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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Philosophy, Cosmology & Religion
GA 215

3. The Imaginative, Inspirative, and Intuitive Method of Cognition

8 September 1922, Dornach

Through the meditative exercises that are to lead to imaginative cognition man's whole inner soul life becomes transformed. Likewise, the relations of the human soul to the surrounding world change. Meditation, as meant in the previous lectures here, consists in concentrating all the soul's powers upon a definite, easily grasped complex of ideas. It is important to keep this clearly in mind: it should be an easily envisioned complex of ideas to which the soul-spiritual part of man can give its immediate, undivided attention, in such a way that while the soul rests on this complex of ideas nothing flows into it of soul-impressions that well up from the subconscious or unconscious, or from our memories.

To bring about imaginative knowledge in the right way, it is necessary to confront the whole idea-complex, on which all one's powers of soul in meditating are centered, and view it as one would a mathematical problem, in order that neither emotion-filled thoughts nor impulses of the will play into the meditation. When we concentrate on a mathematical problem we know at every moment that our soul activity remains concentrated on what our mind is focused. We know that nothing emotional, no feelings, no reminiscences of past experiences may be allowed to enter the process of bringing about a solution of the problem. The same soul condition is also necessary for rightly carrying out a meditation.

It is best then if we concentrate on an idea-complex that is completely new, something we are certain we have never thought about before. For if we were simply to choose an idea from our store of memories, we could never be sure what would be playing into the meditation from unconscious impulses or feelings. Therefore, it is especially good to be given advice by an experienced spiritual scientist, because he can see to it that the conceptual content will not have been previously thought of by the person meditating. In this way, the subject of meditation enters his consciousness for the first time, nothing out of memory or instinct plays into it; only the purely soul-spiritual is engaged in meditating.

When such a meditation, which requires only a short time each day, is repeated over and over again, a state of soul is finally brought about that lets man have the definite feeling, “Now I live in an inner activity that is free of the physical body; a different activity from that of thinking, feeling, or exercising my will within the physical body.” What one encounters especially is the definite feeling that one lives in a world separated from one's physical corporeality. Man gradually finds his way into the etheric world. He feels this because the nature of his own physical organism takes on a relative objectivity. Man looks upon it as if from outside, just as he looks ordinarily from within his physical body out upon external objects. But what appears in inward experience if the meditation is successful, is that the thoughts become, as it were, more compact. They not only bear their usual character of abstraction, but in them one experiences something akin to the forces of growth that turned one from a small child to a grown man, or the forces daily active in us when metabolism nourishes our body.

Thinking certainly takes on the character of reality. Just for this reason—that man now feels himself in his thinking the same way he felt himself previously in his processes of growth, or his life processes—this imaginative thinking must be acquired in the manner just described. For if unconscious, or perhaps physical elements had played into meditation, those forces, those realities now experienced in supersensible thinking would also reflect back into man's physical and etheric organisms. There, they would unite with the forces of growth and nutrition; and by persisting with such super-sensible thinking man would alter his physical and etheric organisms. But this cannot in any circumstances be allowed to happen! All activity engaged in for the purpose of achieving imaginative knowledge, all the forces used in this task, must be applied exclusively to man's relationship with his surrounding world, and in no way may they be allowed to interfere with his physical or etheric organism. Both of these must remain wholly unchanged, so that when man achieves the faculty of hovering, as it were, with his thinking in the etheric world, he can look back in this thinking upon his unaltered physical body. It has remained as it was; this etheric thinking has not interfered with it.

With this etheric thinking you feel quite outside your physical body. But you must always be able freely to alternate at will between remaining outside and being completely within your physical organism. A person who has correctly brought about imaginative perception through meditation must be able to be in this etheric thinking one moment—which is experienced inwardly like a growth and nutritional process and felt to be entirely real—and in the next moment, as this thinking disappears, to be able to return into the physical body and see with his eyes as usual, hear with his ears and touch as he did before. At his absolutely free discretion he must always be able to bring about this passing back and forth between being in the physical body and being outside it in the etheric realm. Then a true imaginative thinking is achieved. I shall demonstrate in the second part of the lecture how this imaginative thinking works.

For one who wants to become a spiritual scientist it is necessary that he carry out the most diverse exercises, systematically, for a long time. Through what I have just indicated in principle, one will experience etheric thinking to such a degree that one can test what the spiritual scientist asserts, even though this testing is also possible by the usual healthy human understanding if it is sufficiently impartial and free of prejudice.

If meditation is to bring results in the right way one must support it by certain other soul exercises. Above all, soul qualities such as strength of character, inner truthfulness, a certain equanimity of soul, and especially complete presence of mind must be increasingly developed. It must always be repeated: a presence of mind that permits us to carry out, with the same attitude and disposition of soul as are required in mathematics, the meditative exercises and the exact clairvoyant research that is then undertaken. If such qualities as strength of character, integrity, presence of mind and a certain tranquility of soul have become habitual, then the meditative process, if continually repeated—perhaps for some requiring a few weeks, for others many years, depending on their predisposition—will come to the point of impressing its results into the whole physical and etheric organisms. Then man will really attain an inner activity in imaginative cognition comparable with that called forth in his physical organism when he uses it for perceiving the world through his senses and for thinking.

When man has achieved such imaginative cognition, he is in a position first to view the course of his own life from childhood up to the present moment as a unity, as a tableau in time. It reveals itself as a continuous, inwardly mobile, flow of development. This, however, is not the same as what usually comes into our mind as our store of personal memories. What man has gained through imaginative cognition that now confronts him, is as real as those forces of life and growth that bring forth from the small child's body the whole configuration of his soul, and then, in the further course of development, thinking, and so on. Man now surveys everything that evolves inwardly and represents the development of the etheric organism in the course of life. From what is thus surveyed—and it is much more concrete than the tableau of memories—the recollections that enter ordinary consciousness appear only as a kind of reflection, a surface ripple cast up from processes in the depths of our life. We now penetrate these etheric processes in the depths of our being, which otherwise do not enter consciousness at all, but have in fact formed and shaped out life from birth to the present moment.

These facts, these processes, confront imaginative consciousness. This gives man a true self-knowledge concerning, at the outset, his earthly life. How we can acquire knowledge of life beyond the earth will be shown during the following days. The first step in supersensible perception consists in confronting our own etheric life—the way it was spent from childhood to the present—in its supersensible character. Thereby we learn to understand ourselves rightly for the first time. What is experienced in this way is mirrored in our physical and etheric organisms in such a way that, in what is thus experienced as our own etheric processes, we have something that shows us how the entire etheric cosmos lives in the individual human being—how the outer etheric world, I might call it, reverberates and resounds in man's etheric organism.

Now, one can say that what is thus experienced can be put into verbal, conceptual forms, and out of the imaginative experience of the world in etheric man, a true philosophy can arise. But what is thus experienced remains completely unconscious for ordinary consciousness. Only the small child, in the time before it has learned to speak, lives wholly within this activity into which man enters through imaginative perception. For in learning to speak, as language develops in the soul's life, those forces that then are experienced as abstract thinking separate from the general forces of growth and other life processes. A child does not yet have this faculty of abstract thinking. The metamorphosis of a part of its forces of life and growth into the forces of thinking has not yet occurred. Therefore, in relation to the cosmos, a child is caught up in an activity into which an adult feels himself carried back through imaginative perception; only, a child experiences it unconsciously. The imaginative thinker experiences it fully consciously with clear presence of mind.

For the person who does not achieve imaginative thinking it is impossible to survey what it is that plays between man's etheric organism and the etheric realm in the cosmos. A child cannot perceive it even though it experiences it directly, because it does not yet possess abstract thinking. A person with ordinary consciousness cannot perceive it because he has not deepened his abstract thinking through meditation. When he does this he actually looks consciously upon that interplay of the human etheric organism with the etheric in the cosmos in which the infant still dwells undividedly.

So I should like to make this paradoxical statement: Only he is a true philosopher who, as a mature adult, can become again like a little child in the disposition of his soul, but who has now acquired the faculty of experiencing this soul condition of the small child in a more wakeful state than that of ordinary consciousness; who can lift again into his whole soul life what he was as a small child before he advanced to abstract thinking through speech. What one thus experiences, surveyed in full consciousness, turns one into a philosopher of the modern age. A present-day philosopher lives, fully conscious, in the condition of a little child before it has learned to speak. This is the paradox which, I think, makes it especially clear how the human soul within modern spiritual life will actually lift itself to a real, genuine philosophical disposition of soul.

For complete supersensible perception, it is necessary to widen the meditative exercises so that they can lead to inspiration. For this purpose, the soul must not only practice resting upon a complex of ideas as previously described, but also—in principle, this has also been mentioned already—it must become capable of obliterating the pictures that enter one's consciousness because of or following meditation. As one has brought about the pictures of imaginative perception quite freely and arbitrarily, one now has to be able to eliminate these pictures from consciousness, from the soul life. It requires greater energy to do this than to eliminate from consciousness ideas that have entered either from memory or from ordinary sense perception. One needs more strength to eliminate meditative ideas and imaginative pictures from consciousness than one needs for such ordinary ideas. But this increased power that the soul must bring to bear is necessary for advancing in supersensible perception.

Man attains this power by striving more and more to free his consciousness from these imaginative pictures when they have appeared, and to permit nothing else to enter in. Then there occurs what one may call mere wakefulness, without any content of soul. This condition then leads to inspiration. For when the soul has achieved empty consciousness in this way by means of the powerful force released by the act of freeing itself from the imaginative pictures, the spiritual contents of the cosmos stream into the emptied but awake soul. Then man gradually has before and around him a spiritual cosmos, as in ordinary consciousness he is surrounded by a physical sense cosmos.

What man now experiences in the spiritual cosmos represents itself to him in a manner that points back to what he has experienced in the sense world. There, he has experienced the sun, moon, planets, fixed stars, and the other facts of the physical sense world. Now that he is able to comprehend the spiritual cosmos by means of the emptied consciousness in which he experiences inspiration, the spiritual being of the sun, the moon, the planets and stars is revealed to him. Again, it is necessary that by his free will man should be able to relate what he experiences spiritually as the cosmos to what he experienced through his physical body as physical sense cosmos. He must be able to say, “I now experience something like a spiritual being that manifests itself. I must relate it as `sun-spirit' to what I experience in the physical sense world as physical sun. Similarly, I experience the manifestation of the soul-spirit being of the moon and must be able to relate it to what I experience in the physical sense world as moon; and so on.”

Again, man must be able to move freely to and fro while he is simultaneously in both the spiritual and the physical sense worlds. In his soul life he must be able to move freely between the spiritual revelation of the cosmos and what he is accustomed to experience as physical sense manifestations within earth life. When one thus relates the spiritual element of the sun to its physical counterpart, the spiritual moon element to the physical moon element, and so on, it is a soul process similar to having a new perception and being reminded of what one experienced earlier. Just as one combines what meets one in a new perception with what one has already experienced in order to throw light on both, so, in the truly free, inspired life, one brings together what one experiences as revelations of spiritual beings with what one has experienced in the physical sense world. It is as if the experiences in the spirit brought new inklings of what has been experienced earlier in the sense world through the physical body. One must have absolute presence of mind in order to experience this higher degree of supersensible knowledge, which is something overpowering, in the same quiet state of soul as when a new perception is linked with an old recollection.

Experiencing something through inspiration differs greatly from any imaginative experience a person could have had earlier. With imagination he lives in the etheric world. He feels himself as alive in the etheric world as otherwise he has felt in his physical body. But he feels the etheric world more as a sum of rhythmic processes, a vibrating in the world ether, which, however, he is certainly in a position to interpret in ideas and concepts. Man senses events of a universal nature in the etheric-imaginative experience; he feels supersensible, etheric phenomena. In inspiration he feels not only such supersensible, etheric facts merging into each other, metamorphosing and taking on all manner of possible forms, but now, through inspiration, he senses how in this etheric, billowing world, in this rhythmically undulating world, as if on waves of an etheric world-ocean, real beings are weaving and working. In this way one feels something reminiscent of the sun, moon, planets and the fixed stars, and also of things on the physical earth, for example, the minerals and plants, and all this is bathed in the cosmic ether.

This is the way we experience the astral cosmos. While here in the physical sense world we perceive only the exterior of everything, there we recognize it in its essential, spiritual existence. We also attain a view of the inner nature and form of the human organism, as well as the form of the separate organs, lungs, heart, liver and so on. For we see now that everything that gives form and life to the human organism originates not only in what surrounds us and is active in the physical cosmos, but also proceeds from the spiritual beings within this physical cosmos—as sun-being, moon-being, animal and plant being—permeating with soul and spirit the physical and etheric activity, and working so as to give man's organism life and form. We only comprehend the form and life of the physical organism when we have risen to inspiration.

What is experienced there remains for ordinary consciousness completely concealed. We should be able to perceive it with ordinary consciousness only if we saw not merely with our eyes, heard with our ears and tasted with the organs for tasting, but if the process of breathing in and out were a kind of process of perception—if one could experience the in- and out-streaming of the breath inwardly throughout the whole organism. Because this is so, a certain Oriental school, the school of Yoga, transformed breathing into a process of knowledge, metamorphosed it into a process of perception. By converting the breathing into a conscious, even if half dreamlike way to knowledge, so as to experience in it something like what we experience in seeing and hearing, the Yoga philosophy actually develops a cosmology, an insight into how spiritual beings in the cosmos work into man, and the way he experiences himself as a member of the spiritual cosmos. But such Yoga instructions are not in accord with the form of man's organization which Western humanity of the present time has acquired. Yoga exercises like these were only possible for the human organization in past ages, and what Yogis practice today is fundamentally already decadent.

For a particular 'middle epoch' of earth-humanity's evolution, as I should like to call it, it was appropriate, so to say, for man's organization to make the breathing process into a process of consciousness, of knowledge, through such yoga exercises, and in this way to develop a dreamlike but nevertheless valid cosmology. This knowledge, which led in that epoch to a correct cosmology for the education, in their sense “scientific,” humanity of that age, must be re-attained on a higher level by today's human being with his present composition of body and soul—not in the half dreamlike, half unconscious condition of that time, but with full consciousness as I have explained in speaking about inspiration. If Western man were to carry out yoga exercises he would not leave his physical and etheric organisms undisturbed under any circumstances; he would alter them precisely because he now has a quite different constitution. Elements out of his physical and etheric organisms would enter into his process of cognition, and something non-objective would interfere into the cosmology. Just as one must recapture, as a philosopher, the soul condition of one's earliest childhood, but now in full consciousness, so, in regard to cosmology, one must call up in one's soul life that soul state which was formerly valid for mankind, when it was possible to make use of the yoga system. But one must experience it with a total presence of mind, in full consciousness, in a wakefulness higher than the ordinary one.

So we can say that in this fully awakened state of mind the modern philosopher must again bring about in his soul the childlike soul condition belonging to the single human being, while the modern cosmologist must again bring about that condition of soul which belonged to humanity in a middle epoch of human evolution—and now again in full consciousness. The modern philosopher must bring an individual soul condition, that of the child, into full consciousness, while the modern cosmologist must restore in a fully conscious manner that soul condition present in the cosmologists of an earlier humanity. Consciously to become a child means to be a philosopher. The restoration of the condition of the soul, in which a Yogi lived during a middle period of earth evolution, and its transformation into full consciousness means becoming a cosmologist in the modern sense. In the last portion of this lecture, I would like to describe what it means to be a religious person.

Yesterday, I described how the third level of supersensible knowledge, true intuition, is reached through exercises of the will. You can read about them more specifically in the writings I have mentioned, and they will be further described in more detail in the coming days. Here man is brought into a soul disposition such as existed in a dreamlike soul condition in the humanity that lived as the first, primeval humanity on our earth in the beginning of human evolution. What existed, however, among this primordial humanity was a dreamlike, half unconscious, instinctive intuition.

This intuition must be brought again into full consciousness by a modern person with cognitive faculties for the religious life. The more instinctive intuition of primeval mankind still appears, to be sure, like an echo in some people of the present age, who express what they instinctively perceive in their environment as spiritual forces, with which they live as if in their outer world. These intuitions, which are echoes of the dreamlike intuitions of primeval humanity, can be made use of by such people when they write poetry or create works of art. Original scientific ideas may also stem from such intuitions, and they play a major role in mankind's life of fantasy.

What I am now describing as true, fully conscious intuition, and what is attained in the manner I described yesterday, are two entirely different things. Primitive man had a completely different soul disposition from that of modern man. He lived, as it were, in the whole outer world, in cloud and mist, in stars, sun and moon, in the plant as well as animal kingdoms. He lived in all of it with almost the same intensity as he felt himself living in his own body. It is extremely difficult to make this soul condition of primeval man clear for ordinary consciousness today. But everything that can be recognized by external history points back to such a soul disposition in primeval humanity. It was rooted in the fact that primeval man's bodily conditions were not submerged in the unconscious to the extent they are today. We modern men no longer live with our processes of nutrition and growth, with the processes in our physical organism. Spread out over this experience, which remains entirely in the subconscious, is the more or less conscious soul life of our feeling and willing and the fully conscious soul life of our thinking. But below our direct experiences of thinking, feeling and willing are to be found the actual processes of our human physical organism, and these remain wholly unconscious as far as our ordinary awareness is concerned.

This was fundamentally different in primitive man. As a child he did not experience definite conceptions such as we do. His conceptual life was often almost dreamlike, while his emotional life, although vehement, was even less distinct. The soul's life of feeling resembled bodily pain and pleasure much more than is the case with modern man. By contrast, primitive man felt how he grew in childhood. These processes of growth were felt by him as the life of body and soul. Even as an adult he sensed how food and drink course through the digestive system; how the blood circulates and bears the nutritive juices through the organism. Someone endowed with an organization like that whose development I described yesterday, can still gain an idea today, even though on a lower level, of this bodily experience of primitive man, when he observes how cows, after grazing, lie down, digest and are absorbed in the specific activity of digesting. It is an experience of both body and soul in these creatures that appears simply like the instreaming and inward lighting-up of cosmic processes. The animals experience an inner sense of well-being in digesting, in feeding, in the coursing of nutritive substances through the blood's circulation. You need not be a clairvoyant to be able to tell by the whole external condition and behavior of these animals how they follow their digestion with their animal consciousness.

This is how primitive man, when he entered the development on earth, followed his physical processes that were directly united and formed a unity with his soul processes. Because he could experience his own physical inner being in this way, primeval man could also experience the physical and soul elements of the outer world nearly as intensely as, if I may put it this way, he experienced himself in his lungs, his heart, the processes in his stomach, liver, and so on. In the same way, he felt himself in the flashes of lightning, the rolling thunder, in the ever-changing clouds and in the waning and waxing moon. He lived with the seasons, the phases of the moon, in the same way that he experienced the processes of his digestion. His environment was almost as much an inner world to him as his own inner being. What was experienced inwardly was to him the same as what he experienced in a flowing stream, and so on. The surging waves of the river were to him an inner process in which he participated, in which he immersed himself as he did in his own blood circulation.

Primitive man lived in the outer world in such a way that it appeared to him like his own inner being—as, indeed it actually is. Today this is called animism. But the use of this word gives rise to a complete misunderstanding of the essential nature of his experience, for it supposes that he projected his inner experiences into the outer world. What he actually experienced in the external world was to him an elementary fact of his consciousness, as much a matter of fact as the meaning we ourselves attribute to the phenomena of color and tone. We ought not to assume that primitive man dreamily projected fantasies into the outer world, and that these have been handed down to us as the content of his consciousness. He actually observed these things and to him they were as self-evident as the things we observe today. Sense observation is only a transformed product of primitive man's original way of observing. He actually perceived in the outer world what those beings were accomplishing in the etheric and astral cosmos, who, in creating, maintain the activity of the cosmos. This he perceived, even as though in dreams, in quite a dull way. But he did perceive it, and this perceiving was at the same time the content of his religious consciousness. Primeval man possessed a certain soul disposition in regard to the surrounding world, but this disposition intensified so much that, in the cosmos surrounding him, he beheld simultaneously the spiritual beings with whom he himself as a human being felt related. In his cognition man acquired the relationship to the spiritual beings that came down to us in derivative forms in the content of our religions. For a man of that early time his religious consciousness was only the higher stage of his primitive cognition.

If we wish to establish a new religious consciousness based on true knowledge, we could not do better than return to the soul disposition of primitive mankind, with the difference that it must now be neither dreamlike nor half-conscious. Our soul must be more awake than in ordinary consciousness, as awakened as it must be for the purpose of attaining genuine intuition, as I have already described. To reach genuine intuition we must acquire the ability to emerge consciously with our ego out of our body and immerse our own being within the other spiritual beings of the cosmos, living with them as we live in our physical organism during our life on earth in a physical body. In earth life we are submerged in our physical organism; in true intuitive knowledge we immerse ourselves with our ego in the spiritual beings of the cosmos. We live with them, and thereby bring about a link between our ego and the world to which it truly belongs. For this ego is a spirit being like those others to whom I have just alluded; and through a religious consciousness we acquire a direct relationship to those spirits, among whom we ourselves are counted. Primitive man was endowed only with a dull, instinctive religious consciousness. We must through our own activity bring back that ancient soul disposition and experience it now in full consciousness. Then we shall attain a religious perception, a religion firmly based on knowledge and suitable for modern man.

As we have to recover the soul condition of childhood and immerse ourselves in it in full consciousness if we want to become modern philosophers; as we must recover in our own age the soul condition of humanity of an intermediate epoch—men who were able to make the breathing process into a perceptual process of knowledge in dreamlike fashion—and permeate it with full consciousness if we are able to become cosmologists in the modern sense; so we must also revive in ourselves the soul condition of primeval man as it was in its relation to the outer world, and permeate it with our full consciousness in order to attain a religion based on knowledge in the modern sense of the word.

To experience once again the soul disposition of childhood in full consciousness, is the prerequisite for genuine, modern philosophy. To relive, in full consciousness, in our soul life an earlier intermediate epoch of humanity's evolution, in which the process of breathing could become a process of perception, is the prerequisite for modern cosmology. To revive the soul condition of primeval man—the earliest on this earth, who still lived in direct connection with the gods—to activate it in the present soul mood of modern man and to pervade it with full consciousness, is for modern man the prerequisite for a religion based on knowledge.