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Perception of the Elemental World

Lecture by
Rudolf Steiner

Munich, August 26th, 1913
GA 147

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Perception of the Elemental World

Munich, 26 August 1913

WHEN SPEAKING about the spiritual worlds as we are doing in these lectures, we should keep the following well in mind: the clairvoyant consciousness which the human soul can develop in itself will change nothing in the nature and individuality of a person, for everything entering that consciousness was already long present in man's nature. Knowing a thing is not the same as creating it; a person learns only to perceive what is already there as a fact. Obvious as this is, it has to be said, for we must lead our thoughts to realize that the nature of the human being is hidden in the very depths of his existence; it can be brought up out of those depths only through clairvoyant cognition. It follows from this that the true, inmost nature of man's being cannot be brought to light in any other way than through occult knowledge. We can learn what a human being actually is not through any kind of philosophy but only through the kind of knowledge based on clairvoyant consciousness. To the observation we use in the sense world and to the understanding limited to the sense world, the being of man, the true, inmost nature of man, lies in hidden worlds. Clairvoyant consciousness provides the point of view from which the worlds beyond the so-called threshold have to be observed; in order to perceive and learn, quite different demands are made on it from those in the sense world. This is the most important thing: that the human soul should become more or less accustomed to the fact that the way of looking at and recognizing things that for the sense world is the correct and healthy one is not the only way.

Here I shall give the name elemental world to the first world that the soul of a human being enters on becoming clairvoyant and crossing the threshold. Only a person who wants to carry the habits of the sense world into the higher super-sensible worlds can demand a uniform choice of names for all the points of view the higher worlds can offer.

Fully new demands meet the life of soul when it steps over the threshold into the elemental world. If the human so insisted on entering this world with the habits of the sense world, two things might happen: cloudiness or complete darkness would spread over the horizon of the consciousness, over the field of vision, or else — if the soul wanted to enter the elemental world without preparing itself for the peculiarities and requirements there — it would be thrown back again into the sense world. The elemental world is absolutely different, from the sense world. In this world of ours when you move from one living being to another, from one happening to the next, you have these beings and events before you and can observe them; while confronting and observing them, you keep your own distinct existence, your own separate personality. You know all the time that in the presence of another person or happening you are the same person that you were before and that you will be the same when you confront a new situation; you can never lose yourself in another being or happening. You confront them, you stand outside them and you know you will always be the same in the sense world wherever you go.

This changes as soon as a person enters the elemental world. There it is necessary to adapt one's whole inner life of soul to a being or event so completely that one transforms one's own inner soul life into this other being, into this other event. We can learn nothing at all in the elemental world unless we become a different person within every other being, indeed unless we become similar, to a high degree, to the other beings and events.

We have to have, then, one peculiarity of soul for the elemental world: the capacity for transforming our own being into other beings outside ourselves. We must have the faculty of metamorphosis. We must be able to immerse ourselves in and become the other being. We must be able to lose the consciousness which always — in order to remain emotionally healthy — we have to have in the sense world, the consciousness of ‘I am myself.’ In the elemental world we get to know another being only when in a way we inwardly have ‘become’ the other. When we have crossed the threshold, we have to move through the elemental world in such a way that with every step we transform ourselves into every single happening, creep into every single being. It belongs to the health of a person's soul that in passing through the sense world he should hold his own and assert his individual character. But this is altogether impossible in the elemental world, where it would lead either to the darkening of his field of vision or to his being thrown back into the sense world.

You will easily understand that in order to exercise the faculty of transformation, the soul needs something more than it already possesses here in our world. The human soul is too weak to be able to change itself continuously and adapt itself to every sort of being if it enters the elemental world in its ordinary state. Therefore the forces of the human soul must be strengthened and heightened through the preparations described in my books Occult Science and Knowledge of the Higher Worlds; from these the life of soul will become stronger and more forceful. It can then immerse itself in other entities without losing itself in the process. This being said, you will understand at once the importance of noting what is called the threshold between the sense world and the super-sensible world. We have already said that the clairvoyant consciousness of a human being on earth must go back and forth continually, that it must observe the spiritual world beyond the threshold while it is outside the physical body and must then return into the physical body, exercising in a healthy way the faculties which lead it to the right observation of the physical sense world.

Let us suppose that a person's clairvoyant consciousness, when returning over the threshold, were to take back into the sense world the faculty of transformation it has to have in order to be at all aware of the spiritual world. The faculty of transformation I have been speaking about is a peculiarity of the human etheric body, which lives by preference in the elemental world. Now suppose that a person were to go back into the physical world keeping his etheric body as capable of transformation as it has to be in the elemental world. What would happen? Each of the worlds has its own special laws. The sense world is the world of self-contained forms, for here the Spirits of Form rule. The elemental world is the world of mobility, of metamorphosis, of transformation; just as we continually have to change in order to feel at home in that world, all the beings there are continually changing themselves. There is no enclosed, circumscribed form: all is in continual metamorphosis. A soul has to take part in this everchanging existence outside the physical body if it wants to unfold itself there. Then in the physical sense world we must allow our etheric body, as an entity of the elemental world capable of metamorphosis, to sink down into the physical body. Through this physical body I am a definite personality in the physical sense world; I am this or that distinct person. My physical body stamps my personality upon me; the physical body and the conditions of the physical world in which I find myself make me a personality. In the elemental world one is not a personality, for this would require an enclosed form. Here, however, we must note that what the clairvoyant consciousness recognizes in the human soul is, and always has been, present within it. Through the forces of the physical body, the mobility of the etheric body is restrained only for the time being. As soon as the etheric body sinks back into the physical encasement, its powers of movement are held together and adapted to the form. If the etheric body were not tucked into the physical body as if into a tote bag, it would always be impelled to continuous transformation.

Now let us suppose that a soul, becoming clairvoyant, were to carry over into the physical world this desire of its etheric body for transformation. Then with its tendency towards movement it will fit rather loosely into the physical body, and thus the soul can come into contradiction with the physical world that wants to shape it into a definite personality. The etheric body, which always wants to move freely, can come back over the threshold in the wrong way, every moment wishing to be something or someone else, someone that may be quite the opposite of the firmly imprinted form of the physical body. To put it even more concretely: a person could be, say, a Scandinavian bank executive, thanks to his physical body, but because his etheric brings over into the physical world the impulse to free itself from physical constraints he may imagine himself to be the emperor of China. (Or, to use another example, a person may be — let us say — the president of the Theosophical Society, and if her etheric body has been loosened, she may imagine that she has been in the presence of the Director of the Universe.)

We see that the threshold that sharply divides the sense world from the super-sensible world must be respected absolutely; the soul must observe the requirements of each of the two worlds, adapting and conducting itself differently on this side and that. We have emphasized repeatedly that the peculiarities of the super-sensible world must not unlawfully be carried over when one comes back into the sense world. If I may put it more plainly, one has to understand how to conduct oneself in both worlds; one may not carry over into one world the method of observation that is right for the other.

First of all, then, we have to take note that the essential faculty for finding and feeling oneself in the elemental world is the faculty of transformation. But the human soul could never live permanently in this mobile element. The etheric body could as little remain permanently in a state of being able to transform itself as a human being in the physical world could remain continually awake. Only when we are awake can we observe the physical world; asleep, we do not perceive it. Nevertheless we have to allow the waking condition to alternate with the sleeping one. Something comparable to this is necessary in the elemental world. Just as little as it is right in the physical world to be continually awake, for life here must swing like a pendulum between waking and sleeping, so something similar is necessary for the life of the etheric body in the elemental world. There must be an opposite pole, as it were, something that works in the opposite direction to the faculty of transformation leading to perception in the spiritual world. What is it that makes the human being capable of transformation? It is his living in imagination, in mental images, the ability to make his ideas and thoughts so mobile that through his lively, flexible thinking he can dip down into other beings and happenings. For the opposite condition, comparable to sleep in the sense world, it is the will of the human being that must be developed and strengthened. For the faculty of transformation, thinking or imagination; for the opposite condition, the will.

To understand this, we should consider that in the physical sense world the human being is a self, an ego, an ‘I’. It is the physical body, as long as it is awake, that contributes what is necessary for this feeling of self. The forces of the physical body, when the human being sinks down into it, supply him with the power to feel himself an ego, an ‘I’. It is different in the elemental world. There the human being himself must achieve to some degree what the physical body achieves in the physical world. He can develop no feeling of self in the elemental world if he does not exert his will, if he himself does not do the willing. This, however, calls for overcoming something that is deeply rooted in us: our love of comfort and convenience. For the elemental world this self-willing is necessary; like the alternation of sleeping and waking In the physical world, the condition of ‘transforming oneself into other beings’ must give way to the feeling of selfstrengthened volition, just as we have become tired in the physical world and close our eyes, overcome by sleep, the moment comes in the elemental world when the etheric body feels, ‘I cannot go on continually changing; now I must shut out all the beings and happenings around me. I will have to thrust it all out of my field of vision and look away from it. I now must will myself and live absolutely and entirely within myself, ignoring the other beings and occurrences.’ This willing of self, excluding everything else, corresponds to sleep in the physical world.

We would be mistaken if we imagined that the alternation of transformation with strengthened ego feeling were regulated in the elemental world just as naturally as waking and sleeping are in the physical world. According to clairvoyant consciousness — and to this alone it is perceptible — it takes place at will, not passing so easily as waking here passes into sleep. After one has lived for a time in the element of metamorphosis, one feels the need within oneself to engage and use the other swing of the pendulum of elemental life. In a much more arbitrary way than with our waking and sleeping, the element of transforming oneself alternates with living within with its heightened feeling of self. Yes, our consciousness can even bring it about through its elasticity that in certain circumstances both conditions can be present at the same time: on the one hand, one transforms oneself to some degree and yet can hold together certain parts of the soul and rest within oneself. In the elemental world we can wake and sleep at the same time, something we should not try to do in the physical world if we have any concern for our soul life. We must further consider that when thinking develops into the faculty of transformation and begins to be at home in the elemental world, it cannot be used in that world in the way that is right and healthy for the physical world. What is thinking like in our ordinary world? Observe it as you follow its movement. A person is aware of thoughts in his soul; he knows that he is grasping, spinning out, connecting and separating these thoughts. Inwardly he feels himself to be the master of his thoughts, which seem rather passive; they allow themselves to be connected and separated, to be formed and then dismissed. This life of thought must develop in the elemental world a step further. There a person is not in a position to deal with thoughts that are passive. If someone really succeeds in entering that world with his clairvoyant soul, it seems as though his thoughts were not things over which he has any command: they are living beings. Only imagine how it is when you cannot form and connect and separate your thoughts but, instead, each one of them in your consciousness begins to have a life of its own, a life as an entity in itself You thrust your consciousness into a place, it seems, where you do not find thoughts that are like those in the physical world but where they are living beings. I can only use a grotesque picture which will help us somehow to realize how different our thinking must become from what it is here. Imagine sticking your head into an anthill, while your thinking comes to a stop — you would have ants in your head instead of thoughts! It is just like that, when your soul dips down into the elemental world; your thoughts become so alive that they themselves join each other, separate from each other and lead a life of their own. We truly need a stronger power of soul to confront these living thought-beings with our consciousness than we do with the passive thoughts of the physical world, which allow themselves to be formed at will, to be connected and separated not only sensibly but often even quite foolishly. They are patient things, these thoughts of our ordinary world; they let the human soul do anything it likes with them. But it is quite different when we thrust our soul into the elemental world, where our thoughts will lead an independent life. A human being must hold his own with his soul life and assert his will in confronting these active, lively, no longer passive thoughts. In the physical world our thinking can be completely stupid and this does not harm us at all. But if we do foolish things with our thinking in the elemental world, it may well happen that our stupid thoughts, creeping around there as independent beings, can hurt us, can even cause real pain.

Thus we see that the habits of our soul life must change when we cross the threshold from the physical into the super-sensible world. If we were then to return to the physical world with the activity we have to bring to bear on the living thought entities of the elemental world and failed to develop in ourselves sound thinking with these passive thoughts, wishing rather to hold fast to the conditions of the other world, our thoughts would continually run away from us; then hurrying after them, we woud become a slave to our thoughts.

When a person enters the elemental world with clairvoyant soul and develops his faculty of metamorphosis, he delves into it with his inner life, transforming himself according to the kind of entity he is confronting. What is his experience when he does this? It is something we can call sympathy and antipathy. Out of soul depths these experiences seem to well up, presenting themselves to the soul that has become clairvoyant. Quite definite kinds of sympathy and antipathy appear as it transforms itself into this or that other being. When the person proceeds from one transformation to the next, he is continually aware of different sympathies or antipathies, just as in the physical world we recognize, characterize, describe the objects and living beings, in short, perceive them when the eye sees their colour or the ear hears their tones, so correspondingly in the spiritual world we would describe its beings in terms of particular sympathies and antipathies. Two things, however, should be noted. One is that in our usual way of speaking in the physical world we generally differentiate only between stronger and weaker degrees of sympathy and antipathy; in the elemental world the sympathies and antipathies differ from one another not only in degree but also in quality. There they vary, just as yellow here is quite different from red. As our colours are qualitatively different, so are the many varieties of sympathy and antipathy that we meet in the elemental world. In order therefore to describe this correctly, one may not merely say as one would do in the physical world — that in diving down and entering this particular entity one feels greater sympathy, while in immersing oneself in another entity one feels less sympathy. No, sympathies of all sorts and kinds can be found there.

The other point to note is this. Our usual natural attitude to sympathy and antipathy cannot be carried over into the elemental world. Here in this world we feel drawn to some people, repelled by others; we associate by choice with those who are sympathetic and wish to stay near them; we turn away from the things and people who are abhorrent and refuse to have anything to do with them. This cannot be the case in the elemental world, for there — if I may express it rather oddly — we will not find the sympathies sympathetic nor the antipathies antipathetic. This would resemble someone in the physical world saying, ‘I can stand only the blues and greens, not the red or yellow colours. I simply have to run away from red and yellow!’ If a being of the elemental world is antipathetic, it means that it has a distinct characteristic of that world which must be described as antipathetic, and we have to deal with it just as we deal in the sense world with the colours blue and red — not permitting one to be more sympathetic to us than the other. Here we meet all the colours with a certain calmness because they convey what the things are; only when a person is a bit neurotic does he run away from certain colours, or when he is a bull and cannot bear the sight of red. Most of us accept all the colours with equanimity and in the same way we should be able to observe with the utmost calmness the qualities of sympathy and antipathy that belong to the elemental world. For this we must necessarily change the attitude of soul usual in the physical world, where it is attracted by sympathy and repelled by antipathy; it must become completely changed. There the inner mood or disposition corresponding to the feelings of sympathy and antipathy must be replaced with what we can call soul-quiet, spirit-peacefulness. With an inwardly resolute soul life filled with spirit calm, we must immerse ourselves in the entities and transform ourselves into them; then we will feel the qualities of these beings rising within our soul depths as sympathies and antipathies. Only when we can do this, with such an attitude toward sympathy and antipathy, will the soul, in its experiences, be capable of letting the sympathetic and antipathetic perception appear before it as images that are right and true. That is, only then are we capable not merely of feeling what the perception of sympathies and antipathies is but of really experiencing our own particular self, transformed into another being, suddenly rising up as one or another colour-picture or as one or another tone-picture of the elemental world.

You can also learn how sympathies and antipathies play a part in regard to the experience of the soul in the spiritual world if you will look with a certain amount of inner understanding at the chapter of my book Theosophy that describes the soul world. You will see there that the soul world is actually constructed of sympathies and antipathies. From my description you will have been able to learn that what we know as thinking in the physical sense world is really only the external shadowy imprint, called up by the physical body, of the thinking that, lying in occult depths, can be called a true living force. As soon as we enter the elemental world and move with our etheric body, thoughts become — one can say — denser, more alive, more independent, more true to their own nature. What we experience as thought in the physical body relates to this truer element of thinking as a shadow on the wall relates to the objects casting it. As a matter of fact, it is the shadow of the elemental thought-life thrown into the physical sense world through the instrumentality of the physical body. When we think, our thinking lies more or less in the shadow of thought beings. Here clairvoyant spiritual knowledge throws new light on the true nature of thinking. No philosophy, no external science, however ingenious, can determine anything of the real nature of thinking; only a knowledge based on clairvoyant consciousness can recognize what it is.

The same thing holds good with the nature of our willing. The will must grow stronger, for in the elemental world things are not so obliging that the ego feeling is provided for us as it is through the forces of the physical body. There we ourselves have to will the feeling of ego; we have to find out what it means for our soul to be entirely filled with the consciousness, ‘I will myself’; we have to experience something of the greatest significance: that when we are not strong enough to bring forth the real act of will, ‘I will myself’, and not just the thought of it, at that moment we will feel ourselves falling unconscious as though in a faint. If we do not hold ourselves together in the elemental world, we will fall into a kind of faint. There we look into the true nature of the will, again something that cannot be discovered by external science or philosophy but only by the clairvoyant consciousness. What we call the will in the physical world is a shadowy image of the strong, living will of the elemental world, which grows and develops so that it can maintain the self out of its own volition without the support of external forces.We can say that everything in that world, when we grow accustomed to it, becomes self-willed.

Above all, when we have left the physical body and our etheric body has the elemental world as its environment, it is through the innate character of the etheric body that the drive to transform ourselves awakens. We wish to immerse ourselves in the other beings. However, just as in our waking state by day the need for sleep arises, so in the elemental world there arises in turn the need to be alone, to shut out everything into which we could transform ourselves. Then again, when we have felt alone for a while and developed the strong feeling of will, ‘I will myself’, there comes what may be called a terrible feeling of isolation, of being forsaken, which evokes the longing to awaken out of this state, of only willing oneself, to the faculty of transformation again. While we rest in physical sleep, other forces take care that we wake up; we do not have to attend to it ourselves. In the elemental world when we are in the sleeping condition of only willing ourselves, it is through the demand of feeling forsaken that we are impelled to put ourselves into the state of transformation, that is, of wanting to awaken.

From all this, you see how different are the conditions of experiencing oneself in the elemental world, of perceiving oneself there, from those of the physical world. You can judge therefore how necessary it is, again and again, to take care that the clairvoyant consciousness, passing back and forth from one world to the other, adapts itself correctly to the requirements of each world and does not carry over, on crossing the threshold, the usages of one into the other. The strengthening and invigorating of the life of soul consequently belongs to the preparation we have often described as necessary for the experience of super-sensible worlds.

What must above all become strong and forceful are the soul experiences we can call the eminently moral ones. These imprint themselves as soul dispositions in firmness of character and inner resolute calm. Inner courage and firmness of character must most especially be developed, for through weakness of character we cripple the whole life of soul, which would then come powerless into the elemental world, this we must avoid if we hope to have a true and correct experience there. No one who is really earnest about gaining knowledge in the higher worlds will therefore fail to give weight to the strengthening of the moral forces among all the other forces that help the soul enter those worlds. One of the most shameful errors is foisted on humanity when someone takes it on himself to say that clairvoyance should be acquired without paying attention to strengthening the moral life. It must be stressed once and for all that what I described in my book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds as the development of the lotus flowers that crystallize in the spirit body of a student/clairvoyant may indeed take place without attention to supportive moral strength, but certainly ought not to do so.

The lotus flowers must be there if a person wants to have the faculty of transformation. That faculty comes into existence when the flowers unfold their petals in a motion away from the human being, in order to grasp the spiritual world and adhere to it. Whatever a person develops as the ability to transform himself is expressed for the clairvoyant vision in the unfolding of the lotus flowers. Whatever he can acquire of a strengthened ego-feeling becomes inner firmness; we can call it an elementary backbone. Both of these must be correspondingly developed: the lotus flowers so that one can transform oneself, and an elementary backbone so that one can unfold a strengthened ego in the elemental world.

As mentioned in an earlier lecture, what develops in a spiritual way can lead to a high order of virtues in the spiritual world. But if this is allowed to stream down into the sense world, it can bring about the most terrible vices. It is the same with the lotus flowers and elemental backbone. By practising certain methods it is also possible to awaken the lotus flowers and backbone without aiming for moral firmness — but this no conscientious clairvoyant would recommend. It is not merely a question of attaining something or other in the higher worlds, but of knowing what is involved. At the moment we pass over the threshold into the spiritual world we approach the luciferic and ahrimanic beings, of whom we have already spoken; here we meet them in quite a different way from any confrontation we might have in the physical world. We will have the remarkable experience that as soon as we cross the threshold, that is, as soon as we have developed the lotus flowers and a backbone, we will see the luciferic powers coming towards us with the intention of seizing the lotus flowers. They stretch their tentacles out towards our lotus flowers; we must have developed in the right way so that we use the lotus flowers to grasp and understand the spiritual events and so that they are not themselves grasped by the luciferic powers. It is possible to prevent their being seized by these powers only by ascending into the spiritual world with firmly established moral forces.

I have already mentioned that in the physical sense world the ahrimanic forces approach us more from outside, the luciferic more from within the soul. In the spiritual world it is just the opposite: the luciferic beings come from outside and try to lay hold of the lotus flowers, whereas the ahrimanic beings come from within and settle themselves tenaciously within the elementary backbone. If we have risen into the spiritual world without the support of morality, the ahrimanic and luciferic powers form an extraordinary alliance with each other. If we have come into the higher worlds filled with ambition, vanity, pride or with the desire for power, Ahriman and Lucifer will succeed in forming a partnership with each other. I will use a picture for what they do, but this Picture corresponds to the actual situation and you will understand that what I am indicating really takes place. Ahriman and Lucifer form an alliance; together they bind the petals of the lotus flowers to the elementary backbone. When all the petals are fastened to the backbone, the human being is tied up in himself, fettered within himself through his strongly developed lotus flowers and backbone. The results of this will be the onset of egoism and love of deception to an extent that would be impossible were he to remain normally in the physical world. Thus we see what can happen if clairvoyant consciousness is not developed in the right way: the alliance of Ahriman and Lucifer whereby the petals of the lotus flowers are fastened onto the elementary backbone, fettering a person within himself by means of his own elemental or etheric capacities. These are the things we must know if we wish to penetrate with open eyes and with understanding into the actual spiritual world.


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