Cognizing the Spiritual World
From A Way of Self-Knowledge - By Rudolf Steiner
Insight into the results of spiritual science comes easier when, in ordinary soul life, you focus on what produces concepts that can be expanded and transformed such that they can then gradually approach the processes and beings of the spiritual world. This path requires patience. Without it, you will be tempted to imagine the spiritual world as too much like the physical, sensible world. Indeed, unless you walk this path patiently, you will be able to form neither a true picture of spirit itself nor of how it relates to human beings.
Spiritual events and beings press toward those who have prepared their souls to perceive them. But they impose themselves upon us in a way that is completely different from the way physical facts and beings do. We may, however, gain an idea of this very different mode of appearance if we contemplate the process of memory.
Long ago, or perhaps more recently, you experienced something. Then, at a certain moment, occasioned by this or that, a memory of the event rises out of the substrate of your soul life. You know that what has arisen corresponds to an experience, and you relate it to that experience. But in the present, in the moment of remembering, you have nothing more of the experience than an remembering image.
Imagine an image arising in your soul that is like a memory image, but is not a picture of something you experienced before. It expresses something foreign to your soul. This gives you some idea of how the spiritual world first appears in the soul that has been sufficiently prepared.
Because the spiritual world first appears in the soul in the form of images, people who are insufficiently familiar with the workings of the spiritual world will always object, saying that all supposed spiritual experiences are nothing more than vague memory images, which the soul does not recognize and so takes to be revelations of a spiritual world. One cannot deny that it is certainly difficult to differentiate between illusions and reality in this realm. Indeed, many people who believe they have had perceptions of the suprasensory world have in fact merely seen only memory images that they do not recognize.
To see clearly in the spiritual world, a person must learn about the many possible sources of illusion. For instance, you may have once seen something so fleeting that its impression did not fully enter your consciousness. Later, a very vivid image of it perhaps in a highly altered form arises within you. You may well then swear that you never saw it before, that you have had a genuine inspiration.
This is one of the reasons why it is quite understandable that the results of suprasensory vision seem highly questionable to those unfamiliar with the special features of spiritual research. In my book how to Know Higher Worlds I explain the gradual development of spiritual vision. If you read that book carefully, you will certainly be prepared to distinguish between illusion and spiritual reality.
Nevertheless, the following must still be said. Spiritual experiences occur, at least in the beginning, as images. They rise as pictures from the depths of prepared souls. The important thing is to have the right relationship to those pictures. In fact, they have value for suprasensory perception only if the way in which they present themselves shows that they are not to be taken literally. If we take them as they appear literally, they have little more value than common dreams. We must consider them as if they were letters of the alphabet laid out before us. We do not focus upon the form of the letters. Rather, we read in them what is expresses through them. Just as something written does need to be described in terms of the form of the letters, so the images that form the contents of the of the suprasensory vision do not require to be understood as pictures. Of themselves, they make us turn completely away from their pictoriality and lead the soul toward the suprasensory process or being they express.
You cannot complain that a text from which you can learn something new consists only of well-known letters of the alphabet. Similarly, you cannot object because the images in suprasensory consciousness contain only things borrowed from normal life which, to an extent, they do. What those images borrow from normal life is unimportant for genuine suprasensory consciousness. The important thing for suprasensory consciousness is what the images express.
To cognize the spiritual world, you must first prepare your soul to see the pictures that arise in the spiritual field of vision. At the same time, you must carefully develop the attitude that you will not remain with the images but will rather, relate them in the right way to the suprasensory world. True suprasensory vision, therefore, has not only a capacity to see an inner world of images; it also has another capacity, one comparable to reading in the sensory world.
When you begin, you must imagine the suprasensory world as lying completely outside normal consciousness. Nothing at all of ordinary consciousness can enter that world. The soul is touched contact with the spiritual world is established when the powers of the soul life are strengthened by meditation. Through these soul powers, pictures arise from the flux of soul life.
In themselves, these images are like a great tableau, woven entirely, by the soul itself. To be precise, they are woven from powers the soul has gained in the sensory world. The images woven in the soul can be compared only to memory. The clearer we are about this, the better we shall understand clairvoyant consciousness, for then we shall have no illusions about its pictorial nature. On the contrary, we will develop a proper feeling for the way we should relate to the images of the suprasensory world. That is, we are brought much closer to the nature and processes of the sensory world through our sensory impressions than we are to the suprasensory world through supersensorially beheld images. Indeed, we could even say that those images are, initially, a kind of curtain that the soul places between itself and the suprasensory world when it feels touched by that world.
It is important that you find your way to suprasensory experience step by step. Experience gradually provides a proper interpretation, a right reading. More importantly, suprasensory experience, the vision itself, will demonstrate that what you see has nothing to do with memory images drawn form ordinary experience. Many absurd things have had certain suprasensory insights. How many there are who, convinced of the reality of repeated earthly lives, relate certain images that arise in their souls to experiences of previous earthly existence. You should always be suspicious when such images seem to point to a previous earthly life that, in one way or another, is like one's present life or when they allow you to use an imagined earlier life to make it easier to understand rationally your present life.
When a true impression of a previous earthly life arises in real suprasensory experience, it is usually one that would be impossible to think up based upon all the desires and goals of your present life. For instance, you may receive an instantaneous impression of a prior earthly life in which you possess faculties or the like impossible in your present life. Such images that accompany our more important spiritual experience rarely come from memories of ordinary life; usually, they are images we would never have thought of ordinarily.
This is true to an even greater extent in the case of genuine impressions from the purely suprasensory worlds. For example, it is often impossible to form images from ordinary life that relates to the existence between earthly lives that is, to the period between your last death and your present birth on earth. From that state, you can learn that, while you were in the spiritual world, you developed interests in people and things that completely contradict the corresponding interests you actually developed during earthly life. You recognize that in earthly life you are often led to develop affection for something that you avoided during your spiritual life between death and birth and could arise from memories is necessarily different from the impression you receive from real perception of the spiritual world.
Naturally, when I describe things in this way, those unfamiliar with spiritual research may object. They may say, "I can see you are very fond if this idea. But human nature is complicated. Every interest, every affection has its opposite secretly mixed into it. It comes to you at a definite moment, in connection with a specific thing. You take it to be a prebirth experience. But perhaps it is actually explicable through quite natural facts that may lie in the subconscious soul."
Generally, we cannot say much against such an objection since, in many cases, it is certainly correct. It is not easy to obtain incontestable knowledge through suprasensory consciousness. It is true that someone supposed to be a spiritual researcher can err by attributing a subconscious memory to an experience of pre-birth spiritual life. But is also true that spiritual scientific schooling leads to a level of self-knowledge that includes the subconscious soul and that, thereby, genuine spiritual science can free itself from illusions in this regard.
Here we need affirm only that true suprasensory insights are those in which, in the act of cognition, one can differentiate between what comes from the suprasensory worlds and what comes from imagination. This capacity to differentiate is acquired through experience in suprasensory worlds. As a result, one can differentiate between perception and fantasy, just as one can tell the difference between a red hot poker you touch with your fingers and one you simply imagine to be hot.
Keywords: Cognizing the Spiritual World, Self-Knowledge, Insight, Rudolf Steiner, Intuition, Intuitive, Articles, UK, South Africa, Cape Town