Friday, November 8, 2019
The right attitude about karma
Rudolf Steiner, Vienna, February 8, 1912:
I had good reason to emphasize at the end of each of the two public lectures ( 53 ) that Anthroposophy must not be regarded merely as a theory or a science, nor only as knowledge in the ordinary sense. It is rather something that can be transformed in the soul into actual life, into an elixir of life. What really matters is that we shall not only acquire knowledge through Anthroposophy, but that forces shall flow into us from Anthroposophy which help us not only in ordinary physical existence but through the whole compass of life, which includes physical existence and the discarnate condition between death and a new birth. The more we feel that Anthroposophy bestows upon us forces whereby life itself is strengthened and enriched, the more truly do we understand it. When such a statement is made, people may ask: If Anthroposophy is to be a power that strengthens and infuses vigour into life, why is it necessary to absorb all this apparently theoretical knowledge? Why do we have to bother in our group meetings with all sorts of details about the preceding planetary embodiments of the earth? Why is it necessary to learn about things that happened in the remote past? Why are we also expected to familiarise ourselves with the more intimate, intangible laws of reincarnation, karma and so forth? Many people might think that Anthroposophy is just another kind of science, on a par with the many sciences existing in outer, physical life.
Now with regard to this question, which has been mentioned here because it is very likely to be asked, all considerations of convenience in life must be put aside; there must be scrupulous self-examination to find whether or not such questions are tainted by that habitual slackness in life which we know only too well; that man is fundamentally unwilling to learn, unwilling to take hold of the spiritual because this is inconvenient for him. We must ask ourselves: Does not something of this fear of inconvenience and discomfort creep into such questions? Let us admit that we really do begin by thinking that there is an easier path to Anthroposophy than all that is presented, for example, in our literature. It is often said lightheartedly that, after all, a man need only know himself, need only try to be a good and righteous human being, and then he is a sufficiently good Anthroposophist. Yes, my dear friends, but precisely this gives us the deeper knowledge that there is nothing more difficult than to be a good man in the real sense and that nothing needs so much preparation as the attainment of this ideal.
As to the question concerning self-knowledge, that can certainly not be answered in a moment, as so many people would like to think. Today, therefore, we will consider certain questions which are often expressed in the way indicated above. We will think of how Anthroposophy comes to us, seemingly, as a body of teaching, a science, although in essence it brings self-knowledge and the aspiration to become good and righteous human beings. And to this end it is important to study from different points of view how Anthroposophy can flow into life.
Let us consider one of life's vital questions. I am not referring to anything in the domain of science but to a question arising in everyday existence, namely, that of consolation for suffering, for lack of satisfaction in life.
How, for example, can Anthroposophy bring consolation to people in distress when they need it? Every individual must of course apply what can be said about such matters to his own particular case. In addressing a number of people one can only speak in a general sense.
Why do we need consolation in life? Because something may distress us, because we have to suffer and undergo painful experiences. Now it is natural for a man to feel that something in him rebels against this suffering. And he asks: ‘Why have I to bear it, why has it fallen to my lot? Could not my life have been without pain, could it not have brought me contentment?’ A man who puts the question in this way can only find an answer when he understands the nature of human karma, of human destiny. Why do we suffer? And I am referring not only to outer suffering but also to inner suffering due to a sense of failure to do ourselves justice or, find our proper hearings in life. That is what I mean by inner suffering. Why does life bring so much that leaves us unsatisfied?
Study of the laws of karma will make it clear to us that something underlies our sufferings, something that can be elucidated by an example drawn from ordinary life between birth and death. I have given this example more than once. Suppose a young man has lived up to the age of eighteen or so entirely on his father; his life has been happy and carefree; he has had everything he wanted. Then the father loses his fortune, becomes bankrupt, and the youth is obliged to set about learning something, to exert himself. Life brings him many sufferings and deprivations. It is readily understandable that the sufferings are not at all to his liking. But now think of him at the age of fifty. Because circumstances obliged him to learn something in his youth he has turned into a decent, self-respecting human being. He has found his feet in life and can say to himself: ‘My attitude to the sufferings and deprivations was natural at the time; but now I think quite differently about them; I realise now that the sufferings would not have come to me if in those days I had possessed all the virtues — even the very limited virtues of a boy of eighteen. If no suffering had come my way I should have remained a good-for-nothing. It was the sufferings that changed the imperfections into something more perfect. It is due to the suffering that I am not the same human being I was forty years ago. What was it, then, that joined forces in me at that time? My own imperfections and my suffering joined forces. And my imperfections sought out the suffering so that they might be removed and transformed into perfections.’
This attitude can even arise from quite an ordinary view of life between birth and death. And if we think deeply about life as a whole, facing our karma in the way indicated in the lecture yesterday, we shall finally be convinced that the sufferings along our path are sought out by our imperfections. The vast majority of sufferings are, indeed, sought out by the imperfections we have brought with us from earlier incarnations. And because of these imperfections a wiser being within us seeks for the path leading to the sufferings. For it is a golden rule in life that as human beings we have perpetually within us a being who is much wiser, much cleverer than we ourselves. The ‘I’ of ordinary life has far less wisdom, and if faced with the alternative of seeking either pain or happiness would certainly choose the path to happiness. The wiser being operates in depths of the subconscious life to which ordinary consciousness does not extend. This wiser being diverts our gaze from the path to superficial happiness and kindles within us a magic power which, without our conscious knowledge, leads us towards the suffering. But what does this mean: without our conscious knowledge? It means that the wiser being is prevailing over the less wise one, and this wiser being invariably acts within us so that it guides our imperfections to our sufferings, allowing us to suffer because every outer and inner suffering removes some imperfection and leads to greater perfection.
We may be willing to accept such principles in theory, but that is not of much account. A great deal is achieved, however, if in certain solemn and dedicated moments of life we try strenuously to make such principles the very lifeblood of the soul. In the hurry and bustle, the work and the duties of ordinary life, this is not always possible; under these circumstances we cannot always oust the being of lesser wisdom — who is, after all, part of us. But in certain deliberately chosen moments, however short they may be, we shall be able to say to ourselves: I will turn away from the hubbub of outer life and view my sufferings in such a way that I realise how the wiser being within me has been drawn to them by a magic power, how I imposed upon myself certain pain without which I should not have overcome this or that imperfection. A feeling of the peace inherent in wisdom will then arise, bringing the realisation that even when the world seems full of suffering, there too it is full of wisdom! In this way, life is enriched through Anthroposophy. We may forget it again in the affairs of external life, but if we do not forget it altogether and repeat the exercise steadfastly, we shall find that a kind of seed has been laid in the soul and that many a feeling of sadness and depression changes into a more positive attitude, into strength and energy. And then out of such quiet moments in life we will acquire more harmonious souls and become stronger individuals.
Then we may pass on to something else ... but the Anthroposophist should make it a rule to devote himself to these other thoughts only when the attitude towards suffering has become alive within him. We may turn, then, to think about the happiness and joys of life. A man who adopts towards his destiny the attitude that he himself has willed his sufferings will have a strange experience when he comes to think about his joy and happiness. It is not as easy for him here as it is in the case of his sufferings. It is easy, after all, to find a consolation for suffering, and anyone who feels doubtful has only to persevere; but it will be difficult to find the right attitude to happiness and joy. However strongly a man may bring himself to feel that he has willed his suffering — when he applies this mood of soul to his happiness and joy he will not be able to avoid a sense of shame; he will feel thoroughly ashamed. And he can only rid himself of this feeling of shame by saying to himself: ‘No, I have certainly not earned my joy and happiness through my own karma!’ This alone will put matters right, for otherwise the shame may be so intense that it almost destroys him in his soul. The only salvation is not to attribute our joys to the wiser being within us. This thought will convince us that we are on the right road, because the feeling of shame passes away. It is really so: happiness and joy in life are bestowed by the wise guidance of worlds, without our assistance, as something we must receive as grace, always recognising that the purpose is to give us our place in the totality of existence. Joy and happiness should so work upon us in the secluded moments of life that we feel them as grace, grace bestowed by the supreme powers of the world who want to receive us into themselves.
While our pain and suffering bring us to ourselves, make us more fully ourselves, through joy and happiness — provided we consider them as grace — we develop the feeling of peaceful security in the arms of the divine powers of the world, and the only worthy attitude is one of thankfulness. Nobody who in quiet hours of self-contemplation ascribes happiness and joy to his own karma, will unfold the right attitude to such experiences. If he ascribes joy and happiness to his karma he is succumbing to a fallacy whereby the spiritual within him is weakened and paralysed; the slightest thought that happiness or delight have been deserved weakens and cripples us inwardly. These words may seem harsh, for many a man, when he attributes suffering to his own will and individuality, would like to be master of himself, too, in the experiences of happiness and joy. But even a cursory glance at life will indicate that by their very nature joy and happiness tend to obliterate something in us. This weakening effect of delights and joys in life is graphically described in Faust by the words: ‘And so from longing to delight I reel; and even in delight I pine for longing.’ ( 54 ) And anybody who gives any thought to the influence of joy, taken in the personal sense, will realise that there is something in joy that makes us stagger and blots out our true being.
This is not meant to be a sermon against joy or a suggestion that it would be good to torture ourselves with red-hot pincers or the like. Certainly not. To recognise something for what it really is does not mean that we must flee from it. It is not a question of running away from joy but of receiving it calmly whenever it comes to us; we must learn to feel it as grace, and the more we do so the better it will be, for we shall enter more deeply into the divine. These words are said, therefore, not in order to preach asceticism but to awaken the right mood towards happiness and joy.
If anyone were to say: joy and happiness have a weakening, deadening effect, therefore I will flee from them (which is the attitude of false asceticism and a form of self-torture) — such a man would be fleeing from the grace bestowed upon him by the gods. And in truth the self-torture practised by the ascetics, monks and nuns in olden days was a form of resistance against the gods. We must learn to regard suffering as something brought by our karma, and to feel happiness as grace that the divine can send down to us. Joy and happiness should be to us the sign of how closely the gods have drawn us to themselves; suffering and pain should be the sign of how remote we are from the goal before us as intelligent human beings. Such is the true attitude to karma, and without it we shall make no real progress in life. Whenever the world bestows upon us the good and the beautiful, we must feel that behind this world stand those powers of whom the Bible says: ‘And they looked at the world and they saw that it was good.’ But inasmuch as we experience pain and suffering, we must recognise what, in the course of incarnations, man has made of the world which in the beginning was good, and what he must contribute towards its betterment by educating himself to bear pain with purpose and energy.
What has been described are two ways of accepting our karma. In a certain respect our karma consists of suffering and joys; and we relate ourselves to our karma with the right attitude when we can consider it as something we really wanted, and when we can confront our sufferings and joys with the proper understanding. But a review of karma can be extended further, which we shall do today and tomorrow.
Karma does not reveal itself only in the form of experiences of suffering or joy. As our life runs its course we encounter in a way that can only be regarded as karmic — many human beings with whom, for example, we make a fleeting acquaintance, others who as relatives or close friends are connected with us for a considerable period of our life. We meet human beings who in our dealings with them bring sufferings and hindrances along our path; or again we meet others whom we can help and who can help us. The relationships are manifold. We must regard these circumstances too as having been brought about by the will of the wiser being within us — the will, for example, to meet a human being who seems to run across our path accidentally and with whom we have something to adjust or settle in life. What is it that makes the wiser being in us wish to meet this particular person? The only intelligent line of thought is that we want to come across him because we have done so before in an earlier life and our relationship had already begun then. Nor need the beginning have been in the immediately preceding life it may have been very much earlier. Because in a past life we have had dealings of some kind with this person, because we may have been in some way indebted to him, we are led to him again by the wiser being within us, as if by magic.
Here, of course, we enter a very diverse and extremely complicated domain, of which it is only possible to speak in general terms. But all the indications given here are the actual results of clairvoyant investigation. The indications will be useful to every individual because he will be able to particularise and apply what is said to his own life.
A remarkable fact comes to light. About the middle of life the ascending curve passes over into the descending curve. This is the time when the forces of youth are spent and we pass over a certain zenith to the descending curve. This point of time — which occurs in the thirties — cannot be laid down with absolute finality, but the principle holds good for everyone. It is the period of life when we live most intensely on the physical plane. In this connection we may easily be deluded. It will be clear that life before this point of time has been a process of bringing out what we have brought with us into the present incarnation. This process has been going on since childhood, although it is less marked as the years go by. We have chiseled out our life, have been nourished as it were by the forces brought from the spiritual world. These forces, however, are spent by the point of time indicated above. Observation of the descending line of life reveals that we now proceed to harvest and work over what has been learnt in the school of life, in order to carry it with us into the next incarnation. This is something we take into the spiritual world; in the earlier period we were taking something from the spiritual world. It is in the middle period that we are most deeply involved in the physical world, most engrossed in the affairs of outer life. We have passed through our apprenticeship as it were and are in direct contact with the world. We have our life in our own hands. At this period we are taken up with ourselves, concerned more closely than at any other time with our own external affairs and with our relation to the outer world. But this relation with the world is created by the intellect and the impulses of will which derive from the intellect — in other words, those elements of our being which are most alien to the spiritual worlds, to which the spiritual worlds remain closed. In the middle of life we are, as it were, farthest away from the spiritual.
A certain striking fact presents itself to occult research. Investigation of the kind of encounters and acquaintanceships with other human beings that arise in the middle of life shows, curiously, that these are the people that a man was together with at the beginning of his life, in his very earliest childhood in the previous incarnation or in a still earlier one. The fact has emerged that in the middle of life as a rule it is so, but not always — a man encounters, through circumstances of external karma, those people who in an earlier life were his parents; it is very rarely indeed that we are brought together in earliest childhood with those who were previously our parents; we meet them in the middle of life. This certainly seems strange, but it is the case, and a very great deal is gained for life if we will only try to put such a general rule to the test and adjust our thoughts accordingly. When a human being — let us say at about the age of thirty — enters into some relationship with another ... perhaps he falls in love, makes great friends, quarrels, or has some different kind of contact, a great deal will become comprehensible if, quite tentatively to begin with, he thinks about the possibility of the relationship to this person having once been that of child and parent. Conversely, this very remarkable fact comes to light. Those human beings with whom we were together in earliest childhood — parents, brothers and sisters, playmates or others around us during early childhood — they, as a rule, are people with whom we formed some kind of acquaintanceship when we were about thirty or so in a previous incarnation; in very many cases it is found that these people are our parents or brothers and sisters in the present incarnation. Curious as this may seem, just let us try to see how the principle squares with our own life, and we shall discover how much more understandable many things become. Even if the facts are otherwise, an experimental mistake will not amount to anything very serious. But if, in solitary hours, we look at life so that it is filled with meaning, we can gain a great deal. Obviously we must not try to arrange life to our liking; we must not choose the people we like and assume that they may have been our parents. Prejudices must not falsify the real facts. You will see the danger we are exposed to and the many misconceptions that may creep in. We ought to educate ourselves to remain open-minded and unbiased.
You may now ask what there is to be said about the descending curve of life. The striking fact has emerged that at the beginning of life we meet those human beings with whom we were connected in the middle period of life in a previous incarnation; further, that in the middle of the present life, we revive acquaintanceships which existed at the beginning of a preceding life. And now, what of the descending curve of life? During that period we are led to people who may also, possibly, have had something to do with us in an earlier incarnation. They may, in that earlier incarnation, have played a part in happenings of the kind that so frequently occur at a decisive point in life — let us say, trials and sufferings caused by bitter disillusionments. In the second half of life we may again be brought into contact with people who in some way or other were already connected with us; this meeting brings about a shifting of circumstances, and a lot that was set in motion in the earlier life is cleared up and settled.
These things are diverse and complex and indicate that we should not adhere rigidly to any hard and fast pattern. This much, however, may be said: the nature of the karma that has been woven with those who come across our path especially in the second half of life is such that it cannot be absolved in one life. Suppose, for example, we have caused suffering to a human being in one life; we could easily imagine that in a subsequent life we shall be led to this person by the wiser being within us, so that we may make amends for what we have done to him. The circumstances of life, however, may not enable compensation to be made for everything, but often only for a part of it. This necessitates the operation of complicated factors which enable such surviving remnants of karma to be adjusted and settled during the second half of life. This conception of karma can shed light upon our dealings and companionship with other human beings.
But there is still something else in the course of our karma to consider, something that in the two public lectures was referred to as the process of growing maturity, the acquisition of a real knowledge of life. (If the phrase does not promote arrogance it may be used.) Let us consider how we grow wiser. We can learn from our mistakes, and it is the best thing for us when this happens, because we do not often have the opportunity of applying the wisdom thus gained in one and the same life; therefore what we have learnt from the mistakes remains with us as strength for a later life. But the wisdom, the real knowledge of life that we can acquire, what is it really?
I said yesterday that we cannot carry our thoughts and ideas with us directly from one life to the other; I said that even Plato could not take his ideas straight with him into his next incarnation. What we carry over with us takes the form of will, of feeling, and in reality our thought and ideas, just like our mother tongue, comes as something new in each life. For most of the thoughts and ideas live in the mother tongue whence we acquire them. This life between birth and death supplies us with thoughts and ideas which always come from this particular earth existence. But if this is so, we shall have to say to ourselves that it depends upon our karma. However many incarnations we go through, the ideas that arise in us are always dependent upon one incarnation as distinct from the others. Whatever wisdom may be living in your thoughts and ideas have been absorbed from outside, it is dependent upon the way karma has placed you with regard to language, nationality and family. In the last resort all our thoughts and ideas about the world are dependent on our karma. Very much lies in these words, for they indicate that whatever we may know in life, whatever knowledge we may amass, is something entirely personal, and that we can never transcend the personal by means of what we acquire for ourselves in life. In ordinary life we never reach the level of the wiser being but always remain at that of the less wise. Anyone who flatters himself that he can learn more about his higher self from what he acquires in the world, is harbouring an illusion for the sake of convenience. This actually means that we can gain no knowledge of our higher self from what we acquire in life.
Very well, then, how are we to attain any knowledge of the higher self? We must ask ourselves quite frankly: What do we really know? First of all, we know what we have learnt from experience. This is all we know, and nothing else! A man who aspires to self-knowledge without realising that his soul is only a mirror in which the outer world is reflected, may persuade himself that by penetrating into his own being he can find the higher self; certainly he will find something, but it is only what has come into him from outside. Laziness of thinking has no place in this quest. We must ask ourselves what happens in those other worlds in which our higher self also lives, and this is none other than what we are told about the different incarnations of the earth, and everything else that Spiritual Science tells us. Just as we try to understand a child's soul by examining the child's surroundings, so must we ask what the environment of the higher self is. But Spiritual Science does tell us about these worlds where our higher self is, in its account of Saturn and its secrets, of the Moon and Earth evolution, of reincarnation and karma, of Devachan and Kamaloca and so on. This is the only way we can learn about our higher self, about the self which transcends the physical plane. And anyone who refuses to accept these secrets is merely pandering to his own ease. For it is a delusion to imagine you can discover the divine man in yourself. Only what is experienced in the outer world is stored inside, but the divine man in us can only be found when we search in our soul for the mirrored world beyond the physical. So that those things which can sometimes prove difficult and uncomfortable to learn are nothing else but self-knowledge. And true Anthroposophy is in reality true self-knowledge! From Spiritual Science we receive enlightenment about our own self. For where in reality is the self? Is the self within our skin? No, the self is outpoured over the world; everything that is and has been in the world is part and parcel of the self. We learn to know the self only when we learn to know the world.
These apparent theories are, in truth, the ways to self-knowledge. A man who thinks he can find the self by staring into his inner being, says to himself: You must be good, you must be unselfish! All well and good. But you will soon notice that he is getting more and more self-centred. On the other hand, struggling with the great secrets of existence, extricating oneself from the flattering self, accepting the reality of the higher worlds and the knowledge that can be obtained from them, all leads to true self-knowledge. When we think deeply about Saturn, Sun and Moon, we lose ourselves in cosmic thought. ‘In thy thinking cosmic thoughts are living,’ ( 55 ) says a soul who thinks Anthroposophical thoughts; he adds, however, ‘Lose thyself in cosmic thoughts!’ The soul creating out of Anthroposophy says: ‘In thy feeling cosmic powers are weaving,’ but he adds: ‘Experience thyself through cosmic powers!’ not through powers which flatter. This experience will not come to a man who closes his eyes, saying: ‘I want to be a good human being.’ It will only come to the man who opens his eyes and his spiritual eyes also, and sees the powers of yonder world mightily at work, realising that he is embedded in these cosmic powers. And the soul that draws strength from Anthroposophy says: ‘In thy willing cosmic beings are working,’ adding: ‘Create thyself anew from Beings of Will!’ And this will really happen if we grasp self-knowledge in this way. Then we shall really succeed in creating ourselves anew out of world being.
Dry and abstract as this may seem, in reality it is no mere theory but something that thrives and grows like a seed sown in the earth. Forces shoot out in every direction and become plant or tree. So it is indeed. The feelings that come to us through Spiritual Science give us the power to create ourselves anew. ‘Create thyself anew from Beings of Will!’ Thus does Anthroposophy become the elixir of life and our view of spirit worlds opens up. We shall draw strength from these worlds, and when we have drawn these forces into our being, then we shall know ourselves in all our depths. Only when we imbue ourselves with world knowledge can we take control of ourselves and advance step by step away from the less-wise being within us, who is cut off by the Guardian of the Threshold, to the wiser being, penetrating through all that is hidden from those who do not as yet have the will to be strong. For this is just what can be gained by means of Anthroposophy.