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True and False Paths in Spiritual Investigation
GA 243

1. Nature is the Great Illusion; Know Thyself

Torquay, 11 August, 1924

I have been asked to speak in these lectures about paths leading to a knowledge of the super-sensible world. This knowledge, and our knowledge of the phenomenal world, the fruit of years of patient and diligent study, to which we owe the magnificent achievements of modern times, are complementary. For reality can be apprehended only by the person who is able to reinforce the remarkable discoveries which the natural and historical sciences have added to our stock of knowledge in recent times with insight derived from the spiritual world.

Wherever the external world confronts us we are in no doubt that it is both spiritual and physical; behind every physical phenomenon will be found in some form or other a spiritual agent which is the real protagonist. The spiritual cannot exist in a vacuum for the spiritual is operative at all times and actively permeates the physical at some undefined time or place.

I propose to discuss in these lectures how the world in which man lives may be known in its totality, on the one hand through a consideration of his physical environment and, on the other hand, through the perception of the spiritual. In this way I hope to indicate the true and false methods of attaining such knowledge.

Before touching upon the actual subject matter of these lectures tomorrow I should like to offer a brief introduction so that you may have some idea of what to expect from them and what purpose I have in view. They are concerned in the first place to bring home to us the question: why do we undertake spiritual investigation at all? Why, as thinking, feeling, practical persons, are we not prepared to accept the phenomenal world as it is and take an active part in it? Why do we strive at all to attain knowledge of a spiritual world? In this context I should like to refer to an ancient conception, an old saying that embraces a truth ever more widely accepted and which, inherited from the earliest days of human thinking and aspiration, is still found today when we inquire into the Ground of the world. Without in any way using these ancient, outmoded conceptions as a basis, I would like, none the less, to call attention to them whenever the occasion arises.

From the East there echoes across thousands of years the saying: the world that we perceive with our senses is Maya, the Great Illusion. And if, as man has always felt during the course of his development, the world is Maya, then he must transcend the ‘Great Illusion’ to find ultimate truth. But why did man look upon this world of sense-impressions as Maya? Why, precisely in the earliest times when men were nearer to the spirit than they are today, did the Mystery Centres arise, Centres that were dedicated to the cultivation of science, religion, art and practical living, whose aim was to point the way to truth and reality, in contradistinction to that which, purely in the external world, was the Great Illusion, the source of man's knowledge and activity? How is one to account for those illustrious sages who trained their neophytes in the ancient, holy Mysteries and sought to lead them from illusion to truth? This question can only be answered if one reviews man more dispassionately, from a more detached angle.

“Know thyself!” — such is another ancient saying that comes down to us from the past. From the fusion of these two sayings — ‘the world is Maya,’ from the East, and ‘know thyself!’, from ancient Greece — there first arose the quest for spiritual knowledge amongst later humanity. But in the ancient Mysteries, too, the quest for truth and reality had its origin in this twofold perception that, in the final analysis, the world is illusion and that man must attain to self-knowledge.

It is, however, only through life itself that man can come to terms with this question, not through thinking alone, but through the will, and through full participation in the reality immediately accessible to us as human beings. Neither in full consciousness, nor in clear understanding, but with deep emotion, every man the world over can say to himself: ‘Such as is the outer world that you see and hear, that you cannot be.’

This feeling goes deep. One must reflect upon the implication of these words: ‘Such as is the external world that you perceive with your five senses, that you cannot be.’ When we look at the plants we see the first green shoots emerge in springtime; they blossom in summer and towards autumn they ripen and bear fruit. We see them grow, fade and die: the duration of their life-cycle is a single year. We see, too, how many plants absorb from the soil certain substances which build up the main stem. On the way here yesterday evening by road we saw many extremely old plants which had absorbed quantities of these hardening substances in order that their life-cycle should not be limited to a single year, but should be extended over a longer period of time and thus would bear new growing-points on their stems. And it is given to man to observe how these plants grow, fade and die.

And when he observes the animals, he realizes their impermanence; so too with the mineral kingdom. He observes the mineral deposits in the majestic mountain ranges. And armed with his scientific knowledge, he realizes that they too are impermanent. And finally he turns to some conception such as the Ptolemaic or Copernican system, for example, or some conception borrowed from the ancient or later Mysteries — and he concludes as follows: all that I see in the splendour of the stars, all that irradiates me from sun and moon with their wondrous and complex orbits — all this, too, is impermanent. But apart from impermanence, the kingdom of nature has other attributes. These are of such a kind that man, if he is to know himself, should not assume that he and all that is impermanent — the plants, minerals, sun, moon and stars — are similarly constituted.

Man then comes to the conclusion: I bear within me some quality that is different from anything I see and hear around me. I must arrive at an understanding of my own being, for I cannot find it in anything that I see and hear.

In all the ancient Mysteries men felt this urge to discover the reality of their inner being, whereas all the transient phenomena of space and time were felt to be an expression of the Great Illusion. And so, in order to arrive at an understanding of man's inner being, they looked beyond the findings of sense-perception.

And here they experienced a spiritual world. How to find the right path to the spiritual world will be the subject of these lectures. You can readily imagine that man's first impulse will be to follow the same procedure he adopted in exploring the phenomenal world. He will simply transfer the method of sense-perception to his exploration of the spiritual world. If, however, investigation into the phenomenal world is usually fraught with illusion, then it is probable that the possibilities of illusion will be increased rather than diminished if the methods for investigating the phenomenal world are also applied to the spiritual world. And, in effect, this is what happens. In consequence we merely become the victims of an illusion all the more compelling.

And again, if we harbour vague anticipations, nebulous enthusiasms, unaccountable presentiments from dark corners of the soul, dream-fantasies about the spiritual, it will remain forever unknown to us. We remain in the world of conjecture; we share a belief, but have no real knowledge. If we are content simply to adopt this course, the spiritual will become not better known to us, but progressively more unknown. Thus man may go doubly astray.

On the one hand, he pursues the same line of enquiry in relation to the spiritual and phenomenal world. And the phenomenal world is found to be illusion. If he pursues the same approach to the spiritual world, as the ordinary spiritualists sometimes do, then he is subject to even greater illusions.

On the other hand he can follow the other way of approach. In this case no attempt is made to investigate the spiritual world along clear-cut, intelligible lines, but through self-induced belief and nebulous enthusiasm. Consequently the spiritual world remains a closed book. No matter how urgently we pursue the path of vague conjecture and emotional enthusiasm we shall know progressively less about the spiritual world. In the first instance the illusion is magnified, in the second, our ignorance. As against these two false paths we must find the right path.

We must bear in mind how impossibly difficult it is to substitute a knowledge of the true self for a knowledge of the Great Illusion in the sense I have indicated; and furthermore, if one intends to prepare oneself for a true, authentic approach to spiritual understanding, how impossible it is, in a state of illusion, to overcome all these nebulous feelings about the true self and come to a clear perception of reality. Let us look quite impartially at what is here involved. A materialist can never feel such deep admiration and respect for the recent scientific discoveries of Darwin, Huxley, Spencer and others as the man who has insight into the spiritual world. For these men, and many others since the time of Giordano Bruno, spared no effort in order to gain insight into what the ancient Mysteries considered to be the world of Maya. There is no need to accept the theories advanced by Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Copernicus, Galileo and the rest. Let others theorize about the universe as they will; we have no intention of being drawn into their arguments. But we must recognize the tremendous impetus given by these men to the detailed, factual study of specific organs in man, animals and plants, or of some particular problem relating to the mineral kingdom. Just imagine how much we have learned in recent times about the functions of the glands, nerves, heart, brain, lungs, liver, etc. as a result of their stimulating researches. They deserve our greatest respect and admiration. But in real life this knowledge can take us only to a certain point. Let me give you three examples to illustrate my point.

We can follow in great detail the first human egg-cell; how it gradually develops into a human embryo, how the various organs evolve step by step and how, from the tiny peripheral organs the complex heart and circulatory system are built up. All this can be demonstrated. We can follow the organic growth of the plant from root to blossom and seed and from this factual information we can construct a theory of the universe that embraces the Cosmos.

Our astronomers and astro-physicists have already done this. They set up a theory of the Cosmos showing how the world emerges from a stellar-nebular system which assumed a progressively more definite form and was capable of spontaneous generation. But despite all this theorizing, we come ultimately face to face once again with the essential being of man, the problem of how to respond to the injunction, ‘Know thyself!’ If we know only the self that is limited to a knowledge of the minerals, plants, animals, human glandular and circulatory systems, we know only the world man enters at birth and leaves at death. But, in the final analysis, man feels that he is not limited to the temporal world. Therefore, in face of all that knowledge of the external world yields in such grandeur and perfection, he must answer from the depths of his being: all this you affirm only between birth and death. But do you know your essential self, your true essence? The moment that the knowledge of man and nature has moral and religious implications, the human being whose organs can only apprehend the world of the Great Illusion is reduced to silence. The injunction, “Know thyself, so that thou mayest know in thine innermost being whence thou comest and whither thou art going,” this problem of cognition, the moment religious issues are raised, cannot be answered at this limited level of understanding.

On entering the Mystery Schools the neophyte was left in no doubt that however much he may have learned through sense-observation, this information could offer no answer to the great riddle of human nature when religious issues were involved.

Furthermore, though we may have the most precise knowledge of the structure of the human head, of the characteristic movements of man's arms and hands, of his gait and stance, though we may respond never so sensitively to the forms of animals and plants in so far as we can know them through sense-observation, directly we try to give artistic expression to this information we are again faced with an unanswerable problem.

For how have men hitherto expressed through art their knowledge of the world? They owed their inspiration to the Mystery teachings. Their knowledge of nature and its various aspects was related to the existing level of understanding, but at the same time it was enriched by spiritual insight.

One need only look back to ancient Greece. Today a sculptor or painter works from the model — at least this was the practice until recently. He sets out to copy and imitate. The Greek artist did not work in this way, although he is alleged to have done so; rather did he sense the spiritual human form within himself In sculpture, if he wished to portray an arm in movement, he was aware that the external world was informed by a spiritual content, that every material object has been created out of the spirit and in his work he strove to recreate the spirit.

Even as late as the Renaissance a painter did not use a model; it served only as a stimulus. He knew intuitively what activated hand or arm and expressed this information in his rendering of movement. Merely to portray the external and superficial aspects of the world of Maya, merely to copy the model, does not advance our understanding; we do not see thereby more deeply into man, but are concerned only with externals and so remain a spectator outside him.

From the standpoint of art, if we fail to transcend the world of Maya we are faced with the formidable problem of human nature and no answer is vouchsafed us.

And again, on entering the old Mysteries, it was made clear to the neophyte who was about to be initiated: if you remain within the world of Maya, you will be unable to penetrate the essential being of man or of any other kingdom of Nature. You cannot become an artist. In the sphere of art it was found necessary to remind the neophyte of the clear injunction, “Know thyself,” and then he began to feel the need for spiritual knowledge.

But, you will object, there are thoroughly materialistic sculptors. After all they were no mere amateurs and knew what they were about. They too knew how to draw forth the secrets from their model and invest their figures and motifs with these secrets. That is indeed so, but whence did they derive their knowledge? People fail to realize that this ability did not come from the artists themselves. They owed it to earlier artists who in their turn had it from their predecessors. They worked from a tradition. But they were unwilling to admit this because they claimed they owed everything to themselves. They knew how the old masters worked and imitated them. But the earliest of the old masters learned their secret from the spiritual insights of the Mysteries. Raphae1 and Michelangelo learned it from those who still drew on the Mysteries.

But true art must be created out of the spiritual. There is no other solution. As soon as we touch upon the problem of man, any perception of the Great Illusion has no answer to life's problems, to the problem of man's destiny. If we are to return to the fountain-head of art and artistic creativity we must recover insight into the spiritual world.

Now a third example. The botanist or zoologist can gain wonderfully detailed knowledge of the form of every available plant. The bio-chemist can describe the processes that take place in plant life. He can also tell how foodstuffs are assimilated in the metabolic system, are absorbed by the blood vessels in the walls of the alimentary canal and are carried in the blood to the nervous system. A gifted anatomist, physiologist, botanist or geologist can cover a wide field of the world of Maya, but if he intends to use this knowledge for purposes of healing or medical treatment, if he wishes to press forward from the outer, or even the inner constitution of man to his essential being, he cannot do it.

You will reply: but there are doctors in plenty who are materialists and have no interest in the spiritual world. They treat patients in accordance with the methods of natural science and yet they achieve results.

That is so. But they are able to affect cures because they too have behind them a tradition based upon an old world-conception. Old remedies were derived from the Mysteries, but they all shared a remarkable characteristic. If you look at an old prescription, you will find that it is highly complicated. It makes considerable demands upon those who prepare it and who apply it to the particular purpose laid down by tradition. If you had gone to an old physician and had asked how such a prescription was made up he would never have replied: first I make chemical experiments and ascertain whether the materials behave in such and such a way; then I try it out on the patients and note the results. Such an idea would never have occurred to him. People have no idea of the circumstances prevalent in earlier epochs. He would have replied: I live in a laboratory (if I may call it that) that was equipped on the basis of the Mystery teaching and when I light upon a remedy I owe it to the Gods. He was quite clear on this point, that he was in close communication with the spiritual world through the whole atmosphere engendered in his laboratory. Spiritual beings were as unmistakably present to him as human beings are to us. He was aware that through the influence of spiritual beings he had attained a higher dimension of being and was able to achieve more than would otherwise have been possible. And he proceeded to make up his complicated prescriptions, not from natural knowledge, but as the Gods dictated. It was known within the Mysteries that, in order to understand man, one should not be identified with the world of Maya, but press on to the truth of the divine world.

With all their knowledge of the external world men are further today from the truth of the divine world than were the ancients with their knowledge derived from the Mysteries. But the way back must be found again.

From the third example it is evident that if we seek to heal, even though equipped with the widest possible knowledge of nature (that is, of the world of Maya), then we are faced again with the unsolved problems of human life and destiny. If we wish to understand man from the standpoint of Maya, the “Great Illusion,” from the standpoint of the “Know thyself” which is demanded for the purposes of healing, then we shall be unable to advance a single step further in our understanding.

And so, in the light of these examples, we can say: he who wishes to bridge the gap between the world of Maya and the “Know thyself” will realize, the moment he approaches the human being with religious feeling, as a creative artist, as healer or doctor, that he stands before a void if his sole starting-point is the world of illusion. He is powerless unless he finds a form of knowledge that transcends the knowledge of external nature, which is knowledge of Maya, the Great Illusion.

Let us now draw a comparison between the way in which men sought, out of the spirit of the Mysteries, to reach a comprehensive knowledge of the world and the way in which this is attempted today. We shall then be in a position to find our bearings in relation to the paths leading to this comprehensive knowledge

A few thousand years ago the world and its divine Ground or essence were spoken of very differently from the way in which authorities speak to-day. Let us look back to that epoch a few thousand years ago, when a sublime and majestic knowledge flourished in the Mysteries of the Near East. We will attempt to look more closely into the nature of this knowledge by giving a brief description of its characteristics.

In ancient Chaldea, the following was taught: man's soul forces reach their maximum potentiality when he directs the eye of the spirit to the wonderful contrast between the life of sleep (his consciousness is dimmed, he is oblivious of his environment) and his waking life (he is clear-sighted, he is aware of the world around). These alternating conditions of sleep and waking were experienced differently thousands of years ago. Sleep was less unconscious, waking life not so fully conscious. In sleep man was aware of powerful, ever changing images, of the flux and movement of the life of worlds. He was in touch with the divine Ground, the essence, of the universe.

The dimming of consciousness during sleep is a consequence of human evolution. A few thousand years ago waking life was not so clear and lucid as today. Objects had no clearly defined contours, they were blurred. They radiated spiritual qualities in various forms. There was not the same abrupt transition from sleep to waking life. The men of that epoch were still able to distinguish these two states, and the environment of their waking life was called ‘Apsu.’ This life of flux and movement experienced in sleep, this realm that blurred the clear distinction between the minerals, plants and animals of waking life, was called ‘Tiamat.’ Now the teaching in the Chaldean Mystery Schools was that when man, in a state of sleep, shared the flux and movement of Tiamat, he was closer to truth and reality than when he lived his conscious life amongst minerals, plants and animals. Tiamat was nearer to the Ground of the world, more closely related to the world of man than Apsu. Apsu was more remote. Tiamat represented something that lay nearer to man. But in the course of time Tiamat underwent changes and this was brought to the notice of the neophytes in the Mystery Schools. From the life of flux and movement of Tiamat emerged demoniacal forms, equine shapes with human heads, leonine forms with the heads of angels. They arose out of the warp and woof of Tiamat and these demoniacal forms became hostile to man.

Then there appeared in the world a powerful Being, Ea. Anyone today who has an ear for sounds can feel how the conjunction of these two vowels points to that powerful Being who, according to these old Mystery teachings, stood at man's side to help him when the demons of Tiamat grew strong. Ea or Ia, became later — if one anticipates the particle ‘Soph’ — Soph-Ea, Sophia. Ea implies approximately abstract wisdom, wisdom that permeates all things. Soph is a particle that suggests (approximately) a state of being. Sophia, Sophea, Sopheia, the all-pervading, omnipresent wisdom sent to mankind her son, then known as Marduk, later called Micha-el, the Micha-el who is invested with authority from the hierarchy of the Angels. He is the same Being as Marduk, the son of Ea, wisdom — Marduk-Micha-el.

According to the Mystery teachings Marduk-Micha-el was great and powerful and all the demoniacal beings such as horses with human heads and leonine forms with angels' heads — all these surging, mobile, demoniacal forms, conjoined as the mighty Tiamat, were arrayed against him. Marduk-Micha-el was powerful enough to command the storm wind that sweeps through the world. All that Tiamat embodied was seen as a living reality, and rightly so, for that is how they experienced it. All these demons together were envisaged as the adversary, a powerful dragon which embodied all the demoniacal powers born out of Tiamat, the night. And this dragon-being, breathing fire and fury, advanced upon Marduk. Micha-el first smote him with various weapons and then drove the whole force of his storm-wind into the dragon's entrails so that Tiamat burst asunder and was scattered abroad. [>The “Poem of Creation” says: “The North Wind bore (it) to places undisclosed.”] And so Marduk-Micha-el was able to create out of him the Heavens above and the Earth beneath. Thus arose the Above and the Below.

Such was the teaching of the Mysteries. The eldest son of Ea, wisdom, has vanquished Tiamat and has fashioned from one part of him the Heavens above and from the other the Earth below. And if, O man, you lift your eyes to the stars, you will see one part of that which Marduk-Micha-el formed in the Heavens out of the fearful abyss of Tiamat for the benefit of mankind. And if you look below, where the plants grow out of the mineralized Earth, where minerals begin to take form, you will find the other part which the son of Ea, wisdom, has recreated for the benefit of mankind.

Thus the ancient Chaldeans looked back to the formative period of the world, to the forming from the formless; they saw into the workshop of creation and perceived a living reality. These demon forms of the night, all these nocturnal monsters, the weaving, surging beings of Tiamat had been transformed by Marduk-Micha-el into the stars above and the Earth beneath. All the demons transformed by Marduk-Micha-el into shining stars, all that grows out of the Earth, the transformed skin and tissue of Tiamat — this is the form in which the men of ancient times pictured whatsoever came to them through the old attributes of the soul. That information they accounted as knowledge.

Then the priests of the Mysteries anticipated the future by studying the psychic powers of their pupils. And when the neophytes had developed adequate strength of soul they were in a position to understand the first elementary lessons that children are taught in school today — that the Earth revolves round the Sun and that worlds are formed from nebulae. This knowledge was a well-guarded secret in those days. The teaching given openly was concerned, on the other hand, with the deeds of Marduk-Micha-el which I have just described to you. In our schools and universities today — and they lay no claim to secrecy — and even in our primary schools the Copernican system and astro-physics are taught, subjects which, in ancient times, only the sages dared undertake or were permitted to undertake and then only after long preparation. What every schoolboy knows could, in those days, be learned only by Initiates. Today all this is part of the school curriculum.

There was an epoch dating further back still than the epoch of the old Chaldean Mysteries, when people spoke only of such things as I have described — of Ea, of Marduk-Micha-el, of Apsu and Tiamat. They abhorred everything taught by these ‘eccentric’ Mystery teachers about the movements of the stars or of the sun; they wished to study, not the invisible, but solely the visible and tangible, though in the personified or symbolic forms revealed through old clairvoyance. They rejected the knowledge which the old Initiate-teachers and their pupils had acquired. Then came the time when the primeval wisdom was gradually diffused from the East, and both forms of knowledge were treasured. Men set great store on the manifestations of the Beings of the spiritual worlds, the deeds of Marduk-Micha-el, for example; and equally they treasured what could be illustrated diagrammatically — the sun in the centre and the planetary bodies revolving round it in cycles and epicycles. Then, in the course of time, insight into the spiritual worlds, the worlds of demons and gods, was lost and intellectual knowledge was fostered, the knowledge which we prize so highly today and which reached its zenith in the early years of our epoch. We are now living in an epoch that ignores the spiritual, even as the phenomenal world was ignored by those to whom the spiritual was self-evident. We have to anticipate the time when we shall again be in a position to accept side by side with the teachings of astronomers, astrophysicists, zoologists and botanists a knowledge of spiritual realities derived from spiritual insights. This epoch is now imminent and we must be ready to meet it if we are to accomplish our task and rediscover amongst other things the religious source of art and the art of healing.

Just as in ancient times the spiritual dwelt amongst men whilst the material world was contemned, to be followed by an epoch when material knowledge was fostered and the spiritual suppressed, so now the time must come when we must transform our vast, comprehensive knowledge of the external world, so deserving of admiration, into a renewed knowledge of the Mystery teachings. Since the material science of today has torn down the edifice of the old spirituality, so that nothing survives of the ancient structure save, at most, those fragments that we unearth, we must once again recover the spiritual; but there must be a full and clear understanding of everything we bring to light when we delve into the history of past epochs. We must find our way back to the spiritual through a new creative art imbued with religious feeling, through a new art of healing and through a new knowledge of the spirit that permeates the being of man.

These are three examples which I have given you today in the hope that we may strive to renew the Mysteries which shall give us an understanding of the Ground and principle of the world in its entirety and an understanding of man who shall work as a fully integrated person rather than as a narrow materialist to promote the welfare and enlightenment of his fellow men.