Theosophy

Rudolf Steiner's Teachings in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds

Antti  Savinainen – Finland

steiner1

Rudolf Steiner

Introduction

Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) published a series of articles titled How to Know Higher Worlds? (in German Wie erlangt man Erkenntnisse der höheren Welten?) in the journal Lucifer-Gnosis between 1904 and 1905. These articles were published as a book in 1909. Steiner reworked his text extensively several times. The book's title has also changed with the translations: the English translation with all Steiner’s changes appeared with the title Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment. Steiner intended to create such a precise description of spiritual practices and the way to proceed that the presence of a teacher or guru, as required by the old spiritual tradition, would become superfluous.

Pekka Ervast

A young Pekka Ervast 

My intention in this article is to present the reader with an overview of the book, hopefully in such a way that my presentation will serve as a stimulus for personal research. My approach to the book is an ethical one. This is because my own background is in Rosicrucian Theosophy, where the spiritual path is an effort to live and act in the spirit of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). A significant point of comparison is the book The Divine Seed (Ervast, 2010), which could be described as Pekka Ervast's (1875–1934) way of spiritual knowledge. The interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount presented in this article are based on Ervast’s work. In Steiner's teachings, ethical maxims do not usually play a prominent role; perhaps he wanted to practice high ethics rather than preach for it. A notable exception to this is Knowledge of the Higher Worlds, which is a profoundly ethical work, as I will show in this article.

The Conditions for the Path of Spiritual Knowledge

Steiner's starting point is that there are abilities in every human being, which, when developed, make her a citizen of the spiritual world. He refers to the fact that spiritual education has always existed throughout human history. Steiner identifies respect and devotion to truth and knowledge as the first prerequisite. A deep sense is needed that there is something higher and that we can rise to something higher. The student of spirit must avoid judgmental criticism even in thought. The inner attitude must be one of respect for another being. The student must learn to know her character and to expose latent judgments about the world and life.

Spiritual training requires strict conditions that do not have to be met perfectly, but a serious effort to meet them is necessary. Steiner sets out seven conditions:

  • Efforts must be made to promote physical and mental health. However, duty must take precedence over health, even over life.
  • The student must recognize herself as a member of the whole of life. One must learn to understand that the student of spirit is responsible for everything that happens in humanity.
  • One must learn that thoughts and feelings have as much influence on the world as external actions. Pure feelings and thoughts contribute to the world, as do good deeds.
    • In Ervast's interpretation, the Sermon on the Mount advises: "Be pure in your thoughts.” Moreover, the purification of thoughts and emotions – purity of heart – allows one to understand and perceive the emotional life of people and nature, i.e., to see auras.
  • The student of spirit must learn to see that the very essence of a human being is not external but internal.
  • Sustainability is required to keep the decision taken. One must learn to sacrifice one’s work for the good of the world, regardless of how it is received.
    • In the Rosicrucian Theosophy, it is customary to say that we must learn to serve according to our abilities and strengths, regardless of how people feel about us.
  • One needs to develop a sense of gratitude for all that one receives. The development of all-embracing love is necessary for the attainment of spiritual knowledge. Human love must gradually unfold into love for all beings.
    • This is similar to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus calls for love for all people, good and bad alike. Similarly, Buddhism emphasizes compassion for all living beings.
  • All six conditions are united in the seventh condition, which is the continuous comprehension of life in the sense that these conditions require.

Steiner also talks about the attitude of the student of spirit towards evil. She must find ways to transform evil into good. The best way to fight evil and imperfection is to create the good and the perfect. In Ervast’s interpretation, overcoming evil requires that we no longer regard adversity, insults, and humiliation as evil but as hidden blessings that enable us to free ourselves from our old karma and teach us to love. If we learn to live in a spirit of non-resistance of evil, we will overcome ourselves and step outside our personality. According to Ervast, we will see the world as an ordered Cosmos, and eventually, the reincarnation memory will be awakened.

Steiner sets out the basic rule of all spiritual science, which must not be broken if one wants to attain spiritual knowledge):

Every branch of knowledge which you seek only to enrich your own learning, only to accumulate treasure for yourself, leads you away from the Path: but all knowledge which you seek for working in the service of humanity and for the uplifting of the world, brings you a step forward.

In this instruction, the motive of all spiritual endeavors becomes clear: the path of spiritual knowledge is only for those who want to work for humankind and the world. This brings to mind the Bodhisattva vow Shantideva:  

“For as long as space endures

And for as long as living beings remain,

Until then may I too abide

To dispel the misery of the world.”

The ethical guidelines of Knowledge of the Higher Worlds are linked to the Buddha's noble Eightfold Path, which Steiner mentions in passing.

Inner Peace

The aspirant must find moments of inner peace, during which she learns to distinguish the essential from the non-essential (an approach familiar from ancient India, where it was called Viveka.) The aspirant must set aside time from everyday life to view her life and experiences from a higher perspective. She must face herself with inner peace. In this state of silence, the essential is separated from the non-essential. The aspirant must, again and again, with absolute honesty, be able to look at her own actions from an external point of view. She must see her own faults, weaknesses, and shortcomings as they are; in no respect must she deceive himself. Practicing inner peace and observing one's own life does not lead to alienation from the world. On the contrary, the student of spirit must fulfill her duties diligently.

The effect of isolated moments of peace gradually begins to spill over into everyday life. The aspirant becomes calmer and no longer loses her balance and composure. Before spiritual training, an insult may have caused anger, but now, one can deal with it entirely calmly and without losing a temper. Anger seriously affects the inner human being: anger puts up a wall around the soul world, preventing the organs of the soul from developing. On the other hand, the growth of inner peace leads to the development of inner faculties that enable the attainment of spiritual knowledge. The working out of inner peace – the meditative life – lifts one beyond the mundane personality, and one learns to listen to the voice of silence and to be in inner communion with the spiritual world.

Similarly, in Ervast's interpretation, the Sermon on the Mount's instruction "Do not get angry" is about exercising serenity of mind so that goodness in us can grow. If we truly learn to maintain inner serenity in all life’s circumstances, Ervast says, we will awaken a new capacity for the soul: we will begin to understand and see other people's thoughts.

Steiner points out that everyone has a higher human being within, which remains dormant until it is awakened. This teaching of Steiner is also identical to the core teaching of Rosicrucian Theosophy. The goal of spiritual striving is awakening the higher self and the emergence of the Christ consciousness, also called the Damascus experience in esoteric Christianity. This requires following the path of purification and overcoming the selfish personality. 

Probation, Enlightenment, and Initiation

Steiner presents three stages of the training path: probation, enlightenment, and initiation. Steiner states that the student of spiritual knowledge receives, in due course, knowledge of the existence of the initiates of the world.

Probation

Probation is the process of forming the higher senses and organs. To this end, Steiner gives various meditative exercises. As a result of these exercises, the world of the soul, the astral plane, begins to emerge. The person becomes fully aware that emotions and thoughts are as real in their own world as objects in the physical world. A wrong thought can be as destructive in the world of thought as a bullet in the physical world.

Immersing oneself in the world of sound is an important exercise that enables the ability to merge, as it were, with the being from which the sound emanates. With practice, nature begins to reveal its secrets to the aspirant, and she starts to hear with her soul. It also requires learning to listen to another human being. When listening, one's inner self must remain silent without expressing or even thinking about accepting or opposing the opinions of others. The silence of listening must also extend to the emotions; all rejecting and accepting emotions must be learned to overcome in listening. This may sound very strange in everyday life, but Steiner's instruction goes deeper: one must learn to listen to the words of others selflessly, forgetting oneself. Through proper listening, the student of the spirit learns to hear, through words, another person's soul. As a result of this practice, a new inner sense of hearing develops, enabling the perception of higher spiritual truths, the "inner word." A person cannot listen if she has a needless urge to talk. This does not mean that the student of spirit cannot speak. The correct use of speech requires discretion and a gentle attitude towards the other person.

Practicing proper listening, the control of speech, and honesty with oneself bring to mind the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus forbids swearing and warns against vain words. In Ervast's interpretation, this calls for absolute honesty towards oneself and others, restraint of tongue, and silent listening. The practice of these, according to Ervast, develops a new sense that enables us to understand human capacities and inclinations, which are linked to the etheric body, the invisible aspect of the physical body. If a person can be truthful, she can see the truth in the world.

Enlightenment

The enlightenment exercises start with a review and comparison of natural objects. Such objects can be a crystal, a plant, or an animal. In a later stage, one can look at people and human phenomena. According to Steiner, intensive immersion evokes certain emotions and thoughts that continue to have an effect even after the examination has ended. Such thoughts form the eyes of spiritual vision, through which the aspirant gradually begins to see spiritual colors. Once this ability has been acquired, one encounters beings that do not manifest themselves in the physical world.

Steiner stresses the importance of caution and the connection with the physical world. Moral strength, inner integrity, and external perception must be constantly developed during training. It is essential that the student's sense of natural beauty and compassion for people and animals grows. If this does not happen, enlightenment fails, and the consequences can be dangerous. Here again, Steiner emphasizes the purification of moral nature because new abilities can give power over other human beings. The golden rule of spiritual science is: "For every one step that you take in the pursuit of higher knowledge, take three steps in the perfection of your own character."

Steiner also warns that spiritual practice should not be done in such a way that one neglects the duties of life. One must learn to wait patiently. Results come slowly and only when higher forces deem one worthy. On the other hand, courage and self-confidence are needed. Similarly, in Rosicrucian Theosophy, it is said that the seeker must not be afraid but must not act recklessly either.

Initiation

During the process of preparation and enlightenment, the aspirant has learned spiritual perception. This is necessary in order to experience specific facts of the spiritual world at the time of initiation. At the beginning of the initiation phase, there are 'tests,' which can be metaphorically called trials. Steiner calls the first trial the “Fire Trial.” It has a supersensible and inner aspect. The supersensory aspect is characterized by a “spiritual combustion process,” in which the veil of sensory perception disappears, and one learns to perceive how, among other things, living beings appear to the spiritual ear and eye. The inner aspect of the fire trial is that one has learned to endure suffering, disappointment, and failure calmly. This can be realized in ordinary life without the knowledge of initiation. After the fire trial, one can still turn back from the path of spiritual knowledge and continue the experience of initiation in a later incarnation. Passing the fire trial makes one more capable of becoming a valuable member of the human community.

The next trial is preceded by learning the "occult writing system." This will help the student become aware of obligations she was previously unaware of. Steiner calls this trial the “Water Trial” because, at the mental level, there is a lack of support from external circumstances, somewhat like moving on water. The student of spiritual knowledge feels that she has received a specific task, the performance of which requires insights gained during probation and enlightenment and an understanding of spiritual writing. If she performs correctly, she has passed the trial. This trial also has an intrinsic property: it is an opportunity to develop self-control. The aspirant can live up to high ideals and perform her duties in spite of her desires and preferences. She learns to abandon all prejudices. It is possible that the student of spiritual knowledge has already completed the spiritual part of this trial in ordinary life before embarking on the spiritual path.

Steiner calls the third trial the "Air Trial." In it, the aspirant is in a situation where she has to find her way by herself; she does not receive a cause for action from outside. To complete the trial, one must discover one's higher self and be able to follow the insight of the spirit. In this trial, too, ordinary life serves as a school; situations that require quick determination and mental agility provide training for the air trial.

After passing the third trial, the aspirant can enter the "Temple of Higher Wisdom." She must "take an oath," promising not to "betray" spiritual knowledge. Here, the oath is a symbolic expression because it is not a matter of taking an oath but of an experience that makes it possible to understand how spiritual knowledge can be used to serve humanity. In the old mystery traditions, the aspirant metaphorically went through the element trials and the oath, whereas they are realities on the path of spiritual knowledge.

Some Effects of the Higher Education of Soul

The development of higher senses is linked to the chakras; the most relevant for spiritual training are located between the eyes, at the larynx, around the heart, and near the abdomen. With practice, the chakras first become clearer and then "rotate" when spiritual perception is awakened. Each chakra has its own role to play in making supersensible perceptions. Nowhere else have I read such a detailed description of the chakras and their significance, as Steiner gives in his book.

The conditions for developing chakras are ethical in nature; again, they are the requirements of everyday life. Each chakra has its own guidelines and developmental tasks. For example, Steiner gives seven instructions for developing the “leaves” of the throat chakra (although the term throat chakra is not used in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds), which are already included in some form in the conditions set out earlier. One of the conditions, for example, is that the student of spirit should strive to perform her task better and more contentiously. This teaching is also found in the New Testament: Jesus instructs us to be “faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” (Matthew 25:21). Similarly, in Ervast's teachings, the conscientious fulfillment of everyday duties is the basis of esoteric aspiration. According to Ervast, it is learning to be a reliable and faithful servant of humanity. It is also a way of liberation from old karma.

Changes occur in sleep life. Before, dreams were confused and random, but with spiritual training, they have a regular character. Dream images are no longer a mere reflection of the physical world but include an expression of the spiritual world. The distinction between waking consciousness and dream consciousness begins to disappear. A higher reality becomes apparent in the world of dream images. The change also extends to a state of deep sleep, from which experiences begin to emerge. After a long process of evolving, the student of spirit reaches a permanent state of consciousness that is not interrupted by sleep or death.

Steiner speaks of the emergence of a higher self into day consciousness. One must grow into unity with her higher self.  Furthermore, one must have all the necessary spiritual organs and tendencies for the higher self to be viable. Steiner pays particular attention to the development of the heart chakra because, through that, the higher self makes the physical self its instrument and uses it. Here, again, is a point of convergence with Ervast's teachings. In the esotericism represented by Ervast, the heart chakra also plays a central role: it is the first chakra to awaken into action on the path of esoteric Christianity.

For a student of spirit, compliance with ethical conditions is essential. Otherwise, she will quickly fall into delusion and error when she enters the higher world unprepared. Steiner states that a life lived in accordance with ethical conditions is also suitable for the seeker of truth who, for one reason or another, does not wish to embark on the path of spiritual training. The ethical quest without other meditative practices affects the soul's life, albeit slowly.

Two Guardians of the Threshold

At a particular stage of development associated with the differentiation of will, thought, and emotion, the student of spiritual knowledge faces the Lesser Guardian of the Threshold. It does not exist for a human being until she has reached that stage of development. Steiner describes The Lesser Guardian of the Threshold with an impressive narrative. The terrifying creature appears. This creature comprises the good and bad aspects of past lives, which were formerly interwoven with the spirit pupil's own being; now, they are detached from her. The figure is frightening because it is the product of an individual's own past lives. The Lesser Guardian of the Threshold no longer leaves the human side, but his figure immediately shows wrong thinking and wrong actions as ugly distortions. This description vividly reminds Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Dorian Gray's immoral life is seen as a corruption of the portrait of him. Perhaps Wilde was using the artist's intuition to describe a situation in which the Lesser Guardian becomes visible too early.

The Lesser Guardian must become the perfect being; otherwise, the human being will fall into darkness and destruction. The Lesser Guardian will become gloriously beautiful only when past wrongs have been atoned for, and individuality has purified herself so that no evil is possible for her anymore. Only then can there be a reunion between the transfigured Lesser Guardian and the student of spirit.

The threshold is a feeling of fear. If one is even slightly afraid of controlling one's destiny, one should not cross the threshold. Crossing the threshold takes one into worlds where one previously walked only after death. Before the conscious encounter with the Lesser Guardian of the Threshold, the connection was broken at death; then only the forces of fate saw the Guardian, whose imperfection compelled the forces of fate to lead the individuality to earth again and again to a new incarnation. Steiner's description is like a paraphrase of the Buddha's speech to a house builder in the Dhammapada (verses 154 and 155),

https://www.tipitaka.net/tipitaka/dhp/verseload.php?verse=153:

I, who have been seeking the builder of this house, failing to attain Enlightenment which would enable me to find him, have wandered through innumerable births in samsara. To be born again and again is, indeed, dukkha!

Oh house-builder! You are seen, you shall build no house for me again. All your rafters are broken, your roof-tree is destroyed. My mind has reached the unconditioned; the end of craving has been attained.

Spiritual training prepares a person to face the threshold of the spiritual world without fear by fully consciously taking on the responsibility of recreating the character of the Lesser Guardian. After crossing the threshold correctly, the initiate sees the causes and consequences of her life, i.e., understands the karmic exchange of her own nature and destiny. From now on, she experiences death consciously. This fulfills the requirement of the ancient mysteries, where the initiate was required to have learned to die during her life.

After a while, the traveler of the path of spiritual knowledge will encounter the Greater Guardian of the Threshold. Steiner also presents this encounter in the form of a narrative. The initiate encounters a high being of light whose beauty is transcendental. The Greater Guardian of the Threshold tells of two different paths. According to Steiner, choosing between the two paths is not easy. The first path leads to individual bliss, allowing the initiate to enter the spiritual world as a liberated being, no longer needing the physical body in its present form. But this path is black because the initiate is placed outside the rest of the world and ultimately falls behind the rest of humanity. However, the occultists of the white path – Theosophical literature speaks of Masters and the Great White Brotherhood – provide help only for those who choose the white path, that is, for those who selflessly serve humanity and the world. If the initiate chooses the white path, she may join the Greater Guardian of the Threshold one day. In his book Occult Science – An Outline, Steiner clarifies that the Greater Guardian of the Threshold is, in fact, the Christ being, who became perhaps the most central theme of Steiner's later Anthroposophy.

Steiner's description of the two paths is similar to the descriptions of the paths of Arhat and Bodhisattva in Buddhism. In The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, the path of personal salvation of the Arhat is called "exalted and glorious selfishness"   in the same way that the Greater Guardian of the Threshold in Steiner's description does.

Discussion

I mentioned in the introduction that Steiner intended that the esoteric instructions given in the book could replace the spiritual teacher or that the role of the teacher would be different from that of the old mysteries. However, oral instruction played a role in Steiner’s esoteric teachings: in 1904, he started an esoteric school that, among other things, provided guidance in meditative life. The first esoteric school also had a ritual aspect; from 1906, it was organized on a Masonic basis. The school continued until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Steiner founded a new esoteric school in 1923, of which he only managed to open the first class since he passed away in 1925 (Kierch, 2006).

Steiner planned a sequel to Knowledge of the Higher Worlds. However, the second part never appeared, although Anthroposophists consider the Stages of Higher Knowledge to be the second part.  part. https://rsarchive.org/Books/GA012/English/AP1967/GA012_index.html . 

AB RS 1907

Rudolf Steiner and Annie Besant in 1907

Knowledge of the Higher Worlds was well-received by the Theosophists of the early 20th century. Annie Besant, then president of the Theosophical Society, made a glowing statement about it in her foreword to the English translation. Steiner was awarded the Subba Row Medal for the book (he was the General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in Germany then; Steiner left the Theosophical Society in 1913 and founded the Anthroposophical Society). Steiner felt that he had been commissioned to write the book directly from the spiritual world and hoped that by following the instructions in the book, a group of people would have emerged who could verify his spiritual-scientific findings. At the same time, these people would have developed a great capacity for helping humanity. But this did not happen, which was a disappointment to Steiner.

It is not surprising that Steiner’s intentions regarding Knowledge of the Higher Worlds did not come true since the ethical demands of the book are very demanding. There are dozens of instructions, and they contain very high ideals. As I have tried to point out, they are entirely in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. From the point of view of Rosicrucian Theosophy, it can be said that Knowledge of the Higher Worlds contains a detailed description of the path of purification, which usually takes several lifetimes.

Steiner speaks of crossing the threshold of the spiritual world and developing spiritual faculties. Ervast, on the other hand, talks about becoming a member of the kingdom of heaven and the new abilities that come with it. The path recommended by Ervast is the one that allows the threshold of the spiritual world to be crossed safely only when the Christ consciousness has been born in the individual. Such an interpretation can be drawn from Steiner's teachings if one carefully examines Steiner's outstanding description of the two Guardians of the Threshold. So, it seems that Steiner and Ervast are describing essentially the same things in different terms. 

The true esoteric path is always open to serious aspirants, and I believe that Steiner's masterpiece can serve as an excellent guide.

Sources

Ervast, Pekka (2010). The Divine Seed. The Esoteric School of Jesus. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, Theosophical Publishing House.

Kierch, Johannes (2006). A History of the School of Spiritual Science – The First Class. Temple Lodge.

Steiner, Rudolf (1947). Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment. Available at https://rsarchive.org/Books/GA010/English/RSPC1947/GA010_index.html.

Steiner, Rudolf (2005). Occult Science – An Outline. Rudolf Steiner Press. Available at

https://rsarchive.org/Books/GA013/English/RSP1969/GA013_index.html.

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