Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Broken Vessels
GA 318

Lecture III

Dornach, 10th September, 1924

WE WILL OBTAIN A DEEPER VIEW of the total human being if we go a little further into the matters we have been considering. In particular, we should see from such symptoms how important the transition is from health to illness. I therefore would like to speak further about something that lies between certain pathological trends that are developing in human evolution and a kind of natural initiation that constitutes another stream in human evolution. This phenomenon lies midway between the pathological tendencies of human nature and the stream of initiation; it relates as much to one as to the other.

Typical of such a path of development are such personalities as St. Teresa. One can observe much more than I described if one makes a study of some of these individuals. With them there is a kind of appearance of the spiritual world at the threshold of perception. Naturally this is difficult to describe, because the words one has to use to characterize these abnormal conditions do not have such meanings in our everyday speech. What appears at the threshold of perception is the first stage for such people and is called by them “entrance into the first dwelling place of God.” In the first stage this is perceived only as “a presence.” These people experience the presence of some spiritual being, but they have no precise vision of the being. If the experience comes to a definite conclusion, they have a clear feeling that the being was there with them. That is the first experience: an indefinite experience of a presence, of being together with some spiritual being. As long as they are in this stage of development, these people are even annoyed when someone else tells them of a vision, because these people think their own experience is much more inward, much more intimate, more genuine. This has been such a moving experience for them that they have the feeling: human beings are not allowed to see the supersensible world, but I have been given this vague experience of its reality.

Then these people reach a second stage. They tell of actual, shaped perceptions of the spiritual beings that were present. First they tell of the feeling of being touched, of having spiritual hands laid upon them, even of their forehead being touched or something similar, without yet having any visual experience. Then the condition is raised to vision that is like optical perception. It can be so enhanced that they see Jesus, for instance, standing before them as a real person. That is the usual second stage. It is a peculiar fact that those advancing from the first to the second stage have only the vaguest feeling that earlier they had become angry when others told them of their own experiences in this second stage. Memory does not clearly connect the two stages. These people live very intensely in the respective single stages.

The third stage they experience is remarkable. Their description of it is highly colored in every detail. They tell how when it comes upon them they are seized by tremendous pain. And indeed it is obviously intense, for at these moments they can be heard groaning; other reactions can be observed such as occur with pain originating in the physical and etheric bodies. But the strange thing is that they want this pain. They want it because they regard it as natural that they should have it; they feel that they will only reach the subsequent experience properly if first they suffer this pain.

Then they reach the stage where they transform the pain within themselves. This is extraordinarily interesting, for actually the pain remains exactly the same, but now it is enhanced into a feeling of joy, of bliss. The pain comes, its objective condition is still there, but now the spiritual awareness goes further. If one were suddenly to pull such people out of their spiritual state, they would feel the pain as sick people feel pain — and indeed do so when they return from this highest stage of the experience. At this highest stage they no longer have the feeling that spiritual beings come to them, but that they themselves have risen into the spiritual world. At this stage the pain is transformed — one might say subjectively, but the expression is not quite exact — into a feeling of bliss. Then begins a symbolic objectifying of the pain. When they come out of this experience and have a memory of it (and in most cases there is a very clear memory of it afterward), then they describe how a seraph or a cherub stood beside them, and the seraph or cherub had a sword that he plunged into the their intestines, which caused excruciating pain. When the spiritual being pulled out the sword he pulled the intestines out too, and then there came immediately an experience of profound bliss in the presence of God.

As a rule these three stages follow in succession. We can understand them clearly through our anthroposophical knowledge. After the preparatory condition I have described, the first stage consists of the ego organization drawing the astral body to itself, so that they are united without penetrating the physical and etheric bodies as deeply as they normally would. Something, therefore, is happening for such persons that can never happen in ordinary consciousness: in half-waking or quarter-waking or three-quarters waking condition they have conscious experience in their ego organization and astral body, while at the same time experience in their etheric and physical bodies continues with a certain independence. Thus parallel experiences are there: a spiritual experience in the ego organization and astral body, and at the same time a separate experience of the etheric and physical bodies. This is never the case in normal consciousness: there, all four members of the human being are bound closely together. In normal consciousness there is no such thing as experiences of consciousness running parallel. In this experience I am describing, such people feel themselves, know themselves in the most eminent sense to be entirely united with what they are experiencing. They know this first of all, the inherent being-one-with the happening. When the astral body is drawn to the ego organization and experiences spiritual beings, these people experience them as simply a presence, as something that is there. They experience this as one experiences one's own body. One does not differentiate in the latter experience. One does not feel one's body as something outside: one feels it as part of oneself. That is the first stage: the experience of “a presence.”

Now let us go to the second stage. First, these people have all kinds of feelings of being touched. Naturally these can be confused very easily by ordinary pathology with familiar psychiatric symptoms, but they are not the same. Then they advance to actual visions. This is the stage where the ego organization and astral organization draw the etheric body out to be united with them. So again there is a parallel experience: the ego organization, astral organization, and etheric body are all raised somewhat out of the physical body; at the same time the physical body carries on its processes separately. Something special comes about through this situation. In ordinary life, when we see, we are stimulated by light from without and we receive the stimulus into ourselves. It goes as far as the etheric body, and the etheric body creates the conscious experience. That is how it is, for example, with the eyes. When you see, the external stimulation occurs first in the ego; then it penetrates the astral body and penetrates the etheric body. It is then the etheric body that communicates the whole conscious experience to you by pushing in every direction, in a certain sense, against the physical organization. The conscious experience lies in this pushing. That is the exact process. If presented in a diagram, it would look like the drawing below.

Diagram 1

A stimulus is exerted. First it affects the ego, then it goes to the astral body, then to the etheric body; in the etheric body it pushes into the physical body in every direction, to all sides. The physical body pushes back, and the pushing back, the repulsion by the physical body, is your actual eye experience. It is a constant play between the etheric body and the choroid and retina. What the etheric body does in the choroid and in the retina is what appears to ordinary consciousness as optical experience. This happens similarly with every other sense perception. To anyone who understands these things, the entire explanation in today's psychology textbooks, or even in epistemology, is terribly childish.

But now, with such people as I am describing, the etheric body is seized directly in this experience. The experience sits in the ego, astral body, etheric body, and does not push out to the senses, but pushes from within to what is the nerve-sense system — pushes first, actually, into the glandular system, then into the nervous system, and finally from there streams into the senses. So the senses are taken hold of in a way that is just the opposite of the way it happens in ordinary life. Instead of the experience of consciousness being stimulated through the senses, it is colored, intensified, made vivid by the fact that it streams from within to the senses. That is how the feeling of being touched comes about in a sensation of the nerves: by the streaming from within outward. This is then raised to vision. Now you know the whole inner process.

If there is a further development, it proceeds in the following way: the ego organization, astral body, and etheric body take hold of the physical body from quite another direction than would normally be the case. The physical body is accustomed to being taken hold of from without, but now it is taken hold of from within. Now it is taken hold of in the midst of life — the very process that otherwise only happens when the human soul-spiritual entity comes down out of the soul-spiritual world into the physical body, three weeks after conception. This event cannot otherwise happen in ordinary life, because normally the etheric body is connected with the physical body. But in this case the etheric body has been raised out by the ego organization and taken hold of by the astral body. It is like birth, when the human being takes possession of a physical body, but now the procedure is more complicated, possessing this physical body from quite another direction. And that causes pain. For as a matter of fact, all pain — in cases of illness, too — consists of the fact that the body is grasped hold of from some other direction than the usual one. That is what happens at the moment when the third stage is reached.

Now you need not be surprised that this third stage is objectified. It penetrates the physical body and the physical body repels it. A physical body cannot be so seized except in regular initiation; in any other situation the physical body exerts opposition, and this causes pain. It pushes away in pain what it is experiencing. That is the first part of the experience of the third stage. The physical body exerts resistance and the resistance is experienced as pain. And what enters through the pain? The real spiritual world. It comes through the pain. The spiritual world comes from the other direction. Ordinary sense perception and ordinary thinking grasp hold of the physical world. The spiritual world is grasped in the opposite way. The way to it is through pain. The moment the physical body exerts resistance, intense pain is there. But the moment the pain is taken hold of by the spiritual world, the moment the spiritual world enters, the pain is transformed into ecstasy. It is really so. First there is pain in the organism; then the spiritual world penetrates the pain, streams through the pain: a cherub or seraph appears (this is what the imagination presents), the cherub plunges his sword in, draws it out, and draws the intestines out with it. This means that the person becomes independent of the physical body, of the ordinary connection to it. The person has no experience in the lower organs and is led beyond it to an experience of the spiritual world. The physical pain is transformed to bliss. Such people speak of the presence of God, or if they make distinctions, of the presence of the spiritual world.

This last stage is experienced by individuals who are strong enough in their etheric body to endure the entire happening. They have the foundation for it in their karma. For instance, think of St. Teresa. She had an earlier incarnation in which her soul became especially strong. She incarnates as St. Teresa. But before she incarnates in the physical body, she takes possession of her etheric body very forcefully, and this etheric body becomes inwardly stronger than is the case with the usual human being. She has brought it with her into this life, this etheric body that is inwardly strong. Then this strong etheric body leaves the physical body and unites itself firmly with the astral body and ego, which are also especially strong from an earlier incarnation. And that is why illnesses then appear, at least a certain variety of illness: because the etheric body is not staying in the physical organs and providing them with its nourishing, vitalizing forces. With the individuals I am describing, the moment they enter the third stage they become really ill. At the same time their strong etheric body enables them to overcome the illness as it is developing. The illness begins to develop and immediately an automatic therapy arises within them from the strong etheric body. The entire process is a latent illness and healing. This is one of the most interesting phenomena in the realm of human evolution.

Precisely in the case of St. Teresa you see in the final stage of her development a continual status nascendi of illness and the continual cure. This alternation, this wonderful swing of a pendulum between the beginning of illness and the caring of it, is not a natural happening in the physical world, for it is not brought about in the physical world: it takes place in the spiritual world. We know that the etheric body is formed before the earthly incarnation. And it is into that pre-earthly moment that such a person as St. Teresa returns. When the pathological condition starts, when it is in statu nascendi, she “swings” into the world where she was before birth, into the spiritual world. The pendulum swings between the physical body and the spiritual world. Spiritual world — physical world — spiritual world — physical world, but experiencing the physical world as an exact opposite — such as normally human beings only experience when they are just incarnating into it. This inner process of healing, this therapy coming from the cosmos, is so intense that its effect can spread to sick people who are in the neighborhood of such people, if their illness lies somewhat in the same direction. In fact, the most wonderful cures can take place around such a person.

Indeed the influence can extend much further. In the former, better days of the church, these things were used in a careful, esoteric way. Later this degenerated to a superstitious worship of relics and belief in magic. But it is a fact that in better times of religious evolution, vivid biographies of such individuals, including their own imaginative descriptions, were given to the faithful, so that they could live through the experiences of such people in their own imagination. And it could then happen that when thoughtful pastors had the opportunity, they would simply put such a biography into the hands of someone in ordinary life whose illness was going in a certain direction. Perhaps also they strengthened the effect by their own words, and this was able to start curative processes. Directing the sick individual's mind to the life of such a saint could have a therapeutic effect.

You can see that studies that go so deeply into the human being will always lead from health to illness, but also to states of supersensible experience. If therefore you advise someone in some connection or other to do exercises to gain entrance into the supersensible world, the exercises must be so oriented that they strengthen the ego organization, astral body, and etheric body. Such a path as I described, given to individuals simply through their karma, will in fact take its course properly. What takes place in initiation itself can be learned by studying these processes, which border so closely on the pathological. Therefore it is not unimportant for physicians to take the time to study the lives of such people. Physicians will find in them what can only be called a paradox: the healthy counterpart of a complex of pathological symptoms that they are accustomed to meet here and there in everyday life. And for physicians, that is the most beneficial thing possible: to see the healthy counterpart of a pathological condition. That, more than anything else, will help physicians to make thoughtful, conscientious decisions about their therapy. Moreover if physicians have some knowledge of the substance that can be used as a remedy because of its affinity to certain etheric forces — forces that automatically become active in the self-healing of these abnormal individuals — they will know how St. Teresa's etheric body developed its forces when her illnesses appeared in statu nascendi. And if physicians learn to know the healing power to be found in the piercing activity of antimony, then they will have learned the right therapy from Nature herself.

I would like to point out that in examining such experiences as these, one encounters a remarkable paradox: one sees illness from another side. One sees illness being treated not by human beings but by spiritual beings. One kind of treatment is the kind human beings evolve: that is, treatment from the aspect of the earth. It consists of restoring the previous condition through some therapy that breaks up the illness. The spiritual beings that have to do with humanity treat illness differently. They weave an illness into the fabric of karma. That is their task — a task that doesn't pile things together as they are piled together here on earth by pathology. Here a seventeen-year-old who is ill is not always cured by forty-five. But with the way karma is formed, an illness in some incarnation, whether it is cured or not, may be woven into the human being's karma three thousand years later. Time is measured quite differently in the spiritual world. But one learns very much from those developments in which, from a spiritual point of view, something can happen in the spiritual world and then can also stream down into the physical world.

Diagram 2

Take, for example, such a form of karma as I have been describing. Perhaps it is completely in the ordinary course of evolution in three thousand years. Let me show by this line (see drawing above) that something that happens to a person today is so shaped by spiritual beings that the other part belonging to it, the balance, the compensation, appears in three thousand years' time. That is the normal course. You see, in ordinary life people don't have a true knowledge of time. How do they think of it ordinarily? As a line running from past infinity through the present into the future. That is approximately how time is imagined — and indeed, the line has to be thick — perhaps not even a line, but a thick rope, because it contains everything that is perceived at any given moment in the whole world. That's the way people think of it if they think of it at all — and most people don't think of it at all. From a spiritual point of view time is not like that. And one finds little understanding for spiritual development — which, after all, is present in all physical evolution — when time is thought of in that conventional way. In reality, time is different. The line I drew on the board can be tangled up into a ball (see drawing). The entire line of time is in that ball. Three thousand years are in that ball. Time can be all tangled up; and if it is tangled up for some development or other in evolution, then the tangle can be found in the life of some individual. In the case of St. Teresa, a tangled ball of time was present in her earthly life. We come upon a true mystery — that things that in someone's karma would seem to be widely separate for some reason become entangled.

You see from such an example how a study of the inner spiritual, karmic development must link up with the external pathological and therapeutic inquiry. You can see how the pastoral care of some person by priests, who are basing their view of the person on the karmic connections, the spiritual aspects, can relate to what is seen from a medical view alone. For a comprehension of these things requires not only theoretical knowledge but really living into the things. Physicians must live into them on the pathological, physiological side that opens up for them. Priests must live into them in the theological and karmic views that open up for them. And the harmony will come from their working together out of these two different fields, not from interfering in each other's field in a dilettantish fashion. This must be stressed again and again.

You must still see something else that is connected with these things, particularly in our epoch. You know how distasteful it is to some people to accept the idea of free will even though it is perfectly obvious to an unbiased person. The philosophers deny its reality because their intellect can't make a connection with it. I said just now in regard to sense perceptions that the explanations in physiology and psychology textbooks are absolutely childish to someone who understands these things. But the chatter over free will is far worse. For you must remember: a decision of free will is at every moment an act of the whole human being — the whole human being — no matter how they appear in this impulse: healthy or ill or half ill or abnormally healthy. The whole human being is involved in an impulse of free will — and, all that can be known of the whole human being, all the complications. One only learns to know human nature when one learns to know it with all its complications. And please notice, something that in an abnormal person shows too strong a color in one or another direction is neutralized, harmonized in the ordinary human being. There's a trivial expression, but it's true: A cherub can make friends with you, but the devil can too. And those processes where the devil can squeeze in — we're going to study them too! This is all to be found in the ordinary human being, but opposing forces are neutralized, because they develop equally strongly in every direction. If there's an angel in every human, there's also a devil. But when the angel and the devil are equally strong, they neutralize each other.

Diagram 3

Now take a look at these scales (see drawing). There is one spot, one point right here. You can lay weights there or there and then you have put the scales into movement. But this spot always remains still. It has a name: the hypomochlion. It is not affected by what you lay on the scale at the left, or what you lay on the scale at the right. Of course, the scales must be built so that this spot will not need to be disturbed. Now in the human being a similar spiritual hypomochlion is created by the opposing forces. Therefore you can study human nature and you will never be able to call human beings free, for by their very nature they are causally conditioned in all respects.

If you study the nature of human beings from the viewpoint of materialism, you do not come to the idea of freedom. You come to causal conditioning. If you study human beings from a spiritual viewpoint, you come to the determination of the will by God or by spiritual beings; you do not come to free will. You can be a blockhead of a materialist and deny freedom and do research on the natural causality of the will. Or you can be a sophisticated person like Leibnitz and gaze out at a spiritual universe — and you come to determinism. Naturally, as long as you are considering the scale at this left end of the beam, you have to reckon with movement; so long as you are considering the scale at this right end of the beam, again you have to reckon with movement. And it is the same with human beings: whether you consider them from the point of view of nature or from the point of view of spirit, you do not come to freedom. Freedom lies in the middle at the point of balance between them.

That's theory, of course! In practice you have to decide when people come to you with difficult life situations whether you can make them responsible for their actions. Now this becomes a practical question: whether they can or cannot exercise free will. How are you going to decide this? You decide by judging whether their spiritual and physical constitutions are in balance. And in this the physicians and the priests are equally involved. Therefore both physicians and priests must be trained to understand the conditions under which a person is either in balance or not in balance between spirit and nature.

Whether an individual has this sense of responsibility can only be decided out of a deep knowledge of human nature. The problem of freedom in connection with responsibility is one of the deepest imaginable. We will see what from one side leads to health and from the other side leads to pathological conditions.