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The Three Stages of Sleep

A lecture by
Rudolf Steiner
Dornach, March 24, 1922
GA 211

A lecture, hitherto untranslated given at Dornach on March 24, 1922. Published in Anthroposophy Today, No. 4, Winter 1975. It is the second of twelve lectures in the volume The Sun Mystery ... Death, Resurrection, and is also known as Mystery of Golgotha and its Relation to the Sleep of Man.
In the collected edition of Rudolf Steiner's works, the volume containing the German texts is entitled, Das Sonnenmysterium und das Mysterium von Tod und Auferstehung. Exoterisches und esoterisches Christentum, (Vol. 211 in the Bibliographic Survey, 1961). The translator is unknown.

Copyright © 1987
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Spiritual Science cannot hand people something which, once assimilated, is enough for the rest of life. I have often pointed out that there exists no short summary of a world view which can be kept at hand in one's pocket. In place of ready formulas, science of the spirit provides something with which the human soul must repeatedly unite itself, which must be repeatedly inwardly assimilated and digested. External truths such as those provided by natural science we can, if we have a good memory, take in and then possess them once and for all. That is not possible with spiritual-scientific truths, the reason being that the truths of natural science are lifeless concepts. The laws of nature are dead once they have been formulated into concepts, whereas spiritual-scientific truths are living concepts; if we condemn them to lifelessness because we accept them as if they were external truths, then they provide no nourishment; then they are stones the soul cannot digest.

Rudolf Steiner

‘Aspects of Human Evolution’, lecture VIII, Berlin 24 July 1917


The Three Stages of Sleep

Rudolf Steiner

A lecture given in Dornach, 24 March 1922

Published in Anthroposophy Today
Winter 1987 No 4

WAKING LIFE is the state of consciousness that is most familiar to mankind, but within this sphere the problems of existence are not unveiled. If this waking consciousness, as it serves us for ordinary life and knowledge, could solve the problems of life without further ado, such problems would no longer exist. Their solution would be a matter of course. Human beings would never come to the point of questioning. The fact that someone asks about the deeper foundations of life and, while not perhaps coming to the point of definitely formulating questions as to the problems of life yet retains the longing to know something that ordinary consciousness cannot yield, proves that from the deepest foundations of the human soul, though in a more or less unconscious way, something arises which indeed belongs to the human being, but which must first be sought if it is to rise up into the light of consciousness.

This leads those who do not observe life sufficiently closely into speculation and into the forming of all kinds of philosophies which eventually prove to be unsatisfying. But anyone who observes the phenomena of life with a certain impartiality will soon realise that, in the sleeping condition, as opposed to the waking condition of consciousness, something is concealed, and that an understanding of life may result from an understanding of the sleeping condition.

We have often spoken of these things, but it is necessary to return to them again and again, for Anthroposophy can only be understood when the attempt is made to approach facts from the most varied points of view.

Out of the state of sleep there emerges first the life of dreams. This dream life consists of pictures, and if one pays attention to this life of dreams, it is easy to observe that its pictures are related to ordinary life and consciousness. Even if it can often be said that things are dreamed of in a way in which the dreamer has never experienced them, I would answer: the parts out of which the dream is made up, the details of the pictures, are all the same taken from ordinary consciousness.

It is different with regard to the dramatic element of the dream, to the way in which the dream, as it grows in intensity, evokes feelings of anxiety, of joy, of compulsion. The meaning of the course taken by these dream pictures lies more deeply within human nature, and we can understand this when we consider the following example. A man may dream, for instance, that he is walking along a road and comes to a mountain. He passes into a cave in the mountain. At first it is dusk, and then it gets darker. An unknown impulse urges him to go farther; he has a sense of uneasiness and this increases till he stands there in a state of terror, let us say, of falling into some inner chasm or the like. He may then wake up in this feeling of terror, for it has lasted until the time of waking.

Again, we may dream that we are standing somewhere and a man is approaching us from a distance. He comes nearer and nearer, and when he is quite close it appears that he is preparing to make an attack. There is an experience of increasing anxiety. The other man comes still nearer and the harmless instrument which he had shown us from afar changes into a murderous weapon. The dream transforms things in this way. Anxiety becomes terror, and once more we awake full of this terror which continues into waking life.

Here we have two entirely different pictures. In the first dream we have a series of pictures which led us into the mountain cavern, and in the second a series of pictures connected with an approaching enemy. The soul-experience has been the same although the picture sequence has been quite different. What the soul has lived through is something entirely different from what is consciously experienced on waking. The pictures in themselves are not the essential thing. The point is the inner drama through which the soul passes; how there was first an impulse — or something that approached the soul in the place of an impulse — how this passed over into feelings of anxiety and terror, and how at last the dreamer came to the point of rousing himself out of sleep and returning to ordinary consciousness. Forces that increase in intensity are there behind the dream and these forces clothe themselves in pictures. The forces are not perceptible but they are the essential factor.

I might multiply these two picture sequences many times, for the same soul content may be clothed in 10, 20 or a hundred different pictures. Thus we must say that here is something that takes place in the soul which the human being does not observe and of which the person knows nothing. Only the pictures are known. These pictures are experienced in dream consciousness, but the essential thing is the process of intensification: first anxiety, then greater anxiety, and lastly actual terror. The dream pictures are more or less taken from ordinary life — the mountain, the cavern, the approaching enemy, his weapon — all these are borrowed from life. The pictures derive their content from life, but this is only the clothing.

But now when, through what I have often described as Imaginative consciousness, we have the power to remain behind this clothing, building no pictures of this kind, but remaining with Imaginative consciousness within the forces of the soul which have given rise to the anxiety, fear and terror, then something quite different happens.

When a person sleeps, the astral body and Ego are outside the physical and etheric bodies. In normal circumstances when human beings awake, they re-enter the etheric and physical bodies very rapidly; but when, in somewhat abnormal circumstances, someone does not immediately penetrate into the physical body, but before entering it penetrates more intensely into the etheric body, then these pictures are formed out of life. For in ordinary consciousness there is no conceptual activity in actual sleep. The dream pictures arise only at the moment when someone is penetrating into the body and passing through the etheric body, or at the moment of falling asleep when, on leaving the physical body, the sleeper lingers in the etheric body. These dream pictures taken from ordinary life are formed only in the intermediate conditions. Imaginative consciousness, however, enables human beings to live in those forces of the soul which stand behind the dream while the person is wholly outside the body. The individual lives then in a different world of reality, a world which is passed through between falling asleep and awaking. Between falling asleep and awaking human beings live in this world without consciousness. You can picture this to yourselves as though a man sank under water, and there, losing all consciousness, can only regain it when the waters bear him to the surface and make him free again. The same thing that there takes place in a physical sense takes place in the soul when people sleep. They dive down into the spiritual world and there lose consciousness. They pass out of the body with their soul and lose consciousness. On waking they rise up again and regain consciousness, and this re ascent is the entrance into the body. When, as has been said, someone does not enter the body immediately, but becomes aware of the passage through the etheric body, there arise the pictures of the dream. But when we reach a stage where the appearance of such dream pictures is no longer allowed and, existing wholly outside the physical body in the spiritual world, we perceive pictures, these are no longer arbitrary pictures but are such as you will find in the description of world-evolution in my Occult Science. All such descriptions as those given in Occult Science originate in the way just characterised.

If it is asked what is to be found in Occult Science, the answer must be: ‘Thoughts are there’. These thoughts can be studied. I have emphasised again and again that the healthy human intellect can reflect upon these thoughts. Thoughts are there, but they are not ordinary thoughts: they are thoughts which are creatively active in the cosmos. Human beings can live in these thoughts when they stand on the other side of the threshold leading into the spiritual world. They can live in these thoughts which are active in the cosmos. This is the first thing that they will find when they enter the super-sensible world.

Picture to yourselves someone asleep. During sleep, processes of the greatest intensity and far-reaching effect take place in the soul. Nothing is known of all this because in sleep the person is without consciousness. In the morning the person re-enters the physical body, diving down instantaneously into it. The eyes are used to perceive light and colour, the ears to hear sounds, and so on. The person becomes conscious. But there is this intermediate state where, before entering directly into the physical body, the person enters the etheric body. Then the dream arises. But should that person become conscious before penetrating into the etheric body, he or she would then be conscious in the outer ether which fills the whole cosmos; there would be consciousness of what is described in Occult Science.

If, for example, you were to become conscious in the middle of the night without returning to your physical body, so that this physical body rose up before you and you were to look upon it — for it would then be visible — you would become conscious of this cosmology, of what I have described in Occult Science. What is there described may be called the formative forces of the cosmos, or cosmic thoughts. Just as people have their own thoughts in waking life, they can now say: ‘The Earth has originated in such and such a way; it has passed through a Moon condition, a Sun condition and a Saturn condition’ — as I have described in Occult Science.

This kind of perception in the spiritual world is only one of three existing kinds. When human beings consider their waking condition of consciousness, they know that in this consciousness they can distinguish between thinking, feeling and willing. But just as the waking consciousness has these three states, so also the night consciousness, which in an ordinary way is an unconscious condition so far as the human being is concerned, has its three states. In the period between falling asleep and awaking people are not always in the same condition any more than they are during the period of waking consciousness. A person is awake when thinking or feeling or willing; consciousness can also function in three conditions during sleep. Imaginative consciousness is only able to behold the cosmic formative forces if we have first acquired consciousness and knowledge of them. In sleep we all live within these formative forces of the cosmos, within the cosmic thoughts; just as man is immersed when he jumps into water, so is everyone immersed, in sleep, in the formative forces of the cosmos.

Besides this life within the formative forces of the cosmos there are two other conditions of the life of sleep, just as in waking life the human being not only thinks, but feels and wills. Thinking, the possession of thoughts, corresponds in sleep to the life of the cosmic formative forces. This means that, when we become conscious in the lightest sleep, we are living in the formative forces of the cosmos. It is as though we were swimming through the cosmos from one end to the other, floating through thoughts — thoughts which are, however, forces. In this lightest sleep we float through the thought-forces of the cosmos. But there is also a deeper sleep — a sleep from which nothing can be brought into the waking life of the day unless we have practised special exercises of the soul. A person can bring back something into the waking life through the dream only from the lightest sleep, but, as I have already said, these dream-pictures are not authoritative, for the same dream can be clothed in the most varied pictures. In very light sleep we can always dream, that is, we can always bring something over into consciousness; we can feel that we have had at least some experiences in sleep. This is, however, only the case with the very lightest kind of sleep. Of deeper sleep nothing can be known until we can enter it with Inspirational consciousness, and then we become aware of more than is described in Occult Science. In that work I have, of course, described something of what sounds forth from Inspirational consciousness, but let us make it quite clear — and this is a matter which can only be explained through Anthroposophy — in what way the human being experiences this transition from light sleep to that sleep from which no dreams can be brought back into the ordinary conscious life.

When sleep is so light that dreams can be brought back into ordinary life, then one who is able to look into these worlds perceives the surging, weaving thought-pictures, the cosmic Imaginations which reveal cosmic mysteries showing that human beings indeed belong to a cosmic world just as they belong to the world in which they live consciously from awakening to falling asleep. For what I have described in Occult Science is not as though one merely painted something on a surface, but everything is in perpetual movement, in perpetual activity. At a definite moment, however, pictures begin to appear in this world through which human beings pass in light sleep, though they know nothing of it. The pictures become distinct; their light is enhanced; they reveal certain realities lying behind them. The pictures fade away again, and nothing remains in the consciousness but a kind of feeling that they have died down. Then they rise up again, and in this alternation of activity and withdrawal, something appears which can be called the harmony of the spheres, cosmic music. Thus cosmic music does not reveal itself only as melody and harmony but as the deeds and activities of those beings who dwell in the spiritual world, as the deeds of the Angeloi, Archangeloi, Archai, and so on.

The spiritual beings who guide and direct the world out of the spirit are seen, moving as it were through the surging sea of pictures. It is the world that is perceived through Inspiration, the second world. Let me call it the revelations of spiritual cosmic beings. And this world of the revelation of spiritual cosmic beings is the second element of sleep, as feeling is the second element of waking consciousness. Thus during sleep not only does the human being enter the realm of cosmic thoughts, but within these flowing cosmic thoughts there are revealed the deeds of cosmic beings who belong to the spiritual world.

In addition to these two conditions of sleep there is yet a third of which human beings have as a rule no sort of awareness. They usually know that they can sleep lightly, and they know also that dreams emerge from this light sleep. They know that there is a dreamless sleep. But the utmost that they can know of this third condition of sleep is that on awakening they may be conscious of the fact that, during sleep, they had been faced with some difficulty, with something which they must conquer in the first hours after awaking. I am sure that many of you are familiar with this feeling in the morning, where one knows that one has not slept quite in the ordinary way, but that something was there which has left a certain sense of difficulty, that will take some time to overcome when one regains consciousness in the morning. This is an indication of that third condition of sleep, the content of which can be apprehended only through Intuition. It is a condition which is of great significance to the human being.

When they are in the lightest sleep human beings are still actually concerned with a great deal that belongs to the experiences of waking consciousness. In a certain sense they still participate in their breathing processes; they also participate, although not from within but from without, in the blood circulation and the other processes of the body. In the second condition of sleep they do not actually participate in the processes of their bodily life; they are concerned with a world that is common both to the body and to the soul. Some element connected with the body plays over into the soul, just as something passes over from the light into the plant when it is developing in the light of day. But when they are in the third condition of sleep, there is something within them which — if I may so express it — has become mineral, for in this state the salts of the body are especially strongly deposited. During this third state of sleep a very strong storing up of salts takes place in the physical body — with their souls human beings live in the inner being of the mineral world.

Now let us imagine that the following experiment may be made. You lie down in bed and fall into a light sleep from which dreams may emerge into ordinary consciousness. You pass over into a deeper sleep from which no dreams proceed, but in which the soul is still connected with the physical body. You then enter into a sleep in which strong accumulations of salts take place in the physical body. The soul can have no relation to what is thus taking place in the body. However, if you had placed beside your bed a mountain crystal, it would be possible for you to enter with your soul right into the inner being of the crystal; you would perceive it from within outwards. This is not possible either in the first or in the second condition of sleep. In the first state of sleep, the content of which can enter into the dream, you would, had you dreamed of the crystal, still perceive it as some kind of crystal — it would certainly be a shadowy experience, but something of the nature of a crystal would be there. In the second state of sleep the crystal would be experienced in a less definite sense; and if you could then still dream — that is not possible in the ordinary way but we will imagine it to be so — then you would have the experience that the crystal becomes indefinite and forms itself into a kind of sphere or ellipsoid, and then recedes again. But if you could dream in the deepest sleep — that is, if you could bring into it the consciousness of Intuition — then out of this deepest sleep, this third condition of sleep, you would so experience the crystal that it would seem as though inwardly you followed these lines of form to the apex, and back again. You would experience the inner being of the crystal; you would be living within it. And so also in the case of other minerals. Not only would you experience the form, but also the inner forces. In short, the third condition of sleep is one which lifts human beings wholly out of their bodies and places them within the spiritual world. In this third stage of sleep we live with the essential being of the spiritual world itself. That is, we stand within the essence, within the being, of Angeloi, Archangeloi and of all those beings whom we otherwise perceive outwardly, in their manifestations. Between waking and sleeping we see with our sense consciousness, as it were, the external manifestations of the Gods in nature. During sleep we enter either the world of pictures, in the first condition, or into the world of manifestation, the revelation of spiritual beings, in the second condition. And when we reach the third condition we live within the divine spiritual beings themselves.

Thus, just as in our waking consciousness we live the life of thinking, feeling and willing, so during sleep we either flow with the cosmic thoughts, or out of these cosmic thoughts the deeds of divine spiritual beings are revealed, or these spiritual beings so take us up into themselves that we rest within them with our souls. Just as thoughts and ideas are for the waking consciousness the clearest and most definite things of all, while feeling is darker and really a kind of dreaming, and willing the condition of the greatest insensibility — as it were a kind of sleep — so we have these three degrees of the sleeping consciousness. We have the sleep in which ordinary consciousness experiences the dream and a higher clairvoyant consciousness the cosmic thoughts; we have the second state of sleep which for the ordinary consciousness remains hidden, but so appears to the consciousness of Inspiration that everywhere the deeds of divine, spiritual beings are revealed; and we have the third state of sleep, which to intuitional consciousness is life within the divine, spiritual beings themselves. This can be expressed by saying that we dive down, for instance, into the inner being of the minerals. This third state of sleep has, however, yet another element of great significance for the human being.

In the second stage of sleep, as I have said, we find in the surging pictures, alternately appearing and disappearing, the cosmic being of the Angeloi, Archangeloi, and so on. But we find ourselves as well. We find ourselves as beings of soul; not, however, as we now are, but as we were before birth, before conception. We learn to know how we have lived between death and a new birth. This belongs to this second world. And every time we pass through dreamless sleep, we live in this same world in which we lived before we descended into our physical body. But when we pass over into the third condition of sleep and are able to awake there, when the consciousness of Intuition awakes, then we experience our destiny — our karma. We know then why certain capacities are ours in this life as the results of a previous one. We know why in this life we have been led into connection with this or that personality; we learn to know our destiny, our karma. We can learn to know this destiny — and I speak now from another point of view — only when we are able to penetrate into the inner being of the minerals. If we are able to see the crystal not only from without but from within — naturally we must not break it up, for that would still be to see it only outwardly, but we must feel fully within it, in the way I have described — when we thus see the crystal from within, we can understand why this or that blow of destiny has befallen us in life. Take any kind of crystal — take an ordinary salt-cube. We look at it from without. That is how it is perceived in ordinary consciousness. Life then remains impenetrable. But if we are able to penetrate within it — the size in space has nothing to do with it — when we look at it from within, looking around in every direction, we are in that world in which we can understand our destiny. We live in this world every night when we pass into the third condition of sleep.

Before the Mystery of Golgotha, in the period of evolution before the appearance of Christ on Earth, human beings — we ourselves in earlier incarnations — entered very often into this third condition of sleep. But before they sank down into this sleep their Angel appeared and raised them out of it again. This is the significant thing: we can always raise ourselves out of the first state, and out of the second state of sleep, but not out of the third. Before the appearance of Christ on Earth we must have died in this third condition of sleep if Angels, or some other beings, had not raised us out of it. Since the appearance of Christ, the Christ-force has been united with the Earth. Every time that we must awaken out of this third state of sleep, the Christ-force which came to be united with the Earth through the Mystery of Golgotha must come to our aid. The human being can enter into the inner being of the crystal but cannot emerge again without the Christ-Force. When we gaze behind the veils of existence, we see the significance of the Christ Impulse for the earthly life. Once again, then, I emphasise that the human being could enter into the crystal, but could not emerge again.

After the appearance of Christ on Earth, after the Mystery of Golgotha, these things were strongly felt in certain regions, for example in Central Europe, where there was still a vivid, ancient, pagan consciousness but where, nevertheless, the Christ revelation was known. It was realised that many people had died because they had fallen into this deep sleep, and that they need not have died had Christ come to their aid. This was felt, for instance, with regard to Charlemagne and Frederick Barbarossa. In spite of the fact that so far as the outer physical world was concerned Frederick Barbarossa was drowned, this feeling was there, and it was very definitely there with regard to Charlemagne.

What happened to such a soul according to the consciousness of the Middle Ages? It passed into the interior of the crystal, thence into the mountain, and there it must wait until Christ should come to raise it out of its deep sleep. All such legends were connected with this consciousness. The deep connection of the Christ Impulse with the Earth since the Mystery of Golgotha has brought it about that the world of Angeloi, Archangeloi and other spiritual beings is still able to raise human beings from this deep sleep; otherwise, when they sank into this third condition of sleep, they could not be brought back out of it. This is connected with the Christ-force itself, not with belief in the Christ-force. No matter whether a man belongs to this or that religious confession, what Christ accomplished on Earth was an objective fact, and what I am here describing as an objective fact is wholly independent of belief. I will speak of the significance of belief on another occasion, but what I am now stating is an objective fact having nothing to do with belief.

How did these things come about? Into the spiritual world itself there entered a different destiny, a destiny which I will describe in the following way. Human beings here in the physical world are born and they die; the characteristic of the divine, spiritual beings who belong to the higher hierarchies is that they are not born, neither do they die, but only undergo a transformation. Christ, Who until the time of the Mystery of Golgotha lived with the other divine, spiritual beings, resolved to know death, to descend to Earth, to become man, and within the nature of man to pass through death, thereafter to return to consciousness through the Resurrection. In the divine-spiritual world it was an event of the deepest significance that a God should experience death. We can thus say that, in the history of the evolution of the Earth, there came about the mighty event that God became man, and that through this His power manifests as I have described. The God Who became man has such power in earthly life that He is able to raise our souls out of the interior of the crystal when they have passed into it. When we speak of Christ we are speaking of the cosmic Being, the God Who became man. What, then, would constitute the antitype? The antitype would be the man who has become god. This would not, however, be an absolutely good god but, just as Christ descended into the world of men and took death upon Himself, that is, assumed a human form in order to be able to participate in human destiny, so we are led to the opposite pole — to the man who, having freed himself from death, having liberated himself from human bodily conditions, within earthly conditions becomes a god. Such a man would then cease to be mortal. He would wander about the Earth — not, of course, under the same conditions as an ordinary mortal human being who must pass from birth to death, and from death to a new birth. A man who had thus become a god would exist on Earth as a man who had unlawfully become god-like. As the Christ is a God Who has lawfully become man, we must seek His antitype in the man who has become god, who, mortal no longer, has unlawfully assumed the god-nature. Just as in the Christian tradition we have in Christ Jesus the God Who has become man in righteousness, so are we also directed to Ahasueris, the man who has become god in unrighteousness, who has laid aside the mortality of human nature. We have the polar antithesis of Christ Jesus in Ahasueris. That is the deeper foundation, the deeper significance of the Ahasueris legend. This legend narrates something that is a reality, speaking of a man who wanders over the Earth. The figure of Ahasueris is actually there, wandering over the Earth from people to people. This Ahasueris figure exists — the man who has unlawfully become god.

If we wish to gain knowledge of historical truth we must turn our attention to such matters; we should observe how beings and forces from the super-sensible world work down into the physical world; how Christ came from the spiritual world into the physical world; and further how again the sensible world works back into the super-sensible. We must recognise in Ahasueris a real cosmic force, a real cosmic being. A consciousness of this wandering of Ahasueris has always existed, though of course he can be perceived only with clairvoyant vision and not with physical eyes. The legends of Ahasueris have a true objective foundation. We cannot understand human life if we only observe it externally, as it is described in history books.

Since the Mystery of Golgotha, the Christ has dwelt in our inner being. Just as when we look inwards with quickened sight we can perceive Him there, so also when we look at human life and the eye of vision is opened there appears this figure of Ahasueris — and this is the case in most of those in whom clairvoyance arises, as it may happen unawares to the person who steps across the threshold of consciousness. People may not perhaps always recognise him; he may be taken for something different. It is nevertheless possible for Ahasueris to appear to us, as it is also possible when we look into our inner being for the Christ-figure to shine forth.

These things belong to World Mysteries which now, in this age when many Mysteries are destined to be revealed, must be made known.




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