Nervous Conditions in Our Time
11 January 1912, Munich
Translated by George Adams (1929) with some emendations
Here is much complaint nowadays of ‘nervousness’ and all that this word implies; and we can scarcely be surprised at the statement that there is no man or woman nowadays who is not nervous. We can well understand even this declaration. These conditions manifest themselves in life in various ways: most easily in this way, that the person becomes what we might call a ‘psychological fidget’ — that is to say, a man or woman who is unable to hold fast a single thought, but constantly jumps from one thought to another. This constant hurry of the inner life is one of the easiest forms of nervousness. There is also another form, where people do not know what to do with themselves — cannot make anything of themselves. Or again this: when they are called upon to make some decision, they never know what they shall do in the given situation. This latter nervousness can lead to still worse symptoms, till it expresses itself in manifold forms of disease, even imitating organic diseases — gastric disturbances, for instance — in a most deceptive way. Many another condition might be mentioned. Who does not know of these things in our time? We need not go so far as to speak of a ‘political alcoholism’ with regard to the great events of public life. Quite recently, there has been no little comment on public affairs in this direction. This very phrase was recently coined for the way the political affairs in Europe were conducted during recent months. People began to perceive how very unpleasantly the prevailing nervousness is making itself felt.
Now there can be no doubt that it will grow no better for mankind in the near future. The prospects are by no means hopeful; for there are many harmful factors and abuses, strongly influencing our present life, and passing like an epidemic from one man to another, so that others who are in good health generally, but who are weak, are as if infected by them. Among other things, it is extremely harmful for our time that many people who come into high and responsible positions have studied in the way one does. There are whole branches of scholarship, pursued in this way: For a whole year, the college student will spend his time and energy quite otherwise than really thinking what the professors are giving in their lectures. Then, when he has to know something for his examination, he will set to work and ‘cram’ for it during a few weeks; and the worst feature is that there is no real connection — no inner interest of the soul in the cramming, or rather, in the subject of the cramming. In our schools, the prevailing opinion of the pupils often is: ‘If only I could soon forget what I have just had to learn!’ What is the consequence? No doubt, in some respects, men are thus fitted to take a hand in public life. But they are not inwardly united with the thing that they are doing; they feel remote from it. Now there is nothing worse than to feel remote, in your heart, from the things that you are having to do with your head. It has a most adverse effect on the strength of the human ethereal body. The ethereal body becomes more and more enfeebled under such pursuits, precisely because of the very slight connection which then exists between the core of the man's soul and the activity that he engages in.
For one who takes it in a healthy way, Anthroposophy should have precisely the opposite effect. He will not merely learn that man consists of ‘physical body, ethereal body, astral body and Ego;’ he will behave in such a way that the several members unfold strongly and healthily. If a man makes a very simple experiment but repeats it with diligence, he will often find that the very slightest thing can work miracles. What I have just described is closely connected with the quick forgetfulness of many people. It is often said that such forgetfulness is a great nuisance in life. Anthroposophy says more than this; it shows that it is also harmful to health. Many things even bordering on very severe illnesses of human nature would be avoided if people were less forgetful. And who can claim to be exempt? Who has not to complain of forgetfulness in some respect? Assume, for instance, that a man begins to notice he can never find things where he put them. It may seem strange for us to be speaking of these things, but after all, they do occur in life; and there is a very good exercise for gradually curing such forgetfulness. Suppose, for instance, that a lady is in the habit of putting her brooch down somewhere, and presently discovers that she can never find it again in the morning. No doubt, you will say, the best thing to do is always to put it in the same place; but we will speak of a far more effective cure. She should say to herself: ‘Now, all the more, I will put it in different places; but as I do so, I will unfold the thought: I have put the thing there, and I will mark the surroundings well. And now I quietly go away; and I shall see, if I only do this once, I shall not always succeed in finding it again quickly; but if I do it often, I shall see that my forgetfulness by-and-by disappears.’ The effect of this exercise is that the Ego is brought into connection with the fact, with the deed I do, and that a picture is developed. This bringing-together of the soul and spirit — the Ego, the kernel of our being, — and the pictorial image, can most effectively sharpen one's memory. And this can be very useful for life; one will forget far less. Still more, however, can be attained. Let us assume that it became a kind of habit for people to hold such thoughts when they take things off or when they put things aside. It would represent a strengthening of the ethereal body. For, as we know, the ethereal body is in a certain sense the bearer of memory. We need not therefore be surprised that this will strengthen the ethereal body. Assume, however, that you give someone this advice, not merely because he is forgetful but because he shows certain signs of nervousness. You will see that it is a very good cure; he will gradually put aside certain so-called nervous conditions. Life itself in such a case will prove that the things Anthroposophy teaches are correct.
In human nature, as you know, the physical body and the ethereal body are immediately connected. Now there is one thing observable in our time, which moves one with compassion if one bears a healthy soul in one's breast. Have you ever seen people who have to write much in their profession — Post Office workers, for example — and who make strange movements whenever they are about to write? It need not go so far as that, for when it has gone so far, it is already a pretty bad condition. It may be no more than this: that whenever they are writing, they have to give themselves a kind of jerk — a repeated jerk for every upward or every downward stroke. You can tell it from the handwriting if it is written like that. Such a condition can only be understood by Spiritual Science. As to the relation of the two bodies, in a thoroughly healthy human being the ethereal body must always be absolutely able to enter into the physical; and the physical body must always be the other's servant. It is an unhealthy state of affairs if the physical body executes movements on its own account; it represents a preponderance of the physical over the ethereal. We are then faced with an inherent weakness of the ethereal body. This kind of relation between the physical and the ethereal body lies at the occult foundation of every kind of cramp or convulsion. In all such conditions, the physical body is dominant and performs all manner of movements on its own. Here again — provided these conditions have not got the upper hand too much — there is a way of helping. We must only reckon with the occult facts; we must believe in the existence and activity of the several members of man's being.
Suppose someone has got into such a condition that his fingers continually shake when he begins to write. It will certainly be good to advise: ‘Take a holiday, write less for a time, and you will get over it!’ But this is only half the necessary advice; one could do much more by adding: ‘Without making too much effort, try every day — quarter or half an hour would do — to alter your writing, so that you have to attend, and not write mechanically, as in the past. For instance, while you used to write f in this way, do it now more upright, with a different form. Cultivate the habit of painting the letters.’
If spiritual knowledge became more widespread, the superiors of such an unfortunate man would not say, when he came back from his holiday: ‘What a crazy fellow you are, you are writing quite differently.’ People would realise that this is a healthy thing. The point is that when a man changes his handwriting, he is obliged to pay attention to what he is doing — that is, in other words, to bring the centre and core of his being into connection with the thing he does. To do so is to strengthen the ethereal body; thereby we become healthier human beings.
It would not be bad deliberately to work for this in school education. Anthroposophy must here give a piece of advice to the educational world, though doubtless it will not be followed for a long time yet. Suppose that when you first taught children to write, you taught them a certain style of handwriting; then, after a few years, you saw to it that they assumed a different character of writing. This change — and the conscious attention it involves — would result in an untold strengthening of the ethereal body.
You see that we can do something in life to strengthen our ethereal body. Now this is of immense importance, for numerous morbid states are due to the weakness of the ethereal body. Nay, we may even assert that many forms of illness would take an entirely different course if the ethereal body were stronger. The course they actually take is due to the weakened ethereal body, which is characteristic of the man of today.
What we have here been indicating represents a definite way of working upon the ethereal body. When we do this, we apply an actual force to something — a force we could certainly not apply if we denied the existence of this ‘something.’ If, then, the effects of the force thus applied became apparent, surely it proves the existence of the ‘something’ — namely, in this case, the ethereal body.
Another thing to strengthen the ethereal body is to perform yet another exercise for the improvement of memory. It may already have been mentioned; let me repeat it nevertheless. We can do infinitely much to strengthen the ethereal body if we go through something that is familiar to us, not only in the way we know it, but in backward sequence. Say, for example, in school we have to learn by heart a sequence of Kings or the like; it is extremely good to learn them also in the opposite direction. If we do this in a comprehensive way, we do much to strengthen the ethereal body. To think through a whole play backwards, for instance, is highly effective in strengthening the ethereal body.
You will soon see that in ordinary modern life people do not do such things as would contribute to strengthen their ethereal bodies. They do not give themselves a chance in the restless bustle of modern life; they do not come to that inner quiet which is needful for such exercises. In the evening, people are generally too tired to harbour such thoughts. But when Anthroposophy begins to penetrate into their souls, people will see how many things that are done in the bustle of modern life could well be spared; then it would not be impossible to gain the time for these strengthening and health-giving exercises. Moreover, people will quickly see the very good results that can be achieved if these things are already observed in education.
Another little exercise may now be mentioned. With certain things we do — no matter whether or no they are of such a nature as to leave a trace behind — it is a good exercise at the same time to look at the thing which we are doing. It is easy to do so, for instance, in writing. I am quite sure, many a person would soon wean himself of his hideous handwriting if he really contemplated the letters.
But there is another thing which it is quite good to do as an exercise, though it should not be prolonged. One should endeavour to watch oneself: how one walks, how one moves one's head, how one laughs, etc.; in short, one tries to get a clear notion of one's own movements and gestures. Very few people know what they look like from behind while they are walking. It is good to make this experiment; only it must not always be continued, for it would quickly lend itself to vanity. This exercise also tends to consolidate the ethereal body, and it works in such a way as to strengthen the control of the astral body over the ethereal body. You thus become able, if need be, to suppress certain actions or movements of your own free will. The point is, it is good to be able to do the things we habitually do, quite differently on occasion, so that we are not always obliged to do them in one way. One need not become a fanatical upholder of the indifferent use of the right and the left hand. But if a man is able now and then to do with the left hand what he commonly does with the right, he will strengthen the control of his astral body over his ethereal body.
The ‘culture of the will’, as we may call it, is notably important. I have already pointed out how often nervousness will take the form that people never know what they shall do; nay, they do not know what they shall desire, or even what they want to desire. They shrink from doing what they have resolved to do. We may regard it as a certain weakness of the will, but it is due to an insufficient command of the Ego over the astral body. Some people cannot bring themselves firmly to will what they should will. The way to strengthen one's will is not to carry out something one wishes — provided, needless to say, that it will do no harm to leave the wish unfulfilled. Examine yourself in life, and you will soon find countless things which it is very nice, no doubt, to satisfy, but equally possible to leave unsatisfied — when the fulfilment would give you pleasure, but you can quite well do without it. Set out in this way systematically, and every such restraint will signify an access of strength to the will; and that is, strength of the Ego over the astral body.
If we subject ourselves to this procedure in later life, we can still make good much that our education nowadays neglects. It is not easy, at this point, to find the right educational tact. If you are able to fulfil a pupil's wish and you deny it to him, you will awaken his antipathy; so, you might say, it seems doubtful if the non-fulfilment of wishes is a right principle in education, for you could easily call forth an all-too-great antipathy. What are you then to do? There is a way. Deny the wishes, not to your pupil but to yourself, so that the pupil perceives it; and as there is a strong imitative impulse, especially in the first seven years of life, you will soon see that the child will follow your example and deny wishes to himself.
A most important means of strengthening the control of the Ego over the astral body is to set forth what is to be said for and against one and the same thing. Look out into life, and you will see that people are constantly saying only the one thing. That is the usual state of affairs. But there is nothing in life which you can truly treat in this way; there are never no pros or cons. And it is good for all things if we acquire the habit of adducing the pros and the cons as well. Human vanity and egoism frequently favour what one is about to do; therefore it is also good to enlist the reasons against. The fact is this: Man would so like to be ‘a good man’; and he is convinced often that he will be, if only he does what there are so many reasons in favour of his doing, and leaves undone what there are so many reasons against. It is an uncomfortable fact, but there are many possible objections to practically everything you do! Truth to tell, you are not nearly as good as you believe. This is a universal truth — a truism, no doubt; but it is an effective truth if you make it a practice, with all things that you do, clearly to put before you what you might also leave undone. What you thereby attain is this: — No doubt you have sometimes met people so weak in their will that they would sooner leave others to run their affairs. They would far rather ask: What am I to do now? than find the reasons for their action in themselves. Let us assume that such a person, who is fond of asking others (what I am now saying, by the way, must also be conceived as having many cons as well as pros!) is confronted by two different people. One of them says: ‘Do this!’ the other says: ‘Don't do it!’ We shall see that the one counsellor gains the victory, namely, the one who has the stronger influence of will. This is a most significant phenomenon, for the Yes or the No is brought about by the will of an adviser, whose strength of will has gained the victory over the other's will. But now suppose that I stand quite alone, and in my own and inmost heart I face the Yes and the No, and then go and do the thing because I have given myself the answer Yes. This Yes will have unfolded a strong force within me. Thus when you place yourself in consciousness before a choice of alternatives, you let something that is strong overcome something that is weak. And that is important, for it greatly strengthens the control of the Ego over the astral body. You will do very much for the strength of your will, if you try to carry out what I am now describing. But there is also the shadow-side. For you will not strengthen your will, but only weaken it, if instead of acting under the influence of that which speaks for the one course or the other, out of mere slackness you do nothing. Seemingly you have then followed the No, while in reality you have merely been lax and easygoing. It will be good, not to attempt the choice when you feel limp and weary, but when you are inwardly strong and know that you can really follow what you place before your soul as the eventual pro or con. These things must be brought before the soul at the right time.
Another thing to strengthen the control of the I over the astral body is to dismiss from our souls everything that creates a barrier between us and our surroundings — not by withholding justified criticisms, but by distinguishing something that is to be blamed for its own sake from something that one finds exasperating because of its effect on oneself. The more one can make one's judgments, particularly about fellow-men, unaffected by their attitude to oneself, the better it is for the strengthening of the Ego in its control of the astral body. It is a good thing to practise this self-denial: not to consider bad in our fellow-men the things we can only consider bad because they are bad for ourselves; and, in effect, only to apply our judgment where we ourselves are not in question. You will see how difficult this is in life. For instance, when a man has lied to you, it is not easy to restrain your antipathy. Nevertheless, one need not go at once to others, to complain of him; but we can observe from day to day how he acts and speaks, and let this form a basis for our judgment, rather than what he has done to us. It is important to let things speak for themselves and to understand a person in himself, not through one particular action, but from the consistent pattern of his behaviour. You will soon find that even with a man whom you consider an exceptional scoundrel, many of the things he does are quite out of keeping with his conduct in other respects. It is good for the strengthening of our Ego, to meditate upon the fact that in all cases we might very well refrain from nine-tenths of the judgments we pronounce. It would be ample for life if only one-tenth of them were to be formed in our minds; it would by no means impoverish our life.
What I have told you today are apparently small details, but it must also be our task, now and then, to dwell upon these things. For then we see how very differently we must take hold of life than we generally do. It is not the most important thing to say that when a man is ill you should send to the chemist's for a medicine. The important thing is to order life in such a way that illnesses will become less and less oppressive; and they will become less oppressive if by such practices we strengthen the influence of the Ego over the astral body, of the astral body over the ethereal, and of the ethereal body over the physical. Self-education, and an influence upon the education of children, can follow from our fundamental anthroposophical convictions.