Thursday, November 6, 2014
Illness and Karma
Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, January 26, 1909:
Let us continue with our studies which are to bring us closer and closer to a deeper understanding of man's being and task in the world. You will remember that in one of the group lectures held here this winter (10th November) we spoke about the four different ways in which it is possible for the human being to be ill, and we indicated that illnesses arising as the actual result of karma would not be discussed until later. Today we want to talk about at least a certain part of this karmic cause of illness.
We explained before that the division of man's being into four members, the physical body, etheric body, astral body and ego, enables us to have a kind of survey of the phenomena of illness in so far as each of these members comes to expression in certain organs and organ complexes of the physical body itself. That is, the ego has its chief physical equivalent in the blood, the astral body in the nervous system, the etheric body in all that comes under the heading of the glandular system, and the physical body represents itself. Then we presented the illnesses arising out of the ego as such, and which therefore have their physical manifestation in irregularities in the functioning of the blood. We indicated that what originates in irregularities in the astral body manifests in irregularities in the nervous system, and what originates in the etheric body manifests in the glandular system, and that it is in the physical body that we have to look for those illnesses that primarily have external causes. All this, however, only points to that aspect of illness that is connected with the span of one human lifetime. Now anyone who is able to look at world existence in a spiritual scientific way has an inkling that illness must also depend to some extent on a person's karma, on that great law of causes which show the spiritual connections between man's various incarnations. But the ways of karma are very intricate and manifold, and we must study the more detailed composition of karmic connections before we can understand anything about them. Let us talk today about a few aspects of something that is very interesting for people to know, namely, how illnesses are connected with causes made by man himself in earlier lives. In order to do this we must say a few introductory words on the subject of how the law of karma works in human life. We shall be referring to some things most of you know from other lectures, but it is essential to have an exact picture of how the karmic causes of one life become the effects in the next. Therefore we shall have to say a few words about what actually happens to man spiritually in the period after death.
We know that on passing through the portal of death man first of all has the kind of experiences that come about because he is now in an entirely different situation from anything met with in life. His ego and astral body are connected with the etheric body, but without the physical body being there. He has, as it were, laid that aside. This only happens in exceptional circumstances in life, as we have often mentioned. During life, when man is asleep, he lays his etheric body aside as well as his physical body, hence this combination of ego, astral body and etheric body exists only after death, and then for a short while only, just a matter of days. The experiences that follow immediately after death have also been mentioned; man's feeling of growing larger and larger beyond the space he previously occupied, until he encompasses all things. We have mentioned the picture of his past life standing before him as a great tableau. Then, after a number of days that varies individually, the second corpse, the etheric body, is laid aside and absorbed by the general world ether, except in those cases we mentioned whilst discussing intimate questions of reincarnation, when the etheric body is preserved in a certain way for use in the future. Nevertheless an extract of the etheric body is kept, being the fruit of life experience. Then follows the life that is determined by the combination of ego and astral body without man being bound to a physical body. This is the period we call Kamaloca in anthroposophical literature, and often describe it, too, as the period of learning to do without the physical body and physical existence altogether.
We know that when man has just passed through the portal of death he still has all those forces in his astral body which were there at the moment of death. For he has laid aside only the physical body, the instrument of enjoyment and action. This he has no longer, but the astral body he still has. He still has the bearer of passions, instincts and desires. He still hankers for the same things — out of habit you might say — that he hankered for in life. Now whilst he was alive it was through the instrument of the physical body that man satisfied his desires. After death he no longer has this instrument, thus he is deprived of the possibility of satisfaction. This is felt as a kind of thirst for physical life until man has grown accustomed to live solely in the world of the spirit and to have solely what can be acquired out of the spirit. Until man has learnt to do this, he continues living in what we call the period of breaking himself of his habits, or Kamaloca.
We have already described the remarkable way in which this period of life runs its course, and we know that at this stage of his existence man's life flows backwards. This is something that is difficult for newcomers to anthroposophy to understand at first. Man passes through the Kamaloca period which lasts roughly a third of the length of his earthly life — in reverse sequence. Assuming that a man dies in his fortieth year, he will pass through all the experiences he has gone through in life in the reverse order, beginning with his thirty-ninth year, then the thirty-eighth, the thirty-seventh, the thirty-sixth, and so on. He really does go through his whole life backwards, right to the moment of birth. This is what is behind the beautiful words of Christ, when He was speaking of man's entry into the spiritual world or the kingdom of Heaven: ‘Except ye ... become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven!’ In other words, man lives backwards as far as his first moments and being absolved of everything, he can then enter Devachan or the kingdom of Heaven, and be in the spiritual world from then onwards. This is difficult to imagine, as we are so very accustomed to time being absolute, like it is on the physical plane. It requires considerable effort to get used to this, but it will come.
Now we must picture to ourselves what man actually does in Kamaloca. We could say a great deal about it, of course. Today, however, we shall concentrate solely on what concerns the question of the karmic cause of illnesses. So what I am about to say must not be taken as the only kind of experience in Kamaloca, but as one among many.
We can visualise first of all what use man makes of this time in Kamaloca for his future by imagining that the man who died at forty had done something in his twentieth year that hurt someone else. When somebody has done something like this that hurt another person, it has a certain effect on his whole life. Any action of man that hurts another being or creature or the world in general, hinders the doer in his development. This is what the pilgrimage of life means for me, that the primary force of the soul, as it goes from incarnation to incarnation, is set for further development. And this development progresses in such a fashion that man as it were is always putting obstacles in his own path. If this primary force were the only thing that were active — it is this very force that is to bring the soul back to the spiritual — man would need only a very short time on earth. But in that case the whole of earth evolution would have taken an entirely different course; it would also have failed to achieve its purpose. You must not think that man would be better off if he put no obstacles in his own way. It is only by setting himself these handicaps that he grows strong and acquires experience, for it is the very eradicating and overcoming of these hindrances that will make him the strong being he must become by the end of earth evolution. It is thoroughly in keeping with earth evolution that he puts stones in his own path. If he did not have to muster the strength to remove these obstacles he would not acquire this strength at all. Then the world would be the poorer. We must altogether disregard the good and evil connected with these hindrances and look solely at the wisdom of the world that intended, right from the beginning, that man should have the possibility of setting himself hindrances in earthly evolution so that in removing them he could acquire strength for later. We could even say that the wise guidance of the world allowed man to become evil and gave him the possibility of doing harm, so that in repairing the harm and overcoming the evil he can become stronger in the course of karmic development than he would have become had he reached his goal without effort. This is how we should understand the significance and justification of obstacles and hindrances.
When, therefore, whilst living his life backwards in Kamaloca after death, a man encounters some harm he did to a fellow man in his twentieth year, he experiences this harm just as much as the joy and good he brought to others. Only now it is in his own astral body that he experiences the harm he did to someone else. Supposing he hit someone when he was twenty, so that it really hurt. In his reverse journey through life he feels it in his own astral body in exactly the same way the other person did when it happened. You experience objectively in the spiritual world everything you yourself did in the external world, and in the process you acquire the strength and the inclination to compensate for the pain in one of your future incarnations. Your own astral body tells you what it felt like, and you realise you have laid an obstacle in the way of your further development. This has to be cleared away, otherwise you cannot get beyond it. This is the moment you form the intention of getting rid of the obstacle. So when you have lived through the Kamaloca period, you arrive back in your childhood filled with the intention of getting rid of all the hindrances you created in life. You are full of intentions, and it is the force of these intentions that brings about the special character of your future lives on earth.
Let us suppose that in his twentieth year B hurt A. He now has to feel the pain himself, and resolves to recompense A in a future life, that is, in the physical world, where the injury was done. The force of this good resolution forms a bond of attraction between B and A and brings them together in the next life. That mysterious force of attraction that brings people together in life springs from what they have acquired in Kamaloca. Our experiences there lead us to those people in life whom we have to recompense or with whom we have any kind of connection. Now you will realise that the Kamaloca forces we have taken into ourselves for the righting of wrongs in life can by no means always be worked out in a single life. It can then happen that we form connections with a great number of people in one life, and that next time we are in Kamaloca we have the possibility of meeting them again. Now this depends, too, on the other people, whether we meet them again in the following life. That spreads itself over many lives. In one life we correct this, in another life that, and so on. You must certainly not imagine that we can immediately put everything right in one life. It depends entirely on whether the other person also develops in his soul the corresponding bond of attraction.
Now let us take a closer look at the working of karma, by examining a particular example. In Kamaloca we form the intention of carrying out a certain thing in the next or one of our future lives. This force planted in our soul remains in it and does not leave it. We are born again with all the forces we have mustered. This is inevitable. Now life consists not only of those things we have to put right in our karmic connections although what we are about to say can also be related to that. We may have put hindrances in our path, lived in a one-sided way, not made proper use of our life, living only for particular pleasures and tasks and allowing other possibilities that life offered us to pass us by, so that other faculties have remained dormant. This also calls forth karmic causes in Kamaloca, and we bring this with us into life. Then we are born again as babies. Suppose we live to be ten or twenty. Our souls contain all the forces we have mustered, and when they have become mature they make their appearance. During a certain period of our lives an inner necessity will doubtless arise urging us to carry them out. So let us suppose that in our twentieth year we feel an inner urge to carry out a particular deed, because we made the resolution in Kamaloca. For the sake of simplicity, let us keep to the example of feeling the urge to recompense someone. The bond of attraction has brought us together, and there he is. As far as the external situation goes, we can quite well do the deed. Yet there can still be an obstacle. The compensating deed could be one to which our own organism is not equal. Our organism is also dependent on the forces of heredity. This makes for disharmony in any life. Man is born on the one side into these forces of heredity. His physical and etheric body inherit the qualities that can be passed down through the generations. This hereditary stream is, of course, bound to have some measure of external connection with the karma our soul has set itself. For as it comes down from the spiritual world our soul is attracted to the kind of parents through whom it can inherit those qualities that come closest to our requirements. They never, however, entirely correspond, for in the body this cannot be so. There is always a certain discrepancy between the forces of heredity and what the soul brings with it from the past. Now it all depends on whether the soul is strong enough to overcome all the obstacles in the line of heredity, and is capable of re-forming the organism during the course of a lifetime, so that it overcomes what does not suit it. People vary a great deal in this respect. Some souls have acquired great strength in the course of previous incarnations. A soul of this nature has to incarnate in the most suitable body possible, though it will not be absolutely suitable. Yet this soul might be strong enough more or less to overcome everything not suited to it, though this is not necessarily always the case. Let us follow this up in detail by looking at the brain.
This instrument of our life of concepts and ideas is inherited externally through our line of heredity. Its delicate convolutions are formed in one way or another according to this line of heredity. The soul will always to some extent have the inner strength to overcome what does not suit it and bring its instrument into harmony with its own forces, but only to a certain extent. The stronger the soul is the better it can do this. And if circumstances are such that it becomes impossible for the soul forces to overcome the resistance in the composition of the brain, the brain cannot be used properly. And then there occurs what we call mental defectiveness, mental illness. A melancholic temperament arises too, because the soul forces are not strong enough to overcome certain things in the organism. In the middle of life — it is different at the beginning and at the end — the forces of our soul always encounter a certain unsuitability in their instrument. This is the secret that always lies hidden behind the inner conflict and disharmony in human nature. What men often imagine to be the reason for their discontent is usually just a mask. In reality the reasons for it are as we have described. Thus we see the relationship between what the soul takes with it from incarnation to incarnation and what it receives from the line of heredity.
Now let us suppose we are reborn, and when we are twenty our soul feels the urge to compensate for a particular deed. We have also encountered the person concerned, yet our soul is not capable of overcoming the inner resistance necessary for doing the deed. We always have to set our forces in motion when we have a deed to do. A person does not usually notice anything happening within him, and, to begin with, he does not need to notice. The following might easily happen: There is a person who, at the age of twenty, feels the urge in his soul to compensate for something. External circumstances are favourable, but his inner strength cannot take hold of his organs and carry out what he should do.
A person does not need to know about all this, yet he will be aware of its effect. This effect appears in the form of some illness, and here lies the karmic connection between what happened in a previous life and the illness. The spiritual cause of the illness will guide the whole process in such a way that the person thereby becomes capable of carrying out the deed of compensation the next time he has the opportunity. To put it another way, in our twentieth year we are not capable of doing a particular deed. The urge is there, nevertheless, and the soul wants to do it. What does the soul do instead? It struggles, as it were, with its unusable organ, attacks it and destroys it. When the organ that should have been instrumental in carrying out the deed externally has been destroyed by these soul forces, then comes the inevitable reaction, which we call the process of healing, and the forces of the organism have to be called up to restore the organ. This organ, which was destroyed because it was unfit to perform the task, is rebuilt through the illness so as to be capable of performing it, although by the time the illness is over it might well be too late. But then the soul has now gained the strength to mould the growth and development of this organ in the course of life in such a way that in the next incarnation the deed can be carried out. Thus illness can be the very thing that makes us fit to carry out our karmic obligations in another life.
Here we have a secret karmic connection between illness and further development, for in reality illness is a process of further development. In order that the soul develops the power to form an organ in the way it needs, the unsuitable organ has to be destroyed and rebuilt again by the soul forces. Here we come upon a law in human life that has to be described somewhat as follows: Man has to acquire his strength by overcoming obstacles in the world, one after another. Strictly speaking all our strength was acquired by the overcoming of obstacles in previous incarnations. Our present capacities are the result of our illnesses in earlier lives.
To make this especially clear, let us imagine that a soul is not yet capable of making use of the mid-brain. How can it acquire the capacity to use it properly? It can only do this by becoming conscious of the incapacity, destroying the mid-brain and rebuilding it, and in this process of rebuilding it the capacity is acquired. We become capable of everything that we ourselves have taken through the process of destroying and rebuilding. This has been felt to be true by all those people who, in the various religions, have connected a very exalted being with this process of destroying and rebuilding. In the religious beliefs of the Indians ‘Shiva’ represents the ruling powers that destroy and then restore things to life again.
That is one of the ways in which karma instigates a process of illness. In the case of illnesses that concern mankind in general rather than man as an individual, we find something else that gives them a more general character. For instance we see typical cases of children's diseases appearing at certain times. These show nothing else than that the child is learning inner control of a certain part of his organism, after which he can then be in control of it in all his future incarnations. We should regard illness as a process that makes a person capable. We shall then come to think of illness in quite a different way. We must not, of course, conclude from this that if someone is knocked down by a train it should be explained in the same way. That sort of thing does not come under the same heading as illness nor what we have just been discussing. But there is another kind of karmic cause of illness which is just as interesting, and which we shall only understand if we look at it in greater detail.
Suppose you learn one or another thing, the sort of thing you learn in life. First of all you have to learn it, for the most important accomplishments in life have first to be learnt. The process of learning is absolutely necessary. But that is not the end of it, for learning is only the most external part. The learning of a thing is still a long way short of all that we shall experience through it. We are born into life with definite capacities acquired partly through heredity and partly through our earlier incarnations. The range of our capacities is after all limited. In the course of each incarnation we increase our store of experience. This acquired knowledge is not so closely connected with us as the temperament and disposition and so on that we have brought with us into life. What we learn in life to begin with in the way of memory and habit is less closely connected with us, and therefore it also makes its appearance in life in a more fragmentary manner. Not until after death does it appear in the etheric body in the great memory tableau. Then we have to incorporate this into us and make it part of ourselves.
Let us assume then that we have learnt something in life and are then born again. In our new life it can well be that because of hereditary or other conditions, or perhaps because our learning has not been harmonious, and although we have learnt something, it was not sufficient to have the whole thing at our finger tips, then on reincarnating, we develop what we have learnt in one direction but not in another. Let us assume we learnt something in life that necessitates having a certain part of our brain organised in a particular way or having a certain characteristic in the blood circulation in a succeeding life, and then let us assume that we had failed to learn the other things that are a necessary part of this. This, however, is not necessarily an immediate drawback. Man has to take forward leaps in life, and he has to learn from experience that he has done something in a one-sided way. Now he is born again with the fruits of what he has learnt, but he lacks the possibility of developing himself in such a way that everything can come to expression, and what he has learnt from life can really be carried into effect. A man might for instance have received a certain degree of initiation into the great mysteries of existence in one of his incarnations, and when he is born again these forces that were planted in him want to come to expression. But let us assume it has been impossible for him to develop certain forces which could produce the necessary harmony in the organism. At a certain point in his life it will inevitably happen that what he previously learnt wants to come to expression. But an essential organ is missing. So what happens? An illness has to occur that could have a very, very deep-seated karmic cause. And again part of the organism has to be destroyed and rebuilt afresh. And by means of this rebuilding of the organ the soul senses which are the right forces in the other direction, and it takes this feeling along with it. When this is acquired this way, or even through initiation, it usually happens that the fruits show themselves in that same incarnation. That is, an illness occurs in the course of which the soul experiences what it lacks. And then, for instance, something can take place immediately after the illness that otherwise would not have been achieved. It could be that a person would have been able to reach a certain stage of enlightenment in his previous life, but he could not get through to part of his brain, and he did not develop the strength to break through the resistance. Then this offending organ must inevitably be destroyed, and a severe illness can result. Then comes the rebuilding, whereby the soul becomes aware of the forces necessary to overcome the blockage, and the awaited enlightenment ensues. The process of suffering an illness can definitely be regarded as a sign that something important is to follow.
Now we are touching on matters that our profane world would certainly sneer at. Yet many a person will have noticed a kind of perpetual discontent, as though part of the soul could not come to expression and life becomes impossible. A severe illness breaks out, and the overcoming of this illness brings an entirely new impulse, like a feeling of release that the blockage has really gone and the organ can be used. This was all due to the organ being unusable. In the life cycles of the present, people still have a lot of these blockages, of course, and they cannot all be overcome at once. We must not necessarily think of spiritual enlightenment every time; this kind of thing also happens in connection with many less significant life processes.
Thus we see that on the one hand we are faced with the necessity of developing some particular quality, and on the other hand the course of karma triggers off illness. Therefore we should never really be satisfied with remarking in a trivial sense: ‘If I get ill I have brought it upon myself through my karma.’ For we should not only think of karma in the past and of illness as being the settlement, but we should actually think of illness as just the second stage, which arises in order to produce creative strength and ability in the future. We thoroughly misunderstand illness and karma if we only look at the past; this turns karma into a merely accidental law of fate. But when we can look through present karma into the future, then karma becomes a law of action and of fruitfulness in life.
All this points to a significant law governing human existence. And in order to get at least some idea of it today — we shall return to it in greater detail later — let us look back into that ancient time in which man came into being in his present form, the Lemurian epoch. Man gradually descended from divine-spiritual existence into today's external existence, cladding himself first of all in his sheaths, and set out along the path of incarnations in the outer world, moving forward from incarnation to incarnation until the present time. Before man began to incarnate, the possibility was not there for him to engender illness within himself in the way he can today. Not until man had acquired the ability to control his relationship with the outside world was he capable of doing wrong and therefore also capable of producing wrong formations of his organs and of engendering the possibility of illness. It was impossible before that for man to give rise to the process of illness in himself. Whilst divine influence was still supreme, and it was not yet in man's own hands to conduct his own life, there was no possibility of illness. Then this possibility of illness arose. If this is how it was, where can we best learn the way to heal? The best way of doing this is to look back into those times when divine-spiritual powers sent their influence into man and endowed him with perfect health, with no possibility of illness, that is, before his first incarnation. People who have had any knowledge of this have always felt this way. Bearing this in mind, I would now like you to try and look beneath the surface at the kind of thing expressed in mythologies. I will not actually draw your attention to the source of medical science proper in the Egyptian Hermes cult, but only to the Greek and Roman cult of Aesculapius.
Aesculapius, the son of Apollo, is so to speak the father of Greek physicians. And what does Greek mythology tell us about him? While still a boy his father takes him to the mountains where he can become the pupil of the centaur Chiron. It is Chiron the centaur who teaches Aesculapius, the father of pharmacy about the healing forces in the plants and elsewhere on the earth. What kind of being is Chiron the centaur? He is a being of the kind that existed before man descended in Lemurian times: a being half man and half animal. This myth tells us that Aesculapius is taken to the particular Mystery where he is shown those forces of health which were the source of man's health before man came down into his first incarnation.
Thus we find this important law expressed in a Greek myth, too; this great spiritual fact, that must be of particular interest to us, coming as it does at the start of man's earthly pilgrimage. The myths, in particular, will only be recognised as pictures of the deepest happenings of life when human beings get beyond the ABC of spiritual science. Myths, especially, are pictures of the deepest secrets of human existence.
When the whole of life is looked at in this way, it will be judged accordingly, and — this must be stressed more and more — spiritual science will grow into something that will become part of everyday life. Men will live spiritual science, and not until that time comes will the original intention of spiritual science come to realisation. Spiritual science will become the great impulse for the ascent of mankind, for mankind's real welfare and real progress.