Preparing for a New Birth
21 June 1923, Stuttgart
If we consider human existence on Earth, the most significant element in life must appear to be our capacity to think or make mental images — the capacity to think for ourselves about the world, our own actions and so forth. Any other view would be a self-deception. Certainly there are temptations to consider other aspects of life as more valuable. We can feel, just below the threshold of consciousness, that our feelings about our own tasks, about our relationships and about the world, are more valuable than our thinking. And if we consider our moral existence, and the voice of conscience, we can tell ourselves that this conscience speaks to us from depths that thinking can never reach.
We may feel all the more inclined to such a view when we see that even the most highly trained thinking, schooled in accordance with normal life, cannot arrive at the moral impulses of a simple, unschooled conscience. Still, we would be fooling ourselves if we imagined that thoughts are not the essence of human life on Earth.
Certainly the voice of conscience, the feeling of compassion, come from inexpressibly deeper sources than our thoughts. Yet these impulses that well up from the depths only find their right place in the human sphere when they are permeated by thought. The voice of conscience, too, only finds its true value by living within our thoughts, so that we clothe in thoughts what the voice of conscience says. Without overestimating thought, we still have to acknowledge, if we want to proceed in describing human consciousness without illusion, that it is thinking that makes us human. So Hegel is right, in a sense, when he says that thinking distinguishes man from beast.
Let us consider the total compass of the thoughts that fill us from the moment we wake to the point of going to sleep. If we are honest about it, we will have to say that the majority of our thoughts in life are dependent on what comes from outside, on sense impressions and experiences that have to do with the material processes of earthly life. Our thoughts pass by in intimate connection with the Earth, so that whatever is most significant for us between birth and death seems to be connected to the Earth. But if we consider the totality of human life on Earth, we notice that a third of it goes by without any thoughts at all. lf, with the means available to ordinary consciousness, we look back over a period of life, we naturally link one day's experience to the next and leave out the experiences of sleep that remain in the unconscious. But this leaves a third of life out of consideration.
From my earlier lectures you know that our activity during sleep, though unconscious, is not uneventful. The I and the astral body go through experiences at night that simply do not light up within our awareness. And if we look more closely, we notice that the unconscious forces that operate during sleep continue while we are awake — though we might say they live a life of sleep, for they operate in our whole activity of will, which is no clearer to us than the state of sleep. And they operate in a large portion of our feeling life, which is a kind of dreaming.
When we try to look at what comes from our deepest essence, from our fundamental nature, we have to look at something unconscious. Through spiritual scientific observation, we find that what operates in us while we sleep continues to operate while we are awake. It is present as the I and the astral body, though they do not enter ordinary awareness except in their effects — the expressions of our will and our feeling life — which give a special aspect to what does enter into clear, waking awareness: our life of thought. This becomes more comprehensible when we take into consideration the existence we participate in between death and rebirth.
When we pass through the gates of death, we undergo states I have described to you before, and that you already know in some of their aspects. If we examine very precisely what element of the human being is necessary for our thinking, our conceptual life, we arrive at the insight that for the formation of thoughts on Earth we need the physical body. The physical body must be set in action for us, as earthly human beings, to have thoughts. Beyond this, we also need to set our life body in action. But these are the two elements of human nature that seem to lie unconscious in bed while we sleep. Only when our consciousness has developed somewhat, through a certain training of our soul, and when we can even see physical things from a spiritual viewpoint, do we realize that actually we are thinking all the time, even when we are asleep. If we consider the whole human being, we can say that during earthly life we are never not thinking.
When we return in the morning to our physical and life bodies, normal consciousness forces itself very quickly back into them, and it is only then that normal consciousness becomes aware of external things — of sense perceptions that we then process conceptually, of objects that we perceive around us. But when we begin to enter much more consciously into our physical and life bodies, then as we awaken we meet the thinking that has gone on while we were asleep. We think; that is, the physical and life bodies are caught up in continual thought activity while we are asleep, only we are not present to it; we are outside this activity in our I and astral body, so we are not aware that it is going on. But this is a great self-deception. And just as we can better recognize any aspect of ourselves when it is torn away from its harmonious relationship to the whole of life — that is, when it appears in an abnormal state — so too we can realize based on external experiences of the world that while we are asleep we not only continue to think, but we think far more cleverly while asleep and absent than when awake and present. We arrive at the depressing fact that our life body thinks less well when we are within it, with the normal consciousness of our I and astral body. We spoil the thoughts that course through our life body by being present to them with our normal consciousness.
Someone who can see into these things can therefore confirm reports like the following. There were once two university students. One was a philologist and knew nothing of numbers. The other was a mathematics student. Now, we know that at certain moments in the study of mathematics, you do sweat through certain problems, whereas in philology it tends to go more easily. And that's how it was with these two students, who shared a room. One night, at the end of their preparations for their exams, the philology student was very pleased with himself, while the mathematics student was not, since he couldn't solve a problem he needed to solve for a written assignment. So he lay down to sleep very dissatisfied, and a strange event followed. At a certain hour the philology student woke up and saw the mathematics student get out of bed and walk to the desk. There, he thought some more, wrote for a long time and then went back to bed and slept. The next day, when they both got up, the mathematics student said, “We didn't drink anything last night, but this morning I have a terrible headache.” The other replied, “No wonder, if you get up at three and do calculations for hours, of course your head will swim the next day.” And his roommate said, “I was not up in the night!” He knew nothing about having been up. Then he looked and saw that he had solved the problem, though he had no memory of it.
These things are not fairy tales. I chose this example, which belongs to the literature, because you can check it. I could tell you many other such things. It is not a question of the individual example, but of the reality of all this. When consciousness is not present — and I emphasize that the person in question had no memory of his nocturnal activity — then the physical and life bodies are worked on by outside influences, and the life body works in the physical body to solve the assignment.
Now, I know that many will wish this kind of thing could happen more often. But we today do not have it so easy. In such a case as this the life body proves to be much more clever when it is left alone to work on the physical body than when the I and the astral body are present. This was merely an illustration of how we go on thinking all through the night. For our thoughts are stimulated directly by the outer world through the mediation of the life body, and then the physical body helps as well, to raise up thoughts for the physical human being on Earth.
So our thought life is definitely bound up with our physical and life bodies. Not so our feeling life and our will life. It is merely a superstition of modern science to imagine that our feeling and will are as bound up with our physical and life bodies as our thoughts are. I will only review a few points on this topic.
In contemporary earthly life, it is not true to say we can survey what happens with our I and our astral body when they separate from the physical and life bodies, taking with them from normal life only the will and a portion of the life of feeling. For this experience between going to sleep and waking up takes place in a completely different world. It takes place in a spiritual world, a world in which the environment is not the kingdoms of nature, the mineral kingdom and the plant kingdom, but the higher hierarchies, spiritual beings, spiritual events. But as long as we are beings of the Earth, we are not adequately developed to survey what we are experiencing in our I and astral body between falling asleep and waking up. The experience stays unconscious, but it is not less lively than what becomes conscious. We do go through it. And once we have done so, it is something that belongs to our inner content. Each morning we awaken changed; the night has changed us. We don't awaken in the same state we arrived at before going to sleep. Instead, we awaken in the state that our sleep life has put us into.
Now, when we pass through the gates of death, we lay down our physical and life bodies. And so, in the first days after death (since it takes about three days to let go of the life body), we feel that our thought life is being sucked up by the universe. First, we have a brief glance over our previous earthly life. It is as if our past life were the world around us; we see it in pictures before us. The whole of the past life stands before us at one stroke once the soul is free of the physical and life bodies, that is, once our passage through the gate of death has been accomplished. But it still takes days afterward for the life body to be completely dissolved in the general life processes of the universe.
During this time, our impression is, first, of a living and sharply contoured overview of the life. Then it grows weaker and weaker, but at the same time more “cosmic,” until after a few days it finally melts away. But in these few days, the most valuable aspect of the earthly life that is past departs from the person who has died. Everything we thought about the things of the world, about our whole earthly environment, what filled our normal consciousness — all this melts away from us in just a few days. And to the exact extent that the content of earthly life melts away, there emerges the content of what we all go through unconsciously every night during sleep. This content now begins to become conscious for us. If we really experienced nothing during our sleep life, then three or four days after death our conscious life would be at an end. For everything we thought of as most valuable during our life has melted away, and out of this darkening, dimming awareness there emerges what we lived through every time we slept, but which formerly remained outside awareness.
Now, the peculiar characteristic of our sleeping experiences is this: that in sleep the world takes place in reverse. Whether our sleep is long or short, once we fall asleep it is all the same, since other states of consciousness also have completely different time-senses. So the characteristic I am talking about holds true whether you sleep all night or only for a few minutes. From the time we go to sleep until the time we wake up again, we leave backwards through everything we just experienced between our last waking and the current moment of falling asleep. But we live through it in a different form than we did at first. When we are awake, we live through the day from start to finish, every event and every circumstance, in terms of physical, intellectual nuances. While asleep, however, we experience it all backwards and in terms of its moral nuances. Moral and religious impulses appear; we pass through everything evaluating how it has made us more or less valuable as moral human beings. We indulge in no illusions, nor can we, but we evaluate everything we did the previous day in terms of our fundamental humanity.
Natural science is wrong when it claims that human life relies on causality, on necessary consequences, though in waking life we may only see this linking of cause and effect. Reality contains another current, though it remains unconscious for us during the day, and every night as we sleep we experience this moral ordering of the world. There, we evaluate things morally, that is, in connection with our own human value. We do this every night, or every time we sleep, with regard to the last-experienced period of being awake. And when we pass through the gates of death, then we go backwards through the last night, the next-to-last night, the night before that, and so on, up to the first night after we were born when we became conscious for the first time — for about a third of the time we were alive, since we slept through about a third of our earthly life.
The physical, cause-and-effect course of the world passes away from us, and what rises up before us is the course of the world as the gods and spirits think about it, feel about it and will it. Still, it appears to us bearing the coloration that earthly life gave it, since we have to pass through it in the form in which we lived it during our life on Earth. We need about a third of our lifetime to live it over again backwards in this way, just as I described it in my book Theosophy. There, I described the land of the soul and the world of the soul.
For before we enter a world that is completely spiritual, we have to live through everything that we experienced on Earth unconsciously in our sleeping state. In this way, we are training our awareness for the actual spiritual experiences between death and rebirth. At the same time, this backward experience of earthly life frees us from earthly life. Until we have done this, our consciousness is not adequately free to move among the spirits of the higher worlds. And once we have come to this point, we are only at the beginning of our life in the higher worlds.
Our life in the higher worlds, until we come to Earth again, can become a purely spiritual experience. Just as here we live among physical beings and events, there we live in a spiritual world among spiritual beings and spiritual events. We live among the spiritual beings and deeds that never descend to Earth, and among the spiritual beings who as human beings came to Earth and passed through the gates of death before us, or even after us. We meet again with all the people we knew during earthly life. And this community of ours is very widespread. For through our sleep life we include in this community everything that we only touched on briefly with human beings during our life on Earth. In sleep, we already live within the spiritual world, but we are still experiencing earthly events in reverse as earthly human beings; just this distinguishes our nightly experience from what we go through once we have passed through the gates of death.
First, we have to acknowledge that in the first few days, the content of our earthly consciousness melts away from us. The unconscious experiences of sleep, which we ignored during life, now emerge and we really do experience them. For in those earthly states of sleep, we experience backwards, and in pictures, only the events of waking life. As we step through the gates of death, we submerge ourselves in spiritual substance, just as here we submerge ourselves in material substance. Just as we have the physical and life bodies on Earth, after death we receive a higher kind of external sheath, a spiritual sheath. Through this process, we can actually go through, in a real way, what we only pass through in pictures, in images, during our periods of sleep on Earth. It is a real, true experience, just as real as our experience of earthly life in a physical body. This real experience, a repetition in reality of the pictorial experience of our sleep states, is the basis of the further experiences we go through in the later course of our life between death and rebirth.
What follows between death and rebirth, after we have put aside our whole earthly existence, is a preparation for the next life on Earth. In conjunction with the beings of the spiritual world, we form the spiritual seed of our next earthly life, and above all our next physical body. Then comes another period in which we grow oriented toward life on Earth. After dwelling for a long time among spiritual beings and spiritual facts, something happens that can be compared to a feeling of tiredness, of wanting to go to sleep. We feel how the awareness we have in the spirit becomes weaker, how we can no longer work together with the beings of the spiritual world in the way we have done, and our consciousness shifts over to an interest in a new life on Earth.
Just as every day we sink into the unconsciousness of sleep, our purely spiritual consciousness that fills most of our time between death and rebirth sinks down, not to unconsciousness but toward being filled with interest for life on Earth — as seen from the other side, from the point of view of the spiritual world. This interest in earthly life emerges many years, even many centuries, before we descend again to an actual life on Earth. The interest we took for so long in the purely spiritual world transforms itself into an interest in the succession of generations, and at the end of this succession, we ourselves are to be born. From out of the spiritual world, we take note of our ancestors through many long years before our own parents are born. So from out of the spiritual world we grow together with our ancestry.
At some point all this will become common knowledge, and only then will we see how limited today's science really is, despite its partial correctness, with regard to the concept of inheritance. Physical inheritance can only become comprehensible to us when we understand the role of those forces by which we participated in our ancestry from out of the spiritual world. When we point out here, with our limited scientific means, that we possess this or that characteristic of our great-grandfathers, we shouldn't forget that while this great grandfather was alive, we took an interest in him from out of the spiritual world; we grew together with what played itself out as the characteristics of the succeeding generations. We grew into it from out of the spiritual world.
When anthroposophy makes itself felt in the general civilization of humanity, these things will gain practical significance. We hardly realize how much in the way of cowardice and lack of energy derives today unconsciously from our notions of inheritance, for our science can only speak of inherited characteristics in a completely inadequate way. It has even permeated our arts, the whole of human thought.
When we finally penetrate to a realization of how we have been connected to the physical formation of our own ancestors, and also to the development of our own soul, which from out of the spiritual world has followed and co-created the whole evolution of our ancestors, then this awareness will become an inward reality for us. Then energy and courage will come from the spirit into our souls, where today we derive only cowardice and lack of energy from our contemporary style of thought. For it is not of the slightest value if we think this or that theoretically about the spiritual world. For the most part, we even clothe whatever we think about the spiritual world in physical thought forms. It is not a question of our making theoretical thoughts for ourselves about the spiritual world. ... What matters is not that we have mere thoughts about the spiritual world — we have to have them initially, so that the content of the spiritual world enters our souls at all — but that these thoughts become living and creative forces within us. Normal physical thoughts on Earth are completely abstract. Most scientific thoughts are abstract; they accomplish nothing within our human nature — no more than mirror images. Such thoughts are only pictures. If you are standing with another person, looking in a mirror, and the other person smacks you on the ear, you won't ascribe the blow to what happens in the mirror, but to the real person standing next to you. Thoughts are like these mirror images: they don't do anything, they don't act as impulses on reality. It is moral intuitions that can act as impulses. So, even if we have to start from thoughts, our thoughts about the spiritual world have to be active, active as reality itself and not like other thoughts.
We only enter into the real Anthroposophic view when we sense and experience thoughts as realities. A common objection arises at this point. It can be stated superficially that the whole anthroposophical world view is based on auto-hypnosis, a kind of self-suggestion. People say for instance that some of us are so suggestive that the very thought of drinking lemonade can fill us with the feeling of drinking a real lemonade. It is true that there are people so sensitive that they can taste lemonade in their mouths when they think about lemonade. This seems to be a good objection, but just let someone tell us about quenching thirst by the mere thought of lemonade! Mere thoughts do not become realities. As long as anthroposophy remains mere thought, it is like an imaginary lemonade. But it need not remain so, for it derives from spiritual reality. It does not simply operate like a thought, but it operates the way outer reality operates on material substances. It permeates, it resonates through our human life of feeling and of will. It becomes a reality in us. This is what matters.
So we don't have much if we have anthroposophy as theory. It has to become life. It is life if it fills our souls with energy, perseverance, courage. It is life if, faced with the cares of physical life on Earth — in our deepest sorrow, our deepest suffering — we become filled with inner joy, inner consolation, inner energy by looking up toward the spiritual world. Then anthroposophy becomes like a living being; it becomes something that seems to move amongst us as a living being. Only then has it become amongst us what it should be, permeating all our activity. And then it helps us to permeate this world in which we have come for the sake of the spirit, not for the sake of physical matter. Above all, anthroposophy arrives at real knowledge of what we are as human beings.