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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Presence of the Dead
GA 154

1. Understanding the Spiritual World I

18 April 1914, Berlin

When you remember a dream, it will probably be quite obvious to you that during the dream you merely observed the images weaving before your soul without having a clear awareness of yourself. Self-awareness, then, is not as clear in dreaming as it is in waking consciousness. The images weaving before the soul present two types of scenes. There are either series of images familiar to the dreamer because they relate to recent or not-so-recent events, or scenes where such events are changed in all sorts of ways, their form altered to such an extent that specific occurrences are unrecognizable, and we think we are dreaming of something completely new. We can indeed have dreams that are not connected with any experiences we have had and are therefore completely new. But in each case, we will have had a feeling that a type of living, weaving image has been revealed to the soul. This is what we remember after waking up. Some dreams remain in our memory longer and others seem to vanish as soon as we have to deal with the events of the day.

So today let us examine what we perceive in such weaving dreams. We know what we perceive when we are awake in this world, which we call the physical. But what fills our perception when we dream, as events and material things fill our daytime experience? It is what we call the etheric world, the etheric substance permeating the world with its inner processes and with all that lives in it. That is the essence, as it were, of our perceptions when we dream. But we usually perceive only a very small part of the etheric world when dreaming. The etheric world is inaccessible to us when we are awake and perceive the physical realm; we cannot perceive the etheric substance around us with our physical senses. Likewise we cannot perceive all of it in our ordinary dreams, but only a part of it, namely, our own etheric body.

As you know, we leave our physical and our etheric bodies behind in sleep. In our usual dreams we look back, as it were, from within our astral body and I to what we have left behind in sleep. However, we are then not aware of our physical body and do not use our physical senses. Rather, we look back only at our etheric body. Fundamentally, therefore, processes in our etheric body reveal themselves in certain places, and we perceive them as dreams. In fact, most dreams are nothing else but looking at our etheric body in sleep and becoming aware of some of its exceedingly complex processes.

Our etheric body is very complex and contains all our memories, ready to present them to us when we recall them. Even those things that have sunk down into the depths of the soul, things we are not aware of in waking consciousness, are contained in the etheric body in some way. Our whole life in this incarnation is retained in the etheric body, is really present in it. Of course, this is very difficult to imagine, but it is true nevertheless. Imagine you were to talk all day long, as some people do, and everything you said was recorded on records. When the first record is full, you take a second one, then a third, and so on. The number of records would depend on how much you spoke. Now if someone collected all the records, everything you had said would be nicely preserved on records at the end of the day. Then, if someone played them, everything you said during the day would be heard again. In a similar way, all our memories are retained in the etheric body. Under the special conditions of sleep one part of the etheric body appears before us, as though—to stay with this metaphor—we took one record from the collection and played it; this is the most common kind of dream. Thus our consciousness weaves in our own etheric body.

The same applies to hallucinations affecting our soul. As a rule, such hallucinations arise because the person can see with the ego and the astral body, which are still in the physical body, a section of the etheric body that has become detached. This can happen when a part of your physical body is ill, the nervous system, for example. Your etheric body is then unable to penetrate the physical at the point where the nervous system is diseased; it is cast out there, so to speak. The etheric body itself is not sick, but it has been separated from the physical body in a specific place. If it could remain in the physical body, our normal state of consciousness would prevail, and we would be unaware that our physical body is sick. When the part our etheric body cannot penetrate shines out toward it, we experience this in our consciousness as a hallucination.

This etheric substance, from which dreams or hallucinations develop, surrounds us everywhere in the world. And our own etheric body is like a section that has been cut out of this etheric substance. After passing through the gate of death and discarding our physical body, we pass through this etheric substance and never really leave it on our path between death and a new birth. It is everywhere and we have to pass through it; we are in it. Sometime after death, we discard our etheric body, which dissolves into this surrounding etheric substance. Usually, we cannot perceive this outer etheric substance. That is why we have nothing in the etheric world that could be called perception, parallel to perception in the physical world. Our perceptions of the etheric in our dreams depend completely on us.

True perception of the etheric world after death or here on earth in clairvoyant Imaginations requires greater strength than we usually have between birth and death. We need greater inner strength of soul. We do not perceive the etheric world around us during earthly life because we lack sufficient strength of soul. To perceive the etheric world we must become much more active, work much harder than we do in ordinary life. After death, too, the soul must be filled with much more active strength than in ordinary life to relate to its environment. Otherwise we do not perceive the etheric world, just as we wouldn't perceive anything if we lacked all senses in the physical world. Thus, we need a more active strength of soul to find our way after death and not to be deaf and blind, figuratively speaking, to the world we enter then.

To get a clearer idea of how the soul perceives after death, or after it has developed the faculties to unfold its imagination, let us compare this soul faculty to writing. What you write down expresses something that stands behind your words; still, it is you who put down the letters. You have the power to make what you write true, to make it correspond to an objective state of affairs. If you want to inform a faraway friend about something and write it down for him, it is you who form the words that will tell the friend about the fact when he reads them. Someone may object that this fact does not exist in the world as an objective fact, but is only what someone has written down. This is nonsense, of course. It is possible to describe an objective fact with the letters you wrote. The same applies to imaginative perception in the super-sensible world. You have to be active. You have to set down the signs, the letters that express the objective processes in the spiritual world, and you must be aware that this is what you are doing. Whether you can do that or not depends on whether you have the strength necessary for a living relationship with spiritual reality, whether it inspires you to set down the truth and not falsehoods. But the fact remains: You have to know you are setting it down.

Now, let us return to dreams. When we dream, we usually feel the dream images “weave” and simply unravel on their own. We should think of these dreams as images that float past the soul. Now suppose you were thinking that you yourself place the dream images in space and time just as you set down letters on paper. This is not what we normally associate with dreams or hallucinations, but it is the type of consciousness required for imaginative thinking. You must be aware that you are the determining power in your dreams. You put down one thing after another just as you do when writing something on paper. You yourself are in control. The same power is behind you that makes what you write true. The great difference between dreams or hallucinations and true clairvoyance is that in the latter we are aware that we are the esoteric scribes, as it were. The things we see are noted down as an esoteric script. We inscribe onto the world what we perceive as expression, as revelation, of the world.

Here, people could object that we do not need to write these things down because they are known beforehand. But that is not valid, for in this case it is not we who do the writing but the being of the next higher hierarchy. We give ourselves up to that being, and it becomes the force ruling us. In an inner soul process, we record what holds sway through us. When you look at this esoteric script, you will read what is to be revealed.

That is why I have said so often in public lectures that the development of clairvoyance requires that all perception becomes active and does not remain the passive openness to the world that is appropriate for understanding our physical environment. Gradually, then, we comprehend what we have called “learning the esoteric script,” since the beginning of our anthroposophic work. I have described it in more detail in The Threshold of the Spiritual World.1Rudolf Steiner, A Road to Self-Knowledge & The Threshold of the Spiritual World, (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1975). To write the esoteric script into spiritual space and spiritual time our soul must be more active and powerful than it needs to be in everyday life. We need this greater strength when we have passed through the gate of death. If you seek imaginative clairvoyance, you will achieve it gradually through meditation. You will experience and perceive, knowing all the while you are in a world of which our dreams are but a weak reflection. You can live in that world in such a way that you can control your dreams, just as you are in control when you assemble a table or a shoe.

Many people object they have tried to meditate in all kinds of ways but are still not becoming clairvoyant. This lack of clairvoyance simply shows they do not really want the activity and strength I have just described. They consider themselves fortunate because they do not need them. They do not want to develop any active strength of soul, but want to become clairvoyant without having to acquire this strength first. They want the tableau that arises before them through clairvoyance to appear by itself. But that would be nothing but hallucinating or dreaming. To put it bluntly, a dream is a piece of the etheric world that we can take with our etheric feelers and move from one place to another. This has nothing to do with true clairvoyance. In experiencing true second sight we are as active as we are in the physical world in writing on paper. The only difference is that when we want to write in the physical world, we need first to know what it is we want to write down—at least it usually helps if we do. By contrast, in spiritual perception we allow the beings of the spiritual hierarchies to write, and only then, while we are writing, do the things appear that we are to perceive. Real clairvoyance cannot come about without our active involvement in every single aspect of our perception.

We also need the strength that enables us to write in the etheric world when we have passed through the gate of death. The kind of thinking that serves us well in the physical world is of no use for perception after death. A person may be exceedingly clever and smart about things of the physical world, but after death these capacities will be of no help. This kind of thinking is much too weak for writing anything into the etheric world. All ideas we have developed relating to physical things have their origin in this weak thinking, which is useless after death. We need a stronger kind of thinking, one that is inwardly active of its own accord. We need thinking that forms thoughts which do not merely mirror the outer sense world. We must develop this inner capacity to form thoughts independent of anything external that arise, as it were, from the depths of the soul, or we cannot have a corresponding capacity after death.

Now you might object that we could just think up all kinds of things, or create a lot of fantasies that do not reflect anything external, and then we would be well prepared for developing the strength of thinking necessary after death. It could be that someone wants to have a great deal of thinking ability after death and therefore imagines winged dragons, which do not exist, terrifying beasts, and so on. The person imagines all these things so as not to be tied to the apron strings of outer images, and to be able to develop inner strength of thinking in preparation for life after death.

It cannot be denied—people who do this will have greater faculties in the world after death than those who do not. However, they would perceive only false images, distortions, just as people with impaired vision see a distorted image of the physical world and those with damaged hearing have a false impression of its sounds. People who follow this course of action sentence themselves to perceiving nothing but grotesque things in the etheric world, instead of what is truly rooted there.

In past periods of human development, care was always taken to ensure that human beings were given mental images neither borrowed from the physical world nor created in the arbitrary and fantastical manner I have just described. According to the methods available to them, the great founders of our religions handed down images not based on the physical, but on the spiritual world. Thus, by following their religious teachers, people were able to develop mental images that were not tied to the sensory world but were true all the same because they originated in the spiritual world. This is the immensely great education of the human race undertaken by the founders of our religions. They had set themselves the task of giving human beings images that would help them to develop a kind of thinking that would keep them from arriving spiritually deaf and blind in the spiritual world after death. The founders of our religions wanted to be certain that human beings were fully alive, fully conscious, and that their consciousness would not vanish or fade in their hour of death or become a false consciousness then.

As I have often said, we are currently living at a stage of evolution when human beings are meant to come of age, as it were. Religious founders will no longer appear as they formerly did and appeal to our faith. Those times are past, although, of course, they still reach into our time. At present, only a few people are beginning to experience this new existence, so to speak. Most still yearn to cling to the traditional ideas of the ancient founders of religions. But humanity must come of age and what the founders of religions provided for our faith must be replaced by the contribution of modern spiritual science. For this science of the spirit is by nature completely different from those ancient teachings. In order to avoid misunderstandings, we must emphasize that when we speak of the old religious founders we are not including Christ among them. I have often said that Christ's significance does not lie in his teachings, but in what took place through him. The ancient religious founders were in a sense teachers, but Christ's main deed was to imbue humanity with His own power through the Mystery of Golgotha. To this day, this has been extremely difficult for many people to understand. That is why they speak of Christ as only a great cosmic teacher. For those who really understand the full significance of Christ, this is simply nonsense.

Humankind is coming of age through our modern spiritual science, through the concepts, ideas, and images that are linked with our life after death and thus with our entire soul life. For spiritual science can be understood by every person who wants to understand its findings. It strives to give people what each individual soul can truly achieve on its own, not by following the religious founders, as in earlier times. And although it must be individual researchers who make the results of this science of the spirit available today, they do so in a form that can be understood by everyone who wants to. I have often emphasized that it is a complete misunderstanding to say spiritual science must also be believed. When people say this, it is because they are so crammed full with materialistic prejudices that they do not look at what spiritual science really has to offer. As soon as it is examined, everything becomes understandable. One does not need clairvoyance for this; our ordinary understanding is enough to really grasp and comprehend all this gradually—of course, “gradually” will be inconvenient for some people.

In other words, spiritual science appeals to our understanding, making use of the opposite principle to the one used by the ancient religious founders. Their ideas gave something to human souls that awakened them spiritually and gave them strength to perceive in the etheric world, and that also means to lead a conscious life after death. Assimilating modern spiritual science will in turn give our soul the strength to develop the necessary power of thinking after death to consciously perceive its etheric environment. Both people of ancient times who followed their religious founders and modern people who are willing to understand spiritual science will be able to find their way after death.

Only one type of person will have difficulty in finding his or her way after death. In fact, this type will frequently not even experience a life after death, because it will have become so dulled and obscured. This sort of person is the dyed-in-the-wool materialist who clings to images of the physical world and does not want to develop any strength to perceive the world we enter after death. In terms of the soul-spiritual, to be a materialist really means the same as wanting to destroy one's eyes and ears in the physical world, gradually deadening one's senses. It is no different from someone saying, “These eyes—they can't be trusted, they provide only impressions of light. Away with them! These ears—they perceive only vibrations, not the one single truth. Get rid of them! Get rid of the senses, one by one!” To be a materialist in regard to the spiritual world makes as much sense as this attitude in regard to the sensory world. It is basically the same, as will be quite easy to see when we consider the reasoning presented by spiritual science.

Today I have attempted to explain from this perspective what it means to be in the spiritual world. I want to go on to explain a type of dream we will all recognize, because everyone has probably experienced a dream of this kind. I am speaking about dreams where we stand face to face with ourselves, so to speak. As I described earlier, usually the dream fabric unrolls itself before us, so to speak, and we have no clear awareness of ourselves at the time. It is only afterward that we reflect on the dream with self-consciousness.

There are also other dreams where we face ourselves objectively. And beyond simply seeing ourselves, as sometimes happens, we can also have the dream students often have, of sitting in school, trying to work out an arithmetic problem, but unable to solve the equation. Another person comes and easily finds the solution. The student really dreams that this happens. Well, you will understand that it was he himself who came and solved the problem. Thus, it is also possible that we face ourselves in this way without, however, recognizing ourselves. But that is not the important thing. In such a situation the I divides in two, as it were. It would be nice, wouldn't it, if in the physical world as well, the other ego appeared and immediately produced the right answer when we do not know something. Well, it does happen in dreams.

When we are dreaming, we are actually outside our physical and etheric bodies and only in the astral body and ego. While the type of dream described earlier gives us a glimpse of the etheric body, the ones where we face ourselves result from the astral body we took along revealing a part of itself to us and facing us with it. We perceive a portion of ourselves outside the physical body.

We do not perceive the astral body in ordinary life, but we can quite easily see part of it in sleep. It contains things we are not at all aware of when we are awake. I spoke earlier about the nature of the etheric body; it contains everything we have experienced. But now I have to tell you something quite strange—the astral body contains even those things we have not experienced. You see, our astral body is a rather complicated structure. It is in a certain sense built into us out of the spiritual world, and it contains not merely those things we already have in us now but also those we will learn in the future! They are already present there as a disposition. This astral body is much cleverer than we are. Therefore, when it reveals something of itself in our dreams, it can confront us with our self in a form that is much cleverer than we have become through physical life. If you bear this in mind—I say this now only as an aside and not as part of the lecture—it will throw some light on the “cleverness” of animals. They also have an astral body. It can bring out things that do not emerge in the ordinary lives of the animals. Many surprising things can reveal themselves there. For example, the astral body contains, believe it or not, all of mathematics, not only as far as we know it today, but also everything that still remains to be discovered. Nevertheless, if we wanted to read the mathematics contained there and read it consciously, we would have to do so actively by acquiring the necessary faculties.

Thus, it is a revelation of part of our astral body when we come face to face with ourselves in a dream. And many of the things that come to us as inner inspiration spring from these revelations of the astral body. In the same way hallucinations can occur under the circumstances I described earlier. The part of us that is cleverer than we usually are can, through a special disposition in our constitution, take on a voice of its own. Then we can be inspired, which would not happen if we used only our ordinary judgment in our physical body. But it is dangerous to give ourselves over to such things, because we cannot control them until we are able to penetrate them with our judgment. And since we cannot control them, Lucifer has easy access to all these developments, and we cannot keep him from directing them according to his intentions, rather than in accordance with the aims of the proper world order.

When we develop our inner forces, we learn to lead an inner life that makes us clairvoyant in the astral body. But you will see from what I have said that becoming clairvoyant in the astral body requires that we are always aware of facing ourselves, our own being. Just as we do not lead a healthy physical life if we are not fully conscious, so we do not lead a healthy soul life in the super-sensible world if we do not see ourselves at all times. In the physical world we are ourselves; in the higher, spiritual world we have the same relationship to ourselves as we have here to a thought representing a past event. We inwardly look at such a thought and treat it as a memory. As we deal with a thought in this world, so we know in the spirit realm that we are looking at and observing ourselves. Our self must always be present when we experience things in the spiritual world. Basically, this is the only principle applying also to those things over which we have no control. In fact, in the realm of the spirit this principle allows us to master things, to become the controlling power. Our own being is the center of everything. Our own being shows us how we act in the spiritual world, revealing to us who we really are in the spiritual world.

If we are in the spiritual world and perceive something is incorrect, that means we are using the esoteric script incorrectly. Well, if we use the esoteric script incorrectly but perceive ourselves as the center of everything going on, we experience in our own being: You look like this because you did something wrong; now you have to put it right! We can see how we have acted by what we have become. We can compare this to how you would feel here in the physical world if you were not inside but outside yourself. For example, if you said to someone, “It is now half past eleven”—something that is not true—and look at yourself, you see how you stick your tongue out at yourself. You say, “This isn't you!” And then you start to correct yourself and say what is true, “It is now twenty past nine.” At that moment your tongue goes back in. Similarly, you can tell whether you are acting correctly in the spiritual world by looking at yourself.

Such grotesque images may serve to characterize these things, which should be taken much more seriously than everything said about the physical world. The point is to gain an understanding of the super-sensible realm through the power of thinking we already possess in the physical world. That way we free our thinking, which otherwise remains bound to our physical environment.

In earlier times people had a basic, atavistic clairvoyance. It was possible for them to have Imaginations, even Inspirations. But in contrast to this earlier stage, we have now reached an advanced stage and can form ideas about the physical world. When people still possessed an atavistic clairvoyance, they could not think properly. For proper thinking to develop, the strength used earlier in clairvoyance had to be applied to thinking. Some people nowadays develop clairvoyant faculties at certain times in their life by methods other than those described by spiritual science. This is because they have inherited these faculties from earlier times and they have not yet achieved sound judgment in those areas of life where they are clairvoyant. But we are approaching the time when sound judgment must be present before clairvoyance can be developed on the basis of such mature and balanced judgment.

In other words, when people these days show certain psychic abilities, a certain clairvoyance, without having done serious exercises, without having studied spiritual science—which, if applied in the right way, can be the best exercise to bring out the old clairvoyance—this does not mean that they are more advanced than everyone else, but rather that they are lagging behind. Having atavistic abilities today does not mean one has reached the stage of clear thinking. The more advanced soul is clearly the one that comes to sound judgments out of its ordinary understanding—and this ordinary understanding is completely sufficient to grasp spiritual science if one is free of preconceived notions.

We are making a great mistake if we allow atavistic clairvoyant abilities to impress us. We are on the wrong track if we believe such a person's soul is particularly advanced. That this soul shows such abilities means that it has failed to go through certain things that had to be experienced in the age of clairvoyance. Therefore, that soul is now catching up on what was missed earlier. It is quite grotesque when people involved in spiritual science believe that someone who displays a certain clairvoyance without having studied spiritual science must have been someone important in a previous life. Such a person was quite certainly less important than someone displaying sound judgment about things.

Now it is very important that our movement should try to build a certain circle of people who see through these things, who truly and thoroughly understand them and can reach the following insight: We need spiritual science in our time because only by understanding it can we progress.

This is very important. There are, of course, childhood illnesses in all areas of life, and naturally also in spiritual streams entering the world. And one can understand easily enough why spiritual science has childhood illnesses because it tries to give human beings the results that were achieved by clairvoyant consciousness. But you can see how we have to describe this. We have to say that becoming clairvoyant in the way humanity needs it now and in the future does not appeal to people's love of comfort and convenience. It requires a great deal more than just waiting for things to happen. Participation at every moment, self-control and the capacity for self-observation are required to reach the spiritual world. This must be widely understood. It is much easier to wait for clairvoyance to approach us like a dream, streaming to and fro. People want to experience the spirit realm in the same way they experience the world of the senses. This is a remnant from past periods of our history. In ancient clairvoyance, things were experienced in such a way that people did not really “know” them. This is probably why even today people want to experience the spirit realm in such a way that they do not actually “know” it. We do not properly appreciate what we know for sure. When we do arithmetic, for example, we follow certain set methods, without being much involved in what we are doing. When we add up five and seven, we are not really participating in the sense referred to here; we are not fully present in what we do. That is why people do not like it if others have developed their own view of the world. As soon as you can show people something you have come to know without this inner participation, they are happy, exceedingly happy! But when someone demonstrates knowledge of the spiritual world and knows of it in such a way that he is involved, then people say, “Oh, he knows it! That is a completely conscious process and not objective.” But if someone comes along and has had a vision whose origin he cannot explain, people say, “That is objective, completely objective! We can believe this person.”

The most important aspect of our spiritual science is to develop clear ideas. Spiritual science is still relatively new; therefore, now that people's longing for the spiritual world and knowledge of it has awakened, they want to connect with everything still coming up from the old world of clairvoyance. They gather all these old things and believe they are doing something quite special in preserving them.

However, our task is to see clearly in this field! It must be clear to us that there is nothing inferior about giving advice in full consciousness on a matter of spiritual healing. But most people will appreciate indications given by someone “above” the situation, who yields himself to quite obscure feelings and does not “know” things, much more because his statements result in the dark, blissful feeling: This is the result of something unknown! Everywhere we hear people saying that things they can grasp are of no interest to them. They have come for the inexplicable—that is supreme, divine!

Believe me, the individual truths of spiritual science must gradually enter our souls, and at the same time we must have a clear and sure sense for the conditions I have just touched upon. I have spoken about these conditions to show, beginning with the nature of dreams, that true clairvoyance requires the kind of active work by the soul we can compare with writing. I wrote The Threshold of the Spiritual World with the aim of clarifying these matters more and more. Those who understand my book will grasp the vital nerve, the keynote of our movement. I have to emphasize again and again—in spite of having said it frequently over the years—because so much depends on this: Those who really want to gain access to spiritual science have to acquire a healthy sense for the things that truly belong to it. Then we will gradually develop into a Society that can set itself the task of having a genuinely healing effect on everything belonging to cultural life.

Next time, we will continue to talk about what we began today as a description of the world of dreams based on the spiritual world.