A Way of Self-Knowledge and The Threshold of the Spiritual World
By Rudolf Steiner, translated by Christopher Bamford
Publisher: Great Barrington, MA: Anthroposophic Press, 1999.
Austrian-born Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) has been influential in many fields, first becoming known as a scientific, literary, and philosophical scholar respected particularly for his work on Goethe’s scientific writings. However, as translator Christopher Bamford says, “Rudolf Steiner was above all a spiritual teacher, a teacher of a new, cognitive path of meditation into the spiritual world.” Bamford writes,
From his earliest years, Steiner experienced that the creative presence of the invisible, spiritual world was as real, universal, and certain as the reality of the so-called physical world revealed through the senses, which it permeated…. He dedicated himself to the task of providing a path whereby others could experience the certainty of spiritual reality – and all that followed from it – for themselves.
In 1924 Steiner founded the General Anthroposophical Society, which today has branches throughout the world. His insights have led to innovative and holistic approaches in medicine, philosophy, education, and many other fields which together have contributed to a better understanding of humanity physically, mentally, and spiritually.
The two slim works combined in this volume are some of Steiner’s most personal books, offered as a ‘report of soul experience.’ A Way of Self-Knowledge was published in 1912, and The Threshold of the Spiritual World in 1913. In these works Rudolph Steiner offers ‘meditations’ and ‘aphorisms’ drawing from and exemplifying his own spiritual research. He notes that the ‘content’ of his experiences is his own, and another person may discover a different content. It is the method or path for developing consciousness which he wishes to convey, a method which he says comprises a spiritual science.
Readers may find the writing in this book challenging. Sometimes a sentence may need to be read over several times before one can grasp its meaning. This seems to be Steiner’s intention. He believed that rigorous, clear thinking forms a foundation for the development of higher consciousness. Particularly for people from the West and for those who are highly educated, he taught, the disciplined practice of deep, clear thinking is a necessary step in spiritual growth. He intended the reader to go beyond the thoughts themselves to observe the consciousness that is producing those thoughts. As Bamford summarizes Steiner’s teaching, for those with the ‘present Western brain formation’:
The only healthy way to clairvoyant cognition is through the enlivening of ordinary thinking by practices of meditative attention and concentration. There can be no ‘leap’ to higher psychic or spiritual levels that by-passes these practices.
A Way of Self-Knowledge consists of eight ‘meditations’ that describe a path to a state of consciousness from which one can come to understand the nature of human existence. Calling these sections of the book ‘meditations’ rather than, for example, ‘chapters’ is deliberate. As philosopher Friedemann Schwarzkopf explains in his preface to the volume, Steiner’s writing here can only be understood through ‘meditative reading’:
‘Meditative reading’ requires that we take each sentence as an invitation to move our centre of awareness … to a place that the author describes. The key is not to speculate about the information contained in the text, but rather to ask, “How must I move my attention in such a way that the text makes sense?”
He employs a metaphor: while sitting inside a house, if one looks at an aerial photograph of that same house, one might attempt to envision the place and the angle from which the photograph must have been taken. In meditative reading, it is this effort of the attention that brings realization. As Schwarzkopf puts it, the realities Steiner describes are “wordless experiences, cast into language. The experiences themselves are much larger, wider and richer than words are able to convey.” In meditative reading, “we slow our reading to the point where we enter the timeless state… Now experience becomes the teacher.”
Meditation One is entitled ‘The Physical Body.’ Here Steiner explains that when the soul is “surrendered to the appearances of the outer world through the senses,” it is engulfed in joys, wonders, delights, awe, fear, and pain through association with the physical body. In this state, “while it is given over to the outer world,” it cannot “truly know anything of itself.”
Meditation Two is entitled ‘The Elemental (or Etheric) Body.’ Steiner speaks of the initial experiences in which one becomes aware of a subtle or etheric level of reality, existing beyond the limitations of the physical. Here Steiner stresses that to judge such experiences correctly, one must be able to relate to the outer world in a completely healthy way after the experience is over. The understanding of the outer world should become clearer.
Meditation Three is entitled, ‘Clairvoyant Cognition of the Elemental World.’ Steiner says, “When you perceive phenomena though the elemental body, rather than through the physical body, you experience a world unknown to sensory perception and ordinary rational thinking.” One then begins to notice the inner life of all our surroundings. These experiences bring an awareness and appreciation for the various forms of life, which we did not have prior to this inner awakening. Like ice floating on water, the sensory world floats on the subtle world, though the ‘water’- the spiritual reality – remains invisible to the senses.
Meditation Four is entitled ‘The Guardian of the Threshold.’ According to Steiner, as one approaches the threshold of the supersensory world, the soul feels its complete helplessness. Ego is now revealed as a destructive force that has deceived the soul. Until true humility and helplessness is realized, the soul must wait to complete its journey. The image of a guardian standing at the threshold is central to Steiner’s teachings, and Meditations Five through Eight discuss the lessons learned while waiting in helplessness at the Threshold. Steiner states,
Behind the outer world given to us in our daily life, lies another world. A powerful guardian stands at the threshold to ensure that people experience nothing of the laws of the supersensory world. For doubt and uncertainty about that world are more easily borne than the sight of what we must leave behind if we wish to enter it. Until we ourselves approach the threshold, however, we are protected from those experiences.
Who is this guardian? On careful reading – meditative reading – one may come to see that the guardian is one’s own ego. So long as ego is there and so long as we are attached to the physical world, we block our own way forward. Moreover, Steiner hints, the door at this threshold cannot be pushed open by the efforts of the striving soul; rather it can only be opened from the other side, that is, by a power greater than oneself. Therefore, the soul will also realize its utter helplessness before it crosses that threshold.
In The Threshold of the Spiritual World Steiner presents additional perspectives on his spiritual method through a series of ‘aphorisms’. For example, in Aphorism Three entitled ‘The Human Etheric Body and the Elemental World’, Steiner discusses some of the challenges facing the soul on the spiritual journey. As he says, while one is still limited to the physical level, the spiritual world is something quite foreign to the soul. It has no attributes that one can recognize in the sensory or material world. Thus the soul may find itself facing darkness for long periods of time. Sometimes it experiences a sense of dread. The soul may fill itself with thoughts of the world to drive away that sense of dread.
At the end of the book, Steiner speaks of the discovery of our spiritual self: “Finally, through the true ‘I’ in a supra-spiritual environment, human beings discover themselves as spiritual beings, even though all experience of the sensory, elemental, and spiritual worlds – that is, all experience of the senses, of thinking, feeling, and willing – pass into oblivion.”
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