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Facing Karma

A Lecture By
Rudolf Steiner
Vienna, February 8, 1912
GA 130

This lecture, Grundstimmung dem Menschlichen Karma gegenüber, was given by Rudolf Steiner in Vienna, February 8, 1912, and is contained in: Das Esoterische Christentum (Vol. 130 in the Bibliographic Survey 1961). It was translated from the original by Dietrich V. Asten.

This translation has been authorized for the Western Hemisphere by agreement with the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland.

Copyright © 1975
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At the end of the two public lectures I have given in this city, I emphasized that anthroposophy should not be considered a theory or mere science, nor as knowledge in the ordinary sense. It is rather something that grows in our souls from mere knowledge and theory into immediate life, into an elixir of life. In this way, anthroposophy not only provides us with knowledge, but we receive forces that help us in our ordinary lives during physical existence as well as in the total life that we spend during physical existence and the non-physical existence between death and a new birth. The more we experience anthroposophy as bringing to us strength, support and life renewing energies, the more do we understand it.

Upon hearing this, some may ask, “If anthroposophy is to bring us a strengthening of life, why do we have to acquire so much of what appears to be theoretical knowledge? Why are we virtually pestered at our branch meetings with descriptions about the preceding planetary evolutions of our earth? Why do we have to learn about things that took place long ago? Why do we have to acquaint ourselves with the intimate and subtle laws of reincarnation, karma and so on?”

Some people may believe that they are being offered just another science. This problem, which forces itself upon us, demands that we eliminate all easy and simplistic approaches toward answering it. We must carefully ask ourselves whether, in raising this question, we are not introducing into it some of the easy-going ways of life that become manifest when we are reluctant to learn and to acquire something in a spiritual way. This is an uncomfortable experience for us and we are forced to wonder whether something of this attitude of discomfort does not find expression in the question that is being asked. As it is, we are led to believe that the highest goal that anthroposophy may offer us can be attained on easier roads than on that taken by us through our own literature.

It is often said, almost nonchalantly, that man has only to know himself, that all he has to do in order to be an anthroposophist is to be good. Yes, it is profound wisdom to know that to be a good person is one of the most difficult tasks, and that nothing in life demands more in the way of preparation than the realization of this ideal to be good. The problem of self-knowledge, however, cannot be solved with a quick answer, as many are inclined to believe. Therefore, today, we will shed light on some of these questions that have been raised. We then will come to see how anthroposophy meets us, even if only by appearance, as a teaching or as a science, but that it also offers in an eminent sense a path toward self- knowledge and what may be called the pilgrimage toward becoming a good person. To accomplish this we must consider from different points of view how anthroposophy can be fruitful in life.

Let us take a specific question that does not concern scientific research, but everyday life — a question known to all of us. How can we find comfort in life when we have to suffer in one way or another, when we fail to find satisfaction in life? In other words, let us ask ourselves how anthroposophy can offer comfort and consolation when it is really needed. Obviously, what can be said here only in general terms must always be applied to one's own individual case. If one lectures to many people, one can only speak in generalities.

Why do we need comfort, consolation in life? Because we may be sad about a number of events, or because we suffer as a result of pains that afflict us. It is natural that, at first, man reacts to pain as though he is rebelling inwardly against it. He wonders why he has to stand pain. “Why am I afflicted by this pain? Why is life not arranged for me in such a way that I don't suffer pain, that I am content?” These questions can only be answered satisfactorily on the basis of true knowledge concerning the nature of human karma, of human destiny. Why do we suffer in the world? We refer here to outer as well as to inner sufferings that arise in our psychic organization and leave us unfulfilled. Why are we met by such experiences that leave us unsatisfied?

In pursuing the laws of karma, we shall discover that the underlying reasons for suffering are similar to what can be described by the following example relating to the ordinary life between birth and death. Let us assume that a youngster has lived until his eighteenth year at the expense of his father. Then the father loses all his wealth and goes into bankruptcy. The young man must now learn something worthwhile and make an effort to support himself. As a result, life hits him with pain and privation. It is quite understandable that he does not react sympathetically to the pain that he has to go through.

Let us now turn to the period when he has reached the age of fifty. Since, by the necessity of events, he had to educate himself at an early age, he has become a decent person. He has found a real foothold in life. He realizes why he reacted negatively to pain and suffering when it first hit him, but now he must think differently about it. He must say to himself that the suffering would not have come to him if he had already acquired a sense of maturity — at least, to the limited degree than an eighteen year old can attain one. If he had not been afflicted by pain, he would have remained a good-for-nothing. It was the pain that transformed his shortcomings into positive abilities. He must owe it to the pain that he has become a different man in the course of forty years. What was really brought together at that time? His shortcomings and his pain were brought together. His shortcomings actually sought pain in order that his immaturity might be removed by being transformed into maturity.

Even a simple consideration of life between birth and death can lead to this view. If we look at the totality of life, however, and if we face our karma as it has been explained in the lecture two days ago, we will come to the conclusion that all pain that hits us, that all suffering that comes our way, are of such a nature that they are being sought by our shortcomings. By far the greater part of our pain and suffering is sought by imperfections that we have brought over from previous incarnations. Since we have these imperfections within ourselves, there is a wiser man in us than we ourselves are who chooses the road to pain and suffering. It is, indeed, one of the golden rules of life that we all carry in us a wiser man than we ourselves are, a much wiser man. The one to whom we say, “I,” in ordinary life is less wise. If it was left to this less wise person in us to make a choice between pain and joy, he would undoubtedly choose the road toward joy. But the wiser man is the one who reigns in the depth of our unconscious and who remains inaccessible to ordinary consciousness. He directs our gaze away from easy enjoyment and kindles in us a magic power that seeks the road of pain without our really knowing it. But what is meant by the words: Without really knowing it? They mean that the wiser man in us prevails over the less wise one. He always acts in such a way that our shortcomings are guided to our pains and he makes us suffer because with every inner and outer suffering we eliminate one of our faults and become transformed into something better.

Little is accomplished if one tries to understand these words theoretically. Much more can be gained when one creates sacred moments in life during which one is willing to use all one's energy in an effort to fill one's soul with the living content of such words. Ordinary life, with all its work, pressure, commotion and duties provides little chance to do so. In this setting, it is not always possible to silence the less wise man in us. But when we create a sacred moment in life, short as it may be, then we can say, “I will put aside the transitory effects of life; I will view my sufferings in such a way that I feel how the wise man in me has been attracted by them with a magic power. I realize that I have imposed upon myself certain experiences of pain without which I would not have overcome some of my shortcomings.” A feeling of blissful wisdom will overcome us that makes us feel that even if the world appears to be filled with suffering, it is, nevertheless, radiating pure wisdom. Such an attitude is one of the fruits of anthroposophy for the benefit of life. What has been said may, of course, be forgotten, but if we do not forget it, but practice such thoughts regularly, we will become aware of the fact that we have planted a seed in our soul. What we used to experience as feelings of sadness and attitudes of depression will be transformed into positive attitudes toward life, into strength and energy. Out of these sacred moments in life will be born more harmonious souls and stronger personalities.

We may now move on to another step in our experience. The anthroposophist should be determined to take this other step only after he has comforted himself many times with regard to his sufferings in the way just described. The experience that may now be added consists of looking at one's joys and at everything that has occurred in life in the way of happiness. He who can face destiny without bias and as though he had himself wanted his sufferings, will find himself confronted by a strange reaction when he looks at his joy and happiness. He cannot face them in the same way that he faced his sufferings. It is easy to see how one can find comfort in suffering. He who does not believe this only has to expose himself to the experience.

It is difficult, however, to come to terms with joy and happiness. Much as we may accept the attitude that we have wanted our suffering, when we apply the same attitude to joy and happiness, we cannot but feel ashamed of ourselves. A deep feeling of shame will be experienced. The only way to overcome this feeling is to realize that we were not the ones who gave ourselves our joys and happiness through the law of karma. This is the only cure as, otherwise, the feeling of shame can become so intense that it virtually destroys us in our souls. Relief can only be found by not making the wiser man in us responsible for having driven us toward our joys. With this thought, one will feel that one hits the truth, because the feeling of shame will disappear. It is a fact that our joy and happiness come to us in life as something that is bestowed upon us, without our participation, by a wise divine guidance, as something we must accept as grace, as something that is to unite us with the universe. Happiness and joy shall have such an effect upon us in the sacred moments in our lives and in our intimate hours of introspection that we shall experience them as grace, as grace from the divine powers of the world who want to receive us and who, as it were, embed us in their being.

While our pain and suffering lead us to ourselves and make us more genuinely ourselves, we develop through joy and happiness, provided that we consider them as grace, a feeling that one can only describe as being blissfully embedded in the divine forces and powers of the world. Here the only justified attitude toward happiness and joy is one of gratitude. Nobody will understand joy and happiness in the intimate hours of self-knowledge when he ascribes them to his karma. If he involves karma, he commits an error that is liable to weaken and paralyze the spiritual in him. Every thought to the effect that joy and happiness are deserved actually weakens and paralyzes us. This may be a hard fact to understand because everyone who admits that his pain is inflicted upon himself by his own individuality would obviously expect to be his own master also with regard to joy and happiness. But a simple look at life can teach us that joy and happiness have an extinguishing power. Nowhere is this extinguishing effect of joy and happiness better described than in Goethe's Faust in the words, “And thus I stagger from desire to pleasure. And in pleasure I am parched with desire.” Simple reflection upon the influence of personal enjoyment shows that inherent in it is something that makes us stagger and blots out our true being.

No sermon is here being delivered against enjoyment, nor is an invitation extended to practice self-torture, or to pinch ourselves with red hot pliers, or the like. If one recognizes a situation in the right way, it does not mean that one should escape from it. No escape, therefore, is suggested, but a silent acceptance of joy and happiness whenever they appear. We must develop the inner attitude that we experience them as grace, and the more the better. Thus do we immerse ourselves the more in the divine. Therefore, these words are said not in order to preach asceticism, but in order to awaken the right mood toward joy and happiness.

If it is thought that joy and happiness have a paralyzing and extinguishing effect, and that therefore man should flee from them, then one would promote the ideal of false asceticism and self-torture. In this event, man, in reality, would be escaping from the grace that is given to him by the gods. Self-torture practiced by ascetics, monks and nuns is nothing but a continuous rebellion against the gods. It behooves us to feel pain as something that comes to us through our karma. In joy and happiness, we can feel that the divine is descending to us.

May joy and happiness be for us a sign as to how close the gods have attracted us, and may our pain and suffering be a sign as to how far removed we are from what we are to become as good human beings. This is the fundamental attitude toward karma without which we cannot really move ahead in life. In what the world bestows upon us as goodness and beauty, we must conceive the world powers of which it is said in the Bible, “And he looked at the world and he saw that it was good.” But inasmuch as we experience pain and suffering, we must recognize what man has made of the world during its evolution, which originally was a good world, and what he must contribute toward its betterment by educating himself to bear pain with purpose and energy.

What has now been described are two ways to confront karma. To a certain extent, our karma consists of suffering and joys. We relate ourselves to our karma with the right attitude when we can consider it as something we really wanted and when we can confront our sufferings and joys with the proper understanding. But a review of karma can be extended further, which we shall do today and tomorrow.

Karma not only shows us what is related to our lives in a joyful and painful manner. But as the result of the working of karma, we meet many people during the course of our lives with whom we only become slightly acquainted, and people with whom we are connected in various ways during long periods of our lives as relatives and friends. We meet people who either cause us pain directly, or as a result of some joint undertaking that runs into obstructions. We meet people who are helpful, or to whom we can be helpful. In short, many relationships are possible. If the effects of karma, as described.the day before yesterday, are to become fruitful, then we must accept the fact that the wiser man in us wants certain experiences. He seeks a person who seems accidentally to cross our paths. He is the one who leads us to other people with whom we get engaged in this or that way. What is really guiding this wiser man in us when he wants to meet this or that person? What is he basing himself on? In answer, we have to say to ourselves that we want to meet him because we have met him previously. It may not have happened in the last life; it could have happened much earlier. The wiser man in us leads us to this person because we had dealings with him in a previous life, or because we may have incurred a debt in one way or another. We are led to this person as though by magic.

We are now reaching a manifold and intricate realm that can be covered only by generalities. The indications here stem from clairvoyant investigation. They can be useful to anybody since they can be applied to many special situations.

A strange observation can be made. We all have experienced or observed how, toward the middle of our lives, the ascending growth-line gradually tilts over to become a descending line, and our youthful energies begin to decline. We move past a climax and from there on we move downward. This point of change is somewhere in our thirties. It is also the time in our lives when we are living most intensively on the physical plane. In this connection, we can fall prey to a delusion. The events that from childhood precede this climax were brought with us into this incarnation. They were, so to speak, drawn out of a previous existence. The forces that we have brought along with us from the spiritual world are now placed outside ourselves and used to fashion our lives. These forces are used up when we reach this middle point.

In considering the descending curve of our lives, we perceive the lessons that we have learned in the school of life, that we have accumulated and have worked over. They will be taken along into the next incarnation. This is something we carry into the spiritual world; previously, we took something out of it. This is the time when we are fully engaged on the physical plane. We are thoroughly enmeshed with everything that comes to us from the outside world. We have passed our training period; we are fully committed to life and we have to come to terms with it. We are involved with ourselves, but we are primarily occupied with arranging our environments for ourselves, and in finding a proper relationship to the world in which we live. The human capacities that are seeking a relationship to the world are our power of reasoning and that part of our volitional life that is controlled by reason. What is thus active in us is alien to the spiritual world, which withdraws from us and closes up. It is true that in the middle of our lives we are the farthest removed from the reality of the spirit.

Here occult investigation reveals a significant fact. The people with whom we meet, and the acquaintances we make in the middle period of our lives are curiously enough the very people with whom we were engaged during the period of early childhood in one of our previous incarnations. It is an established fact that, as a general rule, although not always, we meet in the middle period of our lives, as a result of karmic guidance, the very people who were once our parents. It is unlikely that we meet in early childhood the persons who were once our parents. This happens during the middle of life. This may appear as a strange fact, but this is the way it is. When we attempt to apply such rules to the experience of life, and when we direct our thoughts accordingly, then we can learn a great deal. When a person at about the age of thirty establishes a relationship to another, either through the bonds of love or of friendship, or when they get involved in conflict, or in any other experience, we will understand a great deal more about these relationships if we consider hypothetically that the person may have once been related to the other as a child is to his parents.

In reversing this relationship, we discover another remarkable fact. The very people with whom we have been associated in our early childhood, such as parents, sisters and brothers, playmates and other companions, as a rule are the very people whom we have met in the previous or one of our previous incarnations around our thirtieth year. These people frequently appear as our parents, sisters or brothers in the present incarnation.

Curious as this may appear to us at first, let us try to apply it to life. The experience of life becomes enlightened if we look at it in this way. We may, of course, err in our speculation. But if, in solitary hours, we look at life so that it is filled with meaning, we can gain a great deal. Obviously, we must not arrange karma to our liking; we must not choose the people we like and assume that they may have been our parents. Prejudices must not falsify the real facts. You realize the danger that we are exposed to and the many misconceptions that may creep in. We must educate ourselves to remain open-minded and unbiased.

You may now ask what the relation is to the people we meet during the declining curve of our lives. We have discovered that at the beginning of our lives, we meet people with whom we were acquainted during the middle period of a previous life, while now during the middle of our lives, we recognize those with whom we were involved at the beginning of previous existences. But how about the period of our descending life? The answer is that we may be led to people with whom we were involved in a previous life, or we may not yet have been involved with them. They will have been connected with us in a previous life if we are meeting under special circumstances that occur at decisive junctures of a life span, when, for example, a bitter disappointment confronts us with a serious probation. In such a situation, it is likely that we are meeting during the second period of our lives people with whom we were previously connected. Thereby conditions are dislodged and experiences that were caused in the past can be resolved.

Karma works in many ways and one cannot force it into definite patterns. But as a general rule, it can be stated that during the second half of our lives we encounter people with whom the karmic connections that are beginning to be woven cannot be resolved in one life. Let us assume that we have caused suffering to someone in a previous life. It is easy to assume that the wiser man in us will lead us back to this person in a subsequent life in order that we may equalize the harm that we have done. But life conditions cannot always permit that we can equalize everything, but perhaps only a part of it. Thereby matters are complicated, and it becomes possible that such a remainder of karma may be corrected in the second half of life. Looking at it this way, we are placing our connections and communications with other people in the light of this karma.

But there is something else that we can consider in the course of karma. This is what I have called in my two recent public lectures the process of maturing and the acquisition of life experiences. These terms may be used with utter modesty. We may take into account the process by which we become wiser. Our errors may render us wiser and it is really best for us when this happens because during one lifetime we do not often have the opportunity to practice wisdom. For this reason, we retain the lessons that we have learned from our errors as strength for a future life. But what really is this wisdom and the life experience that we can acquire?

Yesterday I referred to the fact that our ideas cannot be taken immediately from one life to another. I pointed to the fact that even a genius like Plato could not carry the ideas of his mind into a new incarnation. We carry with us our volitional and soul powers, but our ideas are given us anew in every life, just as is the faculty of speech. The greater part of our ideas live in speech. Most of our ideas are derived from our faculty to express ourselves in a language. The ideas we conceive during the time between birth and death are always related to this particular earthly existence. This being so, it is true that our ideas will always depend on the where and how of our incarnations, no matter how many we have to live through. Our wealth of ideas is always derived from the outer world, and depends on the way karma has placed us into race, family and speech relationships.

In our ideas and concepts we really know nothing of the world except what is dependent on karma. A great deal is said with this statement. This means that everything we can know in life and acquire in the form of knowledge is something quite personal. We never can transcend the personal level with regard to everything we may acquire in life. We never come quite as far as the wiser man in us, but we always remain with the less wise man. If someone believes that he can, by himself, know more about his higher self from observations in the outer world, he is being led by his laziness into an unreal world. Thereby we are saying nothing less than that we know nothing of our higher self as a result of what we acquire in life.

How can we gain an understanding of our higher self; how do we come to such knowledge? To find an answer, we must ask ourselves the simple question, “What do we really know?” First of all, we know what we have learned from experience. We know this and nothing else. Anyone who wants to know himself and does not realize that he carries in his soul nothing but a mirror of the outer world may delude himself into believing that he can find his higher self by introspection. What he finds within, however, is nothing else than what has come in from outside. Laziness of thinking has no place in this quest. So we must inquire about the other worlds into which our higher self is embedded, and thereby we learn about the various incarnations of the earth and the world picture described by spiritual science.

Just as we try to understand a child's soul with regard to its outer life conditions by examining the child's surroundings, so must we ask what the environment of the higher self is. Spiritual science gives us insight into the worlds in which our higher self lives by its accounts of the evolution of Saturn and all its secrets, of the Moon and Earth evolution, of reincarnation and karma, of devachan and kamaloka, and so on. This is the only way we can learn about our higher self, about that self that extends beyond the physical plane. He who refuses to accept these secrets is as playful as a little kitten in regard to himself. It is not by petting and caressing oneself that one can discover the divine man in oneself. Only what is experienced in the outer world is stored inside, but the divine man in us can only be found when we search in our soul for the mirrored world beyond the physical.

The very things that are uncomfortable to learn make up knowledge of self. In reality, true anthroposophy is true knowledge of self. Properly received, the science of the spirit enlightens us about our own self. Where is this self? Is it within our skin? No, it is poured into the entire world, and what is in the world is linked to the self; also, what once was in the world is connected with this self. Only if we get to know the world can we also get to know the self.

Anthroposophical knowledge, although it may appear first as mere theory, points to nothing less than a path to self-knowledge. He who wants to find himself by staring into his inner being may be motivated by the noble desire to be good and unselfish. But in reality, he becomes more and more selfish. In contrast to this, the struggle with the great secrets of existence, the attempt to emancipate oneself from the complacent personal self, the acceptance of the reality of the higher worlds and the knowledge that can be obtained from them, all lead to true self-knowledge.

While contemplating Saturn, Sun and Moon, we lose ourselves in cosmic thoughts. Thus, a soul thinking in anthroposophy exclaims, “In thy thinking cosmic thoughts are living.” He then adds to these words, “Lose thyself in cosmic thoughts.”

A soul creating out of anthroposophy says, “In thy feeling cosmic forces are weaving,” and adds in the same breath, “Feel thyself through cosmic forces.” These universal powers will not reveal themselves when we expect them to be flattering or when we close our eyes and pledge to be a good human being. Only when we open our spiritual eye and perceive how “cosmic forces” work and create, and when we realize that we are embedded in these forces, will we have an experience of our own self.

Thus, a soul that draws strength from anthroposophy will say, “In thy willing cosmic beings are working,” and he will quickly add, “Create thyself through beings of will.”

The meaning of these words can be realized if self-knowledge is practiced in the right way. If this is done, one recreates oneself out of the cosmic forces.

These thoughts may appear to be dry and abstract, but they are not mere theory. They have the inherent power of a seed planted in the earth. It sprouts and grows; life shoots in all directions and the plant becomes a tree. Thus it is with the experiences we receive through the science of the spirit that we become capable of transforming ourselves. “Create thyself through beings of will.” Thus, anthroposophy becomes an elixir of life. Our view of spirit worlds opens up, we draw strength from these worlds and once we can fully absorb them, they will help us to know ourselves in all our depth. Only when we imbue ourselves with world knowledge can we take hold of ourselves and gradually move from the less wise man in us, who is split off by the guardian of the threshold, to the wise man in us. This, which remains hidden to the weak, can be gained by the strong through anthroposophy.

In thy thinking cosmic thoughts are living;
Lose thyself in cosmic thoughts.
In thy feeling cosmic forces are weaving;
Feel thyself through cosmic forces.
In thy willing cosmic beings are working;
Create thyself through beings of will.

 



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