Between Death and Rebirth
11 February 1913, Berlin
When with the normal perception belonging to outer existence we study human life in its relation to life in the rest of the Universe, we are observing only the smallest part of world-existence that is connected with man himself. In other words, what a man can observe if he is not prepared to penetrate behind the mysteries of existence, can throw no real light upon his essential nature and being. For when we look around us with the ordinary organs of perception, with the organ of thinking, we have before us only that which does not in any way contain the deepest and most significant secrets of existence. This fact will strike us most strongly of all if we succeed in developing, even to a comparatively small extent, the capacity to view life and the world from the other side, namely, from the side of sleep. What can be seen during sleep is for the most part concealed from man's present faculty of perception. As soon as a person goes to sleep, from then until the moment of waking he really sees nothing at all. But if and when in the course of development the time comes when observation is also possible during sleep, most of what a man sees to begin with is connected with him as a human being but remains entirely hidden from ordinary observation. It is easy to understand why this is so, for the brain is an instrument of judgement, of thinking. Hence we must use or at least activate the brain when in everyday life we want to think or form judgements, but for that very reason we cannot see it. After all, the eye cannot see itself while it is actually observing something, and the same holds good of the whole organism. We bear it about with us but we cannot observe it in the real sense, we cannot penetrate it to any depth. We direct our gaze out into the world but in modern life we cannot direct this gaze into our own being.
Now the greatest mysteries of existence are not to be found in the outside world but within man himself. Let us recall what we know from Spiritual Science, namely that the three kingdoms of nature around us owe their existence to a certain retardation in evolution. Mineral kingdom, plant kingdom, animal kingdom are, fundamentally speaking, entities attributable to the fact that something remained backward in the evolutionary process. Normal progress in evolution has in point of fact been made only by beings who have reached the stage of human existence during the Earth period. When a man looks at the mineral, plant or animal kingdoms, he is really observing in the world that which amounts in his own existence to what he ‘remembers’, to the content of his memory of his actual experiences; he is in fact contemplating what has taken place in the past and still enjoys a certain existence. But he is not experiencing the living, invisible soul-life of the immediate present when he concerns himself only with his memory. The memory with all its mental pictures represents something that has been deposited in our living soul-existence, is fixed there. All this is, of course, to be taken metaphorically, but the memories embedded in the soul are not the direct, basic elements of its life. The same applies to the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms in outer nature. The thoughts conceived by divine-spiritual Beings in the past live on in these kingdoms and they continue into present existence, just as our memory-pictures continue into our present life of soul. Hence we have in the world around us, not the thoughts of the immediately present, living, divine-spiritual Beings but the memory-pictures, the preserved thoughts of the Gods.
As to the content of our memory, this may well be of interest because with our memory we grasp a tiny corner of world-creation, we grasp what has passed over from creation into existence. Our memory-pictures are the first, the lowest, the most fugitive stage of created existence. But when we waken spiritually during sleep we see something quite different. We see nothing of what is outside in space, nothing of the processes manifesting in the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms or in the external aspects of the human kingdom. But then we know that the essential realities which we are there beholding are the creative, life-giving principles working on man himself. It is actually as if everything else were blotted out and as if the Earth, observed from the viewpoint of sleep, contained nothing except Man. What would never be seen by day, in the waking state, is revealed when contemplated from the viewpoint of sleep. And it is then, for the first time, that knowledge dawns in us of the thoughts which the divine-spiritual Beings kept in reserve in order to work at the creation of man, at a level above that of mineral, plant and animal existence.
Whereas through physical perception of the world we see everything except the real being of man, through the spiritual perception exercised from the viewpoint of sleep, we see nothing except man — as a creation, together with happenings in the human kingdom — that is to say, from the viewpoint of sleep we see everything that is hidden from the ordinary perception of waking life. This accounts for the element of strangeness that is present in our vision when we are contemplating the world from the viewpoint of sleep, in other words, when we become clairvoyant, having wakened spiritually during sleep.
Now the human body — and here I mean the physical and etheric bodies together — which lies in the bed during sleep, this human body itself has a singular appearance, a characteristic of which can be expressed in words somewhat as follows. Only in the very first years of a child's life does this human body as seen during sleep show a certain similarity with the weaving life and activity in the other kingdoms of nature. The body of a grown-up person, however, or of a child from a certain age onwards, when seen from the viewpoint of sleep, reveals a constant process of decay, of destruction. Every night during sleep the forces of destruction are ever and again subjugated by the forces of growth; what is destroyed by day is repaired during the night, but the forces of destruction are always in excess. And the consequence of this fact is that we die. The forces that are renewed during the night are never the equal of those that have been used up during the waking life of day, so that in the normal life of the human being a certain surplus of destructive forces is always present. This surplus accumulates and the natural death of old age ensues when the destructive forces eclipse the upbuilding forces.
Thus when we observe the human being from the viewpoint of sleep we are actually witnessing a process of destruction — but without sadness. For the feelings we might have in our waking life about this process of destruction are absent when we see it from the viewpoint of sleep, because then we know that it is the precondition of man's true spiritual development. No being who did not destroy his body in some measure would be capable of thinking or of developing an inner life of soul. No life of soul as experienced by man would be possible if the process of growth were not opposed by processes of destruction. We therefore regard these processes of destruction in the human organism as the precondition of man's life of soul and feel the whole development to be beneficial. Looked at from the other side of life, the fact that man's body can gradually be dissolved is felt to be a blessing. Not only do things look different when viewed from the other side of life but all our feelings and ideas are different; consciousness during sleep has always before it the spectacle of the body in decline — and rightly in decline.
Study of the life between death and rebirth, however, affords a different spectacle. A certain connection with the preceding life is experienced for a time after death. All of you are aware that this is the case during the period of Kamaloka; even after that period, however, the experience of connection with the previous life continues for a time. But then, at a certain point during the life between death and rebirth, a reversal of all ordinary vision and perception takes place, a reversal far more radical than takes place during sleep-consciousness. During existence on Earth we look out from our body into the world that is not our body; from the point of time to which I have just referred, between death and the new birth, we direct hardly a gaze to the universe around us but look with all the great intensity at what may now be called the human body; we discern all its secrets. Thus between death and rebirth there comes a moment when we begin to take special interest in the human body. It is extremely difficult to describe these conditions and it can really only be done with halting words. There comes a time between death and the new birth when we feel as if the whole universe were within us and outside us only the human body. We feel that the stars and other heavenly worlds are within our being, just as here on Earth we feel that the stomach, the liver, the spleen, are within us. Everything that here, in life on Earth, is outside us becomes in that other life an inner world, and just as here we look outwards to the stars, clouds and so forth, in that other life we gaze at the human body. At which human body?
To understand this we must be clear that the new human being who at his next birth is to enter into existence, has for a long time previously been preparing his essential characteristics. Preparation for a return to the Earth begins a long time before birth or conception. The conditions of central importance here are quite different from those accepted by modern statistical biology which assumes that when a human being comes into existence through birth he simply inherits certain traits from his father, mother, grandparents and the whole line of ancestors. Quite an otherwise attractive little book about Goethe has recently been published, in which his characteristic qualities are traced back to his ancestors. Outwardly speaking, that is absolutely correct in the sense I have often indicated, namely, that there is no contradiction between a scientific fact that is correctly presented and the facts brought forward by Spiritual Science. It is just as if someone were to say: Here is a man; how comes it that he is alive? It is because he has lungs inside him and there is air outside. Needless to say, that is quite correct. But someone else may turn up and say: This man is alive for an entirely different reason. A fortnight ago he fell into the water and I jumped in after him and pulled him out; but for that he would not be alive today! Both these assertions are correct. In the same way, natural science is quite correct when it says that a man bears within himself characteristics inherited from his ancestors; but it is equally correct to attribute them to his karma and other factors. In principle, therefore, Spiritual Science cannot be intolerant; it is external natural science alone that can be intolerant, for example, in rejecting Spiritual Science. Someone may insist that he has preserved the characteristics of his own ancestors. But there is also the fact that from a certain point of time between death and rebirth a human being himself begins to develop forces which work down upon his ancestors. Long before an individual enters into physical existence there is a mysterious connection between himself and the whole line of his ancestors. And the reason why specific characteristics appear in a line of ancestors is that perhaps only after hundreds of years a particular individual is to be born from that ancestral line. This human being who is to be born, perhaps centuries later, from a line of ancestors, regulates their characteristics from the spiritual world. Thus Goethe — to take this example once again — manifests the qualities of his ancestors because he worked continuously in the spiritual world with the aim of implanting into these ancestors qualities that were subsequently to be his. And what is true of Goethe is true of every human being.
From a specific point of time between death and rebirth, therefore, a human being is already concerned with the preparation of his later earthly existence. The physical body which a man has on Earth does not by any means derive in all details from the physical lives of his ancestors, nor indeed from processes that can operate on the Earth. The physical body we bear is in itself fourfold. It has evolved through the periods of Saturn, Sun, Moon and Earth. Its very first foundation was laid during the Old Saturn period; during the Old Sun period the etheric body was woven into this foundation; during the Old Moon period the astral body was added and then, during the Earth period, the Ego, the ‘I’. As a result of these processes the physical body has undergone many changes. Thus we have within us the transformed Saturn foundation, the transformed Sun and Moon conditions. Our physical human body is the product of transformed physical conditions. The only part of all this that is visible is what has come from the Earth; everything else is invisible. Man's physical body is visible because he takes in the substances of the Earth, transforms them into his blood and permeates them with something that is invisible. In reality we see only the blood and what has been transformed by the blood, that is to say, a quarter of the physical human body; the other three-quarters are invisible. In the first place there is an invisible framework containing invisible currents — all this exists in the form of forces. Within these invisible currents there are also the influences exercised by one current upon another. All this is invisible. And now this threefold entity is filled out, permeated by the foodstuffs that have been transformed into blood. It is through this process that the physical body becomes visible. And it is only when we come to deal with the laws governing this visible structure that we are in the earthly realm itself. Everything else stems from cosmic, not from earthly conditions and has already been prepared when, at the time of conception, the first physical atom of the human being comes into existence. Thus what is later on to become the body of the human being has been prepared in past ages without any physical connection with the ultimate father and mother. It was then that the qualities transmitted by heredity were first worked into the process of development.
The human soul looks down upon what is thus being prepared from the above-mentioned point of time onwards between death and the new birth. It is the spiritual embryo, the spiritual seed of life. This is what constitutes the soul's outer world. Notice the difference between what is seen when we wake spiritually during sleep and have clairvoyant perception of the human body undergoing a process of continual destruction, and what is seen when our own inner organism is perceived as outer world. The outer world is then the inner man in process of coming into being. This means that we are then seeing the reverse of what is perceived clairvoyantly during sleep. During sleep we feel that our inner organs are part of the outer world, but otherwise what we see is a process of destruction. From the above-mentioned time onwards between death and rebirth our gaze is focused upon a human body in process of coming into being. Man is unable to preserve any remembrance of what he has seen between death and rebirth, but the spectacle of the building of the wonderful structure of the human body is veritably more splendid than anything to be seen when we gaze at the starry heavens or at the physical world with vision dependent in any respect upon the physical body. The mysteries of existence are truly great, even when contemplated from the standpoint of our physical senses only, but far greater still is the spectacle before us when, instead of external perception of our inner organs, we gaze at the human body that is in process of coming into being with all its mysteries. We then see how everything is directed to the purpose of enabling the human being to cope with existence when he enters the physical world through birth.
There is nothing that can truly be called bliss or blessedness except vision of the process of creation, of ‘becoming’. Perception of anything already in existence is trivial compared with vision of what is in process of coming into being; and what is meant by speaking of the states of bliss or blessedness which can be experienced by man between death and rebirth is that during this period he can behold what is in process of coming into being. Truths such as these, that have been revealed through the ages and grasped by minds adequately prepared, are indicated in words to be found in the ‘Prologue in Heaven’ in Goethe's Faust:
Das Werdende, das ewig wirkt und lebt,
Umfass' euch mit der Liebe holden Schranken,
Und was in schwankender Erscheinung schwebt,
Erfistiget mit dauernden Gedanken.
May that which works and lives, the ever-growing,
In bonds of love enfold you, mercy-fraught,
And Seeming's changeful forms, around you flowing,
Do ye arrest, in ever-during thought!
(Tr. Anna Swanwick, L.L.D.,
Bohn's Standard Library)
The difference between vision in the world between birth and death and the world between death and rebirth is that in the former we behold what is already in existence and in the latter what is coming into being.
The thought might occur: Is a man, then, concerned only with the vision of his own being? No, that is not the case. For at the stage of coming into being this body is actually part of the outer world; it is the manifested expression of divine mysteries. And it is then that we realise for the first time why the physical body — which after all is only maltreated between birth and death — may be seen as the temple of cosmic mysteries, for it contains more of the outer world than is seen when we are within it during earthly existence. At that stage between death and rebirth what is otherwise outer world is our inner world; what is otherwise called Universe is now that of which we can say ‘I’ — and what we then behold is outer world. We must not allow ourselves to be shocked by the fact that when we are looking at our body — or rather the body that will subsequently be ours — all other bodies which are coming into being must naturally also be there. This is of no significance because here it is simply a matter of number. In point of fact, differentiation between human bodies that can be of interest and importance to us has little significance until shortly before human beings enter into physical existence. For the greater part of the period between death and the new birth, when we are looking down upon the body that is coming into being, it is actually the case that the single bodies are differentiated only according to their number. If we want to study the essential properties of a grain of wheat, it will not make much difference whether we pick an car from a grain of wheat in a particular field or go fifty paces farther on and pick one there. As far as the essential properties are concerned, one grain is as good as another. Something similar applies when between death and rebirth we are gazing at our own body; the fact that it is our own has significance only for the future because later on we are to inhabit it on the Earth. At the moment it interests us only as the bearer of sublime cosmic mysteries and blessedness consists in the fact that it can be contemplated just like any other human body. Here we stand before the mystery of Number which will not be further considered now, but among many other relevant aspects there is this, namely, that Number — that is to say, multiple existence — cannot be regarded from the spiritual standpoint exactly as it is from the physical. What is seen in countless examples will again be seen as a unity.
Through the body we feel ourselves to be in the Universe and through what in physical life is called Universe we feel that we are living within our own Ego-hood. Such is the difference when the world is contemplated at one time from this world and at another from yonder.
For the seer, the most significant moment between death and the new birth is when the human being concerned ceases to concern himself only with his last life and begins to direct his attention to what is in process of coming into existence. The shattering impression received by the seer when, as he follows a soul between death and the new birth, this soul begins to be concerned with what is coming into being — this shattering impression is due to the fact that the soul itself at this moment experiences a severe shock. The only experience comparable with it is the coming of death in physical existence, when the human being passes over from life into being. In the other case — although it is impossible to describe it quite exactly — the transition is from something connected with a life that ended in death to experience of the process of ‘becoming’, of resurrection. The soul encounters that which bears a new life germinally within it. This is the moment of death in reverse. That is why it is so immensely significant.
In connection with these things we must turn our minds to the course of human evolution on the Earth. Let us look back to an age, for example the ancient Egypto-Chaldean epoch, when our souls, looking out through physical bodies, did not see the stars merely as material bodies in the heavens; spiritual Beings were connected with the stars — although this experience occurred only in certain intermediate states during the life between birth and death. The souls of men were deeply affected by this vista and in those times impressions from the spiritual world crowded in upon them. It was inevitable that in the course of evolution the possibility of beholding the spiritual should gradually cease and man's gaze be limited to the material world. This came about in the Graeco-Latin epoch, when men's gaze was diverted to an ever greater extent from the spiritual world and limited to the world of the senses. And now we ourselves are living in an era when it is becoming more and more impossible for the soul to see or detect spiritual reality in the life of the physical environment. The Earth is now dying, withering away, and man is deeply involved in this process. Thus whereas in the Egypto-Chaldean epoch men still beheld the spiritual around them, they now see only what is material and actually boast of having established a science which deals only with what is physical and material. This process will go to further and further lengths. A time will come when men will lose interest in the direct impressions of the world of the senses and will concentrate attention on what is sub-material, sub-sensory. Today, in fact, we can already detect the approach of the time when men will be interested only in what is sub-sensory, below the level of the sense-world. This often becomes very obvious, for example when modern physics no longer concerns itself with colours as such. In reality it takes no account of the actual quality of colour but concerns itself only with the vibrations and oscillations below colour. In many books today you can read the nonsensical statement that a yellow colour, for example, is merely a matter of oscillations, wave-lengths. Observation here is already diverted from the quality of the colour and directed to something that is not in the yellow colour at all but yet is considered to be the reality. You can find books on physics and even on physiology today in which it is emphasised that attention should no longer be fettered to the direct sense-impression but that everything resolves itself into vibrations and wave-lengths. This kind of observation will go to further and further extremes. No attention will be paid to material existence as such and account will be taken only of the working of forces. Historically, one example suffices in order to provide empirical evidence of this. If you refer to du Bois-Reymond's lecture ‘On the Boundaries of Knowledge’, given on 14th August, 1872, you will find a peculiar expression for something that Laplace already described, the expression ‘astronomical knowledge of a material system’ — that is to say when what lies behind a light- or colour-process is presented as something only brought about by mathematical-physical forces. A time will come when human souls — and some of those who are being educated in certain schools today will have the best possible foundations for this attitude in their next incarnation — will have lost real interest in the world of light and radiant colour and enquire only into the working of forces. People will no longer have any interest in violet or red but will be concerned only with wave-lengths.
This withering of man's inner spirituality is something that is approaching and Anthroposophy is there to counter it in every detail. It is not only our present form of education that helps to bring about this withering; the trend is there in every domain of life. It is in contrast to everyday life when with our Anthroposophy we want to give again to the souls of men something that fertilises them, that is not only a maya of the senses but springs forth as spirit. And this we can do when we impart to human souls knowledge that will enable them to live in the true world in their following incarnations. We have to speak of these things in a world which with its indifference to form and colour is in such contrast to what we ourselves desire; for it is particularly in regard to colours that the world of today is preparing souls to thwart what we want to achieve. We must work not only according to the concepts and ideas of everyday existence but with cosmological ideas. Hence it is not a mere liking on our part when we arrange surroundings such as those to be seen in this room 1Dr. Steiner recommended that restful and refreshing colours should be displayed in lecture halls and rooms used for the presentation and study of Spiritual Science, also in rooms for the sick. but it is connected with the very nature of Spiritual Science. Immediate response to what is presented to the senses must again be generated in the soul in order that active life in the spirit may begin. Now, in this incarnation, each one of us can assimilate Anthroposophy in the life of soul; and what is now assimilated is transformed into faculties for the new incarnation. Then, during his life between death and the next birth, the individual sends from his soul into his body that is coming into being influences which prepare his future bodily faculties to adopt a more spiritual view of the world. This is impossible for him without Anthroposophy. If he rejects Anthroposophy he prepares his body to see nothing but barren forces and to be blind to the revelations of the senses.
And now something shall be said that enables a seer to form a judgement of the mission of Anthroposophy.
When a seer today directs his gaze to the life between death and the new birth of souls who have already passed beyond the above-mentioned point of time and are contemplating the body that is coming into being for a further existence, he may realise that this body will afford the soul no possibility of Developing faculties for the comprehension of spiritual truths. For if such faculties are to be part of life in the physical body, they must have been implanted before birth. Hence in the immediate future more and more human beings will be devoid of the faculties needed for the acceptance of spiritual knowledge — a state of things that has existed for some time already. Before the seer there will be a vista of souls who in previous lives deprived themselves of the possibility of accepting any knowledge of a spiritual kind. In their life between death and rebirth such souls can indeed gaze at a process of development, but it is a development in which something is inevitably lacking — that is the tragic aspect. These vistas lead to a grasp of the mission of Anthroposophy. It is a shattering experience to see a soul whose gaze is directed towards its future incarnation, its future body, beholding a budding, burgeoning process and yet being obliged to realise: something will be lacking in that body but I cannot provide it because my previous incarnation is responsible. In a more trivial sense this experience may be compared with being obliged to work at something knowing from the outset that ultimately it is bound to be imperfect. Try to be vividly aware of the difference: either you can do the work perfectly and be happy in the prospect, or you are condemned from the outset to leave it imperfect.
This is the great question: are human souls in the spiritual world to be condemned in increasing numbers to look down upon bodies which must remain imperfect, or can this be avoided? If this fate is to be avoided, souls must accept during their life in physical bodies the proclamation and tidings of the spiritual worlds.
What those who make known these tidings regard as their task is verily not derived from earthly ideals but from the vista of the entire span of life, that is to say, when to life on Earth is added the period of existence between death and the new birth. Herein is revealed the possibility of a fruitful future for humanity, the possibility too of militating against the withering of the souls of men. The feeling can then be born in us that Spiritual Science must be there, must exist in the world. Spiritual Science is a sine qua non for the life of mankind in the future but not in the sense that is applicable to some other kind of knowledge. Spiritual Science imparts life, not concepts and ideas only. But the concepts of Spiritual Science, accepted in one incarnation, bring life, inner vitality, inner forcefulness. What Spiritual Science gives to man is an elixir of life, a vital force of life. Hence anyone who regards himself as belonging to a Movement for the promulgation of Spiritual Science should feel Spiritual Science to be a dire necessity in life, unlike anything that originates from other unions and societies. The realisation of being vitally involved in the necessities of existence is the right feeling to have in regard to Spiritual Science.
We have embarked upon these studies of the life between death and rebirth in order that by turning our minds to the other side of existence we may receive from there the impulse that can kindle in us enthusiasm for Spiritual Science.