Monday, December 4, 2023

True and False Asceticism: Light on the Yogic Path


Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, November 11, 1909:

Human life swings between work and idleness. The activity we are to discuss today, known as asceticism, is regarded either as work or as idleness according to the preconceptions of one person or another. An objective, unbiased study, such as Spiritual Science demands, is impossible unless we observe how what is called asceticism — in the highest sense excluding misuse of the word — influences human life, and either helps or harms it.

It is quite natural that most people today should have a somewhat false idea of what the word asceticism ought to mean. In its original Greek form it could apply as well to an athlete as to an ascetic. But in our time the word has acquired a particular colouring from the form taken by this way of life during the Middle Ages; and for many people the word has the flavour that Schopenhauer gave it in the 19th century. [ 35 ] Today the word is again acquiring a certain colouring through the manifold influences of oriental philosophy and religion, particularly through what the West usually calls Buddhism. Our task in this lecture is to find the true origin in human nature of asceticism; and Spiritual Science, as characterised in previous lectures, is called upon to bring clarity into this discussion, the more so because its own outlook is connected with the original meaning of the Greek word, askesis.

Spiritual Science and spiritual research, as they have been represented here for some years, take a quite definite attitude towards human nature. They start from the postulate that at no stage in the evolution of mankind is it justifiable to say that here or there are the limits of human knowledge. The usual way of putting the question, “What can man know, and what can he not know?”, is for Spiritual Science misdirected. It does not ask what man can know at a certain stage in his evolution; or what the boundaries of knowledge are at that stage; or what remains hidden because at that time human cognition cannot penetrate it. All these matters are not its immediate concern; for Spiritual Science takes its stand on the firm ground of evolution, in particular the evolution of human soul-forces. It says that the human soul can develop. As in the seed of a plant the future plant sleeps and is called forth by the forces within the seed and those which work on it from without, so are hidden forces and capacities always sleeping in the human soul. What we cannot know at one stage of development we may know later, when we have advanced a little in developing our spiritual faculties.

Which are the forces that we can develop in ourselves for a deeper understanding of the world and the attainment of an ever-wider horizon? That is the question asked by Spiritual Science. It does not ask where the boundaries of our knowledge are, but how man can surpass the bounds that exist at any given period by developing his capacities. Not through vague talk, but in a quite definite way, it shows how man can surpass the cognitive faculties that have been bestowed on him by an evolutionary process in which his own consciousness has not participated. In the first instance, these faculties are concerned only with the world perceived by our senses and grasped by our reason. But by means of the forces latent in the soul, man is able to penetrate into the worlds which are at first not open to the senses and cannot be reached by a reason bound up with the senses. In order that we may from the beginning avoid the charge of vagueness, I will describe quite briefly what you will find given fully in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds: How is it Achieved?

When we speak of passing beyond the ordinary bounds of knowledge, we must take care not to wander off into the blue, but rather find our way from the solid ground under our feet into a new world. How is it to be done?

In the normal human being of today, we have an alternation of the two conditions called “waking” and “sleeping”. [ 36 ] Without going into details, we may say that for ordinary knowledge the difference lies in this, that while man is awake, his senses and the sense-bound intellect are under constant stimulus. It is this stimulus which wakens his external cognition, and during waking hours he is given up to the external sense-world. In sleep we are removed from that world. A simple logical consideration shows that it is not irrational for Spiritual Science to maintain that there is something in human nature which separates itself during sleep from what we usually call the human body. We know that for Spiritual Science the physical body, which can be seen with the eyes and touched with the hand, is only part of man. He has a second part, the so-called etheric or life-body. When we are asleep, the physical and etheric bodies remain in bed, and we separate from them what we call the consciousness body or — don't be put off by the terminology — the astral body, the bearer of desire and pain, pleasure and sorrow, of impulse and passion. In addition we have a fourth part, one which makes man the crown of earthly creation: the ego. These last two parts split off during sleep from the physical and the etheric bodies. A simple consideration, as I said, can teach us that it is not irrational for Spiritual Science to declare that what we have as pleasure and pain, or as the ego's power of judgment, cannot vanish during the night and be reborn anew every morning, but must remain in existence. Think, if you will, of this withdrawal of the astral body and the ego as a mere picture; in any case it is undeniable that the ego and the astral body withdraw from what we call the physical and the etheric bodies.

Now the peculiar thing is that these inmost parts of the human being, the astral body and the ego, within which we live through what we call soul-experience, sink down during sleep into an indefinite obscurity. But this means simply that this inmost part of the human being needs the stimulus of the external world if it is to be conscious of itself and of the external world. Hence we can say that at the moment of falling asleep, when this stimulus ceases, man cannot develop consciousness in himself. But if, in the normal course of his existence, a human being were able so to stimulate the inner parts of his being, so to fill them with energy and inner life, that he had a consciousness of them even when there were no sense-impressions and the sense-bound intellect was inactive and free from the stimulus of the external world, he would then be able to perceive other things than those which come through the stimulus of the senses. However strange and paradoxical it may sound, it is true that if a man could reproduce a condition which on the one hand resembles sleep, and yet is essentially different from it on the other, he could reach super-sensible knowledge. His condition would resemble sleep in not depending on any external stimulus; the difference would be that he would not sink into unconsciousness but would unfold a vivid inner life.

As may be shown from spiritual-scientific experience, man can come to such a condition: a condition of clairvoyance, if the word is not misused, as it so often is today. I will give you briefly one example of the numerous inner exercises through which this condition can be attained.

If we wish to experience this condition safely, we must always start from the external world. The external world gives us mental images, and we call them true if we find that they correspond with external facts. But this kind of truth cannot raise us above external reality. Our task, therefore, is to bridge the gulf between external perception and a perception which is independent of the senses and yet can give us truth. One of the first stages towards this form of knowledge is concerned with pictorial or symbolic concepts. As an example, let us take a symbol which is of use for spiritual development, and expound it in the form of a conversation between a teacher and his pupil.

In order to make his pupil understand this kind of symbolic picture, [ 37 ] the teacher might speak as follows: “Think of the plant, how it is rooted in the earth and grows from it, sends forth green leaf after green leaf and develops to flower and fruit.” (We are not here concerned with ordinary scientific ideas, for, as we shall see, we are not discussing the essential difference between man and plant, but trying to get hold of a useful pictorial idea). The teacher may continue: “And now look at man. He certainly has a great deal that is not present in the plant. He can experience impulses, desires, emotions, a whole range of concepts which can lead him up the ladder from blind sensation and instinct to the highest moral ideals. Only a scientific fantasy could attribute similar consciousness to plants and to men; but on a lower level a plant has certain advantages. It has certainty of growth, without possibility of error, while man can deviate at any moment from his right place in the world. We can see how in his whole structure he is permeated with instincts, desires and passions which may bring him into error, delusion and falsehood. In contrast, the plant is in substance untouched by these things; it is a pure, chaste being. Only when man has purified his whole life of instinct and desire can he hope to be as pure on his higher level as the plant is in its certainty and security on the lower level.”

Then we can pass to a further picture. The plant is permeated with the green colouring matter, chlorophyll, which steeps the leaves in green colour. Man is permeated with the vehicle of instincts and emotions, his red blood. That is a sort of evolution upwards, and in its course man has had to accept characteristics not found in the plant. He must hold before his eyes the high ideal of one day attaining on his own level to the inner purity, certainty and self-control of which we have a picture at a lower level in the plant. So we may ask what we must do in order to rise to that level.

Man must become lord and master of the instincts, passions and cravings which surge around, unsought, within him. He must grow beyond himself, kill within him all that normally dominates him, and raise to a higher level all that is dominated by the lower. This is how man has developed from the plant, and all that has been added since the plant stage he must look on as something to be conquered, in order to derive from it a higher life. That is the proper direction of man's future, indicated by Goethe in the fine stanza:

Whoever cannot say

Die and renew thyself!

On our dark earth will be

A mournful guest! [ 38 ]

This does not mean that man must kill his instincts and emotions, but that he cleanses and purifies them by removing their mastery over him. So, in looking at the plant, he can say: “Something in me is higher than the plant, but I have to conquer and destroy it.”

As a picture of what we have to overcome in ourselves, let us take that part of the plant which is no longer capable of life, the dry wood, and set it up in the form of a cross. The next task is to cleanse and purify the red blood, the vehicle of our instincts, impulses and cravings, so that it may be a pure, chaste expression of our higher being, of what Schiller meant when he spoke of “the higher man in man”. The blood will then be, as it were, a copy in man of the pure sap which flows through the plant.

“Now” — the teacher will resume — “let us look at a flower in which the sap, rising up continuously, stage by stage, through the leaves, finally merges into the colour of the flower, the red rose. Picture the red rose as an image of your blood when your blood has been cleansed and purified. The sap of the plant pulses through the red rose and leaves it without impulses or desires; but your impulses and desires must come to be the expression of your purified ego.” Thus we supplement our picture of the wood of the cross, which symbolises what we have to overcome, by hanging a garland of red roses upon the cross. Then we have a picture, a symbol, which does not appeal only to dry reasoning, but by stirring our feelings gives us an image of human life raised to the level of a higher ideal.

Someone may now say: Your picture is an invention which corresponds to nothing true. All that you conjure up, the black cross and the red rose is mere fancy. Yes, undoubtedly, this picture, as brought before the inner eye of anyone who wishes to rise into spiritual worlds, is an invention. That is just what it has to be! Its purpose is not to portray something that exists in the external world. If that were its function, we would not need it. We would be satisfied with the impressions of the outer world that come to us directly through our sense-perceptions. But the picture we create, though its elements are drawn from the external world, is based on certain feelings and ideas that belong to our own inner being. The essential thing is that we should be fully conscious of each step, so that we keep a firm hold on the threads of our inner processes; otherwise we should be lost in illusion.

Anyone who wants to rise to higher worlds through inner meditation and contemplation does not live only in abstract pictures, but in a world of concepts and feelings which flow from these pictures he creates. The pictures call forth a number of activities in his soul, and by excluding every external stimulus he concentrates all his powers on contemplating the pictures. They are not meant to reflect external circumstances, but to awaken forces that slumber within him. If he is patient and perseveres — for progress comes slowly — he will notice that quiet devotion to pictures of this kind will give him something that can be further developed. He will soon find that his inner life is changing: a condition emerges that is in some respects akin to sleep. But while sleep brings a submergence of conscious soul-life, the devotion I have mentioned, and meditation on the symbolic pictures, cause inner forces to awaken. Very soon he feels that a change is going on within him, although he has excluded all impressions of the outer world. So through these quite unrealistic symbols he awakens inner forces, and he soon realises that he can put them to good use.

Someone may object again by saying: “That is all very well, but even if we develop these forces and really penetrate into the spiritual world, how can we be sure that what we perceive is reality?” Nothing can prove this except experience, just as the external world can be proved to exist only by experience. Mere concepts can be very strictly distinguished from perceptions and the two categories will be confused only be someone who has lost touch with reality. Especially in philosophical circles today, a certain misunderstanding has been gaining ground. Schopenhauer, [ 39 ] for instance, in the first part of his philosophy starts with the assumption that the world of man is a concept. Now you can see the difference between a percept and a concept by looking at your watch. As long as you are in contact with your watch, that is percept; if you turn round, you have a picture of the watch in your mind; that is concept. In practical life we very soon learn to distinguish between percept and concept, or we should go badly astray. If you picture a red-hot iron, however hot it is, you will not be burnt, but if you touch it you will soon realise that a percept is something other than a concept.

It is the same with an example given by Kant; [ 40 ] from a certain point of view it is justified, but during the last century it has been the source of much error. Kant tried to upset a certain concept of God by showing that there is no difference in content between the idea of a hundred shillings and a hundred real shillings. It is wrong, however, to maintain that there is no difference in the content, for then it is easy to confuse a perception, which gives us direct contact with reality, with the content of a mere concept. Anyone who has to pay a debt of a hundred shillings will soon find out the difference.

It is the same with the spiritual world. When we awaken the forces and faculties which are latent within us, and when around us is a world we have not known before, a world which shines out as though from a dark spiritual depth, then someone who enters this realm uninitiated might well say that it is all illusion and auto-suggestion. But anyone who has had real experiences on this level will be well able to distinguish reality from fantasy, just as in ordinary life we can distinguish between an imaginary piece of hot steel and a real one.

Thus we can see that it is possible to call forth a different form of consciousness. I have given you only one brief example of how inner exercises can work on the sleeping faculties of the soul. Of course, while we are still practising the exercises, we do not see a spiritual world; we are occupied in awakening the faculties required. In some circumstances this may last not merely for years, but for a whole life or lives. In the end, however, the result of these exercises is that the sleeping forces of cognition are awakened and directed towards a spiritual world, just as we have learnt to adapt the eye with the help of unknown spiritual powers to observing the external world. This work on one's own soul, this development of the soul to the stage of perceiving a world in which we are not yet living but to which we gain access through what we bring to it — this training can be called asceticism in the true sense of the word. For in Greek the word means working on oneself, making oneself capable of accomplishing something, transforming sleeping forces into active ones. This original meaning of the word can still be its meaning today if we refuse to be led astray by the false use of the term which has become common down the centuries. We shall understand the true meaning of asceticism as described here, only if we remember that the purpose of this working on oneself is to develop faculties which will open up a new world.

Now, having discussed asceticism in relation to the spiritual world only, it will be helpful to see how the term applies to certain activities in the external world. There it can signify the training of certain forces and capabilities which are not going to be used immediately for their final purpose, but are first to be exercised and made ready for it. An example close at hand will illustrate this, and will also show how an incorrect use of the term can have harmful results. The term can be rightly applied to military manoeuvres; this is quite in keeping with the original Greek usage. The deployment and testing of military forces on these occasions, so that in real war they may be ready and available in the right numbers — that is asceticism exercise. Whenever forces are not used for their final purpose, but are tested in advance for efficiency and reliability, we have asceticism. Manoeuvres bear the same relation to warfare as asceticism does to life in general.

Human life, I said earlier, swings between work and idleness. But there are all sorts of intermediate stages: for example, play. Play, when it really is play, is the opposite of asceticism. And from its opposite one can see very well what asceticism is. Play is the active use of energies in the outer world for the sake of immediate gratification. The material of play is not, so to speak, the hard, unyielding substance of the external world that we encounter during hours of work. In relation to our energies it is malleable, amenable to our exertions. Play is play only when we do not knock up against the resistance of outer forces, as we do in work. Play is concerned with a direct release of energies which are transformed into achievement, and therein lies the satisfaction we get from it. Play does not prepare us for anything; it finds fulfillment in and through itself.

It is just the opposite with asceticism, if we take the term in its proper sense. In this case no gratification is gained from anything in the outer world. Whenever we combine things in asceticism, if only the cross and the red roses, the combination is not significant in itself, but only in so far as it calls our inner forces into activity, an activity which will find application only when it has ripened fully within ourselves. Renunciation comes in because we work inwardly on ourselves while knowing that at first we are not to be stimulated by the outer world. Our aim is to bring into activity our inner forces, so that they may be applied to the outer world later on. Play and asceticism, accordingly, are opposites.

How does asceticism, in our sense of the word, enter practically into human life? Let us keep to a sphere where asceticism can be practised both in a right and in a wrong way. We will take the case of someone who makes it his aim to ascend into spiritual worlds. If, then, a super-sensible world comes by some means or other to his attention, whether through another person or through some historical document, he may say: There are statements and communications concerning the super-sensible worlds, but at present they are beyond my comprehension; I lack the power to understand them. Then there are others who reject these communications, refuse to have anything to do with them. What is the source of this attitude? It arises because a person of this type rejects asceticism in the best sense of the word; he cannot find in his soul the strength to use the means I have described for developing higher faculties. He feels too weak for it.

I have repeatedly emphasised that clairvoyance is not necessary for understanding the findings of clairvoyant research. Clairvoyance is indeed necessary for gaining access to spiritual facts, but once the facts have been communicated, anyone can use unprejudiced reason to understand them. Impartial reason and healthy intellect are the best instruments for judging anything communicated from the spiritual worlds. A true spiritual scientist will always say that if he could be afraid of anything, he would be afraid of people who accept communications of this kind without testing them strictly by means of reason. He is never afraid of those who make use of unclouded intelligence, for that is what makes all these communications comprehensible.

However, a man may feel too weak to call forth in himself the forces necessary for understanding what he is told concerning the spiritual world. In that case he turns away from all this through an instinct for self-preservation which is right for him. He feels that to accept these communications would throw his mind into confusion. And in all cases where people reject what they hear through Spiritual Science, an instinct of self-preservation is at work; they know that they are incapable of doing the necessary exercises — that is, of practising asceticism in the true sense. A person prompted by the instinct for self-preservation will then say to himself: If these things were to permeate my spiritual life, they would confuse it; I could make nothing of them and therefore I reject them. So it is with a materialistic outlook which refuses to go a step beyond the doctrines of a science it believes to be firmly founded on facts. But there are other possibilities, and here we come to a dangerous side of asceticism. People may have a sort of avidity for information about the spiritual world while lacking the inner urge and conscience to test everything by reason and logic. They may indulge a liking for sensationalism in this field. Then they are not held back by an instinct for self-preservation, but are driven on by its very opposite, a sort of urge for self-annihilation. If anyone takes something into his soul without understanding it, and with no wish to apply his reason to it, he will be swamped by it. This happens in all cases of blind faith, or when communications from the spiritual worlds are accepted merely on authority. This acceptance corresponds to an asceticism which derives not from a healthy instinct for self-preservation, but from a morbid impulse to annihilate the self, to drown in a flood of revelations. This has a significant shadow-side in the human soul: it is a bad form of asceticism when someone gives up all effort and chooses to live in faith and in reliance on others.

This attitude has existed in many forms in many epochs. But we must not assume that everything which looks like blind faith is so. For example, we are told that in the old Pythagorean Mystery Schools [ 41 ] there was a familiar phrase: The Master has said. But this never meant: The Master has said, therefore we believe it! For his students it meant something like this: The Master has said; therefore it demands that we should reflect on it and see how far we can get with it if we bring all our forces to bear upon it. To “believe” need not always imply a blind belief springing from a desire for self-annihilation. It need not be blind belief if you accept communications springing from spiritual research because you trust the researcher. You may have learnt that his statements are in strictly logical form, and that in other realms, where his utterances can be tested, he is logical and does not talk nonsense. On this verifiable ground the student can hold a well-founded belief that the speaker, when he is talking about things not yet known to the student, has an equally sure basis for his statements. Hence the student can say: I will work! I have confidence in what I have been told, and this can be a guiding star for my endeavours to raise myself to the level of the faculties which will make themselves intelligible of their own accord, when I have worked my way up to them.

If this healthy foundation of trust is lacking and a person allows himself to be stirred by communications from the invisible worlds without understanding them, he will drift into a very wretched condition that is not compatible with asceticism. Whenever a person accepts something in blind faith without resolving to work his way to an understanding of it, and if therefore he accepts another person's will instead of his own, he will gradually lose those healthy soul-forces which provide the inner life with a sure centre and endow us with a true feeling for what is right. Lies and a proneness to error will beset a person who is unwilling to test inwardly, with his reason, what he is told; he will tend to drown and to lose himself in it. Anyone who does not allow himself to be guided by a healthy sense of truth will soon find how prone he is to lies and deceptions even in the outer world. When we approach the spiritual world we need to reflect very seriously that through this surrender of our judgment we can very easily fall into a life which no longer has any real feeling for truth and reality. If we seriously practise the exercises and wish to train our inner powers, we must never give up bringing before our souls the kind of knowledge I have been describing.

We can now penetrate further into what may be called the ascetic training of the soul in a deeper sense. So far we have considered only people who are not capable of developing these inner forces in a healthy way. In one case a sound instinct of self-preservation made a person refuse to develop these forces because he did not want to develop them; in the other case a person did not absolutely refuse to develop them, but he refused to bring his judgment and intelligence to bear on them. In all such cases the impulse is always to remain on the old level, at the old standpoint. But let us suppose a case where a person really does try to develop these inner faculties, and makes use of such forms of training as those we have described. Again there may be a dual result. It may be the result we always aim at, where Spiritual Science is taken seriously and worthily. A person will then be guided to develop his inner forces only in so far as he is capable of using them in a right and orderly way. Here, then, we are concerned with how a person has to work on himself — as is described in greater detail in my book, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds: How is it Achieved? — in order to awaken the faculties which will open the spiritual world to his inner sight. But at the same time he must be competent to discipline his faculties and to establish the right balance between his work on himself and his dealings with the outer world. The necessity of this has been proved by spiritual researchers down the ages.

If a person fails to apply his inner forces properly to his handling of the outer world and gives way to an almost uncontrollable urge to develop his soul-powers more and more to bring about all possible movement in his soul, so that he may thereby open his spirit-eyes and spirit-ears; and if he is too indolent to absorb slowly and in the right way the available facts of Spiritual Science and to work on them with his reason, then his asceticism may do him great harm. A person can develop all sorts of faculties and powers and yet not know what to do with them or how to apply them to the outer world. This, indeed, is the outcome of many forms of training and it applies to those who fail to pursue energetically the methods we have described, whereby the student is continually strengthening himself.

There are other methods with a different aim: they may be more comfortable but they can easily cause harm. Such methods aim at doing away with the hindrances imposed on the soul by the bodily nature, in order to enhance the inner life. This was in fact the sole endeavour of mediaeval ascetics, and it survives in part today. Instead of true asceticism, which sets out to give the soul an ever-richer content, false asceticism leaves the soul as it is and sets out to weaken the body and to reduce the activity of its forces. There are indeed ways of damping down these forces, so that the functioning of the body gradually weakens, and the result may then be that the soul, though itself remaining weak, gets the upper hand over the weakened body. A correct asceticism leaves the body as it is and enables the soul to master it; the other asceticism leaves the soul as it is, while all sorts of procedures, fasting, mortifications and so on, are used to weaken the body. The soul is then relatively the stronger and can achieve a kind of consciousness, although its own powers have not increased. That is the way of many ascetics in the Middle Ages: they kill the vigour of the body, lower its activities, leave the soul as it is, and then live in the expectation that the content of the spiritual world will be revealed to them with no contribution on their part.

That is the easier method, but it is not a truly strengthening one. The true method requires a person to cleanse and purify his thinking, feeling and willing, so that these faculties will be strengthened and able to prevail over the body. The other method lowers the tone of the body, and the soul is then supposed to wait, without having acquired any new capacities, until the divine world flows into it.

You will find plenty of references to this method under the heading of “asceticism” in the Middle Ages. It leads to estrangement from the world and is bound to do so. For at the present stage of human evolution there is a certain relationship between our capabilities of perception and the outer world, and if we are to rise above this stage we can do so only by heightening our capabilities and using them to understand the outer world in its deeper significance. But if we weaken our normal forces, we make ourselves incapable of maintaining a normal relationship with the outer world; and especially if we tone down our thinking, feeling and willing and give our souls over to passive expectation, something will then flow into our souls which has no connection with our present-day world, makes us strangers there, and is useless for working in the world. While the true asceticism makes us more and more capable in our dealings with the world, for we see more and more deeply into it, the other asceticism, associated with the suppression of bodily functions, draws a person out of the world, tends to make him a hermit, a mere settler there. In this isolation he may see all sorts of psychic and spiritual things — this must not be denied — but an asceticism of this kind is of no use for the world. True asceticism is work, training for the world, not a withdrawal of oneself into remoteness from the world.

This does not imply that we have to go to the opposite extreme; there can be accommodation on both sides. Even though it is true in general that for our period in human evolution a certain normal relationship exists between the external world and the forces of the soul, yet every period tends to drive the normal to extremes as it were, and if we want to develop higher faculties we need pay no attention to opposition that comes from abnormal trends. And because we find the opposition in ourselves, we can under certain circumstances go rather further than would be necessary if the times were not also at fault.

I say this because you have perhaps heard that many followers of Spiritual Science lay great stress on a certain diet. This does not at all imply that such a mode of life can do anything for the attainment or even the understanding of higher worlds and higher relationships. It can be no more than an external aid, and should be seen only in relation to the fact that anyone wishing to gain understanding of the higher worlds may find a certain obstacle in the customs and conventions he has to live with at the present day. Because these conventions have drawn us down too deeply into the material world, we must go beyond the normal in order to make the exercises easier. But it would be quite mistaken to regard this as a form of asceticism which can be a means of leading us to higher worlds. Vegetarianism will never lead anyone to higher worlds; it can be no more than a support for someone who thinks to himself: I wish to open for myself certain ways of understanding the spiritual worlds; I am hindered by the heaviness of my body, which prevents the exercises from having an immediate effect. Hence I will make things easier by lightening my body. Vegetarianism is one way of producing this result, but it should never be presented as a dogma; it is only a means which can help some people to gain understanding of the spiritual worlds. No-one should suppose that a vegetarian way of life will enable him to develop spiritual powers. For it leaves the soul as it is and serves only to weaken the body. But if the soul is strengthened, it will be able though the effects of vegetarianism to strengthen the weakened body from the centre of its own forces. Anyone who develops spiritually with the aid of vegetarianism will be stronger, more efficient and more resistant in daily life; he will be not merely a match for any meat-eater but will be superior in working capacity. That is the very opposite of what is believed by many people when they say of vegetarians within a spiritual movement: How sad for these poor folk who can never enjoy a little bit of meat!

So long as a person has this feeling about vegetarianism, it will not bring him the slightest benefit. So long as a desire for meat persists, vegetarianism is useless. It is helpful only when it results from an attitude that I will illustrate with a little story.

Not very long ago, someone was asked: “Why don't you eat meat?” He replied with a counter-question: “Why don't you eat dogs or cats?” “One just can't”, was the answer. “Why can't you?” “Because I would find it disgusting.” “Well, that is just what I feel about all meat.”

That is the point. When pleasure in eating meat has gone, then to abstain from meat may be of some use in relation to the spiritual worlds.

Until then, breaking the meat-eating habit can be helpful only for getting rid of the desire for meat. If the desire persists, it may be better to start eating meat again, for to go on tormenting oneself about it is certainly not the right way to reach an understanding of Spiritual Science.

From all this you can see the difference between true and false asceticism. False asceticism often attracts people whose sole desire is to develop the inner forces and faculties of the soul; they are indifferent towards gaining real knowledge of the outer world. Their aim is simply to develop their inner faculties and then to wait and see what comes of it. The best way of doing this is to mortify the body as far as possible, for this weakens it, and then the soul, though itself remaining weak, can see into some kind of spiritual world, however incapable it may be of understanding the real spiritual world. This, however, is a path of deception, for directly a person closes off his means of return to the physical world, he encounters no true spiritual world, but only delusive pictures of his own self. And these are what he is bound to encounter as long as he leaves his soul as it is. Because his ego keeps to its accustomed standpoint, it does not rise to higher powers, and he puts up a barrier between himself and the world by suppressing the functions which relate him to the world. It is not only that this kind of asceticism estranges him from the world; he sees pictures which can deceive him as to the stage his soul has reached, and in place of a true spiritual world he sees a picture clouded over by his own self.

There is a further consequence which leads into the realm of morality. Anyone who believes that humility and surrender to the spiritual world will set him on the right course of life fails to see that he is involving himself most strongly in his own self and becoming an egoist in the worst sense, for it means that he is content with himself as he is and has no wish to progress any further. This egoism, which can degenerate into unrestrained ambition and vanity, is the more dangerous because the victim of it cannot see it for himself. Generally he looks on himself as a man who sinks down in deepest humility at the feet of his God, while really he is being played on by the devil of megalomania. A genuine humility would tell him something he refuses to recognise, for it would lead him to say to himself: The powers of the spiritual world are not to be found at the stage where I am standing now: I must climb up to them; I must not rest content with the powers I already have.

So we see the results of the false asceticism which relies primarily on killing off external things instead of strengthening the inner life: it conduces to deception, error, vanity and egotism. In our time, especially, it would be a great evil if this course were followed as a means of entering the spiritual world. It serves merely to engross man in himself. Today the only true asceticism must be sought in modern Spiritual Science, founded on the firm ground of reality. Through it a person can develop his own faculties and forces and thus rise to a comprehension of a spiritual world which is itself a real world, not one that a man spins round himself.

This false asceticism has yet another shadow-side. If you look at the realms of nature around us, leading up from plants through animals to man, you will find the vital functions changing in character stage by stage. For example, the diseases of plants come only from some external cause, from abnormal conditions of wind and weather, light and sunshine. These external circumstances can produce illness in plants. If we go on to consider animals, we find that they also, if left to themselves are greatly superior to human beings in their fund of natural health. A human being may fall ill not only through the life he leads or through external circumstances, but also as a result of his inner life. If his soul is not well suited to his body, if the spiritual heritage he brings from earlier incarnations cannot adapt itself completely to his bodily constitution, these inner causes may bring about illnesses which are very often wrongly diagnosed. They can be symptoms of a maladjustment between soul and body.

We often find that people with these symptoms are inclined to rise to higher worlds by killing off their bodily nature. This is because the illness itself induces them to separate their souls from bodies which the soul has not fully permeated. In such people the body hardens itself in the most varied ways and closes in on itself; and since they have not strengthened the soul, but have used its weakness in order to escape from the influence of the bodily nature, and have thus drawn away from the body the health-giving strengthening forces of the soul, the body is made susceptible to all sorts of ailments. While a true asceticism strengthens the soul, which then works back on the body and makes it resistant to illness coming from outside, a false asceticism makes a person vulnerable to any illness of that kind.

That is the dangerous connection between false asceticism and the illnesses of our time. And it is this that gives rise in wide circles, where such things are easily misunderstood, to manifold errors as to the influence a spiritual-scientific outlook can have on those who adopt it. For people who seek to come to a sight of the spiritual world by way of a false asceticism are a fearful spectacle for onlookers. Their false asceticism opens up a wide field of action for harmful influences from the outer world. For these people, far from being strengthened to resist the errors of our time, are well and truly exposed to them.

Examples of this can be seen in many theosophical tendencies today. Merely calling oneself a “Theosophist” does not automatically guarantee the ability to act as a spiritual impulse against the adverse currents of the present time. When materialism prevails in the world, it is to some extent in tune with the concepts which are formed in observing the sense-world. Hence we can say that the materialism which applies to the external world and knows nothing of a spiritual world is in a certain sense justified. But in the case of an outlook which sets out to impart something about the spiritual world and takes into itself a caricature of the materialistic prejudices of our day because it is not founded on a real strengthening of spiritual forces, the result is much worse. A theosophical outlook permeated by contemporary errors may in some circumstances be much more harmful than a materialistic outlook; and it should be remarked that thoroughly materialistic concepts have spread widely in theosophical circles. So we hear the spiritual spoken of not as Spirit, but as though the spirit were only an infinitely refined form of nebulous matter. In speaking of the etheric body, these people picture only the physical refined beyond a certain point, and then they speak of etheric “vibrations”. On the astral level the vibrations are still finer; on the mental level they are finer still, and so on. “Vibrations” everywhere! Anyone who relies on these concepts will never attain to the spiritual world; he will remain embedded in the physical world to which these concepts ought to be confined.

In this way a materialistic haze can be thrown over the most ordinary occasions in daily life. For instance, if we are at a social gathering which has a pleasant atmosphere, with people in harmony, and someone remarks on it in those terms, that may be a humdrum way of putting it; but it is a true way and leads to a better understanding than if at a gathering of theosophists one of them says how good the vibrations are. To say that, one has to be a theosophical materialist with crude ideas. And for anyone with a feeling for such things, the whole atmosphere goes out of tune when these vibrations are said to be dancing around. In these cases one can see how the introduction of materialistic ideas into a spiritual outlook produces a horrifying impression on outsiders, who may then say: These people talk about a spiritual world, but they are really no different from us. With us, the light waves dance; with them the spiritual waves dance. It is all the same materialism.

All this needs to be seen in its true light. Then we shall not get a wrong idea of what the spiritual-scientific movement has to offer in our time. We shall see that asceticism, by strengthening the soul, can itself lead to the spiritual world and so bring new forces into our material existence. These are forces that make for health, not for illness; they carry healthy life-forces into our bodily organism. Of course it is not easy to determine how far a given outlook brings healthy or unhealthy forces with it, for the latter are strongly evident, as a rule, while healthy forces are usually not noticed. However, a close observer will see how persons who stand in the stream of true Spiritual Science are fertilised by it and draw from it health-giving forces which work right down into the physical. He will see also that signs of illness appear only if something alien to a spiritual stream is introduced into it. Then the result can be worse than when the alien influence takes its course in the outer world, where people are shielded by conventions from carrying certain errors to an extreme.

If we see things in this light, we shall understand true asceticism as a preparatory training for a higher life, a way of developing our inner forces; and we shall then be taking the good old Greek word in its right sense. For to practise asceticism means training oneself, making oneself strong, even “adorning” oneself (sich schmucken), so that the world can see what it means to be human. But if asceticism leads you to leave the soul as it is and to weaken the bodily organism, the effect is that the soul is sundered from the body; the body is then exposed to all sorts of harmful influences and the asceticism is actually the source of all manner of ailments.

The good and bad sides of egoism will emerge when we come to consider its nature. Today I have shown how true asceticism can never be an end in itself, but only a means of reaching a higher human goal, the conscious experiencing of higher worlds. Anyone wishing to practise this asceticism must therefore keep his feet firmly planted on solid ground. He must not be a stranger to the world in which he lives, but must always be extending his knowledge of the world. Whatever he can bring back from higher worlds must always be measured and assessed in relation to his work in the world; otherwise those who say that asceticism is not work but idleness could well be right. And idleness can easily give occasion for false asceticism, especially in our time. Anyone, however, who keeps a firm foothold on the earth, will regard asceticism as his highest ideal in relation to so serious a subject as our human faculties. Our ideas can indeed rise high if we have before us an ideal picture of how our faculties should work in the world.

Let us look for a moment at the opening of the Old Testament: “And God said, Let there be light.” Then we hear how God caused the physical sense-world to arise day by day from the spiritual, and how at the end of each day God looked at his creation and “saw that it was good.”

Similarly we must maintain our healthy thinking, our reliable character, our unerring feelings on the firm ground of reality, in order that we may rise to higher worlds and discover there the facts which give birth to the entire physical world. Then, when as searchers we come to know the spirit, and when we apply to the world around us the forces we have developed and see how well adapted to it they are, we can see that this is good. If we test the forces we have acquired through true asceticism by putting them to work in the world, then we have the right to say: Yes, they are good.

Source: November 11, 1909

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