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Modern and Ancient Spiritual Exercises

Advice on Meditation

A lecture by
Rudolf Steiner
Dornach, May 27, 1922
GA 212

The lecture presented here was given in Dornach on May 27, 1922, and is the 7th of 9 lectures in the series entitled: The Human Soul in Relation to World Evolution. It appears in the original German in Menschliches Seelenleben und Geistesstreben im Zusammenhange mit der Welt- und Erdentwicklung, Bibliographic Nr.212, Dornach 1978. It is also known as: The Change in the Path to Supersensible Knowledge, or Ancient Yoga and Modern Initiation. The translator is Rita Stebbing.

This English edition is published in agreement with, and the kind permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland.

Copyright © 1984
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[Abridged from The Human Soul in Relation to World Evolution, published by Anthroposophic Press, 1984.]

Dornach, 27 May 1922  

The paths by which in very remote times men acquired super-sensible knowledge were very different from those appropriate today. I have often drawn attention to the fact that in ancient times man possessed a faculty of instinctive clairvoyance. This clairvoyance went through many different phases to become what may be described as modern man's consciousness of the world, a consciousness out of which a higher one can be developed. In my books Occult Science: An Outline and Knowledge of the Higher Worlds: How is it Achieved? and other writings is described how man at present, when he understands his own times, can attain higher knowledge.

When we look back to the spiritual strivings of man in a very distant past we find among others the one practised in the Orient within the culture known later as the Ancient Indian civilization. Many people nowadays are returning to what was practised then because they cannot rouse themselves to the realization that, in order to penetrate in to super-sensible worlds, every epoch must follow its own appropriate path.

On previous occasions I have mentioned that, from the masses of human beings who lived during the period described in my Occult Science as the Ancient Indian epoch, certain individuals developed, in a manner suited to that age, inner forces which led them upwards into super-sensible worlds. One of the methods followed is known as the path of yoga; I have spoken about this path on other occasions.

The path of yoga can best be understood if we first consider the people in general from among whom the yogi emerged — that is to say, the one who sets out to attain higher knowledge by this path. In those remote ages of mankind's evolution, human consciousness in general was very different from what it is today. In the present age we look out into the world and through our senses perceive colours, sounds and so on. We seek for laws of nature prevailing in the physical world and we are conscious that if we attempt to experience a spirit-soul content in the external world then we add something to it in our imagination. It was different in the remote past for then, as we know, man saw more in the external world than ordinary man sees today. In lightning and thunder, in every star, in the beings of the different kingdoms of nature, the men of those times beheld spirit and soul. They perceived spiritual beings even if of a lower kind, in all solid matter, in everything fluid or aeriform. Today's intellectual outlook declares that these men of old, through their fantasy, dreamed all kinds of spiritual and psychical qualities into the world around them. This is known as animism.

We little understand the nature of man, especially that of man in ancient times, if we believe that the spiritual beings manifesting in lightning and thunder, in springs and rivers, in wind and weather, were dream-creations woven into nature by fantasy. This was by no means the case. Just as we perceive red or blue and hear C sharp or G, so those men of old beheld realities of spirit and soul in external objects. For them it was as natural to see spirit-soul entities as it is for us to see colours and so on. However, there was another aspect to this way of experiencing the world, namely, that man in those days had no clear consciousness of self.

The clear self-consciousness which permeates the normal human being today did not yet exist. Though he did not express it, man did not, as it were, distinguish himself from the external world. He felt as my hand would feel were it conscious: that it is not independent, but an integral part of the organism. Men felt themselves to be members of the whole universe. They had no definite consciousness of their own being as separate from the surrounding world. Suppose a man of that time was walking along a river bank. If someone today walks along a river bank downstream he, as modern, clever man, feels his legs stepping out in that direction and this has nothing whatever to do with the river. In general, the man of old did not feel like that. When he walked along a river downstream, as was natural for him to do, he was conscious of the spiritual beings connected with the water of the river flowing in that direction. Just as a swimmer today feels himself carried along by the water — that is, by something material — so the man of old felt himself guided downstream by something spiritual. That is only an example chosen at random. In all his experiences of the external world man felt himself to be supported and impelled by gods of wind, river and all surrounding nature. He felt the elements of nature within himself. Today this feeling of being at one with nature is lost. In its place man has acquired a strong feeling of his independence, of his individual ‘I’.

The yogi rose above the level of the masses whose experiences were as described. He carried out certain exercises of which I shall speak. These exercises were good and suitable for the nature of humanity in ancient times; they have later fallen into decadence and have mainly been used for harmful ends. I have often referred to these yoga breathing exercises. Therefore, what I am now describing was a method for the attainment of higher worlds that was suitable and right only for man in a very ancient oriental civilization.In ordinary life breathing functions unconsciously. We breathe in, hold the breath and exhale; this becomes a conscious process only if in some way we are not in good health. In ordinary life, breathing remains for the most part an unconscious process. But during certain periods of his exercises the yogi transformed his breathing into a conscious inner experience. This he did by timing the inhaling, holding and exhaling of the breath differently, and so altered the whole rhythm of the normal breathing. In this way the breathing process became conscious. The yogi projected himself, as it were, into his breathing. He felt himself one with the indrawn breath, with the spreading of the breath through the body and with the exhaled I breath. In this way he was drawn with his whole soul into the breath.

In order to understand what is achieved by this let us look at what happens when we breathe. When we inhale, the breath is driven into the organism, up through the spinal cord, into the brain; from there it spreads out into the system of nerves and senses. Therefore, when we think, we by no means depend only on our senses and nervous system as instruments of thinking. The breathing process pulsates and beats through them with its perpetual rhythm. We never think without this whole process taking place, of which we are normally unaware because the breathing remains unconscious.

The yogi, by altering the rhythm of the breath, drew it consciously into the process of nerves and senses. Because the altered breathing caused the air to billow and whirl through the brain and nerve-sense system, the result was an inner experience of their function when combined with the air. As a consequence, he also experienced a soul element in his thinking within the rhythm of breathing.

Something extraordinary happened to the yogi by this means. The process of thinking, which he had hardly felt as a function of the head at all, streamed into his whole organism. He did not merely think, but felt the thought as a little live creature that ran through the whole process of breathing, which he had artificially induced.

Thus, the yogi did not feel thinking to be merely a shadowy, logical process; he rather felt how thinking followed the breath. When he inhaled he felt he was taking something from the external world into himself which he then let flow with the breath into his thinking. With his thoughts he took hold, as it were, of that which he had inhaled with the air and spread through his whole organism. The result of this was that there arose in the yogi an enhanced feeling of his own ‘I’, an intensified feeling of self. He felt his thinking pervading his whole being. This made him aware of his thinking particularly in the rhythmic air-current within him.

This had a very definite effect upon the yogi. When man today is aware of himself within the physical world he quite rightly does not pay attention to his thinking as such. His senses inform him about the external world and when he looks back upon himself he perceives at least a portion of his own being. This gives him a picture of how man is placed within the world between birth and death. The yogi radiated the ensouled thoughts into the breath. This soul-filled thinking pulsated through his inner being with the result that there arose in him an enhanced feeling of selfhood. But in this experience he did not feel himself living between birth and death in the physical world surrounded by nature. He felt carried back in memory to the time before he descended to the earth, that is, to the time when he was a spiritual-soul being in a spiritual-soul world.

In normal consciousness today man can reawaken experiences of the past. He may, for instance, have a vivid recollection of some event that took place ten years ago in a wood perhaps; he distinctly remembers all the details, the whole mood and setting. In just the same way did the yogi, through his changed breathing, feel himself drawn back into the wood and atmosphere, into the whole setting of a spiritual-soul world in which he had been as a spiritual-soul being. There he felt quite differently about the world than he felt in his normal consciousness. The result of the changed relationship of the now awakened selfhood to the whole universe gave rise to the wonderful poems of which the Bhagavadgita is a beautiful example.

In the Bhagavadgita we read wonderful descriptions of how the human soul, immersed in the phenomena of nature, partakes of every secret, steeping itself in the mysteries of the world. These descriptions are all reproductions of memories, called up by means of yoga breathing, of the soul — when it was as yet only soul — and lived within a spiritual universe. In order to read the ancient writings such as the Bhagavadgita with understanding one must be conscious of what speaks through them. The soul, with enhanced feeling of selfhood, is transported into its past in the spiritual world and is relating what Krishna and other ancient initiates had experienced there through their heightened self-consciousness.

Thus, it can be said that those sages of old rose to a higher level of consciousness than that of the masses of people. The initiates strictly isolated the ‘self’ from the external world. This came about, not for any egotistical reason, but as a result of the changed process of breathing in which the soul, as it were, dived down into the rhythm of the inner air current. By this method a path into the spiritual world was sought in ancient times.

Later this path underwent modifications. In very ancient times the yogi felt how in the transformed breathing his thoughts were submerged in the currents of breath, running through them like little snakes. He felt himself to be part of a weaving cosmic life and this feeling expressed itself in certain words and sayings. It was noticeable that one spoke differently when these experiences were revealed through speech. What I have described was gradually felt less intensely within the breath; it no longer remained within the breathing process itself. Rather were the words breathed out, and formed of themselves rhythmic speech. Thus the changed breathing led, through the words carried by the breath, to the creation of mantras; whereas, formerly, the process and experience of breathing was the most essential, now these poetic sayings assumed primary importance. They passed over into tradition, into the historical consciousness of man and subsequently gave birth later to rhythm, metre, and so on, in poetry.

The basic laws of speech, which are to be seen, for instance, in the pentameter and hexameter as used in ancient Greece, point back to what had once long before been an experience of the breathing process — an experience which transported man from the world in which he was living between birth and death into a world of spirit and soul.

This is not the path modern man should seek into the spiritual world. He must rise into higher worlds, not by the detour of the breath, but along the more inward path of thinking itself. The right path for man today is to transform, in meditation and concentration, the otherwise merely logical connection between thoughts into something of a musical nature. Meditation today is to begin always with an experience in thought, an experience of the transition from one thought into another, from one mental picture into another. While the yogi in ancient India passed from one kind of breathing into another, man today must attempt to project himself into a living experience of, for example, the colour red. Thus he remains within the realm of thought. He must then do the same with blue and experience the rhythm: red-blue, blue-red, red-blue and so on, which is a thought-rhythm. But it is not a rhythm that can be found in a logical thought sequence; it is a thinking that is much more alive.

If one perseveres for a sufficiently long time with exercises of this kind (the yogi, too, was obliged to carry out his exercises for a very long time) and really experience the inner qualitative change, and the swing and rhythm of red-blue, blue-red, light-dark, dark-light — in short, if indications such as those given in my book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds are followed — the exact opposite is achieved to that of the yogi in ancient times. He blended thinking with breathing, thus turning the two processes into one. The aim today is to dissolve the last connection between the two, which, in any case, is unconscious. The process by which, in ordinary consciousness, we think and form concepts of our natural environment is not only connected with nerves and senses; a stream of breath is always flowing through this process. While we think, the breath continually pulsates through the nerves and senses.

All modern exercises in meditation aim at entirely separating thinking from breathing. Thinking is not on this account torn out of rhythm, because as thinking becomes separated from the inner rhythm of breath it is gradually linked to an external rhythm. By setting thinking free from the breath we let it stream, as it were, into the rhythm of the external world. The yogi turned back into his own rhythm. Today man must return to the rhythm of the external world. In Knowledge of the Higher Worlds you will find that one of the first exercises shows how to contemplate the germination and growth of a plant. This meditation works towards separating thinking from the breath and letting it dive down into the growth forces of the plant itself.

Thinking must pass over into the rhythm pervading the external world. The moment thinking really becomes free of the bodily functions, the moment it has torn itself away from breathing and gradually united with the external rhythm, it dives down not into the physical qualities of things but into the spiritual within individual objects.

We look at a plant: it is green and its blossoms are red. This our eyes tell us and our intellect confirms the fact. This is the reaction of ordinary consciousness. We develop a different consciousness when we separate thinking from breathing and connect it with what exists outside. This thinking yearns to vibrate with the plant as it grows and unfolds its blossoms. This thinking follows how in a rose, for example, green passes over into red. Thinking vibrates within the spiritual, which lies at the foundation of each single object in the external world.

This is how modern meditation differs from the yoga exercises practised in very ancient times. There are naturally many intermediate stages; I chose these two extremes. The yogi sank down, as it were, into his own breathing process; he sank into his own self. This caused him to experience this self as if in memory; he remembered what he had been before he came down to earth. We, on the other hand, pass out of the physical body with our soul and unite ourselves with what lives spiritually in the rhythms of the external world. In this way we behold directly what we were before we descended to the earth. This is the consequence of gradually entering into the external rhythm.

To illustrate the difference I will draw it schematically. Let this be the yogi (first drawing, white lines). He developed a strong feeling of his ‘I’ (red). This enabled him to remember what he was, within a soul-spiritual environment, before he descended to earth (blue). He went back on the stream of memory.

Let this be the modern man who has attained super-sensible knowledge (second drawing, white lines). He develops a process that enables him to go out of his body (blue) and live within the rhythm of the external world and behold directly, as an external object (red), what he was before he descended to earth.

Diagrams 1 & 2

Thus, knowledge of one's existence before birth was in ancient times in the nature of memory, whereas at the present time a rightly developed cognition of pre-birth existence is a direct beholding of what one was (red). That is the difference.

That was one of the methods by which the yogi attained insight into the spiritual world. Another was by adopting certain positions of the body. One exercise was to hold the arms outstretched for a long time; or he took up a certain position by crossing his legs and sitting on them and so on. What was attained by this?

He attained the possibility to perceive what can be perceived with those senses, which today are not even recognized as senses. We know that man has not just five senses but twelve. I have often spoken about this — for example, apart from the usual five he has a sense of balance through which he perceives the equilibrium of his body so that he does not fall to the right or left, or backwards or forwards. Just as we perceive colours, so we must perceive our own balance or we should slip and fall in all directions. Someone who is intoxicated or feels faint loses his balance just because he fails to perceive his equilibrium. In order to make himself conscious of this sense of balance, the yogi adopted certain bodily postures. This developed in him a strong, subtle sense of direction. We speak of above and below, of right and left, of back and front as if they were all the same. The yogi became intensely conscious of their differences by keeping his body for lengthy periods in certain postures. In this way he developed a subtle awareness of the other senses of which I have spoken. When these are experienced they are found to have a much more spiritual character than the five familiar senses. Through them the yogi attained perception of the directions of space.

This faculty must be regained but along a different path. For reasons, which I will explain more fully on another occasion, the old yoga exercises are unsuitable today. However, we can attain an experience of the qualitative differences within the directions of space by undertaking such exercises in thinking as I have described. They separate thinking from breathing and bring it into the rhythm of the external world. We then experience, for instance, what it signifies that the spine of animals lies in the horizontal direction whereas in man it is vertical. It is well known that the magnetic needle always points north-south. Therefore, on earth the north-south direction means something special, for the manifestation of magnetic forces, since the magnetic needle, which is otherwise neutral, reacts to it. Thus, the north-south direction has a special quality. By penetrating into the external rhythm with our thoughts we learn to recognize what it means when the spine is horizontal or vertical. We remain in the realm of thought and learn through thinking itself. The Indian yogi learned it, too, but by crossing his legs and sitting on them and by keeping his arms raised for a long time. Thus, he learned from the bodily postures the significance of the invisible directions of space. Space is not haphazard, but organized in such a way that the various directions have different values.

The exercises that have been described, which lead man into higher worlds are mainly exercises in the realm of thought. There are exercises of an opposite kind; among them are the various methods employed in asceticism. One such method is the suppression of the normal function of the physical body through inflicting pain and all kinds of deprivations. It is practically impossible for modern man to form an adequate idea of the extremes to which such exercises were carried by ascetics in former times. Modern man prefers to be as firmly as possible within his physical body. But whenever the ascetic suppressed some function of the body by means of physical pain, his spirit-soul nature drew out of his organism.

In normal life the soul and spirit of man are connected with the physical organism between birth and death in accordance with the human organization as a whole. When the bodily functions are suppressed, through ascetic practices, something occurs which is similar to when someone today sustains an injury. When one knows how modern man generally reacts to some slight hurt, then it is clear that there is a great difference between that and what the ascetic endured just to make his soul organism free. The ascetic experienced the spiritual world with the soul organism that had been driven out through such practices. Nearly all of the earlier great religious revelations originated in this way.

Those concerned with modern religious life make light of these things. They declare the great religious revelations to be poetic fiction, maintaining that whatever insight man acquires should not cause pain. The seekers of religious truths in former times did not take this view. They were quite clear about the fact that when man is completely bound up with his organism, as of necessity he must be for his earthly tasks — the aim was not to portray unworldliness as an ideal — then he cannot have spiritual experiences. The ascetics in former times sought spiritual experiences by suppressing bodily life and even inflicting pain. Whenever pain drove out spirit and soul from a bodily member, that part which was driven out experienced the spiritual world. The great religions have not been attained without pain but rather through great suffering.

These fruits of human strivings are today accepted through faith. Faith and knowledge are neatly separated. Knowledge of the external world, in the form of natural science, is acquired through the head. As the head has a thick skull, this causes no pain, especially as this knowledge consists of extremely abstract concepts. On the other hand, those concepts handed down as venerable traditions are accepted simply through faith. It must be said though, that basically, knowledge and faith have in common the fact that today one is willing to accept only knowledge that can be acquired painlessly, and faith does not hurt any more than science, though its knowledge was originally attained through great pain and suffering.

Despite all that has been said, the way of the ascetic cannot be the way for present-day man. In our time it is perfectly possible, through inner self-discipline and training of the will, to take in hand one's development which is otherwise left to education and the experiences of life. One's personality can be strengthened by training the will. One can, for example, say to oneself: Within five years I shall acquire a new habit and during that time I shall concentrate my whole will-power upon achieving it. When the will is trained in this way, for the sake of inner perfection, then one loosens, without ascetic practices, the soul-spiritual from the bodily nature. The first discovery, when such training of the will is undertaken for the sake of self-improvement, is that a continuous effort is needed. Every day something must be achieved inwardly. Often it is only a slight accomplishment but it must be pursued with iron determination and unwavering will. It is often the case that if, for example, such an exercise as concentration each morning upon a certain thought is recommended, people will embark upon it with burning enthusiasm. But it does not last, the will slackens and the exercise becomes mechanical because the strong energy, which is increasingly required, is not forthcoming. The first resistance to be overcome is one's own lethargy; then comes the other resistance, which is of an objective nature, and it is as if one had to fight one's way through a dense thicket. After that, one reaches the experience that hurts because thinking, which has gradually become strong and alive, has found its way into the rhythm of the external world and begins to perceive the direction of space — in fact, perceive what is alive. One discovers that higher knowledge is attainable only through pain.

I can well picture people today who want to embark upon the path leading to higher worlds. They make a start and the first delicate spiritual cognition appears. This causes pain so they say they are ill; when something causes pain one must be ill. However, the attainment of higher knowledge will often be accompanied by great pain, yet one is not ill. No doubt it is more comfortable to seek a cure than continue the path. Attempts must be made to overcome this pain of the soul, which becomes ever greater as one advances. While it is easier to have something prescribed than continue the exercises, no higher knowledge is attained that way. Provided the body is robust and fit for dealing with external life, as is normally the case at the present time, this immersion in pain and suffering becomes purely an inner soul path in which the body does not participate. When man allows knowledge to approach him in this way, then the pain he endures signifies that he is attaining those regions of spiritual life out of which the great religions were born. The great religious truths which fill our soul with awe, conveying as they do those lofty regions in which, for example, our immortality is rooted, cannot be reached without painful inner experiences. The great truths do indeed demand an inner courage of soul which enables it to say to itself: If you could experience these things you must be prepared to attain knowledge of them through deprivation and suffering. I am not saying this to discourage anyone, but because it is the truth. It may be discouraging for many, but what good would it do to tell people that they can enter higher worlds in perfect comfort when it is not the case. The attainment of higher worlds demands the overcoming of suffering.

I have tried today, my dear friends, to describe to you how it is possible to advance to man's true being. The human soul and spirit lie deeply hidden within him and must be attained. Even if someone does not set out himself on that conquest he must know about what lies hidden within him. He must know about such things as those described yesterday [Lecture of 26 May, 1922 in The Human Soul in Relation to World Evolution] and how they run their course. This knowledge is a demand of our age. These things can be discovered only along such paths as those I have indicated again today by describing how they were trodden in former times and how they must be trodden now.

Last Modified: 17-Feb-2018
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