certain point, that the pictures are borrowed from ordinary life, but what is so borrowed is not the important thing to genuine clairvoyant consciousness. The important point is what lies behind and expresses itself through the pictures.

The soul must, of course, first prepare itself for seeing such images appear within its spiritual horizon; but, besides this, it must carefully cultivate the feeling of not stopping short at merely seeing them, but of relating them in the right way to the facts of the supersensible world. It may be said positively that for true clairvoyance there is required not only the capacity for beholding a world of images in oneself, but another faculty as well, which may be compared with reading in the physical world.

The supersensible world is at first to be looked upon as something lying wholly outside man's ordinary consciousness, which has no means of penetrating into that world. The powers of the soul, strengthened by meditation, first bring it into contact with the supersensible world. By means of these the pictures that have been described emerge from the wave of the soul's life. As pictures these are woven entirely by the soul itself. And the materials of which they are made are actually the forces which the soul has acquired for itself in the physical world. The fabric of the pictures is really nothing else but what may be characterised as memory. The clearer we make this to ourselves, in order to understand clairvoyant consciousness, the better. We shall in that case clearly understand that they are but images. And we shall also be cultivating a right understanding of the way in which the images are to be related to the supersensible world. Through the pictures we shall learn to read in the supersensible world. The impressions of the physical world naturally bring us much nearer to the beings and events of that world than the images seen supersensibly bring us to the supersensible world. We might even say that these images are at first like a curtain put up by the soul between it and the supersensible world, when it feels itself to be in contact with that world.

It is a question of becoming gradually familiar with the way in which supersensible things are experienced. Through experience we learn by degrees to read the images, that is, to interpret them correctly. In more important supersensible experiences, their very nature shows that we cannot here have to do with mere pictures of memory from ordinary life. It is indeed true that in this connection many absurd things are asserted by people who have been convinced of certain supersensible facts, or at any rate think they have been. Many people, for instance, when convinced of the truth of reincarnation, at once connect the pictures which arise in their soul with experiences of a former earth-life; but one should always be suspicious when these pictures seem to point to previous earth-lives which are similar in one respect or another to the present one, or which make their appearance in such a way that the present life can, by reasoning, be plausibly explained from the supposed earlier lives. When, in the course of genuine supersensible experience, the true impression of a former earth-life, or of several such lives, appears, it generally happens that the former life or lives are such that we could never have fashioned them or have desired to fashion them in thought by any amount of thinking back from the present life, or out of any wishes and efforts in connection with it. We may, for instance, receive an impression of our former earth existence at some moment during our present life when it is quite impossible to acquire certain faculties, which we had during that former life. So far from its being the case that images appear for the more important spiritual experiences which might be memories of ordinary life, the pictures for these are generally such as we should not have thought of at all in ordinary experience. This tendency increases with real impressions the more purely supersensible the worlds become from which they issue. Thus it is often quite impossible to form images from ordinary life explanatory of the existence between birth and the preceding death. We may find out that in the spiritual life we have developed affection for people and things in complete contrast with the corresponding inclinations we are developing in the present life on earth; and we learn that in our earth-life we have often been driven to be fond of something which in the previous spiritual existence (between death and rebirth) we have rejected and avoided. Any memory of this existence which might be imagined to result from ordinary physical experiences must therefore necessarily be different from the impression we receive through real perception in the spiritual world.

One who is not familiar with spiritual science will certainly make further objections against things being in reality as they have just been described. He will be able to say, for instance: “You are indeed fond of something, but human nature is complicated, and secret antipathy is mixed up with every affection. This antipathy to the thing referred to comes up in you at a particular moment. You think it is a prenatal experience, whereas it may perhaps be quite naturally explained from the subconscious psychic facts of the case.” In general there is nothing to be said against such an objection; and in many cases it may be quite correct. Knowledge of clairvoyant consciousness is not easily gained, nor is it without the possibility of objections. But just as it is true that a supposed clairvoyant may be mistaken and regard a subconscious fact as an experience of prenatal spirit-life, so it is also true that a training in spiritual science leads to a knowledge of self which embraces subconscious states of soul and is able to free itself from any illusions with regard to them. Here it need only be asserted that that supersensible knowledge alone is true which at the moment of cognition is able to distinguish what originates from supersensible worlds from that which has merely been shaped by individual imagination. This faculty of discernment becomes so developed by familiarity with supersensible worlds, that perception may in this sphere be as certainly distinguished from imagination, as in the physical world hot iron which is touched with the finger may be distinguished from imaginary hot iron.