Friday, August 14, 2015

Reflections on Rudolf Steiner's "How to Know Higher Worlds"

The history of my intellectual life has basically just been a series of encounters with different mystical teachers. My interest in mysticism started in 2008 when I first listened to an Alan Watts lecture. After a few years gorging myself on his anarchic take on mysticism, I encountered the more subtly powerful worldview of Søren Kierkegaard in 2012. Then came Ludwig Wittgenstein and Emanuel Swedenborg in 2013, who helped me connect mysticism to analytic philosophy and religious imagery, respectively. In early 2014 I came across the contemporary Mormon thinker Adam S. Miller, who further helped me to appreciate my faith's depth, and later that same year I discovered the psychologist James Hillman, who combined the playful anarchy of Alan Watts with the depth and respect for symbols found in Swedenborg. 

All of these thinkers came at the time when I was ready to read their works. If I had read Swedenborg in 2007, I would have almost surely found him too "weird" for me. However, my exposure to Alan Watts and the subsequent infusion of Wittgensteinian pragmatism helped me appreciate Swedenborg's teachings in a way that unlocked his inner riches.

I think I may have come across another figure like this. His name is Rudolf Steiner, and just for reference, here's a picture of him:

If I needed to encounter mystics like Watts and Wittgenstein to swallow Swedenborg's teachings, Rudolf Steiner is yet another (big) step toward the mystical. Though he was also a social and educational reformer, an architect, and a philosopher, he is most well-known as a mystic, esotericist, and founder of the spiritual movement called anthroposophy. And what a mystic he is.... He talks about things ranging from auras to chakras to the spiritual nature of dreams, and even though they might strike the modern person as a bit "out there," his writings have done more than most mystical works to satisfy both my intellect and my spiritual sensibilities.

All rambling aside, I wanted to use this post to talk about a book of his I just finished: How to Know Higher Worlds:

Briefly put, this book outlines ways that a spiritual seeker can "open her spiritual eyes." By giving practical advice for both basic and more advanced levels of spiritual attainment, he teaches the reader what it's like to begin to see spiritual realities, to "know higher worlds" potentially as well as we all know this one.

I think the best way to talk about this book online is to give a brief overview of his steps toward true spiritual perception, along with some remarks connecting those steps to Mormon doctrine, Swedenborg, and maybe others. 

Knowing that, Steiner begins his book by explaining that the first step toward spiritual perception is a kind of reverent attentiveness to the physical world. Giving a description similar to how I would define "mindfulness," he explains that we must observe the world around us from a detached, peaceful perspective. Especially important for this goal is the act of “[allowing] what we have experienced—what the outer world has told us—to linger on in utter stillness," something I have only recently begun to do in any significant sense. To do this, you have to pay attention to the world; don't dart from one experience to the next, never satisfied or content, but stay with an experience or a sensation long enough to let it "speak to you."

Another way to explain the same process is that we should “learn to distinguish the essential from the inessential.” Doing this involves getting the right enough perspective to see what in our experiences belongs to their essence, that in them which speaks from their "deepest" parts. This has everything to do with an emotional kind of perception, or at least a perception reminiscent of the way we experience emotion. For instance, he once writes that the "initiate" to higher knowledge should pay attention to the state of being a sunrise induces in the soul and compare it to the state of being that a sunset produces there. He argues that this kind of "feeling-perception" allows what is essentially the "soul" of the experience to speak to us. To me this makes perfect sense; there is a distinct emotional impression I feel around Christmastime, which is very different from the corresponding impression I feel around April or May every year. Though the skeptic might argue that these just "come on top" of the bare physical phenomena, I find that Steiner's argument resonates with a deep intuition on my part.

Philosophically speaking, you could say that what goes on when I perceive this way is that the "deeper," more essential parts of me are connecting with the deeper and more essential part of what I'm seeing. Swedenborg explains something similar in his spiritual works, where he says that there are earthly, spiritual, and celestial sights that perceive things on the earthly, spiritual, and celestial levels. Especially interesting when compared with Steiner is Swedenborg's insistence that a "celestial" sight sees the "purposes" or "loves" inherent in things, whereas an earthly sight only sees the "results" or physical manifestation available to everyone. He often notes on this point that a celestial angel can discern a person's whole character by a quick inspection of his face, or else his tone of voice. What is Swedenborg's celestial sight other than a perception of what is "most essential" in things, a perception of emotion, which is a term more or less synonymous with "loves" as used in Swedenborg?

Steiner continues by explaining that, after you have learned to dispassionately observe the "essential" in both sights and sounds, you will eventually learn to discern something like "colors" surrounding a physical object. Though not colors per se (more like a sensation similar to what I feel when I see a certain color), he gives the example of "a kind of spiritual flame" surrounding a seed, "felt as green-blue at its center and as yellow-red around its periphery." Though he uses the term only occasionally, this is pretty obviously what modern New-Agers, energy-workers, and others call an "aura."

Though the common-sense reader might find the idea of auras distasteful, let me give a few items of evidence for their existence. First, know that Swedenborg talks about them. Deep in his multi-volume work Arcana Coelestia or Secrets of Heaven, he writes that: 
"There are as many auras as there are moods and combinations of mood, which are countless. Our aura is like an image of ourselves projected outside us. In fact it is an image of everything inside us." (Secrets of Heaven 1505)
Using Swedenborgian terminology, the aura is an external projection of one's inner loves, which are more or less synonymous with emotions, as mentioned above. He writes elsewhere that you can theoretically discern everything in a person's state of being as represented visually in this aura, which is an idea that Steiner repeats almost exactly in his book. It's also worth noting that Swedenborg thinks auras are a part of the spiritual world, and so any perception of them is necessarily nonphysical.

The other bit of evidence I can give for auras is simply the fact that I have seen them. Ever since I started my kundalini yoga practice, when I both relax my gaze and focus it on the area around a person's head and shoulders I can usually see a sort of "glow" extending an inch or two away from the edge of their body. It's sort of like the after-image you see when a bright light suddenly goes away, except that, instead of following my eyes and their motions, the aura always follows the person. I have talked to about five other people--all of whom I deeply respect, and few of whom know each other--who have had the same experience, especially (and this is unanimous) in sacrament meetings at an LDS meetinghouse. I have gone beyond this and seen a big, full-color aura once or twice. The main time this happened I was standing out on my front step talking to a friend very late at night, when all of a sudden I could see a purple (or "almost-purple") cloud extending a foot to a foot-and-a-half around him. In sharing these experiences I'm aware that others might think I'm crazy. But in answer to these potential critiques, I'll quote Swedenborg's response to similar worries, which vicariously works as mine: "none of this worries me; I have seen, I have heard, I have felt" (Secrets of Heaven 68).

After a digression on the spiritual "anatomy" of chakras, Steiner goes on to explain that the next significant development in spiritual perception occurs in the initiate's dreaming life. He first points out that dreams are actually events in the physical world (either around me while I'm sleeping or in my memory) seen as they are reflected in the spiritual world. Thus, just as a dream involving current food poisoning might manifest as an alien infesting the stomach, a dream about the end of the world might signify a major change in the life of the dreamer (that is, the end of your world). I greatly sympathize with this take on the dream, partially because it resonates with my own experience, and partially because Swedenborg says something very similar. In any case, Steiner writes that the next phase in the spiritual seeker's development is the emergence of the same kind of spiritual-symbolic perception one has while dreaming in everyday, waking life. In this state, the dream's kind of symbolic perception sometime "overlays" my physical perception, to the point where these symbols disclose a thing's or being's essential nature.

Though he merely explains that this occurs (as opposed to giving a how-to), he explains that the phase after this involves a meeting with two spiritual beings called "Guardians of the Threshold," in turn. The first guardian is essentially the "fruit" of my life, a being assembled from all the good and bad desires, thoughts, and actions I undertook throughout my time on earth. When I meet with him, I realize that he is a sort of "mirror" for my actions, a way I can see them as external to me. This becomes all the more significant from the fact that--from this point onward--I am continually aware of this being's presence and appearance. 

This reminds me--to an extent--of Swedenborg's explanation that angels in heaven (or devils in hell) always face their "ruling love," that desire which drives all my other desires. In heaven, since that ruling love is good, it appears in God, whom all the angels thus face and who appears (at least in this respect) as a sun. It also means that, whenever I see another angel, I only see the part of them that shares in that love. That is, I only see the part of them that consequently faces me. One could also compare this notion of the Guardian of the Threshold with certain the way certain students of esoteric Islam understand the resurrection body. Such a comparison is fruitful for Mormonism, but the consequences would take much too long to explain (see Henry Corbin's Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth for details as to this idea).

The second and final Guardian of the Threshold, on the other hand, is essentially my "true self." Explaining that by the transition inherent in this meeting, "our own being begins to become transparent to us," Steiner says that this second guardian stands over the gateway to the very heart of existence “like the cherubim with the flaming sword before the gates of Paradise.” But there's a catch: this being tells us that we can't ascend to that highest world yet, but must stay in a lower world and--like a Buddhist bodhisattva--help all the beings remaining in the world ascend.

Here we come to perhaps the biggest issue with Rudolf Steiner for a believing Mormon--though it's not clear that this is the case for a being who has met this second guardian specifically, he generally believes in reincarnation. Nevertheless (as other Mormons like Felice Austen have tried to do--see her blog Progressive Prophetess in the sidebar to the right), I think it is possible to productively reconcile the idea of an afterlife with that of reincarnation. The key for this synthesis lies in the personal worldview of psychologist Carl Jung, perhaps best exemplified in passages like the one below from his Red Book: 
"[The figures we experience through tumults upsetting what is familiar in our soul] are the dead, not just your dead, that is, all the images and shapes you took in your past, which the ongoing life has left behind, but also the thronging dead of human history, the ghostly procession of the past, which is an ocean compared to the drops of your own life span. I see behind you, behind the mirror of your eyes, the crush of dangerous shadows, the dead, who look greedily through the empty sockets of your eyes, who hope to gather up through you all the loose ends of the ages which sigh in them. Your cluelessness does not prove anything. Put your ear to that wall and you will hear the rustling of their procession."
From Jung's perspective, those who did not live their life's goal completely enough return to the world to--at least partially--live it out vicariously through the living. He later writes that he imagines there are many dead figures hoping that we live a certain way, perhaps subtly pushing us in one way or another, to help us live out their unlived potential, to answer questions they could not. Not only does this conception of the afterlife resemble Swedenborg's, who wrote that each of us have at least four spirits (two angels and two devils) with is at all times that entice us one way or another, but it also resembles our notion of "work for the dead." Especially when considering that Jung's Red Book actually uses the phrase "the salvation of the dead," it seems apparent to me that--if an ordinance I undergo can vicariously affect a dead spirit--I at least have the potential to help those who have died through my actions while alive. Does my assistance for the dead extend beyond mere ordinance work? I certainly think so, especially considering Jung's statement above.

In any case, the idea of dead that act out their unlived potential in the living certainly sounds like reincarnation, at least from a certain perspective. If a spirit who has died exerts an influence on me and has their progress toward salvation riding on my actions, can't we say that--at least partially--that spirit has "incarnated" in me? Though this means an idea (distasteful to some) of our bodies as host to many spirits at once, it's not like that doesn't reflect our experience. How often do we feel overcome by an impulse that seems alien to us, either for good or for bad? Don't we all absentmindedly hear fragments of sentences in our heads, especially when we're tired? Though it sounds exotic, I surmise with Swedenborg that these phenomena are the evidence of spirits within us, or perhaps more palatably, of spirits close to us in the spiritual world.

In any case, the meeting with the second Guardian of the Threshold is pretty much the end of How to Know Higher Worlds. It's a really good book; you should all read it. I felt the Spirit quite a lot while reading it, so I feel that it's true in its essence. That's it for now, though. Bye!


  1. I'm a Mormon and love Steiner's works! I also enjoyed, "How to Know Higher Worlds."