Friday, August 16, 2019
Memory and the Etheric Body : The Great Blessing of Forgetting
Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, November 2, 1908:
Today let us look at one of those aspects of spiritual science that show us how well qualified anthroposophy is to throw light on life in the widest sense. Not only does this knowledge help us understand everyday life, it also throws light on the great span of human existence that includes the time between death and a new birth.
Spiritual science can be of great help to us just where daily life is concerned; it can help us solve many problems and show us how to cope with life. Those people who cannot see into the depths of existence fail to understand many things they are encountering every moment of the day. The questions that cannot be answered out of sense experience mount up, and, being unanswered, remain problems that have a disturbing effect on life, breeding discontent. Being discontented in life, however, can never serve man's evolution nor his true welfare. We could enumerate hundreds of such life problems that are far more deeply illuminating than people usually imagine.
A word that contains many such problems is the word ‘forgetting’. You all know it as the word indicating the opposite of what we call the retaining of a mental image or a thought or impression. Certainly you will all have had some distressing experiences with what is conveyed by the word forgetting. You will all know the annoying experience you often have if one or another idea or impression has, as we say, slipped your memory. You may then have wondered why such a thing as forgetting has to belong to the phenomena of life.
Now it is only with the help of the facts of occult life that you can get answers to a thing like this, that is, answers that are of any value. You know, of course, that memory or remembering has something to do with what we call man's etheric body. So we can also assume that the opposite of memory, namely forgetting, will have something to do with the etheric body. Perhaps we are justified in asking if there is any significance in the fact that the things a human being has had at some time in his life of thought can also be forgotten? Or do we have to be satisfied with characterizing forgetting in a purely negative way, as so often happens, and say that it is a defect of the human soul not to be able to remember everything all the time? We shall only throw light on forgetting by turning our attention to its opposite and considering the nature and significance of memory.
If we say that memory has something to do with the etheric body, we ought to ask ourselves how it happens that the etheric body acquires this task of retaining the impressions and thoughts in man, when the etheric body is present in plants where it has an essentially different task? We have often spoken of the fact that in contrast to the stone a plant has its whole material nature permeated by an etheric body. And this etheric body in the plant is the principle of life in a restricted sense, and also the principle of repetition. If the plant were only subject to the activity of the etheric body, then, beginning from the root of the plant, the leaf principle would repeat indefinitely. It is due to the etheric body that the parts of a living entity repeat again and again, for it is the etheric body that wants to keep on reproducing the same thing. That is why life has such a thing as so-called propagation, the bringing forth of its own kind, for this is due fundamentally to an activity of the etheric body. Everything depending on repetition in man or animal is attributable to the etheric principle.
The repetition of one vertebra after another in the spine comes from this activity of the etheric body. The termination of the plant's growth at the top, and the gathering up of its whole growth in the blossom, is due to the astrality of the Earth descending from without into the growth of the plant. The fact that in man the vertebrae of the spine widen and become the hollow bones of the cranium arises through the activity of man's astral body. So we can say that everything which brings things to a conclusion is subject to the astral principle, and all repetition to the etheric principle. The plant has this etheric body, and man has it too. Of course there can be no question of memory in the plant. For to assert that the plant has a kind of unconscious memory with which it notes what the leaf it produced was like, grows a little further and then produces the next leaf on the pattern of the first, this kind of assertion leads to the strange illusions seen today in a recent trend of natural science. Some people even say that heredity is due to a kind of unconscious memory. We could almost call this bringing nonsense into natural scientific literature, for to speak of memory in the plant is actually sheer dilettantism on a higher level.
It is with the etheric body, which is the principle of repetition, that we are concerned. To be able to grasp the difference between the plant's etheric body and man's, which, in addition to the qualities of the plant's etheric body also has the capacity to develop memory, we shall have to become clear about the fundamental difference between a plant and a human being. Imagine planting a seed in the earth; out of it a quite definite plant will arise. From a grain of wheat a wheat stalk and ears will grow, and out of a bean will come a bean plant. You will have to admit that the plant's development is in a certain way irrevocably determined by the nature of the seed. It is true that the gardener may bring his influence to bear on it and alter and improve the plant by means of all sorts of horticultural methods. But that is really an exception to the rule, and is only of minor significance compared with the fact that a particular seed will produce a plant of a definite shape and growth. Is this also the case with man? Up to a point this is certainly so, but only up to a certain point. When a human being arises out of the embryo we see that his development is also enclosed within certain limits. Black children come from black parents, white children from white parents, and we could add various other examples to show that human development, just like the plant's, is also enclosed within certain limits. This limit, however, only extends as far as the physical, etheric, and astral nature. Certain things can be traced in the permanent habits and temperamental nature of a child that show similarities with the temperament and instincts of his ancestors. But if the human being were just as enclosed within the limits of a certain form of growth as the plant is, then there would be no such thing as education, as the development of soul and spiritual qualities. If you imagine two children who have different parents but who are very similar with regard to ability and external characteristics, and then imagine that one of these children is neglected and does not have much education, while the other is carefully brought up and sent to a good school where his capacities are properly developed, you could not possibly say that this development of the child's capacities was already there in embryonic form as with a bean. The bean grows from the seed in any case without our needing to educate it. That belongs to its nature. Plants cannot be educated, but human beings can. We can pass something on to the human being and put something into him, whereas we cannot put anything of the kind into a plant. Why is this? Because the etheric body of the plant always has a certain finite number of inner laws which unfold from one seed to the next and have a definite round beyond which they cannot go. Man's etheric body is different. Besides the part that is used for growth, which is that part of his being that is also enclosed within certain limits like the plant, man's etheric body has as it were another part too, a free part, which does not have a natural use unless the human being is taught all kinds of things through his education, and things are thereby put into his soul which this free part of the etheric body deals with. So there is actually a part of man's etheric body that is not used by his organic nature. Man keeps this part of the etheric body for his own use; he uses it neither for growth nor for his natural organic development, but keeps it as a free organ with which he can take in the ideas of education.
Now the first thing that happens in this process of acquiring ideas is that man receives impressions. Man always has to receive impressions, for the whole of education is based on impressions and on the co-operation between etheric body and astral body. To receive impressions we need the astral body, but in order to retain these impressions, so that they do not disappear again, we need the etheric body. Even the minutest, apparently most trivial memory-picture needs the activity of the etheric body. To perceive an object you need the astral body, but to remember it when you turn your head away you have to have the etheric body. The astral body is necessary for perception, but to have an idea, a mental image, you need the etheric body. Even though very little activity of the etheric body is necessary for the retaining of ideas, so little that it hardly need be taken into account until it comes to permanent habits, inclinations, changes of temperament and so on, you still need the etheric body for remembering. It must be there for you to so much as remember one single mental image. For all retaining of mental images is based in a certain sense on memory.
Now through the impressions of education, through man's spiritual development, we have put all sorts of things into this free etheric organ, and we can now ask ourselves whether this free etheric organ has any significance at all for a person's growth and development. Yes it has! The older a man becomes — not so much in his youth — all that has been incorporated into the etheric body through the impressions of education gradually begins to participate in the whole life of the human body, also in an inward way. And the best way of forming an idea of this participation is to get to know a fact that is not usually taken into account. People think that what is of a soul nature is not of much importance for man's life in general. Yet the following can happen: Suppose a man gets ill simply because he has been exposed to an unsuitable climate. Now let us imagine that this man could be ill in two different situations. One might be that he does not have much to work upon in the free part of his etheric body. Let us assume that he is a lazy fellow, on whom the outside world does not make much impression, and whose education has presented great difficulties, because things go in through one ear and out through the other. A person like this will not have so much to help him recover as another person who has an alert, lively mind, and who in his youth took in a great deal and worked well, and has therefore provided well for the free part of his etheric body. It will, of course, still have to be proved by external medicine why the process of recovery meets with greater difficulties in the one than in the other. This free part of the etheric body that has grown energetic through many impressions asserts itself, and its inner mobility contributes to the healing process. In innumerable cases people owe their rapid or painless recovery to the fact that when they were young they received impressions with lively interest. There you see the influence the mind has on the body! In the case of recovery from an illness, it makes the world of difference if we have to deal with a man who goes through life with a dull mind, or with a man whose free etheric body, instead of being heavy and lethargic has remained alive. You can see this for yourself if you look at the world with your eyes open and notice how mentally lazy and mentally active people behave when they are ill.
You see then that man's etheric body is something quite different from a mere plant's. The plant lacks this free part of the etheric body which furthers the development of man, in fact man's whole development depends on his having this free part of the etheric body. If you compare the beans of thousands of years ago with the beans of today, you will notice a certain difference, of course, but beans have basically retained the same form. If, however, you compare the people of Europe in the time of Charlemagne with people today: why do present day people have such different thoughts and feelings? It is because they have always had a free part of their etheric body with which they could take something in and transform their nature. All this holds good in general. Now we must look at the way all that we have been describing works in particular instances.
Let us take the case of a man who cannot obliterate from his memory an impression he receives, and so the impression just stays there. It would be a strange thing if you had to think that everything that had made an impression on you since your childhood, every day of your life, from morning till night, were always in your mind. You know of course that it is only present after death for a certain time. And there is a good reason for it then. But man forgets it during life. All of you have not only forgotten innumerable things that happened to you when you were little, but also a lot of things that happened last year, and even a certain amount that happened yesterday. A mental image that has gone from your memory, that you have “forgotten”, has by no means disappeared from your whole being, your whole spiritual organism. Far from it. If you saw a rose yesterday and have now forgotten it, the picture of the rose is still in you, as well as all the other impressions you have received, even though they have been forgotten by your immediate consciousness.
Now there is a tremendous difference between a mental image whilst it is in our memory and after we have forgotten it. So let us imagine a mental picture we have formed of an external impression, and now have in our consciousness. Then let us see with our soul's eye how it gradually disappears and is forgotten. It is there nevertheless, and remains within the whole spiritual organism. What does it do there? What does this so-called forgotten image do? It has a very important function. From the moment of being forgotten it begins to work in the right way on the free part of the etheric body we have been speaking about, and make it serviceable for man. It is as though it were not digested until then. As long as the human being uses it for acquiring knowledge it does not yet work inwardly to bring life into the free etheric organ. The moment it sinks into oblivion it begins to work. So it can be said that work is continually in progress in and upon the free part of the etheric body. And what is it that does the work? It is the forgotten ideas! That is the great blessing of forgetting! As long as a mental image remains in your memory you connect it with an object. If you observe a rose and carry the mental image of it in your memory, you connect the image of the rose with the outer object. The image is thus chained to the external object and has to send it its inner force. The moment you forget the image, however, you set it free. Then it begins to develop germinal forces which work inwardly on man's etheric body. So our forgotten memories have great significance for us. A plant cannot forget. It cannot receive impressions either, of course. It would not be able to forget, anyway, because its whole etheric body is used for growth, and there is nothing left over. If mental pictures could enter into the plant, it would still have nothing there to be developed.
Everything that happens, however, happens in conformity to law. Everything that is meant to develop and yet is not helped in its development creates a hindrance to development. Everything in an organism that is not included in its development becomes a hindrance to development. If, for instance, all kinds of substances were secreted inside the eye and could not be absorbed by the general fluid of the eye, then sight would be impaired. Nothing must be allowed to remain that cannot be taken in and absorbed. It is the same with mental impressions. If, for instance, a man could receive impressions and never get them out of his consciousness, it could easily happen that the free part of the etheric body would be undernourished and would consequently be more of a handicap than a help to a man's development. There you have the reason why it is bad for a person to lie awake at night and not be able to get certain impressions out of his mind because he is worried about something. If he could forget them they would work beneficially on his etheric body. In this case it is obvious what a blessing it would be to forget, and at the same time you have an indication of the necessity not to force yourself to remember something, but rather learn to forget it. It is the worst thing possible for a man's inner health if there are certain things he just cannot forget.
What we can say about everyday things of the moment also applies to things of an ethical-moral nature. A warm-hearted disposition that does not bear grudges is really based on this, too. Bearing resentment preys on a person's health. If someone has done us a wrong and we remember the impression it made on us every time we see him, then we relate this image to him and let it stream outwards. But if we could manage to greet him warmly next time we meet him, just as though nothing had happened, that would really do some good. It is a fact and not a fantasy that it does some good. A resentful thought like this is dull and ineffective when turned outwards, but no sooner is it turned inwards than it becomes soothing balm for many a thing in man. These things are facts, and they help us see even more meaning in the blessing of forgetting. Forgetting is not a mere defect in man but one of the most salutary things in human life. If man were only to develop his memory, and if everything that makes an impression on him were to remain in his memory, his etheric body would have more to carry, and its contents would become more and more extensive, but at the same time it would become more and more dried up. It is thanks to forgetting that man is capable of developing. Besides, no mental image is completely lost to man. This is seen best in that mighty memory picture we have immediately after death. There it becomes apparent that no impression is entirely lost.
Having touched shortly on the blessing of forgetting both in the neutral and the moral sphere of daily life, let us now consider how forgetting works in the large span of life between death and a new birth. What actually is Kamaloca, that period of transition human beings go through before entering Devachan, the spiritual world proper? Kamaloca exists because immediately after death the human being cannot forget the inclinations, desires and pleasures he had in life. At death man first of all leaves his physical body behind him. Then the mighty memory tableau I have often described stands before his soul. After two, three or at the most four days this has completely finished. Then a kind of extract of the etheric body remains. Whilst the greater part of the etheric body withdraws and dissolves in the general ether, a kind of essence or framework of the etheric body remains behind, but in a concentrated form. The astral body is the bearer of all the instincts, desires, passions, feelings, sensations and pleasures. Now the astral body would not be able to be conscious of the tormenting privations in Kamaloca if it were not for the fact that it is still connected with the remainder of the etheric body, which gives it the continued possibility of remembering what it enjoyed and desired in life. And the breaking of habit is really nothing else but a gradual forgetting of all that chains the human being to the physical world. So if man wants to enter Devachan, he must first learn to forget all that binds him to the physical world. Thus we see that man is tormented here, too, because he still has memories of the physical world. Just as worries can torment man when they refuse to leave his memory, so likewise can the inclinations and instincts that remain after death torment him, and this tormenting memory of the connections with life expresses itself in all that the human being has to pass through during his Kamaloca period. Not until he has succeeded in forgetting all his wishes and desires for things of the physical world do the achievements and fruits of his previous life appear, in readiness for the work of Devachan. There they become sculptors and overseers working on the form of the life to come. For man largely spends his time in Devachan working on the new form he is to have when he re-enters earthly life. This work of preparing his future being gives the feeling of bliss which he has throughout Devachan. When man has passed through Kamaloca he begins the groundwork for his future form. The life in Devachan is always spent in using that extract he has brought with him for constructing the prototype of his next form. He forms this prototype by working into it the fruits of the past life. He can only do this, however, by forgetting the things that made Kamaloca so difficult for him.
We have seen that the suffering and privation in Kamaloca is caused by the human being's inability to forget certain connections with the physical world, and then the physical world hovers in front of him like a memory. However, when he has passed through the waters of ‘Lethe’, the River of Forgetfulness, and has learnt to forget, the achievements and experiences of his past incarnation can be put to work to build up bit by bit the prototype of the coming life. Now the joyful bliss of Devachan begins to take the place of suffering. When worries torment us in ordinary life, and particular images remain stuck in our memory, we introduce something hard and lifeless into our etheric body which undermines our health. Similarly, after death we have something in our being which contributes to our sufferings and privations, until, through forgetting, we have rid ourselves of all connection with the physical world. Just as these forgotten memories can become a source of health in man, so can all the experiences of the past life become a source of bliss in Devachan when the human being has passed through the River of Forgetfulness and has forgotten everything that binds him to life in the world of the senses.
So we see then that these laws of forgetting and remembering are also absolutely valid for life in its broadest sense.
Now you might ask: How can a man after death have any memory pictures at all of what happened in his past life, if he must forget this life? Someone might say: Can you talk about forgetting at all, seeing that man has laid aside the etheric body with which remembering and forgetting are connected? After death, of course, remembering and forgetting assume a slightly different form. They change in such a way that a reading of the Akashic Record takes the place of ordinary remembering. The happenings of the world have not disappeared, of course, they just appear objectively. When the memory of connections with physical life vanishes in Kamaloca, these events appear in quite another form, and arise before man in the Akashic Record. Then he does not need the connection with life which comes from ordinary memory. Every question of this kind that might be asked will find an answer. But we must leave ourselves time to do this gradually, for it is impossible to have all the answers straight away at our finger tips.
Now we shall understand many a thing in everyday life, if we know about the things just discussed. Much of what belongs to the human etheric body is shown in the way the temperaments react upon man. We have said that this enduring characteristic that we call temperament also has its origin in the etheric body. Let us imagine a person who has a melancholic temperament and who never gets away from certain mental images that he is always thinking about. This is something quite different from a sanguine or a phlegmatic temperament, where the images just disappear. A melancholic temperament works detrimentally on a man's health, in the sense we have been considering, whilst a sanguine temperament can in a certain way be extremely beneficial. Of course these things must not be taken in such a way that you come to the conclusion the human being must try to forget everything. But you can see that the healthy and beneficial side of a sanguine or phlegmatic temperament and the unhealthy side of a melancholic temperament can be explained by these very things we have just learnt. It is natural to ask whether a phlegmatic temperament is also working in the right way. A phlegmatic who only takes in trivial thoughts will easily forget them. That will be good for his health. But if, on the other hand, he takes in no other thoughts than these, it will not be good for him at all. This gets rather complicated.
The question as to whether forgetting is just a defect in human nature or something useful is answered by spiritual science. And we see, too, that strong moral impulses can follow from the knowledge of such things. If a man believes it is for his good — and this has to be taken quite objectively — to be able to forget insults and injuries done to him, then quite a different impulse will work in him. But as long as he believes that it does not make any difference, then no amount of preaching will help. When he knows, however, that he ought to forget for the sake of his well-being, he will let this impulse work on him in quite a different way. You need not immediately call it egoistic; it would be better to express it this way: If I am ill and feeble, and if I ruin my health spiritually, psychologically and physically, I am of no use to the world. We can also consider the question of well-being from an entirely different point of view. If a man is a thoroughgoing egoist he will not profit much from such considerations. But whoever has the good of humanity at heart and is therefore intent on working for it — and also, indirectly, has his own good at heart — if he is in a position to think about this, he will also draw moral fruits from such considerations. And we shall see that if spiritual science works into human life by showing man the truth about specific spiritual circumstances, it will give man the greatest ethical-moral impulses, such as no other knowledge and no merely external moral commands can do. Knowledge of the facts of the spiritual world, as imparted by spiritual science is, therefore, a powerful impulse which also in regard to the moral realm can bring about the greatest progress in human life.