The Evolution of Consciousness
9. Experiences between Death and Rebirth
27 August 1923, Penmaenmawr
I began my lecture yesterday with a brief outline of a man's experiences in sleep, and of how in a certain sense they presage his experiences after death. These sleep-experiences lie beyond the so-called threshold which, in course of our days here, has often been mentioned. The experiences I am now going to describe are gone through by all human beings when asleep, though they do not rise up into ordinary consciousness in life on Earth, but are accessible only to Imagination, Inspiration and Intuition. Because they do not enter consciousness, we should not believe they do not exist; they do exist, and we go through them. If I am allowed a simile — it is as though a man were led through a room blindfold. He does not see anything, but he has to exert himself to walk, and he can have some experience of many things in the room, although he cannot see them. What I am going to describe concerning the time between going to sleep and waking is plunged, as it were, in darkness, since the consciousness is blind to it, but it is positively lived through by human beings, and the effects of all we experience in sleep enter our waking life. Thus we understand rightly what anyone goes through, from the time of waking until going to sleep, only when we look upon it as combining the after-effect of his last sleep with whatever he does through his physical and etheric bodies during the day.
Now when a man goes to sleep, at first an indefinite feeling of anxiety comes over him. In ordinary life on Earth this anxiety does not rise into consciousness, does not actually manifest; but it is there as a process in the man's astral body and Ego, and he carries over its results into his waking state during the next day. If this anxiety were not carried over, were not to work in waking life as a force in physical body and etheric body, the man would be unable to hold together his physical constitution so that, for example, it may secrete salts and similar substances in the right way. This secretion, necessary for the organism, is throughout an effect of subconscious anxiety during the life of sleep. First of all in sleep, therefore, we enter what I might call a sphere of anxiety.
Then a condition arises in the soul like a continuous swinging to and fro, from a state of inner tranquillity to one of uneasiness — such a movement to and fro that, if the man were conscious of it, he might believe he was alternately beginning to faint and then recovering. Thus the anxiety sets going a constant alternation between self-control and the losing of it.
Thirdly comes a feeling of standing on the brink of an abyss with the ground giving way under one’s feet and that at any moment one might fall into the depths.
You see that at this moment when a man is falling asleep, conditions in the Cosmos are already beginning to rise from the physical to the moral. For the second state we enter on going to sleep can be properly judged only when we recognise that moral laws in the Cosmos have the validity of natural laws on Earth — only, that is, when we feel their reality with the same certainty we have in speaking of a stone falling to the ground, or of an engine driven by its steam. Nevertheless, in earthly life, because a man's strength is still limited, he is for the present protected by the kindly guidance of the world from experiencing consciously all that he goes through unconsciously every night.
The ordering of the Cosmos is such that even the things which shine out in the greatest beauty, the most lofty splendour, must have their roots in sorrow, suffering and renunciation. In the background of every beautiful appearance are pain and self-denial. In the universe this is just as inevitable as that the angles of a triangle should add up to 18o degrees. It is mere foolishness to ask why the Gods have not so organised the Cosmos that it would give men pleasure only. They bring about necessities. This was indeed divined in the Egyptian Mysteries, for example. They called the conscious perception of what occurs in sleep — the anxiety, the swinging to and fro between keeping hold of oneself and become powerless, and the standing on the brink of an abyss — the world of the three iron necessities.
These experiences during sleep produce in the man, again unconsciously, a profound yearning towards the divine which he then feels to be filling, penetrating, permeating, the whole Cosmos. For him, then, the Cosmos resolves itself into a kind of hovering, weaving, ever-moving cloud-formation, in which one is living, able at every moment to feel oneself alive, but at the same time realising that at any moment one could be submerged in all this weaving and living. A man feels himself interwoven with the weaving, surging movement of the divine throughout the world. And in the pantheistic feeling for God which comes to every healthy human being during waking life, there is the aftermath, the consequence, of the pantheistic feeling for God which is experienced unconsciously during sleep. A man then feels his soul to be filled with an inner unconscious conviction, born, one might say, out of anxiety and powerlessness; and filled also with something like an inner force of gravity in place of the ordinary gravity of the physical world.
The Rosicrucian mystery-teachings gave expression to what comes over a man when he sinks into the realm of the three iron necessities. The experience that would come to the pupils immediately after going to sleep was explained. They were told: Your daytime experiences sink into moving, floating cloud-formations, but these reveal themselves as having the nature of beings. You yourself are interwoven with these clouds, and you hover in anxiety and powerlessness on the edge of an abyss. But you have already discovered what then should be brought to your consciousness in three words — words which should pervade your whole soul: Ex Deo nascimur. This Ex Deo nascimur, so vague for ordinary consciousness, but raised into consciousness for students of the new Mysteries, is what a man first experiences on entering the state of sleep.
Later in these lectures we shall see how this Ex Deo nascimur plays an historic part also in the world-evolution of mankind. What I am now describing is the part it plays during earthly existence in the life of each single man, personally, individually.
If the man continues to sleep, the next stage is that the ordinary view of the Cosmos, as seen from the Earth, ceases. Whereas at night the Earth the glittering, shining stars are there for him, together with the Moon, and by day the Sun playing upon his senses, at a certain moment during sleep he sees how this whole starry world vanishes. The stars cease as physical entities, but in the places where they appeared physically to the senses there come forth from their rays — which have vanished — the genii, the spirits, the gods, of the stars. For conscious Inspiration the Cosmos changes into a speaking universe, declaring itself through the music of the spheres and the cosmic word. The Cosmos is then made up of living spiritual beings, in place of the Cosmos visible to the senses from the Earth.
This is experienced in such a way that, if a man became conscious of it, he would feel as if the whole spiritual Cosmos, from every side, was pronouncing judgment on what he has made of himself as a human being through all his deeds, both good and evil. He would feel that in his human worth he was bound up with the Cosmos.
What comes to him first of all, however — and if he could experience it consciously, as Inspiration does, he would notice this — is bewildering, and he has need of a guide. In the present period of human evolution this guide appears if, during life on Earth, a man has woven in his soul and heart a thread uniting him with the Mystery of Golgotha; if, that is, he has created a bond with the Christ, who, as Jesus, went through the Mystery of Golgotha. The feeling that immediately lays hold of a man at the present time — we will speak tomorrow of other epochs — is that, in the sphere he now enters, his bewildered soul would surely disintegrate if the Being who has come to be the very life of his conceptions and feelings, and of the impulses of his heart — if the Christ were not to be his Guide.
The approach of the Christ as Guide — who in this sphere must be conceived of as connected with the life of the Sun, just as the man is connected with earthly life — is felt again in the same way that it was when a medieval Mystery School brought it before the souls of the pupils with the words: In Christo morimur. For the feeling is that the soul must perish should it not die in Christ, thereby dying into cosmic life.
In this way a man lives through the experiences of sleep. After perceiving the stars of the Cosmos in their essential being, and because he cannot attain to conscious wakefulness in this sphere, a longing comes over him to return to the sphere where he is conscious. That is why we wake; it is the force by which we are awakened. We develop an unconscious feeling that, because of what we have absorbed from the real being of the stars, from the star Gods, we shall not be spiritually empty when we wake; for we bring down with us, into the daily life of the body, the spirit dwelling in our soul.
The pupils in the medieval Mystery Centres were made aware of this feeling, the third in the series of nightly, personal experiences of human beings on Earth, by a third saying: Per spiritum sanctum reviviscimus. This threefold experience of the spiritual world lying beyond the Guardian of the Threshold — who is ignored only by men of the present epoch — is thus perceptible in three stages, and at the same time they imprint on the human soul what can truly be called the Trinity — the Trinity which permeates spiritual life, weaving and living throughout it.
What I have been describing here is experienced by a man every night in a picture, and into this picture are woven his daytime experiences, going backwards in time. Just as we find our earthly experiences interwoven with those of natural processes during waking life, so during the night we experience this backward repetition interwoven with memories of the starry world. But all this is at first a picture.
This can be realised only when a man has gone through the gate of death. Here on Earth it is a picture experienced backwards. It becomes real only when, after three or four days, we have completed the panoramic survey of our memories described yesterday, and we enter the spiritual world no longer in terms of pictures, as we do every night, but in reality.
If anyone wishes to bring before his soul with a right understanding the experiences that are gone through consciously after the gate of death is passed, the following must be borne in mind. The Gods, the spiritual Beings we meet from the metamorphosed stars, take a different cosmic direction in their lives from that followed by human beings in earthly existence. Here we touch on a very important truth about the spiritual worlds, though it is not generally recognised when the spiritual worlds are spoken of theoretically and with little perception. When we are conscious as earthly men in earthly existence, we have a physical body and an etheric body so organised that a later experience always follows an earlier one and we find ourselves carried along in a particular stream of time. It is characteristic of our physical and etheric bodies to take this direction in the Cosmos. In so far as we are human beings, we experience everything in this sequence.
Those beings whom we met on rising to life between death and rebirth — when we discover the reality behind the pictures of our sleep-experience — move and come towards us always from the opposite direction. So that, in accordance with what in earthly life is called time, we must say: The Gods have spiritual bodies — one could equally well say, bodies of light — with which they move from the most distant future towards the past.
During the time between death and rebirth our bodies are of this same nature; we acquire them just as here on Earth we acquire the physical substance of our physical body. Divine bodies clothe us, and with them we draw round us what in my book Theosophy I have called Spirit-Man and Life-Spirit. By so doing we find our direction reversed, and so we live through our life backwards until we reach our birth and conception. In life on Earth we start from birth or conception, and — if we think of a circle — during existence on Earth we complete the top half. When that existence is over, we return through the lower half of the circle to our birth and conception. Just as on leaving our home we might walk in a certain direction and return, completing a circle in space, so — since in the world we enter after death there is no space — we have now to complete a circle in time. In time, it is a going out and coming back. Between birth and death we go out and then, having had this experience, we go backwards through the experiences of our nights as spiritual realities, until we return to the point of time at which we started.
In this materialistically thinking age little is said about such circles of life, and we have to go back in human evolution on Earth if we are to find words to express what really happens. If we turn to the old Oriental wisdom, with its less conscious insight into things than we have to-day, and its dreamlike clairvoyance, we find there a wonderful expression, evidently derived from an insight we can recover if we cross the threshold with real understanding, and pass the Guardian consciously when entering the spiritual world.
When the spiritual world is described in theories built up at any rate half-intellectually, it is not far removed from a materialistic picture of the Cosmos. It shows a human being as beginning his life at birth, then becoming a child and later a youth or young girl, growing older and approaching death — and then on and on in a straight line which naturally is never brought to an end. Anyone with knowledge of Initiation knows how nonsensical it is to talk of an end. This road has no ending: it turns back on itself. And the wonderful expression used by the old Oriental Initiates to describe this fact is “the wheel of births”.
There is much talk of this “wheel of births”, but little of it nowadays points to the truth. In fact we have accomplished the first revolution of this wheel at the end of our journey around the stars, which takes about one-third of our whole earthly life — the time, that is, we spend in sleep on Earth. We have then completed the first revolution, and in the life between death and rebirth we can await further revolutions of the wheel.
That is how it is when, with knowledge awakened through Imagination, Inspiration and Intuition, we make our way into the worlds lying behind the veil of the sense-world. These are worlds that once, in a remote period of evolution, were open to man as a heritage from a past age, when he associated with divine-spiritual Beings in the way described. It is only when some insight into the spiritual worlds takes us back to ancient times, when people knew about these worlds, that it becomes possible to understand all that has come down to us from the old wisdom. And then we are filled with wonder at this primeval wisdom of mankind. So that anyone who has received Initiation at the present time can do no other than look up to those ancient days of man's earthly existence with admiration, with reverence.
Something else can be seen from this — that only through the Spiritual Science of to-day can we arrive again at the true form in which things were perceived of old. People who want to shut out modern Spiritual Science have no means of understanding the language spoken by those who possessed the primeval wisdom of mankind; hence they are fundamentally unable to picture things historically. Those who know nothing of the spiritual world are often quite naive in the way they expound and interpret the old records of primeval peoples. So, in documents which perhaps contain primeval wisdom now obscured, we find ringing out such wonderful words as “the wheel of births”. These words must be understood by rediscovering the reality to which they allude. People who want to give a picture of the true history of mankind on Earth must therefore not shrink from first learning to know the meaning of the language used in those far-off days.
I might very well have begun by picturing the historical evolution of mankind in the terms used in the ancient records; but then you would not have heard words used merely as words, as they so often are in the world to-day. Hence, if one is to give a true picture of that part of the world of reality lived through by a man during his historical period, one has to start by describing his relation to the spiritual worlds. For only in this way are we enabled to find our way about in the language used, and in all that was done in those ancient times to maintain a connection with the spiritual worlds.
Yesterday I described how the Druid priests set up stones and screened them in such a way that, by gazing into the shadow thrown within this structure and looking through the stones, they could gain information concerning the will of the spiritual worlds which impressed itself into the physical. But something else also was connected with this. In the spiritual world there is not only a going away, but also always a coming back. Just as there are forces of time which carry us forward through physical existence on Earth, and after death draw us backwards again, so, in the structures set up by the Druids, there are forces descending from above and also forces ascending from below. Hence in these structures the Druid priests watched both a downward and an upward stream. When their structures were set up on appropriate sites, the priests could perceive not only the will of divine Spirits coming down from the Cosmos but — because in the upward stream the one-dimensional prevailed — they could perceive the good or bad elements which belonged to members of their community and flowed out from them into the Cosmos. Thus these stones served as an observatory for the Druid priests, enabling them to see how the souls of their people stood in relation to the Cosmos. 1See the volume of four lectures given by Dr. Steiner in September, 1923, shortly after his return to the Continent from Penmaenmawr. The volume is entitled: Man in the Past, the Present and the Future. These three lectures are followed by a fourth, The Sun-Initiation of the Druid Priest and his Moon-science. (Rudolf Steiner Press, London.)
All these secrets, all these mysteries, are connected with things that have remained from ancient times, and exist now in so decadent a form. They can be understood only when through the power of individual Imagination, Inspiration and Intuition, the world of the Spirit is raised once more out of its hidden existence and brought into consciousness.
These circular movements — which are of course meant metaphorically, since one is moving in the one-dimensional realm — are gone through repeatedly during a man's life between death and a new birth. And as with this revolution — going out from birth to death and returning from death to birth — so do others take their course in the whole of a man's life between death and rebirth, but in such a way that there is always a change of level between the experience of the going out and the experience of returning. In the first round of the wheel of birth, the distinction lies in our experiencing the out-going half up to death, and the return half — which lasts, when measured by earthly time, for a third of our life on Earth — immediately after physical death. Then the first round has been completed. Others follow, and we go on making such rounds until we come to a very definite place from which we can journey back in the way I shall be picturing tomorrow. We continue to complete these rounds of the wheel until we reach the point, in our life as a whole, which indicates the death we experienced in our last incarnation.
Thus in circles — though our first experience after death is a looking backwards, a living backwards — we live through what we underwent between our last death and last birth into Earth-existence. Each of these circular journeys corresponds in its outgoing to a cosmic life of sleep. If one were to describe further these circles, one would say that the outgoing always corresponds with a life after death, in that a man with his whole being goes out more into the cosmic world and is conscious of living within it — of becoming one with it.
When a man comes back into himself from the cosmic world, this return corresponds with his working on what he has experienced there, and now realises to be united with himself. As here on Earth we must have alternate sleeping and waking for a healthy life, between death and a new birth we have always to experience a flowing out into the Cosmos, when we feel ourselves to be as great and all-embracing as the Cosmos itself, and perceive the creations and deeds of the Cosmos as our own. We identify ourselves with the whole Universe so entirely that we say: That which you beheld with your physical eyes as an Earth-dweller; that which looked down on you in its physical reflection as the Cosmos of stars — in this you are now living. It is not, however, as physical stars but as divine-spiritual Beings that they are now uniting their existence with yours. You have, as it were, dissolved into the life of the Cosmos, and the divine-spiritual Beings of the Cosmos are living within you. You have identified yourself with them. That is one part of the experience we pass through between death and a new birth — whether you call it cosmic night or cosmic day. The terms used on Earth are naturally a matter of indifference to the Gods living in the spiritual world. In order to bring home to ourselves what we experience out there, we have to use earthly forms of speech, but they must be such as will correspond with the reality.
The times in which we grow together with the Cosmos, identify ourselves with the whole Cosmos, are followed by other times when we draw back, as it were, into a single point within ourselves — when everything we first experienced as being poured out into the whole Cosmos is now felt as a cosmic memory, inwardly united with ourselves. We feel the wheel of births as though perpetually turning, carrying us out into the Cosmos and back into ourselves, there to experience in miniature what we have lived through out there. Then we go out again, and return again, following a spiral path. The wheel of births can indeed be described as a spiral movement, perpetually turning in on itself. In this way, between death and a new birth, we progress through an alternation of self-experience and self-surrender. To say this, however, takes us only as far as if we were to describe events on Earth in the course of the twenty-four hours by saying: Human beings sleep and wake. We have merely gone that far with such a description of a man's experience between death and a new birth in the spiritual world. For the outgoing surrender and the drawing back again of the self in the spiritual world are similar to waking and sleeping in earthly life. And as in earthly life only those events a man has lived through find a place, so in the completion of these wheels of births and deaths the spiritual events involved are those a man has actually experienced between death and rebirth. In order to grasp these events we must form a sound conception of how matters really stand for a man in earthly life.
Strictly speaking, a man is awake only in his conceptual world and in a closely connected part of his world of feeling. When he intends to do anything, if only to pick up a pencil, his intention lives in a concept and shoots down into the will, which then makes a demand on the muscles, until the further concept of having grasped the pencil comes to him. All this activity, expressing his will and desire, remains shrouded in darkness for his earthly consciousness; it resembles his life of sleep. Only in our concepts and in part of our feeling-life are we normally awake. In the other part of our feeling, the part that approves or disapproves the actions of the will, and in the will itself, we are asleep.
Now we do not take our thoughts with us after death. We take them into that life after death as little as we take them with us at night. In the world between death and a new birth we have to form our own thoughts in keeping with that world. We do, however, take with us that which lies in our subconscious — our will and the part of our feeling connected with it. It is precisely with everything of which we are unconscious in earthly life, with all that lives in our impulses and desires, and in our will influenced by the senses, and with all that lives spiritually in our will — it is with all this that we go through the time between death and rebirth, making conscious our cosmic thoughts about our unconscious experiences on Earth.
If we wish to understand the times lived through immediately beyond the gate of death, we must be clear that the experiences which come to the soul from the physical body take on another aspect directly we no longer possess a physical body. It is not your physical body, with its chemical substances, that experiences hunger and thirst; these are experiences of the soul. But it is through the physical body that all such cravings are satisfied here on Earth. Hunger lives in the soul, and in earthly life hunger is satisfied through the body; through the body thirst is quenched, although thirst, too, lives in the soul. When you have passed the gate of death you no longer have a physical body, but you still have thirst and hunger. You carry them through the gate of death, and for a third of the length of your life on Earth, while you are going backwards through your nights, you have time to disaccustom yourself from thirst, hunger, and all other desires experienced only through the body. Herein consists the inner experience after death of this third of your life on Earth: everything that can be gratified only through the body — or at any rate only in earthly life — is purged from the soul, and the soul is freed from these desires. We shall see later what lies further on.
I have now given you a description of part of a man's experience after he passes through the gate of death — a description based on what we have gone into to-day. To-morrow we will look further into the life between death and rebirth, in its connection with the whole earthly evolution of mankind. We must, however, be clear about the scope of the events which enter into earthly life. A great deal that can now be investigated only through Imagination, Inspiration and Intuition was at one time open to people through a kind of instinctive vision. The night was not such a closed book for them. Their waking life took a more dreamlike course, and in its dream-pictures revealed more of the spiritual world.
I should like now to draw attention to something you will see more clearly during the next few days. We are living in an age when human beings are exposed in the highest degree to the danger of losing all connection with the spiritual world. And perhaps, as we are so close here to centres reminiscent of the old European Druids, it will be appropriate to mention certain symptoms, which, though not harmful in themselves, show not only what is taking place on Earth but also what is happening spiritually behind the scenes of existence.
Now consider medieval man, including his shadow-side; consider the so-called Dark Ages; compare all this with mankind to-day. I will take only two symptoms which can show us how, from the spiritual standpoint, we should look upon the world. Turn to a medieval book. Every single letter is as though painted in. We seem actually to see how the eye rested on those characters. The writer's whole mood of soul, when it rested upon the written letters in those days, was attuned to enter deeply into whatever could come to him as revelations of the spiritual worlds.
And now consider a great deal of handwriting to-day — it is hardly legible! The letters cannot give one anything like the pleasure one has from a painting; they are thrown on the paper as though with a mechanical movement of the hand — or so it appears very often. Moreover the time is already beginning when there will no longer be any writing by hand — nothing but typewriting — and we shall no longer experience any connection with the words on the paper. This, and the motorcar, are the two symptoms which show what is going on behind the scenes of existence, and how human beings are driven away more and more from the spiritual world.
Do not think I want to come before you as a typical reactionary who would like to put a stop to cars and typewriters, or even to this terrible handwriting. Anyone who realises how the world is going knows very well that such things have to be; they are justified. Hence there is no question of abolishing them; I am saying only that in dealing with them we should be on our guard. These things have to come and must be accepted in the same way that we accept night and day, although enthusiasm for them may be found chiefly among people who are strongly inclined to materialism. All these developments, however, the illegible handwriting, the distressing noise of typewriters, and the quite horrible rushing of motorcars — all this has to be faced in order that men should rightly develop a vigorous approach to spiritual knowledge, spiritual feeling, and spiritual will. There is no question of fighting against the material, but of getting to know its reality and necessity; and also of seeing how essential it is that strength of spirit should be brought to bear against the crushing weight of physical existence. Then, through a swing of the pendulum between cars and typewriters and Imaginations and insight into the spiritual world — the fruits of spiritualscientific work — the healthy development of mankind can be furthered, which otherwise can only be prejudiced.
This has to be said particularly in Penmaenmawr, for here, on the one hand, we perceive how the Imaginations from the old days of the Druids remain, as I have already described; while on the other hand we discover how forcibly these Imaginations are destroyed by the rushing of motorcars through the atmosphere.