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Reincarnation and Karma
Their Significance in Modern Culture
GA 135

3. Knowledge of reincarnation and karma through thought-exercises

20 February 1912, Stuttgart

When we observe how life takes its course around us, how it throws its waves into our inner life, into everything we are destined to feel, to suffer or to delight in during our present existence on the earth, we can think of several groups or kinds of experiences.

As regards our own faculties and talents, we find, to begin with, that when we succeed in something or other, we may say: being what we are, it is quite natural and understandable that we should succeed in this or that case. But certain failures, perhaps just those that must be called misfortune and calamity,—may also become intelligible when viewed in the whole setting of our nature.

In such cases we may not, perhaps, always be able to prove exactly how this or that failure is connected with our own shortcomings in one direction or another. But when we are obliged to say of ourselves in a general way: In many respects you were a superficial character in your present life, so it is understandable that in certain circumstances you were bound to fail—then we may not immediately perceive the connection between the failure and the shortcomings, but generally speaking we shall realise that if we have been frivolous and superficial, success cannot always be at our finger-tips.

From what has been said you may think that some kind of causal connection could have been evident between what inevitably happened and your faculties or incompetencies. But there are many things in life where, however conscientiously we set to work, we are not able at once to connect success or failure with these faculties or shortcomings; how we ourselves were at fault or why we deserved success, remains a mystery. In short, when thinking more of our inner life we shall be able to distinguish two groups of experiences: in the case of the one group we are aware of the causes of our successes and failures; in the case of the second group we shall not be able to detect any such connection, and that we failed in one particular instance and succeeded in another will seem to be more or less chance. To begin with, we will bear in mind that there is ample evidence in life of this latter group of facts and experiences, and will return to it later.

In contrast to what has just been said, we can think more about our destiny in outer life. There again, two groups of facts will have to be kept in mind. There are cases where it is inwardly clear to us that in connection with events that befall us—not, therefore, those we ourselves initiated—we did certain things and consequently are to blame for these happenings. But of another group of experiences we shall be very liable to say that we can see no connection whatever with what we resolved, what we intended. These are events of which it is usually said that they broke in upon our life as if by chance; they seem to have no connection whatever with anything we ourselves have brought about.

It is this second group of experiences in their relation to our inner life that we shall now consider, that is to say, those happenings where we are unable to perceive any direct or immediate connection with our faculties and shortcomings—outer events, therefore, which we call chance events, of which we cannot at the outset perceive how they could have been brought about by any preceding factor. By way of test, a kind of experiment can be made with these two groups of experiences. The experiment entails no obligations; it is a question merely of putting to the test what will now be characterised.

The experiment can take the following form.—We ask ourselves: How would it be if we were to build up in thought a kind of imaginary human being, saying of him just those things between which we can see no connection by means of our own faculties; we endow this imaginary man with the qualities and faculties which have led, in our own case, to these incomprehensible happenings. We there imagine a man possessing faculties of such a kind that he will inevitably succeed or fail in matters where we cannot say the same in connection with our own shortcomings or faculties. We imagine him as one who has quite deliberately brought about the events which seem to have come into our life by chance.

Simple examples can serve as the starting-point here. Suppose a tile from a roof has fallen upon and injured our shoulders. We shall be inclined to attribute this to chance. But to begin with as an experiment, we now build up in thought an imaginary man who acts in the following strange way. He climbs on a roof, quickly loosens a tile, but only to the point where it still has a certain hold; then he runs quickly to the ground so that when the tile has become quite detached, it falls on his shoulders. The same can be done in the case of all events which seem to have come into our life by chance. We build up an imaginary man who is guilty of or brings about all those things of which in ordinary life we cannot see how they are connected with us.

Such procedure may seem at first to be nothing but a play of fancy. No obligation is incurred by it, but one remarkable thing emerges. When we have imagined such a man with the qualities referred to, he makes a very memorable impression upon us. We cannot get rid of the picture we have thus created in thought; although the picture seems so artificial, it fascinates us, gives the impression that it must, after all, have something to do with ourselves. The feeling we have of this imaginary thought-man accounts for this. If we steep ourselves in this picture it will most certainly not leave us free. A remarkable process then takes shape within our soul, an inner process that is enacted in human beings all the time. We may think of something, make a resolution; for this we need something we once knew, and we use all sorts of artificial means for recalling it. This effort to call up into memory something that has escaped us is, of course, a process in the life of soul—“recollection” as it is usually called. All the thoughts we summon up to help us to remember something are auxiliary thoughts. Just try for once to realise how many and how often such thoughts have to be used and dropped again, in order to get at what we want to know. The purpose of these auxiliary thoughts is to open the way to the recollection needed at the moment.

In exactly the same, but in a far more comprehensive sense, the ‘thought-man’ described represents an auxiliary process. He never leaves us alone; he is astir in us in such a way that we realise: he lives in us as a thought, as something that goes on working, that is actually transformed within us into the idea, the thought, which now flashes up suddenly into our soul in the ordinary process of recollection; it is something that overwhelms us. It is as though something says to us: this being cannot remain as he is, he transforms something within you, he becomes alive, he changes! This forces itself upon us in such a way that the imaginary man whispers to us: This is something that has to do with another earth-existence, not with the present one. A kind of recollection of another earth-existence—that is the thought which quite definitely arises. It is really more a feeling than a thought, a sentient experience, but of such a kind that we feel as though what arises in the soul is what we ourselves once were in an earlier incarnation on this earth.

Anthroposophy, regarded in its entirety, is by no means merely a sum-total of theories, of presentations of facts, but it gives us directives and indications for achieving our aspirations. Anthroposophy says: If you carry out certain exercises you will be led nearer to the point where recollection is easier for you. It can also be said—and this is drawn from the sphere of actual experience: If you adopt this procedure you get an inner impression, a sentient impression, of the person you were in an earlier life. We there achieve what may be called an extension of memory. What discloses itself to us is, to begin with, a thought-reality only, as long as we are building up the imaginary man described. But this imaginary man does not remain a thought-being. He transforms himself into sentient impressions, impressions in the life of soul, and while this is going on we realise that this experience has something to do with our earlier incarnation. Our memory extends to this earlier incarnation.

In this present incarnation we remember those things in which our thoughts participated. But in ordinary life, what has played into our life of feeling does not so easily remain vivid and alive. If you try to think back to something that caused you great pain ten or twenty years ago, you will be able to recall the mental picture of it without difficulty; you will be able to cast your thoughts back to what then took place; but you cannot recapture the actual, immediate experience of the pain felt at the time. The pain fades, the remembrance of it streams into the life of ideation. What has here been described is a memory in the soul, a memory belonging to the life of feeling. And as such we actually feel our earlier incarnation. There does, in fact, arise what may be called a remembrance of earlier incarnations. It is not possible immediately to perceive what is playing over into the present incarnation, what is actually the bearer of the remembrance of earlier incarnations. Consider how intimately our thoughts are united with what gives expression to them, with our speech and language. Language is the embodiment of the world of thoughts and ideas. In each life, every human being has to learn the language anew. A child of the very greatest philologist or linguist has to learn his mother-tongue by dint of effort. There has yet to be a case of a grammar-school boy learning Greek with ease because he rapidly remembered the Greek he had spoken in earlier incarnations!

The poet Hebbel jotted down one or two thoughts for the plan of a drama he intended to write. It is a pity that he did not actually carry out this project, for it would have been an extremely interesting drama. The theme was to have been that Plato, reincarnated as a school-boy, received the very lowest marks for his understanding of the Plato of old! We need not remind ourselves that some teachers are severe, or pedantic. We realise that what Hebbel jotted down is due to the fact that the element of thought, which is also in play in the mental pictures of immediate experiences, is limited more or less to the present incarnation. As we have now heard, the first impression of the earlier incarnation comes as a direct memory in the life of feeling, as a new kind of memory. The impression we get when this memory arises from the imaginary man we have created in thought, is more like a feeling, but of such a kind that we realise: the impression comes from some being who once existed and who you yourself were. Something that is like a feeling arising in an act of remembrance is what comes to us as a first impression of the earlier incarnation.

The creation of an imaginary man in thought is simply a means of proving to us that this means is something that transforms itself into an impression in the life of soul, or the life of feeling. Everyone who comes to Anthroposophy has the opportunity of carrying out what has now been described. And if he does so he will actually receive an inner impression of which—to use a different illustration—he might speak as follows. I once saw a landscape; I have forgotten what it actually looked like, but I know it delighted me! If this happened during the present life, the landscape will no longer make a very vivid impression of feeling; but if the impression of the landscape came from an earlier incarnation the impression will be particularly vivid. In the form of a feeling we can obtain a very vivid impression of our earlier incarnation. And if we then observe such impressions objectively, we may at times experience something like a feeling of bitterness, bitter-sweetness or acidity from what emerges as the transformation of the imaginary thought-man. This bitter-sweet or some such feeling is the impression made upon us by our earlier incarnation; it is an impression of feeling, an impression in the life of soul.

The endeavour has now been made to draw attention to something that can ultimately promote in every human being a kind of certainty of having existed in an earlier life—certainty through having engendered a feeling of inner impressions which he knows were most definitely not received in this present life. Such an impression, however, arises the same way as a recollection arises in ordinary life. We may now ask: How can one know that the impression is actually a recollection? There it can only be said that to ‘prove’ such a thing is not possible. But the process is the same as it is elsewhere in life, when we remember something and are in a sound state of mind. We know there that what arises within us in thought is actually related to something we have experienced. The experience itself gives the certainty. What we picture in the way indicated gives us the certainty that the impression which arises in the soul is not related to anything that had to do with us in the present life but to something in the earlier life.

We have there called forth in ourselves by artificial means, something that brings us into connection with our earlier life. We can also use many different kinds of experiences as tests, and eventually awaken in ourselves feelings of earlier lives.

Here again, from a different aspect, the experiences we have in life can be divided into groups. In the one group may be included the sufferings, sorrows and obstacles we have encountered; in a second group may be included the joys, happinesses and advantages in our life. Again as a test, we can take the following standpoint, and say: Yes, we have had these sorrows, these sufferings. Being what we are in this incarnation, with normal life running its course, our sorrows and sufferings are dire misfortunes, something that we would gladly avoid. By way of a test, let us not take this attitude but assume that for a certain reason we ourselves brought about these sorrows, sufferings and obstacles, realising that owing to our earlier lives—if there have actually been such lives—we have become in a sense more imperfect because of what we have done. After all, we do not only become more perfect through the successive incarnations but also, in a certain respect, more imperfect. When we have affronted or injured some human being, are we not more imperfect than we were before? We have not only affronted him, we have taken something away from ourself; as a personality taken as a whole, our worth would be greater if we had not done this thing. Many such actions are marked on our score and our imperfection remains because of them. If we have affronted some human being and desire to regain our previous worth, what must happen? We must make compensation for the affront, we must place into the world a counterbalancing deed, we must discover some means of compelling ourselves to overcome something. And if we think in this way about our sufferings and sorrows, we shall be able in many instances to say: These sufferings and sorrows, if we surmount them, give us strength to overcome our imperfections. Through suffering we can make progress.

In normal life we do not think in this way; we set our face against suffering. But we can also say the following: Every sorrow, every suffering, every obstacle in life should be an indication of the fact that we have within us a man who is cleverer than we ourselves are. Although the man we ourselves are is the one of whom we are conscious, we regard him for a time as being the less clever; within us we have a cleverer man who slumbers in the depths of our soul. With our ordinary consciousness we resist sorrows and sufferings but the cleverer man leads us towards these sufferings in defiance of our consciousness because by overcoming them we can strip off something. He guides us to the sorrows and sufferings, directs us to undergo them. This may, to begin with, be an oppressive thought but it carries with it no obligation; we can, if we so wish, use it once only, by way of trial. We can say: Within us there is a cleverer man who guides us to sufferings and sorrows, to something that in our conscious life we should like most of all to have avoided. We think of him as the cleverer man. In this way we are led to the realisation which many find disturbing, namely that this cleverer man guides us always towards what we do not like. This, then, we will take as an assumption: There is a cleverer man within us who guides us to what we do not like in order that we may make progress.

But let us still do something else. Let us take our joys, our advantages, our happinesses, and say to ourselves, again by way of trial: How would it be if you were to conceive the idea—irrespectively of how it tallies with the actual reality—that you have simply not deserved these happinesses, these advantages; they have come to you through the Grace of higher, spiritual Powers. It need not be so in every case, but we will assume, by way of test, that all our sorrows and sufferings were brought about because the cleverer man within us guided us to them, because we recognise that in consequence of our imperfections they were necessary for us and that we can overcome them only through such experiences. And then we assume the opposite: That our happinesses are not due to our own merit but have been vouchsafed to us by spiritual Powers.

Again this thought may be a bitter pill for the vain to swallow, but if, as a test, a man is capable of forming such a thought with all intensity, he will be led to the feeling—because again it undergoes a transformation and in so far as it lacks effectiveness, rectifies itself:—In you there lives something that has nothing to do with your ordinary consciousness, that lies deeper than anything you have experienced consciously in this life; there is a cleverer man within you who gladly turns to the eternal, divine-spiritual Powers pervading the world. Then it becomes an inner certainty that behind the outer there is an inner, higher individuality. Through such thought-exercises we grow to be conscious of the eternal, spiritual core of our being, and this is of extraordinary importance. So there again we have something which it lies in our power to carry out.

In every respect Anthroposophy can be a guide, not only towards knowledge of the existence of another world, but towards feeling oneself as a citizen of another world, as an individuality who passes through many incarnations.

There are experiences of still a third kind. Admittedly it will be more difficult to make use of these experiences for the purpose of gaining an inner knowledge of karma and reincarnation. But even if what will now be said is difficult, it can again be used again by way of trial. And if it is honestly applied to external life it will dawn upon us clearly—as a probability to begin with, but then as an ever-growing certainty—that our present life is connected with an earlier one.

Let us assume that in our present life between birth and death we have already reached or passed our thirtieth year. (Those below that age may also have corresponding experiences). We reflect about the fact that somewhere near our thirtieth year we were brought into contact with some person in the outside world, that between the ages of thirty and forty many different connections have been established with human beings in the outside world. These connections seem to have been made during the most mature stage of our life so that our whole being was involved in them. Reflection discloses that it is indeed so. But reflection based on the principles and knowledge of Spiritual Science can lead us to realise the truth of what will now be said—not as the outcome of mere reflection but of spiritual-scientific investigation. What I am saying has not been discovered merely through logical thinking; it has been established by spiritual-scientific research, but logical thinking can confirm the facts and find them reasonable. We know how the several members of man's constitution unfold in the course of life: in the seventh year, the ether-body; in the fourteenth year, the astral body; in the twenty-first year the sentient-soul, in the twenty-eighth year the intellectual or mind-soul and in the thirty-fifth year the consciousness-soul (spiritual soul). Reflecting on this, we can say: In the period from the thirtieth year to the fortieth year we are concerned with the unfolding of the mind-soul and the spiritual soul.

The mind-soul and the spiritual soul are those forces in our nature which bring us into the closest contact of all with the outer physical world, for they unfold at the very age in life when our intercourse with that world is more active than at any other time. In earliest childhood, the forces belonging to our physical body are directed, determined, activated, by what is still entirely enclosed within us. The causal element engendered in previous incarnations, whatever went with us through the Gate of Death, the spiritual forces we have garnered—everything we bring with us from the earlier life works and weaves in the upbuilding of our physical body. It is at work unceasingly and invisibly from within outwards; as the years go by, this influence diminishes and the period of life approaches when the old forces have produced the body and we confront the world with a finished organism; what we bear within us has come to expression in our external body. At about the thirtieth year—it may be somewhat earlier or somewhat later—we confront the world in the most strongly physical sense; in our intercourse with the world we are connected more closely with the physical plane than during any other period of life. We may think that the relationships in life into which we now enter are more physically intelligible than any others, but the fact is that such relationships are least of all connected with the forces which work and weave in us from birth onwards. Nevertheless we may take it for granted that at about the age of thirty we are not led by chance to people who are destined, precisely then, to appear in our environment. We must far rather assume that there too our karma is at work, that these people too have something to do with one of our earlier incarnations.

Facts of Spiritual Science investigated at various times show that very often the people with whom we come into contact somewhere around our thirtieth year are related to us in such a way that in most cases we were connected with them at the beginning of the immediately preceding incarnation—or it may have been earlier still—as parents, or brothers or sisters. At first this seems a strange and astonishing fact. Although it need not inevitably be so, many cases indicate to spiritual-scientific investigation that in very truth our parents, or those who were by our side at the beginning of our previous life, who gave us our place in the physical world but from whom in later life we grew away, are karmically connected with us in such a way that in our new life we are not again guided to them in early childhood but only when we have come most completely on to the physical plane. It need not always be exactly like this, for spiritual-scientific research shows very frequently that it is not until a subsequent incarnation that those who are then our parents, brothers or sisters, or blood-relations in general, are the people we found around us in the present incarnation at about the time of our thirtieth year. So the acquaintances we make somewhere about the age of thirty in any one incarnation may have been, or will be, persons related to us by blood in a previous or subsequent incarnation. It is therefore useful to say to oneself: The personalities with whom life brings you in contact in your thirties were once around you as parents or brothers and sisters or you can anticipate that in one of your next incarnations they will have this relationship with you.

The reverse also holds good. If we think of those personalities whom we choose least of all voluntarily through forces suitable for application on the physical plane—that is to say, our parents, our brothers and sisters who were around us at the beginning of life—if we think of these personalities we shall very often find that precisely those who accompany us into life from childhood onwards were deliberately chosen by us in another incarnation to be near us while we were in the thirties. In other words, in the middle of the preceding life we ourselves chose out those who in the present life have become our parents, brothers or sisters.

So the remarkable and very interesting fact emerges that our relationships with the personalities with whom we come to be associated are not the same in the successive incarnations; also that we do not encounter these people at the same age in life as previously. Neither can it be said that exactly the opposite holds good. Furthermore it is not the personalities who were with us at the end of an earlier life who are connected, in a different incarnation, with the beginning of our life, but those with whom we were associated in the middle period of life. So neither those personalities with whom we are together at the beginning of life, nor those with us at its end, but those with whom we come into contact in the middle of life, were around us as blood-relations at the beginning of an earlier incarnation. Those who were around us then, when our life was beginning, appear in the middle of our present life; and of those who were around us at the beginning of our present life we can anticipate that we shall find ourselves together with them in the middle of one of our subsequent incarnations, that they will then come into connection with us as freely chosen companions in life. Karmic relationships are indeed mysterious.

What I have now said is the outcome of spiritual-scientific investigation. But I repeat: if, in the way opened up by this investigation, we reflect about the inner connections between the beginning of life in one of our incarnations and the middle of life in another, we shall realise that this is not void of sense or usefulness. The other aspect is that when such things are brought to our notice and we adopt an intelligent attitude to them, they bring clarity and illumination. Life is clarified if we do not simply accept such things passively—not to say dull-wittedly; it is clarified if we try to grasp, to understand, what comes to us in life in such a way that the relationships which are bound to remain elusive as long as karma is only spoken of in the abstract, become concretely perceptible.

It is useful to reflect about the question: Why is it that in the middle of our life we are actually driven by karma, seemingly with complete mental awareness, to form some acquaintanceship which does not appear to have been made quite independently and objectively? The reason is that such persons were related to us by blood in the earlier life and our karma leads them to us now because we have some connection with them.

Whenever we reflect in this way about the course of our own life, we shall see that light is shed upon it. Although we may be mistaken in some particular instance, and even if we err in our conclusions ten times over, nevertheless we may well hit upon the truth in regard to someone who comes into our ken. And when such reflections lead us to say: Somewhere or other I have met this person—thus thought is like a signpost pointing the way to other things which in different circumstances would not have occurred to us and which, taken in their whole setting, give us ever-growing certainty of the correctness of particular facts.

Karmic connections are not of such a nature that they can be discerned in one sudden flash. The highest, most important facts of knowledge regarding life, those that really do shed light upon it, must be acquired slowly and by degrees. This is not a welcome thought. It is easier to believe that some flash of illumination might enable it to be said: “In an earlier life I was associated with this or that person,” or “I myself was this or that individual.” It may be tiresome to think that all this must be a matter of knowledge slowly acquired, but that is the case nevertheless. Even if we merely cherish the belief that it might possibly be so, investigation must be repeated time and time again before the belief will become certainty. Even in cases where probability grows constantly stronger, investigation leads us farther. We erect barricades against the spiritual world if we allow ourselves to form instantaneous judgments in these matters.

Try to ponder over what has been said to-day about the acquaintanceships made in the middle period of life and their connection with individuals who were near to us in a preceding incarnation. This will lead to very fruitful thoughts, especially if taken together with what is said in the book, The Education of the Child in the light of Anthroposophy. It will then be unambiguously clear that the outcome of your reflection tallies with what is set forth in that book.

But an earnest warning must be added to what has been said to-day. The genuine investigator guards against drawing conclusions; he lets the things come to him of themselves. Once they are there, he first puts them to the test of ordinary logic. Repetition will then be impossible of something that recently happened to me, not for the first time, and is very characteristic of the attitude adopted to Anthroposophy to-day. A very clever man—I say this without irony, fully recognising that he has a brilliant mind—said the following to me: “When I read what is contained in your book, An Outline of Occult Science, I am bound to admit that it seems so logical, to tally so completely with other manifest facts in the world, that I cannot help coming to the conclusion that these things could also be discovered through pure reflection; they need not necessarily be the outcome of super-sensible investigation. The things said in this book are in no way questionable or dubious; they tally with the reality.” I was able to assure this gentleman of my conviction that it would not have been possible for me to discover them through mere reflection, nor that with great respect for his cleverness, could I believe he would have discovered them by that means alone. It is absolutely true that whatever in the domain of Spiritual Science is capable of being logically comprehended simply cannot be discovered by mere reflection! The fact that some matter can be put to the test of logic and then grasped, should be no ground for doubting its spiritual-scientific origin. On the contrary, I am sure it must be reassuring to know that the communications made by Spiritual Science can be recognised through logical reflection as being unquestionably correct; it cannot possibly be the ambition of the spiritual investigator to make illogical statements for the sake of inspiring belief! As you see, the spiritual investigator himself cannot take the standpoint that he discovers such things through reflection. But if we reflect about things that have been discovered by the methods of Spiritual Science, they may seem so logical, even too logical to allow us to believe any longer that they actually come from spiritual-scientific sources. And this applies to everything said to have been the outcome of genuine spiritual-scientific investigation.

If, to begin with, the things that have been said to-day seem grotesque, try for once to apply logical thinking to them. Truly, if spiritual facts had not led me to these things, I should not have deduced them from ordinary, logical thinking; but once they have been discovered they can be put to the test of logic. And then it will be found that the more meticulously and conscientiously we set about testing them, the more clearly it will emerge that everything tallies. Even in the case of matters where accuracy cannot really be tested, from the very way in which the various factors fit into their settings, it will be found that they give the impression of being not only in the highest degree probable, but bordering on certainty—as in the case, for example, of what has been said about parents and brothers and sisters in one life and acquaintances made in the middle of another life. Moreover such certainty proves to be well-founded when things are put to the test of life itself. In many cases we shall view our own behaviour and that of others in a quite different light if we confront someone we meet in the middle period of life, as if, in the preceding life, the relationship between us had been that of parent, brother or sister. The whole relationship will thereby become much more fruitful than if we go through life with drowsy inattentiveness.

And so we can say: More and more, Anthroposophy becomes something that does not merely give us knowledge of life but directives as to how to conceive of life's relationships in such a way that light will be shed upon them not only for our own satisfaction, but also for our conduct and tasks in life. It is important to discard the thought that in this way we impair a spontaneous response to life. Only the timid, those who lack a really earnest purpose in life, can believe such a thing. We, however, must realise that by gaining closer knowledge of life we make it more fruitful, inwardly richer. What comes to us in life should be carried, through Anthroposophy, into horizons where all our forces become more fertile, more full of confidence, a greater stimulus to hope, than they were before.